Ten rounds with the punching bags, and the restlessness becomes whole and destructive, something that even Steve's fists can't contain. The sweat beads underneath his eyelids, stinging him, and he swings in tight roundhouse motions, wishing for once that when his knuckles bruise and the skin peels away in flaked layers that it would stay that way. But nothing touched by the Super Soldier Serum ever stays.
He was optimistic, maybe. He thought the Avengers would change everything. Not at the beginning, good lord no. In the beginning Steve thought the only thing the Avengers were capable of changing was the shortness of his temper. They were just a mess of big talkers and smug personalities, Stark especially, and Steve's worked with enough unruly teams to know that unruliness come together is results — unruliness in independent pockets, like planets floating in each other's orbits, crashing, is just disaster.
Surprisingly he was wrong, but Steve can admit that now. He can also admit that he was wrong when he thought things would be different after. Sure, the Avengers had all split up again, but what did Fury say? That they'd come together again when they were needed. It was a nice idea, a noble idea, and Steve was all for that. Until he realized that 'when they were needed' wasn't going to be anytime soon, and instead of doing something as meaningful as fighting Loki and the Chitauri, he's back to being the skeleton at the bottom of the SHIELD closet.
"Can I get you anything?" asks one of the agents responsible for supervising him.
Her name is Sharon. No last name offered, but her eyes are bright and considering. Steve wonders what she sees when he looks at him. He has no idea, really, but he feels like a machine broken down to its individual parts. Here is Captain America's head, here is Captain America's arm, here are Captain America's feet. Valuable SHIELD property, even though no one comes right out and says it.
"I'd like to go to the park," Steve decides.
"Affirmative," Sharon says. "We'll prepare a detachment and an activity package for you right now. Mission parameters will begin at 1300."
"No," Steve says. "I mean I want to go to the park. Alone. No activity package. Maybe eat an egg salad sandwich. Throw a few sticks for dogs to chase."
She stares at him like he's decided to move to France to become a can-can dancer.
Steve thinks, Abort, abort, redefine protocols.
He leaves notes when he slips out. He's not that inconsiderate. Of course Sharon and the whole of SHIELD are going to panic when they enter his rooms and find that Captain America has vanished. So he leaves a note right on the bed, tucked against the folded sheets: Out for a little bit, be back later — S. Rogers.
It doesn't stop them from using their vast resources and incalculable skill to track him down anyway. Oh for God's sake, Steve thinks, because he's walking through the park or trying to buy tickets to see one of those new-fangled 3D movies, and he's pretty sure landscape art isn't meant to move like that. Or the movie theatre isn't supposed to be crammed with people who all have carefully concealed weapons.
He goes to Coney Island, and every time he lifts a hot dog to his mouth, he can feel at least ten different eyes on him.
It's starting to creep him out.
"So what did you do?" Sharon will ask when Steve returns in a bad humour. Steve will give her his flattest, most unimpressed look. His son, you've got too many baseballs knocked into your head look, but it doesn't affect her at all. Her face is pure professional innocence, never mind that he glimpsed her in the crowds when he was visiting the Empire State Building.
"I met a really nice gal," Steve says. "I think I'm going to marry her and we're going to run a dog breeding farm in Minnesota with her ten kids."
"That's wonderful," she replies without batting a lash.
Everything Steve owns comes from SHIELD. It's a scale with two ends, because he knows that he owes his current breathing-walking-existing status to SHIELD too. He can remember the ice, or at least he can remember how it felt to be pulled out, to wake up and feel as cold as the end of days. A false fear, as it turned out, because the end of days didn't come for him after all. The joy he felt then, followed by the loss — this too comes from SHIELD. But it doesn't stop Steve from looking at Sharon and thinking, Give me something to do. I'm going to go mad with boredom.
SHIELD wants him to lay low, however. Fury has made that explicitly clear. The Avengers caused both positive and negative backlash, and now it's better for Captain America to go underground for a little while — and besides, doesn't Steve want some more time to adjust to the twenty-first century?
Steve thinks if they give him more time to adjust, he's going to adjust something all right, and all of them will regret it.
No one wants to say no to Captain America. Which doesn't stop them from doing exactly that the first fifty times he brings it up, but finally Steve just huffs a breath and says, "Fellas, whether you like it or not, I'm going. I'm just trying to be courteous by asking first."
"You know," Fury says, "I always imagined Captain America to be less of a pain in my ass. I thought you'd be sweet and compliant, like a star-spangled puppy."
"Captain America is happy to help the nation," Steve tells him. "Steve Rogers wants to get out of your hair."
"There's no way I can convince Steve Rogers that it's a bad idea?" Fury asks dryly.
"Sir, with all due respect, Steve Rogers is a volatile creature. I hear he's got a few screws loose in his head. Who knows what he'll be driven to do if he stays in the bunker for another week." Steve keeps his face perfectly blank, and Fury barks in laughter.
"Fine. You've earned a vacation, captain. Take a car. Grab a map. Try not to drive yourself into a ditch."
Sharon meets him in the hallway. "Are you sure you'll be able to handle yourself?" she asks.
"I'm sure SHIELD will have helicopters and cameras trying to trail me anyway," Steve replies, going into his room and beginning to pack. "So it shouldn't be a problem. I know how to use a credit card even."
"Captain America on a road trip, huh," she says, crossing her arms and leaning against the doorway. "Where are you going to go? I thought New York was your hometown."
Steve thinks about it. Then he knows, as quick as anything. "I'm going to visit Peggy's grave," he says.
SHIELD pushes through Steve's application for a driver's license, and while Steve feels bad about using his privileges to jump the system, he's glad when he's holding the piece of plastic between his hands, squinting down at his terrible photo, in which he looks like a mountain man gone two days in an avalanche.
He starts smiling when he sees it. He looks dopey, he knows, but he can't stop smiling. Even after Sharon gives him a run-through with the Corolla SHIELD is lending him for the trip. Steve knows how to drive from his military days, and even if modern cars are different, he gets the hang of it fast. He's always been good at learning physical tasks. He was like that even before the Serum, though his quick hands and deft reflexes never mattered much when his lungs were all messed up. Now they're not, and now Sharon and the other SHIELD agents are watching him anxiously as he backs out of the parking lot and into the New York traffic.
"Bye!" he shouts out the window, and every single one of them looks like they want to chase him down on foot and drag him back. They don't think he can do it. They think he's going to crash into a fire hydrant and that'll be the end of it, sorry Rogers, you're just not cut out for the big bad world, why don't we have a nice steak dinner.
Steve likes steak dinners. Never had much of them growing up. He also likes freedom, and when he's alone and behind the steering wheel, he feels the whoosh of joy in his chest. It doesn't matter if traffic is nothing like what he remembers. There's so many more cars and people on the streets these days, and he nearly has a heart attack on every corner because not only are there more, they also move much so much faster than he remembers vehicles moving before.
Calm down, soldier. He'll get used to this too.
Cars honk at him on major avenues and jaywalkers look at him with undisguised loathing as he inches towards the intersection, the slowest driver on the block.
Steve grins at them and waves.
He takes the interstate out of New York into New Jersey, and after nearly an hour of driving without death or apocalypse, Steve knows that he can do this. Never mind what he told SHIELD agents before. That was just fluff so they would loosen up a bit. Now he knows he can do this. Steve is an imperfect person; he'll be the first to admit it. He tries to be good, because being good seems the only worthwhile thing in the entire world. Being good, unlike being beautiful or being rich, is something they can never take away from you. But he has his flaws, which Bucky, being a loyal friend, never let him forget. Fortunately, insecurity isn't one of them. Steve knows he can do things and do them well. All he wants is the chance.
Sometimes it does make him sad, seeing how many chances are given to Captain America compared to skinny, scrawny Steve Rogers of Brooklyn, but then again, that Steve Rogers got the biggest chance of all. The chance to change himself, which Captain America will never have.
He doesn't drive until he gets tired, because the Serum knocks those perspectives askew. He drives, instead, until he's running low on gas. He pulls up into an interstate Wawa. When he looks at the gas pump, he thinks, all right, first hurdle up to bat. He reads the instructions and presses the buttons dutifully, but then it comes time to use his credit card, and Steve lied to Sharon. He's never used a credit card before.
"Chip?" he mutters. "Insert chip? What's a chip?" Surely they don't mean a potato chip, because it hardly makes sense to insert a potato chip inside a finely tuned machine. Or does it? The modern world has some very strange customs.
He shores up his pride and goes into the gas station casually, trying to pretend like he knows exactly what he's doing. "Can I pay by cash, to you?" he asks the teenager running the cash register, and she looks surprised before shrugging.
Steve adores her desperately. He wants to bring her flowers. Instead he reaches into his wallet and hands over one of the crisp bills SHIELD gave him before he left — he doesn't like using their money, but right now he doesn't have any other choice. It's not as if millions of dollars conveniently froze in the sea along with him.
The teenager looks him up and down. She's wearing glittery green eyeshadow, lined with gold. The colours remind him of Loki, which is unfair to her. Steve wonders if she'll recognize him. Captain America and the Avengers were on the TV endlessly during the whole Loki affair. But then she tilts her head, dreadlocks falling down over her shoulders, and says, "Where you headed?" She sounds bored and lonely, which Steve understands all too well.
"Colorado," he tells her.
"That's pretty far," she says. "What's in Colorado?"
"The woman that I love," Steve says. Her eyebrows shoot straight up, and Steve continues, softly, "She's dead now. But she spent the last years of her life with her husband in Colorado, and that's where she's buried."
"Sorry to hear that," the teenager replies. She gazes at him, and he knows how he appears: young fellow, prime of his life. "My aunt was like that. Died of cancer. Yours?"
"Not cancer," Steve says. "Time."
It's the small towns that fascinate Steve, mostly because he hasn't been in them much. Usually he only ever passed through a small town on account of military business and training, which is hardly the same as visiting it as he does now. This is a fact that surprises many people, at least according to a poll Sharon once showed him, where in the 60s Sports Illustrated polled its readers and asked where they thought Captain America was from. 70% of the respondents said from a small town. Only 20% — the true fans, Sharon had said, amused — got it right. Steve sees the appeal in the wrong answer, in the extra bit of mythology that slots into Captain America's apparent fame and glory — which still startles him, because he wasn't nearly so well-known when he was actually alive.
But back to the matter at hand: small towns. They make him nervous and excited at the same time. Nervous because he's a stranger wandering through, sitting at their diners and eating their food, listening to the locals talk like he's trying to be one of them — and in a way, yes, that's exactly what he wants. To imagine for himself the childhood that the public has imagined for him. Steve Rogers in a small town like this one, population 7,000, fed on corn, milk, and apple pie.
He stops for a few days at Stony River, Maryland. He has no desire to continue traveling on SHIELD's money, so he goes to the town hall and asks if there's any temporary work that needs to be done. Not at town hall, says the clerk, but he better go ask Barbara at the post office because she has a cousin who's building a new house.
This is how Steve finds himself shirtless, in the sun, helping to carry floorboards and erect rafters. There's a team of five men, most of them from a local construction company. They all know each other, and at first they're wary of Steve, uncertain of exactly who he is and why he's so strong. But Steve tries to find common interests to talk about, and they warm to him when he shows them just how hard he works. By the end of the second day they're dreaming of bonuses while eating lunch together on the steps, and the other men are telling him exactly which ladies in town are the prettiest, the sweetest, the most fiesty.
"You saw Barb making eyes at you?" Billy says, jostling Steve in the ribs. "You're fresh blood, new meat. She wants to add you to her post, if you know what I mean."
Steve turns a little red. "She's very nice," he says.
"Nice!" George chortles. "Are you kidding me? Don't tell me you're one of those shy types. If I looked like you, I'd be swindling it for all I got." He shoots Steve a look. "You're not a Mormon, are you?"
"I don't believe so," Steve says.
Billy, George, and the gang remind him of the boys at war, of the Howling Commandos. Swap out the hammers for the guns and the lemonade for war rations and Steve would be wholly willing to believe it. He relaxes, leaning back on his elbows, looking up at the clear blue sky while the men chatter all around him about their wives, their work, about the Baltimore Ravens.
Billy invites him over for dinner with his family. Steve buys flowers for Billy's wife, and she puts them on the kitchen table before ushering him to a seat. The table is heavy with food: fried chicken, potatoes, peas, a slice of angel food cake. "My darling, my wife, the love of my life," Billy declares after popping open a few beers, and Ollie laughs when he pulls her down onto his lap. Their son Mike makes a sound of supreme disgust at seeing his parents kiss. Steve averts his eyes.
Mike asks him, "Do you like frogs?"
"Sure," Steve replies. Never had anything against frogs. As it turns out, Mike is Stony River's champion frog hunter, and he insists on going out when the sun is setting and the town is getting dark. Ollie looks at Steve, and then at her impatient son.
"How about you take him?" she says. "Make sure he doesn't fall down a ravine and break his neck."
In New York City, this would never happen. Strange man entrusted with the safety of their son? But Mike is already halfway out the door with his net and his frog kit, ordered straight from the most prestigious frog-catching sites on the internet. Steve gets up and follows him.
Sundown casts tiger-stripe silhouettes over Stony River. Between the town and the distant lake, he can hear crickets. Mike ambles ahead of him, barely even paying attention to Steve, who follows a few feet behind, walking through the lamppost-lit streets, past teenagers loitering outside the 7-Eleven, looking for something fun to do, past Barb on her way back from work. He smiles at her and she pulls him aside to ask if he's planning on staying in town for long. The answer is no, but he tries to be gentle about it, and she nods with a sigh, as if that's the way of life. Men come, men go, and life continues.
In Carolville, West Virginia, the motel manager comes out and informs him, sadly, that the pipes have broken and are flooding the floors. So the only motel in the town is closed for the night.
"That's fine," Steve says, and brushes aside the motel manager's offer to find him townsfolk willing to lodge him. Steve likes the comfort of motels with their soft sheets and their indoor plumbing, but he's spent nights in worse conditions during the war. His car is well-insulated and has all of his belongings inside. He's perfectly happy to spend the night sleeping in the parking lot.
He's curled up in the backseat, which is admittedly a tight fit, but he's made himself moderately comfortable using his backpack as a pillow when his cell phone bursts into sound.
Steve fumbles for it. He drops it to the floor of the car, fishes it out, and answers. "Hello?" he asks sleepily. He looks at his watch. It's three in the morning.
"It's okay, Rogers, no matter how bad it gets, life is still worth living."
He sighs. "What do you want, Stark?"
"What do I want?" Tony says. "What I want is to stop looking at the SHIELD camera feeds, which are clearly showing me Captain America in the middle of a mental breakdown."
"Stop spying on me," Steve says, hanging up. He buries his face into the mesh fabric of his backpack and prepares to fall back asleep, except Tony Stark is a persistent son of a... well, actually Steve is certain that Tony's mother was a perfectly nice woman. It's not kind of him to insult her just because her son is a maniac. "What?" he growls when he answers for the second time.
"You're sleeping in your car," Tony says immediately. "You haven't shaved for two days. This is clearly and obviously a cry for help."
"I'm fine," Steve says.
"You drank a slurpee for lunch the other day!"
"It was tasty," Steve says. "And I hope you and SHIELD haven't been watching me when I use the shower." He doesn't put too much hope in this.
"Why would I do that?" Tony replies. "If I was smart about it, I'd sell the tape to the highest bidders. Ladies and gents, Captain America for your viewing pleasure. His shoulders are the size of Illinois. His biceps are the size of Arizona. As for what part of him is Texas-sized, well, let's just say it's right down in the Deep South."
There are few things more off-putting than the sound of Tony Stark laughing himself to stitches on the other side of the phone. They're friends now, sort of. They're allies at the very least. They get along. But Steve wants to sleep, and so he says, "Good night, Tony" in a very firm voice before hanging up and turning off his cell phone.
Halfway through West Virginia, Steve sees a hitchhiker on the side of the road. He's so far away that he's just a smear of blues on the black tarmac, but Steve pulls over for him anyway. Then he frowns when he sees who it is.
"Barton," he says.
"Lovely afternoon, isn't it, Cap?" Clint replies, climbing inside the car.
"SHIELD didn't put you up to this, did they?" Steve asks suspiciously, pressing his foot to the gas pedal again.
Barton rolls his shoulders, and his bones make cracking sounds. "I've got a job in Colorado. I just happened to be in the area. Lucky us, huh?"
Steve doesn't believe him for one second. He's already swinging his head around as he drives, trying to find a flash of red on the road, because where there's Barton, Romanova can't be too far behind. Then he glances in the rear view mirror and freezes.
"Hello," Natasha says calmly from the backseat, sitting beside Barton.
"How did you — never mind," Steve says quickly. "Where are you headed, Agent Romanova?"
"I'll know when I get there," she replies, and Steve remembers helping her take that running leap, seeing her hit his shield and then soar up into the air. A bird in flight. He nods and goes back to driving.
Clint says, "Good thing I brought along all these magazines. Look, they even have an article on you, Cap." He opens it with deliberate relish and starts reading. "'Captain America, solid and strong, with his all-American good looks and his thighs of molten steel—'"
"Please stop," Steve says.
"—most eligible bachelor of the country ever since Tony Stark announced his engagement to Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark Industries," Clint continues.
"Wait," Natasha interrupts. "How can his thighs be molten steel? Wouldn't they be liquid then?"
"I think they just mean his thighs are really hot and hard," Clint says.
"Well, that's sloppy writing," she says.
Steve turns on the radio.
It's true. He'll admit it: sometimes when he looks at Natasha and Clint, seeing how cagey they are with others but how much trust there is between themselves, he'll feel a twist in his chest that's exactly like jealousy. What would it be like, he wonders, to know someone else that well? To trust them entirely, to lean on them in both hard times and when they both fall asleep in the backseat, Clint snoring loudly while Natasha's mouth hangs open. Steve used to have that with Bucky, with his fellow soldiers. But now the ice is water again, and he's not quite sure he knows how to swim.
They don't talk about what happened with the Avengers, though the word is written into every conversation they ever have, every flick of the tongue. Instead they talk about Coulson.
"I have them with me," Steve confesses on a twilight road between West Virginia and Kentucky. "His cards. I don't know what to do with them."
"Of course you know," Natasha says. "You could have packed anything, but you packed them. You know what to do with them. You just want to pretend that you don't." Her voice is calm and brutal, and Steve can imagine her leading armies.
"He loved Wagon Wheels," Clint says suddenly. "Used to have boxes of them stashed in his locker. Do you remember when—"
Steve doesn't know these stories. He only knew Phil Coulson for a short while, but it was a short moment like the ricochet of a bullet — it rips into you, and you never forget. Clint and Natasha remember all the stories: Coulson with his Wagon Wheels, Coulson at the opera, the time Coulson refused to admit that he got the rest of them lost and they ended up camping in the marshlands with mosquitoes eating every inch of their skin. The stories all have a quality of obscurity to Steve, most of them only funny if you were actually there, but that's the way it works. If you were there, and for the past seventy years, Steve's been nowhere.
They stop in a succession of Kentucky towns where they eat huge bowls of chili with sourdough bread at restaurants and go bowling at rinky-dink bowling alleys. The games are, in and of themselves, rather boring, because they're all so physically adept that they nearly always score strikes. But to watch Clint slide around on bowling shoes while Natasha furrows her brow into an expression of exact concentration — Steve smiles. They make a competition out of their matched talents. Natasha wins in Waynesburg, Clint in Cold Spring, and Steve in Bellevue. Then they get to Prospect and start it all over again.
When they're on the road again, and Clint is playing games on his cell phone, Natasha says to Steve, "Fury says you were moping at SHIELD headquarters. It was starting to bring down morale."
"I wasn't moping," Steve says, trying to keep his eyes on the road. "I was just... tired."
"It's a big country," Steve says instead. He doesn't know how to explain it. "America. It's so big. Too big to stay in one room forever."
Natasha laughs, clean and precise, laughter like winter springs. "I don't think there's a single room that could have held you," she says. "And I'm Russian. You don't have to tell me about big countries. That's the loveliness of them. They're bigger than our hearts."
In Pevely, Missouri, they get into town at the same time as the Annual Missouri Environmental Cake-Decorating Convention, which means there's only one room available at the crowded Holiday Inn. Two beds though, the hotel clerk offers, so they decide to take it. Steve looks around the room and says, "You two can have the beds. I'll take the floor," but Natasha and Clint both roll their eyes.
"We can share," Clint says.
"Oh," Steve says. A thought occurs to him, not for the first time. They are, after all, so very at ease with each other. "Are you two—"
Natasha raises her eyebrows. "We've shared before on missions."
"Right," Steve amends. He stretches and yawns. They've been driving for so long that even he feels tired, and so he claims first dibs on the bathroom to brush his teeth and change into his boxers. When he comes out, he finds Natasha and Clint already passed out on their bed, both of them lying on the blue-edged covers rather than underneath. Steve laughs a bit, because how can they be so tired when all they did was sit in the backseat and make fun of him. But he sees the way they breathe, slow and even, killers in the midst of dreaming — but he doesn't know what they dream about.
"Tasha," Clint murmurs.
"Mmm?" Natasha replies. Her hand is curled around a gun.
"Captain's staring at us."
"So?" she says, rolling over.
Steve goes over to his bed, turning off all the lights along the way. It's a humid July evening, but he needs the heat because anything to him is better than cold. He doesn't even use the air conditioning, and instead he keeps the windows open, feeling the sticky firefly warmth of a Midwestern summer.
His phone buzzes with an incoming text message. It's from Tony.
now you're having orgies with clint and natasha????
It's the strangest thought, but it comes to him anyway: that maybe Tony is jealous. Not of the supposed orgies between him, Clint, and Natasha, obviously, unless Tony is jealous of falling asleep in hotel rooms with the heat rolling in and Steve's sweat soaking into his pillow, like osmosis — or maybe that's exactly it. Maybe Tony wants something just like the rest of them do, something he can't buy with money. A trip, a journey, a team. Maybe they're all looking around, sizing each other up, and each of them sees something they wish they could have for themselves.
He wakes up in the middle of the night, and for once it's not because Tony is calling him. It's for no reason at all except that it's what you do after you sleep — you wake.
He wakes, and Clint is sitting up on the bed, watching late night TV with the volume off. Natasha is curled up on the other side of the mattress, young and deceptively vulnerable. Clint sees Steve stir and lifts his hand in a lazy salute. "Sweet dreams, Cap?"
"I dreamed —" Steve listens to the ever-present sound of crickets, to the muffled footsteps of their neighbours outside in the hall, to the rise and fall of Natasha's breathing. "I dreamed of Peggy."
Right when they enter Kansas, they find a naked man running towards them with a ticking bomb in his hands. On the plus side, it's Bruce Banner.
"Whoa, what is this," Clint says, but Bruce sets the bomb down at their feet and immediately begins to disarm it.
"They're coming after me," he says, fingers working like a concertina. "Keep them off my back."
Steve sees, in the distance, three men in leather jackets. Natasha smiles and lifts her gun. She shoots all three of them in succession, and Clint scowls. "Way to hog all the fun," he says, while Natasha ejects her empty cartridge.
"Did you kill them?" Steve asks.
"No, it's a tranquilizer," she says. "Should I have killed them?"
"Probably not," Bruce says. "Ah, okay, the bomb is disarmed." He stands up and then seems to remember his nakedness. He folds his arms over his chest. "Does anybody have any clothes?"
Steve goes to his trunk and finds an extra pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He tosses it over to Bruce, who ducks behind the car to change. "Were you Hulking out?" Steve asks while Bruce zips up the jeans.
"Not at all," Bruce says. "I was just stripping for fun and entertainment. You know me," he adds ruefully. "My mother wanted me to be a scientist. I wanted to be a Las Vegas showgirl."
Steve scratches the back of his neck. "We aren't judging. We know it's hard to maintain control."
"I know," Bruce says. He tugs on the t-shirt and reappears on the other side of the car. "Can I get a ride to Colorado? I'm supposed to attend a conference on quantum mechanics."
"Join the party," Clint says. "Aside from One-eyed Jenny, we're the best ride in town." He's commandeered the keys for the next leg of the journey, forcing Steve and Bruce to squish in the backseat while he drives and Natasha gets shotgun. Not fair, Steve thinks, but Clint and Natasha united is a front that none of them can defeat. Clint turns the radio to classic rock, and they listen to Led Zeppelin while Clint squeals the Corolla's wheels on the tarmac.
"Have I ever mentioned," Bruce says mildly, "that I get horribly, horrifically carsick?"
Steve rummages through the garbage, magazines, and ammo in the backseat until he finds a leftover McDonald's bag. He hands it over.
"For science," Bruce says, clutching it close.
Bruce isn't quite forthcoming about the people who were trying to kill him, which, as it turns out, is a bit of a mistake because they run into them again. Not the same people, because people who meet Natasha's gun tend to try to never meet her again, but a different arm of the same sect. "They want the Other Guy," Bruce says. "Everybody wants the Other Guy."
"Your life is a B-list romantic comedy starring Julia Stiles," Clint says.
Bruce's enemies catch up to them in Palace Dome, right at the border between Colorado and Kansas. Steve's beginning to know a lot about borders now, the lines drawn, the sides taken — and he'd be lying if he said he wasn't itching for a good fight. He doesn't even have to wear spandex this time. He's in his jeans and a New York, New York t-shirt, and a man in a ski mask is trying to strangle him right in front of Palace Dome's greatest tourist attraction: The World's Largest Plastic Zucchini.
It's big, it's plastic, it's a zucchini, and Clint is scaling it right this very moment, bow in hand. The locals are watching in morbid fascination, and they hear some of them whisper: Avengers. Avengers here to defend the honour of the zucchini, and also Bruce, who sticks close to Natasha as she fires off rounds into the army of men who have just decamped from the back of a pick-up truck.
"To my left!" Steve yells over the din of the bullets. Natasha whirls around and disposes of a goon who was sneaking to Steve's left, his undefended side as he's currently blocking the blows of a goon to his right.
Second time, and it's no coincidence: they work well together. Steve and Natasha have the ground covered as a coordinated team while Clint handles tactical air strikes. Bruce in his non-Hulk form prefers not to fight, but he doesn't have much of a choice when he gets cornered against the Corolla, and then he takes one of Natasha's huge Russian novels and smashes it over his attacker's head. He kicks him in the stomach, and hits him with Tolstoy again for good measure.
"Nice one!" Clint calls from the zucchini.
It isn't saving the world, but it is saving the tourism industry of Palace Dome, Kansas, at least until the ropes holding up the World's Largest Plastic Zucchini are cut in the fray. Clint jumps off, but it's too late to stop it: the zucchini begins rolling down the hill while screaming children scramble to get out of its way.
Steve jumps forward and stops the zucchini with both of his hands, pushing up against it while telling the children to run. They do, and from the top of the hill he can hear Natasha, Clint, and Bruce laugh and laugh.
Well, so what if they do? He's just saved seven children from a week of bruises. And afterwards they'll get ice cream.
"Homelessness, orgies, and giant phallic-shaped objects rolling into the valley," Tony says. "Clearly you're all having fun without me."
Steve squints in the early morning light. Tony is sitting on the edge of his motel bed, looking awake and chipper and way too dangerous for Steve's mental health. "I thought you were supposed to be working," Steve says, rubbing his face with a yawn. "Companies to manage, money to spend, Miss Potts to annoy, that sort of thing."
"Done, done, and done," Tony says. "In fact, Pepper has said that if I dare step foot anywhere near her in this most important week of S.I. business, she'll get a restraining order."
Clint pokes his head inside the door. "Is that Stark?"
"Hello bolt-boy!" Tony says.
Bruce comes in to see what the commotion is about. Tony looks extra pleased to see him. "Lab bro!" he says. Natasha comes in too. "Not lab bro," Tony says, "though maybe if you paint your face green and I squint, it'll work out."
"Just buy us breakfast, Stark," she says, and Tony is happy to do just that. In fact, Tony is happy to do more than buy them breakfast. Tony is happy to squeeze into the Corolla and come with them the rest of the trip, which gives Steve a headache because 1) it's a tiny car, and 2) Tony's elbows are weapons of mass destruction. With how often he's texting, or pointing at random pieces of foliage in the horizon. Not to mention his blatant disregard of the use of other people's laps as private domains.
"You know, we could switch cars," Tony says.
"No thanks," Steve says. "It sort of defeats the purpose, driving around the country in a limo."
"A limo? What are you, a crackwhore?" Tony says. "I was thinking a tank. I've got lots of spare military vehicles just lying around, waiting to be used in reckless and suicidal ways."
"See? Now that's what I'm talking about." Tony leans over Steve and starts rummaging through the piles of junk on the car floor. "Now where's the booze?"
"We don't have any," Bruce says.
"You... don't have any booze?" Tony looks like they've just told him Pamela Anderson won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
"Alcohol doesn't work on Steve, it makes Bruce angry, and Natasha doesn't want her judgement clouded," Clint says, ticking it off on his fingers. "I know, it's terrible. Cry with me."
In Colorado Steve lets Clint and Natasha take turns driving. He's content to stare out the window at the mesas rising from rocky desert land, as red as a sailor's morning, the land dry and infertile until they reach the seams where pine trees and spruce begin to dot the highway borders, and mountains push up from the ground like promises. Tony doesn't seem too impressed because he's seen it all before, and Bruce is too busy gagging into his paper bag — but Steve thinks of its loveliness, and he remembers something else just as lovely: the curl of Peggy's hair over her cheek, the upward tilt of her mouth when she smiled.
Thinking of her as dead is spectacularly painful, because he remembers so clearly that she was alive, alive and waiting, her hands moving with the grace of swords. It's easier to hold a picture of her being frozen in time, as he was. To let himself be lulled into that fantasy: she's sleeping, she's encased in ice, and one day she'll wake up.
But he can't think that way. It's the twenty-first century, and Steve has a new year's resolution: be good, don't lie, not even about this.
The town of Maryton is serene and quiet, and from every point on every street Steve can see the ice-tipped mountains. It's exactly the sort of place Peggy would have liked. He can see why she chose to grow old here with her husband and her grandchildren. When he walks the streets with the other Avengers, he tries not to stare into the face of every passer-by, divining Peggy's features in theirs, wondering which are her grandchildren, which of these girls laughs like she does, which of these boys moves like she moves.
From the gas station, he gets directions to the cemetery, but first he finds a florist and buys an armful of roses. They're dark and deep, as red as her lipstick.
"It's raining," Bruce observes when they leave the florist's.
"Yeah," Steve says.
Even Tony is quiet when they go to the cemetery. "We'll, uh, give you space," he says, and then pretends to be fascinated by the gravestone of one Lou Cavill. The others join him, loitering around the Maryton cemetery while Steve searches the grassy rows for Peggy's. He finds it, second to the last on the right, and the ball in his throat feels like a disease, like the only way they'll ever get it out of him is by scalpel.
"Peggy," he says. He doesn't know what else to say except the truth: that he loved her, that he loves her, that it's an ache in him worse than any crash landing. He wonders if it makes him selfish, wishing that she had gone down into the water with him and they'd both woken up in the future. Then he wouldn't have to be so alone.
Except on that thought he can hear Tony talking loudly with Clint's pointed objections. He can turn around and see Natasha and Bruce bent over a curious gravestone, engaged in serious conversation. When this is over, they'll have lunch and see what there is to do in Maryton; when this is over — but it'll never be over, Steve thinks, the good parts and the bad.
People come, people go, life continues.
And sometimes when people do stay, they stay for a long time.
It starts raining for real, the sky breaking open like the skin of a pomegranate to pour down. The water soaks into the roses and Steve's polo shirt, plastering his hair to his forehead. It dribbles over the letters on Peggy's tombstone, and over the dates that Steve knows the same way he knows his multiplication tables, the way he knows that y follows x. He stands at attention for a long time, and then he knows what he wants to do. He takes out a set of bloodstained collector's cards from his back pocket and places them beside the roses. Peggy would be happy to share her space with a fellow brave soldier. He thinks of Bucky too, Bucky his best friend. All the people he one day aspires to be.
Steve straightens his heels and salutes them.
Over on the other side of the graveyard, the other Avengers are huddled under two umbrellas. Clint is holding a newspaper over his head. But none of them look impatient. "Are you done?" Natasha asks him, not because she wants to leave but out of simple curiosity. Are you done? Is the mission complete? Did you leave no one behind?
"I think so," Steve says.
Tony tilts his head up to the sky. "You know, when it rains like this, I can't help but think of Thor. Wonder what he's doing right now."
"Drinking mead among beautiful Valkyries, probably," Clint says.
"Rapunzel bastard," Clint agrees.
"You ever think it gets tangled in a fight?" Bruce wonders.
"We'll have to ask him when we see him," Natasha says. She falls into step beside Steve as they leave the cemetery, and right then, as she holds open the car door for him, they see a streak of lightning, followed by a loud rumble of thunder that shakes the ground. They've explained it to him before, yet Steve doesn't quite understand where Thor is, the mechanics of interdimensional travel being slightly more difficult to grasp than the navigation of cable television.
But this is what he imagines: a city in the sky, another world, and somewhere out there he has friends who are throwing their golden heads back laughing in halls that go on forever, and somewhere out there the people he cares for are as happy as Steve has ever wanted them to be, and somewhere out there Peggy has put on a record and is dancing.
Meanwhile, those in the rain assemble in the car together, and then with Steve at the wheel, they start their way home.