In March, Steve goes home to his old neighborhood: Pepper has warned him that it's changed, things are different, but he decides that he doesn't mind. In the morning, when the mist is still on the ground, he goes running, first in the street, then in the park. He goes home, eats breakfast, paints and draws in the early afternoon, and then does strength training in the late afternoon. Twice a week, Natasha drops by to give him close combat lessons; once a week, he goes down to the gun range and rents some time and makes sure he keeps his eye in and his hand steady. It surprises Steve how easily he fits in with the neighborhood.
He gets on first name terms with the man at the newspaper stand. He gives directions to kids from Connecticut who took Metro North, then came out on the subway to see a show at St. Vitus's Room and got off a stop too early. He signs up for a life drawing class; through the class, he meets some people, starts going to student art shows, visiting local galleries.
On sunny days, he swings by his local bodega, buys lunch, and takes it out to the park.
He carries groceries for and checks in on his upstairs neighbor, who was a six year old girl when he went into the ice.
The Skrull bring a ship into orbit. Natasha comes by and collects him.
Steve goes on a sketch crawl with some people he knows from class, and it's a little awkward at first because Steve sticks out like a sore thumb: he is enormous, not quite sure where to put the bulk of himself so that he's inconspicuous, but he finds a corner of the cafe. When time is up, they go to a park, and after another hour, they go out for drinks and compare artwork, and Steve -- settles. He goes to shows. He decorates the walls of his apartment with student art bought for three times the asking price. What else is he going to do with his salary from SHIELD? To his mind, it's an obscene amount of money, and Steve buys some more art. Some nice furniture, made by some kids in a store who are excited by the novel idea of making things with their hands.
Natasha comes by one his apartment one afternoon; she came by his apartment directly instead of waiting at their usual sparring ground because she wants to work with him on uneven terrain, sees that the door of his apartment is open an inch or so, and when Steve comes out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel, he finds Natasha pointing two Heckler & Koch USP's at a skinny, third year fine arts NYU student who looks like she is about to faint.
"Hey -- "
At the sound, Natasha pivots and points both guns at him; Steve puts his hands up, dish towel still in his right hand. "Come on, Natasha."
On the floor, next to his new laptop and only halfway out of the box, is the computer tablet that he'd hired the kid to install.
Steve gets along with skinny artistic kids, having been one himself.
There are rumors of terrorists attempting to plant a dirty bomb at the next G8 summit in Montreal, and when Natasha shows up to collect him one night, Steve guesses that it's moved past rumor. It's a little past midnight., but Steve is waiting for her, leaning against the hallway wall with his arms crossed. He doesn't need her to tell him why he's there, but he does say, in a hushed voice, "The walls are pretty thin. I'll go in and get my stuff."
Natasha lifts her eyebrows.
"I've got guests. I went to a music show, and the opening act didn't have a place to stay afterwards." He slips into the apartment; in the wedge of light from the hallway light, Natasha makes out at least three bodies on the floor, another two, packed like anchovies on the couch, all wrapped up in one degree or another in spare blankets and coats, and Steve finishes writing a note that he leaves on the breakfast table, milk and cereal in the refrigerator, spare key next to this note, please lock up and drop in the mail slot, then comes out with his overnight bag and his shield.
"Are you insa -- "
"They think it's an art project," he says, slinging the shield over his back. "A commentary on American patriotism subsumed by America's runaway capitalist industrial market. Or at least that's what Lizzie says."
"The girl you pulled a gun on last time," he says, dryly, and locks the door with his keys. "Phil says she's clean. Mostly."
M.O.D.O.K. makes an appearance; Steve happens to be on the Helicarrier at the time, and plays an important in role in maneuvering M.O.D.O.K. so that the SHIELD techs can stuff him through a one-way portal into a pocket dimension entirely cut off from the regular universe. Afterwards, Steve takes a shower, has a cup of coffee, and calls Pepper to ask her out for dinner sometime.
Steve asks Lizzie and some of his the people that he knows from his life drawing class about where he should take someone for a first date, a dinner date, and this is how him and Pepper end up in a tamale bar in Red Hook, elbow to elbow, hip to hip on bar stools next to the register. Pepper is wearing a Celine skirt and Lanvin platforms, but in spite of everything they have a wonderful time. The food is very, very good, and they talk about art. Pepper argues for the importance of color field painting, and Steve is willing to be persuaded. He tells her about his life drawing classes, his upstairs neighbor who had been a painter until arthritis took away her ability to hold a brush. He has an art friend named Lizzie who wants him to pay attention to Julie Mehretu, and after tamales and horchata and Mexican beers, they end up at the small garden patio attached to a bar.
There are Christmas lights strung from tree to tree, a guy with a guitar playing softly in the corner, and they dance in what Steve has figured out is the modern way: body to body, slow, without following any particular steps but moving to the beat of the song. His hand is in the small of Pepper's back, and her cheek is on his shoulder. Steve can feel her breath on his skin, through his shirt.
Steve offers to see Pepper to the Stark Tower, but she says that she'll take the subway back to his place and have a company car waiting for her at his place; on the short subway ride back, Pepper falls asleep with her head on his shoulder and her fingers laced through Steve's. She is doing Stark Industries work while also coordinating Tony's involvement in the Avengers, and a enormous black town car is waiting for her outside of Steve's building.
She is still half-asleep when she gets into the town car; Steve kisses her on the cheek and closes the door.
Steve looks up from lunch and sees Tony Stark sitting on the other side of the canteen table, reading the print on Steve's travel mug.
"Ethically sourced? From the Brooklyn Food Co-operative?"
Steve looks at him for a moment; Tony is fresh out of the shower, wearing a white t-shirt. His hair is still wet around the edges, and his arc reactor glows through his shirt. Steve spends a moment assessing whether Tony is actually, intentionally trying to be an asshole, or whether this is -- something else.
"My father was a labor organizer, and my mother believed in socialism in our time," Steve says, calmly.
He reaches over, takes his thermos back from Tony and ignores him until the Helicarrier is the space-time anomaly opened up in the Pacific Ocean by Thor's younger brother.
When Steve asks if Pepper would like to go out again, Pepper tells him that things are complicated and things are crazy and again, things are complicated. She doesn't mention any names, but by way of an apology and without telling Steve about it or telling anybody explicitly, Pepper arranges for his art friend who likes Julie Mehretu to be accepted for a position in the Stark Museum of Art's curatorial internship program.
A terrorist organization plans to bring about world war by setting off a string of bombs in world cities. Unconnected with any established villain as far as SHIELD can determine, not involving any mutant or anti-mutant agenda, just a sad fixation on bringing about a wholly human apocalypse.
The Avengers stop him after the the one in Berlin, but before they succeed in Cairo, and Natasha picks Steve up four hours before the Berlin bomb. Three days after the fight in Cairo, Natasha comes by his apartment. It's a warm day in late spring; at the debriefing afterwards, Steve had mentioned having a book on Soviet visual artists of the 1960s. How did it come up? Nobody knows. Steve can't remember himself, but Natasha knocks on the door three days later. Steve lets her in; she goes to his bookshelf, studies the spine of every book there, takes the book he'd mentioned, and goes and sits on his couch next to the window, which is open.
Steve's apartment is on the second floor, and the trees in the street have leafed out. Natasha reads for three hours straight, a dense, jargon-laden book on critical theory. There are pictures, but only some of them are in color, and she goes cover to cover. She says nothing, but Steve decides that it's kind of relaxing, actually, the sound of the pages turning, the sounds of traffic coming from the street, the slow, steady sound of Natasha breathing.
He draws at his desk.
Steve finds himself relaxing for the first time in days.
Pepper is in a coffee shop in midtown, rubbing the bridge of her nose and enjoying what passes for fresh air in her life. Hanging behind the cashier there are three or four paintings, small, square, each about the size of Pepper's hand with all the fingers outstretched. There are little white tags next to them indicating that they are for sale.
The next time Natasha comes by, it's to beat him into a small-grain pulp on the floor of the sparring arena because he keeps dropping his shield arm, but the time after that, it's full-on summer. New York City is swelteringly hot, and it is a purely social call. They go out to Park Slope and find a nice grassy spot, half in, half out of the shade. Natasha is wearing a white tank top and sunglasses; Steve is wearing shorts and mostly used to it. He works for a while on some doodles, then gives up because it's too hot and just watches the trees, listens to children playing in a fountain somewhere not too far away.
Natasha is reading another work by the author of the book she read last time, and halfway through, she looks up from it.
"I've got something for you," she says and reaches into her purse.
Steve is expecting an assignment. Or preparation materials for their next mission.
Or, you know, to be shot. After all, it's Natasha.
Instead, it's a newspaper clipping, nicely framed. A quarter-page advertisement showing a kid reaching for a bottle of milk on a counter that was too high for him, and there are a few words underneath about SMITH'S FAMILY MILK. Advertising from seventy years ago.
"How did you know I drew this? It was one of the first things I did for the ad agency."
Natasha smiles and goes back to reading her book.
Pepper is back in the coffee shop, and she sees that three of the four square paintings from before have sold and been replaced by stuff from other local artists. Out of nothing but sheer frustration with her life and everything, she asks, when getting her triple soy latte, "Is the one on the end for sale? With the gray and yellow and blue?"
The cashier turns around, squints the the tag. "If you want it, it's eight-fiv --"
"I'll take it," Pepper says and hands over Tony's black Amex.
"I met the artist for this one," the cashier says, while wrapping it up for Pepper. "He came by the week after we put them up. Just the nicest guy. The nicest guy."
When Pepper gets back to her office in the Stark Tower and turns the picture over, she laughs about how, of all the local artists displaying local artwork in local coffee shops, she bought the one of Steve's, but she doesn't realize what the picture is of until --
Lizzie comes by one night with a bottle of champagne left over from a reception at the Stark Museum of Art. They were wrapping up a conference, a series of lectures by artists. She got to meet Julie Mehretu and Dana Schutz and Mei Fin, and the Special Exhibition's curator had actually thanked her, Lizzie, specifically, by name, in his great-job-everyone wrap-up speech. The champagne was left over from the caterer; she brought it to him, and Steve uncorks it, and they each have a glass even though he doesn't particularly like the taste, even though he can't get drunk.
It's late summer now, cool enough that Steve opens the window to let the breeze in, and Lizzie is in a pale blue skirt that Steve knows that she got at a thrift shop and a white blouse from a dry cleaner's unclaimed merchandise sale rack. He doesn't know where the necklace came from, but he does know that the shoes are borrowed from her roommate. They're a size too big for her, and Lizzie sits on his couch, rubbing her heels. Her hair is curly and black; the skirt is lighter blue than her eyes; she has freckles on her cheekbones.
"We should go out to celebrate," Steve says.
That night, drunk on champagne and bourbon and the feeling of being incapable of doing wrong, Lizzie tries to kiss Steve. He pauses for a moment with her mouth on his, but very clearly doesn't kiss her back and then gently sets her down three feet away from him. They're on the Brooklyn Promenade with Manhattan on the other side of the water; they can hear the water and the traffic, and Lizzie feels miserable about it and is pretty sure she ruined not only their friendship, but also whatever -- whatever other relationship they have because even if Steve won't talk about how he got her that internship there and claims to know nothing about it and even if her success since then is because she is really, really good.
She feels completely and utterly miserable about it until two weeks later. She doesn't hear from him, and he doesn't hear from her, until she accidentally forgets to take him off the evite list when she is helping a friend that they both know do publicity for his first solo gallery show, and Steve comes and says hello in his wide, friendly way and says that really likes the decision with Untitled #2 to go over the lines again in charcoal.
He looks at her. She looks at him. They're both relieved, and Lizzie knows that they're both laughing because of it.
Pepper doesn't realize until she is sitting in her office, on the phone with Steve, calling him up to ask for a second dat --
On their second date, Pepper picks the restaurant: a nice little bistro with good service, real tables, an actual wine list. It's in Brooklyn, though, out of consideration from Steve, and afterwards, they walk for a while, talking about art and the news and things that Steve has done recently. Pepper keeps her heels in her hands and flats on her feet, and Steve kisses her for the first time with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. She kisses him for the first time fifteen feet later and gets as far as tongue and maybe sliding her hand underneath his shirt and undershirt to touch his stomach when she steps away. Initially, Pepper thinks it's just to sneeze, but instead, a yawn swallows up her face. A huge yawn, enormous, wide enough so that her jaw might dislocate itself.
"Do you want to order a car to pick you up?" Steve says, maybe a little quietly.
Pepper's jaw is still convinced that she needs to be yawning; Steve sort of tries to hide a smile, but is only partially successful, and in the end, she just sort of waves her hands and shakes her head.
They take the subway back to Steve's. He passes his MetroCard back to her, and Pepper may not have ordered to order a town car to pick her up this time, and this may not be her way of saying goodbye before the words have to be said, but she does still hold his hand on the subway. She does fall asleep on his shoulder, and when she wakes up, she realizes that she is in Steve's bed. Still dressed. Still with her earrings on. Her shoes, both flats and heels, are set neatly by the side of the bed, along with her purse. The streetlights make shadows through the blinds and the leaves of the trees, and the bedside alarm clock says it's almost four in the morning.
Pepper reaches down into her purse, scans the messages on her Blackberry, and sees nothing important, so she sets it to silent for the rest of the night. After that, there is enough light from the street for Pepper to navigate by, so she comes out into the front room and sees Steve, sort of half-lying, half-wedged on his couch. It might be big enough for a Russian super-spy and a brilliant, black-haired young curator to be comfortable, but it isn't large enough for a man who has gone through the Super Solider Serum and been working in the gym four, five hours a day for the better part of a year.
"Come on," Pepper says, quietly, touching his shoulder.
He wakes, blinks, then recognizes her, and she takes his hand. They walk together back to his room, hand in hand, the lights still off; Pepper takes her earrings out, sets them on the bedside table, then lies down and tucks her head against Steve's shoulder.
"The picture in the coffee shop with the yellow and blue and gray," Pepper says, sleepily. "It's Brooklyn through a porthole of the Helicarrier, isn't it?"
"Yes," he says. "But if anybody from SHIELD asks, you're not supposed to be able to tell."
Pepper laughs quietly, and Steve puts his arm around her. It's beginning to get light at the edges of the sky, and it changes the color of the light on the walls. He can hear, distantly, cars. Maybe the rumble of the subway. Maybe trucks going to the wholesale markets before dawn. Definitely Pepper's slow, steady breathing, and Steve's last, somewhat fuzzy thought before falling asleep is that he finally, finally feels as though he belongs in this century.