“You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now” – Colson Whitehead
It’s not that Steve didn’t appreciate the view from 70 stories above the streets of Manhattan. The slowly healing form of Grand Central was hidden by the balcony (as long as he didn’t peek over the edge) but the grand majesty of the Chrysler Building gleamed before him every time he looked up, balanced by the dignified weight of the Empire State ten block south.
He remembered when they built them, his father standing with him on the sidewalk pointing to the sky, to the steelworkers crawling like ants fifty, sixty, seventy stories up. He remembered seeing them gleam bright and new in the morning sun. When asked, he’d tell people they wear their years well, but privately he felt they both look a little darker, a little grimy. Weary, from all the time and hustle.
When it was all too much – skinny asthmatic boys from Brooklyn shouldn’t be soaring over the streets like this, after all – he would flee. “Jarvis, if anyone’s looking for me I went out for a while.”
JARVIS never argued, which was one of the reasons Steve was becoming very fond of him. “Of course, Captain Rogers. May I remind you to bring your phone along?”
Steve chuckled. “Got it. I promise I will let you know if I’ll be longer than a few hours.”
“That would be appreciated,” JARVIS said, dryly. “Enjoy your morning.”
“Thanks,” Steve told him, and slipped out, down the elevator (so fast, another impossible thing) and out the small side entrance that he’d come to prefer, pulling a Dodgers cap over his hair. In his leather jacket and the newer clothing Pepper had slowly been pushing at him, he looked entirely unremarkable. Just another New Yorker, fighting for space on the stairs into the subway.
Oh, the subway. Not that he didn’t realize that there were a million and one changes, really – everything from how toasters popped to the size of a hot dog – but it was the subway map that had finally driven him to despair. The map that lived in his head – the Fulton El, the Brooklyn Bridge trolley, the yellow diamond next to Prospect Park labeled “Ebbets Field” – none of them were there. The map now was emptier, with too many colors and too many stations he didn’t recognize.
He had forced himself to get comfortable with it, had asked Jarvis to find him a map he was familiar with and sat down with the two side by side. He had to admit the color schemes made sense, that the old Dual System was ridiculously complicated – but he missed the old abbreviations. He missed hearing someone say “How’dya get to –” and knowing without looking how to direct them.
It was a good metaphor for his situation, he admitted privately, but it drove him nuts all the same.
He really hated the farecards. He missed the feeling of a handful of nickels in his pocket, ready to take him wherever he wanted to go. The slide of the card through the reader was somehow unsatisfying, compared to the thunk-chink of dropping a nickel into the turnstile.
Two-fifty for a single ride would have make him blanch, except that he had paid more for that than a single cup of coffee the other day.
Grand Central was always bustling, no matter what time of day or night. The wreckage and construction upstairs made no difference to the subway; trains kept coming regardless, and so did the straphangers, mostly ignoring the mess and noise. Sometimes there were gawkers, or souvenir hunters sneaking shards of blue-painted ceiling from the rubble, and everyone else ignored them, including Steve. Here, he knew where he was going. The downtown platform was the same, and he picked his way down the stairs, around the crowd, waiting on the local side.
Here, he could people-watch and nobody would be the wiser. Everybody ignored him and he ignored them, the mutual respect of personal space that was so essential for survival in a city so packed. It was comforting, being left alone.
Steve was so lost in thought that when the express pulled in across the platform he barely noticed, ignoring the movement as everyone on the platform turned and rushed the doors. The train operator was not impressed. “Step aside, people, step aside, let ‘em out, let ‘em out. Stop blockin the doors. There’s another train right behind this one. I repeat, another express right behind us. This is the downtown IRT express, transfer here for the 5, 6 and 7 IND trains. Transfer for the shuttle to Times Square. There is no, I repeat no connection to Metro North at this station. For connection to Metro-North, please take an uptown train to 125th Street or transfer to the Shuttle for Penn Station. This is a downtown 4 express train. Next stop Union Square, stand clear –”
Steve snapped his head up at the unexpected references, the announcements about train connections fading away unheard. Downtown IRT was just something he had never expected to hear, not when it had so completely disappeared from the map. Lunging, he caught his arm in the door just as it started to close. The door slammed onto his arm and bounced back open, and he slithered into the little patch of available space as the doors slammed shut behind him.
“Please do not hold the doors when the train is in the station,” a recording scolded, prissy. “This is – a downtown – Four train. Next stop is – Union Square.” The train started moving with a whine and hit the turn to Park Avenue fast enough to send Steve face-first into the door. He braced himself with a hand on the ceiling automatically.
“I wish they would keep calling it IRT in the recordings,” the woman next to him grumbled, pressed into the corner. “Bad enough we have to have these stupid recordings, at least they could use the proper names.”
“Nobody knows what the IRT is anymore,” a man in a suit scoffed.
“At least you can understand them,” somebody else grumbled back, and that was the end of it, and everyone went back to their conversations and music and Ignoring Everyone Else.
Steve glanced at the woman. She gave him a little smile that he returned, before holding up a battered New Yorker and losing herself in whatever she was reading.
Steve relaxed against the door and watched 33rd Street go by through the windows, and realized – he felt entirely at home.
“Seriously, we need to have a talk with these mofos,” Clint wheezed, bent over the railing at the water’s edge as he tried to catch his breath. “Dawn is a time for sleeping.”
“You go right ahead,” Natasha muttered. She was next to him, slumped backwards on the rail with her eyes closed. “Tell them that.”
Hulk surfaced in the water below them, waving a piece of the HYDRA boat that he had been happily dismantling with his fists. “RRRAAARGH RARH BOAT.”
“Good job, Big Guy,” Steve called. “Is Bruce ready to come back?”
“SWIMMING.” Hulk sent a great splash of water at them that they barely managed to duck and disappeared back out into the Harbor.
“Better he gets his yayas out in the water, I guess?” Clint asked.
“As long as he doesn’t transform back halfway to Jersey,” Natasha chimed in, before Steve could say anything. Clint shuddered at the mere mention of Jersey.
Steve toggled to the group frequency. “Tony?”
“On it, Cap. If the Jolly Green Giant gets tired I’ll bring him in.” Tony swooped by them, the suit dark in the pre-dawn light. “I think we should go for pancakes once he’s done.”
“I want eggs.”
Clint and Natasha glared at each other, and Steve rolled his eyes. “Team, focus. We will get breakfast for everyone. And coffee.” He watched the last of the cars holding captured HYDRA agents head out from the Ferry Terminal, making for the West Side Highway and disappearing in the gloom. “Just hang tight until we’re certain there’s no more debriefing needed, and Bruce is ready to go.”
Three voices groaned into the comm, and Tony started grumbling under his breath. Steve turned back to the harbor and watched him fly in lazy loops. Every so often Hulk sent up a splash of water, and Tony’s grumbling was replaced with laughter.
Clint finally gave up and wandered off, coming back a few minutes later with three cups of rocket fuel cleverly disguised as coffee by the blue WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU cups it was served in. Natasha muttered something in Russian and saluted both of them with her cup before drinking half of it down in one gulp. “Bozhemoi, that is fucking hot,” she gasped.
“Warn a girl, Barton.”
Clint pointed to the bottom of the cup, which read WARNING: CONTENTS ARE EXTREMELY HOT in smaller letters. “See? In writing and everything.” Natasha punched him in the arm and they started squabbling good-naturedly. Steve tuned them out, resting his arms on the railing and holding the coffee under his nose. It smelled good, combined with the salty tang of the harbor and the faint smell of trash-exhaust-age that underlaid everything in Manhattan.
Tony looped past Ellis Island, and Hulk splashed after him. Steve could see his plan now: he was leading Hulk on a zig-zag course back towards Manhattan, so he didn’t have as far to haul Bruce back if Hulk transformed. Clint and Natasha wandered over to a bench and promptly colonized it, leaving Steve to his thoughts.
“Why so serious, Cap?” That was Tony, on the private channel. Steve was pretty sure that was another pop-culture reference, because Tony took great joy in finding all of the things Steve didn’t know yet and then throwing them at him to see what stuck.
“We have coffee,” Steve shot back. “Coffee is very serious, Stark.”
“Son of a bitch. Nobody got me one?” Tony made a rude noise over the comm, and Steve laughed.
“I’m sure Clint will get you your own, if you ask nicely. You think Bruce is about done?”
Steve could see Tony slow down and peer at the water. “I think so. I also think he found some toys down there. I really hope that’s a chunk of ship and not something else. Jesus, Hulk – No, Hulk, that is not a snack!” The comm snapped off and Tony zoomed down to the water level, disappearing from Steve’s line of sight. He didn’t notice, distracted – the sun appeared, in its blazing glory, and everything turned golden and bright.
Something glowing caught his eye and he turned, half expecting another ship, another attack – but it was the torch, Lady Liberty’s torch gleaming bright with sunlight. It hit Steve in a funny way, down beneath his ribs, and he swallowed roughly, eyes fixed on the statue and the torch burning, beacon and message all at once.
“There is one in Budapest,” Natasha said quietly, and Steve jumped – he hadn’t realized she’d snuck up next to him.
“I hate when you do that,” he muttered, and he glanced behind him quick to see Clint dozing with one eye open. He always found that unnerving, and he turned back to Natasha.
“I know,” she answered him, ignoring his momentary distraction. “A statue like this, for liberty.” She turned to look back at Clint, and then back at the Statue. “I am very fond of that one, but this one – I think I prefer her. She is a welcome, not a threat.”
“’Give me your tired, your poor?’” Steve quoted, and Natasha gave him a confused look.
Sighing, Steve sipped his coffee. “You don’t know that one? Emma Lazarus wrote it. I had to learn it in school.” He had to stop and think his way through it to the relevant part.
“’Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Steve cleared his throat and took another sip of coffee. Natasha was staring at him. “There’s more,” he muttered. “ That’s just the part I remember. In any case… you know what my favorite part is?” Natasha shook her head, and Steve grinned. “She looks the same. Beautiful lady, isn’t she?” He let out a satisfied breath and leaned his hip against the railing. “I came here the night before I shipped out for basic training, just to see her, and – she looks exactly like I remember her.”
Natasha looked up at him with a small smile, and held out her coffee cup to him. He clinked his to it, and they drank their coffee and made jokes about drawing things on Clint’s face and waited for Hulk and Tony while the sun came up over the harbor and New York woke up around them.
Some things about this strange new future were easy to master, like the tablet computers scattered carelessly around the Tower. Point, tap, swipe: after a few days of confusion everything suddenly made sense, and Steve started eating breakfast with his Starktablet, reading the New York Times while he had his oatmeal and eggs and sausage and a mug of coffee three times the size of anything he could remember drinking Back Then.
That’s how he’s begun to classify everything, in his head: Back Then, capitalized and set apart from Now. Back Then he would have read the Times on paper, folding lengthwise and then in half, doodling caricatures in the margins. Now he read online, scrolling through articles. He’s gotten used to it, and loathe as he would ever be to admit it, it was far easier to read online than to keep refolding the paper on each page. Of course, that was no help with actually comprehending what he read, of course. So many things depended on knowledge he just didn’t have – foreign affairs, economics, seventy years of politics and history.
Local news was easier, and unchanging, so he always read that first: complaining about subway and bus service was apparently an eternal team sport for New Yorkers; he’d laugh at how familiar the griping was. (And, frankly, he was a little disturbed that they still hadn’t finished the Second Avenue subway.) Sports were easy too: Steve followed the Dodgers avidly (pointedly ignoring their new location) and the Mets with a sense of befuddlement; the Yankees he simply couldn’t abide, to the amusement of just about everyone. (Barton, because he was apparently aiming to make Steve crazy, took to rooting for the Yankees as loudly and obnoxiously as possible. The summertime Subway Series turned into an all-out war, with everyone taking sides except for Natasha, who declared them all insane, and Tony, who promptly bought tickets for games at both Yankee and Citifield and forced Steve into a Mets jersey and then sat back cackling as the media descended in hordes on him and Clint. Everyone has agreed Tony has to clear all of his teambuilding ideas through Pepper now, and nobody will ever insult the Dodgers in front of Steve ever again.)
To the great amusement of just about everyone, Steve enjoyed the Style and Arts sections. Book reviews and fashion-on-the-street photo spreads helped to make all the culture shifts a little more sensible, and he read movie reviews and write-ups of fashion shows avidly. Tony took pity on him and introduced him to the blogosphere, Tumblr, and Twitter; soon Steve had a feed reader supplying him with a steady diet of gossip and style blogs, sports write-ups, and Gothamist.
He avoided any mentions of his own name. He did not read the comments. Once was enough.
But there were still gaps in his understanding that bloggers couldn’t rectify. When did the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rip through the old neighborhood? He remembered hearing about the plans, Back Then, but it was supposed to run along the river. Now it was a great scar ducking from aboveground to underground to a slash right through Fort Greene on the maps he squinted at. As much as he liked the idea of a Promenade, he wasn’t sure the trade-off was worth it.
JARVIS finally stepped in and offered him a list of books – politics and economics and the entire reading list off the syllabus of City College’s History of The City Of New York class. Tony scoffed, and Pepper offered to send someone to fetch them, but Steve shook his head and went to the library.
From the Tower the library should just be a few minutes’ walk, but between the
street closures, construction zones and detours it took Steve the better part of a half hour. He stood on the steps for a minute, relief that the great lions at the entrance were unharmed so strong that it made him dizzy. He laid a hand on Fortitude’s mane, enjoying the sun-warmed marble beneath his hand, before climbing the rest of the steps into the building.
He’d come here as a teenager, more than once, because it was the perfect place to sketch and not be disturbed. With a book or two and his notebook he looked like he was studying, so no one paid him any mind at all. He had fallen in love with the building and its secret corners and corridors, and visited it any time he could manufacture an errand to go into Manhattan.
There were changes, of course, and he picked them out immediately – a new name was carved into the building, from some new donor, but the original trusts were still on the marble façade, and the great serious portrait of Governor Tilden still hung in the south stairwell, holding a staring contest with Mr. Lenox on the other side of the hall. He peeked at them and then went to the North wing instead, following the signs to a basement room filled with bright colors and children's books and a display holding a careworn teddy bear and some friends, incongruous with his memories of serious scholarship. But he smiled and ran a hand over the display case, remembering when his mother would read him Winnie the Pooh when he was too sick to get out of bed.
A group of young children came in, and he surrendered the space to them and went off to find the back stairwell. He climbed up (they had been so steep and high when he was young, and now they were nothing), and went through the catalog room (full of computer terminals now) and into the grand Reading Room -- it was exactly the same. Stepping to the side to let people past, he stopped and tilted his head back to look up at the ceiling murals, breathed in the scent of paper and book glue, listened to the quiet murmur of turning pages and pens on paper; the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards fit in somehow, a little whisper of percussion to the sound of the pages turning.
He had to fill out paper call slips to request his books, fingers clenched around the little miniature pencil, and when the teenager staffing the call desk pulled out a pneumatic tube, he blinked. “Wow. Do you mind?”
The teenager – Aziz, according to his nametag -- blinked at him. “Huh?”
“The pneumatic tube. Can I? I – haven’t seen one of those in a while,” Steve said, and when the teenager held it out, he picked it up and held it and laughed.
“Wild,” Aziz said, grinning a little at Steve’s enthusiasm. “They’re real vintage, but the system works so well they never got rid of them.”
“I remember,” Steve told him. “I just – figured by now they’d have gone to something fancier.”
“Nah. They’re kind of cool, I guess.” Aziz took it back and stuffed Steve’s call slips in, stamping the receipts. “See the number here? They’ll put it up inside when your books are ready. You can hang out ‘til then.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, and got up to go back into the Reading Room. He could hear a sudden commotion – he’d been recognized. Just as he passed through the doorway he heard Aziz cry out “Holy CRAP that was –” followed by loud shushing.
Laughing – quietly! – he crossed the reading room, picking a quiet corner to wait, pulling out his sketchpad and a pencil.
One of the problems with having super strength that nobody talks about: they just don’t make exercise equipment to match.
As much as Steve loved a good workout with a punching bag or twelve, having to reassemble them afterwards was getting really old. He could lift weights, but Thor was really the only person who could spot him – or spar safely at all – and he was in Asgard as often as not. Natasha and Clint were glad to share the range with him but that wasn’t aerobic at all.
So finally, in frustration, Steve found himself a shoe store (with JARVIS’s assistance; shopping was another thing that had become much more complicated). He put up with having his feet measured, his gait analyzed, and the barely-restrained freakout of the shop girl when she realized who she was assisting, and walked out with four pairs of running shoes that looked like something he figured an astronaut would wear, all puffy whiteness and springy soles. He also left his autograph on a strip of register tape for the associate, and then another one for her brother when she stammered out that he was a big fan.
But then, the question of figuring out where to run. Steve started out in Central Park, running the loop around the Reservoir. That got boring very quickly. To his chagrin, he discovered he was capable of overclocking a treadmill only after he broke Pepper’s favorite machine in the Tower gym. (Clint wouldn’t shut up about that, either.) And most of the time the streets were just too busy and crowded to run comfortably.
Finally, Steve had the bright idea of going out before dawn for his run.
It was perfect. The only other people out were the other runners and delivery trucks.
Even the avenues were quiet. Steve could run to his heart’s content. He explored entire neighborhoods in the dim light of dawn, weaving his way up and down the quiet streets. He could go for blocks without seeing another person, just hearing the steady tempo of his feet against the pavement and his breath harsh in his ears. As he got more comfortable he began ranging further and further afield, venturing into the Bronx and Queens, making note of restaurants to return to later in the day, of parks to explore, of shops to visit. He relearned the city on those early morning runs, finding neighborhoods he’d never set foot in before less fascinating than cataloging the changes in places he used to know by heart.
Slowly, slowly, they grew familiar again.
When the sun was fully over the horizon and the light had gone from faint silver to the full gold of morning, he would make his way back to the Tower, sneak in the side entrance, and ride the elevator on shaky legs back up to his suite to shower and change and go have coffee. It was a good routine, and he quickly became attached to it – and he’d never say it out loud but he found it rather satisfying to get up and spend an hour on his run, and still be the first one to the main kitchen for breakfast.
He sat at the table one morning with his Starkpad and his breakfast, ignoring the Times as his thoughts wandered, and realized that besides Jarvis, the only person who probably even knew about his runs was Pepper, who was at that moment stealing the rest of the pot of coffee he had brewed to go with his eggs and sausage and toast and oatmeal and fruit. (Running worked up an appetite.)
“So where did you go today?” she asked, settling across the breakfast bar from him with her yogurt and granola.
Steve hurried to gulp down the mouthful of egg he’d just eaten. “Out through Queens – I finally figured out a good route to Corona. I can’t believe the Unisphere is still there.”
“Pass it on the way to the airport all the time,” Pepper said with a nod. “Honestly, I’m amazed it’s still standing.” She looked vaguely nauseated for a moment, and then shook her head. “Tony actually paid for the last round of renovations after he nearly blew it up.”
Steve stopped, coffee mug halfway to his mouth, and then shook his head. “You know what? Don’t tell me. I’m happier not knowing.”
“Smart. Very smart,” Pepper muttered, and communed with her own coffee mug for a moment. “Not to insult that fair borough, but why do you always go through Queens? I would have thought you’d be spending time in Brooklyn, too.” She started scrolling through her emails on her tablet, making hmmm sounds as she deleted almost her entire inbox, one at a time, as he watched.
“I’ve been avoiding it,” Steve finally confessed, and Pepper picked her head up.
He shrugged a little, shredding an egg yolk with his fork. “I never lived in Manhattan, you know. Everything really important happened in Brooklyn.”
Pepper put her tablet down and regarded him for a long moment. “You know. If you’d walked away from that crash, and served the rest of the war, and gone home and lived in Brooklyn for the rest of your life – it would have changed anyway. People move on, people die, buildings get sold and knocked down and rebuilt. Businesses fail. It’s only because you didn’t see it happen that it feels strange, but those changes were going to happen either way.” He looked away, because her expression was bordering on pity. “Maybe you just need to think of it like ripping off a band-aid. Get it over with.”
Steve didn’t say anything, and Pepper finally took the hint and stopped talking, and they finished eating in only slightly uncomfortable silence. When she left, she told him to have a good day, and kissed him on the cheek.
He spent the next week running in the Bronx. Then he decided maybe Pepper was right and he should venture out.
So he took an early ferry one morning and ran two perimeters around Staten Island. The Arthur Kill smelled like rotting fish, and he decided not to do that again. He went back to the Tower and made breakfast at the kitchenette in his suite and then took his coffee into the bathroom and stood and stared at his reflection in the mirror. “You’re being a pansy,” he finally told himself. “You should just get it over with, like Pepper said.”
His reflection looked doubtful. He finished his coffee and showered and went to start his day.
It took him another week, and he had to go around it, so to speak, taking the Queensborough Bridge east and then looping south through Greenpoint. He didn’t recognize much, but then he hadn’t spent much time there– Greenpoint had been a Polish neighborhood and Steve didn’t really know anybody there back in the day. He saw a lot more Spanish signs, but he saw a lot more Spanish everywhere, so he didn’t pay much attention to those, just shrugged and reminded himself, again, that he should really pick up a few phrases. He kept running.
He was looking for familiar landmarks, which he told himself was his excuse for not recognizing the train station at Atlantic Avenue. The only thing that told him it was a station was the railroad sign outside. The old structure was gone, replaced by something large and with a vaguely modern air (apparently Moderne was an actual name for a style, but in his head it was all new and modern, lumped into one big collection) that bore no resemblance to train stations as he knew them. (But then, he had the same feeling about Penn Station.) He shook his head and ran on, turning on Pacific to head to the river.
He couldn’t find Furman Street. Steve stopped for a moment, bending over to stretch as he caught his breath, and regarded the intersections in the dim pre-dawn light. He didn’t recognize anything. Finally he retraced his steps for a few blocks, finding a street name he recognized and turning north into Brooklyn Heights.
He vaguely remembered this street. Even though the trees were that much taller, the familiar brownstones and stoops were soothing. His footsteps echoed off the facades. Without thinking about it he spun left on Montague, half-noticing the unfamiliar store signs in familiar buildings – pizzeria, fortune teller, electronics, used books. Finally relaxing, he let his feet go where they wanted, zig-zagging through blocks of houses and small shops, peeking over wrought-iron fences into little postage-stamp sized gardens. A dog sitting on a stoop growled at him as he passed, and he laughed and tossed off a lazy salute as the owner came to her door to see what the commotion was about. A young man passed him on a broken-down bike, tossing papers in high arcs onto stoops, and he gave Steve a nod as he passed. Steve nodded back and kept going until he ran out of street, and then he turned left, heading for the water. It was starting to get light; time to head home.
He vaguely thought about running over the bridge to get back to Manhattan, but he wasn’t sure if the pedestrian entry was in the same place. Pausing to get his bearings, he started to stretch again – and froze.
At the end of the block, between buildings, he caught sight of the bridge burnished in morning sunlight and hazy with fog ; he drifted closer, unable to tear his eyes away. He reached the waterfront and the bridge spread out before him looking almost unreal in the sunlight. The stones, the cables, the whole bridge glowed gold, and he stood with eyes wide, taking it all in. It was just as majestic as he remembered, towers reaching high into the sky, refusing to be dwarfed even by the skyscrapers towering over Manhattan. The cross-hatched cables pulled him in as they always did, his eyes tracing the patterns as the shadows rose and shifted across the water. He’d passed the bridge a hundred times since he’d woken up, but he hadn’t stopped to look.
The effect only lasted a few minutes, as the sun slipped higher above the horizon and the fog burned off, and soon the bridge looked as it did every day.
The bridge looked exactly the way it always had.
Steve had never been so glad to see anything in his life.
He stood for a few more minutes, watching the shadows shift over the masonry and cables, and then he turned and jogged back towards the plaza to find the stairs to the walkway. He would jog back to Manhattan over the bridge. Maybe tomorrow he’d go to Prospect Park for his run.
Steve was stretched out on the sofa in the living room working his way through the gargantuan copy of The Power Broker he’d purchased (and if there was ever a book that could benefit from being put on one of those e-readers Tony loved so much, it was this one, Steve thought) and contemplating maybe getting up for another cup of coffee when Tony wandered through.
“Captain! Big day coming up!” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall, smirking.
Steve jumped and lost his place. “Dang,” he muttered to himself, flipping pages to where he’d left off, and quickly shoving his bookmark into place. “You were saying something, Stark?”
“Big day coming up,” Tony repeated, strolling into the room. “Our little boy is turning 94! How shall we celebrate? Hookers? Blow? Hookers and blow?”
Steve let the book fall onto the table with a thump and turned to eye Tony. “I’m pretty sure Pepper would flay you alive if you brought hookers and blow into the Tower.”
Tony stopped short and gave him an approving look. “You finally figured out how to use Urban Dictionary, didn’t you.”
Rolling his eyes, Steve got up to get his coffee, since he clearly wasn’t going to get any reading done. Tony trailed after him. “Seriously. Steve. You want a party? We’ll throw a party. We can rent out the Rainbow Room. Café Carlyle? Get a few torch singers in? A Judy Garland impersonator, maybe?”
Steve might not have gotten that reference two months ago, but spend enough time around Clint Barton and you learn all sorts of things, not just how to use Urban Dictionary. He didn’t even bother turning around, just pulled the carafe out of the coffee maker and filled two mugs. “You can just stop right there, Tony, because if you make another awkward Friend of Dorothy joke I will bribe Jarvis to play Somewhere Over The Rainbow every time you ask for Black Sabbath.” He held out Tony’s mug, and treasured the silence as Tony gaped at him.
“Fine,” he finally grumbled, taking the mug Steve was still holding out. “No party. Can we at least have cake? I like cake. Birthdays are a good excuse for cake.”
“I like cake too, we can do cake,” Steve said, trying not to laugh. “I wouldn’t mind going out and doing something – actually,” he said, as an idea occurred to him. “You know what I want to do?”
Tony perked up a little. “You have an actual request? Oh please share with the class.”
“I want to go to Coney Island, and go to Nathan’s, and eat a hot dog,” Steve told him.
“Maybe play a few midway games.”
Tony laughed. “You want to ride the Cyclone too?”
“You can still do that?” Steve said, and he knew he must look delighted, because Tony positively lit up in response.
“Of course it’s still there, it’s a landmark; even though it will rattle your bones apart it’s still one of the finest roller coasters in the world. We, my friend, are going to get drunk and ride the Cyclone until we fall over.” Tony toasted him with his coffee mug, and Steve grinned, and raised his mug in return.
It ended up being practically a party anyway, as they all piled onto the subway the day before his birthday. Steve opted not to go on the Fourth itself – too crowded, too much attention. He did insist on the subway, though. Taking cars around the city still felt strange and decadent. He’d become comfortable with the talking trains and the new map, and he smugly steered Tony from taking the stairs to the wrong platform. They claimed the end of a car, they being himself and Tony, Clint and Natasha and Pepper. Steve was actually sorry Thor hadn’t returned from Asgard to join them, if only to see Thor’s reaction to hot dogs. Bruce opted out, unsurprisingly, but told Tony to get pictures, which made Steve worry. Tony wasn’t above …engineering good pictures.
They passed a pleasant ride, occasionally being recognized – well. Mostly Tony got recognized, but he was gracious about it: signed a few autographs, gave a fistbump to a little boy who showed off an Iron Man backpack while his mother hovered uncertainly. They made it to Coney Island without incident, and Steve stepped off the train and promptly got turned around. “They redid the station, didn’t they,” he said with a groan, and put up with everybody’s laughter.
“First rule of the subway, follow the crowd,” Clint said, and did just that. So they drifted after, emerging into sunlight that made everyone blink and then slide on sunglasses. Steve took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of salt water and sand, car exhaust, cotton candy and popcorn, and over it all the perfect smell of an all-beef Nathan’s hot dog. He started walking. He was a man on a mission.
Tony ended up just throwing his platinum card down on the counter, which got them a tray full of so many hot dogs that someone started muttering about the hot-dog eating contest, which led to Clint explaining all about what he called the “finest Fourth of July tradition this great nation has ever come up with,” and promising Steve that they could watch it on television, because apparently in the future eating competitions were considered sport. The whole time Clint was expounding Natasha stood behind him and shook her head and mimed strangling him while Steve tried to keep a straight face.
Steve discovered that the limit for Nathan’s hot dogs for a genetically modified super soldier was, apparently, fourteen. Clint pouted at him and informed the group that last year’s record was 69 dogs.
“I suppose if you skipped the fries you could manage more of them,” Pepper pointed out, and Tony frowned, fingers moving in thin air. “Tony. Stop calculating. You are not allowed to write equations to maximize Steve’s hot dog eating potential.”
“We could enter Steve in the contest!” Clint said, face lighting up, and Natasha let out a weary sigh and shook her head at Pepper, who shook it right back. Steve just laughed, and drank his lemonade, and relaxed on the little picnic table bench. When Tony took out his phone to try to text Bruce about the hot-dog equations, Pepper calmly stole it and stuck it in her pocket, ignoring his spluttering. When Bruce texted back WTF are you high? gonna hack your AI if you keep bothering me Tony not joking here she gleefully showed it to everyone at the table, giggling madly. Tony ended up cadging a pen off of Natasha and scribbled on napkins instead. Steve was 90% positive it was all nonsense and he was just doing it to wind Pepper up, a hypothesis Tony proved when the napkins ended up in the trash with the rest of their refuse.
Natasha begged Steve to challenge Tony to the strong-man bell ringing game, and then needled Tony until he agreed to take up Steve’s challenge. It wasn’t even remotely a contest. Tony represented himself well, with all his smithing and demolition in the lab, but he came just short of ringing the bell. Steve, on the other hand, sent the bell flying off the top of the game, and had to dash to catch it so it didn’t knock anyone in the head. Then they had to wait for Clint to climb up and help reattach it. The guy running the game seemed pretty upset until he realized who Steve was, and then nothing would do but a picture of Steve next to the game, and he gave everybody a prize. Tony muttered as he walked away, “You realize you’re his new promotional schtick now, right?”
Steve turned around to look behind him, and there was a line of kids at the game, taking their turns. “I think I’m OK with that,” he said, turning back around, and Tony clapped his shoulder and strode on to catch up with Natasha, promising her a candy apple if she would win him a toy at one of the shooting games.
They finally made their way down the boardwalk to the Cyclone, and Steve tilted his head up. It sounded more rickety than he remembered, but it looked just it should. He pulled out his wallet, slapped some money on the counter, and gestured everyone into the line. “I’m claiming the last car,” he said, and nobody argued.
They rode the coaster five times in a row (Pepper begged off after the second, Natasha and Clint the third) and when he and Tony stumbled off, head spinning and hot dogs churning in his stomach, he thought of Bucky, and he stopped for a moment, expecting it to hurt.
It didn’t. In the sunshine and surrounded by the laughter and catcalls of his friends – his team – all he wanted to remember was the good stuff. Well, the look on Bucky’s face when Steve puked on him probably shouldn’t count as good, but…
“Hey. Earth to Cap, come in Cap.” Tony was poking his arms. “Where’d you go?”
“Just remembering the last time I was here,” Steve told him. “I got off the Cyclone and promptly puked all over Bucky.”
“Oh my god do not dare,” Tony said, backing up with his hands up and then he was laughing so hard he had to bend over. “Oh god you got beaten by the Cyclone. Steve. I can’t.”
Steve rolled his eyes and made retching noises in Tony’s direction and Tony scampered to hide behind Pepper, who started swatting him away when he tried to steal her popcorn. Clint helped himself to a handful and started pelting Tony with it, and then threw a kernel at Natasha, who took off at a dead run, chasing Clint onto the beach.
Steve stopped while they were all distracted, and bought an Iron Man plushie from a vendor, and when Tony was distracted he stuck it on his head, and then he too took off for the water, feeling the sun warm on his back, hollering with glee when Tony took off after him, waving the plushie in one fist.
The subway ride home was the sandiest, most uncomfortable one he’d ever had.
Worth every second.
So were the pictures that the Daily News printed of them the next day. Steve found them stuck to the fridge when he went into the kitchen for lunch, and he just grinned and left them.
Thor finally returned some weeks later, full of stories about Asgard and with flagons of mead to share with the team. It turned out Asgardian mead did, in fact, get Steve a little tipsy, and he enjoyed several pleasant evenings in a boozy haze as the team bonded in Tony’s penthouse sitting room, watching bad movies and making worse jokes. Thor did not bring up Loki, and nobody asked, and they all readjusted to having the Thunder God back again.
It was nice for a few days, but after a while Steve started to feel like there was just too much…togetherness. Tony and Clint would egg each other onto newer heights of sarcasm, Natasha and Pepper formed a peanut gallery of snark, Bruce’s self-deprecation and Thor’s (probably justified) ego collided in odd ways. The ripples of all those personalities were exhausting to navigate, and suddenly Steve wanted nothing more than some quiet.
He tried hiding in his suite but people kept coming to check on him and invite him to watch Buckaroo Banzai for the fifth time or see if he wanted to join them for dinner, and even JARVIS kept checking on him. So he gave up, grabbed his Dodgers hat and his phone and wallet, and told JARVIS he was going for a walk.
There was no way to be sure he wasn’t imagining it, but he was pretty sure JARVIS chuckled.
Steve didn’t even worry about a direction; he just started walking, crossing at whatever light was green first and going down whatever streets were the least busy. He deliberately didn’t look at street signs, focusing on the sidewalk, on the faces around him, on the faint breeze stirring the muggy air. It was late in the evening, and the crowds were starting to thin out a bit. He paused at Union Square, and looked around for a moment. It was still crowded with students and a drum circle, vendors hawking food and a table with a man selling tee-shirts showing a row of Indians – sorry, Native Americans – with the caption “The Original Homeland Security.” Steve had needed it explained the first time he saw it, but now that he understood? He actually thought it was pretty clever.
He was not at all ready to go back to the Tower, and all of a sudden Union Square was too crowded too. He dropped a dollar in the case of the guitar player sitting on the fountain, and started walking again, heading downtown. His art school had been here, over on West Fourth, and he’d once had a classmate invite them all home for a party – Sullivan Street, maybe? Or Cornelia? He couldn’t remember anymore, but it had been one of those beautiful brownstones, old even back then. He drifted over in that direction, letting the twists and turns of the streets take him where they wanted.
Houston Street was still a disgusting mess of cars and people that he crossed as quickly as possible. This part of town he wasn’t as familiar with, and he relished it. It reminded him of being eighteen, of the first time he took the subway into Manhattan for art school, of sneaking out of the orphanage with Bucky to look for adventure and getting themselves lost in Green Wood Cemetery. He stopped at every intersection and looked around, and then picked a direction and kept walking.
When he reached the memorial, he stopped.
He knew, of course. They’d explained it to him when he woke up, and Bruce and Tony had sat him down one day and gone into more detail, all the parts that the briefing hadn’t covered – the silent streets and skies, the posters begging for news of family and friends, the fear. The empty ambulances. The way people lined up along the road to cheer for the firefighters and police.
Steve couldn’t comprehend missing the towers; he had never known them. But he understood the ache of loss and he felt it standing at the gate, looking into the leaves of the trees, heavy with heat and humidity. He glanced at the street signs, trying to orient himself – Cortlandt Street.
The memory came up on him suddenly, and he turned, bewildered. This had been Radio Row, where he’d come with his father when he was very young, before he’d grown sick, before his mother had grown sick. Their radio had broken and his father took him to buy a new vacuum tube. Cortlandt Street had been shops and vendors, loud radios blaring from every window and boxes of strange parts spilling out into the street. They had walked, hand-in-hand, examining the prices and checking to see who had the exact part they needed for the cheapest. He closed his eyes again, and he could almost hear his father’s voice, bargaining the shopkeeper down by a nickel – and then winking at Steve and flipping the nickel to him, telling him to put it in his pocket.
It was one of the only clear memories he had of his father. When he opened his eyes, for a minute he could almost see it, but then he blinked and it faded.
Steve stood for a long time, trying to remember what else they had done that day, but he’d
been too young, or maybe it was just too long ago; all he could remember was his father’s hand, and the incredible noise of voices and music, a happy cacophony, and the way his father grinned at him as Steve caught the nickel and very carefully slid it inside his pocket.
Feeling into his pocket, Steve pulled out the coins there, and dug around until he found a nickel – shiny and new, the year 2012 on the face. That had been a ridiculous amount of money once; now it was barely worth stopping on the street to pick it up. Steve flipped it in the air, watching it catch the street lights, and caught it flat on his palm. Heads. There was a crack in the sidewalk, and he dropped the nickel and shoved it into the crack with his toe. His own little memorial, for a city that only he remembered.
Steve tilted his head up to the night sky, saluting that new tower before he turned to go back the way he’d come, towards the subway. Towards home.