Director Fury finds him afterwards, sitting on the bed in one of Stark's many bedrooms.
"You sure this is where you want to be, Captain?"
Steve doesn't turn away from the window, and makes no move to get dressed. The towel around his waist is enough for him; the rest of his modesty is still buried under army training and sharing uncomfortably tight quarters with a dozen other men at any given time. "JARVIS tells me the building is still structurally sound. Stark offered me a shower. I wasn't going to turn it down. It's been a long couple of days."
There's a pause behind him, then a vague sound of agreement from Fury. "Ain't that the truth." Another pause, before Fury asks, "Now what?"
Steve looks down at the dirty uniform he's got crumpled in his hands. His hair is still damp from the shower, and a water droplet runs down his spine, making him shiver briefly with the sensation. "I don't know. I'd barely started getting used to the city again, and now it's all..."
He trails off. He doesn't need to say anything else, because the windows are floor to ceiling, they're high up, and even if they weren't, Director Fury would still know what New York looks like right now. He'd know about the smoke and the ruins of buildings that had crumbled during the attack, the overturned cars and fires in the street.
"I would have liked to see more," Steve says numbly. "It's gonna be a while until that's possible, I guess."
Director Fury takes a few steps closer and then carefully places something on the corner of the bed, before backing away again. "Then see something else in the meantime," he says. It's not a suggestion.
Looking down, Steve sees a single, bloodied trading card. His own face is smiling jovially up at him, two fingers raised to his cowl in a salute.
Director Fury never explicitly explained who or what the World Security Council is to Steve, but he's brought them up just enough, always accompanied by a sour look and a few, choice cuss words that would've put Dugan to shame, that Steve has a reasonably good idea of what they're capable of.
"I don't work for SHIELD," Steve says, not because he disagrees with the Director, but because he just needs to put it out there. Still, when he turns around, the room is empty again.
They don't mean for it to turn into a whole thing, it just sort of happens that way. Still, when they all show up to Central Park to see Thor and Loki off, it quickly becomes apparent that they're all planning on scattering immediately afterwards.
"Agent Barton," Steve says, shaking his hand.
"Please," Clint scoffs. "Clint."
Steve can't tell if Clint's eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot behind his dark sunglasses, but based on the tense set of his shoulders and the way he carries his body, shielding his front from vulnerability, Steve can make an educated guess. Natasha hovers behind Clint and a little to his left. Protectively, Steve thinks. She reminds him of Peggy, and his heart aches a little.
"I heard you were planning on a little sightseeing," Natasha says from next to Clint, arching an eyebrow in the direction of Steve's bike and interrupting his thoughts before he can get too maudlin.
"Oh, yeah," Steve says with a nod, a little embarrassed, and doesn't question who told her. He'd only told one person himself, so that narrows it down considerably. "Stark got it for me when I mentioned I wanted to take off for a while. I guess someone told him I ride."
"Someone," Clint snorts, "like every history book in the world."
It's difficult for Steve, sometimes, to remember how much the world changed while he was sleeping. It's more difficult still to remember that he has a spot in school books and history books and encyclopedias around the world. During the war, they were a special task force, not celebrities. It's oddly unsettling to be reminded that nowadays, people can read about his life--his actual life, not just the silly movies he made while he was selling war bonds--like fiction.
Clint's expression twists a little, and he claps a hand onto his shoulder. "Sorry, Cap. Didn't mean to offend."
"You didn't," Steve reassures him. "It's just--this takes some getting used to. This world."
"Tell me about it." Clint snorts, and they might be talking about two different things.
Any further conversation is halted by the arrival of Thor, Loki and Doctor Selvig, and Steve watches with a vague frown on his face as they hand the tesseract over and seal it into the container Thor had brought with him. The moment it's secure in Thor's container, Selvig looks like a thousand pounds just lifted off his shoulders, and his entire demeanor changes.
Across from Steve, Stark is standing, looking vaguely like he's itching to get his hands on the tesseract and analyze it to hell, and a little bit like he's terribly disgusted with himself for feeling that way.
"Brothers and sister, it has been an honor fighting by your side," Thor says solemnly, looking at each one of them. "This realm is still under my protection, I swear it. And I give you my word, as I gave to my Lady Jane; I will return."
Behind his gag, Loki looks murderous. Bruce shakes his head minutely. Next to Steve, Natasha leans over and whispers something into Clint's ear; Steve's not sure what, but it brings the faintest hint of a smile to Clint's face. Steve looks from person to person and thinks, Yes. They'll be fine.
Thor nods once, and then both he and Loki disappear with barely more than a light whooshing sound and the sharp twinkle of blue lights.
Afterwards, Steve shakes everybody's hand again as they say their goodbyes, even Doctor Selvig's. He gets a hug from Natasha, which takes him by surprise, but before he can react to it she's already pulling away with a small smile. "It was an honor, Captain," she says, and he thinks about her using his shield as a springboard and thinks she's got that all backwards. Stark just looks like he's desperately trying not to gloat when Steve thanks him for the bike.
"I'll take good care of her--I won't drive her too hard," Steve promises, and Stark absently waves his hand in Steve's face, attention already diverted onto something else.
"Captain, I honestly don't care how you drive her."
His last parting gift is something that looks like a miniature version of the tablets SHIELD had used to brief Steve on everything regarding the Avengers Initiative, but Stark assures him it's a phone. He hands it off, then saunters away without further explanation. Steve looks down at the little screen in his hands and resists the urge to fiddle with it immediately. He enjoys figuring things out himself. He likes pushing buttons and icons and learning for himself what they do. Steve smiles. Stark's not so bad.
Steve says goodbye to Bruce last. He smiles carefully at Steve, like they're both just a couple of regular guys, saying goodbye after having had a few drinks and not parting ways after saving the world together. It's strangely normal and unbelievably calming.
"Heard you were skipping town," Bruce says.
"Heard you weren't," Steve shoots back, because according to what Stark had told him, the only person who was surprised at Bruce's decision to stay in New York was Bruce himself. "You sure you know what you're signing up for here?"
Bruce looks around, looks at Stark where he's waiting by his convertible. "No," Bruce says, but he's still smiling. "I think that's why I want to do it."
Steve nods, more to himself than to Bruce. "I can understand that," he responds honestly, before saluting loosely. "Be careful, Doctor Banner."
"With the Other Guy?" Bruce asks, carefully guarded.
"No, with Stark," Steve replies, and means it with all his heart.
The bike purrs between Steve's legs, powerful and smooth, and she practically glides down the interstate, true and strong in the way she lets him steer her. Steve feels vaguely guilty for thinking it, but if he'd had a bike like this during the war, he might never have let her go the way he did his old one. That leads him into a slight fit of nostalgia, and he thinks about how he rode that bike into a Hydra base and left again in a plane that never offered him anything but a one-way ticket into the future.
Shaking it off, Steve focuses on the here and now, and thinks about the good things, thinks about Thor's strong grip as he'd helped him to his feet, and Bruce's smile as they'd parted ways.
The freedom hits him almost as soon as he's on I-95 going south. It's the first time since before he can really remember that he's felt like this, with nobody to give him orders, nobody to report back to, and no specific goal or purpose in mind. For a moment, it sits so heavily in his chest that he can't breathe, and he feels like every last bit of oxygen has been stolen from his lungs--but then it passes, just as quickly as it took him, not lingering long enough for his control over the bike to wobble even for a second.
He survived the depression, the war, an actual, honest to God alien invasion, and a dangerously high fever in what has apparently gone down into the history books as one of the coldest winters in the history of New York, and Steve is alive. It's enough for him.
He stops to see the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, since he's never been. He vaguely recalls it being mentioned on the newsreels during the war, but by then he had other things on his mind. He stares for a long time, thinking about everything it represents and wondering what the other people around him see when they look at it.
Next to him, a little girl sits in her mother's arms and whines into her neck that she's tired and wants to go. Her mother doesn't take her eyes off the bell, but still whispers in her ear, sweetly and warmly, "In a minute, sweetheart." Steve thinks this woman gets it.
He knows his face has been on the news--hell, probably still is, Steve just hasn't bothered turning on the TV or checking the newspapers--under headlines like, "Captain America: The real deal or an impostor?" but nobody seems to notice him. It suits him fine. After he leaves the Liberty Bell Center, he sits down in a park and pulls out his sketchbook and just loses himself a little, happiness and calm settling into his bones as his pencil moves across the paper. He captures a couple of teenagers nearby on skateboards, and then does a fairly decent job of drawing the woman with the little girl in her arms, staring at the Liberty Bell in such awe. By the time he's done shading the woman's hair to his satisfaction, the sun has started to droop in the sky, and Steve's stomach growls.
Packing up his stuff, he heads towards where the teenagers are still on their skateboards. "Hi, there," he greets them, and they look at him with suspicion. "I'm just traveling through, do you know of any good places to get something to eat?"
Two of them just frown at him like he's said something weird--Steve's certain he hasn't--but the third one brightens and nods, eagerly. "Yeah, yeah, sure, there's a great place a couple of blocks from here."
"Gross," one of the other teenagers interjects then, "Geno's or bust!"
"Fuck Geno's," the first kid responds cheerfully, turning back to Steve, but he can't get another word out before his other friend pipes up.
"Uh, no, both of you, get the fuck out."
Steve watches with some amusement as they immediately dissolve into a heated discussion of where to find the best cheesesteak in Philly. Steve takes in their language use and thinks of the Howling Commandos and how outraged Falsworth would be in his arguments with Dugan over the best celebratory drink choice after they'd taken down another Hydra base.
"I'm sure it's all good and dandy, fancy drink for fancy people--but we's not fancy people, and I ain't seeing the point in fancy when cheap and dirty gets the job done just as well," Dugan had said.
"The whole point of a celebration is to indulge," Falsworth had tried explaining, with noticeable strain in his voice.
Steve had said nothing, just exchanged an amused glance with Bucky as they clinked their cups together, sludge that they all pretended was coffee sloshing against the sides.
He's brought out of his memory and back to the present when the first teen finally shouts with some exasperation, "He didn't even fucking say he wanted a cheesesteak, maybe the dude just wants a fuckin' burger!"
His two friends quiet down then, looking vaguely embarrassed, and he turns back to Steve and rolls his eyes. "Sorry, hi, yeah, tourists usually want cheesesteaks."
Steve smiles and shakes his head. "That's okay. I can't say I've ever had one, so I wouldn't object."
"Well, like I said," the teen says, tone pointed and aimed at his friends for a moment, "my favorite place is like three blocks off, just go down that way and make a left two streets down." He gestures, and Steve nods and thanks him before heading out of the park. It's a nice day, so he might as well walk there. He's packing his sketch pad back into his bike for storage, when he hears someone call out, "Hey, wait up!" and he turns to find the teenager running up to him.
The teenager glances back at where his friends are already back to skating, before leaning closer to Steve and whispering, almost nervously, "Are you him?"
Steve frowns a little, considers playing dumb. "Him who?"
"I saw you on TV," the kid says, shifting his weight back and forth. "I know it's you, I just--I just mean--are you actually him? Or do you just like to dress up as him and fight aliens?"
Steve pulls back a little and looks directly into the kid's eyes. They're big and wide now, poorly concealed admiration with just a slight hint of fear.
"Captain America was born in 1918, son," he eventually settles on. "I'm fairly certain it's impossible for me to be him."
The kid's eyes flicker briefly for a moment, and Steve follows his gaze to the bike, to the circle-shaped pack strapped to the back. When their eyes meet again, the kid is smiling at him, lopsided and happy.
"Sure," he says, and they're both thinking of wormholes and aliens. "Impossible."
Steve doesn't really know what to say, so he just watches the kid go. When he's a few steps away, he turns and says, "By the way, thanks. For New York, I mean. For, y'know, for everything." And then he's running to rejoin his friends.
Steve stares for a while, feels something tighten and loosen in his chest, and then realizes it's the first time someone has thanked him for New York. When he eventually leaves Philadelphia, it's with his belly full of cheesesteak and a smile on his lips.
He checks into a motel somewhere in Virginia and spends a little while stretching his legs again, walking through the small town he's in and taking in the houses, the grass and weeds peeking up in the cracks in the sidewalks, the handwritten signs in the window of a corner store. He hesitates briefly trying to decide on how to proceed with his evening meal, but eventually takes the bike to the nearest McDonald's, because the convenience of it is still oddly satisfying, even if the food is so-so and the woman behind the counter looks vaguely annoyed at the size of his order.
Steve sits in the corner of the McDonald's and eats his Big Macs while fiddling with the phone Stark gave him. It's intuitive and easy to figure out for the most part, even though Steve's sure it's got a million other functions and shortcuts that he hasn't discovered yet and doesn't really have a need for. However, the basic functions are easy to figure out.
Back when he was first thawed out, SHIELD had helped him set up an e-mail address, and Steve had just nodded along, confused and scared and not at all caring what e-mail was, but that was before everything. Before aliens and Norse Gods. It seems like ages ago now. In a way, it's terrifying, because that also means it's been ages since he last saw Peggy, and even longer since he last saw Bucky--but it's also oddly relieving.
Steve's had time to adjust, to wrap his mind around this new world he woke up in, and he thinks he's finally ready to start learning. Checking his mail doesn't prove to be difficult; Steve had been distressed at the time, but he'd still managed to memorize all the usernames and passwords SHIELD had helped him set up for various things, and his phone helpfully guides him through each step of the process. By the end of it, Steve's got his e-mail available on his phone, and he watches as a small area of the screen lights up with a few New Mail notifications.
There's a couple from various areas of SHIELD, one from Stark that has no subject and just says, "HA HA YOU CAN'T FIGURE OUT HOW TO READ THIS E-MAIL," and Steve rolls his eyes so hard it almost hurts. The most recent message is, surprisingly, from Natasha, It's short and to the point, wishing Steve a good trip and reminding him he's always got a place to come back to if he wants.
The screen is slightly too small to be comfortable to type on, but Steve still taps out a response to Natasha, thanking her for her concern. At the end he types in a smiley, tilts his head as he considers it, then deletes it again, feeling a little embarrassed at the whole thing.
After that, he finds the web browser and opens it up gleefully. There are a lot of things about the future that had disappointed Steve; he will probably never quite understand the appeal of video games, he has no clue why bars and restaurants think it necessary to plaster big TVs in every corner--do people go to eat, or to watch TV?--and the fact that there's apparently still no flying cars was just a damn shame (though at least that one had made sense once Agent Coulson had carefully explained all the problems with borders, drunk driving and air traffic safety). But the internet? Steve loves the internet. Googling was one of the first things SHIELD taught him, and Steve smiles as his fingers hover above the touch screen, considering what to look for, where to go next. He thinks Bucky would have loved the internet (and probably immediately used it to look up all the naked women that apparently exist out there).
Google Maps informs him it's just over ten hours' drive to Florida, and Steve heavily considers it; the war was mostly either cold, wet, dark or a combination or all three. He could use some sun and warmth. Steve thinks maybe lying on a beach somewhere for a little while would be nice. Thinks the sun would feel good on his skin and soothe his muscles.
He's brought out of his daydreaming when he picks up the hissed whisper of one of the other patrons, "I swear it's him, look at him!"
A tingling feeling spreading down his back, Steve glances over and out of the corner of his eye he sees a chubby man whispering with one of the employees. Up under the ceiling by the condiments stand, there's a big screen TV, and Steve's face is currently taking up the left half of the screen. Blurry and streaked with dirt and grime, but it's unmistakably Steve. The right half of the screen shows a news reporter while the closed captioning scrolls rapidly along the bottom of the frame, and Steve has to blink his eyes to catch snippets of what she's saying.
no word yet on where this man who's being hailed as a hero
the possibility that he's the real deal
rumored to have saved hundreds during the battle of New York
Steve carefully puts away the phone and swallows the last bite of the last Big Mac, before gathering his trash and standing up. Just as he's depositing it in a trash can, the chubby man approaches him.
"Hey," he says, "hey, that's you, isn't it? You're the Captain America wannabe?"
"Sorry," Steve says, giving what he hopes is an apologetic smile. "You must have mistaken me for someone else."
The guy looks confused, but doesn't say anything else. Steve leaves the McDonald's behind feeling slightly guilty.
Steve googles several other locations until he makes his decision. He decides Florida and its tempting beaches can wait, and instead drives to D.C. and pays his respects at the various monuments and memorials. There were more wars, people told him. The briefing packet from SHIELD had made him sick just from looking at it, so he never got around to finishing it. When he first woke up, he still wasn't ready to let go of the war--Steve thinks part of him still isn't ready--much less read in detail about several others that apparently had followed. Now, looking at the thousands of names inscribed into the black granite, Steve wishes he'd read it all.
He sits on a bench for a long while, googling the Korean War and the Vietnam War and the War Against Terror on his phone, only taking brief pauses to run a hand over his face and pretend he's unaffected by what he's reading.
A few yards away, a young boy runs his fingers along the wall and stops at a particular name.
"Dad!" he yells, loud enough a few heads turn. "Dad! Dad, I found him!"
The boy's father comes over and smiles, ruffles his son's hair and nods. "You sure did, buddy. Good job, that's a lot of names."
"But I found him anyway!" he says proudly, one hand coming out to grasp the edge of his father's t-shirt lightly. Steve doesn't know who him is.
He looks back at the names and fights the urge to salute the wall. Steve's not sure if the army would still take him. He's not sure where his place is anymore, because currently he's not a soldier--not an official one, anyway--and he's not an official SHIELD employee or Agent or even a consultant, like Stark. He's certainly not a superhero, contrary to what Coulson thinks--thought--of him. Steve's never been a superhero, he thinks.
He wonders if he can still get involved in the current war, if he can still help somehow.
He thinks about what war looked like before the ice, and wonders what war looks like in this century.
As he's leaving the memorial, an old man in a wheelchair gasps at him, and then stutters. The woman pushing his wheelchair immediately bends down, worry etched on her face, but Steve beats her to it. "Sir, are you okay?"
"You're him," the old man gasps. "I'd recognize that face anywhere. You're him!"
I'm afraid you've got me confused with someone else, is on the tip of Steve's tongue, but then the man breathes deep, a rasping sound rattling from his lungs even as he smiles. "I saw all your pictures as a boy. All of them. I remember. I'd recognize your face anywhere."
The man's--nurse? granddaughter?--looks confused. "Do you know this man?" she asks, gesturing to Steve.
"Of course I know this man!" he replies, tone suddenly grumpy and angry. "Only ignorant fools wouldn't know this man! Everything he did for us! For this country!"
"I'm sorry," she says to Steve, apologetically. "He can get moody sometimes."
"Don't talk about me like I'm not here!" the man in the wheelchair spits. "I'm still alive, you know!"
"Sir," Steve interrupts then, because he can see the woman start to lose her patience. "Did you serve?"
"Yes, sir!" the man says proudly, trying and failing to puff up a little, hunched over in his chair as he is. "Marines, sir! Vietnam, and then later the Gulf War! First Sergeant Peterson at your service. It's truly an honor to meet you, Captain, truly an honor."
Steve nods, and then straightens and salutes, because here is a man with many times the experience he ever had, a man who's seen wars that Steve didn't even know existed, and Steve will be damned if he's going to lie to this man.
"The honor is mine, sir," he says, and First Sergeant Peterson's face lights up like he's seen the sun rise for the first time. "Thank you for your service."
"And to you as well, Captain," is the response he receives, and Steve nods briefly, looks at all the people standing along the wall. Some of them have smiles on their faces. Some of them look somber. Steve looks at them all and thinks they may have kept fighting wars, but it was probably still worth it.
As Steve walks away, he can hear First Sergeant Peterson behind him, loudly demanding meatloaf for dinner from his caregiver, and Steve thinks that's the soldier of the future--not him. Re-enlisting is probably not in the cards.
The appeal of sacking out on a beach somewhere is diminishing by the minute, and when he leaves D.C. he goes west instead of south.
Steve's in Pittsburgh when Natasha calls him.
"How is America so far?" she asks, smile evident in her voice.
"Pretty good," Steve answers while carefully examining his sandwich; it's roughly the size of his head and it's got fries and coleslaw on it. He's not sure how to feel about that fact. "There's a lot of interesting food. I'm trying to decide where to go next."
Natasha makes a Mmhm sound and doesn't question where he currently is. Steve suspects she already knows. She seems like the type.
"I'd imagine you saw quite a bit of America while you were touring," she says, then clarifies, "You know, punching Hitler."
Steve makes a face. "I traveled a lot, but didn't actually see much. There were a lot of rehearsals and everyone wanted their pictures taken, and then I had to do the shows themselves. It was mostly just a big... song and dance."
"Things aren't that different now, if you ask me," Natasha says. "If you're interested in food, how about Chicago? I don't think they had deep dish pizza yet back in your day."
Steve's completely unsurprised by the non sequitur. "No, I don't think I've ever had a deep dish pizza," he agrees, "and then I could stop by Detroit while I'm up that way."
"Detroit's a fucking shithole," comes Clint voice from the background, voice raspy and cranky. Steve frowns.
"Am I on speaker?" he asks at the same time as Natasha hisses something he doesn't catch, and there's a distant yelp from Clint.
"Sorry," Natasha says.
Steve clears his throat. "You know, I don't actually mind, I was just surprised."
"It's fine, it's just that someone is so fucking nosy!" The last part is spoken louder and pointedly.
"Is everything okay, though?"
There's some rustling, then muffled words that sounds like, "Don't move from that spot, that very spot, Clint, I mean it," before a sliding door opens and closes. "Sorry," Natasha sighs again into the phone. "He'll be fine, really."
She doesn't elaborate, so Steve doesn't ask. Instead he says, "What's wrong with Detroit?"
"Oh. Well," Natasha says, and there's a lot of meaning behind those two words.
Steve makes the drive to Detroit in one go. It takes him just under six hours, and once he rolls into the city, he keeps driving. There are areas that don't look any different than any of the other places Steve's seen, both in person and on TV and pictures--and for a little while Steve thinks Clint was probably wrong. Detroit doesn't seem to be anything special at all, certainly not a shithole. A little industrial and cold in certain places, but then again, so is New York these days.
The tired side of Detroit seems to come upon him without warning--and it seems like a lot more than just one side of town. It's as if he turns a corner, and suddenly there's graffiti and run-down buildings, and it takes Steve's breath away. A homeless man peers at him from underneath dirty, ragged hair as he rolls by. He's got a rectangular piece of cardboard in his hands, words written on it in black marker. Please help, lost everything, need is all Steve catches as he drives by. Then he has to swerve just a little to avoid running over a half-full trash bag that's somehow found its way into the street. The urge to stop and give the homeless man something to eat, to stop and at least move the trash bag out of the way is great, but the flow of traffic prevents him from doing so. The cars behind Steve simply swerve as well, neatly avoiding the trash bag.
After a while, he manages to park his bike and he remains there, just leaning against it for a little and looking out over a run-down, empty lot. The asphalt is cracked and broken, and there's heaps of broken glass in one corner, brown and green in color. The building at the far end of the area has got graffiti covering the entire lower half, the structure of the building itself seemingly crumbling under the layers upon layers of spray paint. The sun is setting on the horizon, and it's creating a glare that's making Steve have to squint to see things clearly.
Numb, he fishes out his phone and calls Natasha.
"You know," he says when she picks up, "I passed through Detroit on tour. It didn't--look like this."
"I know," Natasha says. She sounds sympathetic.
She sounds like she's been waiting for his call.
"What happened?" Steve asks, and thinks about the newsreels of Detroit's booming auto industry.
"I think that story would take far too long to tell." Natasha pauses and considers for a moment. "Also, I'm Russian, probably not your best source for American history."
"You know it, though," Steve protests, because he knows Natasha does.
"Facts and numbers," she says dismissively. "Other people will see more nuances than me." People who care more, Steve hears in her voice. People who love, the way Steve loves.
Steve thinks about the tank plant, about all the weapons and machinery the Commandos used that came out of Detroit, and longs for the war more than ever before. It clutches at his chest suddenly, this deep yearning for the past, so much so he can't breathe. He feels like a small child and wishes he had his Commandos here, Bucky and Peggy, to hold his hands.
"Cap?" Natasha asks cautiously on the other end of the line, worried.
"Thanks, Natasha," Steve says, blinking away wetness that's threatening to spill from his eyes and hanging up the phone. None of his tears fall. In the distance, he hears a fire truck blare its horn.
Steve finds a better looking part of the city and checks into a hotel. He spends the rest of the evening with his phone plugged into its charger, reading everything he can find about Detroit's history between the war and present day. It takes several hours before he's exhausted enough to be sleepy, and another couple of hours after that before his troubled mind lets him rest.
The shelter Steve finds the next day is reasonably quiet in the morning hours, dorm halls already cleared out from the night prior and breakfast served as they're preparing to close for the day. When Steve enters, there's a few, scattered heads around the long tables that come around to glance at him before most of them dip back down, dismissing him on sight. A couple of people's gazes linger, but it's hard to say why.
"We're not opening for new spots 'till this afternoon," a woman says, wiping down a table before approaching Steve. "Sorry."
"I don't need a place to stay," Steve clarifies. "I was wondering if you need volunteers?"
The woman looks at him skeptically, tucking long, blonde hair behind her ear. "We always need volunteers, but you have to register with the office first," she says. "There's a contact form--"
"Anne," a voice interrupts her, and a burly guy with a greying beard and a worn trucker hat walks out from what Steve assumes is the kitchen area, "I recognize that mug." He reaches the two of them in a few very long strides, and holds out a hand to firmly shake Steve's. "Good to have you, Cap."
"Pretty sure you've got me confused with someone else," Steve says, but he's smiling a little even as he's saying it. "My name's Steven."
"Steven, sure," the man says, a glint in his eye. "I'm Reverend Jim, I'm in charge here. This is Anne, she's my second in command. Tell me, Steven, you from around these parts?"
"New York, actually," Steve says, figuring in for a penny, in for a pound. "Just traveling through. Wanted to see if I could be of any help while I'm in the area."
Anne's expression slides from suspicious to knowing and she throws the dish towel she'd been holding over her shoulder and spins on her heel. "I'm sure we can find something for you to do," she says over her shoulder.
Steve smiles back, satisfied. That's why he's here, after all.
Steve ends up staying longer than he'd planned, but it's harder to leave than he'd anticipated. He ends up in a routine that's almost comfortable.
He goes to the shelter in the early afternoon and helps make dinner before they open for the night. The food is simple but hearty: stews and soups and pasta and rice that can be made in large batches. Sometimes volunteers bring in fancier things: platters of burger patties or pulled pork. Steve's welcome to eat, Reverend Jim assures him, but Steve never does. He's got money--more money than he knows what to do with, really--so he buys his own food, contributes to the shelter's donation drives and food drives, and doesn't take so much as a bite from the shelter's kitchen.
After dinner, Steve always stays overnight with whomever is volunteering then. Reverend Jim is always there for the early evening shift, coming from his duties in his church to dole out dinner and make sure every bed is full. He holds a sermon in one corner of the dining area for those who wish, and prays with people if they ask him to. If there's kids in, he sings to them slightly off-key, in a warm rumble.
Steve cleans the tables or patrols the dorm halls or washes up in the kitchen, listening to the soft murmur of Reverend Jim's voice. It's comforting even though he can't make out the words.
Steve is often by the door when the shelter initially opens every day. He's young, he's big, and he's a good deterrent for people who are looking to start trouble. The shelter always fills up; on more than one occasion they have to turn people away. Some people are too high strung, too agitated, too risky, to let in. A lot of the time, that's when Steve is good to have at the front doors. Steve can take the verbal abuse, the tongue lashings, the threats. Even if they were serious--and most of them aren't, they're just desperate--Steve wouldn't be afraid of them. One of them takes a swing at Steve, but Steve ducks the attack neatly and then pins his attacker to the ground without harming him. He scuttles off after that.
"This used to be a nice city," Ellen, one of the older volunteers, assures him afterwards. She doesn't seem to recognize him at all. Steve loves working with her.
"I know," Steve says, and doesn't let on that he knows from first-hand experience.
Eventually however, Steve realizes that he can't stay forever--but the thought of just leaving still makes something skip and burn in his chest.
He's been in Detroit for three weeks when he calls Stark.
"I need a favor," he says, not mincing words and slightly embarrassed to be asking, but refusing to let it show in his voice.
On the other end of the line, Stark cackles a lot.
"There's this homeless shelter," Steve says carefully, "in Detroit."
Stark stops laughing then, and Steve smiles, relieved, as he explains.
By the time Steve leaves Detroit, Stark has become Tony--and Reverend Jim's homeless shelter, it would seem, has become Tony's pet project. It only took a few hours for Tony to start talking about new locations, redecorations, and how to maximize the help Reverend Jim can offer the area.
Steve had honestly only asked for a contribution, something to ease his own guilt over leaving--but it seems Tony, much like his father, is unable to do the bare minimum of anything.
After Detroit, Steve drives to Chicago to get a deep dish pizza, which is every bit as good as Natasha had made it sound on the phone.
"I still prefer New York style, though," she tells him later.
"Spoken like a true New Yorker," he says as he's putting away the empty pizza box. "I'm not disagreeing, mind you."
He can practically hear the mild smile in her voice as she takes the compliment for what it is. "I didn't think you were."
Steve spends a full day in the Museum of Science and Industry, reading every plaque and using his phone to google related topics to the exhibit that spark his interest. Some of the exhibits are clearly aimed at younger children, but Steve finds himself appreciating the simple and straightforward way they explain things. Some things amuse him; there are a few ships in the Ships through the Ages exhibit that he recalls from the war, and seeing them here now, as a museum exhibit, feels odd.
He stays by the U-505 submarine for a long time, reading about the war and the submarine's place in history. In his mind, he can still see Morita's smile, and hear Jones and Falsworth bicker. He remembers Bucky's crooked smile and the way his hair would curl by his forehead in damp weather, and he remembers Peggy's red lips and the desperation in the brief kiss they'd shared. Steve looks at the submarine and for a brief moment feels every second of the decades that passed while he slept.
He's in Kansas when his bike grumbles a little. Steve's heard worse, but he's not completely sure if Tony intended the bike to be a gift or a loan (though he can wager a guess) and figures it's better to be safe than sorry. The next city he hits is Junction City, and using his phone--Google Maps is possibly the best thing about the future--he quickly finds a Harley dealership and service shop to take a look at his bike. The man greeting him wears a name tag that says "Henry," and he raises a bushy eyebrow and nods appreciatively at his bike when he sees it.
"That's a lot of custom work," Henry says, clearly impressed.
Steve doesn't know exactly what Tony's done to his bike--it's been a while since his last Harley, after all--but he still feels oddly proud.
While Henry's working on his bike, Steve wanders the showroom and looks at the bikes, blinking against the chrome finishes and careful paint jobs. The bike he rode during the war was modified by Howard, and Steve can't help but find it incredibly fitting that the bike that's helping him discover the future--rediscover America--was modified by Howard's son.
It grates on him sometimes, the fact that not only is Howard long since dead and gone, along with almost everyone else Steve knew, but Tony is older now than Howard was the last time Steve saw him. Steve doesn't know their story, not really. He knows Tony is difficult to get along with, and he knows he's got what Fury calls supreme daddy issues, but Steve doesn't know Tony well enough to dare guess whether the daddy issues made Tony difficult to get along with, or if Tony being difficult to get along with spawned daddy issues. Steve supposes it could be a bit of both.
On a whim, he pulls out his phone and shoots a quick text to Tony. The bike needed a minor tune-up, but don't worry, she's fine, he writes. He pauses with his thumb hovering over the Send button for a moment, before he adds, I'm sorry about Howard. He guesses it won't be well received, but he can't not say it. At least this way, Tony has an easier time ignoring it if he wants to.
i dont care what the fuck u do with ur bike go nuts sweetcheeks btw u should check out one of usas biggest balls of twine while ur in kansas
Steve blinks at the text a couple of times before mentally shrugging to himself. If Tony wants to ignore it, he won't push. He takes a few photos of the shiny bikes around the showroom before putting the phone away, and doesn't question how Tony knew he was in Kansas.
Steve does drive to Cawker City and gets a man around his own age to take his picture next to the giant ball of twine. When Steve gets his phone back and looks at the photo afterwards, his hair is sticking up, wind-ruffled and sun-kissed, and he's got a dorky looking smile on his face that he doesn't recall making.
It's a great photo. Steve immediately sends it not only to Tony, but to Natasha, Bruce and Clint as well.
Tony responds immediately with a smileyface. Natasha texts, Nice ball, and Clint doesn't respond at all.
Steve honestly doesn't expect to hear anything from Bruce either, but shortly after he crosses the state border into Nebraska, he gets an e-mail. Bruce expresses happiness that Steve seems to be enjoying his road trip, asks how he's adjusting to the future, and tells Steve a little bit about his unpredictable day to day life in Stark Tower. Steve smiles at Bruce's anecdotes, and spends the evening in a Super 8, writing about homeless shelters and submarines and Harley Davidsons on his little phone screen.
In South Dakota, Steve discovers his love for bars.
That's certainly not to say he's never been in one; the Commandos frequented them, both for strategizing and for relaxation. But times were different then. Steve couldn't get drunk post-serum, alcohol wasn't always readily available, and war did things to both the Commandos and the bond between them, so going out drinking could be an experience all on its own.
Now, however, stepping through the doors and taking in the voices straining to be heard over the music, the blended noises of glasses clinking together, and the general sound of people, Steve thinks maybe, maybe this will be different.
He gets a beer because just the taste is nice sometimes, and then sits in a corner and just people-watches for a while. He smiles a little whenever he makes new realizations--like how plaid seems to be very popular with middle-aged men, or how none of the women wear high heels--and eventually he has to pull out his sketchbook so he can draw.
Steve had seen some of the modern bars in New York. He remembers seeing people in skin-tight and miniscule clothing, shiny and coiffed where they were lined up outside, with bouncers eyeing them up and down before deeming them worthy to be let in. This is as far from those kinds of bars as he can get, he thinks. There's a jukebox in a corner and dark lager on tap, and when a man in a red hoodie walks in and heads straight for the bar, the bartender smiles widely in recognition and says, "Hey Chris, the usual?"
Steve has always liked places where you get asked, "The usual?"
He sits in his corner and draws the man in the red hoodie, the dimples visible in his stubbled cheeks, as he gestures with one hand and tells the bartender about his kids.
In North Dakota the bar he chooses has vinyl records lining the walls and college students scattered around the pool tables, wearing their school colors and talking loudly about the upcoming games. Steve's eye catches on a young couple; on the girl who's got both arms wrapped around her boyfriend's waist. She's a tiny little thing, her head coming up to his chest, even as she balances on wicked looking heels, and her dark hair is side-swept into a messy braid-looking hairdo Steve's never seen before. She smiles as her boyfriend kisses her forehead, and Steve remembers Peggy and how he used to look up at her and then after the serum looked down at her, even in her heels.
Steve spends extra time drawing the couple as they talk and laugh with their friends by the pool tables. He wonders why people seem to regard vinyl records so highly. He's grateful for the nostalgia they carry, to help ease the worst of his--homesickness?--but at the same time he has to marvel at all the music he apparently can carry in his phone. Stark had pre-loaded it with some music, but it's mostly old jazz tunes, and Steve makes a mental note to ask Natasha how to get more music. He looks back at the couple by the pool table and thinks maybe it's time to discover what's happened to music since the war.
In Miles City, Montana, Steve has a slice of the best blueberry pie he's ever tasted, and the waitress looks part shocked, part amused, when he orders and subsequently eats the entire rest of the pie as well. Steve smiles wide and unapologetic, because his metabolism is what it is, and damn, but that's good pie! Afterwards, he checks his e-mail to find he's received a message from Natasha with step-by-step instructions for how to find and download music to his phone, along with some suggestions for where to start.
Steve foregoes his planned bar visit that evening to stay in his hotel and download song after song, the little device in his hands seemingly never filling up. Steve marvels at it and the first song he plays from the future is "You Can't Always Get What You Want," by The Rolling Stones. He sits in his hotel room and sketches nonsense, doodles and shapes and waves, as the music surrounds him, and he thinks Bucky would have loved "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."
Steve doesn't approach music chronologically, instead just either clicking anything that sounds interesting, or anything that catches his eye from lists of hit songs from various decades. The Rolling Stones take him through Montana, and The Beatles escort him into Wyoming. When he's about to leave Wyoming, he discovers punk rock, and has to take an extra day before moving on just so he can research the political movement behind the music. He's in Denver, Colorado when he looks into musicals (because apparently, man cannot get by on Wizard of Oz alone, according to Tony) and he listens to the Annie soundtrack over take-out Chicken Satay on a bench in City Park.
Steve discovers Oliver and Rent, and remembers seeing billboards for Wicked in Times Square. He googles and reads about AIDS and has to swallow against a lump in his throat that the future, for all its wonders, still has such awful diseases. After that, he spends a couple of days in Pueblo, just walking. He's been riding a lot, and stretching his legs feels nice, even as he's reading about Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's and cancer types.
Just north of the New Mexico border, Steve listens to the entirety of Abbey Road, and then finds a bar. He gets a vodka for no other reason than to feel the burn as it goes down, and wishes he could get drunk. In a quiet corner, he pulls his phone out and calls Bruce.
"You know I don't get sick, right?" he asks.
Bruce makes a noise of agreement on the other end of the line and waits patiently for Steve to go on.
"The serum that--that made me... it hasn't been replicated since. Even though people have tried." People like you, he doesn't add.
"You could say that again," Bruce says, and sounds very amused.
Steve hesitates for a little more, before saying, "What if--what if I gave you some of my blood? What if you could continue trying? Would it help? To have me here, now?"
There's pure silence on the other end of the line for a long time. "Bruce?' Steve eventually tries.
Bruce breathes deeply then, like he'd held his breath up until that point, and asks, "Why?"
Steve thinks of his medical evaluations at all the different recruitment offices, and he thinks about all the images Google had showed him of viruses and diseases. "Maybe it could be used as a cure," he explains, "for, you know. I've been reading about diseases."
There's another prolonged silence from the other end. When Bruce does speak again, it's soft and regretful. "No."
Steve's not sure how to take that. "No?"
"No," Bruce repeats, firmer but still gently. "I just--I just don't think it's possible, Steve. I'm sorry. I wish it was, and believe me, the temptation is there. But--even if it was possible..."
He trails off. Steve thinks about Bruce's skin turning green, how he just expands, and Steve wonders if it's painful. I'm always angry, Bruce had said, and in the moment Steve remembers those words, he understands.
Even if it were possible, there are no guarantees it would be worth it.
"I thought the future was supposed to be better," Steve says, a little sullenly.
Bruce sounds puzzled. "Isn't it?"
Bruce knows a lot about these things, and tells Steve to google the medical advances that have been made since the war. Steve obligingly does as he's told and feels his spirits lift as he reads about prostheses, organ transplants and cancer treatments.
In Albuquerque, he finds a bar that serves him enchiladas that are barely visible underneath all the cheese. They taste amazing though, and he's got his mouth full and he's reading about the eradication of small pox and the elimination of polio when he suddenly recognizes the song that comes on the speakers as Elvis Presley. It's the first music he's recognized on his own, and he knows he's got a smile on his face as he walks back to the hotel in the balmy summer night.
After Albuquerque he drives to Puente Antiguo--or what's left of it. Steve doesn't officially work for SHIELD, but now, seeing the abandoned remnants of buildings, and the destruction that the Destroyer had brought, Steve's considering it. At the core of it, underneath the serum, Steve still would just most like to protect people. He wants to help. He's not sure what the best venue for that is, though. SHIELD, for all it seems to do good, also raises some red flags for Steve. He's not nearly naive enough to think that Director Fury tells him everything--would ever tell him everything.
On the other hand, SHIELD can't possibly be the only government agency out there, and Steve does know that for as much as everyone keeps not mentioning it to him, he's in a position where he does have options. He just has to figure out what he wants, first.
Steve easily finds the crater outside of town. There's fences left behind, with SHIELD signs still stuck to them. Steve doesn't go past them, but instead just stares and wonders when they'll see Thor again. He thinks about legends and gods and wonders what else in human history has been twisted by time.
"Where should I start learning about American politics?" Steve asks Natasha the next day.
"Don't," is all she says, and then hangs up on him.
He "detours" slightly to Amarillo, Texas, with Nicki Minaj and Mike Stern as his musical companions along the way. He certainly doesn't like every new artist or music genre he discovers, but he's built up an eclectic music collection, and he's happy to have a wide variety running in the background as he feeds ducks in Martin Road Park. It's comforting, varying between background noise and a welcome distraction as he tries not to feel overwhelmed by the results as he googles "American Republicans" and "American Democrats" and "George Bush" (senior and junior) and "Barack Obama."
Steve finds a website with photos of every US President, and as he scrolls through their faces he thinks of Senator Brandt's smarmy expression as he sent him out to sing and dance and sell war bonds. He reads about the FBI and the CIA and the NSA, and wonders what Director Fury thinks about the work they do at SHIELD.
When his head's swimming from information overload and his ears are sore from the earbuds, he thinks maybe he doesn't need to google more; American politics hasn't done anything but give him a headache, and SHIELD is looking better by the second.
He's tempted to turn off his music and rub his tender ears as he walks to get some food, but just then "These Boots Are Made For Walking" comes on, and Steve has to listen for just a while longer. By the time he sits down and orders a full rack of BBQ ribs, his ears feel sore, but it was still completely worth it to discover Pat Metheny and Eva Cassidy.
The ribs are sticky and sweet and absolutely to die for. The waitress is young and cute, and she smiles and calls him honey. When he asks for his check, she smiles and says, "If you want, I mean--you could have my phone number too?"
It takes Steve by surprise, and he suddenly becomes very aware of the fact that not ten minutes earlier he had BBQ sauce smeared over both his hands and probably large parts of his face as well. He self-consciously uses his napkin to swipe at his mouth once more, even though he was certain he'd gotten it all, and thinks about Peggy's lips against his.
"Oh," he says, "oh, uh. I'm just traveling through, miss."
Her smile turns wicked then. "That's okay. I get off at ten, if you want to?"
It takes Steve a second to understand what she means, and when he does understand he blushes--not for the suggestion of sex, but for the frankness with which she suggested it.
"Oh," he says again, and then takes a moment to realize that he does want to, before rationality catches up with him. "I--no, but--no, thanks. I'm flattered, but--sorry." It's a little bit awkward, but she doesn't seem to let it affect her.
Her smile turns sweet again and she just says, "All right, no problem. I'll bring your check right out, sir."
Steve watches her go and isn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed, because he misses--craves, even--the company of others, and at some point he'd like to be close to a woman again. As much as it hurts, he knows he can't carry Peggy around in his heart forever. But he's just not sure now is the time, and he certainly doesn't think he can be so casual about it.
When he gets the check, he writes, "Sorry. It's not you, you're very lovely," on the back of it, and leaves her an extra tip. It's cheesy and maybe inappropriate, Steve's not sure about the social etiquette of the future in this situation, but it's the best he can do.
Driving back through New Mexico is nice, and Steve likes the west a lot. There's a lot of plains and grand nature, and Steve puts his sunglasses on and loves the wind tugging at his hair.
At a rest stop in Arizona, on his way to the Grand Canyon, he's recognized by a young girl who can't be more than five or six. "Mommy!" she cries, frantically tugging at her mother's sundress, where she's digging in her diaper bag, with a young baby in her arms. "Mommy! It's Captain America!"
"Don't be silly," the mother says, without looking up. "I'm sure it's just someone who looks like him, sweetie."
Her husband comes over to take their son then, and easily finds a spare diaper as well as wipes in the bag, and after he walks away again the mother turns her full attention on her daughter.
"It's Captain America!" the little girl cries again, insistently, "Look! Look!"
Steve smiles and focuses on his sketch pad, capturing the sleek lines of their minivan--Steve loves the cars of the future, even if they're not flying.
"Please don't point," the mother says, "It's rude to--" and then she gasps, and Steve glances up to find her staring at him in shock.
"It is you!" she exclaims, one hand coming to her chest and the other clutching at her daughter's hand.
"It's really not," Steve says. "I get that all the time."
The woman doesn't look convinced in the slightest, and Steve thinks about the man in Virginia and the teenager in Philly, and he thinks he probably can't keep denying it.
"Your picture is all over the news," she says, carefully approaching him, which surprises Steve a little. It's been a while since the battle of New York--long enough now that he had hoped the press would have moved on from speculating about him.
"I'm sure they'll find something new to focus on soon enough," he says after a slight moment's hesitation, hoping to hell he's speaking the truth, and she almost reels a little as she realizes he's also confirming her suspicions.
"But--how is this possible?" she asks, eyes wide as they move over every inch of his face. Steve puts his sketchbook away.
"You know, I keep asking myself that," he responds, squinting into the sun for a moment and thinking about all the good and the bad things he's read about. When Steve looks back down at the little girl, she's staring up at him like he hung the moon.
"You're a hero," she whispers, reverently.
"I'm just a kid from Brooklyn," he answers as honestly as he can. "I'm just a regular person. Just like you."
The Grand Canyon is, in a word, stunning. Steve feels like he doesn't have breath left in his lungs to voice his wonder when he sees the canyon before him, the seemingly endless valleys and plateaus, looking like nothing he's ever seen before. Steve's seen a lot; wormholes and aliens and glimpses into other universes--sneak previews placed there by the tesseract, oddly seductive in their attempts to draw him in--but nothing has ever been as beautiful as this.
He finds a place to look out over the rim, and for a brief moment flashes on Bucky, falling, falling. It momentarily stuns him and makes something hurt, deep and low in his belly, but then it clears up. He swallows against the tears that are threatening to form, and suddenly feels it enormously, bitterly unfair, that he was given a second chance at life while Bucky wasn't.
Steve drives to Lipan Point and spends some time there, taking photos and remembering how to breathe again as he works on making Bucky's memory less painful to handle--but Lipan Point is a tourist spot and it's crowded, and he notices the curious looks he's getting from the people around him. There are families glancing curiously at him, a few people outright staring, and a group of teenagers are spilling out of a tour bus, giggling at him in turn as they notice him. It feels a little uncomfortable, not at all like it did back during the war, but he tries to shrug it off and ignore it.
The sketch pad comes out after a few minutes, and Steve loses himself a little, trying to commit every detail to the paper, because phone photography may be good and all, but there's nothing quite like the feeling of being able to transfer what he's seeing into art. Steve's read about going hiking and camping here, and thinks maybe he'll have to come back. He's still got so much to learn and discover, and for a wild moment it strikes him, maybe that's what he can do now, here in the future? Just travel and learn?
A few feet in front of him and to his left, a pair of teenaged girls are huddled together, one of them pointing at something in the distance as they lean into each other's space. Steve watches their body language, how their shoulders angle towards each other, and notices that their hands are linked together, fingers tangled and squeezing gently. It makes for a striking image. When one of them leans in and places a gentle kiss on the other's forehead, something swells in Steve's chest, and he has to sketch them.
Steve's working on a shoulder, when one of them notices him looking, and she scowls. Lost in the lines and smudges on his paper and not immediately registering it, Steve continues sketching until her voice interrupts him, angry and sharp. "The fuck are you looking at?" she snaps, and for a moment Steve doesn't realize she's talking to him.
The other girl has turned around now as well, and when she sees Steve, her face goes a peculiar shade of crimson. "Sally," she hisses urgently, tugging at the girl who must be Sally's hand. "Sally, don't!"
"He's staring like a big creep!" Sally complains, still scowling.
"I didn't mean to stare," Steve tries, as the other girl says, "Don't, Sally! That's Captain America!"
She sounds part admiring and part mortified, but Sally doesn't look impressed. "Big fuckin' surprise, Captain America is a bigot."
The other girl's expression falters a little, and she glances quickly between Sally and Steve, and Steve is stunned for a moment.
"I'm not a bigot," is the first thing he gets out.
"Then what is with the staring?" Sally demands, angry and challenging.
Steve holds up his sketchpad, a little hurt at the anger hurled his way by Sally, but he tries to defuse it with a slight smile. "I just wanted to draw you, I'm sorry. You two make a cute couple."
Sally's angry expression gives way for surprise then, but that's nothing compared to the absolutely stunned look on her girlfriend's face.
"Oh," Sally says.
"Really?" her girlfriend whispers in an awed tone, and Steve's smile widens.
"Really," he assures her. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
Sally looks embarrassed now, and backs up a little. "No, that's--I'm sorry I was rude. Sorry for bothering you."
Steve wants to tell them it's no bother--he wants to finish his sketch--but they're already in the process of leaving. As they quickly shuffle away, he hears Sally's girlfriend squeak in her ear, "Captain America thinks we're cute!"
Las Vegas is an experience. It looms on the horizon, like a neon oasis in the desert. It's dark by the time he gets into the city, and Steve is wide-eyed in the face of all the billboards and signs. It's reminiscent of Times Square--the Times Square of the future, not the Times Square of the past--yet different, and Steve spends a while just driving around, observing people and reading all the signs for the different shows and events. After he's found a hotel, he downloads Celine Dion and Elton John and then walks down the strip.
He doesn't gamble, so casinos hold little attraction to him, but he does like the cocktail lounges. There are so many different people there. Over-the-top tourists with cameras and fanny packs, women wearing dangly earrings and stiletto heels, and men in expensive suits who don't smile. Steve's quite surprised at the amount of security everywhere, and reads about the history of Las Vegas with Jimi Hendrix in his ears and a Pina Colada in his hand.
The fruity specialty drinks are pretty good and Steve keeps trying new combinations, even when the bartender is starting to look at him a little oddly when he's on drink number eight with no signs of slowing down. Steve tries different martinis and margaritas. He tries drinks called Sex on the Beach and Black Russian, and he quietly laughs to himself at the Long Island Iced Tea.
The next morning, Steve has discovered that he doesn't like Lady Gaga, he really likes Billy Joel and the jury is still out on Stone Temple Pilots. He swims laps in his hotel pool before grabbing breakfast, and the last thing he does in Vegas is sketch an Elvis impersonator, handing out flyers for a wedding chapel.
He's in a roadside diner just past the border to California when his phone rings. A glance shows Clint's name on the display, and Steve answers it with surprise; Clint's the only one of the Avengers still left on Earth whom he hasn't spoken to since he left New York. He hears him in the background of his conversations with Natasha sometimes, but for the most part he'd assumed that Clint just had no interest in getting to know him.
"Clint, hey," Steve says, swallowing his mouthful of chocolate chip pancakes.
"Hey," Clint says. He sounds hesitant. When he doesn't go on, Steve gets a little suspicious.
"Yeah, sure," Clint lies. "You're on the news."
Steve blinks and decides to let Clint deflect if he needs to--for now. "I am? From what I hear, it's not so unusual."
"Eh, for the most part it's gossip and speculation," Clint says dismissively. "This is front page stuff, though. Something about Captain America being debauched in the city of sin, getting drunk and gambling and stuff?"
Steve sighs then, annoyed. "That's not at all what happened." Information seems so much more readily available now, he doesn't quite understand why the media feels the need to make up stories to sell.
"I'm not passin' judgment on anything," Clint says, the shrug evident in his voice. "Just thought you'd like to know."
"I guess they've discovered I'm the real thing, then?"
"Discovered. Decided. Who knows. I don't think they have any proof, I just think they decided it would make for a better story and ran with it."
"I appreciate the heads up." Steve makes a mental note to google himself later before asking, "So how are you doing, Clint?"
Clint clears his throat on the other end of the line, the scratch of his voice noisy in Steve's ear. "I'm not causing any more shit, Captain, you don't have to worry about me."
It occurs to Steve then, that maybe Clint's lack of communication doesn't stem from not wanting to get to know him, but rather from residual guilt over his part in the events leading up to the battle of New York, and Steve frowns. "Clint, you know none of us blame you for anything, right? I know Loki was controlling you. I know you didn't do anything wrong."
The rustling on the other end of the line stops abruptly then, and for a moment Steve waits for Clint to speak before he suddenly hears the beeping that signals that Clint's hung up on him. That's not a good sign, and Steve can't keep the unhappy frown off his face.
He makes it to San Bernadino before he calls Natasha.
"Clint's dealing with a lot right now," Natasha non-explains.
Steve still doesn't like that Clint is feeling guilty for anything regarding the battle of New York. The man had fought and risked his life to save the world, and everyone knew what Loki had done, not only to Clint but to Doctor Selvig as well. "Can I do anything to help? Should I come back?"
"We're handling it, Captain," Natasha reassures him and doesn't specify who we are. "He's getting better. I promise. And the fact that he called you, that's a good sign."
Steve thinks about all the weeks that have passed since he left New York, and wonders how isolated Clint has been since then.
"How's Director Fury?" he asks, and Natasha hears what he's really asking. Steve appreciates that about her a lot.
"The World Security Council has started backing off," she says. "The public at large seems to have decided to react favorably to the Avengers, so any negative actions they take now wouldn't reflect well on them."
Steve considers for a moment, thinks of Clint's voice, gruff and hurt. "All right," he says. "I won't worry, then."
Natasha just makes a humming sound, like she knows he's already plotting out his return trip in his head.
LA is wide and sprawling and warm. Steve rides without his jacket and takes his chances in a t-shirt, and raises his face up towards the sun. He's decided it will be his last stop before he heads back east, so he makes sure to enjoy it while he can. He goes to Griffith Observatory and buys churros at Pacific Park, and then drives to Stark Industries, just because he wants to see it.
The Stark Industries compound is big and sprawling, all white walls and polished steel and glass, and Steve can only enter the outer courtyard of the campus before there's security gates and fences. He has no doubts he could continue on if he wanted to, but Tony's still in New York from what Bruce has told him, and for now he's content to just look. The outer courtyard has a statue in the middle; an abstract figure of a faceless man in scrubbed metal that's probably meant to look older than it is. The plaque in front reads, "Ho Yinsen."
Steve doesn't know who Ho Yinsen is, and suddenly feels like he's intruding on something private. It's ridiculous, because the statue is right here, in the open courtyard, for the world to see. Still, Steve's read about Tony, about his escapades in the tabloids as well as all the files SHIELD had on him--or at the very least, all the files they'd let him access--and Steve thinks there aren't a lot of people in this world Tony would want to pay tribute to in this manner.
He leaves Stark Industries, feeling oddly closer to Tony than he did before.
After that, Steve buys a pair of shorts at a Target and goes to Santa Monica beach. Lying down on his towel feels surprisingly nice, and people here remind him vaguely of the people in New York; shiny and beautiful.
A group of college-aged people are playing volleyball nearby, and Steve takes a photo to use as reference for a sketch later. He explores ska and dubstep and reggae, and allows himself, just this time, to consider this a vacation--just for one day.
Nearby, a young woman is waving at a man--her husband or boyfriend probably--as he's coming out of the ocean and walking towards her. She's wearing bright red lipstick and a bathing suit which is very reminiscent of the suits the ladies wore back before the ice, and for a moment Steve wonders what it would be like to have Peggy here. Young and healthy and going to the beach with him. He considers, again, calling her--but then forces the thought away, because Peggy is old, and had her life.
And when that thought hits him, lying on the beach on Santa Monica--that's when something unclenches in Steve's stomach and he gets it. Steve doesn't know if he's ever had an epiphany, but he thinks this might be as close as he'll ever come to one.
Steve thinks about Clint's voice in his ear and the statue of unknown meaning at Stark Industries. He thinks about Bruce always being angry, and Thor's face as he solemnly swore to protect the Earth, even from the misguided wrath of his own brother. Steve took a similar oath once, he thinks, swearing to protect this nation and its Constitution, and he remembers two smiling girls at the Grand Canyon. Lastly, he thinks about Natasha's e-mail which he's still got saved on his phone, telling him he'll always have a home to return to.
Steve remembers Peggy's file. He remembers reading about how she went on to work for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, how she had gone on to run SHIELD with Howard, and her accomplishments within the agency. From everything he knows about her life after he went down with the plane, she enjoyed life to the fullest and didn't regret a thing. Peggy Carter--just like Steve knew she would--lived. It's Steve's turn, now.
Steve smiles into the sunshine and starts packing up his stuff. He's got a whole country and a lot of road ahead of him. It's time to head home.
"Enjoy your sightseeing?" Director Fury asks when Steve gets off his bike underneath Stark Tower. Steve's not sure how he knew where he'd be, but he suspects there's a lot of things he'll never know about Fury.
"It was all right," he says, stretching his legs. The last stretch across Pennsylvania had been brutal, and he's relieved to be back.
"You decide on where to go next?" Fury asks, and Steve knows he's not talking about his road trip anymore.
"Yeah," Steve says, nodding. Looking past Fury and into the shadows of the parking garage, he smiles. "With her."
Natasha steps forward, and grabs one of Steve's bags from him; it dwarfs her, but she carries it like it's nothing. "Bruce declined our invitation, he's waiting for a call from Dr. Foster. They're still trying to restore the Einstein-Rosen Bridge to Asgard. He says we can do lunch tomorrow, though. We, on the other hand, are still meeting Clint in half an hour, and then we're all getting drunk," she informs him.
"I can't get drunk," Steve reminds her.
"We'll see," is all she says as she leads him towards the elevator.
Steve thinks he sees Fury grin out of the corner of his eye as they pass him, but he doesn't comment on it. Steve knows he's only seen a fraction of what the future holds, but he thinks of the Commandos and of Bucky, and he thinks of the Avengers and the oath he took--and Steve thinks yes. Bring on the future. He's ready for it.