The truly terrible thing about waking up in the future, thinks Steve, is that everyone who looks at him sees Captain America, national icon. An icon 70 years in the making, never mind that he's really only lived 25 years. (Years don't count if you spend them in the ice, do they?)
There's no one left who sees Steve Rogers, the kid from Brooklyn. No one who knows first-hand how skinny he was, how sick he used to get. No one who knows that Bucky was more than his best friend.
(Peggy knew some of it. She knew him before the serum, and he suspects she guessed about Bucky, but the file SHIELD gave him says she's got something called Alzheimer's and doesn't remember much of anything a lot of the time. He hasn't had the courage to visit her yet. Or even call.)
People will come up to thank him for saving New York from aliens, or the free world from the Nazis, but he can tell they don't quite think of him as a real person.
He works hard at being a real person, instead of an icon. When he's not on a SHIELD assignment, he has an apartment in Brooklyn. He goes to the market and does his own cooking. He does his laundry in the basement of his building, thankful that his neighbours don't treat him any different from the other real people they share a building with. And every once in a while, he splurges on something. A meal in a nice restaurant. A Broadway show.
Tonight, he's going to Kinky Boots. ("Do you even know what kinky means?" Tony says when he finds out about the tickets. Howard Stark's kid is as guilty of mistaking Steve Rogers for Captain America as anyone else. Someday, Steve is going to tell Tony about the bars he and Bucky used to go to, and what they used to do in them. If he times it right, he thinks he can get coffee to come out of Tony's nose.)
Steve tries not to make a fuss when he goes to a show, but he's always recognized, and he's always invited backstage. It happens tonight, and he finds himself making small talk with performers who treat him like Captain America, just like everyone else. But tonight there's a change to the script. He's finished talking to the members of the chorus—he always makes sure to meet the whole company of any show; he remembers how much the girls on the USO tour appreciated any attention—and is about to leave when he notices one young man hanging back, looking at him nervously.
Steve hates making anyone nervous, so he smiles and approaches him.
"Steve Rogers," he says with his hand out.
"I know," the young man stammers out as he shakes his hand. "I'm Ryan Sutton. My dancing teacher knew you. During the war," he clarifies. "She said she danced with you."
"I didn't do much dancing," Steve says. There's not a day that goes by that someone doesn't claim that their grandfather or great aunt or distant cousin knew him during the war. "What was your teacher's name?" he asks, not expecting anything to come of it.
"Audrey Smythe. That's her married name, anyway. I'm not sure what her maiden name was."
"Audrey…" Steve is suddenly back in a London restaurant, Bucky on his arm, introducing him to Audrey and her fiancé. He can see candlelight reflecting in Bucky's eyes, can see how happy Audrey and her fella both are. He feels how happy he is that he gets to take Bucky out before they're shipped across the Channel and back into the war.
"Captain Rogers?" There's a light touch on his arm. "Captain Rogers? Are you all right?"
He blinks, and he's backstage in the theatre, and the chorus boy, Ryan, is standing in front of him, a worried look on his face.
"I'm fine." He swallows around the lump in his throat and forces himself to stand straight. "Audrey was a good friend of mine."
"You really did know her." Ryan looks amazed, as if someone had just told him the fairy story he heard as a child is one hundred per cent true.
"I really did. I’m glad to hear she married. She deserved that happiness."
"Don't make it sound like she's dead," Ryan says.
"Wait, she's alive? She must be--"
"Old," Ryan completes his thought. "She's old, but still teaching. Only the senior students, and only once in a while, but still teaching."
Steve's mind is racing. Audrey is alive. Someone who knew him is alive. Someone besides Peggy.
"Um, I really wanted to…um, thank you." Ryan is suddenly looking even more nervous than he was before.
"Thank me for what?"
Ryan turns red, and he looks like he's regretting saying anything, but Steve can tell that whatever it is, it's important to him.
"You can say what you need to, son." Ryan's probably not much younger than he is (the 70 years in the ice definitely don't count), but right now Steve feels about a million years older than him.
"Okay." He clears his throat and looks down at the floor. "When I was 16, I had a really bad time. I'd come out to my parents. Um, I told them I was gay," he explains quickly.
"I know the term," Steve assures him. He suspects he knows where this is going, and he's feeling nervous himself.
"Yeah. Um. They weren't exactly thrilled about having a gay son. Threatened to throw me out of the house. Treated me like a monster. The usual stuff."
Steve feels sick that treating your child like a monster could be considered the usual stuff, but he doesn't say anything. After all, things had been much worse when he was a young man.
"And Madame Smythe, she must have noticed there was something going on, because she took me aside one day after class and told me about her friend Steve. About how he had a fella, and he disobeyed orders to go off and save him. How Steve was a national hero. How I should never think there was anything wrong with the way I felt, because I was just like Captain America. And it really helped." Ryan trails off and finally looks up at him, his expression nervous and hopeful and grateful and brave.
Steve's embarrassed that his first instinct is to lie, to protect himself, to protect Bucky's reputation. For years they'd loved each other, but they hadn't been able to share that with many people. Just other guys who'd go to the same bars. And the rare trusted friend, like Audrey.
But it's not 1945 anymore. Gay people can serve in the military now without lying about themselves. Gay people can marry. The cops don't raid gay bars and arrest people anymore. It's still hard and there are still people who don't understand and who hate, but things are so much better than they were when he was growing up.
Ryan's been so brave, sharing this with him, trusting him. He can't betray that trust.
If Steve doesn't want to be mistaken for Captain America anymore, maybe this is the first step to becoming a real person: acknowledging who he was. Who he is.
"Do you have a boyfriend?" Steve asks.
Ryan nods, and blushes all the way to his hairline.
"Are you happy?"
Ryan nods again, looking less embarrassed now.
"That's good." Steve smiles. "Look after each other. That's what Bucky and I did." He puts out his hand for a handshake, but somehow it turns into a hug.
He leaves the theatre feeling more like a real person than he has since he came out of the ice.
A week later, Steve takes the train into Queens. The Smythe Dance Academy is wedged between a bodega and a plumbing supply store. When he'd called the day before, the receptionist had told him that Madame Smythe would be teaching an afternoon class today. He hadn't left a message. He hadn't been entirely sure what he was going to do with the information, but he's here now.
He opens the door. The woman behind the desk looks at him, wide eyed, someone else who sees only the icon.
"I'm looking for Madame Smythe," he says, keeping his voice low.
She points behind her. Steve can hear music and the light thump of feet on a wooden floor working their way down the hall. He follows the sounds, past two closed doors, until he comes to one open door. At first he can only see the dancers in the studio, four young people, two boys, two girls, twirling across the floor, the girls leaping into the boys' arms before they regroup and do it all again. He leans against the doorframe and a bit further into the studio, and that's when he sees her.
A tiny old woman with wire-rimmed glasses and hair that's gone completely white sits beside the piano in the studio's far corner. She holds a cane in gnarled fingers that she thumps on the floor for emphasis.
"No, Jake, you need to be in position for the catch a beat sooner." The dark-skinned boy nods at her. "Maddy, your jeté should be a bit higher."
"Yes, Madame," says the lithe red-haired girl.
"From the top."
Steve watches as the pianist begins again and the dancers run through their routine. They look wonderful to him, strong young people who create beauty with their bodies.
Finally, the lesson is over. The dancers applaud their teacher and then file out past Steve, gawking at him as they pass. Only when her students have left does Audrey turn to Steve.
"You, there. In the door. What do you want?" She glares at him with a slight squint that tells Steve she hasn't recognized him. He steps into the room, and he hasn't gone three steps when Audrey gasps.
"Steve!" Her free hand goes to her mouth. "It's you! It's really you." She stands, but he's at her side before she can take a single step.
"Hello, Audrey," he says, and then they're hugging, Steve so very conscious of how frail Audrey is, nothing more than skin stretched over bone. But he can still see the girl she was in her face. Her eyes glint with tears, and one of her hands clutches at his shoulder.
"Hello, yourself." She lets him go, and then whacks his leg with her cane. "Why haven't you come to see me before now?"
"I didn't know you were still alive," Steve sheepishly admits.
"Well, I thought you were dead, too, so we're even." She bumps him with her elbow. "How'd you find out I was alive?"
"I ran into one of your students. Ryan."
"Ryan." She smiles. "He's a good dancer. He might even be great. He's in a Broadway show, now."
"I know. Kinky Boots. That’s where I saw him."
"Kinky Boots." She snorts. "They don't make them like they used to."
"I thought it was good. Better than our Star Spangled Man number."
"Don't remind me." She hugs him again. "It's so good to see you again. You know what? You should come to dinner. It's just my oldest daughter and me, and it won't be anything fancy, but we can have a good catch-up."
Steve freezes for a moment. It's been a long time since someone invited him for dinner. (Tony's fancy dinner parties at Stark Tower don't count.) Probably the last time was when Bucky told Mrs. Edwards upstairs to look after him when he went off to basic training. It's something he hadn't realized he misses.
"I'd like that," he says, and gives her one last gentle squeeze.
They take a taxi to Audrey's house. Along the way, Audrey fills him in about her family, her daughters and grandchildren.
"I've even got a couple of great-grandchildren," she says. "I'm so old."
"You've still got great gams," Steve says with a wink.
"Stop it!" She pokes him in the side. "I'm not 19 anymore."
"You are to me."
"Oh, Steve." Audrey's eyes suddenly look suspiciously glassy. She looks away and takes his arm. Steve ignores the tightness in his own throat and pats her hand.
Audrey lives in a tidy little house with vinyl siding, the sort of place he could never have dreamed of living in the '30s. Audrey's told him that her daughter moved back in with her after her own kids moved out and her husband had died. ("We're just two old widows, living together.")
The door is opened by a grey-haired woman who looks like a younger, stouter Audrey.
"Holy shit, it's Captain America!" she says, her eyes as wide as Audrey's receptionist's had been. Steve smiles at her. Audrey frowns.
"Liz! This is my friend, Steve." Audrey takes his arm and ushers him into the house. "I've invited him over for dinner."
"I hope your friend Steve likes leftover meat loaf," Liz says with an eye roll. "Because it's that or we order pizza."
"I love meat loaf," Steve tells her with a smile.
"You were right about one thing, Mom." Liz looks at him warily. "He's charming, all right."
Liz's meatloaf is delicious, and the company is wonderful. Steve and Audrey keep her daughter amused with stories about the USO show.
"We kept trying to get Steve drunk," Audrey reveals at one point. "Did you know Captain America can't get drunk?"
"Steve Rogers can't either," Steve pops in.
"You're right. You're Steve Rogers, not that blowhard Captain America." She turns to her daughter with a gleeful expression. "Did you know Steve Rogers can't get drunk. But we kept trying, and all that would happen was Steve would have to make sure the whole chorus line got home from the bar."
"I think you all did it so you could pretend to be drunker than you were and drape yourselves all over me."
"I don't know that there was much pretending involved, but that was a definite benefit." Audrey's eyes are twinkling. "It didn't make up for the hangovers, though."
"My mom got drunk with Steve Rogers," Liz says, shaking her head. "I think I'm traumatized."
"You're 62, Liz. The thought of your mother getting drunk shouldn't traumatize you."
Liz seems to have an infinite vocabulary of eye rolls. Steve would bet that last one was developed when she was a teenager.
"You two go sit in the living room," Liz says as they're finishing up the pound cake she produced for dessert. "I'll clean up."
Steve tries to help Audrey up, but she fends him off with the cane and leads him to the living room.
It's a cozy place, with a flowery couch and matching chair, a coffee table with doilies on it, and a fireplace on the other side of the room. Audrey takes the chair, and Steve sits on the couch beside her, letting himself relax. Audrey isn't entirely through with the reminiscences.
"Did you know Jerry signed up after you left to become a real soldier?" Audrey asks him. "I think he wanted to make up for being fake Hitler."
"I thought he was 4F."
"They got a lot less picky near the end of the war."
Steve winces a little, wondering if they'd have taken a scrawny kid from Brooklyn if he'd waited until the end of the war. He starts thinking about what his life might have been if it hadn't been for Dr. Erskine and Peggy Carter and their Project Rebirth. He wouldn't have gone in the ice. But he also wouldn't have been there to save Bucky, wouldn't have given him those extra few months of life. Shit, he doesn't want to think about any of this.
"Tell me about your life, Audrey. What did you do after the war?"
So she tells him. Tells him about marrying Christopher and coming to New York. How she danced in shows for a while but decided in the end to teach. How she and Christopher raised three daughters in this very house. How she did a different kind of mothering to generations of kids at the dance school.
Steve is happy that Audrey had a good life while he was sleeping in the ice.
When she's finished telling him about her life, she starts asking him questions. And that's decidedly less good.
"It's been, what, six months since aliens attacked Manhattan? How long had you been out of the ice before that?"
"Two weeks! And before you crashed that plane, how long had it been since Bucky died?"
Steve isn't expecting that question, and he freezes. He's back clutching the side of the train, the wind pulling at him as Bucky falls into the gorge. He wants nothing more than to let go and follow Bucky down, but he knows he can't.
"A week," he croaks out.
She doesn't say anything, just leans over and clutches at his hand. He lets her, conscious of keeping his own grip light, of not crushing her delicate bird bones in his grip.
"What have you been doing since the aliens?" she finally asks.
"Running missions. Doing my laundry. Having a life."
"Oh, Steve, that's not a life. The rest of us got to have a life. The boys got to come home from the war. We all got to have families. You just got more war."
"I don't think I would have had a family." Steve looks down to where his hand holds Audrey's.
"Bucky was your family. And you haven't really had a chance to mourn him properly yet, have you?"
Steve clenches his jaw and swallows. He can't speak, so he just shakes his head.
"That's wrong." Audrey's voice is firm. "Christopher's been gone two years now, and for the first six months I couldn't do anything but mourn him. I still miss him every single day."
"I miss Bucky," Steve manages to say.
"Of course you do." There's a pause before Audrey speaks again. "Do you know what we're going to do? We're going to have a wake. Right now. You're going to get drunk and tell me everything you can about your fella."
"I can't get drunk, Audrey. You said it yourself."
"I know you couldn't. But do you know what I think? What I think is that you didn't apply yourself." She leans forward and pokes him in the chest, and it actually hurts.
Steve has a flashback to his days in the USO show, to Audrey getting stubborn and insisting that they all had to go to a bar or go out dancing or some other damn scheme she'd come up with. Bucky had always said he was the most stubborn person he'd ever met. He may have changed his mind if he'd spent any time with Audrey.
"How am I supposed to apply myself to getting drunk?"
Audrey practically cackles as she gets up and stiffly walks over to the cabinet beside the fireplace. She throws open its doors and reveals the biggest collection of booze Steve's seen outside of a bar.
"We bought it all for Christopher's wake, two years ago," Audrey explains before he can ask why the hell she has so much alcohol in her place. "But it turns out a lot of our friends were dead. And the ones who came didn't drink so much. We're all too damn old."
"Do you want me to drink all of that?" Even with the serum, he thinks that much booze might kill him.
"Here's my suggestion. I'll pour myself a drink. I've always been partial to bourbon. And for every sip I take, you drink a whole bottle. I bet that'll make a dent in your super soldier metabolism."
This is stupid. This is Bucky Barnes magnitudes of stupid. He totally shouldn't consider doing this, not least because he doesn't want to contribute to the delinquency of a nice old lady.
But, fuck it. Audrey isn't a nice old lady. She's his friend. And maybe she's right that this is exactly what he needs.
"Okay. I'm in."
He doesn't feel the first two bottles at all. (Vodka and a single malt scotch that deserves better treatment.) But he does talk about Bucky. He tells Audrey how they'd met, when two bigger kids were kicking the crap out him and Bucky had stopped them. He tells her how Bucky had sneaked into his room through the window when he'd gotten quarantined with scarlet fever. He tells her about their first kiss when he was thirteen, how they'd hid in his bedroom closet when his mom came home unexpectedly from a shift at the hospital, both of them scared and shaking but wanting more.
With the third bottle (rye whisky) he feels the beginnings of a faint burn in his veins, and he tells Audrey how Bucky had been there when his mom had died. How Bucky had talked him into sharing an apartment. How they'd scraped together enough money to get a rundown place with a shared bathroom.
The fourth and fifth bottle (saki and maotai and why did Audrey even buy this shit?) put him over the top. He actually feels dizzy. He wish he'd known back in London that all it took to get him drunk was a really ridiculous amount of alcohol consumed in a really ridiculously short period of time.
He tells Audrey about having Bucky go to war ahead of him, and how worried he'd been. He tells her about the serum and how painful the process had been, but how he'd thought it was worth it if it would get him into battle with Bucky. He tells her how he'd been terrified he'd be too late when he stormed off to rescue Bucky. How relieved he'd been when he found him alive. How invincible he'd felt fighting with Bucky at his side.
The sixth bottle (gin, because he's always hated gin and saved it until he was hopefully too drunk to taste it) lets him tell Audrey about the things he hasn't wanted to face. The fight on the train. Bucky picking up the shield. Bucky getting blown out of the train car. Bucky falling. And all of it his fault. All his fault.
He curls in on himself and feels his breath begin to hitch in his chest. His shoulders shake and his stomach hurts and he finally realizes he's sobbing.
Steve has held himself together through sheer will since Bucky fell. First, he couldn't fall apart because there was a war on and he had to take down Schmidt. Then he couldn't because he was in the future and there was so much to learn that he didn't have time to break down. Then there were aliens. Then there were other ops. And then, and then, and then, never time to feel what he was feeling. Now, he has time. Audrey has given him that.
He sobs harder, unable to stop now that he's started. Audrey eases onto the couch beside him and rubs his back in slow, gentle circles. He concentrates on her touch. His mother would do this for him, rub his back when the asthma hit and he was so panicked that he couldn't breathe. Bucky would as well, a couple of times in their apartment when he was so sick and Bucky was so worried.
He cries for his mother. He cries for Bucky. He cries for the boy Bucky was, for the man he could have been. He cries for himself, waking up in this strange new world when the person he loved most is dead.
He cries until his eyes are swollen nearly shut, until his face is sticky with tears. He cries until he has no more tears to shed and his body finally stills. And then Audrey stands and straightens him out on the couch. He distantly feels as she drapes a knit throw over him.
"Sleep, Steve," she says, then brushes the hair off his forehead.
And miraculously, he does.
He wakes in the middle of the night, head pounding and with a strong need to piss. He stumbles to the bathroom, taking in his bloodshot eyes and ravaged face in the mirror. With a grimace, he relieves himself, then washes his face, and drinks about a gallon of water straight from the tap before collapsing back on the couch.
When he wakes in the morning he feels…better. Not just physically better—the serum has taken care of the effects of the alcohol poisoning he inflicted on his body last night—but mentally.
He still misses Bucky horrifically. But now that he's acknowledged that loss, he doesn't have to spend so much energy denying his grief, keeping it under control, making sure he doesn't inconvenience others with his emotions.
Maybe, just maybe, he can make himself a life now.
Audrey comes down an hour after he wakes. He's rummaged through the kitchen and made coffee, and she heads straight for the pot and pours herself a cup. She sits at the small table in the kitchen across from him, drinks the entire cup, and only then does she give him a wary "Good morning."
"'I thought you only had six sips of bourbon," he says with a smirk.
"I may have had a bit more than that. Why do you look so chipper?" She looks betrayed.
"Super soldier, remember. Apparently I can get drunk when little old ladies ply me with enough alcohol, but the serum deals with the hangover."
"I hate you." She pours herself another cup of coffee. She drinks it more slowly while Steve starts cooking bacon and eggs he finds in the fridge.
Liz comes down as he's finishing the eggs.
"Is Captain America cooking us breakfast?" she asks.
"My friend, Steve, is cooking us breakfast," Audrey tells her. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"
"Tell your friend, Steve, that I'll marry him in a heartbeat."
"He's young enough to be your son, Liz."
"He's older than you, Mom."
"Breakfast is served, ladies." Steve puts plates in front of both of them, not wanting to point out that they're both right. Sort of.
Liz eats quickly, then heads over to the sink with her plates.
"I've got to get to school."
"School?" Steve asks.
"I teach high school. Could've retired a few years ago, but what can I say? I enjoy teaching the little shits."
"Science. Physics, mostly."
"Bucky would have loved talking to you."
"Bucky? Bucky Barnes?" Liz looks bowled over.
"Yeah. He'd drag me to science fairs for fun."
"Christ, I can't believe Captain America is in my kitchen telling me Bucky Barnes was a science nerd."
"My friend, Steve, is in my kitchen, telling you his fella was a science nerd."
Steve freezes. Liz freezes. And Audrey laughs at the pair of them.
"You just outed Captain America," Liz says with a gasp.
"I didn't out him. You already knew he had a fella."
"He didn't know I knew!"
"Do you mind, Steve?" Audrey asks, all innocent.
"See? Steve doesn't mind."
Steve finally forces himself to move. He takes Liz's plate from her hand and shoos her out of the kitchen. "You get going to school. I'll clean up in here."
"Thanks," Liz says. "And thanks for coming to visit Mom. She talks about you all the time." And then she's gone.
"You talk about me all the time?" Steve raises an eyebrow at Audrey.
"You're the most famous person I've known. I get a lot of mileage out of you." Audrey doesn't look the least bit sorry. Steve laughs.
"I suppose I can't blame you."
He does the dishes and wipes the counter and sits down at the table with Audrey, feeling more at home than he's done anywhere since he woke up in the future.
They talk about not much of anything, until Steve finally brings up what brought him to Audrey's door.
"I know Liz isn't the only one you've outed me to."
"You talked to Ryan?"
"I talked to Ryan."
"I hope you don't mind. I didn't think I had to keep your secret anymore. "
"Clearly," Steve says with a laugh.
"And he needed to hear it. A lot of kids did, over the years."
"I would have given a lot for someone to tell me it was okay to love who I loved when I was a kid."
"Why don't you?"
"Why don't I what?"
"Why don't you tell more kids it's okay?"
"I don't even know how I could do that." Old instincts are telling him this is not okay. That he needs to keep his head down. That it's dangerous. But still-older instincts are telling him that he's never backed down from a fight in his life.
"If the newsreels are to be believed, you took out whole Nazi bases practically by yourself. I'm sure you can figure out how to help a few kids."
"Jeesh," Audrey says. "Find a community center. Find an LGBT group. Find a kid who needs mentoring. Find a bunch of kids who need to hear what you can tell them. Heck, places like that always need money. Hold a Captain America fundraiser for LGBT causes."
"I thought I was your friend, Steve, not Captain America."
"Captain America would raise more money."
'I don't know…" Steve knows he's blushing, but he can't stop.
"If you're not ready to come out, start with one kid. You could make a real difference in one kid's life."
"I'll think about it."
"Good." Audrey grins at him.
"I know you. That means you'll do it."
He waits a second, and then grins back at her.
He is going to do this. He's going to find a way to make a difference in one kid's life. In a lot of kids' lives. It's a fight that won't need weapons and won't need the shield. It just needs Steve Rogers to use the courage everyone thinks belongs to Captain America.
Two days later, at SHIELD headquarters, Steve tells everyone that Bucky was his boyfriend and that he'll be volunteering at the Brooklyn Community Pride Center once a week if anyone wants to join him.
Nick Fury mutters under his breath about dumb ass old guys finally getting their shit together. Natasha makes a satisfied fist pump. Clint passes Bruce a twenty. And Steve has timed his announcement so that coffee actually does come out of Tony's nose. (Once he stops spluttering, Tony also writes a big check for the Pride Center. Howard's kid is a good guy.)
Just like that he's out to his colleagues (or are they friends?), and it's okay. It's really okay.
It's not perfect, though. He misses Bucky so Goddamn much that it's like a permanent ache in his heart. He wishes so fucking hard that Bucky had made it to the future, had made it to a time when he didn't have to hide who he was. But Bucky didn't and Steve did, so Steve is going to work hard at living well enough for both of them.