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All the showgirls are knockouts. On the first day of rehearsals, Steve sits in the back of the auditorium and watches them warm up, the way they stretch out their legs and rise up onto their tiptoes, their loose shirts lifting up enough to bare a couple inches of their midriffs and... Steve looks down at his hands and swallows. He really shouldn't be thinking about stuff like that, least not without a bathroom and some time to himself.

“Okay, girls! Girls, eyes on me!” the choreographer yells, clapping his hands together. Steve met the guy, Adam, yesterday, when Adam told him about the routine and Steve only understood about half of what he said.

The showgirls slowly gather around him, though some are more reluctant than others. One of them, with her blonde hair done up in messy victory rolls and a headscarf holding it together, rolls her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest, and takes just a single step forward.

“Steve!” Adam calls, waving at him. “Get down here.”

There's a hum of conversation as he makes his way down one of the aisles, and every set of eyes is on him. He has to concentrate really hard on not tripping over his feet – he's had this body for about a week now, and it still throws him off balance at the worst and most embarrassing times.

“Girls, this is Steve Rogers, America's new hero.”

There's some more chatter, and then one of the girls says, “That's the fella from the paper?”

“Thought he was just some creep off the street,” someone else says.

“Wish the creeps around my building looked like that...”

The blonde takes a couple more steps forward. “That's what we're here for? You didn't tell us that, Adam.”

“I didn't want you flapping your gums all over town, Doris, all right?” Adam snaps. “It's good money.”

Doris glares at Adam, then Steve, and it's not like it's his fault! He tries for a smile to defuse the situation, but she just looks madder, so he switches to looking at the floor.

“We're gonna run through some routines, if that's okay with you, Doris.”

Doris locks eyes with him and tips her chin up. Hell, Steve wouldn't speak to a girl like her that way, she looks like she could do some real damage.

“Thank you,” Adam says with a tight smile. “Now, we're mostly just going to be running through steps today, get Steve comfortable with it, but I've got one surprise. Boys!”

A couple of guys wheel out a motorcycle and Steve's eyebrows go up. That's a pretty nice ride.

“Steve, think you could lift that over your head?”

“Uh...” Doris is looking at him, one perfectly shaped eyebrow arched. “Maybe?”

Adam nods to it, and Steve walks over to it. They've tested his strength on all sorts of things back at SSR, so he guesses this isn't going to be so hard. He stretches his fingers out and wraps them around the frame. It comes easily, and he swings it over his head without breaking a sweat. It's kind of exhilarating, watching the way his muscles bunch up in his forearms, taking the strain with ease; a couple of months ago he could barely even lift his bundle of newspapers every morning. He spins it around his head a couple of times, then lets it back down. Someone claps and is swiftly shushed. He grins.

“So, what, it's made of plastic?” Doris says.

“It's real, ma'am,” he says, straightening his back.

“Uh huh,” she says, walking around to the other side. She puts her hands on the frame and pulls. She gets it about an inch off the ground before dropping it again. “Huh. So, I guess you're real strong, then?”

“Yeah.”

“How old are you, Steve Rogers?”

“Twenty four.”

“Mmhm,” she hums. “Well, no funny business, Rogers.”

“No, of course not, I wouldn't, I...” He's getting almost as flustered as he does with Peggy, so he just snaps his mouth shut and clears his throat. “I won't,” he says quietly.

Doris looks like she's only barely managing to not laugh in his face.

“Can we get on with the rehearsal now?” Adam says.

Doris looks Steve up and down for a moment, then nods. “Sure thing.”

-

Rehearsing is fun for about a day, and then it's just frustrating, and embarrassing, when he trips over his great big feet and falls off the side of the stage.

“I'm okay!” he calls, while the girls bust a gut. After that performance, Doris absolutely vetoes Adam's idea of Steve lifting the motorcycle over his head with a couple of girls on it.

They only get four days of practising before he's pushed out on stage for the first time – he doesn't even remember his lines, but Doris grabs some tape and sticks them to the back of his tin shield.

He gets good at it pretty quick, though: he's suddenly got this memory that he never had before. His feet move him to his spots on stage, and the lines start to come to him with ease. He doesn't get it, when he was in school, he'd spend weeks trying to memorise stuff like I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, but could only ever get the first few words right. It's like the serum made him clever, or something.

Not so clever that he manages to get out of having to live in barracks, though. He guesses it's really not so bad, at least he has steady accommodation and as much food as he can eat which, as it turns out, is a lot. One of the girls says that he's just like her teenage brother, 'always stuffin' his face'.

“Bet he doesn't look like Stevie, though,” Clara says, adjusting her dress, her breasts pressing together and pushing out of her bra for a moment... Steve blinks hard and glances away.

“Nah, he's a pimply little idiot,” Marian replies, touching up her mascara. “He tried to join up with the army a couple of months ago! He's fourteen! The hell he think he's gonna be able to do?”

Steve's stomach does a funny little gurgle that has nothing to do with hunger. “Maybe he just wants to help,” he says without thinking.

Marian frowns. “Well, sure he does, Steve, but he ain't gonna be helping anyone like that, is he? Ma got him out collectin' scrap metal instead.”

“Curtain up in five!” someone hollers, and Steve takes it as his opportunity to withdraw from the conversation, feeling kind of sick. Howard and Peggy have gone to actually help with the war effort, and Buck's out there somewhere, putting his life on the line while Steve is in this cushy theatre putting on a show for the kids. He's starting to hate himself for being so naïve as to believe what Brandt was selling.

After the performance, he finds himself, as he so often does, sitting in the backstage of the theatre sketching, waiting for the transport back to the barracks. In some ways, he's even less independent than he used to be. He's got all this strength and he's still stuck depending on others. He hasn't got anyone to blame but himself, though.

“Hey, Steve,” Doris says. He looks up from his sketch, and sees her standing there in her costume, legs going from here to eternity, her curls coming free from her pins.

“Hey,” he says, his voice going high, and clears his throat. “Hello,” he says, deepening his voice.

“What you doin' sitting out here all by yourself?”

“Just waiting for my ride.”

“You always do this?” she asks, and he nods. “Huh, I thought you got out of here soon as the show was over.”

“I don't have a car,” he says.

She nods, pouting her lips into a perfect red bow, and he has a whole rush of inappropriate thoughts that make his cheeks burn. “C'mon,” she says, beckoning him to follow.

“Where're we going?” he says, scrambling up.

“Well, I can't just leave you out here like a lost little animal, can I? You can wait in the dressing room with the rest of us.”

“Are the other girls...” Oh Jesus, he thinks, they're all going to be in their underwear, aren't they? “Are, are they gonna be okay with that?”

“Let's see,” she says, stopping outside a door and rapping her knuckles on it. “Only me!” she says, and opens it, sticking her head through the gap. “Anyone mind if Steve comes in?”

There's a chorus of agreement and one wolf whistle. Doris looks back at him. “They seem okay with it.”

The dressing room is in complete disarray, and the first thing he sees is Clara in her silky white bra. He feels his cheeks flush hot, and looks away.

“Put something on, Clara!” Alice shouts from the back. “You're making America blush!”

Oh dear God, this was a terrible idea. He tries to edge back towards the door, but Doris takes hold of his arm and guides him over to a seat by a dressing table and drops down next to him. She picks up a cotton wool ball and dips it into a little tub of something, then offers it to him. “Wanna get all that stage make-up off now?”

“Oh, um.” It hadn't occurred to him when he agreed to do these tours, but they cake him in make-up for every performance, so that he doesn't look 'deathly pale' under the lights, the lady told him irritably, as if there's something he could do about being of Irish extraction that he's choosing not to. The stuff itches something awful, and makes him sweat to boot. “I usually just scrape it off with a flannel when I get back to barracks.”

“Mmhm, that's why you've been getting all those little pimples on your forehead,” she says.

“Oh. Are they really obvious?” He'd been starting to think that maybe he was going through puberty again – it certainly feels like it sometimes.

“Just to girls like us,” she says, and presses the ball into his hand, getting a new one for herself. “So, tell us about yourself, Captain America.”

All the gunk comes off a hell of a lot easier, and with much less mess, than with his efforts bent over a sink with a ruined flannel, and even though his head is so filled with the smell of girls and their hair and their bras that he can't sleep that night until he's had some private time, it's still a nice change. He wonders if girls like them would have given him a second glance before, but he guesses that there wasn't much reason for them to want to. It doesn't help to wonder about stuff like that now, he tells himself, and when he wakes up achingly hard the next morning, he tries his best not to think of anyone in particular as he works himself over.

He's invited in the next night, and the night after that, and after a while it becomes the norm, even though he still spends his nights with his hand down his skivvies.

“Don't you mind me seeing you girls in your underwear?” he asks, as Audrey walks up and down the room in her bra and girdle with a book balanced on her head. Adam yelled at her after last night's performance and threatened to fire her if she didn't start standing up straighter, and she burst into tears and threw herself into Steve's arms. She's only eighteen, and she's sending all her money home to support her ma and siblings. Steve told Adam he was being unfair, and some of the stage hands started making kissy faces at him.

“Nah, you fight for what's right night and day,” Doris says, and Steve grins. That stupid song is starting to repeat in his head like a broken record.

“And you're like our little brother,” Clara adds.

“Not my brother,” Evie says with a wink.

“I'm older than most of you, y'know,” he says, feeling his ears pink.

Doris rolls her eyes as she fills in her eyebrows with a dark pencil. “Only by a couple of years. And anyway, everyone knows that women mature faster.”

“Uh huh,” he says. “What're you doin' your face up again for?”

“Doris has a date,” Alice sing songs.

“You got a date?” he asks. “Who with?”

“Never you mind,” she says.

“She got a new dress and everything,” Alice adds. “Real fancy.”

“Well, I had all that money burnin' a hole in my pocket,” she says, putting down the eyeliner pencil and picking up her mascara brush. “What about you, Steve, buying anything nice for yourself... or maybe someone else?” she adds, raising her eyebrows.

He shrugs. “I'm just savin' it up.”

“Just 'cause?”

“I dunno, I guess I'd like to buy a house somewhere once this is all over.”

“Just for you, or you got a lady friend in mind?” Clara asks, leaning over the dressing table and tugging on one of Doris's curls. Doris bats her away.

He lifts a shoulder and Clara claps her hands together. “Stevie has a girlfriend, that's so cute!”

“We're not...” He crosses his arms over his chest. “I don't wanna talk about it. If Doris doesn't have to tell me who she's stepping out with, I don't have to say who I'm interested in, either.”

Doris pats him on the arm. “When you're right, you're right.”

-

They kick the schedule up to twice a day after a few weeks, and although it doesn't tire him out (nothing much seems to these days), it does get monotonous and irritating real quick. He doesn't know how the girls do it.

“You get used to it,” Marian says, as they all hurry off stage after the matinee performance. They've got a couple of hours to eat and change into costumes that don't stink.

“Steve!” a stage hand yells, “manager's looking for you!”

Steve sighs. “Leonard wants me to go sign autographs and kiss babies,” he tells Marian.

“Then go to it, soldier,” she says.

“I really don't feel like it.”

She narrows her eyes and puts her hands on her hips. “Steve, them people are gonna buy bonds that are gonna help save our troops, least you can do is shake some hands.”

“I know...” he murmurs ineffectually.

“Look,” she says, “just plaster a big ol' smile on that pretty face of yours, flash your pearly whites, and get out there. Ain't nothing a smile can't fix.”

“Okay, okay, I'm going,” he says.

She pats him on the back. “Good boy.”

As he walks away, he catches her saying to Audrey, “hell, that never works on my little brother.”

-

A couple of months in, they want him to star in some newsreels, so they take him over to a studio, put him in front of a background, and tell him to march on the spot. It kind of takes all the magic out of going to the pictures.

“Aw, c'mon,” Doris says, flapping a newspaper in front of his face and putting her arm around him. They're doing some last minute rehearsals, on a Sunday (Steve said it's meant to be a day of rest, but Adam said no one rests in a war) because Adam decided to change some of the choreography. Everyone's in loose blouses and pants or flowy skirts, and there's a great big picture of him on the front page of The New York Post, giving a goofy thumbs up to the camera. “People'd kill to be famous like you. Hell, I'd kill for it.”

“Doris the destroyer?” he says.

“Sure, why not? Ah, don't even try to tell me that you don't enjoy this at least a little bit.”

“Maybe a little.”

“Good, 'cause me and some of the girls are going to watch your movie debut tonight, and you should come with us.”

“Oh, I dunno about that...”

She jostles him. “Why not.”

“'Cause... it'd be embarrassing.”

“Any more embarrassing than punching a Polish guy dressed up as Hitler every night?”

“I've done that fifty times now, by my count.”

“You're dodging the question.”

He looks at her. Without a hint of make-up on, she's just as beautiful. “Fine.”

“Wonderful,” she says, and turns toward the group. “Girls, girls! He's coming!”

The theatre's packed out when they get there, but Doris prebooked and they just sail past the line up outside, and get seats right in the middle of the room. There's a hum of chatter all around them, and Steve's starting to realise that most of them are here to see him, not Casablanca, which is on after the newsreel. He can't help but smile.

The thing is awful and cheap looking, really, but when it's over, people clap and cheer for him and he just smiles wider.

When they get back out onto the street after the movie is over, it's getting dark, and Audrey is swooning over Humphrey Bogart.

“Who wants to eat?” Doris asks, and there's a chorus of ascent.

“I should probably get back to barracks...” Steve says. “Don't wanna get myself in trouble.”

“And what, exactly, are they gonna do to you?” she asks. “You're their star.”

“That's... true,” he says.

“I know this great little restaurant 'round here,” Marian says, “always got room available.”

“C'mon, Steve,” Audrey says, grabbing hold of his arm and setting her big eyes on him.

He looks around at all their expectant faces. “All right then.”

Marian takes them to a jazz club that looks like it's seen better days, but she's right about there being plenty of room.

“Used to work here,” she says, which gets her some good natured jeering.

“What?” she asks, laughing.

“This place is shifty as hell,” Doris says, leaning across the table, taking a drag of her cigarette and tapping the ash into an ashtray.

Marian leans forward too and plucks the cigarette from Doris's fingers. “Well, so am I, doll,” she says, and takes a drag before offering it back. Doris snatches it back with a half-hearted glare, and glances at Steve. Steve just smiles.

The girls peel off one by one, back to homes and boarding houses and gentlemen friends, until it's just him and Doris, walking through Manhattan at close to midnight. She's puffing away on another cigarette, looking up at the big glitzy signs for Broadway shows.

“That what you wanna do?” he asks.

“That's what I am going to do,” she says, flicking ash to the ground.

Steve grins. “Can I take a puff?”

“Sure.” She hands it over and he promptly almost drops it. He clears his throat and smiles at her before taking a drag. And then he starts hacking up a lung instead. She rescues the cigarette off him and laughs. “Not a smoker, I take it?”

He puts his hand to his mouth and wretches a couple of times before taking as deep a breath as he can. “Had asthma,” he says thinly.

“A big thing like you?”

“Wasn't always big,” he replies.

“You're a pretty interesting guy, you know.”

He laughs; he's pretty sure 'interesting' means 'weird'. “Thanks.”

“I don't normally have a lot of time for men, but you're okay.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Well, you're okay, too.” She blushes a little and looks away. “Hey,” he says, tapping her on the arm, “lemme try that cigarette again.”

-

They get a gig out of state just before his birthday, and spend two days on a train to get to Milwaukee. He gets a sleeper car to himself, at least, since he's the only guy aside from Hitler and the management, and he's supposedly the star. Which doesn't end up meaning much, because Audrey comes in for a chat and ends up sleeping on his cot, leaving him to cover her up and watch the passing scenery.

Someone must have alerted the papers to what train they were taking (and Steve's pretty sure that someone has a name that starts with 'B' and ends with 'T'), because there are a hell of a lot of people on the platform when they get in. Steve's trying to help the girls with their bags, but he gets swiftly mobbed and spends a solid hour signing things. He plasters on that smile, though, like Marian told him to, and makes the best of it.

For Independence Day (which every poster proclaims is 'Captain America's birthday, so come help him celebrate!'), they have a special routine that involves one of the girls being taken hostage by Hitler. Doris volunteers to play the damsel to Steve's hero, much to Audrey's chagrin.

“Help me, oh, won't someone please help me!” Doris screams from one side of the stage, sounding like Scarlet O'Hara, with a ridiculously over the top Southern twang to it. Hitler holds a gun to her temple and pulls a lot of angry faces at Steve, and the kids in the audience squeal with anticipation (Barry's actually a great guy, Steve hopes he doesn't get any backlash because of this).

“Get away from her!” he shouts, and then the rest of the routine is just a very hastily choreographed fight, until he knocks Hitler out flat and takes Doris in his arms. “You're safe now, ma'am!” he says.

“Oh, my hero!” she says, and goes limp in his arms, although he can feel her body shaking a little, and if she starts laughing, he is not going to be able to keep it together.

“Donate today, kids,” he says, “or Hitler wins.” He salutes the crowd as they cheer, and the curtains drop.

Doris shakes even harder and they only just manage to get off stage before they dissolve into giggles. He covers his face with his hands and leans against the wall, almost sobbing with laughter.

“That-- that was the worst yet,” he says between hiccups.

“Save me from poorly written scripts, Steve!” she says, leaning against him.

“Better get yourself together and get out front, Rogers,” a stage hand calls, “your audience awaits.”

He drops his hands from his face and leans his head back against the wall, taking a couple of steadying breaths. “Is my make-up smudged?”

Doris wipes her hand across her face, streaking lipstick across her cheek. “Not so's you'd notice.”

“Can't say the same for you,” he says, pushing himself off the wall.

-

The crew surprise him with a birthday cake in the evening, a great big one that says 'Happy Birthday, Stevie!' across the middle in beautiful cursive writing.

“Audrey's handiwork,” Marian says, causing Audrey to pink. “We got ourselves a li'l artist here.”

“It's beautiful,” he says, patting her on the shoulder. “Thanks.”

She blushes even deeper.

He gets a card signed by everyone, a great big piece of cardboard with drawings and scribbles all over it, and a store bought one from Brandt that congratulates him on his 'success'. He doesn't get anything from Peggy, or Bucky, and he tells himself that he hadn't expected to, but he's celebrated his last twelve birthdays with Bucky, and it's hard to tell himself that it doesn't hurt that this isn't one of them, that there may never be another one.

He slips out after a couple of hours and sits on the steps that lead out into the alleyway, staring at the rats running along the edges of the buildings. Twenty five years on Earth and what's he got to show for it? Muscles he can't do anything with and a twelve year old fanbase? Not exactly what he was hoping for.

“Hey, budge up, fat-head,” Doris says, poking him in the side with the tip of her oxfords.

“Sorry,” he says, scooting over. She sits down beside him and offers him a cigarette. “Thanks,” he says, and lets her light it for him.

“You know, Audrey's completely in love with you,” she says, taking a drag.

“It's just a crush,” he says. God knows, he's had enough. He takes a drag himself and holds it in his lungs for a moment before blowing it out. Stuff tastes disgusting, he doesn't even know why he's started doing this.

“Well, she's planning for when the two of you get married and go on tour around America.”

He snorts. “Oh Lord.”

“She doesn't have a chance, then?”

He shakes his head. “'fraid not.”

“So, you have got a girl,” she says.

“Don't think she'd appreciate being 'got', but yeah, there's someone.”

“Well, she'd be lucky to have you.”

He takes another drag and sighs. “She thinks I'm an idiot.”

“All women think men are idiots, there're just different gradations of idiot.”

“Thanks...”

She smiles. “Welcome.”

They sit together for another couple of minutes of slightly awkward silence, until she flicks her cigarette butt away and elbows him. “If you're not even really gonna smoke that, give it back. These are expensive.”

“Huh?” He looks down at the cigarette held loosely between his fingers. “Oh, sorry, yeah.”

He hands it over and she takes it, stubbing it out on the step and returning it to the carton. “Now, c'mon, birthday boy, they're playing your song,” she says, as the opening chords of 'The Star Spangled Man With a Plan' start up inside.

-

They start doing a lot of performances in different states – it feels like most of his life is spent on a train or on a stage these days. Or backstage with the girls, which raises some eyebrows, but he's overheard some of the stage hands speculating, and most of them have come to the conclusion that he's too much of an innocent to be fooling around with any of them.

Which he guesses they're right about, though if one of the girls propositioned him, he'd probably go with it. He's more comfortable with them than he used to be, but he still gets that hot flush all over his body when one of them casually pulls off their dress in front of him, and he still spends many of his nights with his hand around his dick and his face pressed into a pillow to muffle his groans.

In Philadelphia, management actually springs for a pretty fancy hotel for them to stay at – Steve's never slept in a bed so big. The girls get lumped in five to a room, though, and almost everyone ends up going in and out of one of them on what must be the hottest evening of the year. Steve even takes his shirt off, leaving him in just his undershirt and khakis, which causes all sorts of ruckus from the girls, and has at least one of them groping his bicep.

“Braid my hair, will you, Marian?” Evie's begging while Steve plays gin rummy with Audrey. She wiped the floor with him the first few games, but now he's got the hang of it, he's winning.

“Aw, leave me be,” Marian says from behind a magazine that she's been alternately reading and using as a fan.

“But my hair's all sticking to my neck,” Evie whines.

Marian drops her magazine to her lap with a huff. “Get Steve to do it!” she says.

“Steve ain't gonna know how to do that,” Evie says, “are you, Steve?”

He shakes his head. “No, sorry.”

“Bet you could learn though,” Marian says, raising her eyebrows. “Clever thing like you.”

“Uh...” he says, looking down at his cards. “Sure, I guess?”

“Good, c'mere then.”

He smiles apologetically at Audrey, who looks a little disappointed, and gets up.

Evie sits down on a chair and turns her back to them. “French braid, please,” she says.

“Jeez,” Marian says, rolling her eyes. “Y'know, you wouldn't even have this problem if you'd cut your damn hair once in a while.”

Evie's hair is pretty long, down to the middle of her back, and she has to put in about double the amount of curlers than anyone else. Privately, Steve thinks she kind of looks like a space alien with them in.

“I like my hair! You're just jealous 'cause yours is a big frizzy mess-- ow!” she shrieks, as Marian pulls hard on her hair. “Let go of me, you freak!”

“All right, I'm gonna do the first little part, then you can do the rest, 'kay?” she says to Steve, ignoring Evie's distress.

“'kay,” he murmurs. What is he getting himself into here?

He watches as she twists sections of hair together, memorising where each part lays and what goes underneath what, and when he takes over from her, it really isn't so hard at all. His bit looks a little more sloppy than what Marian did, but not by much.

“Aw, he's really gentle,” Evie says, “definitely a lot more gentle than you,” she shoots at Marian, who makes a crude hand gesture in response.

“Me next!” Clara says.

-

The heat just doesn't let up at all that week. Audrey faints halfway through an evening performance, and Barry catches her, which makes for a very awkward couple of seconds, before they improvise and Captain America saves the pretty girl from the clutches of Hitler. It about brings down the house.

“She really wanted that role in Milwaukee,” Doris murmurs, as Clara and Alice help Audrey onto the bus.

Everyone fusses over her, including Steve, because it reminds him just a little too strongly of when his mother used to have one of her 'spells'. The girls give her water and fan her and take her make up off for her, and Steve reads her bits from the papers and tries to squash down memories of reading the funnies to his mom while she struggled to breathe those last few months.

There's a knock at the door, a couple of hours after she's fallen asleep. Doris and Marian are colluding angrily about contacting the Chorus Equity Association about their working conditions, and Steve's sketching the Liberty Bell from his memory of seeing it for about three minutes the day they arrived here.

“Everyone decent?” Barry calls, and pokes his head around the door. “I just wanted to see how Audrey's doing.”

“Ah, get outta here, Hitler,” Evie says, filing her nails. “She's sleepin'.”

“She okay?” he asks, eyes lingering on her.

Steve lowers his sketchbook. “She's fine.”

“That's good... So, how come you're allowed in here, but I ain't?”

Steve shrugs.

“'Cause he's better looking than you,” Marian says. “And nicer.”

“Well, fuck you, Marian,” he says, storming away.

“It's like grade school all over again with you guys,” Doris says, getting up. “Steve's too shy to talk to girls, and Barry's the school loser. I'm tellin' him he can come in.”

“I'm not that shy,” Steve murmurs, as Doris calls down the hall to Barry. A minute later he comes in and sits down.

“So what, exactly, is it that you do in here?” Barry asks, eyeing Steve. Steve clears his throat and looks back down at the half drawn bell.

Girlie things,” Marian says. “Talking 'bout menstruation and stuff.”

Barry wrinkles his nose. “You jokin' with me? They jokin', Steve?”

Steve shrugs. “It's just nice not being alone for a while, y'know?”

“Yeah...” Barry says, a faraway look in his eye. “I know that.”

-

The high point of the tour comes in December. Steve's done a couple more newsreels, ones with actual sets and a couple of lines, and the comics are pulling so much money that he actually gets a small raise. The fame's kind of fun, and he enjoys it as much as he can. When he steps off the stage in Chicago, there's all this commotion going on backstage. Audrey's jumping up and down on the spot, and the stage hands have broken out some bottles of booze. For a couple of minutes he lets himself believe that maybe this whole damn war is over, maybe he can go home again.

“Steve!” Doris says, and hugs him, her soft breasts pressing against-- Ah, he shouldn't think about that. “Heard the news yet?”

He shakes his head.

“Radio City Music Hall! We're playing at Radio fucking City!”

“Oh,” he says. War's not over, Buck's not coming home... Doris frowns at his lack of excitement and he plasters on a smile. “That's amazing,” he says, though he can't quite force the flat tone from his voice. Either Doris doesn't notice, or she just chooses to ignore it, because she drags him towards the festivities, and yells for someone to pass them some booze.

The press coverage of the performance is ridiculous. He's interviewed for five different newspapers, but says basically the same things for each, exactly what Brandt and his advisors coached him to say, which boils down to 'I just want to serve my country, sir/ma'am; buy Series E Bonds, folks!'. And he does want to serve his country, and he does think people should buy bonds, but it all seems so hollow and pointless these days.

Everyone's so happy about it, though, and why shouldn't they be? These are their careers, their livelihoods. Doris wants to be on Broadway, and Audrey wants to sing at the Stork Club, and Barry wants to be the next Peter Lorre. Steve doesn't want to do any of those things. Steve doesn't know what he wants to do, except whatever's the right thing, and he's not even sure he knows what that is any more.

Adam brings back the motorcycle idea again, and the girls agree that Steve's probably not going to drop them. They only have a couple of days to prepare, and most of that is Evie, Clara, and Audrey working out how to balance on it while he's holding it.

The thing's a blow out success, Christmas Eve and they get record ticket sales, do three performances, and most everyone spends the next day sleeping, except for Steve, who's not even tired. He feels like the only way he could get tired is if he ran for hours and hours, but he's stuck in the Waldorf-Astoria and it's snowing outside, and he knows that if he tried to leave, he'd only get some army guy following him.

Instead, he lies on his four poster bed sketching the intricate patterns on the ceilings until the late afternoon when there's a knock at his door.

“Yeah?” he calls.

“It's me,” Doris replies.

He rolls off the bed and goes over to open the door. “Hey, there.”

“Hey,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” he says, smiling.

“You wanna go down and get somethin' to eat? This place's got some fancy restaurants.”

He stomach growls. “Sure. Don't think I've got anything nice to wear, though.”

She gestures to herself in a loose blouse and billowy slacks; he sees her looking at pictures of Katharine Hepburn a lot. “We're in the same boat. They're not gonna turn us away, we're savin' America one impressionable kid's parent at a time.”

She's right about not being turned away – the waiter is equal parts flattering and snobby, especially once Steve and Doris have been talking for a while, and Steve's finest Brooklyn accent starts to come through more strongly. Guy looks kind of disappointed to discover that Steve's just a street kid done good.

“Heard from your girl?” Doris asks over the biggest steak Steve's ever seen. Supposedly they're sharing it, but she just cut a little piece off and pushed the rest over to him.

“Nah, she's fighting a war.”

“She's army?”

“British Army.”

“She's a Brit? Hell, that's fancy of you, Stevie.”

He smiles a little. “I'm sure she's got better things to be thinking about than me.”

“From the sounds of it, she can probably keep more than one thought in her head at a time.”

“Yeah, I'm sure that's true.”

Doris lights a cigarette and offers him the packet. He shakes his head. “Thoughts of you are probably keeping her warm at night.”

He laughs and ducks his head. “I... I doubt it.”

“So you say,” she murmurs.

He glances back up. “What about you, you never tell me anything.”

She tips her chin up and blows out a thin stream of smoke. “Let's talk about something else.”

-

There's more excitement in the new year, when Leonard drops round before yet another performance to tell them that they're going international – Italy, flying out in one week's time. Most of the girls have never left the country, and neither has Steve. He hadn't even left the state until a couple of months ago.

Photographers gather to see them off, and Steve waves and smiles like a good boy before ducking into the plane. He's not sure what he expected, but the plane is just made up of lots of little rooms that can each take about eight people, which caused a bit of a scuffle among the girls, though they think they're far enough from him that he can't hear it.

Doris, Marian, Audrey, and Alice end up in the cabin with him, though on a twenty four hour flight, there's a lot of moving around and switching seats to be done. Leonard recommended that they bring things to entertain themselves with, so Steve has his sketchbook and pencils and a couple of books, and the girls have all sorts of things, from journals to books full of crosswords to piles of knitting.

“I didn't know you knitted,” he says to Marian as her multicoloured scarf quickly grows.

“What're you saying, ain't I delicate enough to knit?”

“Of course you are, I just-- I just meant...” He takes a breath. “I didn't know that you did,” he finishes quietly.

“Well, now you know,” she says, and flashes him a brilliant smile. “Want me to teach you?”

He closes his sketchbook. “Sure.”

A couple of hours later, he has a very unappealing looking scarf made out of Marian's crappiest yarn. Doris suggests that he 'give it to his girl', but Steve's pretty sure that this would mark the end of any fledging relationship with Peggy.

Being cooped up in this metal boat is awful, all his energy building up with nowhere to go. He walks around as much as he can, does some push ups, which leads to three of the girls sitting on his back while he does them, in an effort to make it harder, but he can barely feel the additional weight. He wouldn't normally consider himself bad in small spaces, but this is really getting to him.

“Come play poker with me!” Audrey says, grabbing his hand and pulling him over to her seat.

“I don't know how to play poker,” he says.

She grins. “I'll teach you!”

Twelve hours in, after he's played about five games of poker with Audrey, losing two and winning three, most everyone's asleep, leaving him to try to read and try to draw, neither of which he does very successfully.

“Can't sleep?” Barry says, shuffling in with a blanket wrapped around him.

“I don't need a lot of sleep,” he says.

Barry sighs and sits down on the chair across from Steve. “Lucky. They got me in with the crew. Couldn't take the snoring any more. You're not doing too badly though.”

He shrugs. “Doris was snoring something awful, before.”

Barry chuckles and stretches his leg out, grimacing a little, before leaning down to rub it.

“You okay?” Steve asks.

“Leg acts up sometimes. Doctors don't know what's wrong with it, army won't take me 'cause of it.”

“Sorry,” Steve says. No one really knows about his past life as a shrimp – they used it in the comics as his 'origin story', but it was pretty accepted as being bull by everyone on the crew, and the army told him to keep his mouth shut about particulars, so he just laughs along when people make jokes.

“So, why ain't you out on the frontlines?”

“They thought I'd 'better serve my country' doin' this,” he says, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, hell, maybe you are. Bond sales are through the roof.”

Steve leans back in his seat. “Maybe.”

They sit for a while longer, Barry trying to get some shut eye until Doris takes a mighty breath in and starts hacking in her sleep. She settles down after a while, but Barry's already thrown his blanket off with a soft, 'to hell with it!'.

“Can I ask you something, Steve?”

Steve looks up from drawing his fifth plane. “Sure.”

“How'd you get so buddy-buddy with the girls?”

He snorts. “Doris said I looked like a lost animal – they felt sorry for me.”

“Why don't they feel sorry for me?” Barry murmurs, but it doesn't seem like he's looking for an answer, so Steve doesn't reply. Barry's eyes drift over to Audrey's sleeping form.

“You should ask her out,” Steve says.

“Uh?” Barry says, sitting up straighter.

“It's pretty obvious. You should ask her, you gotta try to do what makes you happy, right? Carpe diem.”

“What's that mean?”

“'Seize the day',” Steve says, “I think it's Latin, or something.”

-

Steve knew before he even set foot on the stage that this wasn't going to go good. 'A bullet in your best guy's gun'? These are the best guys, and what are they going to pay in, cigarettes and pictures of their sweethearts?

When he gets off the stage in embarrassment and humiliation, Doris pats him on the arm and smiles. “They just want to see titties,” she says.

Seeing Peggy again (he runs through a million things in his head that he wants to say to her, but just comes off like a whiny kid) is the shot in the arm he needs to shake him out of his year long slumber, and hearing that Bucky's dead and soldiers are being abandoned lights the fire under his ass.

Later, when he takes that tin helmet off (and thank God nothing thunked him in the head, because it wouldn't have helped much), he finds Audrey's name written on the inside rim in black marker. He had thought, vaguely, that he'd give it back when he was done, but once he'd got the soldiers back to camp, he found out that the show had been packed up and put back on a plane. He keeps the helmet in his tent for a couple of days, thinking about what to do with it, giving Bucky ample opportunity to tease him about being a showgirl, before he makes a decision and gets a piece of paper and an envelope from Philips. The only address he knows is Doris's, from walking her home a couple of times, so he writes the letter to her.


Hi, Doris,

Sorry I ran out on you a few days ago (it'll be weeks ago by the time you get this, probably). I can't tell you much, but I hope your flight back wasn't too bad, and I hope you're not worried because you don't need to be. I've enclosed fifty dollars for the loss of Audrey's helmet (my fault, I hope no one blamed her!). I guess the show's cancelled now, so I'm sorry about that too.

I'll see you once this is all over.

Love, Steve.