It starts with Steve, waking up in a room that looks familiar except for all the ways it's wrong. It starts with running through strange halls, onto strangely-lit streets, and seeing a Times Square he wouldn't recognize if not for the street signs. It starts with, "You've been asleep, Captain Rogers. It's been seventy years, and everyone you knew is dead."
His best friend is dead (he already was dead, but it hasn't sunk in yet), and his girl is dead (guess they won't be going dancing together when the war ends), and all his men are dead ("Only a few died in the war," Fury tells him, "About seventy percent of the Howling Commandos made it home alive." It's not much consolation), and somehow Steve's supposed to carry on as usual. It seems an impossible feat.
It starts out as a memorial, a way to honor the dead he left behind, nearly a century and less than a week ago. Steve finds himself a set of civvies, and walks out the door into this new Manhattan that is in so many ways not at all the city he grew up in. He's not wearing SHEILD gear, and he's not wearing the uniform (might never wear the uniform again, he feels so detached from who he was just a month ago; a relic in this new future), and seventy years is long enough that his face has long since faded from common memory. He walks, and he walks, and eventually Steve finds himself standing in front of a hole-in-the-wall combination tattoo and piercing parlor. The girl behind the counter has strange, spiraling earrings, that seem to devour her ears. She's wearing short sleeves and has more ink on her visible skin than any Commando Steve knew, but when he asks if they take walk-ins she simply nods and asks if he knows what he wants.
Steve's still riding that strange wave of impulse and rebellion that propelled him out SHEILD's doors, but he knows he wants a remembrance. Starting with Bucky, because if anyone would have encouraged stepping out of the box, it would've been him; because, in all the strangeness of Steve's new life, Bucky's death seems most real thing.
That's where it starts, with the sting of the tattoo artist's needles in his skin, the itch of scabbed-over injury healing along his side. There's a pair of weather-beaten leather boots (tongues pulled up and laces looped together, as though waiting beside a bunk for someone to wear them) etched onto his flesh, and a tiny part of his grief feels assuaged.
That's where it starts, but it's not where it ends.
A few weeks later, Steve is back for more ink. He gets a derringer on his hip for Peggy, and a swirling knot of stark black lines across his sternum for Howard, and the words Get The Damn Job Done in red cursive along his ribs (his men were no poets - straightforward and headlong into the fight was more their style). There's an addition to Bucky's boots, a pair of dog tags tied to the laces, his and Bucky's names from their time overseas. And somehow, each time he draws another memory onto his skin, immortalizes a memory from decades ago in ink and blood in this new century, Steve finds himself better anchored in his new life.
Time passes, and his tattoos heal. He gets used to the splashes of color in the corner of his eye as he looks in the bathroom mirror, the way sweat and water slides over the designs after workouts in the underground gym. Steve traces his fingers over the art that celebrates who he was, and slowly settles into who he has to be now. It's shocking, some days, to reconcile the man whose skin is a breathing gallery of memorial art, with the asthmatic boy who'd never even seen the outside of a tattoo parlor.
And then he's meeting the other Avengers, and they're fighting against Loki's trickery and invading aliens (Aliens, in New York City! It seems like something out of a fiction novel, one of those paperback comics the boys got in care packages. Of everything, this makes the fact that he's alive in the future seem all the more certain), and somewhere in his soul, something shifts back into place. It feels natural all over again to take charge of civilians, to wear the uniform with pride in service. His shield is a comfortable extension of his arm once again, and there are men (and a lady) at his back once more. It's such a rush of familiar and conflicting emotions, but Steve's grateful that at least the soldier part of himself is still there, even as everything else has changed around him.
He walks down to the tattoo parlor after the battle and the debrief but before the cleanup, and asks for Captain America's shield to go on his other hip. The girl at the counter must not be watching all the news networks, because she doesn't recognize him as Captain America, only the guy who's been coming in semi-regularly for the last several months. She asks him if he was in the City when it all went to Hell, if he's a fan of the Captain. Steve just replies, "It's important to believe in heroes."
It's a relief, as the tattoo needles begin to pierce his skin, to know that at least this part of Steve Rogers is still the same as he ever was.