Steve didn't want to overwhelm Alice. But they'd been holed up in his apartment for a while and Alice had reassured Steve that he didn't need to worry, so on the third day they set off for Natasha's new Avengers HQ together, where the whole team had gathered.
Thor and his search team had returned from space, minus the Guardians and Loki (Alice had overheard Steve's phone call with Thor yesterday: "Alas, Loki absconded somewhere in Nornheim," Thor had sighed. "At least he didn't bother to fake his death this time." Steve had raised his eyebrows, but all he said was: "He'll show up again soon, I'm sure").
Alice tried not to stare when they arrived at the headquarters in Midtown, but she couldn't help it: the building was all glass and sleek metal, more like a spaceship than an office building. Not that she knew much about spaceships either.
"It's a bit different than the old SSR offices," she commented as they crossed the lobby toward the elevator.
"Sure is," Steve grinned as he hit the elevator button. "But the woman running this place is just as deadly."
The elevator ride made Alice's nerves fizz and clench in her stomach. She didn't realize how quiet she'd gotten until Steve nudged her with his hip.
"Hey," he murmured. "They already love you, you don't need to be worried. Besides, Bucky got here early so hopefully he'll make them behave."
Alice nudged him back and gave him a tight smile to show her gratitude. But she couldn't quite bring herself to speak.
Alice had been expecting another sleek, corporate space like the downstairs lobby, but half a minute later the elevator doors opened to reveal a warm, cozy sort of room with leather couches, wide windows looking out over Manhattan, and orange lamps. And it looked like they'd walked into a party already underway.
A stack of pizza boxes steamed on the main coffee table, surrounded by a crowd of chatting, laughing people. Alice's eyes were first drawn to a large green-skinned man in a purple sweater and glasses. Must be Bruce Banner. She then spotted Bucky standing behind a far counter, pouring drinks for a pair of women - one with blonde hair and a beat-up Air Force jacket, the other with dark skin and white tattoos on her face. The rest of the people in the room looked mostly normal, but Alice knew some of them must not be human: men and women sharing jokes and clinking drinks together, a boy and a girl who looked to be in their teens, as well as a smaller girl sitting on the lap of a ginger-haired woman in a pantsuit. Alice could instantly see this was no normal gathering however: each person seemed larger than life, character and experience written in their every movement.
Behind the ginger-haired woman and child, a man with a strangely shaped beard looked up and spotted Steve and Alice stepping out of the elevator, and his face lit up.
"Look who it is!" he called.
After that Alice was caught up in a whirl of exclamations, handshakes, bright grins and a flurry of names that would have been overwhelming to anyone else, but which she memorized instantly. Still, the sheer scope of skills and titles these people had felt intimidating: doctors and geniuses and aliens. Steve stayed by her side as the Avengers introduced themselves one at a time. He'd been right: they were eager to meet her, beaming at each quiet word she spoke. Sam, who was much nicer than Bucky had made him out to be, shook Alice's hand and leaned in to whisper "you're doing great," with a warm smile which instantly lifted the weight on her shoulders.
The child turned out to be Tony Stark's daughter, one of the teenagers was an Avenger called Spider-Man who stammered his greeting to her and then shrank away, and the other was the daughter of another Avenger called Ant-Man.
After the rush of introductions several Avengers ushered Alice Alice onto one of the couches beside an exasperated-looking Steve, and the pizza boxes were handed around. Alice got a brief reprieve in the rush, and used it to eye the people around her: they were an eclectic bunch, but she saw how smoothly they fit together. They moved and spoke and laughed with the ease of years. A team.
"So how're you settling in?" asked a young woman with auburn hair - Wanda - as Alice passed on the meatlovers pizza.
About three other conversations had already cropped up in the room, but Alice felt plenty of people waiting for her answer. She smiled. "Much easier now I'm not on the run."
"You seemed to handle yourself alright," said a man who Tony Stark had introduced as 'Rhodey'. "You'd have probably bought yourself a car and figured out computer engineering by next week."
"I still might," Alice responded, and felt a small glow of pride when that got a round of laughter. She hadn't been so nervous to meet a group of people in a long time; these were Steve's friends, and she wanted them to like her. She cleared her throat. "I actually, wanted to - er…" she suddenly felt the full weight of the attention of all the Avengers on her: all the gods and soldiers and spies and scientists she'd just been introduced to. She swallowed and continued on. "I wanted to thank you all."
The room grew quiet aside from the sounds of drinking and eating.
Alice met the eyes of each person in the room. "Thanks for lots of things, but mostly - thank you for saving me and the other musicians. And for looking for me. If I'd known who was chasing me, I would have stopped running." There were a few more chuckles. "And thanks for looking after Steve." She turned to find him watching her with warm eyes, pizza forgotten in his left hand. She took his free hand and squeezed it. "I know he doesn't always make it easy."
Steve's smile turned into a scowl, and Bucky snorted as he leaned over the back of the couch to hand Alice her drink: a Paris Sidecar. Alice beamed at him.
"Well, you are very welcome," said Thor with a genuine smile. "It's our pleasure." A shadow crossed his face. "I am only sorry it took me so long to realize what Bragi was up to."
Silence fell for a moment in the sudden darkness of that statement, until Alice gave Thor a tired smile. "It got me here," she told him. "And as much as we might wish things had been done differently... this is the way it is. And the other musicians and I are free, and safe, and being cared for. There's no way we can repay a debt like that."
"It's no debt at all," Thor said solemnly, then ducked his head and leaned away to slide a pizza box toward himself. Alice let out a breath through her nose.
"So come on," said someone on the other couch, and Alice glanced over to see Sam, the new Captain America. He leaned back with a plate stacked with pizza propped on his knee, and an easy smile on his face. "You've gotta tell us what Steve was like, back when he was a kid. Steve doesn't talk about it much and Barnes's brain is as good as pea soup."
Bucky bumped his hip into Sam's couch as he walked by with more drinks, almost toppling Sam's plate of pizza off his knee before Sam lurched to save it.
"Steve was… smaller," Alice said with a smile. "But just as hard headed." Steve just shrugged, accepting the assessment as he ate. His friends laughed.
"What was your wedding like?" asked Pepper Potts, who was holding her daughter's plate of pizza while Morgan was busy sliding under the couch.
Alice and Steve shared a glance at that one. "Um, sudden," Alice admitted, her cheeks going a bit pink when that got a laugh. "Nothing that I had imagined, but everything I needed."
Steve shifted closer to her on the couch until their legs were pressed side by side.
"Was Barnes really as much of a ladykiller as they say he was?" Clint asked, sharing his plate of pizza with the redhead named Natasha. Natasha's lips curved into a smile, but she kept quiet as she watched Alice.
"Yes," Alice laughed. She looked over to Bucky, who had propped himself against the wall and seemed to be trying to avoid the spotlight. "But you were always good to them, Bucky." He looked up, mouth quirking. "You certainly broke a few hearts, but I don't think any of them would say they hated you."
"I hate you," Sam muttered.
The conversation flowed over the food and drinks, mostly centred on Alice but also shifting to the others; it wasn't often they all caught up like this, and they seemed excited to be in each other's presence.
Alice told them a little about her work in the war, sanitising it since there were children present. The war still felt so recent to her, but somehow the knowledge that the war had been won eighty years ago helped her to distance herself. The Avengers listened with quiet respect, as if they hadn't all saved the world themselves half a dozen times over.
Alice learned about the Avengers, too - their skills and powers, and what they had decided to do with their lives now their greatest battle had been won. She smiled as they laughed together about 'old times'. She liked the way Steve smiled when he joked with them, and the fond way the others talked about their memories of him.
The Avengers were a remarkable group: the Hulk, with his intellect and humility, Vision with his shifting, kind face, Wanda with her scarlet flashing eyes, Tony Stark's quick-witted charm and his arm in a sleek metal netted sleeve that softly whirred when he moved. Alice was fascinated by them all.
Steve had such a history here, such trust and love.
They were currently discussing Steve's retirement, and how Sam had taken up the mantle. Sam had half the room in stitches describing the mishaps he'd had in getting used to the shield.
"So, what's with the uniform?" Alice asked. "Because I know you're Captain America now, but Steve was definitely wearing a Captain America uniform when I saw him-"
And the Avengers all started clamoring to talk, half of them reaching for their phones to show her an apparently embarrassing history of uniforms that she had never seen. Steve took it all in good stride, just rolling his eyes and laughing at them. His ears did go a bit red at the 'first uniform' as they called it, which Scott Lang had brought up on his phone: a shockingly colorful, tight uniform more like his USO costume than what he'd worn while fighting the war.
"Shocking design by S.H.I.E.L.D.," Tony tutted. "This is the one I made him after he blew up S.H.I.E.L.D." He handed his phone to Morgan. "Bring that over for me, sweetheart."
"She's not a courier service," Pepper sighed, but Morgan had already grabbed her dad's glass phone and run it over to Alice.
"Thank you," Alice smiled as she took the phone from the shy little girl. The image on the phone was of a much nicer uniform, more muted in color and truer to his wartime uniform, if a little sleeker. "I like that one."
"Of course he then beat the shit out of me while wearing it and then defaced it," Tony said as he raised his eyebrows at Steve, but Alice could hear from the tone of his voice that whatever hurt there had once been in the story was long forgiven. Steve, for his part, had the grace to look a little ashamed.
Morgan brought the phone back to her dad. "Shit!" she parroted.
Pepper turned to glare at Tony.
"For what it's worth," piped up Clint, who had stood up to select a beer from the kitchen with Stephen Strange, "we have to agree that the best one was his second S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform. Show her, Steve."
Steve sighed, then found a photo on his phone of himself in a dark navy suit with no red in it, just sleek silver stripes and a single star on the chest.
Alice's eyebrows lifted. "Oh I do like that one."
Steve glanced at her. "You… do?"
"Forget about it, you're retired," Tony teased.
The other Avengers began putting in their votes for their favorite of Steve's uniforms (Wanda and Bruce put up a vehement defense for his defaced 'Nomad' uniform), and Alice excused herself to go to the bathroom.
"I'll show you where it is," came a cool voice over her shoulder, and she looked back to see Natasha Romanoff. The Black Widow. Alice had heard a lot about her from Steve and Bucky, but the woman had hung back so far. But Alice hadn't missed how Natasha's cool eyes followed her about the room, assessing.
"You sure, Nat?" Steve asked, something akin to worry in his eyes.
"It's fine," Natasha smiled. She waited for Alice to stand, then tipped her head. "This way."
Steve watched them leave.
Natasha and Alice strode through the common room and out to the hallway outside, walking three feet apart and in perfect step.
"There's a lot of people to get to know, all of a sudden," Natasha said evenly. "You must be tired."
Alice eyed her for several long moments. Natasha's calm facade did not even waver.
Finally, she spoke. "Steve told me about Sharon," she said. "But he didn't tell me about you." Alice trusted Steve to tell her everything she needed to know, but she didn't quite understand this woman's razor focus on her.
Natasha smiled. Neither of them broke their pace. "We did kiss once, but that was to maintain cover on a mission." She leaned in a little and whispered: "I didn't know he was married, at the time."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "You would've done it anyway."
"True." Natasha turned a corner and Alice followed without breaking her stride. "We were on the run from some pretty bad people."
"Well." Alice flicked her eyes over Natasha. She'd been suspicious of her reticence and careful distance earlier, mistaking it for jealousy, but now she saw it was care. A strange kind of care, sharp edged, but Alice knew all about that. Natasha was looking out for Steve. Alice's face softened. "Thank you for keeping him safe."
"Oh, he's pretty good at that on his own," Natasha laughed as they approached the bathroom doors. Then she shrugged. "Though he sometimes does need help." She came to a halt outside the bathroom and held out a hand. "Natasha."
"That your real name?" Alice asked with an arched brow.
"Most of the time."
Alice finally reached out to shake her hand. "Well, I'm Alice. Most of the time."
"I know," Natasha smirked.
Alice sighed. "I'm not much of a fan of this everyone-knowing-all-about-me business."
Natasha shrugged. "You'll just have to make some new secrets."
Alice pushed open the bathroom door, then looked back at the smiling redhead. "I think you and I are going to get along, Natasha."
Natasha just smirked again. "I know."
When Natasha returned to the room with a smile on her face, Steve's stomach lurched.
"Is everything... okay?" he murmured when she approached.
She just smiled wider at his concern, then sat down beside him. "I like her," she said.
He let out a breath. "You do?" He hadn't been worried, but he knew that Alice, much like himself, did not always win everyone over in a first meeting. And he wanted his friends to love her.
Natasha patted Steve's knee. "You've told me plenty about Alice in the past and I thought it was partly idealism. Rose colored glasses." Her eyes glinted. "But I should have known better. She's wonderful, Steve. And I can see how you two fit together. It makes sense."
Steve smiled. Natasha normally reserved sentimentality for very small doses, so this was a nice surprise. "Thank you, Nat."
Natasha smiled back for another moment before shooting him a mock-serious look. "Now don't go running off to a far-off farm in the middle of nowhere like Clint did."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Steve assured her. "I actually thought about that when we first visited Clint's farm. Thought it seemed nice. But then I realized that Alice would be bored to tears."
Natasha laughed under her breath as she reached for her drink. "You know what, I think you're right."
Alice returned to the common room to find that a few different conversations had broken out. Steve was chatting with Natasha and Hope Van Dyne, and he looked up as she entered, but she smiled and waved him off. She'd just heard Thor say Bragi, in a conversation with Bruce, Wanda, Strange, the quirky spider-boy, and Carol Danvers.
"... Dronag was most difficult to resituate," Thor was telling them, "since his whole planet was lost in the Shi'ar civil war, but he really liked Xandar, so we agreed to drop him off there."
"What happened to the musicians on Earth?" Alice asked as she slipped into the conversation, suddenly feeling very short beside Thor.
He gave her a small smile. "Most are still at the recovery centre in Wakanda, but are preparing to return to their home countries. There have already been a few requests by musicians wishing to remain in Wakanda, however."
"I'm pretty sure one of the Norse skalds is in love with that 70s singer, the one who disappeared from her plane," Wanda said.
"What a world," Bruce mused.
"What's it like, being a skald?" Peter asked Alice, his eyes wide and his voice eager.
Alice thought about it. Bragi had been a secondary thought for her in all this. She supposed she was angry at the god for disrupting so many lives, her own included, but she knew she was lucky to have landed here, with Steve. She hummed. "I suppose it feels strange," she answered the boy. "To have been watched my whole life by… an alien." She lifted one shoulder. "But I don't remember my time in Bragi's world aside from a vague kind of remembered sensation. I'm just glad that you lot managed to get us out. I wouldn't fancy singing for eternity."
"Nor me," Peter said quickly. "Though I'm a terrible singer."
The adults laughed.
Carol tipped her chin up. "You're welcome to visit the recovery centre if you like," she told Alice. "Hell, you can stay there. I know you've got people here, but just… keep it in mind."
"Thank you," Alice smiled. "Are the others… adjusting? I've only missed eighty years, but I know there's others from much further back."
Carol cocked her head. "They've got a lot to learn, a common language being first and foremost, but they're getting there."
"If anything this has taught us that people from hundreds of years ago aren't any less intelligent than us," Strange chimed in. "They just have different knowledge. The progress of just a few days is proving very promising; this group has a particular eagerness to learn. I suppose they're all dreamers and creatives, after all, by nature. They do need protection from modern diseases though, which I've been working on with the Wakandan scientists."
"Speaking of which, you should probably get your shots," Bruce added to Alice. "We didn't have to worry about that with Steve and Bucky because of the serum, but you deserve the best healthcare the twenty first century has to offer."
"Good idea, thank you," Alice acknowledged. "It was good to hear there's a vaccine for polio these days, I remember being terrified that Steve would get it when he was small." She let out a breath. "So the others are okay. That's… that's good. I'd like to meet them, I think."
"Really?" Bruce asked.
She nodded, but didn't say more. One day, I'd like to perform with them, she thought. She wasn't sure why; a rebellion against the cosmos, perhaps, a way of taking control back over her own voice, and of all their stories. The thought did terrify her, though. She was curious to know if there was something familiar in each of them that brought them to that golden tree. Strange had called them dreamers. Alice was afraid at the thought of it, and furious at the fallen god, but she knew there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing except, perhaps, to live the fullest life she could.
Alice slid up next to Steve as he was in the middle of a raucous conversation on the couches with most of the rest of the Avengers - they seemed to be in the middle of bringing up each other's most embarrassing moments. Alice enjoyed the stories and the easy laughter.
"Remember how you threatened to beat me up on the very first day you met me?" Tony shot at Steve, eyebrows raised.
"To be fair, you were being really annoying," Steve retorted.
"Granted. But you wouldn't have been able to take me."
"Most fights I've seen him start he's lost," Alice agreed.
"Thanks," Steve said.
Bucky waved a hand. "Ah, he's gotten better at finishing fights these days."
"Ooh," said Nat, "if we're going off of most embarrassing moments, what about the time Spider-Man here kicked both Bucky's and Sam's asses."
Peter went pink at the compliment as both Bucky and Sam started vehemently defending themselves.
"Technically he lost that fight-"
That started the others off talking about some 'battle at the airport'. Alice listened in confusion. Steve had told her that the Avengers had broken apart at one point. But she hadn't realised they had actually all fought each other - they were describing the fight with good humor, even Rhodey, who had apparently been severely injured.
"What drove you all apart?" Alice asked softly, only in the hearing of Steve and a few others.
Steve and Tony shared a glance, measured by years.
Alice frowned. "I know… Steve, you told me about… Bucky, but you also mentioned… politics?"
"You called it politics?" Tony asked, his eyebrow quirked. A few other Avengers glanced over. "Well, I suppose it was." He shrugged and sipped his drink.
Steve sighed and faced Alice. "It's complicated, but basically there was this thing called the Accords: it was an agreement by the United Nations, they wanted to regulate the Avengers and put enhanced people on a register-"
"They wanted to what."
The other conversations in the room died at the sudden shift in Alice's voice. Everyone looked over. She sat with her hands clenched into fists in her lap and cold fury burning in her eyes, as well as something like panic.
It took Steve a moment. "Alice," he said softly, reaching for her. "Alice, it's not the same."
And then everyone realized. Alice, who had lived through the war in Austria and Germany, who had split her palms open on the shattered glass of Kristallnacht and seen her friends wearing yellow stars. Who lost her friends to lists and registers and hidden prisons.
Tony leaned over with his elbows on his knees, his head bowed.
Steve reached for Alice's hand but she just clenched her fists tighter.
"No one learned, did they."
Steve's eyes pinched with pain. "Yes. We did." He gestured around. "And it wasn't as simple as I said," he said in an effort to defend his friends. "People were getting hurt-"
"It's never simple," she said, standing up abruptly. Normally she'd push down her feelings, smile, let it all wash over her calm facade, but she was done with that. "But it is wrong."
The enormity of all she felt overwhelmed her. She turned on her heel and strode out of the room, leaving an icy silence in her wake.
Steve clambered to his feet, but Bucky set his hand on his shoulder. "Give her a minute, pal," he said softly.
Alice stood before a floor-to ceiling window with her arms wrapped around herself, blindly looking down at the city. A few angry tears had spilled down her cheeks as she stormed away from the common room, but now her face held no expression. Her mind, however, was full.
Steve had warned her that this modern world wasn't perfect. He'd told her all the good things, of course: her mom and Matthias would have had almost no problems getting married nowadays, for one, as a woman she now had the exact same rights and opportunities as any man, Otto would have been able to marry his partner, and the world was, in general, a safer and more open place to live. But Steve had not left out the bad parts. Except, apparently, for this. She supposed he mustn't have realized how it would affect her.
Alice let out a shaky breath. Perhaps I wasn't being entirely fair. Everything he'd said had been past tense, so she assumed this wasn't a problem any more. But, she had to remind herself, she was fresh out of the depths and tragedy of the war. She couldn't expect to deal with such things with clarity and calm. She reached up to rub her chin. I think I'd better take Steve up on that suggestion of therapy.
She heard footsteps, and looked over her shoulder just as none other than Tony Stark rounded the corner. He had his hands in his pockets, and his eyes were slightly wary as he took in the sight of her.
Alice let out a breath and turned to face him, arms still folded.
Tony strode toward her slowly, watching her expression. "Hi," he said. "We haven't really properly had a conversation yet. I think you knew my father-"
"I didn't like him," Alice said bluntly.
Tony's mouth quirked. "Steve usually tries to protect my feelings when he talks about my old man."
Alice turned cool green eyes on him. "Do you want me to?"
Tony shrugged. "Nah. But I didn't come to talk about him, anyway. I met him when he was younger once, when we - never mind." He waved a hand, then took a long breath. "I want you to know, I realize now that I was wrong. About some stuff. In the past." He held up a hand. "Now so was Steve, we both made mistakes. But you're right. Putting innocent people on lists because we're afraid of them isn't the right call."
Alice felt the tight ball of ice inside her loosen a little, and she stopped crossing her arms so tightly.
Tony continued. "After the whole mess with Thanos and the Accords Committee fell apart, I was a part of the team that worked on creating something better. The Avengers have accountability now, but there's no more enforced register of enhanced people. We handle threats when they crop up, not before. I learned that from Steve."
Alice's arms loosened and fell by her sides, but her face remained impassive.
"I get why you're suspicious," Tony acknowledged, nodding. "Living for what, almost ten years surrounded by Nazis has got to affect the way you make friends."
Alice let out a breath. "You're not a Nazi."
"Well I'm relieved to hear you say so," Tony said with a quirk of his mouth. He held out his hand. "It's a good basis for a friendship, at least."
Alice and Tony returned to the gathering in the common room together, absorbed in a very beginner-level discussion of computer coding. The others were kind enough not to mention Alice's outburst as they returned (apart from Steve, who apologised profusely for not telling her earlier).
Alice settled back into the easy conversations and jokes flowing in the room. And as she did she realized, for the first time, that this was a place she felt like she could belong.
Excerpt from CNN News Post 'Avengers: Siren Confirmed Safe and Healthy':
After several days of speculation, Natasha Romanov's newly-created unnamed organisation (most often referred to as the 'New Avengers') put out a short press brief today confirming what most of the world had already suspected: Alice Moser, AKA 'the Siren' has been found and is safe with Avengers personnel (most likely her husband, Captain Steve Rogers).
The brief reads 'We are happy to announce that Alice Moser is safe, healthy, and adjusting to her new environment. On behalf of Alice and her loved ones, we request privacy and sensitivity from the public and media for the time being.'
The brief was met with a general outpouring of well-wishes and congratulations by the public. While many still have questions about the infamous wartime spy and her re-adjustment to the modern world, it appears the world will have to wait for answers.
Alice had found herself, once more, in a complicated world. There'd been so much tragedy and loss over the years, and there remained a great deal of curiosity, distrust, and interest toward herself. She knew she would have to find a place for herself in this world, like Steve had.
Suddenly, all the doors that had been closed to her before were open now: she could sing whatever she liked, love whoever she wanted to without fear, she could study and travel and speak. She could shout from the rooftops that she fucking hated Nazis and that she was in love with Captain America. The freedom felt dizzying.
And even as she adjusted to the future, there were parts of her past that she couldn't wait to revisit.
Alice and Steve drove to San Francisco, wearing disguises since 'the Siren' was still front-page news in many places. The drive was nice: they'd never gone for a long drive together, save for the time the 107th Tactical Team had stolen that truck in Italy and Steve had been hiding under a tarpaulin in the truck bed. They swapped driving shifts, listening to every song Steve could think of and stopping at roadside motels where they shared the creaky beds and surfed the many TV channels.
Finally, they arrived at a beautiful townhouse in San Francisco. They were let in by a middle-aged woman with kind eyes who didn't speak; she just smiled, and gestured them through to another room.
The door to the living room opened and Alice saw an old woman sitting there, waiting. The woman was withered and silvery, her hair almost white and her skin wrinkled and marked by age.
But then the woman looked up and Alice saw her friend: the same clever dark eyes, the same twist to her mouth that looked half like a smile, half like a frown.
"Jilí," Alice breathed, and realized that tears had begun spilling down her cheeks. Steve's hand remained steady at her back. "I left you."
"No you didn't, Heulsuse," [crybaby] Jilí said kindly, and the corners of her mouth tipped up into a smile. She opened her arms and Alice sprang forward, rushing over the carpeted floor and practically falling into Jilí's embrace. "You had no way of knowing."
Alice clung to her friend and wept, half-sprawled across the sofa, her arms around Jilí as Jilí softly stroked her hair. Alice had thought she could face this calmly, but recognizing her friend in this old and withered frame had struck her deep. She cried for all the miles and years put between them.
"You made it," Alice cried. "You made it out."
"So did you." Jilí kissed the top of Alice's head. "I see you brought your fellow from Brooklyn."
Alice laughed wetly and looked up to see Steve hovering awkwardly in the doorway, with the woman who'd let them into the house standing behind him. "I hear you've already met."
"It's always nice to get back in touch with people you once wrote letters to," Jilí said tiredly.
Alice laughed, and Jilí motioned for Steve and the other woman to come in and take a seat.
"Alice," Jilí said, as Alice righted herself and wiped her cheeks. "I'd like to introduce you to my daughter," she gestured to the woman, who looked to be in her sixties, with greying copper hair and Jilí's dark eyes, "Alice."
Alice blinked. "Alice?"
The other woman smiled and held out her hand. "That's me. I never thought I'd meet my namesake, but I'm honored."
"I'm honored," Alice said, eagerly shaking her hand. "I can't believe..." she glanced between Jilí and her daughter, picking out differences. It felt bizarre that this woman was born almost a decade after Alice had vanished, and now was at more than twice her age. "It's wonderful to meet you."
Alice the younger (older?) smiled. "Likewise. Thank you for all that you did."
Alice felt a twist of guilt. "Oh, I didn't-"
"You did," Jilí said firmly. "If it weren't for you, I'd have been dead long before they put these numbers on my arm." She slid up her cardigan sleeve, revealing a tattoo on her forearm.
Alice leaned in, round-eyed, and reached out to trace the long-faded numbers. She could only just make them out. Her stomach turned and she fought not to let her sudden surge of anger show on her face. She'd only seen a few tattoos like these before, in the war: escapees from the camps who had come to her network in search of escape. The sight of them had made her furious before, but seeing this old memento of Jilí's imprisonment made her want to break something.
Jilí's hand landed on Alice's, stilling her slow tracing of the numbers. "They're dead." Alice glanced up, frowning, and Jilí met her eyes. "Everyone who hurt me is gone. They were killed, or imprisoned, but either way I outlived them." A glint of something like victory lit up in her eyes, faded as they were. Jilí's fragile hand tightened on Alice's. "And so did you."
Alice felt a sudden smile creep across her face at the vindication in Jilí's eyes. She gripped her friend's hand. Steve and the other Alice watched from their seats, smiling.
Alice and Jilí had seen such violence in the war, had weathered grief and heartbreak and fear, and had together mustered the courage to fight back. Jilí might have lived through almost eighty years since then, but Alice saw that her memories of that time were just as clear for her as they were for Alice.
The war had forged Alice and Jilí into something different.
"Thank you for looking for me," Alice eventually said in reply. "Steve told me - your whole life-"
Jilí smiled crookedly. "And it turns out some bloody alien whisked you off to space," she cut in, rolling her eyes to make Alice laugh. "I have to say, after years of searching and about a hundred different theories, that never occurred to me."
"I'm sorry," Alice murmured. "You shouldn't have had to spend so long looking for me-"
"Oh, I don't regret it," Jilí said firmly. "I helped hundreds of other people during my search, and in truth I think I needed something to do after the war." She flapped a hand. "We all need a hobby." Alice smiled at her, and Jilí continued: "I'm just sorry Peggy never got to find out that you'd come back, that you were safe."
Alice's smile wobbled, but stayed on her face. "I would have liked to talk to her again, too," she said softly. "You two were friends?" Jilí nodded, her sharp dark eyes glimmering with sadness.
Alice settled in beside her. "Tell me everything."
Alice and Jilí spoke for hours about everything Alice had missed. Alice didn't need to tell Jilí much about her own experience of the war, since Jilí pretty much knew it all after her research. Alice learned about Jilí's second husband James, and the family they had built together. About Jilí's work in S.H.I.E.L.D., and her friendship with Peggy Carter. Alice could see how Jilí and Peggy would get along; Alice supposed she herself was drawn to a certain kind of uncommon, unyielding woman, and that quality had drawn Jilí and Peggy together.
Steve and Jilí's daughter listened for the most part, occasionally chiming into the conversation, fetching tea and biscuits. As they cleared away the teacups later in the afternoon, Jilí sighed and leaned back in her chair, weariness written across her face.
She turned her gaze, still sharp despite the years, on Alice. "Let me hear you sing, Alice," she murmured. "I never thought I would hear you again."
Alice looked down at her lap. She hadn't sung since she arrived back in the future - not even a hummed tune to herself. She was afraid, she supposed. The last time she had performed had been for an audience of Nazis, and then she'd had her song wrung out of her like a captive bird for decades.
But here sat her dear friend, who had once been her only source of real and present friendship in one of the hardest times of her life, asking to hear her sing.
Alice drew in a deep breath and wiped her eyes.
"Ein leiser Walzer schwebt durch den Raum," [A soft waltz floats through the room] she sang, softly and a little hesitantly at first. But no golden snare of light flashed in the room, and no sickening twist of guilt surged in her stomach. Her only listener was Jilí, whose eyes softened as she recognized the song.
"Da gleite ich mit dir wie im Traum," [I glide with you as if in a dream], Alice's voice came more confidently, lilting in the living room as the afternoon sun glowed orange through the windows. "Durch Sterngewimmel bis in den Himmel, und alles lacht uns freundlich zu." [Through a swarm of stars up to the sky, and everything laughs kindly at us.]
Jilí closed her eyes, and as Alice sang on, weaving the melody in the air between them, a tear creeped out from under her lashes.
This was a German love song, normally meant to be sung in a buoyant tone at the top of one's lungs, but Alice couldn't help but turn the tune slightly sad. The last time Alice had sung this song had been at Jilí and Franz's wedding.
Alice reached out to hold her friend's withered, papery hand as she sang.
When Steve and Alice the younger heard the unmistakable sounds of song emanating from the other room, they shared a glance. Slowly, they moved to the door to look into the living room.
Jilí and Alice sat hand in hand, both of their eyes closed, as Alice sang. The scene made Steve's heart wrench, as did Alice's voice: he'd last heard her sing back in Berlin, but this wasn't a song for Nazis. This song came from the very bottom of her heart, and he heard it in each note and shaky breath she took.
After a moment, he and the other Alice closed the door.
Alice didn't move in with Steve straight away. They were both worried that it would be too much, too quickly - especially as they'd never lived together before - so Alice rented an apartment in Brooklyn with the money that had been returned to her after it had been seized and redistributed upon her "death". She only accepted the money that rightfully belonged to her, not the offered donations from hundreds of people.
She calculated how much money she had earned by profiteering from the Nazis, then donated that entire amount to campaigns against antisemitism and fascism, and museums honoring the victims of the war. She also, of course, completely gave over the title to her uncle's old mansion to Hugo's granddaughter, who ran the Steinkauz Haus jazz bar and community centre in Vienna.
This left her without a great deal of money, but enough to get by. Her apartment was nice: smaller than Steve's, and the air conditioner only worked about half the time, but it reminded her of her old home above Matthias's tailor shop. Not perfect, but a home. Besides, it gave her independence and space to breathe when she needed it.
(She and Steve usually spent most of their time at each other's places anyway.)
Shortly after Alice got herself a proper modern phone and an email address, she received an invitation to a 'family reunion' at a community hall in Brooklyn. When she showed the email to Steve, her hand shaking slightly, he checked his own phone to find that he'd been invited too. An hour later, Bucky called them and asked what they thought he should wear to the reunion.
They decided to go together. They found a car park in the busy lot outside, then carried in their contribution to the potluck (a lasagna that Bucky had made and four tubs of icecream that Steve and Alice had bought from their local bodega). They followed the signs in to the community centre, each of them feeling a little out of place, until they walked into the main hall.
It was no ballroom with glittering chandeliers: the hall had a lacquered wooden floor, windows with old yellowed curtains, and fluorescent lighting. And it was already full of people of all ages standing and sitting around the arranged plastic tables and chairs, filling the room with chatter and laughter. The potluck buffet table stretched along the whole back wall.
When Alice, Steve, and Bucky walked in, the room went quiet. Alice felt nerves shiver up and down her spine as she stared around at them all. There had to be at least fifty people here, and all of them were staring at her. Alice's palms ached from gripping the freezing ice cream.
The first to move was an older woman with dark skin. She rose from her seat and walked across the room, her nice shoes clipping on the wooden floor. As she came closer Alice took her in: she looked to be in her early seventies, with lines around her eyes and her hair a dark shade of burnished silver, like a thundercloud. She wore a cardigan over a dark blue dress. She came to a halt a few feet away from Alice, her eyes fixed on Alice's face.
Alice glanced sideways at Steve and he just smiled at her. She glanced back, eyeing the woman, whose eyes began to glitter with tears.
Alice looked at the woman's face, taking in her high cheekbones and the warm brown of her eyes, her half-crooked smile. Alice's hand rose shakily to her mouth.
She took a breath. "Alice," she whispered.
"Alice," the older woman replied, both an answer and a greeting. She smiled, her lips trembling slightly, and reached out. Alice handed her icecream to Steve and then reached out to take the woman's hands with shaking, cold fingers. They each gripped tight and beamed at each other, searching each other's faces.
"You're my aunt," the older woman said.
Tears spilled down Alice's face as she stared at her niece with her gleaming eyes and her face lined with joy. Alice shook her head wordlessly, then launched forward and kissed Alice Johnson on her wrinkled forehead. "Alice," she breathed again. "I am so… so…" she searched for some way to express all that she felt. "I'm so glad Tom had you," she settled on. "He would be so proud to see the woman you are today, Alice, you… you're beautiful."
And Alice Johnson wept in Alice Moser's arms.
The rest of the room gave them a few moments of privacy for this meeting; a low buzz of conversation struck back up, though all eyes remained on the doorway, and Bucky wandered in to drop off the food.
After a few moments Alice the elder pulled away a little, looking a little embarrassed. "Sorry, sorry."
"Don't apologize," Alice murmured, still holding her hand.
Alice the elder smiled, then swept her arm around the room. "Alice, meet the Johnsons. Well, most of them. There's a few Barneses here as you can see" - Bucky had already begun mingling, shaking hands and exchanging greetings with a smaller group of people who shared a resemblance with him, and as Alice watched an older lady stuffed a sandwich into his hands - "and a few others connected with the old Brooklyn crowd."
Alice smiled shyly around the room at them all. Most of the conversation had stopped again.
Alice Johnson squeezed her hand. "This is my family. More importantly, Alice, this is your family."
And Alice was met with broad smiles and teary eyes as she looked around. She saw Tom's eyes looking back at her across the room, and she felt his spirit in the warm grins and open faces. A complicated, throat-clogging feeling rose in her, more powerful than love and grief, and she gripped Alice's hand for support.
"Hello, everyone," she said in a shaky voice.
The smiles only grew. "Hello, Alice," they called back.
And then Steve's hand was at the small of her back and the older Alice held onto her arm for support, and the three of them walked forward to meet Alice's family.
Once more, Alice whirled her way through a party full of people. But this time it wasn't the kind of smooth, smoky party dripping with jewellery and classical music that she was used to, but one with plastic cups, a squeaky floor, old women in knit sweaters and a curated Spotify playlist. But she'd never had more fun.
Alice sat on creaky plastic chairs listening to decades of stories, held fussing babies and learned new names and tried every dish in the potluck and laughed at jokes made with the familiar ease of family. It reminded her of Thanksgivings and Christmases with Matthias's family, who had adopted her and her mom as if they'd always been a part of the fold.
Tom's family had grown with a similar warmth and generosity, and being a part of it made Alice want to cry.
While Steve and Bucky chatted with the Barneses and were roped into dancing with some older ladies, Alice sat with Alice Johnson and her two younger brothers Matthew and Robert. They were earnest, warm men, with the spark of charm that reminded Alice of their grandfather, Matthias. She told them so and they practically melted before her.
The Johnson siblings told Alice about their childhood with their father, who had fought in a war and continued fighting back home for the disenfranchised and oppressed. Alice had heard a lot of this already, but something about the warm, affectionate way they spoke about Tom made Alice's heart swell. They told her about their mother Ruth, who had been there for Tom in the final years of the war and who had loved him every minute of their shared lives. Alice wished she could have met Ruth - her children described her as a warm woman with a spirit like iron nails, who had respected Tom's silence about his sister for over twenty years and welcomed the truth with open arms when he was finally able to share it. The siblings then told Alice about their lives - Alice Johnson's career with S.H.I.E.L.D., Matthew's work in the Air Force which had led to a later job as a commercial airline pilot, and Robert's dedication to continuing the family tailor business.
In return Alice told Tom's children about the young Tom she had known, and what life had been like in the Johnson tailor shop back in the time of the Depression. A small crowd gathered around their conversation, and soon Alice found herself talking about old family traditions and meals to a group of older family members so attentive that Alice was certain they were about to produce notebooks and start taking notes.
Alice also met Bucky's extended family. They seemed to know both Steve and Bucky well already, but they ate up Alice's stories about what they'd been like as kids with glee. The whole event, Bucky was trailed by a small gaggle of children gazing at his arm with starry eyes.
Also in attendance were some of Peggy Carter's family: most notably Sharon Carter, who seemed a little nervous to meet Alice at first, until Alice cornered her and they began chatting about the modern world of intelligence and Sharon's work as both an agent and a spy.
There were also others: a few great-grand-children of Finnigan Neri and Edith Brodeur, Alice's childhood friends from Brooklyn Junior High, and a few of Jilí's great grandchildren who lived on the east coast.
Once all the food had been eaten (Bucky's lasagna was a big hit) and everyone had sagged into clusters of plastic chairs to chat and sip from paper cups of coffee, Alice found Steve standing by the window and slipped her arm around his waist. He smiled down at her.
She squeezed him in a side-hug for a few moments. "Thank you."
"Wasn't me," he said softly. He nodded at the gathered people. "It was them."
"I know. But… you already know them all, don't you?"
He nodded. "Yeah, mostly through email, but… I couldn't not reach out to them, once I got to the future."
Alice smiled at that. The buzz of conversation and music washed over her, filling her with a sense of contentment. She reached up to rest her hand on Steve's chest, over his heartbeat. "I'm just… I'm sorry…" she hesitated.
"I'm sorry there's no big brood of Rogerses waiting in the future for you," she sighed. "I know it was just you and your mom, but it doesn't… seem fair."
She felt Steve's laugh rumble in his chest and she looked up at him. He was smiling.
"Alice, I've got an enormous family," he said. He stroked a hand down her back. "I've got the Avengers, I'm not getting rid of them any time soon. I've also got everyone in this room, as long as you don't mind sharing." She smiled, and his mouth quirked up. "And I've also got…" he turned, his hand rising to her face, and Alice closed her eyes as he kissed her. "You," he said against her lips, making her smile again.
They pulled apart, arms still looped around each other, and Alice looked out at the hall full of old people, chatting adults, and kids playing in the corner.
"I don't mind sharing," she whispered.
Barbiegirl: Thank you for what you said about this story, I have loved writing it and it's wonderful to hear that it's stuck with you in that way :) As I always say, there are many moments in history I would like to visit but none I'd like to live in - I'm a big fan of modern medicine and hygiene! Hope you enjoyed this chapter x
Maryana: I'm so pleased you enjoyed the last chapter so much - whenever a reader tells me they laughed and/or cried, that's always a mark of success for me. Thank you so much!
CaptainLoki: I know, I'm the same! I'm glad I've reached the end and I'm happy with the way I've ended it, but I'm so bleak for Alice's story to be almost over. I am going to keep writing though, I've got a Wyvern AU planned!
BuckyBarnesAss: (love the username). What a wonderful review! I loved how you said you felt you were third wheeling on Alice and Steve, I agree that sounds like a sign of success haha. I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and I can't wait to share the last one with you :) I have loved writing about Alice and Steve and though I'm sad for their story to nearly be over it has been a wonderful journey x
Sprout: I'm so glad you liked the last chapter! It was basically just a series of dramatic conversations but it was wonderful to have those 3 together again. Hopefully this chapter was sufficiently fluffy for you ;) I do indeed have another fic in the works, I'm working on a Wyvern AU that I think you guys will really enjoy!
Wolf: I'm glad you enjoyed the chapter :) Hopefully you enjoyed the Jilí part of this chapter! I'm well thank you, I hope you have a great rest of your week x