"Here we are," Agent Coulson says, unlocking the door and pushing it open.
The apartment is on the small side, which is not surprising in a building of this size and age. It's spacious, though, and scrupulously clean, as if it's a point of pride.
"My neighbour's niece lets it out," Coulson explains.
Steve makes his way inside, looking around curiously. For all that the walls are never too far apart, the big windows give the rooms an open, airy feel. The apartment is on the sixth floor of the building, just high enough to be able to see some rooftops, a patch of sky, a hint of what the place will look like at twilight, surrounded by twinkling lights. The walls of the rooms are off-white and dusky green, soothing after the stark bleached-bone paleness of the facility in which they had kept him for the past month. The space feels lived-in, welcoming.
Beggars can't be choosers, but Steve is lucky that, so far at least, his luck seems to be holding.
"Thank you, Agent Coulson," he says. "This is a nice place. I'd like to rent it."
Coulson nods easily, pulling out what passes for a telephone these days. "I'll text you Sally's number. I'll call her right now, let her know she's got a new tenant. Should be easy to set up a direct debit for your rent payments and bills. I can show you how to pay them on your laptop, it's not hard."
"Thank you," Steve repeats. It's all he seems to be saying these days. "That's very kind."
Coulson looks down. Steve hasn't known the man long, but it strikes him as uncharacteristic.
"Not at all," he says a moment later. His voice sounds odd; too intent, maybe. "We should be doing more. I'm sorry it turned out like this."
Steve lifts one corner of his mouth. "It's okay, Agent Coulson. I never expected anything from SHIELD. You have already gone above and beyond yourself. I'll manage. I've always been able to get by, you know."
Coulson shakes his head, blue eyes wide and upset.
"After everything you've done for this country, Captain Rogers, it seems incredibly ungrateful to just cut you loose. I'm sorry. I'm not happy about this. I want you to know I'll keep chipping away at them. I never… This isn't the SHIELD I knew when I joined up."
Steve shakes his head. Agent Coulson is a good man. He has glimpsed as much, even from their brief interaction. Where the rest of the SHIELD agents he has bumped up against in the several weeks he'd been awake looked at him like some kind of freak show, a mixture of pitying and disdainful looks following Steve everywhere he went, Coulson has been kind from the very start. He was the one to sit down with Steve and walk him through using the telephone and the computer he'd been given. When SHIELD called him in to tell him point-blank that he was an obsolete model who had no place in the modern SHIELD organisation, it was Coulson who had worked to get his backpay transferred to his new identity – Steven Rogers, Jr., the grandson of a legend, whose mother was begot with some of the genetic material obtained from the supersoldier during initial testing, though those records were sealed as a matter of National Security. Steve Rogers the second was born in the early eighties, raised by a single mother just like his grandfather, and orphaned at nineteen by a car accident involving a drunk driver. He has his grandfather's looks and artistic talent, and has no affiliations to any known intelligence organisation.
Steve has been many things in his unnaturally long life, but he doesn't remember ever being a blank slate before.
He looks at Coulson, so indignant on his behalf, and the smile on his face comes easier. Having people care about him is always unexpected, but never unwelcome.
"It's not your fault. Besides, they're right. I am a fossil. The modern world is… Well, it's going to take some getting used to. But, uh, if it's okay, I'll keep your number, too. In case of emergencies."
Coulson's face eases out of the deep frown; his eyes fill with something other than anger.
"Yes, of course," he says quickly. "Please do. And you can call me any time, for whatever reason. I promise, nothing can be 'too stupid'." He smiles, and Steve smiles with him, remembering all the times Coulson had put aside his own work when Steve had come looking for him with 'a stupid question'.
"Thank you, Agent Coulson," Steve says again, offering his hand. Coulson hesitates a mere second before taking it in a firm, strong grip. It's effortlessly reassuring, and so welcome that Steve feels the familiar burn behind his eyes when Coulson smiles at him.
"Call me Phil," Phil says. His smile is as kind as his eyes. "And I'll hold you to those phone calls."
Five minutes later, Steve is alone in his new apartment. He looks at the worn carpet, the squishy couch that seems close to his own age, the bare bookshelves, the desk tucked away in the corner.
"Well," he says. "I guess I'm home." He might as well start as he means to go on.
Shoes off and lined up by the door, he putters around the place, opening cupboards to look at mismatched glasses and chipped but colourful plates, investigating the contents of the linen closet, and unpacking his meagre possessions from the sports bag Coulson had driven him over with. His clothes barely fill up a couple of shelves, but the bathroom looks less sterile with his toothbrush, toothpaste, and shaving kit on the edge of the sink.
The bedroom is very neat, and the bed is plain but serviceable. Truthfully, Steve much prefers sleeping on a frame that doesn't shock him with the touch of cold metal in the middle of the night, when he sprawls out with one arm shoved under his pillow. The bed is made up with much-washed linens, and there is even a pillow that comes with the apartment. There's definitely a shopping trip in Steve's near future, but for tonight it will do very nicely.
For all that the apartment is high up, Steve is pleased to find a lack of oppressive silence. The neighbourhood is busy and vibrant; from the car, Steve had spotted several cafes and grocery stores and even an art store that he is dying to visit – tomorrow. Dusk is just starting to fall, and it's not like Steve has had a particularly strenuous day, but he feels... exhausted. Drained like he has spent hours wading through hostile terrain instead of taking a ride with his only friend this side of the new millennium. He changes into a t-shirt and boxer shorts (he can't sleep bare-chested anymore. It feels like sheets of ice envelop him even under a whole pile of blankets), to the sight of the surrounding blocks lighting up like jewels in the fading light. There is a warmth here that Steve is so relieved hasn't entirely gone out of the world, that he has to work hard not to cry. It can't be that bad, this new world, if this kind of warmth still exists somewhere in it.
He wakes up a few times that night, shuddering hard with the sensation of falling and falling, a hand just out of reach. He breathes through it, gets up, gets a glass of water, tries to sleep some more. After the third time he has jerked awake, sweat-slick and panting in the middle of the creaking bed, Steve gives up for the night. He got some sleep, and that's good enough for his body to function.
The sky is still dark, but he shoves his feet in sneakers anyway and drops his keys and a few bills in the pocket of his running pants. He leaves the 'phone on the table. He isn't expecting any calls.
His first impression had been right. It's a busy neighbourhood – it can't be oh-four-hundred yet, but the bakery already has a light deep inside the ground floor, someone kneading the hundreds of buns this place must sell every day. When he runs past the alley behind it, a cloud of white dust lingers in the air and, faintly, he can hear Spanish guitar and the hint of a man's guttural voice. He runs on.
When his body tells him he's reaching the fifteen mile mark, Steve loops a couple of blocks and heads back towards the apartment. Now, he's meeting a few early-rising dog owners puttering after their mutts, and another runner who nods at him as she passes in the opposite direction. It's not a park, but Steve has always been a city boy at heart, and he likes the streets. Likes the life. He always thought, before, that he and Bucky would come back to New York, get married here, raise their children a floor apart at most in the same apartment block. It's what he had dreamed about, on those dark, cold nights when it had felt like the war would never end.
He sighs deeply, letting the spectre of Bucky dissipate in the soft dawn light. He doesn't beat himself up. He's going to be missing Bucky like a hole in one of his lungs for the rest of his life. It's okay to get lost in that sometimes. Instead, he tries to ground himself in the here and now by looking around, watching people tumble out of doorways on their way to work, moms and dads with their kids' hands clasped safely in theirs tugging them towards the car on their way to school. Life goes on, even if he feels like he's still dreaming.
He stops for a coffee in his new neighbourhood, from the same bakery that had woken up with him this morning. A smiling Hispanic woman greets him from behind the counter, making his coffee with quick, dexterous movements and wishing him a nice day when she hands it over. Steve sips slowly, savouring the taste. Yeah, coffee has come a ways since his day.
Grocery shopping is next on the agenda, as soon as he's had a shower. The SHIELD nutritionists who had seen him had explained about calories intake and protein shakes and Gatorade. One of them mentioned off-handedly that they were putting him on the same diet that hockey players follow during the playoffs when they burn through their body stores faster than they can be repleted, and Steve had had to bite down on his lip to keep the slightly hysterical laughter inside where it belonged. Little Steve Rogers, professional athlete. Ain't that a turn-up for the books. Bucky would've loved it.
Still, it does explain the always-present ache of hunger he had lived with every day between the transformation and the ice. He had thought it normal, a result of tiny rations and war-time supplies, but maybe it had been something more. He's gonna listen to the doctors on this one for now; they know more about human bodies than he does, at least when it comes to keeping them alive. So he goes out, loads a couple of carts with vegetables and meat and fish - so many types of fish! - and hands over the little piece of plastic Phil had slid over the table. The amount he knows is in his bank account is more than a little staggering. He's going to get a job soon, of course – he'd go mad doing nothing at home all day – but luckily for him, he can put that off for a while without it making a dent in his wallet. Brave new world.
The art store owner is a charming middle-aged South-Asian woman who looks him up and down and immediately hands him a leaflet for a life drawing class. He's flattered, and a little amazed, that she could tell he's an artist just by looking at him, and tells her so.
"Oh, honey," she laughs, patting his arm. Apart from Phil shaking his hand, no one has touched him so easily since he woke up, and Steve finds himself leaning into it, soaking up the contact. "It's great that you're an artist as well, but I must admit, I had an ulterior motive. We're looking for models for the class."
"Oh," Steve says, feeling his cheeks warm a little. Steve Rogers, life drawing model. He grins. "Sure. Why not."
"Great," the lady says, sticking out a hand with four heavy, ornate gold rings on it. "I'm Sonika."
"Steve," Steve says, shaking it. It's warm, and grips his tightly before letting go.
Sonika makes him write down his number for her, and clutches it as she promises to call as soon as she knows the next date. "You don't even have to model straight away. You can come just to draw a couple of times."
Steve nods eagerly, before piling a few sketchbooks and seven different types of pencils and charcoal sticks on the counter by the cashier register. Sonika gives him a ten percent 'new customer' discount and wishes him a nice day. Steve finds himself thinking it actually might be.
Life away from the SHIELD compound seems to have its own rhythm. Steve gets up way too early still, runs a minimum of twenty miles, gets breakfast to go, showers, and eats it as he looks over the news on his computer. It leaves him angry and unsettled, especially all the reports on the fighting in the Middle East, suicide bombers taking out a school, a police station, a city market. These times seem so much more violent, and he has lived through a world war. He knows what he's talking about.
Afterwards, he draws. He sticks to the apartment a lot, drawing the views out of his window, the far-off cityscapes of Manhattan shimmering like a mirage in the bright sunshine. He breaks off sometime around noon for lunch and an energy drink – he likes Gatorade just fine, but he also enjoys the brief kick Red Bull gives him, before his organism metabolises it. He digests his meal on the sofa, making his way through the BBC's The Big Read list, which had come up as he poked around the internet to try and find a way to cope with the millions of books that had been published in the past seventy years. Of course, Lord of the Rings was the first thing he rushed out to buy as soon as he found out about it, but right now he is making his way through the His Dark Materials trilogy and struggling to contain all these emotions it's making him feel. He wishes, more than anything, that he had someone he could talk to about the way Balthamos and Baruch's story reaches inside his chest and squeezes his breath away; about the fantastic new worlds Mr Pullman has created, and about how, as he reaches closer and closer to the end of The Amber Spyglass, his whole body seems to be winding itself tighter, as if gearing up for a fight.
This is how Steve discovers LiveJournal. He could kiss Google. The internet is great; possibly the greatest human invention, because even if it takes Steve half an hour to type a page's length, it still means he can reach through space and talk to starmichaeltrynion, who apparently feels exactly the same way about Balthamos, and moreover, has some further insights to impart that leave Steve blushing a fiery red but undeniably intrigued. Star then links him to a couple of books that would have been burnt in a pyre in Steve's time, and also to the unbelievable bounty of webcomics. Steve is enthralled. The level of skill of these young people is unbelievable – and to think, they do all of this for free, because they want to share something with the world and they feel strongly enough about it to put it out there, risking criticism and worse. Steve shyly contacts the writer of Gunnerkrigg Court to gush about how beautiful the art is and ask about the drawing medium. His list for the next time he visits Sonika grows exponentially.
Star also finds out that Steve hasn't read Harry Potter, and enlists a couple of – her? His? The internet sure makes things interesting, one way or another – friends to yell at Steve that he needs to do that IMMEDIATELY. So Steve goes out and buys all seven books, the last of which apparently only came out last year. And then he promptly loses two weeks of his life curled up on the sofa making incoherent noises into his fist as his eyes dart over the page. Sonika, when she calls and asks how he is, laughs at him about it and asks if he has found The Hex Files yet. Steve says no, and can he please call her back later, Harry is about to do battle with a dragon!
Sure, Steve has seen some things in his life, but he's pretty sure dragons don't exist. So it's fun, and incredible, and then not so fun as people keep dying. When he finishes the sixth book, Steve puts it down gently, and then goes and takes a long shower, trying to convince himself that he should stop crying, it's not that bad. He goes out to the store and buys eight pints of Ben & Jerry's, which, as far as he's concerned, goes a long way towards making this era a good one to be alive in. He eats two of them before he goes to bed, and clutches at one of the pillows he bought last week, and tries desperately not to ache at the memory of Doc Erskine, and Peggy, and all the people he lost. He decides to take a break before he tackles book seven. The way the emotional wringer has been tightening over the books, he thinks it might be a good idea to try and get some distance from it for a little while.
He goes to that week's life drawing class. It's set up in a beautiful old building, the kind that Steve used to walk around in awe when he was a kid. The studio is on the ground floor, full of light and the smell of paint and faint laughter as he makes his way inside. People are sitting in a wide circle around a plinth, easels upright and propping up pristine canvases waiting for the artists' touch. The hum of conversation falters for a moment and then resumes; Steve feels eyes on him that he isn't sure he likes, but he has had a couple of years to get used to being stared at (never mind that the idea of getting used to the attention is laughable). He walks to the far side of the room, where there are still empty spaces in the circle, and picks up an easel, turning to set it down in the spot he had chosen.
"Hey," someone says on his left. It's a smooth, pleasant voice belonging to a man around Steve's age – that is to say, looking twenty-four-ish. He is shorter than Steve (then again, who isn't anymore), with sturdy shoulders and a frame that suggests he keeps fit. "I'm Jonah, I put this shindig together. Good to see a new face, man."
"Hi," Steve says, trying to keep up. "Steve. Good to meet you, too." He shakes the man's hand. It's a good, solid grip, which Steve expected from looking at him. His hands are a little cold, and it makes Steve have to fight down a shudder.
Jonah asks him a little bit about himself, and Steve tells him he just moved here, is trying to get settled in, and leaves it at that. Jonah doesn't push, which is nice, because Steve still isn't sure how much he wants to say about himself to people he just met. The noise rises a little just then, and Steve turns to find a stunningly beautiful red-headed woman climbing the steps to the plinth, clad in a navy terry-cloth robe, feet bare.
"Ah, you must be Natalie," Jonah says, Steve forgotten as he makes a beeline for presumably this week's model. "Thanks for coming in on such short notice, you're a lifesaver. Hopefully Patrick should be fine to come back next week. How weird that Poppy ran away like that, she's normally so well behaved! Well, never mind, you're here now. Would you like to get settled? Everyone, this is Natalie, she's covering for Patrick. His cat got into a little bit of trouble with a pigeon, yeah, we'll be sure to tease him about it next week, huh?"
As Jonah prattles on, Natalie unties the front of her robe and lets it drop from her creamy shoulders. Steve swallows dryly. She is so beautiful, small, well-shaped breasts tapering into a trim waist and then swelling again at her hips. He feels his face heat, and busies himself laying out his charcoal. When he looks up again, he has managed to steel himself to look at her as a model only, not as someone who lights up the room and makes it disappear at the same time. It's easier like that; his stomach no longer wants to crawl out of his mouth with nerves. He falls into an easy rhythm, drawing from his shoulder, long, sweeping lines across the canvas. Natalie's body is so perfect that it's almost more difficult to draw it – every line has to mean something, has to have purpose, has to be precise, and, well, Steve is rusty. It's been a while since Bucky sat for him, and in his case, the bulges of his muscles gave a nice break to the form on the page, made it easier for Steve to render.
He swallows past the familiar stab of ache and focuses on what's before him. Natalie's neck is long, and she has quirked her head just so to accentuate it. There is a freckle on the side of her right breast, and Steve dabs it on, rubbing with the tip of his finger to smudge it into her skin. The way her face is tilted, her features are nearly in profile, and Steve swipes his stick to put down her plump lips, her straight, regal nose, the high line of her brow, the slits of her eyes... looking at him.
His heart pauses, then trips into double-time. Her face doesn't move – she's a good model, she has obviously done this before – but her eyelids twitch, and a little crinkle appears in the corner, acknowledgement enough. Steve's mouth lifts a little in reply; then he goes back to his work, concentrating on replicating the arch of her hand in her lap, palm half-closed and turned inwards, finger curled towards it.
"Dude, you're seriously good," Jonah says a little while later, on his way around the room. Steve hesitates to think badly of a brand new acquaintance, but Jonah reminds him of nothing so much as a peacock strutting about, puffing out his chest. He's sure Jonah is a perfectly nice guy, just.
"Thanks," he replies quietly. "But I'm really not. I can't get her knee right at all."
"You'll get there," Jonah says confidently before passing on towards Steve's neighbour, a tall woman in her sixties with a helmet of chin-length grey hair.
The next hour passes quickly, and Steve is left staring disappointedly at his nowhere-near perfect drawing as Natalie shrugs her robe back on. She climbs down the steps and makes a slow circuit of the room, shaking out her arms and arching her back. She pauses when she gets to Steve's offering, and he has to stifle the urge to cover it so it doesn't offend her.
"Mm, Jonah is right. You're good," Natalie says. There is a soft burr to her words, something not quite foreign but not exactly local, either.
Steve flushes and shakes his head. "Thank you, ma'am, but it's not that good, not really."
Natalie huffs a soft sound of amusement. "Artists," she says, shaking her head a little. "Either your ego is the size of a house, or you're never happy with what you produce."
Steve would like to argue, but – "Well, you ain't wrong. Although I draw the line at pickling cows to make it look like I'm special."
Natalie stares at him for a moment, then throws her head back with laughter.
"I like you," she says, smile blinding. "Keep up the good work."
And then she's gone, closing the circle and disappearing to get dressed. Steve packs up slowly, aware of the pleasant heaviness in his body, the quiet in his head. He's definitely gonna be doing this again.
Time passes. Steve agrees to model, and finds it hard at first to stay so still for such a long time, but as with everything, he keeps trying until one day it clicks. He makes sure to hit the local gym extra hard afterwards, even if he has to pull his punches when the first couple of bags burst and leak sand all over the place. He also takes up yoga, which is entirely Sonika's fault, but which turns out to be a very good fit for him, because the first time he stretches out on the mats as far as his body would let him, he nearly moans with pleasure, it feels so good.
Plus, it helps with those times when he feels like his skin will split down the middle with restlessness, when he wants to do something so badly that he's vibrating with it; when even a thirty-mile run can't silence the voices in his head. His body may be perfect, but flexibility still requires commitment and regular practice, so at those times, Steve finds that folding himself into the bridge pose with his right leg up and holding lets his mind quiet while his body works hard to balance itself.
He makes sure to go up and say thank you to Yingtai, their instructor, after the next practice. She looks at him shrewdly as she wipes her neck with a lime green towel.
"Vet?" she asks, no-nonsense and straightforward. Steve likes it a lot, even if the question makes him squirm.
Her eyes soften a little, and she flips the towel over her shoulder to hold out a hand to him.
"Thank you for your service," she says. Her touch is dry despite the layer of sweat visible over her shoulders – she works her classes hard, and her students appreciate her all the more for it. "My brother's over in Afghanistan right now. Hope there's someone like you taking good care of him."
Steve shifts his feet and looks down, gently letting her hand drop. He isn't sure how he feels, being praised like this. She doesn't know him. She doesn't know what he's done, what he's lost. What he let fall.
There is silence between them for a couple of minutes, but she doesn't walk away, and Steve lingers, too, strangely loathe to break the quiet.
"Listen," Yingtai says. When Steve looks up, she has her bottom lip between her teeth, chewing on it a little before she speaks again. "I know it's none of my business, but my buddy Sam runs a VA meeting a few blocks from here. If you ever feel like going, let me know and I'll set you up."
Steve swallows past the sudden lump in his throat. He's—it would probably be good, he knows Phil would approve, but—he can't. Talking about it is just. How would he even start? He can't. He signed SHIELD's NDA because he knew it was the right thing to do, and even if he hadn't, he still doesn't know how he could talk about what he's been through, what he left behind somewhere over the Arctic sea in 1944.
"Thank you, it's kind of you to offer," he says, non-committal. Yingtai's mouth twists, but she nods, patting his shoulder and stepping back.
"Good practice, Rogers. You're getting pretty good at the stretches, but next time, let's see how you do in the twists, huh?"
Steve grins. "Bring it," he says, and enjoys the way she laughs, half-challenge, half-exhilaration, zero judgement that he isn't ready to bare his soul to a stranger.
He walks home that day feeling loose and warm, the anxiety that he's getting used to finding coiled tightly in his gut a little less pronounced. He stops for a bagel and sits on a park bench in a spot of sunshine, watches dogs caper after toys and kids play hide-and-go-seek as he snarfs it down, suddenly ravenous; and, fleetingly, the feeling creeps up on him: he's glad he's still alive.