It was getting a little easier, this new life.
With Thor at his side, Steve had gradually begun reacquainting himself with the city he'd grown up in. For the most part, he'd found that New York had enough familiarity that he could still reasonably find his way around. Street signs, certain buildings and landmarks that had been around in his day hadn't entirely disappeared in the time he'd been asleep, and that had been more of a reassurance than he had expected. But still, enough had changed overall to cause difficulty. Reconstruction, parks where buildings once stood or vice versa, and strange buildings like internet cafes and used video game stores in place of the more familiar five and dimes or chemists were bizarrely devastating, and sometimes Steve found himself having very bad days.
Thor helped an awful lot, though, and Steve rarely found himself having to deal alone with the disappointment of what he had lost. Thor loved to walk and wander regardless of where they were going, what they were doing, or if it was raining sheets from the skies. He was fascinated by every story Steve could think of to tell, whether of the changes to the city, or how it used to be, or even the smallest, most general reminiscences of Steve's own previous life. And when Thor judged Steve to be getting too sad or too morose, he would begin to tell tales of his own youth on Asgard. His stories always proved so fascinating and just downright bizarre that Steve couldn't help but listen, slowly but surely distracted from his own painful past and brought back into the new present.
Occasionally they found themselves wandering in the vicinity of Stark Towers. Each time they saw it, Steve could still hear his own voice in his head, with "that big ugly" coming out before he could stop it and right to Stark's face on top of it all, and he found himself looking for a new path to walk before he and Thor could get anywhere near it. Thor only brought it up once, and even that was just to ask if Steve had seen Stark.
"No," Steve had replied, pausing to glance in the window of a used book store. "He's got to be so busy, you know?"
Thor had nodded, sticking his hands in the pockets of the same pair of jeans he had worn every time they'd gone out - Steve knew they were the same because Thor had literally rolled down a hill about a week ago and got grass stains all over them, and Steve momentarily wondered if anyone had taught the Asgardian to do laundry or if Thor's girlfriend just figured it wasn't worth the trouble - and hummed. "He seems a difficult man to get to know."
Steve chuckled humorlessly. "Yeah. Sure."
Thor hadn't pushed the issue after that, hadn't asked why Steve was so quiet on the subject of Stark, and for that Steve was grateful. Honestly, he didn't even know where to begin in thanking Thor for everything. Even with the addition of just one friend, Steve's life was so much more bearable. Steve wasn't sure if Thor was just naturally attuned to the unhappiness of others, or had become so in light of all the Loki business (which they also never discussed, this time in deference to Thor's unhappiness with the subject), but whenever Steve got too low, or found himself a little too locked in his head, Thor would either show up unannounced, or call on Steve's cellular phone to announce some kind of weird discovery on the internet. They'd been practicing at that, too - learning how to use the internet. Thor liked anything to do with moving images, called gifs, and Steve frequently opened his email to find messages from Thor that took about a half hour to load thanks to all the graphics. In return, he would send Thor interesting articles he had found online or in the SHIELD databases about battles and GREAT WARRIORS (Thor's emphasis; Steve felt a little silly always having to shout the phrase, but it made Thor happy, so).
Steve hoped he was doing at least a fraction of the good for Thor that Thor did for him, but thanking Thor outright was generally impossible. He found that each time he tried, Thor would promptly and inexplicably challenge him to either an eating contest or a wrestling match regardless of where they were, which for obvious reasons could get pretty harrowing pretty quickly. Steve eventually just gave up on that.
Through Thor, Steve also met Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, and Eric Solveig. The latter two were nice, if a bit removed, but both brilliant enough to make Steve feel a little bit slow (though not as badly as he hand with Dr. Banner or Stark). But truly, he never felt slower than when Darcy opened her mouth and started talking at breakneck speed with more bewildering pop culture references per breath than Steve could truly handle in a month. Luckily she was only too excited to explain every single one to him, but after he'd spent more than a half hour with Thor's friends, Steve generally needed to wander off and spend some time by himself.
That was why, on a Friday afternoon, some week or two after he'd first started hanging out with Thor, Steve found himself back in SHIELD gym at what used to be his usual time. It felt different now, though. He felt looser during his warm ups, and more focused during his routines. His concentration was less of the maniacal, obsessive quality it had been before, and was more comprehensive and deliberate as he ran through other training regimes in his head while he completed his thrashing of the punching bag before him.
He still didn't hear Agent Romanov sneak up behind him, though.
"Hi," she said in the same bored tone she'd used at their first meeting, and he'd practically jumped in surprise, whirling to face her.
"Uh, good afternoon, m'am," he said, well aware his cheeks were rapidly turning pink. He put his hands behind his back to stop himself from saluting or bowing or something else equally embarrassing. "I apologize - I didn't hear you come in."
Her lips quirked a little. "That's usually the point."
Steve nodded, looking down at the floor and fiddling with his handwraps. "Can I help you with anything, m'am?" he asked.
He knew she was staring at him, but he didn't look up from the knees of her black track pants to check for sure. "Not particularly," she said eventually. "We were just wondering where you've been. We hadn't seen you around for awhile."
Steve did look up at that, watching as she brushed invisible dust off the sleeve of her black workout tee. "I - SHIELD was looking for me?" he asked, feeling a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry, m'am. I just assumed I was being monitored - I didn't even think to inform them of changes to my schedule. Is there someone I need to speak with? Some kind of paperwork I need to fill out?"
Agent Romanov stared at him again, longer this time, and Steve fought the urge to squirm. "...Steve," she said, stepping closer. "I was referring to myself and Clint, not the whole of the SHIELD facility."
Oh. "Oh," Steve said, attempting to wipe his suddenly sweaty palms on his sweatpants, forgetting that they were still all wrapped up.
"Mm," she replied, eyeing him with a strange kind of detached calculation. "We were wondering what you've been up to."
Moving away from the bag (and possibly away from her; Steve wasn't afraid of girls, he wasn't, except for the tiny way in which he was and Agent Romanov was so strong and capable and he was just Steve), he started unwrapping his hands. "Not much to tell, m'am. I've been attempting to relearn the city. Thor's been a big help."
There was an interested pause. "Thor. Asgardian Thor. Was a big help."
Steve gave a half smile over his shoulder. "It's nice not to be the most out of place guy at the party, m'am."
Suddenly, Agent Romanov was directly beside him, and Steve had to stop himself from leaping away in surprise. "Okay, enough of this. Captain, here's what we're going to do. First, I'm going to call you Steve, and you're going to call me Natasha. Is this acceptable?"
Steve nodded frantically. "Yes. I mean, of course, yes, but... are you sure?"
Agent - Natasha rolled her eyes, and before Steve could prepare himself or figure out what she was doing, Natasha had jumped up his back, clambering up and over his shoulders, effectively settling herself into a shoulder ride like Steve had seen parents give their children. Steve was pretty sure, though, that children generally did not squeeze this hard with their thighs.
"I'm sure," she said dryly. "And now, you and I are going to spar. Hurry up and do something, Steve, before I start squeezing harder."
And that was how Steve became friends with Natasha.