"Is there any place in the world where Captain America can truly hide, Mr. Secretary?"
Former Secretary of State Gary Tuthill, so far removed from that office that no one ever remembered which president appointed him or how long he'd served, pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked into the camera.
Images flashed in his mind, long-forgotten arguments with Howard Stark about the possibility that Steve Rogers' body had to be, should be recovered, damn the expense. A visit from the elusive Nick Fury, who had just taken the reins at S.H.I.E.L.D., gruff promises that such visits would be few and far between and a reminder in no uncertain terms that S.H.I.E.L.D. did not answer to the President. The shock when they all realized the Russians had the same technology after all, and had improved upon it.
He cleared his throat, sweat beaded on his brow. He hesitated a moment too long.
The bubbly, bottle-blond news anchor conducting the interview frowned prettily and repeated her question.
"No," barked Secretary Tuthill, almost before she'd finished. "No, there is not. And I can't speak for the current administration, but I would not rest until the criminal Steve Rogers and his accomplice Natasha Romanov are apprehended."
In the corner of the screen, video footage of the Battle of New York ran on a seemingly infinite loop. It never showed how it all ended.
They watched this interview in a diner in Kalamazoo. Two weeks there, the longest stint yet, with no sign of a tail. They'd even begun to talk about staying. Maybe they could hide. Maybe Captain America could, after all, hide in plain sight.
"Michigan," declared Natasha, "could be home."
Said the spy to the soldier, whose only reply was a tight squeeze of the hand, a signal to please not tempt whatever Fates there were.
Steve shook his head as the anchor switched topics to the shocking crime du jour. "Eternal optimist, aren't you." His voice was light, betraying none of the tense anger that coursed through him, which Natasha read in the feel of his skin on hers.
"Anywhere could be home. Might as well be Michigan."
Steve paid their tab in cash at the counter. "Well then, why not. Kalamazoo. Home sweet home." His voice had taken on the sardonic characteristics usually attributed to his companion, just as hers occasionally had a loyal, do-or-die thread. Natasha smiled up at him and they walked out, looking for all the world like Jane and Jack Smith, non-descript except for his Lions cap and her exceptionally dark hair.
They were not fifty feet from the diner door when it blew up behind them, and the chase began again, Natasha bleeding from both ears, Steve with a broken collarbone.
"What will the destruction wrought by rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agents cost the United States government this week? Since the Battle of New York - no, I'm sorry, we must be honest. Since Tony Stark revealed himself to be the Iron Man, we have been bleeding cash to clean up messes and protect our interests abroad. Like a comic book trope, these self-styled 'heroes' have birthed their own worst enemies, as we face international threats unheard of in the last seventy years. America, wake up! Wake up to the reality that these are no heroes, but villains themselves!"
This vitriol was spewed over a crackling frequency, somewhere in rural Michigan. Or maybe it was Wisconsin. What state was it, what day? Did they know or care?
"Turn it off."
Steve reached over and obliged. Natasha drove on. They had both healed within twenty-four hours, and had gotten a decent head-start by their own reckoning. But where to go, what to do when they got there?
"We should try to reach Stark."
"He'll be watched. They all will. If they're even alive."
"We'd know." She thought of Clint, wondered if he'd betrayed her, if he was Hydra, and shook it off. She'd know.
"I doubt it. What about Bruce? Most of the world has no idea that a mild-mannered scientist with prematurely gray hair is really a green rage monster. If either went missing, really gone, who would care?" Steve was tired, and punchy. He let it go this way, imagining the worst.
"We would, and that counts for something. We aren't alone; we're just on our own. For now."
Steve shrugged but didn't respond, and on they drove for another fifteen miles on a road that hadn't appeared in any map they had with them. Until they could go no further, because of the man in the road.
He wasn't wearing an eye patch. His beard was unkempt, but not ridiculously so. He wore a t-shirt, jeans, and a lightweight jacket, but no trademark trench or leather.
He was still Nick Fury.
Natasha had slammed on the brakes, and Steve had hit his head.
"Do you see that? Or am I imagining it. Him."
Steve squinted. "That's Nick."
"A trick. A ploy to bring us in."
"Is your weapon..."
"Alright. Me first. Cover my back."
"Don't say it."
He didn't address them as "Agent," and he didn't stay long. Just to give them direction, he said.
"Not even Stark's technology could go undetected forever, so I have nothing to give you. We'll have to do things the old-fashioned way for awhile. Notes in lockers, signals with scarves in the windows. But we're putting the band back together, or maybe we're really starting from scratch. And I need you two to be the eyes and ears for awhile."
"You need us to spy."
"I need you to watch. Listen. Find out what's happening here, in the rest of the country. We can't know how deep Hydra is embedded if we don't know what is happening in the cities and small towns. I want to believe they had the government, but not the people. Prove it to me."
"If Natasha Romanov is alive, she looks like you and me. She's nobody special, if you don't count the fact that she's impossibly young for a former KGB operative. Look, Rachel, you and I know, S.H.I.E.L.D. housed some seriously sketchy individuals in its time. None worse than the Black Widow, to hear tell from top intelligence officials worldwide. And if she is alive, and I think she is, she's out there...."
Another interview with a so-called expert. This time he didn't turn it off when Natasha protested. He listened carefully.
"Steve, come on, we don't need to hear it."
"I think we do. We need to know what they assume, what they think they know. And either own it or find a way to exceed expectations."
"So we're doing this. Fury's mission."
"If that was Fury."
"It was him. Steve...."
"I need something to fight for. I need something to do."
"But we don't have to. We work for no one. We are on our own, even if we do it, you heard him."
"I don't think we are. On our own. We have each other, don't we?"
Natasha steered the car over to a gas station as they reached civilization, and took her time with that last question.
"Do we, then? Have each other?"
Steve turned red. "I didn't mean...."
He looked over at her. The sun was setting, and the neon signs in the windows of the gas station store were flickering on. But none of this distracted from the shine in her eyes, the determination and the loyalty that were so familiar to Steve. Maybe he did mean it. Maybe he wanted her. Maybe it was the road, the chase, the three months of leaving behind personas and hair color and eye color and blown-up diners or cars and informants they had taken for friendly clerks, all of it catching up to him.
Maybe it was the smirk she was now sporting. He leaned over and kissed her, pressing her against the door for a brief moment. Her elbow hit the lock button on and the soft click startled them both.
Natasha laughed. Steve smiled at her and sat back.
"I meant it. We have each other. We protect each other, from this point, just like we have been. We do this together."
She nodded. "Together." And she got out to put gas in the car.
Six months later
"Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, issued a statement on the news of Steve Rogers' passing, and in no soft terms reiterated her personal belief in Rogers' innocence to the last, and her hope that Agent Natasha Romanov will be recovered alive and unharmed. Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, himself a S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant best known for his role in the Battle of New York, had no comment."
The waitress behind the counter smacked her gum and pointed the remote at the television. She found a sports channel and left it there, even though it was a Tuesday afternoon in mid-January and the only thing on was a rerun of the 1988 Rose Bowl.
"Shame about that Rogers," said Willie, a regular at the Spartan Diner in East Lansing. "Never took him for a traitor."
Another patron, Flo, a hairdresser on her usual mid-day lunch break, shook her head. "He wasn't. He was just a victim in all of that, same as a lot of 'em. That Romanov gal, though, she wasn't even an American."
Willie agreed. "Oh yeah, it was her turned 'im, if he was turned."
They moved on to talking about where they were for the Rose Bowl in 1988 (Flo in this same exact place, Willie far away in New York State) and paid their checks after awhile.
Willie wiped his mouth with a flourish before getting up to leave. "Mmm-mmm, Elsie honey. That was some pie. Gonna have any more tomorrow?" He asked this every day, and every day she answered the same.
"Cherry pie's always on the menu here, Willie. See you tomorrow, unless I don't."
"Unless you don't," laughed Willie, and he walked out, offering an arm to the impatient Flo at the door.
Elsie wiped down the counter and took the dishes to the kitchen.
"He loves that cherry pie," Elsie said to the cook, a tall, muscled man called Tim.
"They all do. Mom's recipe. Or close to it."
"Mmm. Make me some, sometime?" She stood on tiptoe to kiss him briefly.
"If you like." He kissed her back.
"That's almost better than a cherry pie," said Elsie. The bell rang signaling a customer walking in and she turned to get back to work. Before leaving, she looked over her shoulder at Tim.
"Any news?" she asked.
"He's going on vacation, and wants us to watch the dogs."
She nodded. "Alright then."
Back to work.