Always Smiling
By Izzy

They’d never find out just what had happened. Not when the only surviving witness was the cop, and his story was so obviously false Antoine was glad he wasn’t there when it was told to his parents, because he wouldn’t have been able to keep his mouth shut, and there would’ve been trouble. But even at fifteen, he knew better than to hope it would ever be questioned, that the official line would be anything but that Richie had been a bad kid and shooting him had been justified.

He swore off S.H.I.E.L.D. for the last time the next day. He’d spent the night awake thinking about it, about Richie, about Rodney King, about all the rules and laws, about all the unfair unofficial ones that remained even after the official unfair ones had finally gone away, and then he’d decided he never wanted anything to do with any kind of authority or security, because it was probably all lies protecting white men and powerful people anyway.

But when he said that to his grandfather the next morning, he looked sad, and said, “Antoine, don’t make these kinds of decisions out of anger. You’ll be so much more in life if you don’t.”

That made him briefly rethink, but ultimately he held out until the funeral, when he forced himself to break the news to Mr. Dugan. Mr. Dugan stood there, listening, and then said, “Would it help you to hear that S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently run by a black man? That he’d been Director Carter’s right hand man for years before she retired, and may now have already had more influence in how the organization is run than anyone else in history besides her?”

When Antoine was too stunned to respond, he continued, “Also, S.H.I.E.L.D. is an organization that prides itself in doing what is right, at the cost of what is legal, if necessary. I’m not saying it’s not free from the demands of less evil members of authority, or even that there are never cases where some agent does to some innocent person what that policeman did to your brother. But if you want to make a difference in the world, and go after those who have power and abuse it? I would say S.H.I.E.L.D.’s your best bet.”

The next day Antoine took the final photo taken of Richie, of him sitting on the bus and smiling like the sun, because Richie had always been smiling, throughout his entire life, and taped it to the wall right above his desk. He stood looking at him, and even in his grief he couldn’t keep away his own smile, not when looking at Richie’s.

It turned into a reminder of more than one thing. Underneath that picture Antoine worked and worked, studying hard; there were some days he only stopped so he could do physical exercises. His resolve was sealed for good now, to the point that he was able to tell his parents that, and forcefully enough that they even stopped protesting altogether. But it made him smile too, more and more, until he thought every smile he smiled was done partly in honor of his late brother. Which just made him smile yet more.

Not that it was always easy, especially when Mr. Dugan died when he was eighteen. He’d been ill long enough for Antoine to desperately hope his first application to the academy would be accepted, so he’d live to know it, even though he’d been the first to tell Antoine it probably wouldn’t happen; he’d probably have to go through college at least. It didn’t; he attended that funeral two weeks before he began at Howard University, and that day it was hard to smile.

He ended up attending a whole string of funerals while at Howard, mostly of the Howling Commandos, as old age took them one by one. His grandfather died when he was in junior year. The evening Marie, who had taken him in along with her husband after she’d gotten her nursing certification, called him with the news, he cried for an hour afterwards, made even more wretched when his roommate, who hadn’t know his grandfather’s name, returned, asked him what was wrong, and when told, on hearing the name of Gabe Jones for the first time, simply gaped at him in shock, stammering about how amazing it was to have a Howling Commado’s grandson as a roommate. “Seriously, Trip,” he said. “What I wouldn’t give to be a member of your family.”

“You want to have a murdered brother?” Trip did not ask, but it was a close thing.

His grandfather was laid to rest as near to Richie as they could get, and the children of the other Commandos chipped in money to get him a great obelisk, the tallest structure in the graveyard, though whether he actually would’ve wanted that Trip wasn’t sure. The next day, just before he had to hurry back to Howard, he went back, and did smile then, when he saw how much the flowers had piled up already. Some of them had notes attached, and he read letters of thanks from people whose father or grandfather or occasionally a female ancestor had owed their lives to some exploit of the Commandos.

Most owed their gratitude to either Captain America or just the group in general, but there were five who thanked Gabe Jones by name. Trip memorized the names of those five people who had specifically been saved by his grandfather, wrote them down and put them on the desk in his dorm room, near where he’d taped up the photo of Richie. Those who had been saved and he who had not been, now both serving as his inspiration.

When his application to enter S.H.I.E.L.D.’s academy the fall after his graduation from Howard was rejected, he paid another visit to the graveyard, lay flowers by the two graves, and tried to smile before Richie’s, but couldn’t. “What do I do?” he asked them, because there was no one living for him to ask for advice from. Mr. Dugan had made general suggestions long ago, but that was all. The only answer he got kneeling there was rain. At the time, it was the biggest question in his life which he had needed to find the answer for completely on his own, though it wouldn’t remain so.

But the next time he visited their graves after that, four days before his twenty-fifth birthday, he was smiling a smile as big as any Richie had ever had. “I did it, grandpa,” he said as he reached the obelisk. “Definitely wasn’t easy, and it sure took a while, but I’ve made it into the academy. I’m going to make you both so proud.”