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Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?

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Steve sat hunched over his desk, reading through field reports and jotting notes in a notebook he kept at his elbow.  He knew he could do all this electronically, and he certainly didn’t need to take notes to remember his impressions or thoughts.  But he liked the tactile sensation of handling the papers, holding the pen, hearing the nib slice through the paper fibers.  Even the sensation of the paper where the pen point scored it. It grounded him to the present, connected him to his past.  And yeah, he could work a tablet just as well as anyone else - better, in many cases, even though he’d never admit it to Tony.  

The reports kept him busy, kept his attention focused.  Kept him back from the precipice.

This present, his future, so cold.  So lonely.  So filled with strangeness and the unfamiliar.

He sighed and shook his head.  His teammates were kind in their own ways, but they didn’t understand. They were each damaged in their own ways, but this was their time, their world, so they had resources, coping mechanisms.  Friends, family.  Even vices.  His world existed only in his memories.  

And the lure to tarry there ... well.  

Steve would be lying if he claimed he didn’t want to go home.

But home was just a memory, burnished bright like a new penny, brighter than it had been in reality, he knew.  A lie, a trick of the light, an empty promise.

And so Steve Rogers shook himself from melancholy, and went back to his reports, immersed himself in minutiae, and willed himself to forget.  And so he existed neither then nor now, and simply soldiered on.

&&&

Pepper Potts reviewed the correspondence and the recommendation from Legal.  And then she chose to ignore their conclusion, and carried the letter personally to its intended recipient.

Something told her this was just the thing, received at just the right time.

She stood at the door and hesitated only a heartbeat, then straightened her spine with the resolve she knew someone had to have.  This had gone on long enough, even if no one else would admit to it.  JARVIS announced her presence, and a few moments later, the door opened.

“Pepper,” Steve Rogers acknowledged with a smile that started and ended with his lips.  She glanced over his shoulder and noted the apartment cast in darkness, no lights on despite the depth of twilight beyond the magnificent windows of Stark Tower.

“I’m sorry, did I wake you?” she asked, knowing the answer already.  Steve Rogers rarely slept. The serum, old habits, depression.  He walked the tower like a ghost in his own life.

He rubbed at a spot in the center of his forehead and shook his head.  “No, I was going over reports, why would you think -“ and then he glanced back into his apartment and she knew he realized he’d done it again, worked through the day, through dusk, into the darkness, without ever turning on a light.  “Oh.  Yeah.  Got caught up in what I was doing.  Sorry.  Was there something you needed?”

“Steve, all you have to do is ask JARVIS to turn on the lights.  You don’t have to work in the dark.  The tower is self-powering, remember?  You don’t have to worry about the electric bill.”

“I, no, that’s ... I didn’t notice.  My eyes ... since the serum, my vision, it ... the darkness doesn’t bother me.”

“Oh.  Well, I could use the light, and I wouldn’t mind an invitation to come in?  I have something I’d like to show you.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry, of course - come right in.  JARVIS?”

As Pepper breezed by Steve into the newly illuminated living space, she turned to him and laid a gentle hand on his forearm.  It broke her heart to feel the muscles bunch and tense, as though he’d pull away.  She could see the breath he took in, the resolve in his jaw as he stood his ground.

“There’ve been studies done that show that the human body needs light in order to function optimally. Lack of light can lead to depression, tiredness, feeling run down.  You might want to have JARVIS schedule light therapy -“

“I appreciate the concern, Pepper.  But really, I’m all right -“

And that’s when the core of her - the one that was CEO of Stark Industries, that had dragged Tony Stark back from the edge of oblivion on more than one occasion, that stood up to Fox News with a steely-eyed glare and perfect composure - had had enough.

“No, Steve.  You’re really not.  I know that in previous decades, any hint of ... depression ... might be considered an unacceptable weakness.  But nowadays, most of us recognize it for what it is - a part of the human condition.  It doesn’t have to be something you just suck up and soldier on.  There are things that can help, techniques, including light.  My God, Steve.  With everything you’ve been through, it would be ridiculous for any of us to assume you’re not depressed or emotionally challenged in any way -“

“I’m okay, really.  I’m not depressed.  I’m cleared for duty -“

“By SHIELD.  And they have a vested interest in having you active in the field.  But they don’t own you, Steve.  You have rights.  You’re a person.  And you’re a person who has a right to have your needs met.  Your feelings considered -“

“I don’t want anyone to think I’m still broken -“

“You were never broken.”

“Back in ... back in my time, yes I was.  All the things wrong with me ... they labeled me.  I was damaged.  Sick in the head.  The serum, it fixed all that.  I wasn’t broken anymore -“

“Sick in the head?”

“My asthma.  It wasn’t seen the way it is now.  People assumed I was feeble-minded.  Possibly a danger to myself.  I don’t want -“

“That was short-sighted and cruel.  The world - the United States, at least - doesn’t see illness like that any longer.  And to be honest, Steve, someone like you coming to terms with your stress, your depression, going public with it ... it could help a lot of people who are struggling.  But the important thing here, Steve, is that you don’t have to go it alone.  We’re here for you.  And if SHIELD isn’t going to recognize that you need some help to make sense of everything that’s happened to you, then dammit, I will.  Please, as a favor to me -“

Tears were quietly slipping out of Steve’s eyes at that point, trickling slowly down his cheeks as his face grew redder.  “Steve, I didn’t mean to upset you -“

“No one’s cared how I felt since my Ma died.  Well, maybe Peggy, but she was so no-nonsense about everything.  She didn’t have time to be soft, to be honest.  We had a war to win.  But you - are you sure?  That it’s okay?”

Pepper felt herself choking up as she considered this man who was held to impossible standards through the decades.  How dare they all expect so much from him, and give him so little.  She nodded, and then she asked, “Could I hug you?”

He didn’t answer verbally, just reached for her and stepped into her space so she could wrap her arms around him.  And then he started to weep openly, forehead pressed against her shoulder.  She threaded her fingers into his hair and guided his head so it rested more comfortably, his tears soaking her designer blouse.

Well, any blouse that couldn’t stand up to the tears of a bona fide hero wasn’t worth the overpriced fabric it was made of.

&&&

Pepper not only waved away Steve’s apologies - for weakness, no less - she sternly reminded him that she never thought he was weak or broken, and she was determined that she enable him - no, empower and nag him - to get the help he needed.  It took time, a lot of will, and a spine made of vibranium, but finally he seemed to begin - just begin, mind you - to accept that maybe it could be okay, that maybe he had a right to be sad, and tired, and yes, depressed.

Pepper was convinced that Steve was dealing with an undiagnosed and untreated case of PTSD the likes of which no one had ever seen.  She’d seen it in Tony after Afghanistan.  She saw it in herself after the Chitauri invasion, after Obie, after every goddamned thing that had turned their lives upside down and made them targets of aliens and supervillains.  The wonder wasn’t that Steve Rogers had PTSD.  The wonder was that he functioned at all.

After a while, he seemed a little less ... disconnected.  Now that he’d had someone to talk to who wasn’t invested in getting him into the field and into a fight at all costs.  Maybe a little less distracted, sad. He’d busied himself with making tea for them both while he’d gotten his emotions under greater control, and now, as they sat in his living room, with actual lights on, he looked up at her and asked simply, “There was something you wanted to show me.”

Yes, of course.  She’d had to have a reason to visit him, not just because she enjoyed his company, or wanted to see how he was doing. She could hear the weariness in his voice, and she smiled.  Gently but sincerely.

“You know that requests come in for the Avengers all the time.  Our Legal group - Stark’s Legal group - vets them all. Assesses them for liability, etc.  Then they forward them to me for further action.  This,” she fished the letter out of her skirt pocket, “was in the latest batch.  Legal recommended against it. But I thought it might be a good thing for you.”  She handed him the letter, and he took it, a deep furrow between his eyebrows.

“Mail?  I get mail?”

“Yes, of course you get mail. Everyone gets mail, and Legal reviews every piece, unless there’s a credible threat and then it goes through containment and quarantine through security.”

“Does Legal have to look at my mail?” he asked softly, opening the letter gingerly

“They do it as a courtesy.  To protect your privacy and so on.”

He glanced up at her from the unread letter.  “But I don’t get any mail.”

She stilled then, realizing her own complicity in isolating this intensely lonely man.  By vetting all his mail, by “dealing with it” for him, she’d denied him the simple pleasure of receiving messages, connections, from the outside world.  

“I’m sorry, Steve.  I thought we were doing the right thing for you.  I thought that someone had discussed this with you.  You receive hundreds, sometimes thousands of letters each week.  They all go through Legal.  You’ve never received any?”

He shook his head, the furrow deeper, the haunted look in his eyes back again.

“Tomorrow, you and I are going to sit down with the mail room and Legal, and we are going to figure out a better way to handle this.  I think we all thought we were doing you a favor, not keeping you isolated.  We’ll fix it.  In the meantime, what do you think?”

His eyes dropped to the letter in his hand, his long lashes hiding whatever emotion seethed within.  And then Pepper saw something she never expected to see.  A smile.  It was small, but it was real.  And it grew.

“Steve?”

“This.  I want to do this.”

“I thought it might appeal to you -“

“No, you don’t understand.  It’s not just the idea.  This place.  This theatre.  I know it.  I went there.  Hell, I practically lived there.  I used to sneak in through the speakeasy entrance and made my way up to the orchestra pit. The band leader was a friend of Ma’s, so he’d let me sit down there with the orchestra, and I’d watch the vaudeville shows.  And when it became a picture palace, I just kept sneaking in.  I mighta stuck around to clean up after - I mighta been an unruly hellion according to Sister Mary Joseph, but my Ma raised me to have manners.”

“This theatre had a speakeasy entrance?”

“Yeah, up top it was a legitimate theatre - well, as legitimate as vaudeville could be in those days.  Down below it was a speakeasy.  I might’a run some errands on occasion for the speakeasy.  Guess that wouldn’t go down so great with Fox News, huh?  Captain America was a runner for a gang when he was in short pants?”

Pepper couldn’t stifle the giggle at the thought of Steve Rogers - massive, perfectly sculpted, godlike Steve Rogers - as a little boy in short pants.  “There aren’t any pictures of that, are there?”

“No, but if you ask me nicely, I could do a drawing or two.  Just for you.”

“You’re an artist?”

“I was.  Nearly finished my degree at Pratt.  Then it was school or eat.  I needed to eat,” he shrugged, his eyes dropping back to the letter in his hand.  “Yeah, this is something I really wanna do.  Thanks, Pepper.  And yeah, let’s talk to the mail room and Legal.  From now on, i wanna see all my mail, every last piece, at least until I figure out what’s going on with it.”

&&&

Dear Captain Rogers:   I hope this finds you well.  I am writing to you with a request that I hope you will find both entertaining and easy to fulfill.  

My day job is professor of film history at Columbia University, but my passion is the restoration of classic movie houses to their former glory.  I am fortunate enough to be working with a group that is currently renovating the Brigham Theatre in Brooklyn.  We recently made an amazing find - a complete set of film posters for your wartime films with RKO.  They are currently being restored, but we hope to have them framed and ready for auction for our fundraiser within a few weeks.  

The posters would likely fetch higher prices - and help us with our renovation fund - if they were autographed by the films’ star before they are framed.  

I would be happy to bring them to Avengers Tower for you to autograph them at your convenience, and would be happy to pick them up at the main desk after.

If this would be acceptable to you, please have someone on your staff drop me a line at jbbarnes@savethebrigham.org, and I’ll make the necessary arrangements to drop off the posters.

If this is something that you are not comfortable doing, I understand, and apologize for taking up your time.  I thank you for your service, and all you have done for the people of New York, the USA, and the world.

Yours sincerely,

J.B. Barnes, PhD

On behalf of the Save the Brigham team

The Brigham.  He’d told Pepper about some of his experiences there.  It had been something of a center of his universe outside of school and the little apartment he shared with Ma.  He’d found a place there, friends, a family of sorts.  He’d seen and heard things that he would never be able to anywhere else.  And they’d helped to form him into the person he was today.  

He looked at the letter again and smiled.  A piece of his past, something he could see and smell and feel.  He didn’t want to just sign posters.  He wanted to get his hands dirty.

He turned to his tablet and brought up the e-mail program, and wrote a quick e-mail to Dr. Barnes accepting his invitation, but qualifying it with a request to meet at the theatre so he could see it for himself.

For the first time in a long while, Steve felt hopeful, excited, and eager for what was to come.

&&&

“Seriously, Cap, it’s no bother.  We can take the private elevator down to the garage, and then it’s a hop, skip, and a jump across the Bridge -“

“Thanks, Happy.  But I’d rather take the subway.  This is my old neighborhood. I’d kinda like to walk it, y’know?  Get a feel for what it’s like today.  What’s different.  What’s still the same.”

“Buildings come and go, but the soul of New York?  That’s permanent,” Happy said with an expression that spoke of understanding tinged with resigned disappointment.

“That’s what I’m hoping.”  Steve glanced at Happy’s sad face, and smiled, adding, “But, look, if I don’t feel like dealing with rush hour, I’ll give you a call, okay? That work for you?”

Happy perked up immediately at that.  “Yeah, sure.  Anytime.  You know I mean that, right?”

“I do.”  

“Well, hey, you’d best get a move on if you wanna keep your appointment.”

&&&

There are parts of the New York subway system that Steve would swear haven’t been cleaned since his day.  But he still loved the rhythm of the city racing up through the floor of the car, rattling up his bones and vibrating in his chest.  He loved the crush of people, vibrant, alive, and very much a part of the fabric of this city.  He realized with a start that Pepper was onto something - changing his routine, getting out of the tower, even just the short walk in the sunshine had done wonders for his mood.  And having something to do, a destination ... well, he’d needed that more than he’d realized.

He got out at his stop and took the stairs to the surface, forcing himself to be sedate and not cause a scene or worse, an accident, by racing his bulk up the steps two or three or eight at a time.  Then he walked the old neighborhood to the theatre, automatically cataloguing what was familiar, and what was strange.  He felt like he was looking at the world through a weird sort of double vision, the world of little Stevie Rogers, decades gone, overlaying the world that Captain Steven Rogers could see now.  Not all that different from how he viewed the world after the serum, suddenly in color and from over a foot higher.

And then he rounded the corner and saw it again.  The Brigham.  The once-vibrant red brick had faded to a rusty brown, darker nearer the street level where decades of car exhaust had left their mark.  The marquee that had once glittered and shone, announcing the delights to be found inside, was boarded over with cheap, weathered plywood.  More of the stuff covered the facade of the building, leaving the Art Deco stained glass of the main doors lost behind a wooden shell. As he got closer, he felt his spirits flag even further as he noted the tiles of the carefully laid mosaic had been buried under cement to blend in with the sidewalk.  In a few places the cement had splintered off, and revealed a cracked and faded spot of color.

He stepped up to the doors and wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off skipping this excursion, had the posters delivered to the tower, and just signed them in the quiet of his apartment.

And then the door opened, revealing the storm-swept eyes of the most beautiful man Steve Rogers had ever seen.  Those eyes were wreathed in smile lines as he greeted Steve.

And Steve knew that yet another secret he’d held safe was about to come crashing around him.

As he reached out to accept the hand offered to him in greeting, he felt the hot stab of want lance through him.

And he knew it was too late to turn back now.

&&&

“I ... I can’t believe you actually agreed to autograph the posters!” Dr. Barnes was saying as he ushered Steve through the lobby and into the tiny manager’s office just off the main concourse.   “I never thought you’d want to come over to do it in person!  Wow.”

Steve could see hints of the theatre he remembered, but even here in the lobby, the elements that had made this place magical had been covered and contained until all of its personality had been sucked away.  Over there, a Cupid had stood smirking upon a golden shell, his upturned jug pouring water into the bowl beneath. In its place stood a blank, featureless wall.  Above, there’d been a mirrored mosaic that reflected upon itself in an endless cycle of images, but now it was just discolored acoustic tile. Even the office where Barnes stood had held wonders in personally inscribed photos of vaudevillians great and small, where now it was utilitarian, bereft of personality.

It made him want to scream.

It made him want to cry.

It made him want to tear the years away with his bare hands.

He embraced the anger, because it distracted him from the other things he wanted.

“I wanted to see how the old place had fared,” Steve said calmly.  He was only screaming inside his own head.

“And?”

“What the fuck did they do to this place?  It’s horrible.”

Dr. Barnes stopped and looked at Steve then, really looked.  “Shit, you actually remember the place when it was in its prime.”

“I was telling my friend Pepper that I practically lived here as a kid.  But this, what’s left of it?  This isn’t the Brigham.  This is some ... I dunno, box full of junk.  What the hell, huh?”

Barnes was silent for a long moment, his breath coming harshly as he stared at Steve open-mouthed.  Then he drew a shuddering breath and said, “I’m about to overstep the bounds of decency in a big way -“ Steves heart fluttered at the words, his imagination immediately going places he rarely allowed it, with an accompanying rush of blood southward.

“Yes?” he asked, hoping his voice didn’t sound as breathless and desperate as it sounded to his own ears.

Barnes did a little bit of a double-take, so Steve assumed his hope was in vain. But Barnes pressed on anyway, “We don’t have any plans for the place any earlier than about 1957.  By then, much of what you see now had started, and was finished in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.  Some of this shit is probably considered hazmat today, even.  There are some pictures, but most are too faded or fuzzy to make out any specific details.  We’d love to restore the place properly, but we don’t have a full idea of what it really looked like.”

“Better than it does now, I can tell you that much.  But I haven’t heard anything indecent.  Yet.”

Barnes smirked then, and Steve was convinced he’d do anything to see that look on the regular.  Battle Nazis, dance the Tarantella, toss a bowl of fruit on his head and call himself Carmen Miranda.

“Okay.  Maybe not indecent.  But out there.  Would you be interested, willing, er ... would you like to work with us on the renovation?  Show us how the place should look?  I realize that’s way more than autographing a bunch of one-sheets, but your memory of what this place should look like would be invaluable -“

“Would I be working with you?” Steve blurted, blushing as he realized how that must sound.  Exactly how he meant it, but no one knew that Steve Rogers was queer.  There was no record of it from the serum onward, and before that, the only people who’d known had mostly been associated with this building.  And they were all long-gone, he was sure.

“Yeah, actually you would.  Is that okay?”

Steve nodded slowly.  “What’s your interest in this place?”

“Well, it’s an area of specialization for me, an offshoot of film history.  I’ve been fascinated by theatre architecture and the way the beautiful old buildings either get razed or repurposed to new things - churches, apartment buildings, even hospitals.  And we lose a little bit of our history, our urban culture, our souls as a consequence.  And then I heard that this place was going to be up for sale again ...”

“So you own it.”

“I put together a group that’s hoping to own it.  We’ve put a down payment on it, which is how we got it off the auction block.  And how I got access to the archives where we found your film one-sheets.”

“How much more do you need?”

“Well, a lot.  But we’re securing financing.  But to make this work, we need to renovate the place so it can be a functioning theatre again. A community resource. We’d like to make it an LGBT etc.center.  And that’s where the fundraiser - and you - come in.”

“Okay.  I’m in.  I’m all in,” Steve said then, surprised by his own adamance.  “I hate what’s been done to this place.  Damn, if the theatre’s this bad, I can’t imagine what they did to the speakeasy.”

“Um, speakeasy?”

The way Barnes went still, like his breath was being held and time was on hold, Steve realized that the secret heart of the Brigham was still a secret.  A secret that perhaps he was the last living person to know.

He couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face then.

“It’ll be easier if I show you.”

&&&

Chapter Text

Little Stevie Rogers had been too short to reach the secret combination that opened the door to the speakeasy that rest below the Brigham without help, but he’d always been able to roll a barrel or shove a stack of boxes over so he could put in the combination to sneak into the theatre. And the sequence was still there, forever seared into his eidetic memory.

Barnes stood nearby, barely more than a breath away behind his elbow as he pressed into each brick in the pattern.  He pushed in the last brick and waited, unsure as to what would happen next.  Did the mechanism still work, or had some idiot disconnected it to hide away the evidence of the building’s less than socially acceptable history?  Or worse, had time stripped it away, effectively entombing the treasure that lay beyond this wall?

Then he heard the click and a grinding noise, and knew the combination had worked.  He smiled as the door shifted out by a couple of inches, and he was able to put his thick fingers into the handhold, pulling the door open all the way.

“Holy shit!”

“You knew nothing about this,” Steve observed in surprise, glancing over his shoulder at where Barnes craned his neck curiously to see the door and the mechanism controlling it.

Barnes shook his head.  “There’s no record of it.  I mean, information about specific speakeasies is rare, unless the place evolved into something either famous or notorious.  I’ve never seen any mention of any other use for this building other than the theatre, except for some business offices on the upper floors - mostly talent agencies, entertainment related stuff.  Another level below the theatre isn’t even on the plans I have.”

Steve pulled the door open, revealing a dark passage beyond.  He looked back and smiled at Barnes.  “Well, that was the beauty of the speakeasies.  They often didn’t exist on official plans.  If City Hall didn’t have a record that it was there, it was safer from raids.  And that was very important for the people who frequented this place.”

Barnes thumbed on the flashlight function on his phone and nodded toward the dark interior.  “Shall we?”

Steve nodded, but reached into the darkness, felt along the wall until he found what he was looking for.  He nudged the switch, and suddenly the entryway was flooded with light, revealing a wide hallway with a checkerboard tiled floor, dark wood paneling on the walls, punctuated by crystal sphere sconces, leading toward a wrought iron filigree gate, and beyond that, a staircase leading down below the theatre.

Barnes whistled softly.  “Looks like whoever blanded up the theatre didn’t get their mitts on this.  Can we go in further?” he asked excitedly.  

“Let’s try it.”

&&&

Steve didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when they went through the iron gates and he found himself standing in the club he remembered from before Project Rebirth.  Very little had changed, save for a layer of gray dust on every remotely flat surface, and cobwebs linking pretty much every surface with every other surface, including the ceiling and the pendant light fixtures.

It was a mess, but underneath the mess, it was glorious.

The pillar-like podium where Miz Delilah waited to welcome guests to her domain still stood where he remembered it.  The intimate little tables still wore their lacy finery, although he suspected it would disappear in a puff of cotton dust if he so much as blew on it.  The cranberry glass jars still held the stubs of old candles, some still standing, others burnt down to the quick.  The little bistro chairs were all tucked in, awaiting a courteous hand to pull them out for a customer to take their seat.  The little stage still stood, backed by the sumptuous red velvet curtain.  Behind it, he knew, where the dressing rooms and backstage area, the places where the dancers would lounge before they were called forth to the stage.  To the side, the white baby grand was gray with age and dust, and the bandleader’s podium was festooned in cobwebs, backed by dusty chairs and music stands for the orchestra.

 

But Steve could close his eyes and hear the band playing a slow song, the chanteuse teasing pathos and tears out of the latest melody popularized by the likes of Billie Holiday or some other popular songstress.  He could hear the susurration of low-voiced conversation, of the waitstaff taking orders, making suggestions.  He could still hear Miz Delilah’s throaty laugh, telling him to spin around so she could pass judgment on his ensemble du jour.  He could see the couples slipping off through the doorway next to the stage, to the back rooms.  The path to the theatre lay along that route, but there had been so many other pleasures to explore on the way.

Steve opened his eyes, and realized that tears streamed down his cheeks, quiet, heartfelt, unrepentant.  For the first time since coming out of the ice - hell, for the first time since coming out of Abraham’s chamber - Steve felt at home.

“This was more than a speakeasy,” Barnes said softly, as though he were loathe to break the quiet here, in this place sacred in Steve’s memory.

“It was a speakeasy until speakeasies weren’t needed any longer.”

Barnes was silent then, turning slowly to take in the place.  Steve wondered if all he saw was the derelict that lay in ruins around them, or if his imagination could clear away the detritus of decades of neglect, revealing the gem that lay beneath.

“This was a queer club.”

Steve closed his eyes and drew in a silent but deep breath.

“I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one of this vintage. Places like this were every bit as important to queer culture as Stonewall.”

Steve knew the reference.  His exploration of history since he went under the waves had taken him to the fights for freedom and civil rights, for people of color, for women, for queer kids like him.  He knew this was a better world in some ways, built on the blood and sinew of people who’d given their lives - voluntarily or not - so that their brothers and sisters could live and love free.

“It was a place where people could be themselves.  Could learn what that was.”  He swallowed hard then.  He knew he’d inadvertently walked right up to the cliff, and was standing there, poised on the precipice.  He didn’t know this James Barnes.  Didn’t know if he could trust him.  But even if he didn’t speak his truth, the seed of it was there.  Barnes was an intelligent man.  He could put the pieces together and guess at the truth.

“How old were you?” Barnes asked quietly, reverently.

Steve sighed then.  It was already too late.  And he felt an odd sort of liberation at the thought.  He had stopped being Steve Rogers the moment he’d signed those papers for Abraham.  He’d put himself on hold, and become what the US government needed him to be.  What the Army had needed.  And since the ice, what SHIELD needed him to be.

Never who he needed to be.  Not since the day he’d left this place behind.

He turned and looked into the gray-blue eyes that studied him with compassion and warmth.  With understanding.  And so he smiled.

“Thirteen.  But I think I always knew there was something different about me.  I liked girls.  I liked boys.  Some days, I liked being a boy.  Others, I wanted to be a girl.  There weren’t words then to describe how I felt, who I was.  But here, I could be anything I wanted to be.  Here, I could just be me.” 

“Then I thank God you found this place.  And thank you for showing me.  For trusting me.  I don’t know if I need to say it, but ... your secret is safe with me.”

“I ... thanks.  I think I knew that.  But thanks.”

“I grew up in Indiana.  Conservative town.  Lotta churches.  Lotta judgment.  Lotta people telling other people how to live their lives.  There was no place like this for kids like me.  Parents had expectations.  They were proud when I joined up after 9/11.  Right outta undergrad.  They were even kinda proud about this,” he held up his left hand, and Steve noticed the black leather glove over the hand that moved stiffly for the first time.  He’d been distracted by how beautiful Barnes was.  Natasha would’ve chastised him for compromised situational awareness.  Steve kind of didn’t really care.  “Not so much when I came out after I got home.  Haven’t been back since.”

“I’m sorry for that.  My Ma had an idea, I think.  We never talked about it.  But I think she knew.”

“And she never treated you any different?”

“I was different already. Sickly kid - all that’s a matter of historical record.  Mouthy.  As likely to pick a fight as to hack up a lung.  More.  I was always in trouble.  She had infinite patience with me.  I don’t know if she was even surprised I was queer. I wish now that I’d had the courage to ask her what she thought.”

Steve started when he felt the gentle pressure of fingers gently touching his forearm.  “I’m sure she was proud.  You’re the son she raised, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but you -“

“I’m who I am despite my parents, not because of them.  It was hard to break myself of the habit, but I finally reached the point where I knew that making them proud would mean compromising myself.  I’d rather be proud of myself.”

“Are you?”

Barnes nodded thoughtfully.  “You?”

“Let’s just say it’s a goal.”

“Okay.  So ... how about you show me your secret entrance, huh?  And then I think we need to go check out the bar down the street - I dunno about you, but all this dust is making me thirsty.”

Steve looked at the hopeful smile on his face, and couldn’t help the answering smile on his own.  “Yeah, that sounds good.  Okay, follow me.”

&&&

“Are these what I think they are?” Bucky asked, gesturing toward to the open doors to the rooms along the corridor.  Each had a narrow bed, a small chest of drawers, and a tiny wardrobe.  Bucky’s imagination was working overtime filling in the contents of the drawers, the things that might be hanging in those wardrobes, and the acts that might have taken place in the little rooms.

“If you’re thinking ‘a place where gentlemen can enjoy each other’s company in privacy and comfort’, you’ve read the brochure.”

“I, wow.  I had no idea when I got up this morning that I’d be visiting a pre-war sex den with Captain America,” Bucky chuckled, then nearly ran into the suddenly rigid and abruptly stationary back of said icon.

“You’re not,” Steve said then, his voice low and dangerous as he cast his gaze downward, faced away from Bucky. And Bucky would be lying if he said that voice didn’t do things to him, but he also realized he’d fucked up.

“I’m sorry. Force of habit - I’m used to thinking of you as him.”  He dragged his hand through this hair, scraping back his floppy bangs. “Shit, I do an entire unit on the depersonalization of historic figures through film marketing.  I should know better.”

Steve turned then, the tension dissolving as he arched an eyebrow and gave Bucky an incredulous look.

“The what?”

“It’s a course I teach about how films are marketed.  Merchandise makes the characters commodities, and when the characters are historical people, it changes the perception of who they were.  Depersonalizes them.  The Captain America persona is the most famous and extensive example.” 

“Huh.  You allow auditors in this class?”

“You want to sit in?”

“Anonymously.”

“Only if you promise not to laugh at my extensive collection of Cap swag.”

“I think I can contain myself,” Steve answered deadpan, then broke into a grin.

&&&

They followed the hallway to a stairwell, and once again, Steve was relieved that the electrics still worked.  With his enhanced vision, he could see just fine, but he didn’t want to be responsible for Barnes tripping on stairs he couldn’t see.  He really didn’t fancy having to explain how and especially where he got hurt.

“Back in the vaudeville era, the band would play down in the speakeasy - or the club - and then come up this way to take their places to play for the show.  Then slip away back to the club.”

They’d come to the top of the stairs and another door.  “So this is how little Stevie Rogers would sneak into the show,” Steve explained as he turned the knob and pushed the door open inward to the space beyond.

Steve fiddled for a switch and found one, and nearly cried when he realized what had happened.  “They walled it in.”

What lay beyond was a wide space, maybe forty feet across and another twenty feet deep before an elaborate stonework wall backed by a solid wall, with chairs stacked haphazardly, music stands piled like skeletons in the catacombs.  It was warm and stuffy inside, like the air had been trapped and festered for generations waiting for them.

Barnes walked over to the outer wall and rapped on it lightly. “Plywood,” he said.  “It’s probably mounted in sheets.  I’m betting it’ll come off easy.  In fact, we could probably push a couple of panels off from inside.”

“Y’think?”

Barnes tilted his head in invitation, and Steve smiled, joining him at the wall.  Now that he looked closer, he could see the seams between panels, and the thin strips of wood holding the facade together.  He smiled, giving in to his need to destroy what had been done to his beloved theatre.  “You okay with this?” he asked, ensuring consent before he did anything further.

“Have at it.”

Steve grinned ferally, placed his palms over where two vertical struts crossed the horizontals bracketing the central panels, and pushed.

A creak, a groan, a snap, and a screech, and the satisfying flex of muscles in his arms and back later, the wall trembled, held, and then fell outward as a whole, crashing to the floor beyond.

Barnes was clapping, whooping it up as Steve stepped back, drawing a deep breath of fresher air.

“Did that feel good?”

“Let’s do some more!” Steve exclaimed, feeling more alive than he had this century.

Barnes held up a hand, grinning.  “While I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of you going all caveman on the so-called improvements,” he waved his hand up and down Steve’s physique, “you did promise to go get something to drink with me.  If I have to watch you do more of that, I can’t promise you I’ll be able to keep my hands to myself.”

“Who says I want you to?” Steve blurted before he had a chance to edit himself.

The smile that Barnes gifted him with then would’ve turned a lesser man’s knees to jelly, and other parts of his anatomy rock hard.  Fortunately, Steve Rogers had been raised Catholic with manners drilled into him by his Ma.  He stood straight, and willed away the boner that was ready to salute this beautiful man.

“Well, in that case, you’d better call me Bucky.”

&&&

Chapter Text

“Well, this place, at least, has changed for the better!” Steve whispered to Bucky as they came through the door into Hanrahan’s, the pub down the street from the Brigham.  

They were shown to a table and handed menus.  After the hostess told them the name of their waiter and departed, Bucky leaned across the table and said to Steve, “Geeze, it must be so weird.

“What?” Steve asked as he opened his menu.

“Looking at everything through two sets of realities.”

Steve smiled and set the menu aside for the moment.  “Strangely enough, I think I’ve gotten used to that.  I mean, there’s nothing new about it for me.”

“How d’you figure?”

Steve shrugged, but they were interrupted by the arrival of their waiter, who delivered a basket of warm tortilla chips and a bowl of fresh salsa.  They put in an order for two pitchers of two different local brews that came highly recommended, and the waiter disappeared.  “I hope you know you’re drinking most of both pitchers.”  Again, Steve shrugged.

Bucky swished a chip through the salsa and slid the entire chip in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.  Then he said “So, seriously, tell me.”

“I was color blind before the serum. And partially deaf.  After, it was like living on a whole new planet.”  He popped a chip in his mouth and started to chew while Bucky pondered.

“The challenges you faced get lost in the patriotic narrative.”

“Did then, too.  Nobody realized that changing my perception of color, even my perception of depth, then adding over a foot to my height, and on top of it going from nearly no hearing to acute hearing ... it was a wonder I wasn’t stumbling around smashing into things all the time.  Everything I knew and understood about interacting with the world was suddenly and irrevocably wrong.  Took me a while to figure out basic stuff like how to walk normally, how to feed myself.  I bulled my way through, but inside I was screaming.”

“Wow.  There was nobody there to understand?”

“The one person who would’ve gotten it, who would’ve had a plan, was Abraham.  And I was barely out of the chamber when Hydra shot and killed him.  And I think what I did next convinced people I didn’t need any help.”

“The chase through Brooklyn. Iconic,” Bucky said, chuckling as he shook his head.

“Left a string of storefronts in ruins that day.  I’d never been able to run before - my lungs and my spine wouldn’t allow it.  And suddenly I’m not in pain anymore and I can breathe ... lemme tell you, pretty sure I got high off the adrenaline rush.”

“This Abraham - Dr. Erskine.  He musta been something special.”

“He was.  He was the first person I ever knew besides my Ma who saw potential.  Everyone else, they saw a failure, no matter how good my grades were, no matter how good my art was.  Hell, I even had a good singing voice.  But people saw the stature, the defects, not how I overcame them.  But Abraham - he saw that I was capable of more than people thought.  Peggy, too.  But Abraham saw it first.” 

By then, the pitchers had arrived and they’d each poured a glass.  “To Abraham,” Bucky toasted.

Steve smiled and clinked his glass with Bucky’s, feeling a wave of nostalgia tempered by hope.

He’d told Bucky more than he’d shared with any living soul, not even Peggy.  And he felt like Bucky got it.  He understood. 

For the first time since waking up in that SHIELD puppet show, Steve felt like maybe he could make this century work for him.  Maybe he didn’t have to be lonely.

&&&

They had a nice meal, chatted amiably about Steve’s history, the theatre, Bucky’s classes, and Miz Delilah’s, in no order whatsoever.  Steve could not remember ever enjoying himself this much just spending time with one person.  He was listening to Bucky telling a story about some idiot in the faculty lounge, when suddenly he just blurted out, “Is this a date?”

He regretted it as soon as the words were out of his mouth.  Bucky stopped cold, his eyebrows arching upward, and Steve felt a cold, leaden mass form in his stomach.

Then Bucky smiled, the soft skin around his eyes crinkling with pleasure, his adorable nose scrunching up.

“D’you want it to be?”

Well, that wasn’t the reaction Steve was expecting.  He was definitely still coming to terms with the fact that people could be open about their attraction, their love, outside the confines of places like Miz Delilah’s. He liked the idea of living his life openly.  He just didn’t know if anyone else would.

He blinked then, and tilted his head, considering Bucky carefully.  “Do you?”

Bucky’s smile slid away, and Steve regretted that immediately, too. But in its place was a contemplative look, and that was a good look, too. 

“I don’t think dating you would be an easy thing. There’s the whole lack of shared life experience thing.  Our contexts are different.  I grew up in a time when being gay was no longer illegal, when people have grown bolder in the face of bigotry and hatred.  When people have learned to band together and fight back.  When Pride is a statement and a rallying call, not just a celebration but a declaration that we’re still here and we won’t be denied.  When hatred still runs hot and deadly.  I don’t know if gay culture today is more or less hedonistic than in your time. I just know that I’m not into that scene.  I want someone who wants to spend time with me, holding hands and cuddling.  I want the hot, sexy stuff, too, don’t get me wrong. But I want a future.”

“I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said so far.”

A smile returned to Bucky’s face then, tired, small, and Steve felt his heart breaking. Bucky was going to say no.

“You were used to living in the closet during your time. Except, I’m assuming, back there.”

“It was a world unto itself, yeah.”

“And in the Army?”

Steve shook his head.  “I don’t know what I could’ve gotten away with, being their poster boy and all.  But no, I never risked a blue ticket.”

“Blue ticket?”

“Dishonorable discharge.  A ticket back to civilian life with a label on your forehead, a target on your back, and nothing from Uncle Sam for putting your life on the line for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Sucks.”

“Yeah.”

“And since the ice.  I’m assuming none of your team know.”

“That I’m bisexual?  Possibly gender fluid?  Yeah, I’m learning a new vocabulary now.  It’s good to have words to describe, to name.  It, um -“

“Normalizes it.”

“Exactly.  Like maybe Sarah Rogers didn’t give birth to a broken son.”

“There is nothing broken about you,” Bucky was quick to correct, laying his hand, soft and warm, over Steve’s.  And Steve felt that same rush of want.  Not just sex - he knew he could find sex anywhere.  But more of what they had right now - talking, understanding, caring.

“I barely know my teammates.  I think everyone thinks they’re doing me a favor, keeping me in this little bubble to acclimate.  But without something to acclimate to, I’m stagnating.  Stark has made it clear he thinks I’m a virgin - fallout from the ‘aw shucks, gee willickers, ma’am’ image they’ve slapped on top of spandex.  You know the original suit had a hard cup I had to stuff my cock and balls into so nobody would know I had ‘em?  Talk about torture!”

“So I’m guessing that’s off the menu,” Bucky snickered.

“What?”

“Cock and ball torture.”

“That’s a thing?”

Bucky nodded, still snickering.

“Hell, yeah, it’s off the menu.   But the menu ... does it have anything you might be interested in?”

“I’m thinking I’m the first guy you’ve met in this time who knows you’re gay.  Sorry, bi.  And I found out by accident, not because you wanted to tell me.  You sure you’re not imprinting on me?”

“Imprinting.”

“Baby animals identify the first adult they see as their mom.  Imprint.”

“I don’t see you as my mom.  And if I’m being honest, I think I deliberately let my sexuality slip.”

“Yeah?”

“Hoping to find out you might be interested.”

“Oh.  Do tell.”

“Now you’re being a little shit.”

“Yes.  Yes, I am.  It’s not everyday a beautiful man tells me he’s genuinely interested in me.  It is for my big brain?”

“Oh, yes.  Your PhD is a real turn-on.  Popping a boner right now over the thought of all that book learnin’.”

“You’re an asshole, you know that, right?”

“Yes.  Yes, I do.  But to answer your question, no, I’m not imprinting.  I liked your letter.”

“My letter.”

“Your e-mail.  You didn’t ... deify Captain America.  You talked about my not so illustrious Hollywood career.  Most people forget I did those films - not that they’re worth remembering.”

“You were a really terrible actor.”

“I was scared out of my mind.  The action stuff was fun, but those lines ... “

“Yeah, the scripts were pretty awful.”

“Why on earth were you interested in the pictures then?”

“Okay, I have a confession to make.”

“Is it embarrassing?”

“As fuck.  I might have figured out I was gay watching your movies on channel 11 back when I was 12.”

“Now who’s imprinting?”

“I’ll cop to that.  In my defense, it was a perfect storm - cheesy patriotism, bad production values, leaden script, incredibly handsome star ...”

“You think I’m handsome?”

Bucky did him the favor of not answering flippantly, but instead gave the question serious consideration.  “At 12, I thought you were the most exciting man I’d ever seen.  At 30 plus, sitting across from you, listening to you talk about the challenges you faced and overcame ... well, let’s just say I don’t think I’ve ever met a more beautiful soul.”

“I ... wow.  That’s not what I expected to hear.”

“Which is why I want to make sure you know what you’re getting into.  Because I like you, Steve.  I like you a lot.  We’ve known each other not even eight hours, and already I feel like I’ve known you my entire life.  Like, I’m gonna be surprised to look at pictures from grade school and not see you standing right there next to me.”

“I don’t have any pictures from childhood. I promised Pepper I’d do a piece of art showing me as a little hellion.”

“Shit, you’re an artist, too.  Well.  You leave me no choice.”

“For what?”

“I have to date you.  You tick off every last box.  Kind, smart, fun, sassy, attractive,” he bowed his head with a chuckle, “talented.  Artistic.  How’d you get so perfect?”

“Pretty sure I’m not.  But you ... “

“Okay.  So let’s agree the attraction is mutual.  I’m okay taking it slow.  But the one thing I won’t be is someone’s dirty secret.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to be.”

“You’re not out.”

“I can be. More, I’d like to be.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Let me talk it over with Pepper.  See how she thinks I should handle it.  The thing is, I come out to the world, we’re dating, you’re a target.  So I think maybe it’s better I don’t say anything publicly until I have to. But I will tell my teammates.”

“Okay.  Okay, let’s give this a try. In the meantime, we have the theatre project to justify why we spend time together -“

“Speaking of which, I want more. I want to buy the theatre.”

“We already made a down payment -“

“I want to buy you out.  I want to own it, free and clear.  And I’ll fund the renovations.”

“Um ...”

“You stay on with your team.  We can go forward with the fundraiser if you want, to raise awareness, get community involvement.  Raise money to help pay for people’s time instead of expecting volunteers.  But this is a part of my personal history, and I’d really like to see it done right.  And I want to restore the club, open it up again to the queer community.  I have the money - 70 years of back pay with interest - so that’s not an issue. Would you let me?”

“I’ll be honest. The PR mileage we could get out of you buying the theatre property outright is incalculable.  And if we don’t have to raise all the money to buy it ... that would be a load of stress off, lemme tell you.  But are you sure?”

“As soon as I read your letter, I felt like I was coming back to life after being ... nothing, for a long time.  But when I saw the condition the theatre’s fallen to, it was like physical pain.  I’m angry and I’m hurt.  I need to make this happen.  And if we can turn this into something that serves the community, make it something that gives back, all the better.  I see this as a win-win, don’t you?”

“I ... wow.  Okay.  This is a lot to take in.  You want to take over my baby.  You want to date me.  What happens if we don’t work out?  Do I get tossed off my own project?  If we don’t work out, could you still work with me?”

Steve blinked once, twice, three times before answering.  “To be honest, it never occurred to me that we might not work out.  Is that weird?”

“Weird?  Um ... I don’t know.  None of this feels weird.  Even though it is.  I mean, hitting it off like this.  Isn’t it?”

“Does it have to be?”

“Maybe not.  Okay.  Okay, buy the theatre.  Do it publicly so people know that Brooklyn’s own Steve Rogers is buying back a piece of the city’s history.  Let’s sit down and work out a marketing plan, the whole thing.  People will eat up the story of you sneaking into the theatre to watch movies, and then years later, your own movies played there.  And maybe you could use some of those art smarts and sketch up some plans showing what the theatre should look like?”

“Oh, with pleasure.  Wait ‘til you see.  Whoever ‘improved’ it over the years did an evil thing.  Okay, I’ll talk it over with Pepper tonight.  Work out some ideas.  And maybe we can get together tomorrow or the day after to discuss?”

“And dating?”

“Ever take one of those harbor cruises?”

“No, sounds romantic.”

“Hmm.  Then let’s plan on that.”

“Okay.  Let’s.”

&&&

“You want to what?”

“Buy the Brigham.”

“You want to buy a movie theatre.”

“Not just any movie theatre.  My movie theatre.  I spent my childhood there.  I spent my young adulthood there. Pepper, I practically grew up there.  There’s more of me there than in all the museums combined.”

“I ... wow.  Okay.  I mean, obviously, you have the funds.  And Dr. Barnes is right that there would be great publicity benefit having you involved.  Spearheading, really.”

“It’d still be his project.  Only it’ll be mine, too.  It’ll be ours.  I guess.”

Pepper paused then and gave Steve a thoughtful look.  A small smile formed on her lips as she tipped her head.  “You like him.”

“Yeah, sure, what’s not to like?”

“No.  I mean, yeah, sure.  But it’s more than that.  Steve, I don’t mean to pry, but are you -“

“Queer?  Yes.  Yes, I am,” he blurted in a rush, then stopped, eyes wide, breath held, cheeks puffed up like a chipmunk as he awaited her judgment.

“Well, okay, then.  Why don’t we talk to Legal about setting up a foundation to take care of the finances, hmm?  That way if you do want to hold a fundraiser, the money’s going there rather than to you personally.  You’ll have complete control, and it will separate the money from your personal taxes.”  She was busy drafting a text as she talked, and paused to ask, “Do you want me to reach out to Dr. Barnes about buying out his stake in the property?”

She blinked at Steve and barely reined in the giggle that erupted.  Steve sat there wordlessly, staring at her with his mouth hanging open.  She deliberately made her face look soft, welcoming.  “Steve, is there something wrong?”

“You didn’t even blink when I told you I was queer.”

“Of course I didn’t.  Not only would that be unprofessional, it would be rude.  And stupid.  The world is far less binary than some would have us believe.  So you’re queer.  Do you want to do something about it?” she asked gently.

“Like?”

“Come out publicly.  Not that you have to.  Your sexuality is your business and no one else’s.  Except perhaps for your partner.  But someone of your stature, coming out, could be a powerful message for young people who might identify with you.  Whatever your decision, I support you 100%.  I mean that, Steve.”

He let out his breath in a long, slow, breath.  “I get that.  But I also need time to adjust to being ... out.  With myself.  You know?”

“Of course.  And Dr. Barnes?”

Pepper would be lying if she didn’t admit to herself that the sight of Steve Rogers, the legendary Captain America, blushing wasn’t the most adorable thing she’d ever seen.  She couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face at the vision of him acting like a lovestruck teenager.

“We have our first date day after tomorrow.  We’re doing one of those harbor cruises.”

“Oh.  Well, that’s quite public.  Are you sure you don’t want to do something more private -“

“I thought something like that would be romantic.  Without, um ... expectations.”

“Yes. I see.  In that context, yes, it’s a sweet choice.  Okay.  Well, obviously Stark Industries will be renting out the entire boat -“

“I don’t want to call attention to us -“

“And we’ll be giving our staff the day off to enjoy a harbor cruise,” she finished with an impish smile.  “I, of course, will be joining the cruise.  We’ll call it a team building exercise.  Anyone who doesn’t want to go, can either take the day off, or swap it for another.  I’ll call HR and get it organized.  Any special time?”

“We were thinking around 2 or 3?  And then we were going to get dinner after.”

“You can do that on your own.  I can recommend a few places -“

“He has a favorite he wants to introduce me to.”

“That’s the right way to do it, I think, Steve.  Let him know if there’s anyone he’d like to invite along - others on the theatre team, for example - they are welcome.”

“I ... okay.  Thank you, Pepper.”

“Thank you for trusting me.  And letting me do something to help.”

&&&

“The entire company?”

“The entire New York office.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.  Hiding in plain sight.”

“So I can invite the rest of the team?”

“Yep.  It’d be a good chance for me to meet them, bring them in on the plans.  For me to buy the theatre, fund the renovation.  If you’re still okay with that.”

“Yeah.  The fundraiser - whaddya think about that?”

“I think we should still do it.  It’ll raise awareness about the project.  But maybe ... maybe the funds don’t go to the theatre, but to organizations we want to support in the area.  And maybe we can expand it a bit.”

“To?”

“Include all the Avengers.”

“I.  Wow.”

“Is that too much?”

“Um.”

“I went too far, didn’t I.”

“No.”

“You’re just being nice now.”

“No.  No, I’m just kind of floored.  I never expected this when I found those posters.”

“Oh, yeah.  I still haven’t seen them.  You forgot to show me.”

“I’ll send you pix.  You look very fetching.  You weren’t wearing that cup thing you mentioned.”

“Hollywood was more forgiving about shit like that than the war bonds circuit.”

“You’re kidding.”

“They didn’t want little kids looking right up at my junk.”

“But on a forty-foot screen?”

“Hollywood is weird.”

“No argument there.”

“You probably know more about that than I do.”

“I’ve made a career of it, actually.  Is it weird that I’d like to see you recreate your film posters?”

“I dunno.  You know, I never saw them.  Am I doing anything weird?”

“Not weird.  Macho patriotic.”

“Miz Delilah and my friends from the club woulda been shocked.  Shit, I wonder what they did think, if they realized it was me.”

“You didn’t tell me what you did at the club.”

“Didn’t I?”

“No, you didn’t.  That was deliberate, wasn’t it, you punk?”

“Maybe.  Fella’s gotta have some mystery.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“What?”

“Peeling you back like an onion.”

“Peeling me, huh?”

“In a manner of speaking.  So, the goddess that is Pepper Potts knows about you.  About us.  And she’s okay with that?”

“I think she was genuinely delighted.  So, can you organize your team that fast?”

“Yeah.  Coupla texts’ll do it.  The chance to meet you in the flesh will do the rest.  Little do they know they’ll be sick of you before long.”

“Will you be?”

“What?  Sick of you?  Oh, my God, Steve.  I’m so over you already.  How can you be so boring and fucking perfect?”

“Right back at you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then.  I’d like to stay on the phone all night.  But, I gotta ... I got teammates freaking out on my timeline right now.  I gotta calm ‘em down before somebody has an aneurism.  So I’ll meet you at the boat tomorrow?”

“Yeah.  No. Let me come and pick you up.  We can go together.”

“Steve, as cool as that sounds and all, you’d be pretty much outing yourself.  Are you ready for that?”

“I -“

“It’s okay.  We got time.  Coming out ... that’s a narrative you want to control.  It’s got to be right, for you and nobody else.  So I’ll meet you there.  

“You sure?”

“Steve, we’ve only just met.  I got a good feeling about us, but you don’t owe me anything.  Well, except for those autographs, because I want to get the posters in for framing.  But it’s okay to take this slow.  Not going anywhere.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  But I do have to go now.  Myra is having a meltdown over the idea of meeting you and Pepper Potts.  Actually, I think it’s more Pepper than Steve.  What can I say, she has a thing for women in power suits.  So ... tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.  Yeah.  I ... I can’t wait.”

“So if we say goodbye and go to sleep, tomorrow’ll come faster.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how time works.”

“Pretty sure one of us needs to hang up.  So I’m going to be the adult here and be the one to say good night.  I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.  And Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really glad I met you.  Now good night!”

“Good night.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“So you said.”

“Yeah. So.  Yeah.  I’m going now.”

“Good night, Dr. Barnes.”

“Good night, Captain Rogers.  Shit, I thought I grew out of this when my voice changed.  Okay, I’m hanging up now.  Don’t say anything back.  I’m ... yeah, I’m just gonna go.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Steve stood there, holding the phone to his chest, feeling an odd and welcome warmth spread out from his heart.

“See you tomorrow, Buck,” he said softly to himself, smiling gently.  Steve couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked forward to anything as much as he did seeing Bucky Barnes again.

&&&

Chapter Text

The attorney assigned to Captain America quickly got over being star struck once they actually met Steve Rogers.  It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off and the sass to kick in, and Steve couldn’t be more pleased.

Kasey Collins was a sharp, ascerbic trans woman with a wall full of diplomas and awards, and a caseload that typically involved potential lawsuits due to douchbags who didn’t get that ethics rules applied to them, and everyone, working for the company and not, deserved respect.  It wasn’t often that a project like the Brigham fell into their lap, or an internal client as high profile as Captan America.  They said as much, and Steve had to laugh.

“Let’s leave the Captain out of this, shall we?  This is a project for Steve Rogers.”  He went on to explain his interest in the theatre, and his hopes of what could come out of the project.  The more he spoke, the more visibly excited she became.  

Finally, she asked, “I see your connection to the place, which is awesome.  But what’s the connection to queer culture?”

“Dr. Barnes was already planning to use the renovated theatre as a resource for the community. I don’t want to lessen that.  In fact, I hope we can expand on it.”

“Well, that’s very noble of you.  It shouldn’t have to be this way, but allies can be very useful in creating safe spaces, break down barriers that honestly shouldn’t be there in the first place, but,” she shrugged.  “And one like you - with a reputation going back generations, and with Fox News’s hard-on for treating you like the poster boy for conservative ‘values’ - well, it could have some beneficial impact, sure.”

“I hate Fox News.  Honestly, I’d like to sue them for defamation of character.  I grew up a Social Democrat, and I have a lot of opinions that Fox News wouldn’t like. But what do you mean by ‘ally’?”

“Well, in your case, you come at this with a buttload of white male privilege.”  At his arched eyebrow, she explained, “Even without the super-serum and your personal accomplishments, white cis heterosexual males are considered by many to be the pinnacle of our society.  Bullshit of course, but they - you - enjoy the privileges that come with that perception.  An absence of fear, and the confidence that your will be be law, as it were.”

“CIS?”

She flashed him a perfunctory smile.  “Someone cisgender, or cis, is someone who identifies with the gender of their birth sex, e.g., someone born with a penis identifying as a man,” she waved him up and down.  “Now, in my case, born with a penis, identify as a woman, transgender.”

“Ah.  Got it. I’m not cis.  Or heterosexual.”

“Say what now?”

“Are you connected into the queer culture of Brooklyn?  There are some people I’d like to track down, from my time, but I don’t know their legal names.  Just their ... stage names, I guess you’d call them.”

“Stage names.”

“Yeah.  Um.  Female impersonators.  Drag queens.”

“You hung out with drag queens,” Kasey said, her eyebrows raised in disbelief.  Then she chuckled.  “Wouldn’t that just fly right up the butt of FoxNews.”

Steve sat quietly for a moment, his brow furrowed. Then he let out a small breath and smoothed out his face to look up at her, smiling faintly.  “Hung out with drag queens. I guess you could say that.  I was one.”

Kasey sat there with her mouth hanging open and her eyes literally bugging.  Steve had to contain the urge to laugh.  “Wow,” she said after a long moment of goggling at him.  “Well, shit.  Talk about wanting to shoot myself in the bias.”  She shook her head, and at his curious expression, she elaborated, “I’ve been imposing a world view on you.  I bought into the Fox News image.  But Captain America wasn’t some gun-toting macho asshole full of straight, white, male superiority.  Captain America was a drag queen.  Had been.  This is a revelation of seismic shift.  Was this before?  Or after?”

“Before.  I was small, and could get away with going out in public dressed as a woman.  I only did it a couple of times - fella I was seeing liked to live dangerously.  It was incredibly exciting to go out to dinner dressed as his girlfriend, even dance in public.  But mostly I did it at the club.  Under the Brigham.”

“Shit.”

He smiled at her then, a shit-eating smirk that made her feel weak in the knees and made her heart race. It was a smile full of promise and hell to be raised.  

“You, sir, are gonna be the death of me.  And a helluva lot of fun, I think.  Okay, lay it all on me, big fella. Let’s figure out the plan, shall we?”

&&&

“This is a mistake.”

“Happy.”

“I can’t secure an entire harbor.”

“No one’s asking you to.”

“Miss Potts -“

“You know I’ve told you 3,000 times to call me Pepper.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Just like you are not going to stop this cruise.”

“At least let’s have Tony or Colonel Rhodes do aerial reconnaissance.”

“Happy.”

“Throw me a bone here, Miss Potts.”

“Steve Rogers is a super soldier. He practically took down Hitler single-handed.”

“Yeah, but that was like, I dunno. 50 years or so ago.”

“Almost seventy. And he did help take out the Chitauri.  A bit. Most of Midtown.”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that.  You’re sure?”

“Well, I’m sure you’re going to be joining us.”

“Oh, no.  I don’t do boats.  Boats make me sick.  As in seasick.  As in projectile vomiting over the side.  As in you know this.  It’s not a pretty thing.  Is this payback for something?”

“Oh, Happy.  Why would I do something like that?”

“Hmmph.”

&&&

“Did you ever meet Clark Gable?”

“Not in Hollywood, no.  We ran into each other once in London.  I was so star struck!”

“OMG.  What about Jimmy Stewart?”

“Couple times, yeah.  Once here in the States, when he was still acting as an instructor - I did a tour of training bases, and then a couple of times in Europe.  Another good guy.  Woulda liked to‘ve spent more time with him.”

“Capra.  You had to‘ve met Capra.”

“Uh, yeah.  He, um, turned down directing one of the Captain America films.  Said it was too cheesy even for him.  Can’t say I disagree.”

“Oh, cheese-fest, yeah!”

“Hey, don’t insult the guy who’s gonna help us get the theatre fixed up,” Bucky interjected with a mock stern expression.

“It true you’re really gonna buy it outright?”

“In the works, yeah. I spent so many Saturdays there.  Most of the rest of the week, if I could manage it.  I can’t wait to undo what’s been done to her.”

“Wow, this is surreal.”

“I just can’t believe we’re here, talking to, well, you!”

“The novelty’ll wear off, I promise you.”

“Don’t see how.”

“Trust me.  Soon you’ll be thinking ‘boring old Steve’ and I’ll just be one of the team.”

Bucky chuckled at that. “Really, like that’s gonna happen.  But, yeah, so, if you don’t mind, Steve and me, we had some stuff we were going to discuss while we were on this cruise.  So guys - go, enjoy.  Meet some of the Stark people - you heard Miss Potts - some of ‘em might volunteer.”  Thank yous and farewells were enthusiastically exchanged as the rest of the Brigham team moved on.

“Hey, I wonder if they’re hiring?” one of the team asked as they wandered off, leaving Steve and Bucky to themselves.

“There any place on this tug that’s private?” Bucky asked, shaking his head fondly as he watched his friends disappear into the crowd.  Most of the Stark staff had taken Pepper up on the offer, and the boat was full of relaxed, chattering Starkites enjoying the circuit of New York Harbor.

Which meant that the romantic portion of the cruise was off the menu because they were really too public, although the boys were enjoying each other’s company, just not as much as they’d hoped.  Then again, realistically, they wouldn’t have been able to anyway, not without risking exposure.  Steve might think a ballcap and glasses were a great disguise, but Pepper had pointed out that nothing could hide his shoulders.

Still, Steve fished a key out of his pocket and dangled it in front of Bucky’s face.  “Apparently there’s a private viewing deck on top of the control room.  We have to take a special stairway.”

“Anybody else have one of those?”

“Just the crew, I think.  Pepper handed this to me when we boarded, told me it was just for you and me.”

“Well, lead on.  Let’s see this ritzy private thingie.”

“You are so smooth.”

“Just wait - I haven’t trotted out my best stuff yet.”

Steve just chuckled as they made their way toward the prow of the boat, and structure that housed the control room as well as the stairway to the small railinged deck that sat atop it.  Once in the stairway, the sound of voices dropped away to a faint murmur, and only a few steps up, they realized they were out of sight of the revelers on deck.

Bucky turned to look at Steve, and the next thing, he had Steve backed up against the wall, fingers threaded in his hair, leg slid between Steve’s as he kissed him for all he was worth.  When they broke apart, Steve could feel the color in his face rising, and his breath coming in little pants - not like the asthma he’d never forget, but like everything about him was racing so far ahead of him, he might never catch up. 

Bucky ... Bucky looked at him with eyes dark with desire yet shining with mischief.  His glasses were askew and his hair was tugged out of the bun.  Disheveled was a good look on him.  Steve wanted to mess him up some more.

“I am never gonna think of you as ‘boring old Steve’, not when you kiss me like that,” Bucky breathed as he tilted his head to brush his lips across Steve’s again.  Steve opened his mouth against Bucky’s, breathing him in, pulling him closer as their tongues slid together in an intoxicating dance.  

Steve pulled back and looked into Bucky’s eyes.  “Pretty sure you kissed me first.  And right back atch’ya - wow!” he murmured, smoothing Bucky’s hair back with his palm.  It amazed him how soft Bucky’s hair was, how warm his skin, how addictive his lips.  “As first kisses go, it’s gonna be hard to beat.”

“It’s okay, though?  I mean, every minute we were with the team, all I could think about was how much I wanted to kiss you.  Is that weird?  We just met two days ago, and I can barely think about anything but you.”

“I think I’m flattered.  And weird?  Then we’re weird together.  I kinda like that.  We, together.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“We should probably go up to the observation deck, though.”

“People are gonna talk, you and me alone up there.”

“Let them.  Stark employees have to sign an NDA that they won’t share any information or images of any of the Avengers.  Unless we give explicit permission.  Like if I agree to take a selfie with someone.  Trust me when I say the Stark Legal department keeps a lid on it.”

“What about other boats on the harbor?”

“I can’t do anything about them, I guess.  So I’ll have to be a gentleman when we get up top.”

“Pity.”

“I know.”

“I get it, though.  But this, kissing.  We need to do more of it.  And soon.”

“I agree.  On the way back.”

“Okay.”

&&&

Plans moved forward for Steve to buy the theatre, and he allowed Stark PR to create an event around him taking possession of it.  They did a whole thing that was picked up by the local stations, and hit the national news that night.  By three in the afternoon that day, he was trending on Twitter, and photos and video of the announcement had flooded Instagram.

Over the next couple of days, he did the interview circuit, first local New York shows, and then he got more traction on national and syndicated programs.  Each time, he made a plea for anyone from his time who remembered the Brigham, or who was part of the queer scene of the 1930s and 1940s to get in touch with him via the theatre.  

Meeting Ellen was fun, he decided. She had a puckish sense of humor and she wasn’t overwhelmed by the legend of Captain America.  She settled in immediately to interview Steve Rogers, with humor and respect.  Before they started the taping, she asked Steve if had any special connections to the LGBTQIA community in New York, and he answered that he did, but he wasn’t ready yet to go into it.  She nodded and backed off.  She did toss out some questions when he mentioned his search for people from his time.

“Why is it you’re looking for folks from that time period?”

“Well, a, the theatre was altered in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  So we’re looking for people who might remember it when it was in its prime.  And b, where we want to make this an LGBTQIA center, I thought having some historical context would be helpful.  Queer culture may have galvanized around the riots at Stonewall Inn, but there’s a rich and storied history to it in New York that goes much further back.  We’d like to showcase that as part of the theatre renovation.  There’s nothing that connects more than stories told by living people.  Plus, it’d be really nice to hang out with people my own age.”

&&&

Chapter Text

Steve had been losing hope of ever finding anyone who remembered not just the Brigham, but Miz Delilah’s.  And then the call came from California, from a theatrical nursing home outside Hollywood.  Steve called Bucky to find out if he’d be free, and the two of them were booked on a commercial flight the next day.  Pepper cancelled the reservation, provided a Stark jet, and gave Steve a key to Tony’s Malibu home with instructions to enjoy the view.

&&&

“Wow.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit much.”

“No, it’s great.  Kinda feel like a princess.”

“A princess, huh?”

“Big, handsome fella takes me on an exciting trip in a fancy plane with top shelf scotch, gourmet in-flight meals, wines and dines me, makes me feel all fluttery.  Princess, baby,” Bucky concluded with a delighted grin.

Steve smiled back and leaned across and kissed him.  

“What was that for?” Bucky asked as they broke apart.

“You always see the good. You are always delighted and amazed.  You see the world through better eyes.  I need that view. You -“

“If you’re gonna say ‘you complete me’, babe, I’m just gonna have to kiss you and then laugh in your face.  Cos that’s even cheesier than your old movies.”

“You like my movies.”

“I like you in spandex.  I liked that outfit.  You still got it?”

“It’s a little decrepit.  I got a new one, though.  Only got a little Chitauri schmutz on it.”

“Well, you’re keeping that outfit, right?  How about a fashion show, huh?  Do a little runway action, little twirl, camp it up -“

“You don’t think I can.”

“Big macho guy like you -“

“I was a little guy first.”

“So they say. He was cute.  You’re cute now.”

“I was more than cute.  I was fabulous.  I was one of Miz Delilah’s -“ Steve cut himself off abruptly.  

“Miz Delilah’s what?  You’ve mentioned her so many times, but you haven’t really told me much about her.”

“The club.  It was hers.  She’d welcome every person to the club personally.  If she didn’t think you belonged, she wouldn’t let you in.  But if she did ... she made it a home.”

“And you’ve already said that it was home.  So you were what, one of her little ducklings?  Lemme guess, you worked the club - waiter?”

Steve shrugged.  “Sometimes waitress.  Sometimes ... yeah.”

“It’s okay, you know.”

“What?”

“That you keep a little mystery.  I mean, I haven’t shared the fruits of my brief straight macho period with you, after all.”

“Now you’ve piqued my interest.”

“Isn’t that the point of mystery?”

Steve looked at Bucky and shook his head in exasperation.  Then he leaned across and kissed Bucky again, lightly, letting his hand gently cup his cheek.  “You’re a little shit,” he whispered fondly.

“Just now figuring that out?  Honey, are you in for a ride.”

&&&

“Why have I never seen this show?”

“Probably because your teammates think you’re an uptight straight dude from the ‘40s and have no idea you served cocktails in an underground queer club in Brooklyn.”

“You might have something there.  JARVIS, please add RuPaul’s Drag Race to my DVR.  And add it to the rotation for communal lounge viewing.”

“You like to live dangerously.”

“Curious to see who’ll get the hint.  I really do enjoy watching Tony swallow his tongue.”

&&&

They arrived at the Stark Malibu landing field at dusk, cruising over the light-encrusted bowl that was Los Angeles, circling so they approached from the ocean toward the width expanse of the home hugging the bluff.

“See?  Princess,” Bucky whispered as he and Steve pressed their noses to the window, watching the legendary Stark home grow larger in their views.

“In that case, maybe I’m one, too.  This is Tony’s place, after all.”

“We can be princesses together, Steve,” Bucky said softly, reaching out to thread his fingers with Steve’s.  Steve leaned forward, pressing against Bucky, and kissed his cheek softly.  

“Okay.”

&&&

“A car will come around at 10 a.m. to take you to the facility.  The kitchen is fully stocked, as is the bar.  Miss Potts confirmed you may select any bedroom, but she recommends the master suite for the best view of the sunrise.”

“She does, does she?” Bucky smiled mischievously.  “How many bedrooms are there to choose from?”

“Thirteen, sir.  Mister Stark prefers to defy conventional superstition.”

“I know we haven’t got ‘there’ yet, Steve.  But I wouldn’t mind a night of cuddling and waking up to a beautiful view with you.”

Steve looked at Bucky, a small smile on his lips.  “I can’t imagine anything more beautiful than the view I have right now.”

“Is that a yes?”

“That’s a hell yes,” Steve replied, pulling Bucky into his arms, kissing him softly.

&&&

“We don’t have to do anything.”

“I know.”

“Kissing is nice.”

“Touching is nice, too.  I like the way you feel in my arms.”

“You make me feel ... safe.  Precious.  No one’s ever made me feel that way.”

“Not ever?”

“Uh-uh.  My relationships - such as they were - before Iraq were mostly hook-ups.  After Iraq ... well.  The arm ...”

“I want to introduce you to Tony.”

“What, Stark?”

“We are laying in his bed, looking out at his view.”

“Yeah, but he’s not here.”

“No.  But all that tech of his ... can you imagine if he applied it to prosthetics?”

“I do okay.  I don’t need to be fixed.”

“Not saying you do.  I just think ... I think you could inspire him.”

“Inspire him.”

“You inspire me.  You inspire me to want to be a better me.”

“Regular you is pretty awesome.”

“I mean I want to be authentically me.  Steve Rogers me, not Captain America.”

“You thinking of giving up the shield?”

“I come out, I may not be given a choice.   Well, no.  The shield is mine - Tony’s Dad made it for me.  Far as I know, that wasn’t government property.  But the name, the rank.”

“They can’t do that. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed.  You can’t be stripped of your rank because you come out.”

“My rank is a battlefield commission.”

“Doesn’t matter.  And trust me, you come out, you’re gonna get a shit ton more support than you could dream of.”

“Lotta hate, too.”

“Not gonna lie.  That’s true.  But if anyone can win them over, it’s you.  Being you.”  Bucky leaned in and kissed Steve’s shoulder gently. “But if you can’t be a superhero anymore, what would you want to do?”

“Art.  I wanna get back into art.  And I wanna teach.”

“Well, I may be able to help there.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  I am, after all, tenured.”

“Not college.  Kids.  Little kids.”

“I know we haven’t really started digging into how the theatre is going to be utilized, but I think making a space for art makes sense.  We got those floors above the theatre - the top floor especially gets great light.”

“Seems selfish to use it for something I want -

“It’s not.  First of all, you’re paying for the whole thing.  And if you wanna look at it this way, It’s a place for you to give back.  And there’s nothing wrong with you getting something out of it, too.”

“Yeah.  Okay.”

“Okay? I think that idea deserves more than okay “

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  I think it deserves kisses.”

“Oh.  I think you may be right.”

&&&

The Rainbow Room Estates sat nestled in a rolling green lawn, the property outlined by a stand of palm trees edging a high wrought iron fence, and banks of flowers throughout the property.  It wasn’t excessively large, but it was set apart.  Their driver announced their presence at a security kiosk at the main gate, and they were waved through onto the paved driveway quickly.  

They were let out at the front door, a grand affair in the Art Deco style, dead center of a building that was four stories high and about the length of a city block in width.  Windows at regular intervals gave a hint of large, airy rooms inside.  Steve realized he’d been here before, when it had been a private residence, back during the war and his filmmaking days.

“This was Tommy Jenkins’s place,” he said to Bucky, who was craning his neck like the tourist from New York that he was.

“The producer?  You knew him?”

“Went to a coupla parties here while I was filming.  There was the public party -“

“And the private parties for which Mr. Jenkins was famous,” finished a smiling middle-aged woman.  “He was my grandfather,” she introduced herself.  “Stella Hardy.  And I recognize you, Captain Rogers.  And your companion.  Dr. Barnes.”

“Well, I didn’t expect to be recognized.”

“Not every day I get to meet someone who’s made it a point to learn about my Granddad - and not demonize him for his lifestyle.”  She held the door open for them and waved them inside.  “Even less often do I get to meet someone who actually knew him.”

They followed her across the marble tiled foyer, under its spectacular chandelier, and into a room off the entry.  Here, the scale came down a bit more to human level, but the ceilings were still high, and the windows stretched from floor to ceiling and looked out onto gardens beyond the wall.  She waved them into seats.

“Coffee?  Tea?” she asked, her hand poised over an intercom.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Yeah, me, too.  I didn’t realize this was Jenkins’s old home.”

“He endowed it to be used for a home for those who might not be welcome elsewhere.  So over the years it’s become a haven for the marginalized in Hollywood’s aging population, predominantly LGBT, etc.  As you can imagine, we were very busy in the ‘80s when the AIDS epidemic ravaged Hollywood.”  At Steve’s frown, she elaborated, “Many care facilities and hospitals refused to provide any kind of care to patients who were positive.  Far too many people, young and old, were left to die alone for fear of infection.  That’s never been part of our mandate here.  I like to think Granddad would be proud.”

“I know he would be. This all sounds Iike the Tommy I knew.  I remember your grandmother - wonderful woman.  And your mom - she was quite the little hellion, as I recall.”

“You recall correctly.  She followed in Granddad’s footsteps, broke through the gender barrier in Hollywood to direct for major studios in the early ‘60s.  The Ida Lupino of her generation.”

“You chose not to go into show business?”

“The family business?” She shook her head.  “I chose to focus on the family legacy instead.  I get my fill of show business every day here - some of our guests are still active in film and television, and there’s a thriving theatre colony here.  A number of films - mostly shorts or docs - are produced out of here every year.  We were lucky enough to receive an endowment for a fully functional editing suite a few years ago.  And we get our share of UCLA filmmakers and interns, too.”

“Wow.  I may have to think about relocating to the West Coast when it’s my time to retire.”

“And you would be welcome here, Dr. Barnes.  But that’s not why you’re here today. You’re here to see one of our guests.”

“Yes.  I was told one of your guests remembers something about the theatre we’re renovating, and also some old friends of mine from before I shipped out.”

“That would be Miss G.  She came out from New York in the mid-‘70s.  After Divine started to make an impact in Waters’ films, but before RuPaul blew the doors off in the ‘80s.”

“Miss G.  That wouldn’t be short for Garbo, would it? As in La Garbo?”

Stella’s smile spread slowly across her features, until it lit her eyes and practically glowed.  “As a matter of fact, yes. Someone you know?”

“Someone I used to know.  I hope.  Can I see her?”

&&&

Miss G, or La Garbo as she’d been known when Steve knew her back at Miz Delilah’s, was nearly 100, and still as fierce and fabulous as Steve remembered her.

“When Captain America puts out the call, it’s my patriotic duty to answer,” she said grandly waving Steve and Bucky into seats across from the large wicker chair - decked out like a throne - in which she held court.

“La Garbo,” Steve greeted, bending over her outstretched hand to graze his lips over her heavily ringed knuckles.

He felt her tug back from him as she sat back in her seat, her chin lifted imperiously as she regarded him.  “Come closer,” she commanded, and he leaned further into her space as she tipped up his chin with a taloned forefinger.  She stared at him for a long time, and he had the chance to see up close the way that time had left its mark on her.

Her skin was still remarkably smooth, fine lines telling the tale of years gone by amidst an outstanding skin regimen.  He could see evidence of surgical assistance, tiny scars showing where skin had been nipped and tucked and stretched into a more acceptable configuration.  Her skin was smooth but tight, accentuating her cheekbones and making her eyes pop.  Her hair was a dark auburn, but he could detect the finest line of white close to her scalp.  Her lips were a pleasant shade of red, and long lashes framed bright, inquisitive eyes.

Her fingers tightened on his chin as she pinched it, turning his face from side to side. 

“Stevie?” she asked in a querulously breathy voice then, and Steve drew back slightly, his smile broadening.  He nodded as he stood up.  “Honey, none of us knew what happened to you!  One day you were working the club, the next, you up and vanished!  Miz Delilah was worried sick, had the Manfredi family looking all over for you.  They tapped their police on payroll, nobody knew a thing. She even posted a reward!  Near broke her heart, you disappearing like that.  What happened to you?”

He shrugged as he sat in front of her, taking her hands in his.  They were so much tinier than he remembered, normal sized hands folded into the massive hands he’d grown into with the serum.

“I joined the Army,” he replied with a grin.

&&& 

Learning that little Stevie Rogers had become big, buff, manly Captain America was the funniest thing La Garbo had ever heard.  And she’d once heard Fiorello LaGuardia propose marriage to her before she’d put on her face one gin-soaked evening during Prohibition.  But it also explained so much.  How sad Miz Delilah hadn’t lived to learn the truth of one of her favorite chicks.

And Stevie took it hard, learning the fate of Miz Delilah’s.  His pretty friend, on the other hand, looked like he was hearing the best kind of fairy tale - hah - and asked for permission to record her conversation with Stevie.  She patted her hair and smoothed down her gown, and nodded regally.  Then he smiled at her and started recording.

“The 1950s were not a kind era,” she said, shaking her head.  “After the war, the whole country was changing, and there wasn’t a lot of tolerance if you weren’t what ‘they’ thought you should be.  A lot of the old gang found themselves on the wrong end of police interest.  But the hardest blow was when Mr. Gold died and the theatre got sold.  His kids didn’t know about the club, so neither did the new owners.  And the way things were going in New York, Miz Delilah wasn’t willing to take the risk anymore.  She wasn’t willing to put us at risk.  She closed it down, and we all had to find new places to gather.  Some folks opened salons in their homes, but it was all down to who you knew at that point.  There was nowhere to go if you were new to the scene - nobody was gonna trust a stranger.  That was 1955.  She passed away in 1957.  Biggest damned funeral for a queen you ever saw - even some of the police came out to honor her that day.  What a cortège out to Woodlawn.  But there were some who were looking to haul us into lockup.  Thank goodness the Manfredis were there that day.  I never knew what the connection was exactly, but the Manfredis always had Miz Delilah’s back.  I don’t know if I would’ve survived a trip out to Rikers, you know?  Refined lady like me?  A lot of us feared for our lives, but we came out in force that day to honor her.  We saw her off in style.”

“Everything’s still there.  It’s like she turned off the lights for the night, and never came back.”

“That’s pretty much what happened, sweetie.  I’m glad nobody’s ruined it all.”

“I bought the theatre.  I bought the whole building.”

Miss G felt her heart clench at the thought of little Stevie Rogers come back to the club, owning it.  “You gonna reopen it?”

He nodded solemnly.  “It’s one of the reasons I hoped to find someone, anyone, who remembered.  It wouldn’t do to reopen if I couldn’t also tell the story. Miz Delilah’s buried at Woodlawn.  As Miz Delilah, or ...?”

“Oh, no.  They insisted on her legal name.  You’ll find her waiting for you under the name of Henry Atkins.”

“Do you know the legal names of any of the others?  I’d like to track down as many as I can, get their stories, say hello ...”

“There wouldn’t be many left at this point, sweetie.  But Miz Delilah would want me to give you everything I know.  How about you escort me back to my rooms, hmm?  I know everyone will be scandalized, a strapping young man like you in my boudoir, but that’s where I keep my diary and appointment books.”

Stevie’s smile could light the New York skyline for a month at least.  He always did have such a beautiful smile, but Miss G remembered that more than likely, you’d get that surly lower lip and a grimace out of him more often that not.  She was glad to see the boy had learned to loosen up a bit.  Steve helped her out of her chair and into the wheeled menace, his friend trailing behind as Steve asked about various people they’d known back in the day.  

She beckoned him close and he leaned in like the good boy he was.  “He your fella?” she asked, hooking a thumb toward where the other young man trailed behind.

“Working on it, yeah.”

“He know about, you know?”

“Not yet.  He knows I have a connection to Miz Delilah, but he doesn’t know it all.  But soon, I think.”

“That’s good.  Secrets don’t do a romance much good in the long run.  He’s got a pretty smile.  And the way he looks at you when you don’t know he’s looking?  He’s a keeper, Stevie.”

Steve leaned in and put a soft kiss to her cheek, and it just made her day. 

&&&

Chapter Text

Miss G had some information, and Steve fed it all to JARVIS as soon as they got back to the house.  He’d left Miss G with a promise to come back before they left California, and he was hoping to take her out for the day.  He also touched base with Kasey Collins with the names of his old friends, and a request to make a sizable donation to the Rainbow Room Estates.

“Anonymous or do you want to do a named endowment?”

 “Which is better for them?”

“Honestly, the publicity value of your name could be advantageous to them.  Plus it creates another connection between you and the community.”

“Okay.  Sounds good to me.  Think your team can find anything on those names?”

“Well, if you’ve got JARVIS working on them, he’ll probably locate info before any of us humans could. But I’ll put out some feelers in the entertainment and drag communities here with their stage names.  Sadly, the odds are that most of these people have passed on in the meantime.  I’ve got an intern I’m gonna unleash on the library and press archives, see if they can find anything in the non-digitized resources JARVIS won’t be able to access.”

“Thanks, Kasey.  I really appreciate it.  Got some ideas on how we could present this view into the queer culture I grew up with, and the more info we can pull together, the better.  These were people who mattered, who made a difference, and yet history has all but erased them. That’s a wrong I intend to right.”

“Steve, I can honestly say it’s my pleasure to do what I can to help you in this.  I’ll get the wheels moving on that donation.  And I’ll get that intern working on the research angle.  You’ll be back when?”

“Gonna stay out here another day or two, I think.  I want to take Miss G out for the day, and I got some respects to pay - I haven’t been to LA since 1943 when I was churning out a new picture every coupla weeks.  Maybe you could time the donation to arrive after we leave?”

Kasey chuckled.  “Yeah, of course.  Why stick around so people can thank you, huh?”

“Not doing it for thanks, so no need to stick around for it.  And I think that’s my cue to say goodbye.  Thanks again, Kasey.  I’ll let you know when we’re heading back.”

&&&

They opted to stay in that night, choosing to make dinner in the spacious kitchen rather than go out to enjoy Malibu or LA nightlife.  As partners in the theatre renovation, they could’ve had a nice, sedate night out without drawing attention to themselves, but staying in meant they didn’t have to monitor everything they said, or guard how they looked at each other.  Over the two months they’d been dating, they’d fallen into some comfortable rhythms as they got to know each other.  Although Steve had begged off on having one of Tony’s on-call chefs come out to the house to cater for them, Pepper had arranged for a number of outstanding meals to be prepared and left in the refrigerator for them to cook if they wanted to.  So they settled in to grill some excellent steaks, and sat on the terrace overlooking the ocean with their dinners and wine.  Steaks cooked to perfection and side dishes organized, they were now sitting in side by side loungers with their food and drink arrayed on a table in front of them.

“Do you miss it?”

“What?”

“Being able to get drunk.”

“Sometimes.  I didn’t drink much before the serum.  I was literally a lightweight, barely a hundred pounds.  And with all the shit that was wrong with me, it didn’t take much to get me drunk, or beyond that, sick.  Now I can drink as much as I want to, but it doesn’t do anything for me.  So I drink for the taste.  Fortunately, that means that I can benefit from Tony’s excellent wine cellar,” Steve raised his glass with a smile, and sipped at the dark red liquid.  “Say what you will about Stark excess, but he knows how to pick a good vintage.  Or maybe that’s just Pepper.”

“My money’s on Pepper.  That woman personifies class.”

“To Pepper,” Steve agreed, lifting his glass again to toast his friend.

“And princesses,” Bucky agreed, clinked his glass against Steve’s, and closed his eyes to savor the taste of the wine.

They ate in silence for a while, enjoying the excellent cut and the delicious side dishes that had been created for them.  Finally, Bucky asked another question.  “Do you miss it?  The time before the ice, I mean.  Before the serum.”

Steve paused before answering.  This could be the moment, he thought.  This could be the moment where he revealed all his secrets to Bucky, exposed the raw core of who he was.  And he wanted to.  He wanted Bucky to know him completely, without reservation and without limit.

But he took a moment to draw a delaying breath and realized that the sentiment might be there, but this wasn’t the right place, nor the right time.  He wasn’t in the right place within himself, either.  So he replied with a simple answer, not quite impersonal, but short of the truth.  But something that was appropriate for where they were, physically and emotionally.  It wasn’t cowardice that stilled his tongue.  It was an awareness that this was a special conversation, and it needed to take place in a special place, at a special time.  Steve felt himself tingle with anticipation, looking forward to that moment.  But for now, he could offer an answer that was still personal, still true.

“I miss my friends.  There’s comfort in the familiar.  I don't miss the hate, the judgment.  And I had to deal with more than just being queer - people assumed because of my size, my disabilities that I was somehow sub-human.  But all that’s here now, in this time, too.  Maybe not as obvious, but it’s here.”

“Yeah.  I like to think it’s better.  And then I remember how my colleague Dr. Rachel Mills - doctor of philosophy no less, a real PhD - comes in early every day so she doesn’t get stuck in the satellite parking lot.  Because people are assholes and fucking creeps who get off on harassing and threatening someone because they’re a woman, and a woman of color.  I might get my share of jerks because I’m gay, but being male and white buys me a lot of safety where she doesn’t have it.”

“That definitely woulda meant a shiner and a bloody nose for me back in the day. No way could I’ve passed that by.”

“How many times?”

“What?”

“Did you break your nose?”

“I could claim more times than I could count, but, you know - eidetic memory.  Fifty-seven times before the serum. I started young.”

“How is that even possible?”

“I don’t like bullies.”

Bucky snorted at that, then grinned as he took a sip of his wine.  “You’re something else, Rogers,” he said fondly.

“Yeah?”

Bucky set his glass down and tilted his head to regard Steve thoughtfully.  He nodded slowly. “You never cease to surprise me.  I mean, part of a relationship is getting to know someone.  But you ... nothing about you is expected.  Every minute I spend with you ... it’s full of the most wonderful surprises.”

“Wow.  Wow, that’s a pretty high bar.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, it is.  You’ve spoiled me.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.  No other man is ever going to measure up to Steve ‘Fight Me’ Rogers,” Bucky replied with a grin as he hoisted his glass up in salute to the man in question.

Steve turned toward Bucky then, feeling something take root in his chest and bloom.  He leaned over the arm of the lounger, reaching out with his hand to gently capture Bucky’s chin so he could turn his face just so.  Then he surged up and kissed him, pouring promise and demand into the kiss, feeling Bucky’s answering yes and now as he returned Steve’s kiss.  When they broke apart, both of them were breathing a little hard, eyes a little glazed, lips a little swollen. “Then I guess I’d better make sure you never need another man,” Steve said softly, reaching up to smooth back an errant strand of hair that fluttered across Bucky’s forehead.

“Guess you’d better,” Bucky agreed, equally softly, then closed his eyes and kissed Steve back.

That something in Steve’s chest felt a lot like love.

&&&

“I don’t know why Pepper thought that view was so special,” Bucky was saying.  “This one is so much better,” he added, pressing a kiss into Steve’s naked pec. 

His fingers drew lazy shapes on Steve’s skin as he dragged his lips across that pec, and Steve could feel sparks and flame erupt everywhere that Bucky touched him.  Like the Vita-Rays that ripped his body apart and remade him so many years ago, Bucky’s touch broke Steve down and brought him back to glorious life.  He was addicted.  He would die if Bucky ever stopped touching him.

His hand flew up and caught Bucky’s, flattening the palm against his heart, where he held it gently until Bucky looked up at him.  “Nothing could compare to you,” he whispered, and Bucky smiled, leaning up for a kiss.

There had been so many kisses.  He’d lost count of how many because they all blended one into the other.  A night of kisses.  A kiss that lasted all night.  And now a morning of kisses.  He could spend the rest of his life kissing Bucky Barnes and never be satisfied.

Over the past two months, there had never been a sleepover.  There’d never been more than kissing, a little groping.  Some hand over clothing action.  They’d always parted, wanting more, but with the unspoken agreement that they weren’t quite ready to take their relationship into the physical.

That Steve wasn’t ready to take it there, really.  Because once they did, he knew he’d have to open the world in which they existed to more than just Steve, Bucky, and the goddess that was Pepper Potts.  Even Kasey didn’t know that Steve was dating Bucky.  And so far, none of the Avengers or SHIELD knew that Captain America - Steve Rogers - was queer.

Their first night at Stark Malibu they’d exchanged a few kisses and Bucky had fallen asleep, the  travel and the excitement catching up with him.  Steve had lain next to him watching him sleep for a while until he too succumbed.  But last night, after the day with Miss G, once they’d started kissing, they couldn’t stop.  They’d paused to feed each other, both of them loathe to waste such amazing food.  But as soon as the food was done, they’d hastily dropped dishes in the sink and practically raced each other to the bedroom.  And then they’d kissed some more.

Somewhere along the way, shirts had been removed and they had reveled in the sensation of glorious skin upon skin.  Then shoes.  Socks.  Pants.

It was a moment of truth for them both when they faced each other, both stripped down to their underwear - Steve in boxers, Bucky in briefs.  They’d looked at each other long and silent.  And longing.  Then Steve had tentatively reached for the waistband on Bucky’s briefs, and Bucky had smiled, hooking his thumbs to shove them down.

Steve wasted no time following suit, and then they were tangled together on the bed, every inch of their bodies exposed, warm, solid, and so very much there.  Without conscious thought, they’d started to move against each other, finding a heady rhythm that soon brought them both blissfully over the edge.

Then they’d stared at each other in disbelief.  There’d been no decision to make this “the night.”  They hadn’t planned to take their relationship to a more physical level during this trip.  And yet it had happened so naturally, so perfectly, that they’d both laughed in delight at how well they fit together.

That giddy joy in finding their person, their other half, still bubbled through them both. Steve could not remember ever being as happy as he was in this sheltered moment, away from expectations, away from villains and space whales and Senators looking to make a name for themselves.  Away from a world that expected - no, demanded - that he be someone he wasn’t.  

So he kissed Bucky some more.  And then even more, just for good measure.  Because he could.  And he wanted to so very, very much.

&&&

Not surprisingly, they were running late when they arrived at the Rainbow Room Estates to pick up Miss G, and she smirked knowingly at the two boys who had trouble paying attention to anything but each other.  They each blushed in their own way, Steve’s fair Irish skin staining bright red at the continuous barrage of innuendo Miss G tossed their way.  But he couldn’t deny a word of it.  He was besotted with Bucky Barnes, and couldn’t wait to get him alone again.

But wait he did, while they squired Miss G around to all her favorite places in LA and Hollywood.  They dropped her back at the Estates after a delicious late lunch, during which she’d held forth on the Hollywood Steve had missed by almost two decades.  She gave Steve the best hug he could remember receiving since Sarah Rogers had fallen ill.  He wasn’t too proud to cry then, hanging onto her like somehow he could hold back time itself.  They promised each other to write, meaning it sincerely in the moment, and then they parted, Miss G to her afternoon nap, Steve and Bucky to their continuing respect tour.

It was an exhausting circuit of some of Hollywood’s most famous burial spots, and one that was quietly nestled in a community church graveyard in Fresno.  Bucky talked about what he knew of each of the Hollywood personalities they visited, asking gentle but curious questions about Steve’s relationships with each of them.

But when they got to Fresno, he just wound his hand into Steve’s, and stood there in silence, letting Steve grieve.  Then, like he knew that Steve was ready for comfort, he turned and pulled Steve into his arms, his hands soothing as they rubbed Steve’s back as Steve cried.

“They’re all gone,” he whispered.  “Jim was the last.  I missed him by a year.”  Steve let go of Bucky then, stepping back so he could look at the freshly graven headstone.

Bucky caught his hand up in his again.  “Margaret Carter’s still around.  Have you been to see her?”

“Not yet.”

“Where is she?”

“DC.”

“When you’re ready, I’ll take you.  I have friends in DC so I can drop you off, go visit, and come back for you -“

“No.  No, I want you to meet her.  I want her to meet you.  She’s the closest thing I have to family -“

“Why, Mister Rogers!  Are you telling me you wanna take me home and introduce me to your family?” Bucky joked with a terrible Southern belle accent, his hands fluttering inanely as he acted out - badly - the part of the blushing maid.

“I want that,” Steve answered fervently.  “You have no idea how much I want that, Buck.”  He lifted their joined hands to his lips and pressed a kiss into Bucky’s knuckles.

“Then we’ll just have to make it happen, baby.  Although, you may rethink it when you see my driving,” Bucky warned with a laugh.

Steve just stood there, staring at Bucky, feeling warmth blossom in his chest.  More of that warmth that had been growing and spreading.  He smiled.  “Well, then, I guess I’ll have to ask Pepper to help us arrange transportation.  After I introduce you to the rest of the Avengers.”

Bucky gasped and stared at Steve, his mouth open in shock.  “Steve -“

Steve nodded toward where Jim Morita lay at his final rest.  “Jim knew.  So did the rest of the Howlies.  That I was queer.  It didn’t matter to them.  They each had their quirks - and no, I’m not gonna tell.  Those are their secrets to keep.  But mine?  I shared that much with them.  We were brothers, and secrets have a way of separating men who have to rely on each other the way we did.  So we shucked ‘em and told our truths to each other around the campfire.  Freezing our asses off hunting down Hydra in an Austrian wood.

“Now, I got a different team.  We fought back aliens, for fuck’s sake.  It’s time I told them my truth.  Time I learned theirs.  And you are part of my truth, Bucky Barnes.  I hope that’s okay.”

Bucky stared at him for a moment longer, then grabbed his face and kissed him soundly.  “More than okay, you sap.  Now take me home.  Malibu home.  I gotta show you how okay that is, and I’m not doing it in fucking Fresno.”

&&&

Chapter Text

The remainder of the trip was spent doing vaguely touristy things, with one last visit with Miss G before they headed back to New York.  As they loaded their gear onto the jet, Steve texted Kasey to let her know it was okay to release the donation to the Rainbow Room Estates.

The trip back to New York was mellow, each of them passing the time reading, checking texts, and generally catching up on the world that had continued spinning while they were in California.  It was comfortable and oddly intimate, like they had settled into each other’s orbits so perfectly, no greater declaration of attraction was necessary.  Occasionally, one of them would reach out to the other, and their hands would twine, until one or the other of them had need of that hand, and then they’d part.  They’d been in the air over two hours when Steve announced, “I want more of this.”

Bucky looked up in confusion, and Steve smiled and shook his head. “This.  You and me.  Together like we belong together.”

“Got news for ya, babe - pretty sure we do. Belong together.”

“I’m starting to think that you’re the reason I went into the ice.  So I could be here with you.”

“Okay.  Romantic and kind of weird.  But we’re weird together, right?”

“Yeah.  Yes.  And speaking of that ... I want you to meet the Avengers.”

“Yeah, we talked about that.  When the time is right -“

“As soon as we land.  I want to introduce you to them.  I want them to know how important you are to me.”

“You sure?”

“Is that okay?”

“If you’re ready, yes.  If you’re doing it because you think you have to -“

“Not because I have to. Because I want to.  Because I don’t want to sneak around, and I want you to be able to hang out with the people in my life.  I want ... I want so much, actually.  Maybe too much -“

“Wanting to live your life on your own terms isn’t wanting too much, Steve.  I’ll be there with you when you come out to your teammates.  I’m honored that you want to do this with me.  ‘Cos Steve - I want more of this too.”

&&&

Once the jet touched down on the roof of Stark Tower, Steve and Bucky gathered their stuff, organized it so it was balanced, and by mutual consent, linked hands to walk down the ramp to the roof.  Steve didn’t know if anyone would be waiting there, but he wanted to make the statement anyway.  Plus, he just wanted to hold Bucky’s hand.  Preferably forever.

So he was kind of gratified to find Tony and Bruce waiting at the foot of the ramp.  It was almost funny watching two pairs of eyes flick almost immediately to where his and Bucky’s hands were joined, then lift in synch to take in Bucky himself, then shunt back to Steve.  Each of them raised an eyebrow in unison - Bruce his left, Tony his right - and then dropped them, obviously in an attempt to appear non-judgmental.

Steve let go the breath he’d been holding, feeling the nervousness and yes, fear, bleed away.  Then he could feel the grin bloom on his face as he felt Bucky’s fingers tighten around his.

“So this must be the famous Dr. Barnes I’ve barely heard you mention,” Tony greeted with a nod.

Bucky grinned at that and replied, “And you must be the infamous Tony Stark who shows up on every fucking channel on my Roku - including Crunchyrolll.”

Steve could see the grin struggling to stay contained, and then Tony let it fly free, shrugging.  “Yeah, well.  Natural born mecha and all.”

Bucky snickered at that, and Tony’s grin widened.  Steve found himself looking forward to the battle of wits between his boyfriend and his teammate. 

Then Bruce cleared his throat and strode up the ramp with his hand extended.  “Dr. Barnes.  Dr. Banner.  Call me Bruce.”

“Call me Bucky,” Bucky greeted, accepted the preferred hand. “Now you I’ve heard of.  My friend Sam is a huge fan.”

“Of the big green rage monster?”

“Of your work in particle physics. Any chance I can convince you to join us some Friday night for flights and fries at the Rat?  That would earn me enough brownie points with Sam that he’ll take my faculty chaperone duties for six months, guaranteed.”

“Yay, particle physics, yeah. Gamma radiation, too, but he doesn’t like to talk about it much.  But hey, arc reactor technology, here.  Invented a whole new element,” Tony protested, jerking a thumb at himself while Bruce flipped him off and led Bucky down the ramp, chatting amiably about university politics and the worst social obligations.  Steve held back and watched them all go toward the elevator fondly, until he heard Tony call out, “Get the lead out, Spandex, or we’re keeping him for ourselves!”

With a chuckle, Steve trotted to catch up with them, just in time to hear Tony ask Bucky if he’d heard the one about Steve jumping on a grenade at Camp Lehigh.

He honestly could not believe that this was his life now. And he felt suddenly profoundly lucky. 

&&&

“Well, I guess the theatre project makes more sense now,” Bruce was saying as he oversaw the popping corn exploding in the unit that Tony had designed.

“How so?” Steve asked from where he was pulling down big bowls from the topmost shelves.  He swore Tony used the suit so he could fly up as high as possible to force Steve to actually stretch to grab the damned things.

“The theatre itself made sense, it’s part of your personal history.  But the specific beneficiaries.”

“The LGBTQIA community and at-risk youth?  Those had already been chosen when I came on-board.  They were definitely part of the attraction, but mostly I wanted to see the theatre come back to life.”

“I’m betting the brass had no idea.”

“That I was queer?  I don’t know if Philips ever figured it out or not. He kept a lot close to the chest.  He didn’t care if I painted myself purple and danced a jig in the buff so long as I was an effective soldier when it came to fighting Nazis and Hydra.  And kept it off the newsreels, of course.  But those crews were mostly propaganda anyway - the Joint Chiefs would never have allowed compromising footage of their super soldier to make it home.”

Bruce chuckled at that.  “Y’know, Steve, I’m really happy for you.  Barnes seems like a nice guy, and he really brings the little shit out in you.  Makes me really look forward to these movie nights, y’know?  Having someone else to take the piss out of Tony?  Gold.  Having two of you?    You just made my life.”

&&&

“Your friends are weird,” Bucky murmured as he burrowed more closely into Steve’s side.  They lay sprawled on Steve’s big sectional couch - the couch where he usually sat primly on one corner cushion - cuddled up together with the lights off, and a soft glow from where some nature show played on Steve’s big TV, the sound turned down.  They’d had a fun evening with Bruce and Tony watching a couple of movies together, gnoshing on snacks and good beer and alcohol, and finally after Bucky had fallen asleep and ended up with his face smooshed into the throw pillows, Tony had called it, allowing Steve to carry Bucky to the elevator while Tony made Sleeping Beauty jokes.

What Bucky didn’t know about the encounter was probably a good thing, but odds were, Tony would recount the whole sorry mess the next time he saw Buck.

In the meantime, Steve was enjoying Bucky’s sort of second wind so they could be together alone in his apartment, and he enjoyed the feeling of him in his arms.  But his words, they gave him pause.

“Huh.”

“You hadn’t noticed?”

“I never really thought of them as friends.  But ... yeah.  I guess they are.  And yes, they are weird.  I noticed that first.”

“When does the god come to visit?”

“Thor? He’s in England right now.  His girlfriend is big in astrophysics.  That earn you anymore brownie points with your friend Sam?”

“Hmm, maybe not.  But I can think of a few people in Cultural Anthro and Humanities who would probably volunteer to do my laundry for a year if I could introduce them to Thor.”

“You always this mercenary about meeting new people?”

“I never told you what meeting you netted me.”

“Um, no.”

“This amazing boyfriend.  Super cute, kind, kinda nerdy, and just about fucking perfect.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

That earned Bucky a sweet kiss that turned into two, and five, and before long they were breathless, nuzzling each other softly trading lazy kisses.

“So, you’ve met some of the team.  Pepper is over in the UK for a conference, but I want to introduce you when she gets back.  She’s gonna love you.”

“I already love her for the way she supports you.”

“Yeah.  She’s my first real friend in this time.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to have her.  And you.”

Bucky smiled and kissed Steve on the cheek.  “I can’t wait to meet her.  She and I have so much to talk about.”

“I think I’m afraid.  But, hey, you know, Nat and Barton are off on SHIELD business. But when they get back -“

“So I should be prepared for a grilling.”

“By Nat, yeah. Potential shovel talk.”

“Noted.”

“Barton will probably drag you to the animal shelter to pick out a dog.”

“How come you don’t have one?”

“In this place?  Poor thing would lose it before I could get it to the lobby.”

“Well, maybe you should think about getting a place of your own.  You know - closer to the street.  Closer to real people.  Closer to me,” Bucky added with a shrug.

“Yeah?”

“Just sayin’.  You light up every time you come to Brooklyn.”

“It’s home.”

“Yet you live here.  Why not come home, Steve?”

“Huh.  Yeah.  Why not?”

&&&

Chapter Text

“Dr. Barnes,” Kasey Collins greeted Bucky as he came hesitantly into her office.  She waved him toward a chair, and he sank into it, surprised at how comfortable it was.  He expected it to be torturous, he guessed, like some kind of punishment.

“JARVIS said you wanted to see me?” he answered, pleased that his voice didn’t crack and make him sound like an adolescent.  Lawyers made him twitchy.  Vestiges of a misspent youth and an over abundance of eggs and toilet paper one Halloween ...

“Captain Rogers wanted me to go over some paperwork with you, and I thought as long as you were already here, we could get it out of the way.”

“How did you know I was here?”

“Captain Rogers.  He didn’t tell you I’d want to see you?”

“He’s at some Avengers briefing with Fury this morning.  We agreed I’d stick around so we could go to the theatre - the Brigham - together.  We both wanted to check on progress - and yes, I realize I’m babbling.  What’s this about?”

“Very simply put, it’s about the Brigham.  Captain Rogers wants you put on the deed of the theatre as a full owner, and also wants you made an officer of the foundation.  He wants to ensure that should anything happen to him, line of succession as it were would be secure.  He wants no doubt that you have full rights to the property and the funds to restore it.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to him,” Bucky said, but in his gut, he felt a cold, heavy sensation.

“We can hope.  But his ... job, i suppose you could say, is dangerous.  He wants to make sure you’re taken care of.  He wants to make sure that the project doesn’t end if he ... does.”

“You’re not very good at this, are you?”

“Touchy feely stuff?  No.  My partner teases me all the time about it.  It’s not that I lack empathy, it’s that I don’t really know to express it.  That’s why I’m in corporate law.  But Captain Rogers is part of the gig.”

“He gets under your skin,” Bucky guessed.

“He makes me want to be a better me,” she agreed ruefully.

“Yeah, I get that.  Okay, whatever Steve wants, Steve gets.  But he and I are going to have a long talk about safety measures and the importance of coming home.”

“May I be frank?  I think you may be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.  You give him a reason to come home.”

“He tell you about us?”

“Mostly guesses.  But he did volunteer that he wanted all privileges of next of kin extended to you.  As we know, the law doesn’t recognize that completely at this point, but in terms of his wishes regarding his estate, it’s been properly recorded.  I can see for myself how much happier he is with you.  You’re good for him.  I think you could convince him to take greater care.”

As Bucky signed the documents she slid forward for his review and signature, he wondered what it would take to cause Steve Rogers to put himself first, so he could plan a future with the asshole.

It didn’t really surprise Bucky that a future with Steve was something he wanted very, very much.

&&&

“I don’t want to be your heir,” Bucky said when Steve leaned over to kiss him when they got together later that day,

“Sorry?” Steve asked as he hauled back, blinking.

“I said I don’t want to be your heir. It’s okay to share stuff with me, but I don’t want to be handed a folded up flag by the President because you don’t know how to duck, punk.”

“Okay, that’s, um, weirdly very specific.  Don’t think the current President would be wiling to recognize a same sex partner for Captain America.  Which is why I wanted that paperwork done.  So you are recognized.  So you have rights, even if the law doesn’t recognize what we are to each other -“

“I get that.  Baby, I do.  And I like the idea of commitment, of being your partner.  What I don’t like is how casually you view dying.  If we’re gonna be together, I need you to want to live.  To want to come home to me.  To want to grow old with me.  I need to know that I’m important enough to you that you’ll fight to come home to me.”

“I ...”

“You take too many goddamned risks, Steve.  You need to do better.  Think things through to find the way that brings you home to me in one piece.  Put that strategic intelligence to work on staying alive and whole for me.  You gotta promise me that.”

Steve stared a Bucky, silent, his face stricken.  Tears glistened in his eyes, and his lower lip seemed to wobble.  Then a tear slipped free, and Steve suddenly grabbed Bucky’s face and pulled him into a searing, desperate kiss.  When they broke apart, he continued to hold Bucky’s face, tenderly, gently now, and whispered, “Yes.  It’s been so long since I had someone to care ... I forgot what it felt like.  But you and Pepper ... I’ve never been good about self-preservation but I promise I’ll try.  You are important to me.  Important enough to fight for, important enough to come home to.”

“Yeah?”

“God, yeah.”

“I’m gonna hold you to that, Rogers.  Now, much as I enjoy kissing you, we did promise the team we’d check in at the theatre.”

“Yeah.  And I want to check out the club.  Based on what Miss G said, I think I have an idea on where Miz Delilah mighta stored my stuff.”

“Oooh!  Treasure hunt!”

“You have no idea.”

&&&

The renovation team was working in the theatre proper, focused on removing as much of the “enhancements” added by later owners as they could.  Steve had sketched out a number of drawings showing how parts of the theatre should look, so the team was working to peel away the years in hopes of revealing the jewel beneath.

Steve had very specifically forbidden any entry into Miz Delilah’s.  Bucky understood how personal the space was to him, and knew that Steve needed to process the scene himself before he could allow strangers into what seemed to be sacred space to him. So before they’d flown to California, Bucky had personally added new locks to the interior doors that would lead down to the old speakeasy, both from the theatre and from the alley.

As he and Steve entered from the alley, he was relieved to see that the lock was unused, and even more pleased when Steve turned to give him a grateful look before putting out his palm for a key.

“Pretty sure you could break that without even thinking,” Bucky observed as he passed over a ring with two keys on it. “The other one leads to the orchestra pit.”

“When did you do this?  I hadn’t even thought about people coming down here while we were out of town.”

“I did it right after you got the call. It’s not that I don’t trust the gang, it’s just -“

“You know how important all this is to me.”  Steve smiled fondly and opened the lock. He reached in for the light switch, and smiled when the old bulbs sputtered to life.  “When we start work down here, the electrics are the first thing to be upgraded.  They’re holding out so far, but who knows how long we’ve got before the old knob and tube sparks the wrong way.”

“Yeah. I figured if there’s anything to be found down here, you’re the one who should find it.  And as for the wiring, say the word when you’re ready.  Theodora’s team is the best - I’m sure she’d love to get her hands on wiring this old.”

Steve barked a laugh at that as they made their way through the club.  “I’ll remember that.  Let’s see what there is to see first.  Miss G talked about Miz Delilah packing up my stuff when I didn’t come back.  I’m betting she put aside stuff for others, too - even before the serum, some of the folks who worked here were getting called up.  I wouldn’t have been the last to go, I don’t think.  I want some time to go through it, figure out what to do with it before I let other people in.”

Over the past couple of months, they’d spent only a brief amount of time in Miz Delilah’s.  Both of them had lives, jobs, outside the theatre project - Bucky had his classes, and Steve had being an Avenger. The time they could spend at the Brigham was limited to start with, and there was so much to do in the theatre above.  They’d also agreed that the renovation of the club would come later, when Steve had finished deciding how he wanted to do it - whether it would be a memorial, or a living tribute.  Bucky was really hoping that Steve would decide to make it a living tribute - he fantasized about the place being alive with music and beautiful people from the community mingling and dancing.  Of dancing with Steve.

Of doing everything with Steve.

But not ignoring Steve, because not paying attention could result in his own broken nose if he stopped suddenly and he wasn’t paying attention.  Like now.  Bucky took a step back and rubbed at his nose while Steve laughed at him.  “Wool gathering?”

“Fantasies.  I was thinking about what it would be like to dance with you here, a big band orchestra playing something from your time -“

“Ten cents a dance,” Steve murmured softy.

“Huh?”

“Ten cents a dance,” Steve repeated with a little more confidence.  “That’s how much we charged.  Patrons bought tickets, and we settled up at the end of the night based on how many tickets each of us had in hand.  Miz Delilah took half for the orchestra and the club, so I ended up with a nickel for every dance.  In 1938, that was a lot of money.”

“You were a taxi dancer,” Bucky said then.  “You any good?”

“I know my way round a dance floor.  I can lead or I can follow.  Whichever my partner needs.”

“Yeah?  I’d like you to show me.  Where do I get my tickets?  ‘Cos I’m gonna want more than one dance, baby.”

They were still standing in the club at this point, but the space between them had shrunk to nearly nothing, Bucky’s chest practically pressed up against Steve’s, Steve’s hand settling on Bucky’s hip, as they breathed each other’s air in the suddenly charged atmosphere.

“Frankie’d start up the band, something slow at first. The guests would queue up to buy their tickets from Maxine, Miz Delilah’s lieutenant,” Steve said, his voice low as he rested his forehead against Bucky’s, hand still on Bucky’s hip as they started to sway slowly from side to side.  “The men would clutch their tickets like they were afraid someone would steal them away.  Maybe they were afraid we’d be raided before they had their chance.  I had my regulars, fellas who liked to dance with someone small, delicate.  Like a girl but not. For some, that made them feel less like they were doing something wrong, y’know?  If they could convince themselves they were dancing with a dame, then they weren’t bent.  Sometimes ...” Steve paused, and Bucky could swear he felt something shift in the air then, a subtle change in air currents or air pressure or something.  Steve took a step back, and let his hands move so they each rested on a hip bone, and Bucky could feel the sigh that moved through his bulk.  “Sometimes I’d dress for the illusion.”

“Mmmm,” Bucky murmured in response, letting his arms drift upward until they were twined around Steve’s neck, and he shifted so his cheek rested comfortably on Steve’s chest as Steve led them into a shuffling circle.  “Bet you were real pretty,” Bucky said then through a smile.

“I was.  I liked being pretty.”

Bucky lifted his head then, and let his fingers play across Steve’s impressive jawline, his thumb caressing over Steve’s lower lip.  “You’re the prettiest person I know, baby.”

“I’m big and I’m bulky now.  I can’t be pretty.”

“Who told you that?  You can be anything you want to be.”

“That’s what Miz Delilah would say.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s just that ... as tough and scary as it was, Miz Delilah gave me choices.  I could be on the outside who I was on the inside, you know?”

“Yeah.  And you don’t feel you can do that now?”

“Look at me.  I’m so big.  There’s no way I could look ... that I could look pretty.”

“Pretty.  Steve, you are goddamned gorgeous.  You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. Inside and out.”

“That’s not what I meant. But thank you.”

“I need to introduce you to Grace Jones.”

“Grace Jones.”

“And Lucy Lawless. Xena.”

“Xena?”

“Warrior queens, Steve.  Warrior queens. Tall, powerful, gorgeous.  Women who own their bodies and redefine what it means to be feminine.  Like RuPaul and the Drag Race.”

“People won’t let me ... do ... that.”

“People won’t let you.  What happened to that guy with the fifty seven broken noses?  You’ll fight for everyone else, but not yourself?”

“I ...”

Bucky let his hands slid down Steve’s arms, and took Steve’s hands in his.  “Baby, let’s go see if we can find your stuff.  And then we’re gonna sit down and have a long talk about why Steve needs to be Steve, and the world be damned, okay, baby?”

“Okay?”

“Okay.  Let’s go find your treasure.”

&&&

Chapter Text

They checked each room off the hallway, rifling carefully through the contents of drawers and wardrobes, even looking under the beds.  While they were in one of the rooms, Bucky asked casually, “Ever use one of these rooms?”

“You mean about the only safe place in the city where I could hook up with another fella?  Yes.  That bother you?”

“Were you a ...?”

“Prostitute?  No.  Didn’t need to be.  That was one of Miz Delilah’s gifts, really.  I earned a good living here.  I didn’t have to hide my interests - I met fellas here, we had fun, sometimes we even dated.  Everything was consensual and safe. She wouldn’t tolerate any rough stuff, unless both parties agreed in advance.  But when I worked here, I worked as a waiter, a taxi dancer, sometimes I even performed on stage - I do a mean Doris Day.  Judy Garland, too.”

“Oh, baby, you are my big gay hero!  Judy Garland?  I would pay honest to fuck money to see that.”

“I didn’t dress up like her, I just sang like her.  Over the Rainbow was one of my signature songs.”

“But you did cross dress on occasion.”

“Yeah.  To dance. And, um, sometimes ... to date.”

“You passed?”

“Enough we did it a coupla times.  It was scandalous and exciting and terrifying.  But it was so nice to be able to go out with my fella and be normal.  Like other couples.”

“You took a helluva risk.”

“I know.  Ignoring danger didn’t come with the serum.”

“Apparently not.  But whenever you’re ready to come out, I’ll be happy to take you out, just like other couples.  But until then, I get it, Steve.  You had to hide who you were in order to survive.  Courage didn’t come with the serum, either.  You always had that.”

“You don’t know how much I appreciate that you feel that way. That you aren’t ...”

“What, put off by it? Or -“

“I always ran the risk of being found out.  All of us did.  Like you said, I could pass.  I could pass as a woman if I tried.  I could pass as straight.  I think the fact I was always ready to get into a fight helped there.  I had a good job during the day, and I had this at night.  I did okay for myself, had good friends, a life that was better than a lot of people had.  But all it would take was one person seeing through the facade, and I coulda been beaten up.  Or worse.  Some of my friends were a little more effeminate than was good for them.  A couple didn’t make it, not after somebody got to them.  And we couldn’t even report it to the police - couldn’t even claim their bodies. Because odds were, it was the police who beat them to death.”

Steve’s hand had been tightening round the finial on the bed’s headboard, and it chose that moment to splinter in his hand, bits of wood flying.  He pulled his hand back, revealing a couple of big chunks piercing his palm, flecks of blood welling up around the punctures.  

Bucky gasped and rushed over to him, immediately flattening Steve’s palm to examine the damage.  “Baby, you’re gonna need stitches -“

“Super serum, remember?” he smiled at Bucky and nodded toward where his skin was already pushing the splinters out.  “It’s weird.  It feels weird, too.  But it really does take a lot to really hurt me.”  He winced then, shaking his head.  “Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like a sonovabitch while it’s doing its thing.”

“Still, we should clean it up -“

“Buck, I’m fine -“

“I am not hanging out with you if you’re gonna have bits of wood oozing out of you. It’s ... ugh.  It’s just ugh.”

Steve laughed then.  “Okay.  I’ll try to be less ugh-y.  Satisfied?”

“Not until we clean the yuck off.  You’re just gonna have to learn that sometimes it’s best to let your boyfriend have his way.”

“Okay.”

Bucky paused and looked up at Steve, mirth twinkling in his eyes.  “You like that, huh? A little kink there, maybe?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Buck,” Steve sassed right back.

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that.  Any chance there might be some first aid stuff down here?  And put that on your eidetic list, babe - first aid kit, some bottled water, maybe some sealed snacks for when we work down here.”

“Miz Delilah always kept some stuff in her office ...” he tailed off and then smacked himself with the heel of his hand.  “Her office. If she kept my stuff here, that’s where it would be.”

“Lead on.”

&&&

They found a stack of boxes in the closet to Miz Delilah’s office.  Each one was carefully placed on a shelving unit built into the closet, with a little plaque on each identifying the contents.  Bucky felt like he was looking into a mausoleum, a memorial to lives lost in the distant past.  Were these the effects of the people Steve talked about, the ones who were beaten and murdered for being as God made them?

Steve shoved his fist in his mouth to stifle a sob when he saw the box marked, “Stevie.” Bucky laid a gentle hand on Steve’s shoulder, squeezed enough to let him know he was there, and then stepped away to let Steve process the find how he needed to.  Instead, Bucky turned to the rest of the office, in search of something to clean up Steve’s hand.

Bucky located the ancient first aid kit in a drawer to the big old desk that dominated so much of the room.  He pried open the tin top to reveal some surprisingly intact cotton gauze, a few wooden applicators with wisps of cotton fiber hanging off them, a tin of Vaseline, a pair of forceps, a pair of unexpectedly sharp scissors, and a curiously discolored vial of something that looked like it probably had been banned by the FDA generations ago.  He picked out the forceps, gauze, and Vaseline as his best bets and turned toward where Steve was reverently pulling his box from the closet.

“Put it here,” Bucky suggested, carefully clearing the top of Miz Delilah’s desk. Everything was well preserved, probably because the club and its connected rooms hadn’t been exposed to the environment - humidity or pollutants - over the past 60 plus years.  That didn’t mean that the stuff wasn’t fragile or worth treating with respect. 

Steve placed the box on the empty desktop and took a deep breath.  He was reaching for the lid when Bucky grabbed his injured hand.  “Let me clean that first.  You don’t want to get blood and schmutz on anything meaningful.  Do you?”

“No-o,” Steve sulked, eyeing the box with something like lust. But he turned his hand over for Bucky, who quickly pulled the remaining splinters from Steve’s skin.  He wiped the palm down with a smidge of Vaseline on a swab of cotton gauze, and peered closely for a brief moment to confirm there wasn’t anything more dribbling out of Steve.

“Okay.  I’m satisfied.  Have at it.”

Steve practically tore the box lid off, and they both crowded close to peer inside.

Steve did start crying then.  Carefully nestled at the top of the box was a silver-framed photograph, of a beautiful blonde woman and a pretty blonde boy with heavily lashed blue eyes and a nose that had been broken a number of times before the photo had been taken.

“Ma, I want you to meet Bucky,” Steve breathed through his tears.  “Buck, meet my Ma.”

&&&

Chapter Text

The box indeed proved to be a treasure chest, precious beyond measure to Steve.  

The photo had sat on the vanity in Steve’s dressing room, one of the tiny alcoves behind the stage. There, he’d made a little piece of home and heaven, with favorite things and his most prized possession, the studio portrait of him and his Ma.

“She never knew about my life here.  Just that I had friends, a place where I found some happiness.  That was enough for her, you know?  When she got sick ... she went into isolation.  They wouldn’t even let me near her.  The first antibiotic to work on it was years away.  And I already had dodgy lungs, so I was at risk.  It’s a wonder I didn’t catch it in the weeks before she was diagnosed.  I did get to visit her a couple of times, with a glass wall between us.  But once she went into the sanatorium, I never got to touch her again.  And when she was too weak to come to the observation room ... I never got to say goodbye.

“But this ... this stayed with me.  I kept it here because here I was happy.  Here she could see me be happy.  I always regretted leaving her behind, but I knew Miz Delilah would keep her safe.  And she did.”

Bucky slid his arms around Steve’s mid-section, and kissed his shoulder, then hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder, turning so he could kiss his cheek and whisper in his ear.  “You’ve had some amazing people in your life, Steve.  I feel so honored that you’ve let me be a part of it, baby.”

Steve closed his hand over where Bucky’s met over his abdomen, and leaned his head back to rest against Bucky’s.  He chuckled wetly, feeling grief and loss surge up from the depths of his soul, threatening to sweep him away.  It was only the anchor of Bucky’s arms around him, the solid wall of his body pressed against his back, that kept him from disappearing entirely.  As sobs began to wrack his body, Bucky tightened his hold then, murmuring, “I got you.  I’m here, baby.  Not going anywhere.  Let it out, baby.  C’mon, baby.  Let it go.”

Steve turned in his arms then, clutching at Bucky’s back as he wept against Bucky’s shoulder, and his boyfriend rubbed his arms and back soothingly, keeping up his litany of encouragement, empowerment, understanding.

Bucky was right.  Steve had known some amazing people in his life.  Starting with his mother, the strongest and fiercest woman he’d ever known until Pepper Potts, and Miz Delilah, Abraham, the Howlies, Stark and Stark Junior, all the Avengers.  But none of them were more precious to him, not even Ma, than the man who held him now.  He just had to figure out how to tell him that.

&&&

There was so much to love about Bucky Barnes, Steve felt like he could spend the rest of his life cataloguing them all.  He thought right now, though, Bucky’s calm acceptance of everything Steve threw at him was the thing he loved most.  Because in Bucky’s acceptance, Steve felt more able to accept himself.  Not because Bucky accepted him, but because Bucky’s acceptance helped put things into perspective, letting Steve realize it was okay to accept himself. It was powerful, heady stuff for a queer kid who hadn’t even been able to tell his beloved mother than he liked fellas as much as he liked girls, let alone that he liked to dress like her.

Bucky had checked on Steve to make sure he was okay, and then absented himself to go get some supplies for Steve going through the rest of the box.  Steve wanted to dive in, but he also wanted to share the experience with Bucky, so he cooled his heels and scrolled through his phone while waiting for Bucky to return.

Thankfully, his amazing boyfriend didn’t take long, and soon returned with bottled water, flavored coffees, thick sliced sandwiches, and delicious cookies.

Really, he was a keeper.

They refueled and then when Bucky had handed Steve a couple of wet wipes to clean his hands, they were finally ready to delve into the box.

Bucky reverently lifted the photo of Sarah and Steve Rogers out of the box and set it gently aside.  The photo would finally leave the club with Steve today - he knew where he would place it in his tower apartment, but he was already thinking how he’d showcase it on a Brooklyn mantle. A mantle shared with the man who so clearly understood what mattered to Steve?  Maybe.  If he’d let him.

Next to come out of the box was a book of photos, brown and spotted, with spidery writing in faded fountain ink.  Steve choked out another sob, recognizing Miz Delilah’s handwriting, and photos of so many denizens of the club - his fellow dancers, waiters, and performers, some of their guests, Miz Delilah herself.  Even La Garbo, looking regal and saucy all at once in her glittering finery.

“I have a friend at school who specializes in photo restoration.  Do you trust me with this?”

“I ... yeah.  I do.  If you trust them.  These photos.  This was my life.  But they also ... they also tell an important story, one we have to tell for them.  We have to be their voice.  Yes.”

Bucky leaned over and kissed Steve on the cheek, and Steve rubbed at the spot.  “What was that for?”

“For being you.  I keep thinking you couldn’t get any more wonderful.  And then you say something like that.   How’d I get so lucky, Steve?  How’d I get to be the one to share this with you?”

“I ...” Steve shook his head.  “I’m the lucky one,” he whispered.  “You ... you’re perfect. You’re everything I ever wanted and everything I never thought I could have.  I love you, Bucky Barnes.  I ...”. He cut himself off, shaking his head.

“What?  And right back at you, you know.  Right down to the I love you.  But what, babe?”

“In New York, it’s legal.”

“What?”

“Marriage.  You.  Me.  Will you?”

Bucky’s eyebrows shot up as his mouth dropped open.  “Steve, you can’t -“

“Why not? I know I love you.  You say you love me.  Why can’t we get married?  Why can’t we be husbands?  Or is there a waiting period -“

“Actually, there is, for the license.  But that’s not it.  Are you sure?”

Steve turned then, caught Bucky’s hand in his and brought it to his lips.  “I know we haven’t known each other long.  But I feel like I’ve known you my whole life.  More importantly, I feel like you know me more than anyone I’ve ever known.  I need you in my life.  I can’t imagine a more perfect way to come out to the world than to announce you as my husband.”

Bucky’s eyes remained on where their hands joined, and he was silent for a long time.  Long enough that Steve felt his heart start to break a little.  He was going to say no.  He didn’t love Steve enough to marry him -

“I love you.  And I want to marry you.  Yes.  But I want a real wedding.  I want to be able to tell my friends, and invite my Aunt Eunice, since she’s the only member of my family who didn’t disown me when I came out.  I can’t do any of that if I have to wait for you to come out -“

“Okay.  No, I get that.  It’s not fair to you.  I haven’t thought it all through -“

“Exactly.  I will marry you.  I promise you that.  But you have to figure things out for yourself first.  We’re not in a hurry.  For right now, the promise is enough.  Okay?”

“Okay. Yeah.”

Bucky leaned in and kissed Steve sweetly, then rest his forehead against Steve’s.  “I’ll be with you every step of the way, baby.  I’m with you for the long haul.  What was that cheesy line in your third movie?  The one where the studio threw in the gratuitous love interest?”

“Oh, Nurse Betty.  Um, it was ‘til the end of the line’.”

Bucky kissed Steve again, and whispered, “I’m with you til the end of the line, baby.”

Steve chuckled then.  “Never really understood what it meant in the movie -“

“But it means forever for us.”

“Forever.”

“Forever.  Now, show me the rest of your treasures, baby!”

&&&

Chapter Text

Steve’s hands were trembling as he set aside that miraculous photo album, a gift beyond price sent from Miz Delilah from the past, to the Steve he was becoming here in the future.

Because he realized he was changing, with every breath, every moment.  Bucky had a lot to do with his metamorphosis, but it was his teammates, this time, too, and the view he now had into his own past.  Perspective.  The way he lived in 1940 was the way he had to live, to be both himself and safe.  And now, in this new millennium, he had to learn new rules of engagement, new requirements.  And new freedom.  He had to learn who Steve Rogers was, and figure out how to separate himself from Captain America.

He glanced at Bucky and smiled, then frowned as he realized that Bucky was holding up his phone, staring at the screen intently.

“Am I boring you?” he asked lightly, but that part of him that always doubted his worth lent an edge to the question.

Bucky looked up absently and shook his head.  “No, baby.  I thought you might want this moment recorded.  I thought I’d take some pictures, maybe a video. Shit, I didn’t think to ask - is that okay?”

Steve glanced at the photo of him and Ma, of the photo album Miz Delilah had bequeathed him, and he nodded slowly. Too many important moments in his life were left only to his memory. Now, his memory had always been exceptional, and after the serum it was like having a full-time film studio in his head - both a blessing and a curse.  But to have something tangible to mark these occasions ... well. It would be nice to share.  He looked at Bucky and smiled, nodding.  “Yeah. Thanks for thinking of that.  I never took a lot of photos of my own, so I don’t think of it.  But I’d like that.  Yes, please.”

“Always so polite,” Bucky answered with a grin.  “What would it take to ruffle that perfect decorum, I wonder?”

Steve snorted at that.  “I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, pally.  Senator Brandt hadda hire a whole army of high fallutin’ elocution experts an’ coaches to buff this diamond in the rough, y’mook.  Practically beat the street right outta me.  You want ruffled?  I can give you ruffled,” Steve told him, crowding up to him, his voice low and dark, and emphasizing the “ruff” in ruffled.

Bucky responded to Steve’s show of streetwise dominance in the only way that made sense. He stood up, pressed himself to Steve’s front, and kissed him soundly.  “Baby, we are gonna have so much fun together,” he promised.

“Yeah? Yeah, I think you’re right.”  He shook himself and went back to the box, smiling into Bucky’s viewfinder.  “Okay, Mr. DeMille.  I’m ready for my close-up.”

“Omigod, did you ever meet her?  Gloria Swanson?  And how’d you know that reference?  It’s after the ice -”

“She’d relocated to New York before I got the serum, and had pretty much left Hollywood behind.  I remember when she came to New York - it was later I found out how much she did for the Jewish community.  Abraham spoke fondly of her.  As for Sunset Boulevard, I watch Turner Classic Movies.  And the Tower has a pretty amazing film library.  Even has my movies.”

“Please, sir, can we watch your movies sometime?  We’ll do a sleepover, popcorn and candy and root beer floats -“

“If you tell me you masturbate to my Hollywood horrors, I’m gonna -“

“What?”

“Lend you a hand, I guess.”

Bucky sputtered at that and lifted the phone to take a picture of Steve in his best little shit mode.  Steve grabbed Bucky and pulled him close, kissing him on the cheek while Bucky thumbed his phone into selfie mode.  A soft click and another cheek kiss, and they were staring at each other fondly.

“We’ll make a blanket fort, and roast marshmallows over the stove,” Steve whispered, bringing his hand to caress Bucky’s cheek.

“So long as we top that off with a good merlot and artisan chocolate, I’m all in.  Fuck, what am I saying?  A can of Fanta and a Hershey bar, and I’m all in.  I’m all in, Steve.”

“Me, too, baby.  And let’s stop horsing around.  I wanna see what else Miz Delilah left me.”

“You’re the diva, baby.  Let’s see, c’mon!”

A layer of yellowed, brittle tissue paper lay across whatever sat below the photo album.  Steve lifted it gingerly with both thumbs and forefingers, and set it aside.  Then he huffed a laugh, as brittle as the paper.

“What?” Bucky prompted.

Steve reached into the box and extracted a black suit jacket that looked like it had been tailored for a child. A white dress shirt, a gray and blue striped tie, and black dress pants lay neatly folded in the box.

“Why’d she pack a little kid’s suit in there - oh my God.  That’s you before the serum?”

“The suit I wore to Ma’s funeral.  Wore it once and shoved it in the back of my wardrobe in my dressing area.  Never looked at it again.  Wore the shoes though - they were comfortable for my fallen arches.”

“Bet you cleaned up nice - did your Ma proud.”

Trust Bucky to find the good. “Yeah, I guess I did. Spent too much money on this, but I couldn’t very well show up at my Ma’s funeral wearing rags.  Or anything that might make the priest angry.  But after, I just didn’t want to be reminded of it.  Woulda been a good interview suit if i’d’a had a mind to go into Manhattan looking for work, but I was happy with my freelancing for the comic company, and my work here. I had a uniform when I waitered, and ... oh,” he said as he pulled out the clothes and set them aside on the tissue paper.

Then he eased another layer of ancient tissue paper out of the box, laid it aside, and ran his hand wonderingly over what lay beneath.  “This was my favorite,” he said softly, feeling the hot sting of unshed tears.  She’d saved it, his favorite dress.  He’d saved up for months to have enough money to have it made special by a dressmaker and tailor who was part of the little community that grew out of Miz Delilah’s. 

His hands were practically shaking as he delicately lifted the shimmering, gossamer white fabric as Bucky crowded in closer, his phone held up to capture the moment in video.  He took a step back and held the gown against his front.  Bucky continued to record even as a broken sob tore out of his chest.  His perfect, wonderful dress he’d designed himself, he’d worked long hours to pay for, he’d dreamed of wearing, and once he finally had it, he never wanted to take it off.  It was still intact, still pristine.  But as he looked down on tiny dress pressed against his big, awkward frame, he recognized he’d never wear it again.  Not it or anything like it.

“Is that silk?” Bucky asked softly, and Steve loved him all the more that he respected how precious this ... artifact was to Steve.

“Coffin silk, yeah. Couldn’t afford the real stuff, but coffin silk looked just as good, and cost less.  I designed it, and Andre - the fella who made it for me - worked part time at a coffin maker’s just so he could lift the odd bolt of silk.  His passion was making beautiful clothes.  And he found his audience in the folks who spent their evenings at Miz Delilah’s.”

“You must have been beautiful in it, baby.”

“I felt beautiful.  I felt powerful and sexy and the best me I could be,” he added with a sigh.

“You’re always that, Steve. Always.  Hold it up for me, would you? I’d like to get some good shots of it.  Because this?  This should have its own exhibit when we set up our collection.  In just a few words, you’ve said so much about queer culture in your time. A whole industry that grew out of your identity and your community’s need for discretion.”

Steve smiled at that, feeling a little better about it all.  He still missed the little guy who could wear the dress, who strutted around in the gown, balanced on white kitten heeled slides with tufts of ostrich feather and a dusting of rhinestones.  A slit up the side showed off his slender leg with thigh high silk stockings and a garter belt.  The plunging neckline framed the smooth skin of his chest and made him feel daring, desirable.

He glanced at Bucky and felt his heart flutter.  The way Bucky looked at him ... he didn’t need his dress to make him feel that way anymore.  All he needed was Bucky.

&&&