This is another excerpt from Full of Grace’s upcoming chapter, because I was so bent on putting Neko Atsume into it that i have to commemorate that. This is notable for being possibly the only time I’ve actually incorporated any elements of my real-life relationship into my fic.
Natasha was poking absently at her laptop with James next to her on the couch when she got the email from Vision. It seemed oddly formal, to get an actual e-mail from an actual android; had he, himself a computer, sat down at another computer to compose it, or had he sent it with his mind?
The subject line was “our mutual friend”, so she opened it without saying anything to James. It was a link to a new info drop online: some snoop had uncovered a bunch more documentation on the Winter Soldier in some godforsaken Russian backwater.
Tony hasn’t finished translating it yet, Vision wrote, but what he’s understood so far has him panicking. Other documents have mentioned the existence of control words, but this one has an actual list and some of their effects.
Natasha suspended her breathing for a moment, before glancing over at James, who was giving his phone a deep look of concentration. He knew, then. He frowned, and scrolled sideways across the phone, and scowled deeper.
She set her laptop aside, then reached over and put her hand around his wool-sock-clad foot, squeezing gently and reassuringly. “It’ll be okay,” she said. She was still working out how to explain Vision to him, how to maybe get them to meet up, and most importantly how to get him to consent to being scanned without setting off his conditioning.
He blinked at her, expression clearing. “Oh,” he said, “it’s fine. I was just thinking about something.”
Maybe he didn’t know. She raised her eyebrows at him. “You looked upset,” she said.
He laughed, and leaned in a little closer to her, re-settling so she could see his phone. “No,” he said. “I’m trying to get a good picture of a cartoon cat from a game to text it to Steve.”
His phone was open to a screen full of a cartoon landscape, maybe a backyard or something, littered with cartoon cats in varying states of repose. All the buttons were in– Natasha squinted. Bubbly Japanese. It was very kawaii. “What is this,” she said.
“Neko Atsume,” James said. “It’s appallingly popular among non-Japanese-speaking nerds who can’t read the buttons.”
“Can you read the buttons?” she asked.
He gave her an inscrutable look. “You can’t?” She shook her head. He frowned. “Why would they give it to me and not you?”
“They took things back out sometimes,” she said. “I think I was more of a flight risk.”
“Fair point,” he said, a little glum.
“No, no,” she said, “tell me more about cute cartoon cats,” because I am about to wreck your day.
He grinned. “It’s a dumb game, you just put stuff out and then you check back and they’ve come by and are hanging out. It’s really relaxing, there’s not really any strategy. But I sent it to Steve and I’m trying to make him all competitive about it. Just to wind him up.”
“Maybe you really are a supervillain,” Natasha said admiringly. Steve’s competitive streak was possibly his most entertaining feature, but it was hard to exploit. He had to be pretty comfortable with you to be unwary enough to let you wind him up. He’d basically never be at that point with Tony, which was too bad, because that would be some quality entertainment.
“Right?” James said. He scrolled sideways. “I’m Captain America’s fuckin’ nemesis. Somebody’s gotta be.” He laughed. “Anyway. So, you pick what objects, food or toys or beds or whatever, to put out into your yard, and it attracts cats, and that’s all there is to it, but if you use different objects you get, like, rare cats. It’s a whole– thing. And I’ve been doing it a little bit so I already have a whole dossier of cats, and I’m going to mess with Steve about how many more I have and so on.” He showed her said dossier, and the cartoons were really cute. Apparently you could take the pictures, in-game, and save them in your book of cats who had visited you.
“If you don’t feed them do they die?” Natasha asked.
James shook his head. “Nah,” he said, “they just don’t come by. They’re not, like, your cats. It’s no big deal if you don’t check in for a while. You come back, you can just pick up where you left off. It’s not like the cats get mad or anything. You put out more food, they’ll come back.”
“I can see how that might be appealing,” Natasha said.
“Yeah, it’s basically zero pressure,” James said. “But it’s still kind of rewarding.” He swiped through. “This one’s my favorite. The cheapest toy you can get with your credits is a stupid plastic bag, and this cat just, fuckin’, wears the bag on his head. Like an idiot. His name is something like Spot or Dash or something but I call him Baghead Idiot. Because he is.” He laughed, bringing up the photo. “Look at this fuckin’ idiot with a bag on his head. It’s fuckin’ great.”
“What an idiot,” Natasha agreed, amused.
“He’s my fuckin’ favorite,” James said. “It’s so stupid. And look at how all their assholes are little x’s. Isn’t that fuckin’ adorable?”
“It is,” Natasha said. She leaned in against James’s warm body, and made herself comfortable. “But you have a real cat.”
“The real cat is more work,” he said. He exited the app, and put his phone down on the arm of the couch, and kissed the top of Natasha’s head. “You seemed like you were readin’ something a lot less entertaining.”
“I was,” she said. She sighed. She could feel his heartbeat through her shoulderblade, warm and steady.
“Don’t, then,” he said. “Stop thinkin’ about it for a minute, hey?”
“I can’t,” she said.
“It’s about me, ain’t it,” he said, low and soft. His heartbeat picked up, going a little faster.
She twisted to look up at him. He had known, then. “Yes,” she said.
He looked away. “I knew one was comin’,” he said. “Info dump, yeah?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Control triggers, in this one.”
“Fuck,” he said. He breathed in slow, and breathed out, and she could feel him slowing his heartbeat deliberately. “Each of ‘em only works once but– each of ‘em works, y’know?”
“I have some too,” she said. “They’re buried, the ones that are left, and I may never find them all.”
He wrapped his arm around her chest– the left one, solid and immovable and warm. “I tried to find out about mine,” he said. “But I– it’s like my– I’m not allowed to rr– to read-” He stopped talking, and sighed. “Mm.”
“I can read it for you,” she said. She hadn’t thought of that.
He put his cheek down against the side of her head. “Yeah?” His voice was very quiet, but he sounded almost hopeful.
She pointed at her laptop. “Hand that to me and I’ll read it and summarize.”
“I don’t know if I can even do a summary,” he said.
“Tap out if it’s too much,” she said.
He let go of her to reach her laptop for her, and she started scrolling. His heartbeat went erratic before steadying out, and he turned his head. “I can’t even look,” he said.
“Close your eyes,” she said. “Put your hand around my wrist and squeeze if it’s too much.”
“If I have a seizure I’ll break your arm,” he said. “No. I’ll use the other hand.” He put his right hand so that the backs of his fingers touched her thigh, and put his left arm down next to her. “Okay,” he said. “Here goes nothin’, huh? Hit me.”
She rubbed her cheek against his chest, turning slightly so the screen was less in his line of sight. “I’m not hitting you,” she said, “I’m going to read it first, and tell you the most important things first.”
“Good call,” he said, and dug his phone back out to look at the cartoon cat game again. “Hey,” he said, “check it out, I got Samurai Cat! I gotta text that one to Steve.”
“Do that,” she said fondly, sparing him a smile before she went back to her grim reading.