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The Language of Art

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The air is dry yet humid, and Steve Rogers hates it. His clothes cling to his skin in strange places, stuck determinedly to his spine beneath his light cotton jacket. There is too much heat and perspiration trapped at his wide shoulders, about the waist, around his ankles, pooling in his shoes as a persistent downstream current would onto a floodplain. It never really left, and it kept flowing inevitably downwards into his socks. With his hands in his pockets, also perspiring, the man's baby blue eyes lose themselves in the cityscape of Washington DC. The honking horns, cluttered sidewalks, concrete, glass, metal. It is similar to the chaos of New York, but not to the same insane frequency. He can't get swallowed up; there is no way of trapping him in the crowd of bodies, or drown in the indifference New Yorkers seemed conditioned to sport.

It is dry but undeniably humid, and Steve Rogers wears his light cotton jacket with an unnerving persistence as he quietly drowns in his own sweat.

SHIELD, despite what they thought, did not truly understand Steven Grant Rogers. The personnel in charge of him believed they comprehended the psyche of America's most treasured icon, but they ran too much on assumption and impersonal historical records. A son of two first generation Irish-Americans, the son of a World War I soldier, the son of a soldier that never returned from the front, the son of a nurse. The son of a nurse, let it be noted, that specifically worked in the TB ward. It was assumed he would be respectful to any military operation he was made a part of, and any agent assigned to track his movements should have an alias associated with nursing; a sentiment that was a weakness prime for exploitation. He was the son that possessed health problems that many modern medical experts were convinced to be tied to a genetic disease; the evidence was there, but the science and medicine of the 1930's didn't really understand genetics the way modern medicine and science did. So, Steven Grant Rogers was the son of two parents who had the right combination of genetics to bring a sickly child into the world. He was the son that was always too ill to get a proper job, or make a more than a handful of friends. Eugenics existed in the 1930's and the 1940's, deterring the common people from associating with the sick or the disabled.

A second generation Irish-American named James Buchanan Barnes was, by all accounts, an anomaly that unintentionally ensured that America had a super soldier. It was assumed they were friends, as the history books glorified their perfect friendship that lasted from the schoolyard well onto the battlefield. James Buchanan Barnes was also thoroughly documented in army records as the best sniper in the entirety of the U.S. Military history. His recorded long distance accuracy was still unbeaten, though his kill count had been long since defeated by the SHIELD agent Clint Francis Barton during an extremely classified mission in Tajikistan. It was assumed that if Barnes was also alive and well in the same condition as the super soldier, he would have been as invaluable to SHIELD as Captain America. Steven Grant Rogers included Barnes in his unit, codenamed The Howling Commandos, following his release from Hydra captivity. The anti-Hydra army unit had essentially been a kill squad against both sects of Nazis, Schmidt's and Hitler's. It was the first ever unit in the United States Army to be officially multiracial. Its leader was Captain America, and its second-in-command was Bucky Barnes. It was assumed that their coordination on the battlefield had been like clockwork, based on the few written reports that still existed; Falsworth had been an extremely thorough man when it came to report paperwork.

In 1945, James Buchanan Barnes was declared KIA in the Swiss Alps during an altercation aboard a Hydra supply train. In the same year, Steven Grant Rogers was declared MIA after having crashed a Hydra-engineered plane into the Arctic. His career in the military, having started in 1943, was only two and a quarter years long; almost identical to his second-in-command. His MIA status was never changed to KIA, due to Howard Stark's stubborn hope. In 2011, Steven Grant Rogers was found frozen inside the wreckage of a Hydra-engineered plane. He was successfully revived. In the following year, he stopped an alien invasion beside five other extraordinary individuals; their team was codenamed The Avengers. Since then, Steven Grant Rogers had been an active field agent in SHIELD. It was assumed that it would take some time for the super soldier to adjust to the times, but otherwise would be eager to continue serving as Captain America.

What SHIELD didn't understand, amidst all the official historical records and assumptions, was how much Steven Grant Rogers' time in the field had an impact on his mental state. They understood he probably had some form of post traumatic stress as a result of serving in the most iconic large-scale war in modern history, so they immediately assigned him one of SHIELD's therapists. They expected results to be poor, but easily salvageable. SHIELD would have a super soldier on their side eventually, and defrosting him would thus have been a proper course of action.

Only, Steve Rogers didn't talk to the therapist.

He attended the appointments, greeted the woman with impeccable manners, but discussed nothing about himself. The weather was a safe topic, the peculiarities of the future were another. The super soldier, however intentionally or unintentionally, had managed to convince the therapist his PTSD was not as severe as they were lead to believe. His technique for dodging personal topics became a ruse that his assigned professional fell for, and the tactics in handling the super soldier changed in turn. The appointments became infrequent, assigned to days that were either the last in the month or the first. Steve Rogers performed well in the field, lived in supposed contentment inside his assigned apartment in DC, took an early morning run without fail, and walked the streets of the capital city whenever it took his fancy. The man went from close watch to structured autonomy. It was mildly suspicious behavior, one that still spoke of PTSD that was much more serious than a shaky stage five case, but SHIELD didn't debate it for long. They wanted results; who cared if the man was chugging high-octane gasoline in his free time and his bones were as hollow as a flightless bird's? He did his job.

But, the truth of it was that Steven Grant Rogers was not okay. His time alone was when he wasn't the soldier most people wanted him to be. With cowl gone, the stars and stripes ripped away, the shield left by the front door, all of his emotional wounds would pour out across his apartment's hardwood floors.

He takes baths, not showers. The water barely brushes higher than half past his thighs, leaving nearly all of his body dry. Sponge baths are all that he can stomach, and his skin is invariably primrose pink at the end of it. He'd see blood and gore where there was only milky soap suds and goosebumped skin, scrubbing viciously at his phantoms and ultimately failing to make them go away. Such a rough routine didn't always happen, but it occurred often enough. The man never takes a full bath or a shower, either way, because water was what had initially killed him. After all, he drowned first before he froze.

Rogers will always have his Stark-brand laptop powered on, a Google Chrome tab open to YouTube, listening to recorded radio shows. He remembers listening to most of them while trapped beneath heavy bedsheets with overfull lungs, Bucky quietly worrying at his bedside. He had always loathed complete silence, but equally loathes the chaos of the modern cityscape he's now constantly surrounded by. There are times when he dreams of getting a little cabin in the woods, perhaps a house nestled among redwood trees in Northern California far away from the New York of the future. It's pleasant. Yet the dream abruptly dies when Steve recalls the European countryside and the German corpses staining the pure white snow a vibrant red like strawberries in the summertime. Such thoughts eventually lead him to remember the biting snow of the Alps, the train, and hearing Bucky scream as he fell away into an abyssal gorge of granite grey and snow white. Steve weeps in the silence of his apartment when such times arise.

The man has never allowed SHIELD medical to tend to his wounds unless they inhibit his movement, instead hiding in his pale tiled bathroom when he returns to his apartment space. He sits with his back against the lip of the tub, legs sprawled out in front of him, robotically bandaging himself up. His eyes stare blankly at the ceiling, frame wrapped in off-white strips of fabric, as he feels his enhanced body knit the muscle back together into a cohesive whole or snap a broken rib back into place. It rarely takes more than a few hours, if that, before he's scar-free and unharmed once again. Rogers recalls one time when Bucky had watched his body heal from three nine by nineteen millimeter parabellum bullets to the stomach region. His best friend had never appeared so pale in all the time Steve had known him, and that had been since they were tykes playing in a grime-encrusted gutter at the age of five and six. The flesh had pushed out each and every bullet. The disgusting outpour of blood and stomach acids eventually trickled to a stop. All that was left behind, following that horrifying event, had been unblemished skin and an overt red-brown stain. Bucky had his head in a tin bucket and poorly hidden tears in his eyes for a half hour afterward.

Steve Rogers wanders the streets of Washington DC, half-trapped in his own head, wearing a light cotton jacket with an unnerving insistence that is born from lingering memories of bone-deep cold.

The super soldier knew that the Avengers, people who at one point fought beside him to save New York from an alien invasion, were vaguely aware of his frame of mind. Natasha was undeniably aware of it, as all of his missions since New York had been with her as his partner. Barton had been under investigation for a number of months, spent a few more in seclusion with daily appointments with the senior SHIELD therapist, and then off the roster indefinitely until the Director deemed him ready to return to field-ready status. Steve had taken the man's place, which made the super soldier feel more than a few mixed feelings. He felt like a cheap replacement to the pair's obviously close friendship in the field, something he understood all too well. Barton's response to all of it had been to email him a list of do's and don'ts about Natasha, and a simple comment of "Don't lose sight of it, man. If you do, there won't be any chance of making the shot; you'll just end up taking it instead."

Nonetheless, Natasha easily adjusted to his presence on missions; she gave him more than a little education in the realm of fighting techniques and the limits of a super soldier's flexibility, serving as a solid rock amidst the bustle that was the SHIELD Triskelion, and a surprising offer at friendship. In doing so, it became all too evident that he wasn't as put together or perfectly heroic as everyone thought he was. Not that Romanov ever fell for the rumors or the sentiments of American ideals, but it still gave her pause that a man like Steve Rogers was such an internalized individual. The spy would do her best, however, to offer support when it was near impossible for her to truly be anything but stone-cold or in complete control. She'd buy him Liquitex acrylic paints, Strathmore sketchbooks, Derwent dry pastel pencils, Sennelier oil paints, handmade brushes crafted someplace unknown to him in Europe, anything she could get her hands on. They were offerings, the spy's best attempts at sentimental care. I know you have a past, it went unspoken. Here's the building blocks to help you reconnect.

Tony Stark did something similar, in his endeavor to help without making it obvious he actually cared. He'd drop in out of nowhere with Bruce Banner in tow, containers of extremely expensive food in hand and a rant on his tongue. He'd fix appliances that didn't need fixing, give Steve a StarkPhone when his simple little Nokia flip phone had been perfectly fine for him, leave behind little boxes of things his father, Howard, had saved that were his. Various types of herbal teas and coffee blends would appear, small gestures Bruce would make, and a monstrous coffee maker nestled in his kitchen.

Thor, unlike the others, was not around to really do anything. He was up in Asgard, handling "matters abroad" for the people of Midgard. But that didn't stop him from telling his main squeeze, Jane Foster, about his shield-brother. It also didn't stop the astrophysicist from mailing him packages from London. They were more akin to care baskets than anything substantial, but they were clearly assembled with a great amount of care. Apparently Foster's assistant, Darcy, had an affinity for picking tasteful scented candles and entertaining yet crappy romance novels. Also included were medical kits, soft blankets, and a randomly chosen comic book. Steve had always been fond of Superman.

Yet as much as Steve appreciated their efforts to help, gifting him things and hoping it'd make everything better wasn't something that the man really needed. The art supplies filled the bottom space of his oak chest of drawers, kept safe yet left untouched. He didn't completely understand what Barton meant by what he said in that email, but the super soldier wasn't exactly comfortable with what it might have implied. The updated tech frustrated Steve more than helped him, though he would not deny he enjoyed the coffee maker. Even if caffeine had little effect on the super soldier, he still dearly loved a morning cup of joe. He perhaps treasured Foster's packages the most, as the amount of care and attention spent on the packaged mail was painfully clear to him. The blankets all lived on his bed, for the days when he was mission-free and his powerful body felt as heavy as it did when he was still a dead man walking back in the bad ol' days.

The candles were nice to use when he'd wake up smelling charred human flesh and dried blood.

A man named Steve Rogers, once a soldier and now a superhero, drifts the streets of Washington DC wearing a light cotton jacket while being quietly tormented by the lingering memories of bone-deep cold in his head.

But he blinks, much like an owl, when he eventually comes to realize he's standing before one of the older-looking buildings in the city. Steve knows these walks of his were just an extenuation of sorts for his inexplicable sense of anxiousness. The man was never very good at controlling his feelings and emotional responses as well as people thought, and he knows it like he knows the exact weight of his shield. It was because of his lack of control that he'd been a punk that jumped into fights, along with what Bucky had repeatedly called the famed Rogers stubbornness.

Rogers finds, since the War, that there were days when he just couldn't ease the manic bustle of his thoughts. They used to call it shell shock, Steve remembers. Good men would cower under hospital beds, claw at their ears in unbridled fright. Bucky once told him a story of how his unit had to kill one of their own because the man in question had been trapped in the throes of his shell shock. His screaming and yelling nearly gave away their position, dooming them all to die from bullet fire. Dum-Dum, back when he was under Bucky's command, had been the one to shove his combat knife up the soldier's ribcage. Steve swore to Bucky they wouldn't end up like that, wouldn't fall apart at the seams.

It's ironic, really, now that Rogers looks back on the memory. These days he can't wash himself without suffering from a near-breakdown, let alone sit in a silent room without abruptly bursting into tears. At least he wasn't screaming.

Staring up at the building his feet had unintentionally lead him to, Steve appreciates the amount of colonial-style detail there is still present on the place. He has always admired decorative brickwork, fancy window trim, neat ceramic roofing. The older buildings of his New York were like that. Now they were long gone or poorly restored in the new New York. Taking a step closer, he reads the colorful banner that had been hung over the front double doors.


Meet the artists and see them at work

Free cookies and pastries

Thurs. August 13th, 1:00 - 8:00 PM

It's a very interesting banner, painted canvas with thick gesso to keep it rigid and instead of limp. The words and additional decoration, elegant paintbrushes and a stylized rendering of a wooden paint palette, were painted on with acrylic. Paint like that was hard to come by when he had been painting, but later became very commonplace in the war. Oils didn't stand up well on tanks and trucks under terrible conditions. Plastic-based paint such as acrylic could stand the weather better than traditional oil or printing ink. Rogers has a little smile on his face, quietly appreciative of the homemade feel he gets looking at the banner and the practicality of it being painted with acrylic.

How long had it been since he'd picked up a paintbrush, let alone a pencil?

Lord, Steve thinks, that was right after I got out of the ice; I sketched Stark Tower in the corner of that composition book. Damn thing costed a three dollars and a quarter.

Rogers admits to himself that it's a tragedy of its own fashion. He'd been going to Auburndale for two years studying art before money had run out and Pearl Harbor happened. Sketching in bed had been the best way to occupy his time when he would have rather been playing with a seven year-old Bucky outside, back in the day. Steve had been born with a knack for it, and all that time spent sick advanced his skill level exponentially. It had been his most redeemable skill, and Bucky took a strange amount of pride in the fact he was Steve's model for nearly all his sketches. There were more than a few hundred drawings of his best friend out there somewhere because of that. Bucky himself had been something of an artist, only because he'd been fascinated by Rogers' pencil drawings. His style, unlike Steve's, was more heavy-handed and chaotic. Bucky would use charcoal, or a small box of Munsell wax colors he bought for a quarter. Gesturals, shaded with large amounts of black or red, were his friend's specialty. Plenty of excess lines, nothing completely perfect but also not proportionally wrong. Rogers wished he knew where some of his old sketchbooks ended up after so many years; inside one of them was a full-body portrait of himself Bucky had done, his favorite artwork. Better than Klimt, Steve thought.

Without hesitation, the super soldier marches up the steps and through the double doors. Inside is a long hallway, polished wood covering the floor, ceiling, and walls. Classical light fixtures are scattered around strategically, but stay unlit. Halfway down is a doorway to another hallway, leading further west. Steve can only assume he's standing in the east wing of the place. On his right, from the entrance to the building to the dead-end of the long hallway, there are numbered doors. The numbers themselves, much to Rogers' delight, were all unique. Different fonts, different metals, different decorations, different sizes! He wonders if they were made by the artists that inhabit each studio, and if there was a polite way to ask.

So, with a surprising amount of eagerness, starting from studio number nine by the entrance, Rogers peeks his head past each door to look in.

Nine is an old black man about his age, if only he looked it, bent crooked over a table. He sits in a wheelchair with long handled paintbrushes at his elbow and clutched in his non-dominant hand. He's left-handed. He works in oil paints, from what Steve Rogers can smell. There's little clutter, yet the walls are covered with hung pinboards or art. Lots of landscapes. Nine is so deeply engrossed in the detail work of his painting, giving a tree its vibrantly autumn orange-red leaves, he never realizes the super soldier had been standing in the doorway like a peeping tom. The number on his door is plain, except for the delicate engravings of vines.

Eight is a undergraduate kid decorated heavily in tattoos, from the tips of her flip-flop wearing feet to her slight widow's peak hairline. Steve has always admired tattoo art, and can recall with fondness the shops near the Yard where the sailors would get their skin inked. Bucky had constantly joked he'd get Steven Grant Rogers tattooed around his neck like a noose, a symbol of how he'd drive Bucky to death with stress-inducing worry. He never thought it all that funny back then, but now? As a veteran with a strange sense of dark humor? The man couldn't help but smirk. Eight clearly loves tattoo art, to the point that it seems all her art is tattoo designs. The artist's stereo screams out some kind of racket, scaring the super soldier off. His sensitive enhanced hearing was having a hard time handling it. The number on her door is crudely made and dotted purposefully with flecks of neon paint.

Screamo music is most definitely on Steve's running list of dislikes.

Seven is a willowy woman who immediately greets Rogers the moment his head peeks in. Her name is Savannah without the H and she likes watercolor and silk screening. She shows him some of the poster art she's done, a fraction of it Avengers-themed, and her watercolor portraits. Because he really likes her swell posters, Ma'am, he buys two of them from her right then and there. One is of Black Widow, something he'll jokingly gift his redheaded partner, and the other is one of Captain America. Her style makes him look much more fascinating in his uniform than he thinks he does. And, a lot more dynamic than the embarrassing show posters the USO printed of him before he joined the fight against Hydra. The number on her door is graceful, much like herself, untouched by complex detail.

Six is not there, but the door is still ajar and there's a big written note on a nearby worktable. Apparently the person, Miguel, is sick with what he suspects is the stomach flu. But his art is on display for the open studio day, showing off woodworks, shaped like geometric monsters or terrifying warriors. The ID cards by each one name off Aztec gods or Mayan warriors, though there is one odd man out. It's some kind of thick cricket bat with obsidian blades fitted into the sides. Steve rightfully feels stupid for thinking that, after reading the ID card for the macuahuitl. The number on the door is blocky, yet detailed carefully to appear as a feathered snake.

Five is an erratic kind of post-postmodern artist. Steve moves onto the next studio as quickly as possible, because he doesn't like empty canvases being sold for thousands of dollars or a half-finished cigarette resting in an ugly honey yellow stiletto shoe being seen as high art. The number on his door barely looks like a number at all.

Four is a normal-looking young Japanese woman who has a talent for impressionism. A few tables are littered with fast food bags or empty takeout boxes, but otherwise it looks like a serene environment. Some kind of cheery music in another language bounces out of her portable speakers, and Steve finds himself surprisingly liking it. The young woman, Yuki, also makes stickers to sell at art festivals for kids. She takes one look at him, smiles cheekily, and hands him an entire 30-sheet of Captain America-themed stickers. Rogers almost panics, except she quickly puts a finger to her glossed lips and shoos him out with a giggle, saying that the experience of meeting him is payment enough for her silence.

It's room number three that stops him in his tracks.

The door is wide open, which Steve suspects is a recent occurrence within the last few minutes. When he glanced down the hallway, all of the studio doors had been barely cracked. He stands unmoving, framed in the doorway, as his eyes can't seem to pull away from the sight they have landed on.

It is a large painting, as tall as Rogers with a width as wide as his arm span. Leaning against the wall facing the hall, it appears as though all the super soldier needs to do is walk into it, like an abrupt rift in time. It's acrylic, vibrant in some ways but the colors are purposefully muddled. A broken old street stretches out from the bottom of the canvas upwards, children frozen in the midst of a stickball game by a fire hydrant. There are steps to one side, the kind one associates with tired beaten brownstones and colored neighborhoods of long past. The steps repeat for a number of blocks, and a rundown old Ford is parked across the street. Placed slightly to the left of the center, a figure is walking forward toward him. Even though the figure is unmoving, Steve knows that silhouette just as he knows the gait of that same figure. He knows the hands tucked into pant pockets, the windblown head of dark hair, the unfocused shape of the face.

Steve knows this scene because he drew it himself when he was twenty with a broken lead pencil in a sketchbook Bucky fashioned out of butcher paper, fraying twine, and prayer. A gaping hole someplace inside him aches something fierce. He feels… haunted. Inevitably, the man's pale eyes flicker to the individual occupying the studio space.

Rogers starts, however, because the artist is already staring at him.

The young woman stands by a heavy wooden easel, a traditional calligraphy pen in hand. It shocks Steve how small she is, that the top of her head is the beginning of his ribs on him. Even when he wasn't enhanced, nothing more than a walking bag of bones and health problems, he had been at least five inches taller than her. The dame is petite in build until her saddlebag hips, which flare out before tapering to petite again. She has no chest to speak of, not that Rogers was exactly looking. What would be a waterfall of black hair is piled up atop her skull and clipped in place with a tortoise shell jaw clip, messy and mildly frizzed. Her skin is somewhat dusky, like high-fired clay. She possesses a soft face, sharp eyebrows, a small but dark beauty mark on the right side of her chin, and shoulders that are wider than he'd ever seen on a woman her size. Very gangly and yet curvy, he notes to himself. Steve finds it impossible to guess her age, with her baby face.

It's her eyes, though, that are what truly startle the super soldier. They're that mix of colors people who have hazel irises get, where the play of light sometimes makes their eyes appear multicolored when in fact their irises are only really two poorly mixed shades. Falsworth had eyes like that. Anything that was colorful, in any fashion, reminded Steve how grateful he is that the serum fixed his colorblindness. It was probably why he had a bizarre soft spot for his old uniform.

Eventually Rogers realizes he had been standing there dumbly, looking at her, for well over a minute.

"Uh, lovely painting," he finally gets out. The man wants to hit himself over the head with his shield. He still fails at talking to women outside of a professional atmosphere.

She blinks, her dark lashes briefly fanning. Apparently he wasn't the only one staring at the other in observation. The young woman's gaze darts between him and the painting, before something sparks there in her expression. She puts the calligraphy pen down in water, swishing it madly to get most of the ink off the tip, then places it at the easel's tray, next to various open bottles of colored ink. A primed canvas sits with ink lines attempting to give form to a moving body, though the body itself is barely distinguishable.

"You recognize it?"

It's a loaded inquiry, despite how idly the unknown woman asks it. Either she connected the dots on who I am, or she knows something about my old sketches, Steve thinks. There was the vaguest hint of excitement in her tone, a weak hope for validation.

He simply goes with "You could say that."

She smiles, a short laugh trying to leave her, before she offers her hand. "It's really cool to meet you here of all places, Mr. Rogers. Never thought I'd meet you in my entire life."

The super soldier still gives the slightest of pauses when she acknowledges that she knows who he is, but something in her expression and phrasing makes him think she isn't a standard "fangirl," as Stark would put it. Her grip is also quite firm while being so delicate. He can respect that.

"What gave me away?"

"Oh, uh… Well, I actually wrote an art history term paper about you and Bucky Barnes back in college, seen your faces in books," she says, mildly embarrassed, though some form of a smile is still there. It's depreciating, like she's laughing at her own foolish spectacle. "You're honestly the sole reason I passed that class."

"Me and Buck?" he repeats, mild surprise in his tone, "I didn't think we'd ever be a topic in a class like that."

She nods, letting go of his hand. "Yeah, I know. My art history professor, Marangelli, assigned the prompt in the hopes he'd be able to flunk my ass. Captain America and Bucky Barnes? Artists? The dude figured I'd end up writing a summary about your accomplishments in the war and fail to find any viable info on your art."

Steve can't help but chuckle. "Guess you proved him wrong?"

"When I wasn't satisfied with the books I got a hold of at my school library, I personally ordered ten of the most recommended books on the subject of you and Barnes as artists from Barnes an' Noble. The oil painting you did in '38? The Chair by the East Window? It's my most favorite painting to date. You and Edward Hopper are up there in my top ten artists list."

Rogers blinks. It is strange, being remembered by someone of the future for his art and not his feats in the War. He is so expecting when it came to their questions—What was it like, killing Nazis? Did you get shot? Was the War actually like The Longest Day with John Wayne in it? Nobody seemed to remember him as Steve Rogers, only the patriotic gimmick that had initially been a propaganda fanfare for increasing war bond sales until it transformed into a legendary warrior's tale taller than Mt. Everest. The super soldier found it refreshing to meet someone who remembered him for him. The sick little artist with bloody knuckles, not the war hero with a shadow thrice as big as he is.

Either way, Steve hadn't thought about that painting, The Chair by the East Window, in years. It was something he had done for himself, rendered by candlelight and Bucky's easy acquiescence when it came to being a constant model for his best friend. He sketched it in the morning before Bucky went off to work. He hauled crates at the dock or worked some week-long job he managed to get ahold of at the temp office in Manhattan. At sunset when Barnes returned, Rogers had Bucky model again in the mix the dying light streaming through their bedroom window and burning candles, capturing the shadows that played across his friend's shirtless body and the glint of a single visible eye. Buck had walked over eagerly to see the finished product, only to frown the longer he stared at it. Fear flashed in his pale eyes before he ran out of their apartment. He didn't come back for five days. By the time he returned, the painting had been wrapped in newspaper and hidden in the back of the closet.

I guess our landlord found it, or maybe Mrs. Barnes, Rogers thought. He wondered what Winifred had thought of it, what she had seen when she looked at it.

"Anyway," a voice broke in, breaking what might have been an awkward silence created by his lack of response. "You're welcome to look around my studio. Uh, don't mind Max, that cranky ass dog over there. He's just pissed that I've been ignoring him in favor of arting. And here's some of the brochures an' stuff that we're handing out today, because I'm obligated to promote this place." Her skinny arms jerked in the direction of a small table drowning in promotional pamphlets and business cards. "That, and we're really fuckin' desperate to have somebody rent out studios one and two that isn't like Nate. He's a pretentious postmod asshole that seriously needs to be kicked down a few pegs. No joke. Our collective sanity here in the eastern wing hangs in the balance."

The young woman was rambling. From nervousness or simple awkwardness, the super soldier wasn't sure. Steve couldn't help but find himself amused.


"Oh, uh… Chris! Chris Urquidez," the young woman announced, shaking his hand again. "My father wasn't exactly creative with names when I was born. My parents were under the impression I was gonna' be a boy, and Dad didn't really have any other names to give me off the top of his head while my mother was sleeping off her pain medication following the C-section."

Steve chuckles at her self-deprecating humor, nodding in acknowledgement. Chris drops his hand abruptly, clearly not sure what to do with herself, and takes his nod as the end of the conversation. She shuffles back to her easel, picking back up the calligraphy pen to escape further fumbling.

More interested than before, the soldier moves about the studio space. He politely grabs a few brochures off the table, glancing at them before carefully folding all of them away into his pockets. Beyond the painting that had drawn him in, there are numerous other finished pieces leaning against the white walls of Chris' art studio. So many, in fact, that there are canvases both behind and in front of each other. They stick out unevenly, some leaning so far back that Steve worries he'll accidentally knock one down. There is no specific theme amongst them; four more paintings rendered from his early sketchbook drawings, a fantasy forest landscape with a city built into the canopies, inked canvases crosshatching deep shadows or slight shadows around the eyes, a solemn portrait of a tired-looking old man. Many of them are surreal, but nothing is notably similar. Chris' style seems to never maintain a set pattern like most artists.

Before long, he stops before the lovely old rolltop desk shoved into the southeast corner by a beaten-up bookshelf. A dog bed is laid atop its surface. In it, a puppy is laid out with his legs kicked back behind him, almost too big for the cushion. He is also an extremely fluffy pup, fur puffing out every which way. Its little eyes focused on Rogers like a guard dog, but also with curiosity. A tag hangs from a collar labeled Maxwell. Tentatively he offers the little creature his hand, watching its little wet nose sniff at his fingers. A tongue and two rows of sharp baby dog teeth attack his fingers earnestly.

Apparently Steve had passed the test.

The bookshelf nearby isn't neatly organized, but nor is it an assorted mess of beaten up reading material. Top shelf above Steve's head is clearly miscellaneous, silly books and knick-knacks that don't need to be taken down from their perch very often. Second shelf is art history of the ancient world, third is art history on… him. Thoughts lurch in his head for a moment, thick and displeased. Rogers forces himself to ignore it. Below is a shelf overflowing with various notebooks of all shapes and sizes, followed by two more shelves littered with art supplies and random stacks of seemingly important papers. The bottom shelf at the man's feet has a bucket full of dog toys, five folded blankets, a bed pillow, a dog food bowl, and a water bowl. Both of the dishes are full of sustenance, but partially empty. And, despite the horrid stir of thoughts gathering in his head as vultures, Rogers is unable to resist reading the book titles on the shelf dedicated to him. He is unfortunately motivated by a horrible beast known as perverse interest.

The Complete Steven G. Rogers Collection

Artists of Brooklyn Heights: A Close Look at a Young Captain America's Neighborhood

The Forgotten Works of James Barnes

A Future Shaped by Artists: A Tale of Hitler and Captain America's Careers Before the Second World War

A Quiet Emotion: Essays on Steven G. Rogers' The Chair by the East Window

War Art

From Small to Large: The Rediscovery of Steven G. Rogers' Art During the 1970s

Memoirs of an Engineer Who Forged the Shield

Chaos vs. Calm: The Contrast Between James Barnes and Steven G. Rogers

A Record of My Regrets: The Sketchbooks of Captain America and the Stories They Tell

The Propaganda Art and Politics of Captain America

Howling in the Night: Interviews with the Howling Commandos

Montague Street: Artifacts from James Barnes and Steven G. Rogers' Apartment

Bucky: From Schoolyard to Battlefield

Steve is not quite sure what he feels, reading the varied spines of the books, but it's a sudden and heady experience. The fourth title disturbs him, maybe because he hadn't ever seen Hitler as anything beyond a bully in his mind. He is somewhat interested in reading the fifth title, as he's curious to know how his art made its way to the public eye while he was frozen. Seeing Bucky's name printed in different places makes that gaping hole in Rogers' insides begin to work itself into a fit. He observes that there are only two books that are very general in terms of topic, two books dedicated to the entire art collections of both himself and Bucky, an entire book dedicated to one of his paintings, and two autobiographical books. Names and faces rush through his gaping hole, the wound, the empty, chokes out the first few notes of a strangled cry.

It sounds too much like Bucky's scream of terror amidst the fall in Steve's head.

Within the inner shade of his blinking baby-blues, it feels as though the wind is dragging a knife across his skin. A crunching, thundering rumble rings in his ears. He sees a cluttered bookshelf, yet Steve sees the cursed snowy landscape of 1945. Trapped inside a body that feels completely his own, and nothing worth keeping.

Air struggles to expand his chest, there's a scratching of metal on canvas. The room is silent. The super soldier teeters, sways ever so slightly. A puppy's little black eyes are boring holes through him. The paintings leaning against the titanium white walls both overwhelm his momentarily scattered senses and calm them.

Rogers isn't exactly certain what emotion is welling up in his lungs like tar and squeezing his throat with an invisible noose, but he knows it is simultaneously the motivation and reason he leaves studio number three without another word, swiftly, and out the building's double doors. He doesn't think, he doesn't excuse himself, he doesn't pause. His footsteps echo loudly in the long hallway of the east wing until they hit the outdoor steps.

Chris watches the open doorway, a strange expression lingering in her murky eyes, before returning to her work.

Chapter Text

Chris doesn’t see Steve Rogers—Captain god-fuckin’-damn America—for twelve days following the once in a lifetime meeting they had shared during the studio building’s open house.

The young woman has given the encounter a great deal of thought, what with twelve days worth of time without another surprise appearance from Mister Stars n’ Stripes himself. She is a generally bizarre person, she’ll admit, being horribly awkward around new people in some cases yet extremely loud and mouthy in others. Chris often blames it on her very obvious Napoleon Complex, as she is so small. And, well… all the women in her family are just plain aggressive. Her abrupt introduction to Steve Rogers? It ranks somewhere in the middle, she thinks. Chris rambled some, jerkily shook his huge hand here and there, presented herself a little too self-deprecatingly. But somehow she had managed to make the tall Irish-American chuckle a few times, so the woman decides the interactions were reasonably adequate.

But damn her sister’s black cat’s ass, Chris had met Captain America in the flesh!

It was mind-boggling, really, to meet the superhero whose art Chris had the official museum presentation print of hanging from her living room wall. She’d written a killer paper on him and his best friend in college, owned a crap ton of history books all about his art career. She bought a Veteran’s Day commemorative Bucky Bear on an impulse once; it lived on her bed. When it came out that the guy underneath the spangled suit was Steven Grant Rogers, born 1918, fighting aliens with the Avengers during the Battle of Manhattan a year ago, Chris hugged her old roommate and demanded he pinch her. Honest to God, she still to this day can’t believe the guy had served in the same War her grandfather had fought in. Hell, the man knew what it was like to live in America during the Depression! And she met him! Shook his hand! Twice!

Only the young woman isn’t sure what made the artist-turned-super-soldier dash out of her studio like a man haunted. Part of her felt it had been the book titles, tangible proof that he was a living time capsule. Part of her felt it might have been her little dog, because Maxwell was a growing boy that loved driving strangers crazy if given the chance. Case in point, his eerie staring.

Really, part of Chris suspects, feeling it deep in her gut, he might have been triggered to the point of having a post traumatic episode.

The artist honestly doesn’t want to think about it, but Steve Rogers was a veteran. Spending two or so years of your youth in a war zone leaves behind some kind of trauma, no matter how much one well wishes for good mental health. Factor in being frozen alive and then defrosted about seventy years into the future… the man had to be suffering from a heady combination of Oneirataxia, NDE withdrawal, and PTSD. And something in her studio might have been the cause.

So Chris’ art, as a result, takes a turn for the darker systems of color. Ten eighteen by twenty-four inch charcoal paper sheets are devoured by her emotional storm. Deep shadows eating up distorted silhouettes accented with hints of red and blue dry pastel, dashes of smeared white chalk reflecting the liquid shine of the eyes. Her current sketchbook has about twenty pages worth of pencil drawings, some roughly copied from old photographs of the Howling Commandos and others from the images taken during the Battle of Manhattan. Eventually the moody episode of self-loathing and second-hand stress passes. There’s a short transition back to surrealistic works full of color and a sense of playfulness, comprised of cartoon crime fighters and a horrible visual pun about Iron Man. Chris stashes the ten overly large charcoal pieces away in a portfolio before any of her visitors, the other artists occupying the east wing, ask her about them. That, and the young woman doubts anyone would wish to purchase a charcoal series of abstracts involving a World War II-costumed Captain America and an overwhelming amount of black despair.

Her parents call her in the meantime, and Chris ends up verbally fighting her mother who lives on the opposite coast. Their relationship is not exceptionally functional, running on nothing but copious amounts of respect and hereditary ties. Love chose to run out the window the moment Chris realized her own maternal parent would sooner disown her than accept she is genderqueer. Her elder sister, Isabella, calls much later. She inevitably cheers the young woman up, grouses about their mother in understanding, and asks about recent events. Savanna from studio seven shares an Ethiopian lunch platter with her, Nate is “accidentally” locked inside his studio for four hours, Yuki gossips about Captain America’s shy fumblings, Miguel returns to the studio building wearing a medical mask and shit clothes for maximum comfort during his sick spell, and Mr. Williams from studio nine spends a few afternoons painting fantastical landscapes with her.

It is on the thirteenth day Captain America seems to come crashing abruptly back into Chris’ life. She is sitting cross-legged on the floor, Maxwell laying on his side gnawing at a heavy rubber dog toy. Sketching has taken up most of her morning, and she desperately needs a break. Her family has a history of arthritis, and she can already begin to feel the foreshadowing ache in her finger joints. Or, maybe she’s a bit of a hypochondriac. Playing with her fluffy mutt of a dog is a satisfying distraction and relief. Cute and low-stress, Chris thinks. Absently, she ponders what kind of frozen dinner she’ll heat up tonight. Pesto tortellini or Tikki Masala?

Slam. “Chris, Chris! It’s finally happening!”

“Huh-what?” she blurts, startling at the loud bang of the door. Maxwell charges at the woman in the doorway with stubby fat legs, smushing his furry head against her shin before collapsing atop her foot. He licks at her shoe for reasons unknown. The undergrad from studio eight, Maddie, looks like she’s ready to break out her well-hidden bottle of whiskey. Absently, she pats the puppy’s crown.

“It’s fucking happening, Chris! Studios one and two were just rented out by that big blond hunk from a couple days ago! And he’s a rendering painter. Our collective sanity is saved!”

“No joke?”

“No joke, Chris. Read the paperwork over the studio owner’s shoulder myself!”

It was very rare for anyone to rent out more than one basic studio room. One by itself is spacious enough, Chris thinks, though I guess if someone likes spreading out their shit and actually living in their house, they’d want a second studio to serve as their next door storage. That meant their new “neighbor” was going to be right next to her. The young woman isn’t sure how she feels about having occupied studios on both sides. Worries about lots of noise and the like. That is, until Maddie’s words finally register.

“Oh shit.

Steve Rogers isn’t exactly sure what possessed him, but he now has two art studio spaces and a year’s worth of rent put down for it all. The black van outside, something he borrowed from work, is packed solid with art supplies. Some of it was gifted to him by Natasha, such as the paints and brushes, but the rest he just bought that morning. An artsy file folder with the name of the building printed on its front is held in his left hand, keys to studios one and two in his right. Eight had come crashing into the private office during the rent arrangement, reading the paperwork over the studio owner’s shoulder, before running out with unrestrained glee. That woman, Chris, must have been very serious when she said the artists in the east wing were desperate for anyone that wasn’t extremely post-postmodern.

The super soldier is preparing to begin moving his supplies inside, stuffing the file folder and keys away in safe places, when something small abruptly collides with the back of his calf. He stumbles for a moment, hears the high-pitched barking demanding his attention.

“Hey, Steve! Need any help with all that shit in back?”

“I’m not sure this little fella can lift boxes,” the man remarks. He heard the tentative tone in Chris’ voice, clearly not sure where she stood with a veteran who’d dashed out of her studio space like the hounds of hell were after him. Rogers hoped his comment broke the ice.

“Max is part Caucasian Shepherd dog, part Saluki, and part Doberman. He’s gonna be the size of a house when he’s done growing. Just you watch.”

“I look forward to it” slips out of his mouth before he really has time to think about it. When it finally registers, Chris’ countenance is somewhere between disbelieving and quietly flustered at the implications to be found in those words. Steve promptly turns tomato red, from the tips of his ears down past his neck. His Irish blood makes him a full-body blusher.

“Err, I didn’t—I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry, Chris, I kinda’... Well—”

“Suck at talking to people?”

“Uh, yeah.” He can’t deny it, as he shuffles his big clown feet on the cement. He ducks his head, staring at the paper pads and ink bottles inside the boxes he holds. It’s a wonder Steve made all those inspirational speeches off the top of his head back in the day.

“It’s cool, man. You should see me when I’m trying to land a hot date at the bar. Everybody thinks I’m trying to get them arrested for pedophilia because of my size. Can I help you with the boxes?”

Rogers’ sense of modest politeness is reflex. “I’ll be fine, Chris. Thanks for the offer.”

Except the tiny woman clearly doesn’t agree. One dark eyebrow raises. “You sure about that?”

“I’ve lifted tanks. I think I can handle a few boxes.”

“Yeah, so?” Chris states flippantly. “Just because you got all that strength doesn’t mean you have patience. This much shit is like, I dunno, six trips? Who the hell wants to keep tromping back and forth?”

Steve begins to realize, with a strange sense of dawning horror and fascination, that he’s found the one person in DC that’s possibly as frustrating, small, and artistic as he used to be in 1943. Because Chris continues to argue her case, as he stands there holding boxes, with the fluffy pup sitting on his left shoe. She looks at him directly in the eyes, holds her ground, and attempts to wear him down much like how he would do with Bucky. The young woman even has that set to her mouth Buck had always accused him of, that defiant bit of lip that dared someone to punch it off his face. And damn, does she have a set of lungs. He wondered how far away he’d have to be before he couldn’t hear her. Chris just seems to have one of those voices that projected .

Eventually, he sighs. “Alright, alright! Geez, Chris, if ya’ wanted ta’ help so bad, ya’ could’ve jus’ grabbed a damn box.”

The petite woman stares at him, before chuckling. “Let it be forever known, for all the world to see, that Captain Steve Rogers fails to hold back his Brooklyn accent when flustered.”

Steve amends his statement while his cheeks keep burning red. He thinks Chris is, in fact, a menace.

Together, the pair manage to move all his supplies into studio one without too many trips. There’s a lot of near-tumbling, thanks to the excitable puppy scrambling around by their feet, but Steve finds he almost likes the exasperating ball of fur. Eight, Seven, and Four sometimes peek their heads out to greet him, Four being especially cheeky about it. Chris reveals that both studio spaces he now rents actually have a hidden connecting door between them.

“See? It’s super handy. Hell, maybe I’ll uncover the door that connects studio two to mine. That is, if you’re cool with me annoying you with my new age music.”

“As long as you don’t play any of that “screamo” racket, I think that’ll be just swell.”

And he’s not lying. Steve misses the studio atmosphere, where artists can pool their ideas together and debate silly or serious aesthetic choices. Discuss thumbnail sketches of would-be projects, positive and negative space. Can you put pale Peach and a heavy Prussian blue in the same painting? Too busy or too static? Is that supposed to be a person, or are you just slapping the paint on there for paint’s sake?

Rogers can’t wax poetic about the colors he sees in a sunset to Natasha, or she’d think he’s even more of a ridiculously sentimental old man than she already does. He can’t talk about aesthetic value to Tony, or it’s suddenly going to be a violent argument on whether or not Iron Man’s colors make the billionaire look stupid—especially when gold and red are actually somewhat complimentary when placed on an artist’s color wheel. He can’t talk about art to Clint, because nine times out of ten the man has probably turned off his hearing aids to save himself from falling asleep. He can’t discuss perspective with Bruce, or the man will start lecturing him on how various species found on Earth can observe different spectrums of color. He hasn’t had a chance to say anything about art to Thor, or Jane Foster. Darcy Lewis only knows he’s a big fan of comics.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he’s becoming maudlin at the age of ninety-five!

So Steve watches Chris shuffle out of his combined studio, offering a parting wave before she goes about unburying the connecting doors between their spaces. Maxwell the puppy gives his shin a bump with his small head before hop-tripping after his owner. His feet lead him back to where all the various boxes, easels, and things are stacked. The soldier locates the first of his many purchases, pulling a folding knife from his pocket and cutting open the cardboard box. Inside is an Ikea-brand wooden drawer unit on castors, with twelve drawers and painted to look like modern office furniture. Rogers makes a mental note to repaint it somehow, get rid of the horrid titanium white. It reminds him of hospital rooms and snow drifts, two things that he greatly dislikes. He sets up the three easels he purchased earlier that morning, and unboxes all the art supplies he brought from his apartment into the appropriate drawers. Steve also unboxes the basic drafting table he bought, puzzles through the assembly instructions, and finds himself very satisfied once it’s put together. He glances at the walls of the studio, which are painted pecan sandie brown. Very neutral, slightly warm in tone. Usually he loves sticking his sketches on the walls, but he’s not exactly looking forward to using tape. The stickum the manufacturers use always leave everything sticky and discolored. Maybe I should consider getting some cork boards, he thinks.

A few more boxes after, there’s a stack of thick-frame canvases by the drafting table, and another stack of canvas board packs on the opposite side. There’s ten book-bound sketchbooks sitting on the stool for the drafting table, with hard covers and acid-free paper. A complete luxury, in his outdated opinion. There are five boxes still untouched, shoved into a corner. Steve feels like it’s a start, but he’ll have to deliberate further on what he wants to put in his art space. He has plenty of square footage to work with, after all. Hell, he has an entire second studio to decorate!

Moments later, his enhanced hearing picks up the muffled sound of something falling and a victorious cry of success.

Ha-ha! Fuckin’ try and hide from me, bitch! You’re gonna’ be interconnected with your neighbor even if it’s the last thing I do!

Remind him how he ended up in this situation?

The entry he can see through the open doorway to studio two slams open. Chris stands proudly in the doorway, her hair looking as though it’s trying to make a break for it. The dark tresses are barely staying piled atop her head, the large jaw clip tilting precariously to the right. She’s wearing a grey flannel speckled and stained from wayward paint, or possibly ink. Underneath is a black tank top, matching the dark pair of baggy yoga pants hanging loosely at her hips. Chris’ shoes are ballet shoes. Legitimately. Soft leather with the strap near the ankle, vaguely pink underneath all the wear that’s turned them muddled champagne. The puppy—Maxwell, he remembers—charges past her. How did Steve not notice the footwear?

“I have conquered my very cluttered studio,” she says. In the background, her little dog is sniffing everything and everywhere. Its tail is wagging faster than the speed of light, it’s that happy to explore.

“I guess you did,” Rogers says back. “Got most of my stuff unpacked while you were busy fighting it hand-to-hand.”

Chris glances around for maybe five seconds. “Not to be… uh, rude,” she says with a skeptical expression, “But I think you need to either downgrade yourself now before the studio building owner makes everything completely official, or buy more stuff. Or even better, start cranking out some shit.”

It takes a moment for him to parse out her slang. “Easier said than done,” he eventually remarks, his thoughts drifting to his very spartan apartment. “Haven’t had much time to do anything for myself until now. The future’s keeping me busy.”

Chris makes a face that he hasn’t seen before. It’s somewhere between surly, agitated, and displeased. But it's quiet, as if she's not trying to give too much of her feelings away. “More like the government can’t stop getting a raging hard-on whenever they have a chance to send you out.”

Steve needs a moment to take her words in.

“Are you implying I’m their… “ his voice is hardening, because he doesn’t like what Chris implied at all.

“No, but I’m implying that I don’t like the government much. Seriously? You’ve been awake, what? Almost a year? A year an’ a half? Buddy, has the government legitimately been running you ragged this whole time? We've got laws about how many hours somebody can work, soldier or not. And, that people have the right to have vacation days.”

Rogers is surprised by the concern, to the point he feels like the breath has been knocked out of his lungs. Which, objectively, is pathetic. But none of the Avengers, people he considers friends, had ever asked if he’d been given leave. Most of them probably assumed that Steve would pace himself, explore the modern world at large. They knew he was having issues, but they most likely thought their little visits and gifts were supportive enough to satisfy his needs. Between their inconsistent attentions and given leave from SHIELD missions, Captain America would pull through.

Maybe Captain America did, but Steven Grant Rogers didn’t. And the fact Chris, a spritely artist he barely spent a day with, was this concerned really shook him.

“I…” He tries to start, before simply muttering, “Yes.”

The surliness in her face bleeds into a creased brow and a gaze that speaks volumes. “Jesus, Steve. No wonder you got yourself two studios.” She grabbed him at the elbow with a delicate hand, yanking him towards studio one. He finds himself dragged along. “Get a notebook, some pencils, a canvas—anything. Get it set up. I’ll be right back.”

Chris dashes away on her light feet, rushing into her art space. She stirs up more than a little racket by rifling, piling, shuffling. Or, it sounds that way to Rogers’ sensitive enhanced ears. The young woman comes back and leaves in trips, dumping her findings in the middle of the studio he’s occupying. Blankets. Pillows. A nine by twelve sketchbook covered in stickers. A cosmetic bag Steve doubts is full of makeup. Then, finally, a hunk of black plastic and electronic parts she calls her “iHome.” Chris plugs it into an open wall plug by the door, and pulls an Apple phone from her pant pockets. Steve swears he can hear Tony’s voice in his head, ranting about the inferiority of Apple products when compared to StarkTech. Built to fail, faulty programming, steals personal data, a useless piece of shit with a pretty exterior design.

“We’re gonna’ camp out on the floor, in comfort, and draw our hearts out,” the young woman declares. “You feel like drawing flowers? You better draw yourself some beautiful fuckin’ flowers. You need to decompress, draw some seriously terrifying stuff that might pertain to classified government secrets? Do it, but don’t show it to me. I really don’t need to end up in taken away in the night and never seen again. My mother would lose it, and my art career’d be dead.”

“So,” she says, tapping at her phone and docking it on the iHome. “Shall we?”

They do. Steve is tentative about doing it, at first. While Chris takes half the blankets she brought and wraps herself in a haphazard cocoon, a pillow serving as her table, he’s methodical. And, well… fussing. Three quilts laid on top of one another, a pillow under his stomach, another pillow under his elbows. He drapes a strangely fuzzy throw blanket over his lower body, not exactly bothered by its purple color. But he can’t help nervously tucking it all in around him, snuggling against the pillow supporting his abdominals. They’re leftover habits from when he was smaller, ways to keep the heat in around his frail bones and ease the ache of his back.

Rogers has one of his new sketchbooks in front of him, and three Dixon Ticonderogas. Chris has her sticker-laden notebook open, a generic ballpoint pen drifting all over a once-fresh page. Soft ambient music is filling the room, something Chris’ little phone screen proclaims is lo-fi hip hop radio―relaxing beats to study/chill/sleep to with a small video of a cluttered animated room with a stuffed animal smoking on a couch. For awhile, the soldier just listens to it and watches her work. He’s not very far away. Maybe a foot, foot and a half. Black lines have been blended together to create a half-finished rendering of a very familiar puppy. Maxwell is asleep on the floor in front of her, and the pen drawing is thus a sweet candid portrait. There are little doodles on the page too. A pair of strong hands, and eye with overly exaggerated lashes, a ridiculous cartoon of himself suited up with his shield serving as a plate for spaghetti. Steve barely manages to suppress a chuckle.

But then the man’s gaze wanders to the uncracked sketchbook and sharp pencils, and abruptly feels possessed.

The sketchbook is open, a pencil in hand. Lines are pushed into the paper, curving. Another line and a few more, and suddenly there's a ghost of a torso. Add a few more lines, squiggle the pencil a little more, and Steve's looking at the shaded planes of a well-muscled torso with a grey arm. Is it a grey arm? He's shading more, erasing carefully, and the grey arm is shining. Heavy pressure cuts into the grey-shiny shoulder, carving a star. Then his pencil is off again, taking to the other side of the page. Another torso forms, an arm, and that arm isn't grey. The fourth finger next to the pinky is slightly crooked, like it'd been broken one too many times.


The blank space is devoured by a roughly-drawn landscape. Dark graphite pits for scattered foxholes, the faint reflection of light on dew collecting on grass with a tiny cell of white. The shine of moonlight on a splash of fresh blood. There's silhouetted trees, a mid-grey haze, a compound wrapped in chain-link wire fencing and tanks as big as a brownstone barreling forward. That damned Hydra insignia is pressed black onto the front of those moving siege vehicles. Off to the side, there's the hint of two shadowed figures. One holds a rifle, the other a rounded disk as big as a small coffee table.


Long hair with forty-seven lines, seven to form a head shape, ten for each eye. Three for the nose. Twenty-three for a pair of sultry lips that can talk espionage for hours. Sloping shoulders wrapped in a black cat suit with the faintest hint of cleavage. Natasha looks quite fetching in Rogers' portrait of her.


Peggy, Gabe, Monty, Jacques, Dum-Dum. Small and quirky portraits from memory, cartoonish and sweet. Wistful, maybe.


That strain of wistfulness manifests into an entire page full of Peggy. Sitting, standing, yelling. Arguing with Howard, poking his chest while he grins that saccharine smile of his. Peggy dressed in that one dazzling red dress, which had Bucky looking with goo-goo eyes and Steve overtaken. She always had effortlessly commanded a room, with her words, voice, and charm. A lot like Bucky, actually.


It's just a portrait of Bucky, circa 1925.


Bucky, circa 1931.


Bucky, circa 1938.


Bucky, circa 1943. He's dressed exactly like how he looked when they went to Stark Expo, his smile a mile-wide.




Bucky, no―!



Steve's third Dixon Ticonderoga snaps in half, and the storms filling his head breaks. All three pencils are in some state of being broken, and the third one left a sharp line dashing off in a random direction over the Winter Soldier's emotionless gaze. He can feel his chest heaving slightly, but it's not a panic attack. His hand drops the snapped pencil, and the man takes a few slow breaths. When he looks over to Chris, she's already staring at him with those murky hazel eyes of hers.

"Feeling a little better?"

Her question isn't loud or cheerful. It's just asked, no inflection. For some reason, the super soldier's very thankful. All he can manage in that moment is a nod.

The young woman adjusts herself, dragging blankets as she sits up to face him. Chris even scoots closer, so she's essentially directly in front of him. Even laying down and propped on his elbows, his eyes are level with hers effortlessly thanks to his height. Her expression turns indecisive, maybe uncertain, but she appears determined to speak.

"So, I know this is only the second time we've been in each other's general presence, and I know you probably have way more on your plate than I could try to guess. But... whoever you work for? They need to give you ample time off to recover before tossing you back out into danger. I mean, it's no secret to the public you're going around kicking ass. They don't explicitly tell what ass you're kicking and where, but you're kicking ass. And, like, just because you got huge biceps and you could bench-press me a hundred times doesn't mean you shouldn't have as much time to decompress as other people. You following?"

"Yeah," he responds, almost hushed.

"Then take some advice from this tiny-ass artist: negotiate with your boss, superior, whoever-the-fuck, the next time you're able. If they throw some kind of weird government contractual shit at you, get a lawyer and demand addendums. Or changes, if they're literally locking you into a bad situation against your natural human rights. I know I don't have any right to nag you or anything, but seriously. Don't... Don't hole yourself up to the point you wake up one day debating on whether a bullet in the mouth is a good idea."

The light in her two-color eyes was imploring, and it swallowed Steve whole. Something about it reminded him of his Ma, how she'd beg him to stop getting into fights. Take it easy, don't strain his lungs

He really needed to stop falling into memories.

So the best he could come up with was "I'll try, Ma'am."