There it was again. It was a hiccup in the routine that happened around the same time every day. There was a neat little stack of files that always made him stop on his way out. Director Fury had let Steve hold onto them, and when Steve asked if that was against regulation he was told not to worry about it. Out of kindness or pity Steve didn't know, but he was thankful. Now they gathered dust beneath a desk lamp that hadn’t been turned on in weeks. It’s not like the information changed, and Steve had it all memorized from his initial glimpse.
Even the top file was the same, but that was the problem wasn’t it? Miss Margaret Carter was still alive, the door to the past not fully closed. He didn’t know whether making the call would shut the door or blast it wide open.
Steve woke up at the crack of dawn since he only needed a few hours of sleep, but he rarely got up right away. Due to his military training, he forced himself out of bed. Go out for a morning jog, come back and shower, get ready for the new day. There wasn't much of anything to do in his apartment so he headed back out into the city that was familiar and foreign at the same time.
But he always paused when passing his desk to stare at the files. Maybe it wasn’t a hiccup after all since it found its way into his routine.
Then he'd leave and grab a bite to eat at that nice little cafe that had been under construction since the Battle of Manhattan; the same with everywhere else. The city was filled with caution tape blocking off torn up concrete, sides of buildings remaining under construction, unused rubble piled up by alleyways. It created a lot of jobs but some buildings took priority over others, corporate offices over restaurants. He'd ask if there was anything he could do to help out and Beth, the waitress, would say with a bright smile that she appreciated the offer. Sometimes that meant yes. Other times, they were doing alright.
After breakfast, whether or not he was needed there he would wander the disheveled streets, asking the smaller areas if there was any work that could be done. He’d help people clear out debris, fix the things that were broken, maybe run an errand or two, and he was thankful for the hours of work because for just a moment he didn't have to think. His hands had something to do, something solid to hold onto. When the job was done he’d head out with a smile and a wave and without accepting any payment, because having his thoughts preoccupied was payment enough. He repeated the process until late at night.
He'd grab some more food, and sometimes he'd overhear things about the Avengers, unintentionally of course since his hearing was better than the average person. People speculated where they could be, except for Stark of course, what they were up to, and what exactly they did when they weren't defending the Earth. Do you think the agents ever sleep? Could you imagine Thor buying groceries? Or the Hulk, could you imagine him strolling through the park?
What about Captain America? What do you think the guy does in his downtime?
Really, it isn't anything special, he wanted to say but he always remained silent.
The funny thing was that the Avengers felt as distant as everything else in his life since the Initiative. It had been about six, seven months ago? He lost count after a while since the days blurred together whenever he tried to think back.
In the gym he spent the final hours of the day, now night, going a few rounds with the punching bag and thinking about the people who were still alive but he hasn't seen since the invasion. The agents he figured stayed at S.H.I.E.L.D., and Director Fury checks in with him once a week. Dr. Banner disappeared, though Steve figured that was for the best. Thor was in Asgard, another dimension or galaxy from what Steve understood.
And Stark was right around the corner. It wasn't hard to miss the tower, especially since it was the only building fully fixed. If Steve really wanted to he could stop by and say hi… It's just, well, what if Steve decided to walk to Stark's Tower and ring the doorbell - did Tony even have a doorbell? But what would they say to each other?
As much as Steve wanted to, er, was curious about the idea, he couldn’t think of a good reason to do it.
And it didn't make him angry... He didn't know what to feel at all. He noticed lately that his training wasn't as rigorous as it used to be. His movements were slowing down, he couldn’t tell if it was a lack of motivation or an overall improvement, since he wasn’t feeling as frustrated anymore. He felt tired.
Maybe he just wanted to sleep.
And that was how Steve's daily routine went. The exhaustion was new but he figured it was from doing the same thing over and over, and he preferred it that way. It made the days feel more concrete.
Steve set Peggy's file down, knowing it was better to just not change the routine. He made sure he had his wallet, keys, and identification before he headed out.
Right when he reached for the handle there was a knock.
Steve paused, staring at the door with a furrowed brow. Did he just imagine that? Director Fury usually phoned him every Monday morning at six AM. Who would--
Another knock, quiet and brisk.
Steve glanced through the peephole, even more confused than before as he opened the door.
"Nat-- I mean, Miss Romanoff. Hi."
It felt surreal, Natasha standing on his doorstep in civilian clothes that fit her nicely. Her hair was longer but she was the same, even the way that the side of her mouth quirked up like a cat.
"Hello Steve. How are you?"
Steve rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the nerves creep up his spine. "Fine, I’m alright. Do you wanna come in?"
Steve shut the door once she was inside.
"I like what you've done with the place," she said. “Very… clean.”
"Well, I'm not here all that much. Not much of a chance for it to get messy," Steve admitted. “Should probably dust the place though.”
Natasha didn't respond and he wondered if he should have lied instead. Then she said, "Well, I happened to be in the area and I decided to drop by. See how Captain Rogers was doing."
He cracked a smile, trying not to show that, well, that made him downright giddy. Already he was feeling more awake. A little more alive.
"I was gonna grab something to eat, actually. You're welcome to join me if you want to, of course."
"I'd like that," Natasha sounded genuine enough, and Steve held the door for her on the way out.
"So Coulson is okay after all?" They were sitting at Steve's usual place for breakfast, he wanting more than anything to share it with someone else. Natasha seemed to like it enough, sipping her coffee and carrying on conversation like a regular person, not the formidable agent that she was.
"Physically yes. He is still recuperating but he is making progress. Mentally, he's dying a little more inside on a daily basis since agents have been assigned to monitor him when he’s on the field."
"I could imagine how anxious he must be," Steve said. "But at least he has people looking out for him in case there’s an accident."
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Oh, there have been accidents, but not on Phil’s part. More of it’s difficult for any agents to keep up with a veteran of a Level 7 clearance.”
“Yeah, that would do it.” He couldn’t help but wonder why Director Fury hadn’t told him though. Why would he forget to mention it?
Natasha nodded and took a bite of her sandwich. "Lucky for him, our resident hawk has been hovering up top as well. He has also permanently nested in his room."
"Well it shows that he cares. They are partners." Steve couldn't help but think back to WWII, the Howling Commandoes. They dubbed him the "mother hen" of the group since he was quick to react to any injury. Or so they told him.
He could have sworn Natasha was smirking when she said, "That is true, in more ways than one."
“What do you mean? Do they hang out off duty too?”
Natasha didn’t respond, and it took a while for Steve to understand what she meant. She was finishing her food when the idea sunk in and his brow rose, a response trying to form to what she suggested. "W-wait, Phil and Clint--"
"Can I get you two anything else?" Beth asked. Usually she stuck around for a bit to chat but she'd been somewhat distant this time around. Maybe not as many people were working today.
"This'll be fine, thank you," Natasha said in a sweet tone.
"Oh?” Beth turned to Steve. “No slice of apple pie for you?"
"Actually, that, that sounds good," he fumbled, feeling heated under the collar.
"Coming right up." The waitress glanced at Natasha in a way Steve didn't understand before she walked away.
"Phil and Clint," Steve turned back to Natasha. "Those two are an item?"
"Since Phil first woke up in the hospital. Why?" Natasha arched an eyebrow. "Is this a problem?"
"Of course not," Steve immediately said. "I just, I guess the concept is a little new to me. Didn’t know it was alright to date co-workers."
“Although it was rumored that Captain America had a sweetheart of his own.”
Steve grimaced and remained silent.
"If you don't mind me asking..." Natasha leaned forward and Steve perked up. "Have you ever even considered dating another man, Captain Rogers?"
It was an honest question that made Steve more thoughtful than embarrassed. It never occurred to him, thinking of another man in that light. He used to wonder about the kinda person he'd end up with pre-serum, since girls usually looked past, er, over him. In the military he had Peggy, at least for a little while. But all the guys that he could think of he just saw as friends, as comrades. Even Bucky who was a close friend of his was just that, a good friend. He guessed Howard wasn't that bad, but only since he looked so much like Tony--
Steve hoped to God that Natasha didn't hear that, when he remembered he never said it aloud. She was staring at him funny though.
He cleared his throat and was about to speak, when two things occurred: Beth returned with his dessert,
And gunshots sounded off in the distance.
Steve dropped the money on the table and along with Widow he took off in the direction that the crowds were running from. Out of the back of her jeans Widow whipped out two handguns and she tossed Cap one. His shield was back at his apartment so the gun would have to make due.
He could see them down the street: a wall of guys clad in dark armor, wielding massive guns. The style of clothing and the weaponry were familiar; Cap almost wanted to say they were--
Widow and he ducked into a nearby alleyway as bullets showered the street.
Widow had her cellphone out, probably contacting S.H.I.E.L.D., while Cap accessed the area. The cops hadn’t arrived. People who were gunned down lay in the streets in pools of their own blood. Whether they were alive or not the soldiers did not waver, seconds from trampling the bodies that were unable to move out of the way.
"Widow, can you circle around them? I'll keep them distracted." Cap picked up a trash can lid, this would have to do.
She nodded. "We'll have backup in under a minute." And she was off, heels noiseless against the pavement.
A minute for backup was a minute too late with the lives of others at stake. Cap hurled the trash can at the human barricade before rushing at them, blocking the rain of bullets with the lid. The ricochet whined in his ears but he kept his aim, shooting two in the head when another was taken down, Cap catching the flash of red hair. He got close enough to punch a guy right in the jaw, the armor denting around his fist. He grabbed the guy and hurled him at the remaining soldiers. Their formation was bad as well, scrambling like ants to keep up and again Cap thought of HYDRA--
He threw another guy and spun toward his next target, when an arrow lodged right into the guy's eye socket.
Cap caught the gleam of armor on a high rooftop, as another arrow soared through the air, hitting the gun of a guy aiming for him. Widow was on another guy, disarming him and strewing him against the pavement.
Hawkeye was here? Cap fell back to get a better look, wondering if the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t too far behind. Did they have previous information about the attack? Well that would explain why Natasha had appeared on his doorstep.
Cap didn’t realize how winded he was until he was out of the fight. He leaned against one of the store walls, allowing himself a few seconds to catch his breath.
Was it possible to be outta practice even with the serum? He would have to up his training regimen.
A streak of bright blue brought Cap's attention back to the fight, or what was the fight. It was a repulsor blast that took out the last soldier, shot from the hotrod red suit in the sky. The Iron Man suit. Steve smiled at the sound of Tony's voice.
"Was this party S.H.I.E.L.D. exclusive? Sounds like a boring company retreat." He landed in what Steve learned to be a trademark stance, a few feet away from Natasha.
"Stark, you need to revise your definition of 'party'," Natasha said, clicking the safety back on her gun.
"Glad to see you Romanoff, peppy as always."
"Speak for yourself, 'Tasha. I could use a party." Clint was off the roof, the last one to make it over. "Though this was a pretty weak one. Like these guys learned marksmanship from a cereal box. Took Cap by surprise though."
"Oh yes, our resident Uncle Sam." Stark took off his helmet and Steve felt his stare from behind. "Well time catches up with the best of us, eh Cap?"
Steve glanced over, really beginning to wonder if the people of this age could read minds. Because after searching one of the soldiers for some sort of identification, he found the pendant of a skull with tentacles protruding out of the bottom.
It was funny in a weird humorless way, that of all the things that followed him into the 21st century, it had to be the reason he was here in the first place.