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the lions

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It’s not that life isn't good.

The future—or the present, as it stands—is great. The food is excellent. Messaging is instant. Movies are in 3D. Steve is only one medical miracle of many. Hell, even the grime of New York in the twenty-first century is nicer than the oppressive, near-constant stink of growing up in the thirties.

No, it's not that the world is any worse. It's far better than Steve could have ever hoped for. It's better than what he ever fought for.

The twenty-first century world is great.

Steve was just lonely as hell.

---

Excluding S.H.I.E.L.D. co-workers and his superpowered Avengers colleagues, Steve really only has two friends, outside of the other senior citizens he runs into on his regular weekend strolls through Prospect Park.

One was a recently reformed ex-Russian spy with an unsettling sense of humor, emotional walls impenetrable as the Iron Curtain, and a habit of disappearing without warning or explanation for months at a time.

The other was about the closest thing one could be to normal, as far as superhero vigilantes go. He even had a stable, serious day job. The only caveat was he lived five hours away in Washington, D.C., and was fiercely loyal to his hometown—meaning he could only ever put up with Steve’s nonsense on long weekends or the occasional low-key reconnaissance mission.

It was because of one of those rare long weekends that friend two of two—one Sam Wilson, retired pararescue, current VA therapist, all-around great guy—was visiting Steve. It was nice, having someone over, filling the quiet spaces Steve had gotten just a little too accustomed to. It felt right. Steve's apartment was always too big and too empty without someone else in it.

Even with Sam visiting, Steve woke early, getting up long before dawn, before even New York City was fully awake. He dressed quickly, pulling on his favorite pair of joggers and his sleek athletic hoodie through muscle memory alone. Sam was fast asleep in his guest bedroom, snoring into his pillow, still probably exhausted from the drive. Steve smiled to himself when he saw Sam in passing, the door cracked open just slightly. As much as he wanted a partner, Steve wouldn't wake him—not because he knew Sam would refuse, but because he had a feeling Sam wouldn’t. Alone as usual, Steve peeled out of his apartment and into the still-dark streets, slipping into a familiar rhythm with each snap of his shoes against pavement.

Small as it was, Steve was grateful for his routine and the bare-bones structure that it offered. No matter how bizarre and surreal his work life might have been, he could always rely on that regular morning beat: the sunrise peeking over the skyline, Morning Edition as his background noise, and breakfast on the way home. He was even starting to recognize other runners on his routes. They weren't friends, but they were familiar faces. Stability. Distant comrades, of sorts, all united as unofficial partners on those early-morning runs.

That was another plus of living in New York City in the future, another thing Steve could put on the mental tally he considered his unofficial List of Good 21st Century Things. If he wanted to go for a run, he could just step outside in some athletic shoes and go. No one would stop him, no one would look at him funny, and so long as he kept his routes messy and his pace steady, no one would so much as bat an eye. All he had to do was put his earbuds in, pull his hood up, and Captain America could melt into anonymity, if only just for a few precious hours. And after it all, after the seventy years of sleep and the alien attacks and becoming a living legend, those hours were precious, indeed.

Steve wraps up his run a little early with Sam visiting, and makes his way back to his apartment just a few minutes past seven-thirty, right as the work rush was just starting to get into full swing. He'd grabbed breakfast quickly on the way home, one of the first people in line when the corner bagel place opened, having quickly learned that showing up any later would mean he wouldn’t be home for at least another hour if he wanted to get breakfast. And he would. He barely has his shoes off and his earbuds out when his stomach growls loudly, sounding like an angry, demanding beast. Steve grabs one of his bagels and bites into it hungrily, taking out a huge chunk of bagel in one bite, looking just as monstrous and obscene as his stomach sounded.

One of the tradeoffs for a supersoldier metabolism: he either had to eat a ton, or he was always going to be hungry. It was just another part of his routine, another aspect of the strange reality he was coming to terms with.

"Lox and cream cheese for breakfast?" calls Sam's familiar voice from the hallway, sudden, but not an unwelcome shock. Steve brightens immediately, perking up as he turns towards Sam. "You really are a hipster, dude."

Steve just barely manages to remember to swallow his mouthful of salmon and cheese first, before he grins at Sam in his excitement. Manners, Rogers, he tells himself. No one wants to see that, especially this early in the morning.

"Look who it is! Conveniently just after I get home from my run," he says, tossing a smaller, less fishy bagel bag towards Sam, underhand this time. Steve learned from past mistakes. He still underestimates his supersoldier strength even seventy years after the serum, and he doesn't want bagel exploding all over his ceiling. Again. "Finally decided to wake up today?"

"Hey now. Be nice to me. Just drove in from D.C., I don't need to be running anywhere, thank you. What’re you trying to do, getting me up before dawn, really. Get outta here," Sam says, as he peeks inside the bag. His demeanor changes instantly once he sees what's inside.

"Egg white and bacon on asiago?” Sam asks, looking like Steve got him a puppy.

“Yup,” Steve says, grabbing another lox bagel.

“I take that back. Rogers. You're alright,” says Sam. He takes a bite of the sandwich and all but moans. Steve raises his eyebrows at Sam, but he smiles at him, still, huffing out a little snort of a laugh as he does. When Sam speaks again, after taking a quiet little moment to chew slowly and thoughtfully, he’s waving his breakfast around like it's the best thing he's seen since the Starkphone. "That! Now that is a damn good bagel sandwich, right there."

"Got a box of coffee, too," Steve says, as if anything could compare to Sam's delight over egg white, bacon, and cheese. Sam is clearly having a romantic moment with his bagel sandwich, but he makes a happy little noise when he sees the coffee box.

"What did I do to deserve you?" he sighs, dreamily.

"Didn't go for a run, that's for sure," Steve says, pouring himself a cup of coffee from the box. It's strong and full-bodied. Not the watery stuff that needs sugar and cream and caramel-whatevers. As much as he loves sugary, creamy, caramel-whatevers, Steve misses a good, quality cup of ungarnished coffee. He takes mental note: go back to the bagel place more often.

Sam shoots him a look. "I was talking to the bagel, Rogers."

Steve throws his head back and barks out a laugh. It's short, and it's nothing like his full-on, chest-grabbing laugh from his time with the Howlies, but it's a full-body gesture, and it's real. It's been a while since he laughed like that.

It's been a while since he's laughed at all, outside of soft little huffs and warm, half-genuine smiles.

"I'll be here all week. Well, all week until Tuesday," Sam says, bowing.

"Come on," Steve says, warmly, "let's sit down. Before one of us spills something."

They talk for a while. About work—real work, Sam’s work; about Avengers business, about co-worker gossip and Steve's never-ending list of crucial hallmarks of pop culture he needs to catch up on. The Notebook of What I Missed makes a reappearance, and Sam appraises each update like he's The New York Times' top culture critic. Breakfast stretches into eight, then eight thirty, then early into nine. The box of coffee is half-emptied by the time they settle down into their chairs, finally, for the moment, having run out of things to say.

For a second, Steve feels at peace.  

"Look, Steve, I—" Sam starts, voice going soft and serious, though not unkind. Steve's heart drops immediately. That voice he was using was his work voice. Steve knows Sam will never admit it, no matter how much it's so plainly true, but that voice is. It's the voice Sam only ever uses it when he wants to talk about uncomfortable truths.

Steve shifts uncomfortably in his seat, suddenly feeling under scrutiny. He tucks his notebook into his hoodie pocket, as if to grab that warmth that filled their conversation so recently and hoard it away, as if to wrap his heart with it and brace himself for what they both knew was coming.

"I'm not gonna mince words here. Nat and I—" Sam continues, "—we're worried about you, dude."

And this. This is an uncomfortable truth. It's an uncomfortable truth that's clear—blatant, even. But Steve doesn't want to talk about it. That's about the last thing he wants to do.

"Oh, is that why you came to visit me? Come on, Sam," he replies casually, brushing the subject off in expert Steve Rogers fashion, "You know me. I'm indestructible. You don't need to be worried about me."

"I came to visit you because I'm your friend, Steve, and I missed seeing you. This isn't the only reason I came to visit you," Sam says, his voice just on the edge between professional and tense. "But there's been some—concern. I do have to worry about you, Steve. That’s the thing. You say I don't need to, but as your colleague and your friend, I do."

Steve opens his mouth to say something, but Sam continues before he can get a word out.

"Look, Steve. You've been taking a lot of risks lately. You throw yourself into things without thinking, use your body as a wrecking ball, you nearly got yourself killed taking down Hydra. If I hadn't been there to catch you when you fell from the Lumerian Star—"

He trails off, the weight of what if hanging heavy in the air. He doesn't dare say what might have been. Neither does Steve. Not when he knows about Sam's history. Not when he knows about Riley. For once in his life, Steve bites his pugnacious little tongue and lets his friend speak. Sam takes a deep breath, heaving a huge sigh before continuing.

"I know you don't wanna talk about your feelings. I know you like to keep it all to yourself. Don't think I don't see it. Don't think Nat doesn't see it. But it's getting to the point, Steve, that these risks—they're getting to a point where we're concerned. We're getting to the point we think it might be something else."

They sit in silence for a second, parsing their thoughts.

"Sam," Steve says eventually, his voice low and serious, "Please understand this. I do what I need to do, I take risks like that, because people will die otherwise. They didn't experiment on me and make me this—this unbreakable thing—for nothing. I take these risks because I can. Because it's my responsibility to. It's why Erksine chose me for the serum—it's why Erksine made me this in the first place. I have to be willing to take risks to do good, Sam. If I didn't, I'd be another—I don't know, dancing monkey. Or worse, I'd be a lab rat. What's the alternative? Who's the alternative? You know I can't let it be you."

"I know, Steve. I know. But you need to take care of yourself, too. You've gotta do something when you're hurting. Natasha and I, both of us—I do mean both of us, as much as she won't say anything—we're worried about you. And we have no clue what we'd do if—if we found ourselves without you. In-field and off the job. Especially off the job, dude," Sam says, sounding like he's straining to keep his voice level, "Don't let your sense of duty and justice make you forget that you sometimes need help. If you're hurting, if this has been going on a long time—just recognize that sometimes it's your duty to take care of yourself first."

Steve sighs. It's quiet again, and this time, the silence lasts for a while. For a long while. Neither Steve nor Sam looks the other in the eye. Neither makes an effort to say anything. They both realize that they need time to compose themselves. They both need time to warm up to ideas, for their emotions to cool. 

"Alright. Alright," Steve says, his tone conciliatory and—surprisingly, even to himself—full of exhaustion. Sam looks up at him carefully. He's holding his coffee in both hands, as a warm little tether to keep him from going tense. "Professional opinion, then. What do you think I need?"

"I'm not here in a professional capacity. But for starters, I think you need to open up more. To your friends. And—also—to a specialist who could help you. We can only do so much for you, Steve," Sam says, leaning back. "And along with that, I think you need to do things. Not for other people. Not because you have to. For you. You need—I dunno, a hobby."

A hobby. Steve turns the idea over in his mind. There's nothing wrong with getting a hobby. It sure as hell wouldn't hurt.

"Yeah. Okay. Alright. I guess I can take up a hobby," Steve replies.

Sam hums, voice intentionally level. "So is that a no to the therapy thing?"

"I—I had to go to therapy for a while, right after they unfroze me. Stopped going after a while, since I didn't think it was for me. But I'll check back on that. See if there's anyone they referred me to who didn't turn out to be a secret sleeper agent," Steve replies, suddenly feeling the full weight of exhaustion on him at once.

"Well. That's a start. And I know some good people here in the city, if S.H.I.E.L.D.'s people don't work out for you,” Sam says, relief bleeding into that professionally kind tone. “But for now, let's look at getting you set up with a hobby. So. What do you like to do?"

And isn't that the million-dollar question.

"Guh—I dunno," Steve says, feeling like he'd been blindsided. He rubs his face with his hand. "I mean. I like to box. I like to run. I like being active. Those are hobbies, right?"

"Okay, no. Not just because I know you're going to literally run me into the ground," Sam says, and there's a little smile there. It's tight. Their conversation is still underpinned by deathly seriousness, after all. But it's there. "But because you need an outlet outside of that, as much as I know you like to do those things. You need something entirely positive. Something that you haven't used to wear yourself to exhaustion before. Something that won't run the risk of being—"

"Destructive?" Steve asks, self-depreciating, in classic Steve Rogers style.

"—I was gonna say over the top," Sam says, "But that works, too."

Steve snorts, a little huff of a laugh. It's nothing like the comfortable bark of a full-body laugh from earlier, but it eases their conversation's tension, still. Sam, in spite of himself, in spite of how serious he's trying to be, smiles too.

"I'm serious, though. You need your own hobby, Steve. Something outside of being Cap. Something where you take care of you. And don't tell me working out isn't just another way to push yourself into exhaustion, because you and I both know it's true."

"I—okay. Fine,“ Steve starts. He sighs, chewing his lip. “I mean. I guess I like to paint?"

The fact that Steve was an artist, once, wasn't included in most history textbooks. Most people didn't even pay attention to it. From what Steve could tell, historians saw it as more of a "fun fact" than anything of any sort of real importance, as important as it was to him.

But it wasn't unknown. There was even a little section about his art in the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian, wedged between a recreation of his first apartment and an exhibit about his childhood.

Somehow still, it feels silly to admit, like repeating his wildest, most impossible childhood dreams. Steve might as well be saying that he wishes he'd grown up to be a dragon or a Rockefeller, with how ridiculous he feels. Somehow, admitting he was superhuman had become easier than admitting he was an artist.

Sam doesn't seem to see it that way. He just nods, seemingly taking Steve's reply completely seriously.

"See, that's good. Now we're getting somewhere. What do you like to paint? Landscapes, people, abstract stuff?"

"Well—everything, I guess," Steve replies, ducking his head. "I mean. I wanted to be a famous painter, a long time ago. Did everything I could to save up to go to art school. Painted signs, taught lessons to rich ladies uptown, did little sketches in the park for change when the weather was nice and I wasn't sick, you name it. And then the war happened, and well. You know how that goes."

"So no art since before the war?" Sam asks, and his curiosity is completely earnest. Steve shakes his head.

"Not really. I mean—I bought a sketchbook, just as a thing to do, but. Haven't even filled two pages of it."

Sam pats him on the shoulder and smiles. "In that case—maybe it's time you start."

"Yeah," Steve says, feeling a little less heavy and a little more hopeful at the same time, "Maybe it is."

---

Starting again hit a snag very early on, because as it turned out, Sam knew next to nothing about art supplies. 

His intentions were good. His heart was in the right place, and he'd done his best. But while Sam’s never-ending knowledge of music extended up to knowing the ins and outs of most instruments, even Steve knew, with his limited knowledge of art in the twenty-first century, that the paint that Sam showed him on their Target run wasn't going to cut it.

Which is how they end up at the Blick store on a sunny Friday afternoon, shuffling through the aisles and dodging tired-looking art school students who were desperately looking for last-minute supplies for their final projects.

It almost makes Steve jealous.

"Seriously?" Sam hisses quietly, as Steve picks out his brushes, "$23.99 for one brush? I can buy like, four packs of brushes for the same price at Target."

"You're complaining to the guy who grew up during the Depression," Steve says, "Don't think these prices ain't hurting me. But if I'm gonna want them to last, I gotta get stuff that's quality. You know?"

Sam huffs. "I know like, in theory, you're right, but this little thing of paint is almost thirty dollars."

Steve hums in response and goes back to looking at brushes.

Art supply stores, Steve concludes, are their own sort of gift; sanctuaries with fluorescent lights. He feels both curious and content in the Blick store. If it weren't for residual guilt from spending so much on things so unnecessary to survive, Steve would have bought a little bit of everything so he could try everything.

But that guilt was powerful to a guy who grew up sick and poor during the worst financial crisis in all of modern history.

When they go to ring out, Steve ends up spending what would have been several months' rent worth on art supplies. As far as art supplies goes, he knows he's not getting off bad. But it's still a lot. It still earns a little pained noise when the cashier rattles off his total. He doesn’t even look at the screen when he slides his card through the machine.

“You good?” Sam asks, once they’re outside of the store, having said their thank-yous and posed for the obligatory I can’t believe I rang up Captain America and the Falcon selfie. He has a small bag hooked around his elbow and carries some of the larger, lightweight supplies at odd angles, clearly trying to figure out the best way to make their trek home. 

“Maybe,” Steve sighs, trying to think about things other than how much he spent, before the guilt begins to bubble up in his stomach again. Instead, he forces himself to think about the act of making art again. He tries to remember back to the old days, when he wore his charcoals down to dust and when art school was a vague and attainable almost. He remembers how happy he was to create, even when he was painting signs, even when he was drawing dirty comics.

He thinks that maybe, he can be that happy again.

Sure, he still hurts now. And sure, the amount of money he spent was unprecedented. But he has a hobby now, a hobby that made him so happy before. It might not be his livelihood, but he has something now, when the ache cuts too deep and the world is too loud and bright.

And that's a win, if there ever were one.

"So," Sam says eventually, as they wait for the next train, having somehow maneuvered through the turnstiles with two medium-sized canvases in tow. His handle on them is still awkward, but he seems to have accepted it, and his voice is light. "You gonna paint me like one of your French girls?"

"Still haven't seen that movie," Steve says, grinning smugly when Sam groans and goes into a speech about cinematic masterpieces.

---

It isn't until he starts blocking time only to make art that Steve fully realizes how much he's missed it.

His daily routine expanded. He runs in the mornings and gets breakfast on the way home. He listens to WNYC. He reports to Avengers Tower whenever he's called. And now, he paints, whenever he has the energy, taking an hour of the day just to create.

He's still sad. He's still lonely. He still misses his own time, his own world, and the people he accidentally left behind seventy years ago. But at the very least, he's got something to channel that frustration and loneliness into. At least he has a way to get it out that doesn't leave his knuckles bruised and his lungs burning.

Sam was right. He was doing better, marginally so, now that he picked up a hobby.

Therapy, he was still building up the courage to call about. He couldn't even think about the courage it would take to start going. Not yet. That would be in time.

But painting again, drawing again, making again—that, at least, Steve could do.

---

"What do you know about Instagram?" Steve asks. It’s three and a half weeks after his first visit to the Blick store. They're in her apartment, going over paperwork from their last mission over red wine and greasy Chinese food. Natasha turns to him, slowly, as if she was still processing what she heard.

"Why do you want to know?" she asks, innocently, but not without hesitation. "You don't seem like an Instagram sort of celebrity."

"I was painting in the park today, and some other artists saw. They really liked my stuff. Didn't even realize I was Captain America until about five minutes into talking to me," Steve says, "Said I should post on Instagram. Show off what I can do."

Natasha considers the idea for a second. She tilts her head upwards and to the right, gazing at a spot of nothingness in the upper right-hand corner of the room. She was considering the options, playing out the best and worst scenarios all the way through.

"You can," is what she settles on, eventually, "But you need to be careful about it. It's not all cat videos and Wikipedia out there."

"I wasn't under the impression it was," Steve replies, immediately realizing how foolishly self-confident he sounded as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "But I—I don't think I can do this without some help. From you."

She preens a little at that.

"Okay. Since you're coming to me here, in my home, on bended knee, I think I'll help you, Rogers," she says, holding out her hand. "Give me your phone."

Steve does so, tentatively. "Don't—don't do anything weird to it."

"I'm not, I'm not," Natasha dismisses, settling her phone next to his, "Just making sure it's secure. Then we can make your account."

He doesn’t understand what she does, quickly tapping away and pulling up a screen full of strange text. She’s smart as hell and clearly knows what she’s doing, and he doesn’t question her—but it would be nice to know what was happening. Almost as quickly as she started, Natasha is finishing up, re-pocketing her own phone and pulling away from the lines of strange, cryptic code on Steve’s.

"And there," she says, though she doesn’t hand it back to him. She restarts the device, and when the screen hums back to life, after the familiar Stark Industries logo, a new logo pops up, if only briefly: a smiling cartoon of a redheaded girl, her hair pulled back into a tight ballerina bun. His phone is protected now, tirelessly guarded by cartoon Natasha herself. "Safe and sound. Just don't follow any suspicious links or give your passwords and location to anyone."

“So I’m on Instagram now?” Steve asks. Natasha shakes her head.

“Installing it as we speak,” she says, “What do you want your username to be?”

“Uh—I dunno,“ Steve says. He hadn’t quite thought that far. “How about something simple? Maybe—I dunno. Just my initials. That’s good enough, right?”

“Good enough,” Natasha says, her voice flat. Steve can’t tell if she’s joking. He hardly ever can when it comes to these things. She finishes typing with a little flourish, handing Steve’s phone back to him with a newly-created Instagram profile page.

His profile is completely blank, but it brims with promise. There isn’t even a description there; just a placeholder for a profile image and Steve’s lonely username. sgr_art, simple enough for what Steve was wanting to do.

“Oh,” he says, “Neat.”

“Fill out your profile. Just a few words about yourself and what you want to do. A mission statement. Then we put your art on there,” Natasha says, leaning in close and guiding Steve as he taps away on a concise little bio. “Oh, and don’t use your real name.”

“Not even just Steve?” he asks. She shakes her head. “Why not?”

“Just trust me. It’s an extra layer of safety. No one really uses their real names on anything anymore, anyway.”

He shrugs and fills his name in as Grant. It’s not like anyone would be any wiser, anyway.

Grant

Part-time illustrator. Brooklyn, NYC.

He re-reads that two-line bio. It feels distant, impersonal, and as much as Natasha made a point to be careful what he shares, Steve is uncomfortable with how robotic it feels. He shakes his head and goes back to edit it, deleting and revising the offending characters quickly.

Grant

Part-time illustrator, getting back in the game. Big fan of the Dodgers, coffee, and art history. Just a kid from Brooklyn.

That feels better. More like he’s a person—more like there’s a personality behind the screen. Steve looks to Natasha, and she nods.

“Getting the hang of it already,” she says, proudly, “Next thing you know, you’ll be selling watches and fancy juices and little leggings.”

“What?” Steve asks, and Natasha shakes her head, smiling at her own joke.

“Nothing, nothing. It’s a—you wouldn’t get it. Instagram thing,” she says. Steve thinks to ask more, but she pivots quickly. Almost as quick as Steve. “Post your first picture. Then I can teach you the ancient art of the hashtag.”

“Right, right. First picture,” Steve says, letting out a deep breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Not a selfie though, right?”

“Absolutely not,” Natasha says, swilling her wine about.

“Okay. Art. Not a selfie. Right,” Steve says, and it sounds so stupid, now that he thinks about it. He swipes through his photos, looking for his favorite piece he’s made in those short weeks re-discovering his flow; it’s the artistic equivalent of trying to put his best foot forward while painfully underdressed. Almost everything is unfinished or just dull—bowls of fruit, landscapes of the park, skylines. Just as he’s about to give up, he finds something promising: a sketch, messy and loose, but full of emotion and a good preview of his real work.

And the fact that it’s of Peggy doesn’t hurt.

“This one,” Steve says, tapping on the photo, the sketch of Peggy coming into full view, “This is the one I wanna post.”

“You sure?” Natasha asks, in that usual level tone of hers.

“Yeah,” Steve says, more of reassurance for him than for her, “I’m ready. Let’s do this.”