“A symbol of the nation. A hero to the world. The story of Captain America is one of honor, bravery, and sacrifice.”
Standing outside the Smithsonian Air and Space building, Steve can hear the announcer clearly. He’s dressed in Public Clothes today, a light jacket, tight T-shirt, somewhat formfitting jeans, and a blue cap pulled low. He’s found that the tighter his clothes, the less likely people are to look him in the face, too distracted by his body.
Despite his statuesque physique, they usually don’t connect him to Captain America—he’s thinner in their minds, proportions all out of sorts; his waist is practically non-existent, his chest too wide to fit through doorways. In reality, it’s not that he’s not broad-shouldered or that his waist isn’t trim, but he’s not the fat-free action figure they’ve all seen on Project Rebirth photos. He’d been starving and dehydrated when those were taken.
Now, eating as well and working as hard as he does, he’s got fat on his body, his skin falls into rolls when he bends, his muscles jiggle with movement, like for all healthy people. He may be a supersoldier, but he’s human, still.
Still, he’s going to a Captain America exhibit, so there’s a higher chance of being recognized if he didn’t do a bit more to hide in plain sight. Thus, the blue cap. He also hasn’t shaved, has some nice stubble going. That should be enough.
He’s dead tired, having been haunted by nightmares and unable to break free. The phantom touch of hands on his chest and around his throat had slid from his bed like the touch of a living ghost. He hadn’t even tried the bed.
He’d have gone running at four in the damn morning if Tony hadn’t called him, demanding facetime. Tony’s got some sort of radar for when Steve’s having a particularly bad night and almost always gets a call through. They’ve grown quite close since Steve dropped everything and sat vigil by Tony’s bedside after the whole thing with the Mandarin and the subsequent chest surgery last Christmas—even if Steve only lasted a week. You try being cooped up with a bored, restless, healing Tony who most definitely does not appreciate being seen as weak but also desperately wants the comfort.
Neither of them are good at talking about how they feel, so Steve’d just let Tony ramble on the phone. “My first word was ‘dad’, you know,” Tony had said, eyes on whatever he was picking apart in his workshop. Despite insisting on facetime, he never actually looks Steve in the eye. “But I wasn’t calling for my father.”
After, Steve’d managed a nap after and dreamed of his Ma’s empty apartment, then his own back in Brooklyn. And now, he’s here. Not really ready to face the day, but determined to do it, nonetheless.
Why they put this exhibit in the Air and Space building is anyone’s guess. The one and only time he’d actively had anything to do with a plane had ended with him taking a seventy-year nap. It’s not exactly what you’d call a positive experience.
He’s not particularly keen to go in. But he promised Peggy, whom he’s seeing tomorrow. So, here he is.
Deep breaths. Steady.
He’d tried going once before but doesn’t remember much of that trip. He’d ended up in front of a letter from Bucky that Steve’d never received before going on tour with Brandt’s troupe. He’d had to leave the museum, rushing out like he was on fire. It’s the only thing clear in his mind, an unending whisper of courage was mine, and I had mystery…
To enter the Captain America section, you pass through an almost-gate of hastily erected stage-walls, one bearing a high school history book resume of Steve’s story, along with a welcome-back quote from President Ellis.
Just inside is a short hallway with a giant mural of Steve—or rather, Captain America—saluting the American flag. It’s quite lovely work; special attention has been paid to his eyes and lips in a way that feels almost adoring. Steve passes it by with his head ducked.
The exhibition proper starts with a brief look into Steve’s life before the war. The photographs—scans and originals both—must have been gathered from the Barneses’ photo albums or even Steve’s old apartment. There’s also his acceptance letter from art school, wherever the fuck they’d gotten that from.
Next, there are few pictures of him from the early days of bootcamp followed by one taken almost right after the serum injections. A pair of large screens show him in full, the little guy from Brooklyn fading into the absolute tank of a soldier. Kids and adults alike line up to compare themselves to the After image.
“Denied enlistment due to poor health, Steven Rogers was chosen for a program unique in the annals of American warfare. One that would transform him into the world’s first supersoldier,” the narrator drones on, straight out lying. Steve notes it down on his phone, determined to write a strongly worded letter when he gets home. Without S.H.I.E.L.D. finding out first, of course, or they might not allow him to.
From next to the screens, a small, Indian-looking kid is watching him tap angrily on his phone. Feeling eyes on him, Steve looks up slowly, careful not to draw attention. The boy stares, looks from Steve to the big screens now showing Captain America, then back again. His eyes bug out.
Steve lifts his finger carefully to his mouth, shushes without noise. The boy nods, then scurries off. Hopefully that’ll be the one and only encounter he has.
He walks on.
His old life now over, the next section of the exhibit briefly concerns itself with his life on the stage, then moves straight into his life in the army.
“In rare footage…” the narrator says of the screens showing him running around in the suit. It’s not fuckin’ rare. No one had been filming Steve on missions, they’d been covert for God’s sake. Every single picture of him and the Howlies had been very carefully staged and curated, not a single thing left to chance.
His old bike is exhibited, too, or at least a replica. Could’ve been one of Howard’s spares from base, who knows. It’s all faded chrome, nothing like the one he has now.
“… battle-tested, Captain America and his Howling Commandos quickly earned their stripes. Their mission, taking down HYDRA, the Nazi rogue science division…” If they’d quickly earned their stripes, why hadn’t Morita and Gabe been promoted? Hell, why hadn’t anyone but Steve? Becoming a Howlie wasn’t as much a promotion as reassignment. Monty had practically been demoted to join under Steve’s command. Another note for his angry letter.
The Howling Commandos section is by far the largest section.
A giant mural overlooks the hall, depicting Steve looking up and ahead with the Howlies fanned out on either side of him. It must be the same artists as for the entrance hall; the brush strokes are the same, the muted way it’s been colored, too. Bucky’s been given scruff—he’d have hated that, had always kept himself clean-shaven for official pictures. But then, this century has quite a different idea of Bucky than what he’d really been like.
Below the mural, mannequins wearing their signature outfits stand guard over screens showing little clips with each Howlie. They’re snippets of interviews, must have been recorded almost directly after the war. They’re all a little wild around the eyes, as if they don’t quite believe the war to be over yet.
And then, there it is.
Bucky’s little corner of the exhibit.
A large glass plate has been erected there, carrying a blow-up headshot of Bucky in black and white. It’s almost funerary, a grave marker depicting a ghost. Bucky looks gaunt, a little morose, a lot handsome. “Best friends since childhood, Bucky Barnes and Steven Rogers were inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield. Barnes is the only Howling Commando to give his life in service for his country.”
Bucky didn’t give. That implies a willing, conscious act. But these days—hell, in those days—people are always so, so willing to pretend that soldiers gladly give their lives. Like they don’t want desperately to get out, leave it all behind. Bucky hadn’t wanted to give his life. He’d wanted to go home, had wanted to be by Steve’s side.
It’s Steve’s fault that Bucky’s life was stolen from him, and he’ll never forgive himself for that.
He reads the plaque on the glass wall with single-minded intensity. From the corner of his eye, he can see the illuminated box with the letter, and he can’t go there yet, can’t bear to—wait, what did he just read? Barnes was drafted prior to Pearl Harbor 1941…
Bucky hadn’t been drafted, he’d enlisted alongside Steve. Right? He better not have been drafted. Steve will personally break open the gates of Heaven and slap the shit out of his best friend if that’s the case. He wouldn’t have hidden that from Steve, this has got to be another error. Right? Right?
On the subject of erroneous information about Bucky; what’s with this century’s obsession with him being a sex symbol? It’s not that Steve would ever disagree about his charms, but Bucky hadn’t ever been kissing on just anyone. Danced with anyone, sure, even Steve on occasion, but he’d been a good boy, more sensitive than he let on. His type might have been any girl who paid him attention for more than a hot minute, but sex had been a big deal for him.
Hell, not even in the war had he let that go entirely. Of course, Steve doesn’t know whether he went with anyone before arriving at the front himself, but Bucky sure hadn’t mentioned anyone, and everyone had been screwing like bunnies then. It wasn’t exactly as taboo as it had been in polite society.
After Steve arrived though, Bucky hadn’t sought anyone out. Hadn’t seemed to want anyone close to him, might have been haunted more by his quiet spells than he let on, hadn’t wanted to risk anyone seeing.
With Steve, Bucky had let down his guard, had taught him to kiss in an alley, in a tent, in a forest in Austria. Had let Steve see his face when he came, had let him hear his moans.
It’s been such a long time, hasn’t it? Feels like forever, a dream of another life.
Then, there’s the letter.
Steve stands in front of it, wishing he could break open the display case and make off with it, keep it from prying eyes. It had been delivered just after Steve’d left their apartment for the last time in 1943. Bucky’d mentioned it once during the war, just, “did you get my last letter? No? Good. When we get back, burn it.”
Bucky’s written of London, of drinking with some English soldiers, of a poem that one of them had recited. It’d stuck with him, more so than you’d expect. It’s like I’m two people. I’m the speaker and the specter both. But only the specter’s words remain in my head. I know it isn’t me, it’s the poem,
but I don’t … God, this fucking poem, Steve. Why can’t I forget it?
Bucky’d only been able to remember a few parts of it; the full thing has been added by some scholar or other, but Steve only has eyes for Bucky’s remembered words:
… Whatever hope is yours, / Was my life also…
… of my weeping something had been left, / Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled…
… Courage was mine, and I had mystery; / Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery …
And lastly, written with a hand that had shook so bad it’s nearly unreadable, the words Bucky had heard in his mind over and over: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. / I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Steve hurries for the men’s room, locking himself in a booth. The flimsy door doesn’t close all the way, leaves a gap about three inches wide for anyone to see through, but he’s alone so it doesn’t matter. His throat feels tight, his stomach roils, he’s shaking, trembling, breaking¸ and there are just those words, whatever hope is yours, and I knew you in this dark, and my hands were loath and cold, and he’s going to throw up, God, it’s coming, he tastes the bile and chokes it down, he can’t cry, please, they’ll all see, they’ll know, he has to do this, he promised—
Another man comes and Steve forces himself to be quiet, barely breathing. The man’s humming as he goes about his business, quickly in and out. The melody is familiar, something melancholic and hopeful. It’s My Man by The Jackknives.
When he’s gone, Steve takes up the melody, breath choppy and ruinous to the rhythm. He gets through but is still coming apart at the seams, so he segues into I Was A Ghost, another Jackknives song. It, too, reminds him of Bucky, of the desperation and stubbornness and loneliness of yearning for someone right next to you before you smothered it and buried it deep. Of promises made in a dream, of a heart given freely before Steve had even known what it meant.
He finally exits and looks in the mirror; he’s looks a mess. His eyes are red rimmed, there are angry splotches all over his neck, and his lips are bitten raw. He scrubs his face and goes back out. He promised he’d see it all. Just get through this.
Most of it goes by fast. There’s a bit more on the Commandos after the war—nothing on Gabe’s battles with the system, just a few notes on his civil rights accomplishments in sterile wording, and nothing on Morita’s experiences with racism at all. There’s not a single mention of Isaiah Bradley or Camp Cathart.
And then, there’s Peggy.
Considering how little was devoted to Steve’s time as a dancing monkey, there sure is a lot of stuff from the post-war comics and radio shows focused on his and Peggy’s supposed romance. He cringes just listening to some of the recordings; the Peggy in them are as unfamiliar to him as any stranger on the street. God, she must have hated these.
There’s thankfully also a lot of stuff focused on her career; the struggle to fit into the SSR after the war, her time at university, founding S.H.I.E.L.D. How anyone could think that Peggy Carter, Agent, Director, and Doctor, had ever been just decorative is beyond him.
It’s a common misconception though, despite every evidence to the contrary. One of the first things he was given back after coming out of the ice was his compass—that stupid, old thing with Peggy’s picture plastered on the inside. The agent who’d handed it to him had been all starry-eyed, as if she’d handed him a holy relic.
Steve settles in a small auditorium where a documentary is playing. It’s pretty new, covers his resurrection and everything, but some of the footage is old. In it, Peggy’s sits in what looks like an office, dark hair styled in a short bob. She looks to be maybe fifty, fifty-five years old.
“That was a difficult winter,” she’s saying. “A blizzard had trapped half our battalion behind the German line. Steve—Captain Rogers, he fought his way through a HYDRA blockade that had pinned our allies down for months. He saved over a thousand men, including the man who would… who would become my husband, as it turned out.” She blinks, looks away. Her eyes are a little wet. If Peggy’s in her fifties, her husband will only just have. His loss will still have been raw. “Even after he died, Steve was still changing my life.”
The documentary ends soon after, and Steve sits in the darkness, waiting for something and nothing at all.