He doesn’t quite understand how the world works. There is a language barrier and no one speaks English anymore. He’s told that most young people communicate through pop culture references and he’s the only twenty-something year-old who looks blank at the mention of The Simpsons.
He’s not twenty-something, of course. He’s ninety-four. He’s strong and he’s beautiful and he’s at a loss. He’s listening to Bach and wondering what it is to have a cellist. It is the twenty-first century and he is a man, who is a pharaoh-awakened, and a curse is lifted. Steve Rogers arose from the ashes, or the ice, and there was another man, like any intrepid explorer or any true believer, who died in faith, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and Steve understands guilt because it is like a speeding train or a falling plane.
There was a man who died.
There was a man.
“Did you know that there are at least fourteen Portlands in the United States?”
“No, Cap.” Tony looks at him and shrugs. “Yet, somehow it doesn’t surprise me that you’d know.”
“I’ve been to some of them,” says Steve. He waves a hand and he’s still peering at his computer.
Tony leans over his shoulder. “Hey. There’s one in New York.” Tony likes it when things are in New York. Steve thinks it’s because it’s convenient.
That Portland is near Dunkirk and maybe Dunkirk means something different to Steve. He remembers seeing the newsreels, back when Bucky’s fingers could circle Steve’s wrist with room to spare. It’s like telling a kid not to play with fire, Bucky used to say, only it’s worse. He’d test the bones of Steve’s wrist for fractures and peer at Steve’s anatomy textbook. It was the cheap Gray’s Anatomy that Steve bought for school; the one that was dog-eared and an edition earlier than the one everyone else owned but it was all he and Bucky could afford. Bucky would frown at Steve’s bloodied knuckles and he’d say, they only understand when they get burned. How many times you gotta get burned, Steve?
Bucky got burned, too. It was hard to avoid when he was forever sticking his hands into the fire to pull Steve out.
Dunkirk was miles away, Dunkirk was thirty-or-so-thousand dead and injured and Steve was picking fights with bullies in Brooklyn.
“Why are you looking up Portlands, Cap?”
Steve shrugs. Tony’s not stupid.
“I never signed those cards,” says Steve. “But maybe - “
Steve has an idea. It’s a simple one. Phil Coulson never had a family, or so Fury says.
He didn’t come out of a bottle in a lab, though, insists Steve.
Tony has the grace to look guilty.
Steve uses charcoal. It’s smudgy and messy and there are as many dark shadows as might be expected; on the page, on his hands and smeared across his cheek. This is Peggy, face turned away, hair in perfect waves down to her shoulders. This is Bucky, face turned away, collar open and bruises on his jaw and cheek. This is Howard, face turned away. This is Dr Erskine. This is, this is.
“This is bullshit,” says Tony, flicking through the pages. The charcoal is smudgy and messy and Tony stares at his fingers because he is not used to making his mark this way. “This is bullshit, Steve.” He calls him Steve sometimes. “Why is everyone turned away?”
Steve flexes his fingers. “There’s nothing to see.”
Tony’s brow is furrowed. “These are your friends.” He recognises his father. “These were your friends. They looked for you.”
“They made me,” Steve says. He is frustrated. “There’s a Portland in Maine. I like that one.”
There’s a Portland in Maine. Steve was there during the war. He remembers that the motto is Resurgam and that there was a harbour and the air smelled like the sea and that an elderly woman came up to him after the show to tell him that her only son had gone to fight in the war. She was old when she had him, she said to Steve. She didn’t think that she’d be blessed with children, but the Lord giveth and He taketh away.
Her only son had died in the Battle of Belleau Wood, in 1918.
“Steve has a plan,” says Tony.
“He wants to go see a town about a cellist.”
Natasha’s head snaps up and her eyes narrow. “He wants what?”
“I told him about Coulson’s cellist,” says Tony, as though it’s no big deal. Steve reddens, like maybe it’s a secret but dead men have no secrets and Clint and Natasha knew Coulson better than he did.
“This ought to be good,” says Clint. He’s pale and perhaps he’s not been sleeping so well recently. Steve doesn’t sleep much anymore. They say that old people need less sleep. Soon, he’s going to be the world’s oldest World War Two Veteran. Soon, he’ll be the world’s only World War Two Veteran. It is a lonely prospect.
He clears his throat and puts a map on the breakfast bar. “There are fourteen Portlands in America,” he says. “Not counting Portlandville or Portland Mills. It was definitely Portland, right?” he asks, anxiously.
“Definitely Portland,” says Clint. He’s looking at the far wall. “Shoulda said Greenville,” he mutters. Natasha smacks him and they scowl at each other. Steve doesn’t understand.
It’s two months since Phil Coulson died. Two months since they went their separate ways and then found each other again. Steve thinks that maybe Natasha and Clint never went far. Steve went to Arlington and he flew to England and held the hand of a dying woman in Winchester and she gave him a yellowing photograph, framed and faded. He’s wrapped it in brown paper and tied a string around it and it’s worth a lot of money to interested parties.
“I never signed his cards,” says Steve. Coulson had them in his jacket pocket. It is inexplicable devotion to an old-fashioned idea. “I want - I want to do something.”
“I don’t think his cellist wants cards,” says Clint.
“I just thought - maybe I could say sorry to her.”
“Maybe she was a he,” says Clint. Natasha smacks him again. It is a strange sort of communication, like pulling pigtails in a schoolyard.
Steve goes red.
“Is that a problem, Cap?” asks Tony. Steve doesn’t think that Tony ever entertained the idea of Phil’s cellist being a boy cellist but he doesn’t know how to reply, not when Bucky’s fingers could circle his wrist with room to spare, until the day they couldn’t reach anymore and Bucky collapsed in giggles against Steve’s side.
Steve shakes his head. There is a new picture in his head. There is a Portland in Oregon and Steve’s never been there. He wonders if it rains a lot. He wonders if the cellist’s fingers, which must be callused and may be long and slender, fit around Phil’s wrist.
“We’re going on a roadtrip with a defrosted Second World War veteran but, hey, as long as I can drive, let’s get this horror show on the road.”
“He’s not going to be too happy.”
“I’m not too happy, Nat, but who wants to say ‘no’ to Captain America?”
Steve has a duffel bag, packed with clothes that make Tony wring his hands in despair, and a framed and faded photograph. He has his shield with him. He smiles at Clint and Natasha and they both smile back and Clint offers to take his bag.
They are humouring him. Steve’s not so naive as to fail to recognise this simple fact. They are humouring him like they would humour any old man.
There is a Portland in Tennessee. Tony says that no cellist could flourish in Nashville. Natasha tells him to stop being so presumptuous and Clint starts singing and it turns out he can actually sing.
Tony drives and Clint sulks and calls shotgun in the same breath. He rolls down the window and Tony says he once had a labrador who liked open car windows, too. Steve never thought of Howard as a dog man.
Tony tells Clint not to drool on the upholstery.
Clint mutters something under his breath and Tony asks, brightly, where they’re going first.
Everyone looks at Steve, whose fingers tighten on the door-handle.
“Connecticut first,” he says. “And then Maine.” He thinks, Resurgam.
“And then home, right?” asks Tony. “I don’t like the Mid-West.”
Clint punches him.
“You know, that’s not so funny when I’m not wearing the suit,” says Tony, sourly. “Fine. We can go to the one in New York then, Cap. And the one in Michigan but I’m not sure they don’t eat their young in the Mid-West. Ouch. Clint, stop fucking hitting me.”
Steve catches Natasha’s eye and they smile at each other, safe in the serenity of the backseat.
“Why are you doing this, Cap?” asks Natasha, when they stop near Bridgeport for gas and for Clint to stretch his legs and do impossible lunges.
“I need to do something,” says Steve. He doesn’t know how to explain. “You don’t have to come.”
Natasha’s smile is a little unnerving. “I don’t want to hitch-hike back to Manhattan,” she says. Steve thinks she’s a little terrifying, though she’s dressed in jeans and a too-big t-shirt with the words Long Live Rock & Roll on the front. Steve thinks maybe no one would stop for her or else she’d hijack a car and it would turn into one of those stories that makes Clint laugh like a lunatic.
They listen to Janis Joplin and to Leonard Cohen because Tony believes in chronological order in his ongoing quest to educate Steve in the ways and the music of the twenty-first century and the other three sing along to Me and Bobby McGee and Steve grins as he looks out the window at the countryside blurring past.
It’s a clear day. The only clouds in the sky are airplane trails and Steve marvels at how easy it is to travel now, and how cheap, and how wealth means something more than enough food on the table.
They stop at a diner on Main Street in Portland, Connecticut. Clint steals Natasha’s fries and Natasha steals Tony’s pickles and Steve wraps his hands around a glass full of vanilla milkshake, and it’s cold and a little sticky.
“This isn’t a town for cellists,” says Clint, with a strange sort of certainty. He jumps. Natasha must have kicked him under the table. “Cap, we’re gonna go to Maine, right? I gotta good feeling about Maine.”
Tony’s eyes narrow. “Change of heart, Barton?”
“I like Maine,” says Steve and he thinks about the boy who died in Belleau Wood the year Steve was born. He was an only child, Steve remembers, and there is no one left to mourn him.
Tony says that driving on the Interstate is boring and he veers offtrack. They go to Rhode Island and Steve remembers Providence, too.
“What colour are your memories, Cap?” asks Natasha quietly.
He wishes he could tell her that they are sepia and wholesome but they are red and white and blue and that is not a bad thing, though it may not be a good thing and he renders all memories in black charcoal. He bites his lip and he knows she understands.
Tony wants to drive to Hyannis and tell Steve about the Kennedys.
Natasha snorts softly beside Steve and says something that sounds like Americans.
They stay in a five-star hotel and Clint and Natasha share a room and Tony says, “It’s like that, is it?” and Natasha gives him a look that would cripple a lesser man.
Tony is seldom the lesser man. He excuses himself and says that there is a minibar that requires his immediate attention and, within seconds, his phone rings and it must be Pepper Potts because he changes into something bashful and beautiful.
Steve goes to his room and stares at the minibar before he pulls out his sketchpad.
“Let’s go to Boston,” says Clint. “Lots of revolution and something about tea.”
“I like tea,” says Natasha. She’s sitting in the passenger seat today and Clint sits behind her, his feet up on her headrest.
“Let’s go to Maine,” says Steve, softly.
“Sure thing, Cap,” says Tony. “Sure thing.”
Steve’s not done any research into cellists in Portland.
Tony says that wasn’t very forward-thinking of him.
Steve clutches the brown paper parcel, that’s thicker than it was when he wrapped it first. He says that it’s about the journey.
He says that he’s never once reached his destination.
Clint looks sad. Natasha wraps an arm around his waist and kisses his cheek and Tony doesn’t say, “It’s like that, is it?”
Steve sits on a bench in Capisic Pond Park while Natasha tries to persuade Tony and Clint not to deface the signs. Tony declares that he’ll buy it and rename it Capsicle Pond Park and no one can stop him.
Phil Coulson suggests that the people of Portland might take exception.
Clint lets out a breath and doesn’t look surprised. Natasha holds Tony back because he looks like he wants to punch Coulson. Coulson looks paler, even than Clint, and he’s a little hunched over and he probably can’t withstand any physical violence.
Steve feels like he’s been punched in the stomach. He gets to his feet and Phil looks stricken and maybe he’s going to apologise.
Steve thinks he manages to smile. “I know that Fury lies,” he says. “I’m glad you’re not dead,” he says, even though Peggy’s dying in England and Bucky died years ago. He hands the parcel to Phil and puts his hands in his pockets. Clint puts an arm around Coulson and it’s not just to support him.
“Oh,” says Steve, on an exhale. “That - “ He gestures at the parcel. “That was for your cellist. If I’d known it was Clint, we needn’t have -” He frowns. “I didn’t know that everyone lies.”
Phil invites them back to the SHIELD safe-house he’s staying in until Fury says he can come in from the cold.
Phil opens the parcel with a knife Natasha produces from somewhere on her person. There’s the faded photograph, of Steve in his first Captain America uniform.
“It’s worth some money, apparently,” says Steve, tiredly.
There are sketches, faithful reproductions of the trading cards that were ruined when Phil didn’t die.
“You can’t keep these in your pocket, I’m afraid,” says Steve. “I’m sorry,” he says. “They were for your cellist.”
Steve is quiet on the drive back to Manhattan. Phil sits in the passenger seat and Clint is pressed up against the back of it, his arms dangling over to drape around Phil’s shoulders. They’re talking quietly to each other, their voices whipped away by the open window. Natasha sits between Clint and Steve. Steve looks outside. He pretends not to notice Tony’s concerned glances in the rearview mirror.
They get back to the Mansion and Tony tells Steve that it’s about the journey. Steve supposes that’s easy when Tony’s got a lady like Pepper waiting for him.
Phil does apologise to Steve. Steve assures him that it’s not necessary because any fool can see that Coulson’s still recovering from nearly dying.
“I can still sign the cards for you,” he says, desperate for it to mean something. “I mean. The ones that aren’t -”
“It’s worse when they’re not mad.” Steve hears Clint in the kitchen later. “It’s worse when they’re disappointed.”
“Stark’s mad,” says Coulson.
“It was an old-fashioned idea.” Coulson sounds exhausted.
“Come to bed, Phil,” says Clint. “He’ll be okay. He’s Captain America.”
“He’s a man,” whispers Phil.
“And you’re the one who nearly died bringing us all together.”
Steve goes to an empty living room and asks JARVIS to put on a movie. Any movie will do.
JARVIS chooses The Wizard of Oz.
The wizard is just a man and there’s no place like home and Steve remembers fingers around his wrist and low laughter in his ear.
There is no cellist and the wizard is just a man and Steve walks away and he has red gloves and red boots and heels that click together and he has never been so lost.
There is a brownstone in Brooklyn. It’s nowhere near where Steve grew up but it feels the same. He tells Tony about it and, within the week, Tony is handing him the deeds.
The building needs to be gutted, says Tony, and rewired, and redecorated and fortified.
Captain America doesn’t need a panic room and he pours over the plans with Pepper and Tony. Pepper brings him shopping and Darcy is overheard whispering to another intern that Cap’s ass in jeans looks better than Hawkeye’s. Tony takes far too much pleasure in relaying this to Steve and then even more when he tells Clint.
Steve goes for coffee with Phil and hesitantly tells him about the time he was in Portland during the War.
Resurgam, says Phil. It was a code all along.
Steve flies to a funeral in Winchester. Tony flies with him. And into that gate they shall enter, says the vicar. And in that house they shall dwell.
He spars with Clint. It is cathartic. He pulls all his punches and figures Clint knows he’s forgiven.
Natasha shows him where she hides all her knives. He wonders how she can move so fluidly with all those blades so close to her skin. His eyes are wide and he knows that he is trusted.
The Avengers are called to a debriefing. A file folder is thrown in front of him and the label on the cover says [THE WINTER SOLDIER].
“Bet the Portlands and their imaginary cellists are looking more appealing now,” says Stark, with undue cheer. “No, but seriously, I’ve always wanted to hunt down a crazed Russian assassin with a metal arm. I mean, there was Vanko, but that was totally amateur hour.”
Steve flips open the folder and studies it carefully. There are witness reports dating back to the fifties and blurred photographs that look like charcoal-black shadows. His fingers reflexively rub at his wrist. He looks at his team, gathered around the conference table.
“So. I guess we ought to. Assemble,” he says, quietly, and Clint smiles and Natasha’s eyes narrow and Tony whoops. Phil looks tired and relieved.
Steve closes the folder and stands up. He understands this part and he understands that they trust him.
"Suit up," he says (and Clint hands Fury a ten dollar bill).