"There's a group of people who are very interested in speaking with you and in hearing what you have to say," Sam said to Steve, a few weeks after the fall of SHIELD. "And I say this as a friend, but I think it might do you good to talk to them."
"Who are they?" Steve asked warily. "Because I'm not going back into the military, Sam, I don't want anything to do with SHIELD, even new SHIELD, and the Avengers are great but they're not what I'd call therapeutic, and they have my cell number. It's not a survivor group of some kind, is it?"
"No," Sam said, grinning. "It's the academics."
The National Association of North American Historians conference (NA-NAH -- Steve might have laughed) actually turned out to be a great time, at least initially.
Steve didn't have a lot of experience with higher education, and this was very high education indeed, but that meant most of the people he met were either calm about being in the presence of Captain America or so distracted by other concerns that they didn't notice him. He went to the opening keynote breakfast, attended a morning session on questioning revisionist history, and had lunch with Sam and two nice historians who were experts in the revolutionary war era and thus not that interested in him. They were interested in arguing about the Constitution, which Steve enjoyed a lot, so that was fun.
"You know, you and Sam held your own," one of them said, at the end of lunch.
"You sound surprised," he replied.
"Well, the image one gets is a little more roughneck than you turned out to be. You know, trench soldiers..." she shrugged. "Sorry I misjudged you both. Have you ever considered going back to school?"
"Not really," Steve said. "Don't know what I'd do with a college degree."
"It's not the having, it's the getting," she replied. "Though I think you'd make a good lawyer."
"I can't even imagine," Steve said, because he could, and knew she was very wrong.
"Well, if you change your mind, call me, I can get you a face-to-face with Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania."
Steve took her business card; on the front was her name and contact information. And on the back was UPenn Admissions -- or if you want to have dinner sometime and her personal phone number.
"Nice," Sam said, leaning over his shoulder as he studied the card. "Historians are wild."
"What's next on the schedule?" Steve asked, blushing.
"Well, I'm going to 19th Century Civil Disobedience," Sam said.
"Ooh," Steve managed, eyes lighting up. "Like Coxey's Army? Let's do that!"
The next day started off really well...
They'd asked Steve to do a TEDTalk as the breakfast entertainment, and he'd watched a lot of those in the last two years, so he knew what was expected. Besides, all the bond sales shows had turned him into a pretty decent public speaker, as it turned out. He did fifteen minutes on "The Most Surprising Thing About The 21st Century", which probably would have really messed him up a year ago, but which now he even managed to joke about, a little. It helped that Sam was in the audience, a reassuring face in the crowd.
That morning, however, he was scheduled for a two-hour Q&A, which the organizers of the conference had concieved of as "Ask Captain America, 1922-1944". It was standing room only by the time he took his seat. He would have felt more comfortable in a room full of enemy combatants, really. At least then he'd know what was coming.
He'd spent some time thinking about what people might ask, and he'd given the organizers some ground rules -- no personal questions about the men and women in his unit, no questions about anything post-1944 including his opinions of historical events he wasn't witness to, and he had the right to refuse to answer anything that was classified.
The first half went all right; it was all pre-submitted questions asked by a moderator, sometimes with follow-ups from the moderator for clarification. They'd screened them carefully, and he was able to answer most without issue. What are your recollections of this battle? What do you remember of social attitudes towards the Bund during the prewar era? How aware were you and your fellow soldiers of the realities of the concentration camps, later in the war? They were hard questions, but not difficult ones.
The second half was meant to be follow-up questions from the audience, live, a queue of earnest historians snaking up one aisle, with a microphone at the head. And that got...perilous.
So many of the questions seemed to be sly angling, baiting even, for a controversial statement or for personal gossip or for something that might be extrapolated from history to the present. A few were genuine scholarly questions...but a lot were not. And it made him tired, and it started to make him angry, that his offered resource was being poked and prodded in tender places he hadn't agreed to reveal.
And finally, one guy in coke-bottle glasses and a ponytail said, "What do you think would have happened if Hitler had won the war?"
Steve felt his mind blank out for a second, as though those words strung together couldn't possibly be in English.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked.
"There's been a lot of speculation about what would have happened if Hitler had won the war," the man said. "I was wondering what your thoughts were on it. What kind of world do you think you would have come back to?"
"Are you...are you seriously asking me that question?" Steve asked, and he could hear the anger in his voice but he couldn't seem to modulate it. "I fought a war to ensure that didn't happen and you want me to...play pretend about it? You want me to ignore the deaths of millions of civilians and soldiers for a, what, a thought experiment?"
The man seemed to understand he was in way over his head; he just stood at the microphone, gaping. Steve could tell people were filming him, filming both of them with a thousand tiny phone cameras, but his frustration had hit a very fine-tipped breaking point.
"I just came from uprooting a Nazi conspiracy on American soil," he said. "So let me tell you a few things about it. First, Hitler was a terrible military leader. He was lucky and he preyed on the weak and he broke treaties; he was a bully, and that's why he got as far as he did. Second, if he'd won, and I'd be interested in hearing your definition of winning because he damn sure didn't have the mental capacity to actually invade and hold America, he would have rotted his own empire from the inside out. Third, you want to hear a fairy story about evil winning? Shall we talk about US foreign policy since the war?"
There was a ripple through the audience when he said that, and it was enough to bring him back down at least far enough to bite his tongue.
"I think I'm finished for today," he said carefully. "Thank you all for coming. I'm sorry I didn't get to everyone's question."
He set the microphone on the stool and backed away, turning to shuffle behind the panels that had been set up to create a makeshift "backstage" and slipping out the door, into the network of corridors that backed onto the conference rooms. Sam was a beat behind him.
"Jesus," Steve swore, leaning back against the wall.
"Well, that's gonna make YouTube," Sam said.
"You know what's funny? That's exactly what was going through my head as I said it all," Steve said. "What if Hitler won, are you kidding me? Oh shit, I'm going viral as we speak."
"Could have been worse. Like, you could have choked a baby."
"Thanks," Steve said, and Sam smiled and offered him a water bottle. "How much time did I just take off the session?"
"It would have been over in a few minutes anyway," Sam said. "You want to go get some lunch?"
"Yes. Yes I do," Steve said. "Somewhere far away from the hotel so that when I start to feel ashamed of losing my temper, you're my only witness."
Sam was opening his mouth to reply when someone said, "Captain!" in a surprised voice.
Steve turned, automatically; there was a woman in the hallway, wearing a NA-NAH (still a little funny) convention ID lanyard, leaning lightly on a cane and looking startled to see him.
"Is the session over already?" she asked, looking disappointed.
"We had to end a little early," Steve said. "How did you -- "
"I was presenting," she said, pointing over her shoulder at another conference room's exit. "Sort of sparse attendance, hard to be up against a Q&A by someone who literally lived through world war two. But it was my first conference presenting, so..." she shrugged.
"Sorry to pull your audience -- they probably would have enjoyed yours more, in the end," Steve replied.
"I don't know, a survey of cinema in America is a little niche for this crowd anyway," she said. "I let out early myself, I was hoping to slip into the Q&A."
"Sorry we ended early," Steve mumbled, already beginning to feel regret at his outburst wash over him.
"It's all right, I just had a question or two -- "
" -- I really can't answer any more questions today -- " Steve began, but she finished before he could interrupt.
" -- about your movies," she said.
Steve had been half-turned away, ready to bolt, but he stopped. And then he turned back.
"My movies?" he asked, confused.
"Yes. Broadly, critical analysis of cinema is my field -- well, I mean, really broadly, rhetoric, but I've been focusing on the rhetoric of propaganda in film, including composition structures and...that's a whole lecture I could give, but I won't," she said. "Sorry, you must be so tired of questions -- "
"You study movies?" he asked her. She nodded. "People can study movies in college?" he asked Sam.
"It's kind of a huge thing now," Sam said.
"You can get a college degree in movies," Steve repeated.
"Well, technically English, at least in my case, but yeah, basically," she said. He could see the moment she decided to push her luck. "And I have so many questions about your films, they're such a weird little niche in American military propaganda and very poorly documented...a firsthand account of the directors and the context of the cinematography would be so fascinating. Look, if you don't want to talk right now I get that, or, um, ever, but if I can give you my card..."
Sam actually was the one to hold out his hand and block her from offering it. He glanced at Steve, who was still starry-eyed over the idea of a college degree in movies, and said, "How about you come get some lunch with us?"
"So, that's seriously why we never see you face-front or in left profile in the film?" Alexi asked, about forty minutes later. "He spent his entire time shooting around your left side?"
"I swear to God, he thought I had a lazy eye," Steve said. "I've never seen it but...well, they told him to make me look perfect and I guess he had issues."
"People have been theorizing about some kind of directional orientation -- right equals correct, left equals evil..."
"Nope. Guy thought I was unattractive on the left," Steve said, picking at the last of his seaweed salad.
"Wow. Can I quote you? Because nobody's going to believe me otherwise."
"Sure, I guess. People really think this kind of thing is important?" he asked.
"Don't you?" Alexi said with a smile. "You seem very interested in film studies."
"I love movies, I've always loved movies. I just never thought you could take them apart the way you do," Steve said. Sam was watching him, grinning.
"We see at least two movies in the cinema a week," Sam said. "God forbid anything get between Steve Rogers and his Thursday night double-feature at the local multiplex."
"I've been trying to catch up on all the movies I missed, too, but Sam's TIVO only holds so much," Steve added. "My Netflix queue is basically, uh, Netflix."
"Except the trashy Hitler documentaries," Sam added.
"No love for the theory that Hitler was an alien?" Alexi asked, eyes sparkling.
"Not so much," Steve agreed, but for the first time, a question about the war didn't rub him the wrong way. "It's awfully nice to be asked about something else."
"Good, because I'd love to hear more sometime," she said. "I need to get back to the conference, I'm sure you do too..."
"I think I might bail on the rest of the day," Steve said, glancing at Sam, who nodded. "It's exhausting."
"You don't need to tell me," Alexi agreed. "I'll probably go back to my room and rest, there's not much of interest for me this afternoon. Might rewatch some of your movies, actually, now that I have some notes."
"You said you never actually saw most of the movies you did," Sam said to Steve.
"I went to two of the openings, but the rest I never actually got to see, especially the ones they released after I went overseas," Steve said.
"You should come watch. I've got all of them on my computer," she said.
"Could we?" Steve asked.
"Are you kidding? Live DVD commentary by Steve Rogers? I'll buy the snacks," Alexi said.
They walked back to the hotel, Steve bubbling with enthusiasm; she gave them her room number and went upstairs to set up while Steve and Sam (insistently, over her objections) raided the hotel gift shop for candy and peanuts and bags of microwave popcorn. By the time they arrived, the sofa in the little hotel room was packed with students, and there were two historians Alexi introduced as "they promise to behave themselves" sitting on one of the beds.
Steve settled on the floor in front of the couch, microwave popcorn bag in one hand, Sam leaned up against his shoulder with a box of Whoppers.
"So, we've all seen these movies before," Alexi said, as she plugged her laptop into the television. "Steve, please feel free to talk over it as much as you like. Anyone who has questions can save them up and send them to you later."
"Oh, I -- I don't mind," Steve said. "About the movies. You can ask if you want."
Alexi started up the film, and Steve was filled with immediate nostalgia. "Oh, I remember this one," he said. "We started filming the day I got to California with the Star Spangled Show, and I had to leave set early to do the matinee show..."
Sam handed him the StarkPad he'd fetched from their rooms, and between comments and explanations, Steve quietly googled going to college on the GI bill and studying the movies in college.
"So, I could go to film school," Steve said. "Mostly for free. Do you think they'd let me into NYU? Seems like they got a pretty good program."
Everyone looked at him. Most of them incredulous.
"I think you'd have a good shot," Sam said drily.
A few months later, two thick packets arrived in the mail for Steve simultaneously. The first, when he opened it, was his orientation packet for Tisch, as a part-time student on the GI bill.
Steve set it aside and tore into the second one excitedly; it was from a small school in the south, and it was addressed to Captain Hollywood.
He shook the contents out of the envelope, setting the folded up letter aside for the moment and sitting down at the kitchen table.
"Whatcha get?" Sam asked, coming into the kitchen for a bottle of juice.
"Alexi finished her paper, it just got accepted for publication," he said.
Sam leaned over his shoulder. "Got Good At Throwing Fake Grenades: Contextual Interpretation Of Propaganda in War-Era Captain America Cinema" he read. "That's a mouthful."
"They're all like that," Steve said. "She's been sending me links to scholarly articles about propaganda films. I can't wait to read it."
"You want me to pop some popcorn?" Sam teased, but Steve gave him a serious, hopeful look. "Ah, man, pop your own if you're spending all afternoon buried in critical theory."
"Maybe I will," Steve said, dignified, and set the paper aside while he went to the stove to cook some up. "Maybe I'll make movies someday," he called to Sam, who was settling in the living room with a book. "Make a movie about you, maybe."
"I'll buy you a beret and a cigarette holder, so you'll look fancy while doing it," Sam called back. "I'm ready for my close-up, Captain Rogers."
Steve laughed as the popcorn began to pop. "Just you wait, Wilson. I'm gonna learn all the fancy words and symbols and make the Great American Movie, see if I don't."
"I believe you could," Sam said. "I guess NYU does too. Will you be okay looking for Barnes and going to school at the same time?"
Steve nodded. "I talked to my professors. Alexi suggested I bring a camera along when we go. Make it into a documentary for credit, to make up for when I miss class."
Sam leaned into the kitchen, frowning. "I know that voice. That's the voice you use when you're about to suggest something crazy."
"Well," Steve said guiltily.
"What'd you do, Rogers?" Sam asked.
Steve took the popcorn off the stove and poured it into a bowl, shaking salt over it.
"Would you be willing," he said, carefully not looking at Sam, "to wear a Go Pro when you're in the air?"
Sam's peals of laughter were only interrupted when Steve started throwing popcorn at him.