After the cross-country roadtrip, after he gives in and moves into Tony's tower, after he visits his local public library and emerges with a stack of books the nice librarian recommended and a forty-five minute "How to Internet" class under his belt, Steve makes internet friends.
It's not like he planned it, but there are all these message boards and forums where people get together and talk about stuff he's interested in: baseball, for one, art and artists, for another, but the community he gets drawn into the most is the one that's focused on WWII.
There are descendants - sons and daughters and grandchildren and cousins; they post old photos and stories and scans of documents. There are amateur historians and professional historians, and sometimes everyone is wrong and awful and sometimes Steve sits at his computer and feels like he can't catch his breath, he's so full up with love for the people he left behind and these new people who haven't forgotten them.
The breaking point comes when he steals his own hard-copy file from one of SHIELD's secure archives and spends a peacefully nostalgic afternoon scanning all the pictures of the Howling Commandos, then posting them. His contributions thus far have been minimal, but this sudden, massive dump of information makes him immediately the centre of a buzz of forum activity that lasts the rest of the week, and when the dust settles he’s somehow still exchanging regular emails with a whole handful of people he’s never met face to face.
“What are you doing?” Tony asks one evening, hitting pause and making everyone else in the room groan. It’s movie night. Normally Steve puts the tablet away for team-building exercises, because he’s meant to be setting a good example for all of them, but especially Tony, who once showed up for a screening of Die Hard with the Iron Man helmet on because he was working on the HUD. Today, however, Steve’s swapping stories with Dum Dum Dugan’s niece, a food anthropologist working halfway across the country -- they’re not even talking about Dum Dum, tonight, or at least, not anymore. Somehow they’ve moved on to the history of food, which Steve finds fascinating, particularly when confronted with the contents of Tony’s cupboards.
Dum Dum’s niece thinks he has good insight for a twenty-six-year old.
“Nothing,” Steve says -- not defensively, because that’s the best way to ensure that Tony never leaves you alone -- but he completes his thought before he puts the tablet down.
“JARVIS?” Tony says.
“Ms Potts would like me to remind you of the phrase ‘invasion of privacy’,” Jarvis says, delicately, and after a small tussle for the tablet when Tony lunges for it, the movie starts again and Steve is left in peace, apart from all the popcorn that’s been stuffed down his shirt.
Agent Coulson -- Phil -- comes to see him two months after he first made contact with the forum. “You’ve been busy,” he says.
“Yes,” Steve says, and he is defensive now. He’s been getting forwards from SHIELD about his social media profile and best practices ever since Thor got a Twitter account. They’re still dealing with the fallout.
“I’m not here to shut you down,” Phil offers. He’s smiling. He smiles a lot, and the part that Steve finds surprising, even now, is that Phil usually means it. He’s a laid-back, optimistic guy, which is probably why managing the Avengers hasn’t killed him.
There’s a terrible joke, there. Tony’s told it. Clint punched him in the face.
“No?” Steve says.
“No,” Phil says. “Hobbies are important. I have to admit it’s a relief to see that you’ve found one that doesn’t involve punching bags.”
“I -- thanks,” says Steve.
“My username is CheeseCaptain,” Phil offers, and smiles again at the expression on Steve’s face.
Six months in, Steve gets an email from one of the forum members based somewhere in Europe.
hey man youre sort of the de facto expert on the commandos, so I had to show you this .. ran into a guy in my local who swear to god looked like sgt Barnes long lost twin. Was a total creeper and snapped a pic with my phone. see attached. what do you think? weird coincidence or did Barnes have some kid that the official documents didn’t know about? - dan
Steve opens the picture, feeling the same sort of blank and cold that he felt when he was paging through Peggy’s and Howard’s and Bucky’s old files -- alive, deceased, deceased -- and feels the whole world shift around him. Dizzy. Vertigo. He hasn’t had one of those spells in -- well, in decades, technically.
“JARVIS,” Steve says, calm. “I need a phone number.”
JARVIS helpfully and creepily traces Steve’s forum friend across the internet, probably violating numerous legal and personal moral codes, and Steve picks up his phone on autopilot and says, “Hi, Dan. This is Captain America. I need a favour.”, and once the spluttering is over and Steve’s apologized for his secret identity and probably officially made himself persona non grata in his favourite forums and with some of his new favourite people, he hangs up and dials a second number from memory.
“Phil,” he says.
CheeseCaptain is Steve’s staunchest, most tireless defender. He wades willingly into the mess that Steve’s personal crisis has created of the message-boards he once took refuge in, the people who populate them divided between hero-worship and betrayal and everything in between. Slowly, slowly, the capslocked outrage that ignited in the aftermath of Dan’s CAPTAIN AMERICA AMONG US post begins to die down, mediated by CheeseCaptain’s careful reasoning, screenshots of Steve’s previous posts, and tabloid shots of Steve sitting at his local coffee shop, “looking sad”.
(Steve is getting used to having no private life again, or at least less of one in a different way than in the ‘40’s. Tony keeps showing up in the aftermath of tabloid photos with offerings of tiny robots to do Steve’s bidding; he’s beginning to realize that tiny robots are Tony’s emotionally constipated way of being a supportive friend. Bruce brings him tea and sits with him when Steve just needs to sit quietly for a while.)
Phil goes back and forth between Stark Tower and SHIELD offices; he sends Natasha and Clint out into the field; he fills Steve in on all the work that’s been done so far, and all the leads that they’re following.
Bucky is alive.
It’s more complicated than that, Natasha says, but Steve doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about the people on the internet, either, he doesn’t, but Phil keeps showing up online, anyway, in whatever remains of what Steve imagines is his almost nonexistent free time. “I noticed you took up excessive punching bag abuse as a hobby again,” he says, by way of explanation.
The tides turn, slowly; Bucky is spotted in Amsterdam, then a tiny town in New Zealand, and then Vancouver. Steve starts getting emails he can almost handle reading, are you okay and give me a call beginning to overtake ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.
Bucky is still alive, and still alive, and still alive, and the thought sends him to sleep at night and wakes him up, restless, horrified, ecstatic, in the middle of it.
They bring Bucky in, and Bucky doesn’t remember anything about Bucky, and Steve goes home and looks at his tablet full of drawings of Bucky, and his internet history full of people telling stories about Bucky and a thousand other people who are dead, and he asks JARVIS to delete all his accounts.
In the middle of the night, Clint calls and says, “Hey, hey, Cap, Phil wanted you to know -- he’s remembering. He told him a story about you. The one with a small army of sewer rats.”
Steve remembers this story, and he tells it at breakfast the next day while Tony makes disgusted noises and Thor applauds at all the right parts. It still, somehow, does not seem like enough, the one story that Bucky remembers and only a handful of people know, and so Steve draws a picture of it, takes a picture of that, emails it away to the food anthropologist and Dan and Phil and the rest of his -- friends.
He does that with the next story Bucky tells, and the next, and the next, and he starts to get stories back. Phil tells him about Clint and Natasha (who tell him about Phil), about Hill and Sitwell and Fury and agents long gone, from before Steve woke up from the ice. The food anthropologist tells him about her second wife, and then her first. Thor tells stories about Jane and from Asgard, Loki lurking at the edges of them, and Tony talks about Pepper and Happy and Rhodey; Bruce has stories about a hundred different places and people.
JARVIS manages to resurrect his forum account.
Steve hears about friends and fathers and brothers and mothers and sisters and strangers on the internet, and one day he takes a deep breath and walks into Bucky's cell because Bucky finally, finally, wants to see him.
"Bucky," Steve says. His voice wavers, and so he clears his throat, tries again. "Bucky."
Bucky is pale and gaunt, rising slowly from the bed, and his eyes are old but his smile is a slow and steady thing, a growing thing. His chin hits Steve's shoulder and digs in. Some of Steve's doodles are taped to his walls. "Hey buddy," Bucky says. "Have I got a story for you."