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An Early Thaw

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 Steve woke up slowly. There was no one moment when he regained consciousness... it was a drawn-out process of blurred lights, distant sounds, and a soft, gradual warming. He was vaguely aware of voices, but couldn't identify what they were saying or even what language they were speaking. At one point he thought he could see faces hovering over him, but although they were familiar, he couldn't put names to them.

He wondered if he were dead. He didn't think he was... if he were dead, surely the slow, steady thump of his heartbeat would not have been audible to him. But he couldn't be properly alive, either. Not when he was unable to move or speak.

The first thing that really got through was the voice of the radio announcer.

Just an absolutely gorgeous day here at Philly field! The Phillies have managed to tie it up, but the Dodgers have three men on...

Those words were familiar. Steve had heard them on a summer day, years ago, not distant and tinny over a radio but loud and close over the PA system at the ball park. For a moment he was transported back there, sitting in the bleachers with the sunshine on his face, waving a pennant while Bucky hurried back from buying them each a bottle of soda pop. The bases were loaded, and any moment now...

Then, suddenly, his eyes opened.

Steve was lying flat on his back on a bed in a strange room, staring up at a fan turning slowly against a white ceiling. When he sat up to look around, he found that the voice was coming from a little wireless set on a dressing table. He frowned – why was he listening to that? That game had been four years ago. There'd be no reason to re-broadcast it now. It was a recording, clearly, with the playback machine disguised as a radio. But why?

As he reached full, proper consciousness, Steve realized there were other sounds besides the game. He could hear the curtains rustling – the window was open. Outside there was the sound of traffic on the streets, both human and automobile, and the distant shouts of voices and barking of dogs. The room looked like a hospital room, with sea-green walls and plain, utilitarian furniture. There was a radiator under the window. A clock on the table beside the bed. It was all so familiar, and yet somewhere, deep down in his gut, Steve knew something was wrong.

The door opened, and a woman walked in, smiling. “Good morning,” she said. “Or should I say afternoon?”

Steve didn't answer right away. Instead, he looked her over, frowning. She was wearing a beige blouse and a brown skirt and tie... fair skin, blue eyes, auburn hair in spiral curls. Yet somehow even she wasn't right. Something about the way her clothes hung on her body, as if they weren't put together quite right... or was it the way she carried herself? Her makeup, perhaps? The length of her hair? It was wrong.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“You're in a recovery room in New York City,” the woman replied – but her voice was somehow wrong, too. Where was she from? It definitely wasn't New York. In the soft light slanting through the windows, Steve could see the edge of her bra through her blouse, and even that was wrong. Enough women had thrown themselves at Steve over the past couple of years for him to know what a bra looked like – it didn't look like that.

The Dodgers take the lead! the radio announcer gushed, delighted. Steve remembered jumping to his feet to cheer, only to be downed a moment later by an asthma attack...

He shook himself back to the present. “Where am I really?” he wanted to know. Germany? Japan? Mars?

The woman looked for a moment as if she would laugh, but then she controlled herself. “I'm afraid I don't understand,” she said.

“The game.” Steve latched onto the one thing he knew was at least somewhat authentic in this situation. The game had really happened. It just wasn't happening now. “It's from May 1941. I know 'cause I was there.”

He could see that this observation made the woman uncomfortable – her smile faltered, and her muscles tensed. Steve got to his feet slowly, keeping a firm control of himself so that he wouldn't start to tremble. He didn't like scaring people but right now, surrounded by unknowns, he would rather come across as threatening than terrified.

“Now.” He kept his voice as low and calm as he could. “I'm gonna ask you again: where am I?

The woman swallowed. “Captain Rogers...” she began.

But he could tell by her tone that whatever she said next would be another lie, and he was losing patience for it. “Who are you?” he demanded, balling his fists.

Behind her, the door opened again, and two men in black fatigues entered the room.

Steve's reaction was as much instinct as anything else. As the woman ducked out of the way, he grabbed the first intruder and swung him into the second. He'd intended to slam them both against the wall, but instead, they went right through it – the wall was fake, just painted plywood on thin struts. Beyond was a vast, dimly-lit space. The 'recovery room' was a tiny, flimsy set in the middle of it.

Panic twisted in Steve's chest. It was the smell, he realized. The room hadn't smelled like New York with a window open – the air was too clean, too indoor. If they'd gotten the smell right, and chosen a more recent baseball game, they might just have fooled him.

Wherever the hell he was, he had to escape. He had to know what was really going on. Steve jumped over the fallen bodies of the two agents, and ran.

“Captain Rogers!” the woman shouted after him. “Wait!”

He ignored her. The only thought in his head was get out.

On the far side of the big dark room was a door – he could see the light shining in around it. Steve threw himself at it, but it wasn't locked. He burst through into a hallway, broad and full of people, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the far wall through which he could glimpse buildings outside. There was no direct sun, but after the subdued light of the false room and the darkness around it, the windows here were blinding. Steve paused a moment, holding up a hand to shield his eyes, while all around him men and women in business suits stopped to stare.

All agents, code thirteen! The woman's voice was broadcast to the entire building. All agents, code thirteen!

There was nothing to tell Steve where he ought to go. He just picked the direction with the fewest people in it and ran, as more agents in black came running to apprehend him. Each had an eagle logo on the shoulder of their jackets, he noticed, and some wore caps with a matching one – it looked something like the SSR's, but more angular, more stylized. Steve didn't bother thinking as they came at him, he just reacted. People were elbowed out of the way, slammed into walls, pushed onto floors, thrown over railings. He had to get out! There was a street out there, if it wasn't just another set. If he could only get to it...

What he took at first for a flight of stairs turned out to be an escalator, moving up. There must be one going down somewhere, but Steve wasn't going to waste time looking for it. He pushed his way down, shoving people aside and taking the steps two or three at a time to counter their upward motion. There it was – the exit. A big revolving door, only a few steps away. Steve crossed the open lobby in a few long strides, and darted through.

But outside was no better. The people still didn't look right – the haircuts, the clothing, the way they walked, it was all wrong. The cars were wrong, all big and boxy and strange colours. The sounds were wrong. The smells were wrong. Steve turned in a circle to look around, and then began running again. There had to be a way out. There had to be something familiar.

He didn't know where he was going, and didn't bother trying to memorize the turns he made so he could find his way back. That would only have been necessary if he'd been going back, and he had no intention of that. People shouted at him to get out of the road, or cried out in surprise when he darted in front of them. It did register that they were speaking English, and that the signs in windows and on street corners were readable, but it didn't help. If he could only...

Steve rounded a corner and emerged into a big, open triangular space between buildings, and there he stopped dead.

All around him were tall buildings in glass, stone, and metal, many of them bearing huge, lit-up billboards advertising brands both familiar and strange: Sony, Coca-Cola, JVC. More people in odd clothing, some of the colours so bright they seemed to glow even in the daytime. Loud, thumping music playing from big portable radios. Boxlike cars with honking horns, many of them painted a recognizable taxi yellow but otherwise uncomfortably alien. Theater marquees advertised Poltergeist II and Running Scared and Back to School starring Rodney Dangerfield! All of it was still deeply, uncomfortably wrong... and yet just below that surface there was something familiar.

He knew this place.

Steve turned in a slow circle, staring up at the buildings. Some of them were new, but others were ones he recognized. The layout of the streets was right. There was no other place on Earth quite like this. This was, had to be, Times Square... but he'd been here only two or three months ago, shaking hands with a bunch of politicians. How could it possibly have changed so much?

The sound of sirens brought him out of it. Police cars were moving in – men piled out of them, carrying plastic shields with the letters NYPD on them. As they spread out to surround Steve, a big black car pulled up behind him, and a woman got out.

“Steve?” she asked.

He felt his jaw drop.

This was not the same woman who'd come into the fake recovery room to greet him – she was older, at least fifty, and dressed in a dark blue skirt suit with broad shoulders that made her look as if she'd been padded up like a football player underneath her jacket. Her shoulder-length dark hair was streaked with silver, but her face... for a moment it was weirdly out-of-focus, as if Steve's eyes refused to properly take her in. Then, suddenly, everything dropped into place.

He took a step towards her. “Peggy?” he asked.

The woman smiled softly, but as Steve came closer, he could see tears shining in her eyes. “Welcome back, Steve,” she said gently. “You're awake.”

“Am I?” he asked, uncertain. There was, after all, no reason why he couldn't be dreaming that she'd told him that. He stopped about a yard away from her and reached out. He felt like he needed to touch her in order to be sure she was real, but at the last moment he pulled his hand back, terrified. Part of him worried that his hand would pass right through her, that she was only an illusion... another part wasn't so sure that would be a bad thing.

Peggy swallowed and reached out to take his hands. Her fingers seemed smaller than he remembered, the knuckles more prominent, and when he closed his hand around hers, her skin seemed to slide loosely over her bones. But she was there, warm and solid and real, and yet like everything else, utterly changed.

That was when he realized that she hadn't said you're awake to reassure him he wasn't dreaming. She'd meant something else entirely.

“How long was I sleeping?” he asked.

She reached up as if to touch his cheek, then seemed to change her mind and rested her other hand on his arm instead. “It may be a shock,” she warned.

“More of a shock than this?” Steve looked around at Times Square, and tried to prepare himself for a large number. Ten years, maybe twelve... a long time, certainly.

“Forty years,” said Peggy.

“Fourteen years,” he echoed, licking his lips. “Okay, so that would make this... 1959.”

“No,” said Peggy. “Not fourteen. Forty.”

Steve's stomach turned inside out. “Forty?” he asked in disbelief. That couldn't possibly be right. How could he have slept for forty years?

“It's 1986,” said Peggy. “They found you... the Valkyrie went down off Ellesmere Island, hundreds of miles from your last transmission. We never thought to look so far away. A Canadian oil survey team found the wreckage four months ago, and you were inside, frozen. We brought you back to SHIELD hoping to extract the secret of the serum from your tissues, but then we realized that you were still alive.” She smiled again, even as the tears welled up. “Nobody believed you would come out of it. They were were there would be brain damage or... but I knew.” She squeezed his hand. “I knew you were still in there.”

Steve looked around again. They were still surrounded by the SWAT team, and police who were waving away the people who wanted to stop and stare. Beyond them were the buildings and the billboards and the taxis, familiar and yet strange. So this was the future. It was dirtier than Howard had always made it sound, and the cars seemed to have all four wheels on the ground. The colours were bright, but everything seemed to be coated in a layer of grime and garbage – and as Steve had already noticed, underneath the veneer the shape of the world was still hauntingly familiar. It was both reassuring and a bit disappointing.

He turned back to Peggy. “I missed our date,” he said softly.

“You couldn't all your ride,” she replied, and her tears spilled over.

Steve finally gave in, and pulled her close to him for a hug. Again, she seemed so small, so much more fragile than he remembered, but her grip as her arms encircled him was iron-tight, as if she never intended to let go of him again. God, if it were 1986... Peggy had been born in 1919. He'd thought she looked about fifty. She was nearly seventy.

“We wanted to break it to you slowly,” she said into his shoulder, then reluctantly stepped away and gestured towards the waiting car. “Come back to SHIELD. Howard's looking forward to seeing you again. He made a special trip, all the way back from Monaco, as soon as he heard.”

Steve followed her into the car. The interior was cool and smelled faintly of unknown chemicals, and the seats didn't feel like real leather. He watched her do up her seat belt, so he did the same. “What is SHIELD?” he wanted to know.

“A successor to the SSR,” she replied. “Howard and I are in charge of the place, by which I mean I do everything and Howard shows up when he feels like it.” She snorted, then paused a moment before adding, “I should warn you, Howard doesn't look like you remember him. He crashed one of his planes in 1972 and needed reconstructive surgery.”

The driver started the engine. As the car moved off, Steve could still see the glass towers and bright billboards through the tinted windows. He wasn't surprised at Peggy's statement – nothing else looked the way he remembered it, so why should Howard? “What about the others?” he asked. “The guys from the 107th?”

Peggy didn't look at him. “We can talk back at the building,” she said, which told him everything he needed to know: he was the only one left.

“I see,” he said.

“It's good to have you back, Steve,” Peggy said, and squeezed his hand. “The world needs you.”

“Does it?” Steve asked. What was the world of 1986 even like? Could it possibly still be at war after forty years – and if not, what need did it have for Captain America?

Peggy nodded. “More than ever, really. You'll see.”

Steve remembered as if it were yesterday the last time he'd ridden through the city in a car with Peggy – the two of them traveling anonymously to a tumble-down shop in Brooklyn in an unmarked car. Now here they were, pulling up in front of a shining skyscraper with a full police escort. Men and women in the black SHIELD uniforms, some of them armed, were waiting on the steps of the building when they pulled up. Steve looked around as he climbed out of the car, but traffic on the street and pedestrians on the other side of it were just passing by as if all of this were perfectly normal. SHIELD must not be the kind of closely-guarded secret the SSR had been, he decided. It had become one of those government departments that sat out in the open, ignored rather than covered up.

Peggy followed him out. “Stand down,” she ordered the agents.

At once, the group relaxed and lowered their weapons. They obeyed like soldiers, Steve observed, but they didn't move like soldiers. SHIELD wasn't a military organization, but it wasn't quite a civilian one, either.

He followed Peggy up the short flight of steps to the revolving door. The woman who'd come in to speak to Steve in the fake recovery room was waiting there, visibly nervous. She was still in most of her costume, but had removed her auburn wig – under it, her real hair was short and ash-blonde. She was smaller than Steve had thought, about five foot four, with delicate features and eyebrows so pale they were barely visible. As Steve approached, she stepped forward and held out a sheepish hand.

“Agent Fletcher,” she introduced herself. “I'm sorry, Captain Rogers. I panicked.”

Steve nodded and shook the hand. “No problem,” he said. “So did I.”

They left Fletcher on the step and headed into the lobby – the SHIELD building had a big atrium with potted palm trees reaching for the sloping glass ceiling, and beds of immaculately tended flowers. Word of Steve's awakening must have gotten around quickly, because men and men gathered to stare as if royalty were visiting. People were whispering to one another, hissing in excitement or giggling softly, as if he were visiting royalty or a movie idol. Many of the women had their hair in voluminous curls, while the men wore theirs longer at the back than the front. Trousers were tight, lapels narrow, and shoulders broad. It didn't look so much like anything Steve would have thought of as the future as it did like a foreign country – the surface veneer was different, but not too far under that, the people were exactly the same.

Peggy held her head high as she passed them, ignoring the whispers and stares, and headed for the space in between the two escalators. There stood a fountain with a geometric bronze sculpture in the middle and a few colourful fish swimming in the water, and three people. A white-haired man in a gray tweed blazer was standing with his back to Steve and Peggy, talking to a woman in a yellow and black jacket who was sitting on a bench in front of the fountain. In the woman's lap was a five or six year old girl holding a doll.

The woman was the first to notice Steve and Peggy coming. “Looks like I'd better go,” she said, putting her daughter on the floor. “I'll see you, Howard. Hope, you got your stuff?”

“Yeah,” said the girl, taking her mother's hand.

“See you, Jan,” said the man, turning to watch the two leave – and then he saw Steve and Peggy. His eyes widened, and then his astonished face split into a delighted grin. “Steve!” he said, and grabbed him by the shoulders.

Steve couldn't answer right away, because Peggy had been right – Howard did not look like Steve remembered him. Not only was he older, his famous mustache as white as his hair, he'd lost weight and his face was much narrower and pointier than the one in Steve's memory. If he'd met this man on the street, he would have noticed a resemblance to Howard Stark, but only a resemblance. The idea that this was Howard would never have occurred to him.

Howard noticed his hesitation, and nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said, letting go of Steve and stepping back. “They had to put my face back together after I crashed my Piper, and I don't think they found all the bits. Maria hasn't let me near a cockpit since.”

“Who's Maria?” asked Steve.

“My wife,” Howard replied with a chuckle. “You wont have heard of her. I think she would have been four when you left.”

“You're married?” Steve hoped he didn't look as shocked as he felt. Forty years was a long time, he reminded himself. Long enough for even Howard Stark to decide he wanted to settle down.

“Coming up on twenty years,” said Howard proudly. For a second time, he put his hands on Steve's shoulders, and looked him over. “I have to say, you look damned good for sixty-five. How do you feel?”

Steve had to think about that – how did he feel? He'd been so preoccupied with his surroundings, he hadn't had time to take in the state of his own body. It all seemed to be there, at least. “A little stiff,” he decided. “Kind of disoriented. And hungry – starving, actually.” Now that the initial panic had worn off, his stomach had noticed it was empty, and now it wanted everybody else to notice, too. As he spoke, it chimed in with an embarrassing gurgle.

“If I hadn't eaten in forty years, I'd be hungry, too,” Howard nodded. “Pegs, let's get our boy some lunch.”

An hour or so later, they were all sitting in a spacious office on a upper floor. Somebody had brought Steve some new clothing: a pair of faded-looking blue jeans and a white polo shirt with a broad royal blue stripe across the chest. They'd also served him a meal of steak and vegetables that he knew he should have savoured, but once the food was in front of him he was just too hungry to do anything but shovel it into his mouth as quickly as he could. After months of army rations, it was too delicious to describe.

While he ate, a couple of medics had checked him over as best they could without disturbing his lunch, and Peggy and Howard had given him a quick run-down of the end of the war. With the crash of the Valkyrie, Germany had lost its secret weapon and was forced to retreat. Mussolini had been executed by partisans and Hitler committed suicide to avoid the same fate. Japan had surrendered by the end of August, and the world had settled into an uneasy new order that seemed defined by the USA and the Soviet Union glaring at each other from either side of Canada.

“It's more complicated than that in real life, obviously,” Howard said, as Steve started on his third helping. “We've had some near misses, but mostly the cold war has stayed cold, and Peggy and her Soviet counterparts are doing their level best to keep it that way.”

“You can do some reading about it once you're properly settled in,” Peggy suggested. “We've got a suite prepared for you upstairs. Not another fake recovery room,” she added, “a proper set of living quarters.”

“Oh, come on, Peg,” Howard said. “You're not gonna keep him here, are you?”

“The doctors want to monitor his recovery,” she said firmly. “Besides, it's more secure than a hotel.”

“What recovery?” Howard asked. “He's recovered! Look at him, he's fit as a fiddle. You can't keep him locked up in SHIELD. He's not a prisoner.”

“Of course he's not!” Peggy shook her head. “I just think we ought to acclimate him slowly to the...”

Howard interrupted. “You tried that. It didn't work too well, did it? How are those two boys he threw through the wall, by the way?” he asked with an arched eyebrow. “They're gonna need more recovery than he does.”

There was quite a bit of tension in this conversation, as if it were just the tip of a much deeper ongoing disagreement between the two of them. Steve wasn't sure how comfortable he was with that – and he definitely didn't like that they were now talking about him as if he weren't in the room. People had done that to Steve before, of course: superiors who thought he was reckless and scientists who considered him a specimen did it all the time, but this was Peggy and Howard. Their attitudes, combined with the fact that they were suddenly so much older than him, made him feel like a child being discussed by his teachers. That wasn't something Steve would stand for from anybody, and certainly not from two of his closest friends.

“I'm right here,” he said around a mouthful.

They both turned and blinked at him for a moment, as if they had indeed forgotten he was present. Then Peggy sighed and reached over to pat his hand. “Of course you are,” she said. “I'm sorry, Steve. It's just that we've been trying to figure out what do with you for a couple of months now...”

“And now we're out of figuring time,” said Howard. “If you want to know what I think, Steve, I think you should come stay with me. We've got plenty of room, and you won't find a safer place in the city.” He glanced at Peggy. “And you' still within easy reach if Madame Director wants you baby-sat.”

Steve chewed thoughtfully. Experience told him that Peggy's ideas were almost always safer and more sensible than Howard's... but after his first rude awakening in the SHIELD building, he didn't think he wanted to stay there.

“Do you still live in that ridiculous house on 70th Street?” he asked Howard.

“Nah. That's the Stark Gallery now – it's an art museum,” Howard replied. “They've got a few of my inventions on display, too. I'll take you to see it sometime. But Maria and I have a penthouse on Park Avenue, near the train station. It's close to work for me, close to shopping for her. You'll love it,” he promised.

Steve looked at Peggy for her opinion.

“I'd rather you say here,” she said, “but it's your choice, Steve.”

“Then I'll go to Howard's for tonight,” he decided. “I want to meet the woman who convinced Howard Stark to marry her.”

Howard grinned and clapped him on the back. “It's a deal!”

The caterer who'd brought up Steve's lunch came to take his plate away. “Would you like some blueberry pie, Captain Rogers?” the woman asked. “Mr. Stark said it was your favourite.” She looked a bit dubious, probably doubting Steve could possibly eat any more.

“Sure,” said Steve.

The caterer set it down, complete with a scoop of ice cream, and Steve dug in while Howard beamed. “That's our Steve,” he said, delighted. “You haven't changed a bit.”