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Out of the Woods and Into a Bar

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May 2023

Steve was exhausted. His body was still ready for anything, especially as he hadn't been challenging it especially hard in the past five years, but mentally? Yeah, he was exhausted. Leading his bereavement group, checking in periodically with Natasha, constantly reminded everywhere he went of all the losses … and he'd lost so much already, just by spending 66 years in the ice. He prided himself on being emotionally strong, soldiering on, as he'd always done, but even he had to admit he was struggling.

It was probably a stupid idea, but Steve decided maybe a change in scenery would be helpful, so he'd hopped on his bike and driven north into Massachusetts, heading east and cruising along coastal towns. There were pretty beaches in the New York area, of course, but anything local felt too painful for Steve right now, with his memories of trips to Coney Island and Rockaway Beach with Bucky as a teen and young man. He could have gone to Connecticut and Rhode Island, but he hadn't wanted to stop, riding away from the sun like he could ride away from ghosts, finally arriving in a small coastal Massachusetts town halfway between Boston and Cape Cod.

He found a simple motel with available rooms and checked in; it had two beds, one more than he needed, but it was a room, quiet and clean. After dropping his duffle on the bland duvet of the bed nearest the bathroom, he looked around. It was evening, but the sun was setting later now that it was finally late spring, and he really wasn't in the mood to spend the whole time in his solitary room. He could do that at home just as well. Instead, Steve walked back out into the quiet town, intending to take in the beauty of the seaside and the new location, wandering wherever he pleased. After an hour of strolling the rocky shore, however, dusk started to fall and the breeze picked up. Steve's stomach rumbled, chasing him back into the town in search of food.

A building of dark wood and brick came into view as he was walking up and down side streets, having mentally dismissed the fast food and chain restaurants stationed on the larger roads and passing several abandoned eateries; a sign out front proclaimed it to be the oldest bar and restaurant in the area, founded in 1794. After perusing the menu posted in the front window, Steve shrugged and decided this place was as good as any. And even though he couldn't get drunk, he had an urge to at least pretend he could drown his sorrows for a little while, preferably with some decent Scotch.

Ducking inside, Steve found himself surrounded by walls paneled with dark wood, matching the worn but well-polished floor. A traditional bar could be seen further back to his right, while his left opened up into the regular dining area. The tables seemed about a half full, the majority of people looking like local regulars, some clearly having come straight from their day jobs. The bar was more lightly populated, a few people casually chatting over their drinks. At the far end, however, he saw a man sitting apart from the others, hunched over his glass with every appearance of total misery. And his clothing….

"How many, sir?" One of the pub's employees had suddenly materialized at his elbow.

"Just one, ma'am," Steve replied. He nodded his chin toward the back. "I'd like to sit at the bar, if I may?"

"Of course. Will you be wanting food, too, or just drinks?"

"Food, too, please."

She grabbed a small menu and handed it to him. "Feel free to seat yourself. The bartender will let us know when you're ready to place your food order."

"Thanks," said Steve. He walked back to the dimmer bar area, and approached the solitary man. "Mind if I sit here?" he asked.

The other man flicked his eyes over to Steve. "Nobody's sitting there, if that's what you're asking," he replied. He was wearing a dark suit, the jacket cut much longer than modern style, and was buttoned up higher as well; his white shirt had a tall, starched collar, which was embellished, not with a regular tie or even a bow tie, but by a cravat – which Steve hadn't seen since he was a very young chld – and a surprisingly bright purple vest. A hat rested on the bar to his right, and an elegant walking stick was propped up to his left, between his stool and the one Steve was asking after.

Steve thanked him quietly, then slid onto the stool. He sipped his Scotch when it arrived, enjoying the familiar smooth flavor, the pleasant burn as it rippled down to his stomach. After a moment, he cleared his throat.

"Please forgive my intrusion," he said to the silent man next to him. "But you seem to be upset about something."

The man looked over at him. Even in the dimmer lighting, Steve could tell he had green eyes, framed by a tumble of reddish-brown wavy hair. "You could say that, yes," he said slowly.

"Did you lose someone in the Snap?" Steve asked. "Sorry," he added, at the other man's blank look. "I guess everyone did – it was a stupid question. It's just that I run a grief support group and I just assumed…"

Eyebrows, a shade darker than his hair, furrowed in puzzlement. "What do you mean, the 'snap'?"

"The … you know," said Steve, snapping his own fingers. "The moment half the world population dissolved into dust?"

But the other man just shook his head. "Let's just say I'm not up on current news."

Steve leaned forward a little, surveying his companion, taking in the dated clothes and accessories. He wasn't aware of a way to do time travel, but that didn't mean it wasn't possible. "Care to tell me more about yourself?"

The man's green eyes seemed to scan Steve, taking in his face, his clothes, his bearing. His expression remained wary. "You'll likely consider me quite mad if I tell you."

Mad. Steve hadn't heard the term used in place of "crazy" since leaving Europe nearly eighty years prior – and yet the man clearly spoke with an American accent.

"My name is Steve Rogers," he said, ignoring the "mad" comment, and watching the other man carefully. When there was no sign of recognition, he nodded to himself, and continued. "I may not look it, but was born in 1918 – that's 105 years ago. I was always very small and sickly as a boy. When I was in my 20s, I voluntarily received an injection that instantly made me grow eight inches and gain about eighty pounds of muscle. It also cured all my chronic illnesses. After fighting in a global war where the enemy was using a substance that didn't come from Earth, I crashed a plane into the Arctic, where I lay frozen for nearly seventy years, but didn't die. Since reawakening, I've made friends with a man who can turn into a green giant, one who can shrink himself down to the size of an ant or blow up to ten stories tall, one who can manipulate space and time and one who is a living god from Norse mythology, not to mention a talking raccoon and a walking, talking tree creature. I have fought a mechanical man who developed thoughts of his own and turned evil, and aliens from outer space, one of whom caused half the world's population to disintegrate in mere seconds by snapping his fingers." He leaned back against the bar. "I promise, I will not consider you 'mad,' no matter what you tell me."

The other man considered him for another long moment. "I'm Griffin Flaherty," he said at last, slowly extending a hand to shake. Steve took it, feeling the warm fingers wrap around his own. "I … where I'm from, it's 1903 and … I have some ideas how I got here, but absolutely none about how I might get back."

Steve nodded in acknowledgment. "Tell me more of your story," he said, taking another sip of his drink.

Griffin exhaled a breath, relief at Steve's calm reaction clear on his face. "I have a friend, a boarder, who is a … sorcerer." He flicked his gaze over to Steve again, gauging his reaction to this new piece of information, but Steve just nodded again in encouragement. "We've been preparing for an influx of powerful beings called the Masters, who built my home town many ages ago, warping magical lines underneath the town. They had been banished, but have been showing signs of returning soon and using those lines for their own evil purposes. My friend and I, plus two other friends, have been working to prevent this."

"Are you also a sorcerer?" Steve asked, curious.

Griffin shook his head. "No, but I have the Sight – I can see the lines of power, and can see the power in Whyborne – that's the sorcerer, whether he's actively using it or not."

Steve had heard of a lot of unexpected abilities over the course of his life, but this was a new one. "Interesting," he said, impressed.

There was a pause as Steve's burger and fries arrived. "Anyway," Griffin continued, once the waiter had walked away, "we were in the Draakenwood two nights ago – well, two nights ago for me – and … I don't know exactly what happened. One minute Whyborne and I were investigating some troubling events, and the next … I stepped through a black space and ended up–" he gestured with his hands to encompass everything around him, "–here."

"Hmmm." Steve wasn't sure exactly what this meant, although it sounded a bit like the space wormholes he'd heard Peter Quill mention once. "I admit, I'm at a bit of a loss, although I have some friends with more experience in, uh, unusual science, and if I can manage to track them down, maybe they'd know." His mouth curved in a wry smile. "You must be absolutely overwhelmed to suddenly find yourself in the future. At least, I was, when I woke up and sixty-seven years had passed."

Griffin nodded. "I almost couldn't recognize motor cars for what they were, they'd changed so much. And even though I was the one who decided to have our house wired for electricity, I could never have imagined the extent it would have been used in your time."

"Plus," Steve added, "if you're anything like I was, your head is probably spinning from the way everyone dresses differently, talks differently, the fact that it's much more crowded, and there are too many choices for anything you might need to select."

"That, too," Griffin conceded. He took another sip of his drink and sighed. "I miss them."

"Your friends?"

"Yes. It's been a long time since I felt so alone."

Steve sighed. "Something else we have in common – nearly all my original friends passed away while I was frozen, and then I lost most of my new friends in the Snap, including someone I loved very much."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I cannot imagine being without … without them for so long. Two days has been difficult enough."

They sat in silence for a few moments and then: "Were you married?"

"Why?" Griffin suddenly looked wary again.

Steve jutted his chin at the direction of Griffin's left hand, which was resting on the bar between them. "Your ring. You didn't mention a wife, so I thought perhaps you were a widower, despite your young age."

"Oh." Griffin's expression eased as he lifted his hand and studied the ring in question, a heavy gold band with a central pearl and some unusual signs and designs carved into the metal. "No, no," he said, his suddenly easygoing tone at complete odds with his earlier demeanor, "this is merely showing my membership in a local gentleman's club."

"I see," Steve replied noncommitally. He finished his burger, then started on his fries, occasionally flicking his eyes over to the other man. "May I ask you a personal question?" he finally said. "Please understand I mean no insult by it."

"I … suppose so?"

"Is Whyborne more than your friend?"

"I – what makes you say that?"

"You said, 'our house' when you talked about electricity. But mostly, it's the way you've described him – your boarder, your friend … I grew up not much later than your time; I recognize the wording, the phrases one uses so as not to draw attention to the real situation." He smiled wryly again. "I've used those phrases, myself, you see. And the person I lost in the Snap, the one I love," Steve swallowed, his throat suddenly tight, "is a man."

Griffin was silent a moment, then seemed to come to some decision. "Yes," he admitted. "And you were right," he added, holding up his hand. "This is my wedding ring, although only our closest friends, my father-in-law and sister-in-law know that. And … and my ma."

Steve blinked in surprise. "Your families know? We never dared tell ours; as kind as they were. How did yours react?"

"My ma – not so well," he said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "But one of my brothers knows, and he's been all right. And, surprisingly, although Whyborne's father can be a hard man at times, he never questioned my presence at family events, not even at the beginning. As for my sister-in-law, well, she's a little, uh, unusual, herself, and the thought of questioning her brother's choice of partners did not even occur to her." He glanced around a moment, then leaned in and murmured, "So you're a homosexual, too?"

"We generally use the term 'gay' these days – yes, a totally different meaning than you're used to," Steve said, holding up a hand to forestall the obvious question on Griffin's lips. "Although technically I'm bisexual – I like both men and women. And many places, especially around here, have very little trouble accepting people like you or me these days. That was one surprise I was very happy to encounter, once I woke up in the future."

"That is a pleasant surprise," Griffin said. "I suppose I'm more like you, although I prefer men if given a choice." An affectionate smile briefly lit his face. "Whyborne, though, has so little interest in women, he didn't notice one trying to attract his attention, every single day, right in front of him, for years."

Steve chuckled. "That's pretty oblivious, all right." His meal finished, he pulled out his wallet to pay, then frowned.

"Did you say your incident happened two days ago?" he asked, turning to Griffin.

"Yes, why?"

"Where have you been staying since then?" Griffin's clothes were clearly well cared-for, but showed some minor signs of dirt and disarray, now that Steve was looking more closely.

"Park bench," Griffin mumbled. "I had thought perhaps to stay in a boarding house or hotel, but there don't seem to be any boarding houses in Widdershins anymore and the hotels … they wanted $120 for one night!" He looked scandalized by the very thought.

"Yeah, prices have gone up just a bit," Steve grimaced. It was one of the things that had been difficult to adjust to after the ice, and he said as much to Griffin.

"I'm fortunate I had just been paid and still had some cash in my wallet the night I entered the Draakenwood, but I've almost run out of money as it is, just trying to eat," Griffin sighed. "This place exists in my time, as well, although it looks – and costs – quite different. My brandy here," he gestured at his glass, "is the last of what I've got. I thought perhaps it might take my mind off my bleak circumstances."

"Well, let me buy you a meal," said Steve firmly. "And tonight you're staying with me. I've got an extra bed in my hotel room, and I don't mind sharing the space."

Griffin shook his head. "I couldn't possibly impose."

"You're not imposing if I'm inviting you," Steve retorted. "There is no way I'm leaving you here stranded. Or hungry." He nodded at the menu tucked into a holder against the wall. "Pick out something that doesn't sound too strange to your taste buds, and we'll take it with us."

"You're allowed to take it with you?"

Steve grinned. "Yep. Don't get me wrong – the modern world has its share of problems, but it's made some incredibly convenient progress, too."

"I'm getting that impression." After a moment's perusal, Griffin chose a serving of pot roast for his dinner. Steve paid with his credit card, then spent the next ten minutes explaining how that worked. When the food arrived Steve picked it up while Griffin gathered up his walking stick and hat.

"Maybe tomorrow you can show me where you emerged into this time," he said as they walked out into the cool night. "If we can't figure out how to send you back, maybe I can take some photos and show my more genius friends. One way or another, we'll get you back to your husband."

Griffin slid his hat back onto his head. "Thank you," he said solemnly. "I can't express how much it means that you believed me, and that you … you understand me."

"It's truly my pleasure," Steve said. "It feels good to help someone who actually has a chance of reuniting with his missing loved one, for a change." He gave Griffin a reassuring clap on the shoulder and, in silent companionship, they headed off down the streets of Widdershins.