Steve’s expression was one carved of stone. If he could, he would have leaped up from his seat in front of the TV, stormed out of the room and forgotten that this day had ever happened. Instead, his eyes were glued to the screen. He waited for one of his teammates to crack and expose it as the prank that it was – because surely, it couldn’t be anything but? The alternative was so much worse.
His thoughts strayed back to a time before the serum. Of the sickly, weak boy who had entered the chamber with ambitions far bigger than himself, and of the man who had stumbled out in his stead. The serum had made him strong. It had cured every single of his diseases, had fixed everything that had been wrong with him.
Everything, except the one thing.
On the TV screen, the two men – rather, the two teenagers – finished their… their confession, and were now kissing. Very explicitly, right there, in the middle of their living room. The others somehow managed to pretend like they didn’t notice, undoubtedly waiting to gauge his reaction.
Steve had misjudged his team. He had never expected them to be this cruel.
“Alright,” he said, his voice pinched and hands clenched at his sides. “That’s enough.”
Natasha’s eyes skimmed down the page of her magazine and only looked up after she’d finished. “What is?”
Steve scoffed. “Is this funny to you?”
That got the others’ attention. Tony stopped tapping away on his tablet, and Clint shared a look with Natasha. “What are you talking about?”
“Look,” Steve said, not quite gritting his teeth. He would have expected this from Clint and perhaps Tony. But Natasha? He couldn’t believe she was part of this. He hadn’t thought she was the type of person to have a laugh on other people’s expense. “I don’t know what you think you know about me, but you’re wrong. I’m not sick.”
“Why would you be sick?” Natasha asked, her expression not revealing anything.
“Oh please! Why else would you parade,” he hesitated, gesturing helplessly towards the TV when the words wouldn’t come, “that, in front of my eyes?”
Three pairs of eyes looked towards the TV screen. There was a beat of silence.
“You know,” Tony said, “if you don’t like the music, you could have just said so. Who put on Glee in the first place?”
Steve felt the sudden urge to punch something. On the TV, the scene had changed to show some sort of musical number.
“Uh,” Clint said. “Tony…”
“Oh, is it the language?” Tony asked. “I guess you’re used to much tamer songs. Don’t worry, old man. We’ll let you pick next time.”
“Tony. I think he meant the part before it.”
“What part? I wasn’t watching.”
“Two guys kissing,” Natasha said.
Steve didn’t know why they were playing this game, but it was grating on his patience. Why couldn’t they have just left him alone?
“Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding.” Tony stared at him like he’d never seen him before. “You are, aren’t you? Please tell me you’re kidding.”
Steve scowled. “I don’t know why you’re doing this, but–”
“No. Nope. I’m not dealing with this.” Tony shot up from the couch and was halfway across the room before Steve could so much as blink.
“You guys do it. You can give him the talk. I’ll just,” Tony gestured vaguely, “be elsewhere.”
Steve’s scowl turned into a frown. What was he playing at?
“Tony, come on,” Clint said. He shifted uncomfortably where he sat. “It’s not his fault…”
“It shouldn’t be a surprise,” Natasha said, and Steve didn’t know what she meant. “We should have expected it.” But they couldn’t have. There was nothing suggesting that he was… There couldn’t be anything suggesting he was… that. There was no way.
It wasn’t like Steve hadn’t had the thought before. Everybody must have had certain impulses at one point, didn’t they? They just ignored them because they were wrong. Acting on them would be wrong. Steve didn’t – of course he wouldn’t, he wasn’t like that, he wasn’t like those people – so that meant he was fine. Right?
Besides, he’d loved Peggy. He still loved her. There was no way he could have faked his attraction to her, he knew that it was real. That meant he was normal. He liked women, and that was proof enough. Wasn’t it?
“Well excuse me.” Tony’s face was scrunched up in a glare, although he wasn’t looking at Steve. In fact, it seemed like he was taking great care to look anywhere but him. “I guess decades of Captain America being paraded around as the peak of human accomplishment didn’t exactly prepare me for this.”
“You’re wrong,” Steve said, his voice hollow. An oddly numb feeling crept up in his chest, and he wished he’d just kept his mouth shut. “I’m not a– not– I’m not what you think.”
"What, homophobic? Well excuse me if I misread your somewhat obvious reaction to a gay kiss on TV." Tony's sarcasm was a more biting, more sardonic tone than his usual cheerful snark. Then he stiffened, his eyes narrowing as if realizing something he hadn't before. "Oh, also. Being gay is a 'sickness' again, huh? Wow. Haven't heard that one in a while."
"He's from the 40s," Natasha said, quietly. She didn't sound angry like Tony, but she was still wrong. This was all going wrong. Steve didn't know when exactly he had lost track of the conversation.
Tony took a deep breath. His scowl didn't lessen even a bit. "Fine. Okay. Let's do this." He dropped back down on the couch, but didn't touch his tablet. "Things have changed like, woah. Being gay isn't a crime anymore, and the sooner you get used to that the better."
Steve's eyes widened and his heart missed a beat. What?
"I'm not gonna lie and tell you everything is rainbows and sunshine, but we're getting there. Being gay isn't something to be cured of." If possible, Tony's scowl deepened. "Do me a favor and don't take any interviews in the foreseeable future. JARVIS, cancel them if there's any planned. God, just imagine the mess this could have been–”
"Wait," Steve blurting out, stopping Tony in his tracks and blinking rapidly. This had far surpassed the point where he could have written it off as a prank. Even for Clint and Tony, this was going too far. But if it wasn't, that meant... "Hold on. I don't... Slow down."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Let me spell it out for you. Homosexuality is legal now. Being gay, it's not a crime. Not anymore."
"No. No, that's..." Steve frowned, trying to calm his thoughts. They were swirling around his head in a tornado of confusion, toppling over his world view like it was made of paper and leaving his mind in shambles.
What Tony described sounded... it sounded... But it couldn't be. Steve couldn't have possibly woken up in a world that was so fundamentally different than the one he had gone to sleep in.
His thoughts strayed to Billie, his mother's next-door neighbor. Her former neighbor, who had reported a break-in into his apartment and been arrested for "gross indecency" instead. Of Melvin, who had worked the same summer job as Steve, whose clothing had never been quite right, and whose “roommate” had raised eyebrows whenever he’d come up. He'd stopped showing up to work eventually. He thought of timid Ida, who had used to live in their building and whose pleas they had been forced to ignore when her parents had thrown her out into the streets.
"But it's wrong," Steve insisted, because how could Tony look him in the eyes and claim that all of that had meant nothing? That all of that had been pointless? “It’s… It’s unnatural.” Unnatural to look at other guys just a little too long. Unnatural to think that maybe, possibly, if society wasn’t the way it was, if nobody knew, if nobody would ever find out…
It was the wrong thing to say. Tony’s lips twisted like he was chewing on something bitter. “Listen up, Rogers.”
Steve couldn’t help it: he flinched. When was the last time Tony had called him ‘Rogers’?
"You're from a different time. I get that. But you live here now, so you'll have to learn about the things that have changed. Being from the past, it's," Tony paused, fidgeting restlessly with his hands. "I guess it's not exactly fair. But you've gotta deal with it. If the public got wind of it..."
Tony trailed off, muttering something about the "fucking Fox News" under his breath.
"Let's not go there," Clint muttered, and Steve wanted to ask – there were so many questions just waiting to be spoken out loud – but his mouth was too dry. He had no choice but to listen mutely as Tony went on.
"Anyway, one thing you should know about me: I swing both ways." Steve opened his mouth at that, but Tony talked over him before he could utter a single word. "It means I'm into guys, too. Sometimes. Honestly, how could you not have heard about that before? The media loves tearing themselves apart over it."
"I– I thought they said that to drag your name through the mud."
Tony's lip quirked upwards. It was too bitter to be called a smile. "You're not wrong. They've been doing it for decades. You'd think they'd have gotten tired of it by now." Tony made a hand gesture like swatting away the topic. "Anyway. The media being dicks about my sexuality doesn't make it any less true. And it definitely doesn’t make it wrong."
There was something prickling behind Steve's eyes. He bit the inside of his cheek to push down the feeling. He wouldn't get overwhelmed by this. He was fine. Everything was fine.
Tony was still talking. "–and god forbid anybody's children saw. Do you wanna take a guess how many angry letters SI got after I became a superhero on live television? I've still got some of them framed, gotta admire the creativity of–” He cut himself off, and his face went carefully blank. "Rogers. You alright there?"
Steve’s eyes burned with pent up emotions he refused to acknowledge. There was only so much he could do to hold on. "I'm fine." The words felt as hollow as the feeling inside of his chest. A fire burned beside it, the two conflicting sensations battling intensely enough to make him feel nauseous.
"You're pale," Natasha pointed out. "And your eyes are glossy."
"They're not– I'm not–” Steve sucked in a stuttering breath of air. Words fell apart in his head before he could form them to sentences.
"... Are you crying?"
Tony's voice was small and hesitant and Steve hated it. He didn't know what to think. He didn't know what to say. Questions burned on his tongue, battling to be spoken first and burying each other in a mess of words and confusion until Steve's mouth opened and closed mutely.
When a sentences slipped over his lips at last, it turned out to be no question at all. "It's not a sickness," he said, and couldn't bring himself to care when his voice cracked.
"Oh shit," Clint muttered, but said nothing more as Natasha shushed him with a hand on his arm.
"... Yeah," Tony said. "It's not." His expression was guarded, but his voice had lost some of the hostility it had held before. His frown looked thoughtful and close enough to suspicion that Steve had to squash down the urge to bolt from the room.
There were questions he needed to ask. He needed to know.
"It's not a sickness," he repeated, and gave up on trying to pretend that it wasn't for his own sake. "I'm not– I'm not sick." He almost choked on the last word, and just like that he’d left them no more room for interpretation.
Steve watched as Tony's eyes widened, his suspicion blooming into realization. Steve forgot to look away. The thought to flee and to leave the confrontation behind did not even cross his mind. He needed to know.
“I,” Tony started, his typical eloquence giving way to undignified stuttering. “What do you– I– No! No, of course not, I mean,” he broke off, visibly steeling himself as he took a deep breath.
“Steve,” he said, once he’d managed to collect himself. The use of his first name had no right to be this comforting, but it was. “Being gay, or bi, or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t make you sick.”
Steve didn’t know what to say to that. Even if he did, he was fairly sure that the lump in his throat would put a stop to it.
“Tony’s right,” Natasha said, that and nothing more.
Next to her, Clint had his brows set in a stubborn line that looked like he was preparing to start arguing with Steve, should he try to disagree. It was enough to startle a laugh out of him, although it came out shaky and weak.
Steve latched onto one of the words Tony had used. Bi . What had he called it? Swinging both ways. Did that mean that in the 21st century there was more than one option? (Technically there had always been two, but only one was the right one. Only one was the acceptable one.) Did this mean that Steve didn’t have to choose? Did this mean that his feelings for Peggy were real, but so was everything else?
Only months prior (decades, from everybody else’s perspective) Steve wouldn’t have dared to even breach the topic. It wasn’t something people talked about. It wasn’t something people were supposed to talk about. Because if they did, if they brought up the possibility, the smallest suspicion that they were different, that they were queer…
But Tony hadn’t just breached the topic. He'd gone out of his way to declare himself what Steve had taken great care not to think about too closely. Tony liked guys. There. Was it that simple? It had sounded simple when Tony had said it, like it was something normal to feel, like it was something to be comfortable with. So if Tony was comfortable with who he was, did that mean that Steve could, too?
“Look,” Tony said, interrupting Steve’s heated thoughts. “I’m sorry for being a dick earlier. There’s some things that make me really defensive, and this… Well, this is one of them. I didn’t realize– I mean, I didn’t know…” He trailed off and they fell into silence.
Steve wanted to tell him that it was fine, that Tony couldn’t have known. He wanted to tell him that it was all Steve, nothing of this was their fault. Why couldn’t he bring himself to say anything? He just needed to open his mouth and talk.
“In any case,” Tony said, because unlike Steve he wasn't an idiot who couldn't get words out of his mouth. “I can't imagine how weird this must be for you.”
They fell into silence. It felt somewhat uncomfortable, but not awkward – although perhaps Steve was too distracted by the thoughts swirling through his head to notice. He couldn't get a hold on them, each thought being chased by five others and slipping through his grasp before he could examine it closer.
Tony had never been one to stay silent for long. “Okay, help me out here. Do you… need something? Do you need me to keep talking? To leave you alone? I don't know, give you a pep talk or something? Give me something to work with here, because I got nothing.”
“If it was a sickness,” Steve heard himself say, “the serum would have cured it. Right?” He immediately wanted to take the question back. How childish, blatantly asking for reassurance like this.
“I mean. Yeah?” Steve felt his anxiety spiking at the question in Tony’s voice. Before he could do more than furrow his brows, Tony went on. “I guess so. Look, people keep saying that the serum was created to make the perfect human being, whatever that means. So if it snuffed out your illnesses, allergies and whatnot, but kept this?” Tony shrugged somewhat awkwardly. “Sounds to me like you're meant to keep it. Nothing left to fix.”
Steve let out a shaky breath. Tony made it sound so logical. So easy. Like it wasn't something that Steve had spent most of his life being afraid off, like it wasn't something he'd tried to hide, even from himself.
Some distant, brash part of him felt robbed. It wasn’t fair to listen to Tony, comfortable in his own skin and with the words to describe himself, and feel ignorant and old-fashioned in return, terrified of examining his own feelings closer for fear of having to confront them.
When he looked up, he had no idea what Tony, Natasha and Clint had talked about the past few minutes. It was his name that eventually snapped him out of his daze.
“Steve? Hey Steve, you okay?”
“Tell me more,” he burst out, the only words that felt right to say. “What else has changed? When exactly? And how?”
Tony hesitated. Steve didn’t blame him, seeing how he had reacted to everything else so far. “Please. I want to know how the future has changed.”
Tony caved and sank back into the couch. “Sure,” he said, failing to sound casual. “Fair warning though, we might be here a while. Actually, give me a bit. I might need a powerpoint.”
He made it sound like a warning, like he wanted to give Steve the chance to back out before he was overwhelmed. "I'll wait," he said, and for the first time, excitement threatened to overshadow the vortex of negative emotions in his chest. "You have to tell me everything."