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4600 words, at AO3 for ease of reading. :)

The So-Called Good Guys

“I’m the Fist of Hydra,” Bucky said, sounding a bit smug about it.

In which Bucky comes back and isn’t willing to change careers just yet– until he is. This is as holiday-sweet as I could manage to be.

For Stucky Secret Santa 2015– my recipient is @kendrasaunderses! Sorry this was a day late and not at all what your wishes sounded like, and thanks for being so super chill!

I actually ended up writing 50k of a totally platonic Bucky & Angie AU when I first tried to do this, which was even less what you’d asked for and also didn’t remotely fit the challenge guidelines. So. Who even knows anymore what my brain is trying to do. If you’re into that, I’ll work on that sometime in the New Year. :) (Well, even if you’re not, I will, but if you are, you can see when it goes up and feel special for having inadvertently inspired it.)

Without further ado, an excerpt:

Steve absently threw the deadbolt behind him as he sorted through his mail with the other hand. He flipped the lightswitch, but the lights in his apartment only came on dimly. He glanced up, frowning, then remembered— Christmas lights, right, Sharon had insisted he decorate. So he’d put up like eight strings of Christmas lights because they were so damn cheap and efficient nowadays, and had unplugged his lamp to do it.

Well.

Holiday cheer and whatnot. That was all he’d done. He wasn’t having glittery crap in his house. It was hard enough to avoid as it was.

He had to remember to care, when people asked. It was, you know. It was all right.

It did mean a sharp uptick in conservative pundits who asked him pointed questions about the good old days. Which meant a sharp uptick in the public rants he got to go on about public health and social wellness and so on. Good times. (Actually, those were probably his favorite self-indulgence, those rants. People acted so shocked.)

Happy fuckin’ holidays. He went into his kitchenette and flipped the other lightswitch, so he could properly read his mail, and went through it— he didn’t get a lot of real mail here, mostly bills and junk. The fanmail got filtered through the Avengers, and sent in thick repackaged envelopes like— yep, like this one. That’d do, he was set for the evening with one of those. He did answer almost all of them. It was one of the few things that was genuinely satisfying.

He set the envelope aside, dumped the rest into his recycle bin, and then he noticed the dark red droplet in the middle of the doorway to the hall, distinct in splatter pattern against the pale wood.

He’d been at the office. He’d been doing paperwork. He was absolutely not bleeding. He moved to the hallway and bent to swipe his finger through the droplet.

It was not dry. It was tacky, but not dry.

It was also absolutely blood.

There was another droplet farther down the hall.

The shield was leaning against the couch. He tended to leave it weird places in the house. He was fastidious about some things, but the shield was kind of… out in the world he was careful. In his own house, no. He caught it up and slunk down the hall.

There was a smear on the bathroom door, which was ajar; he usually left it open. He shoved it all the way open and sprang through.

There was a body in his tub, one heavy-booted foot slung over the side, the black-clad figure within slumped down. As he slammed into the room it rolled its head and looked up at him, pale-faced through dark hair.

“Bucky,” he said, and started to lower the shield until he remembered the last time he’d seen that face, and the gun in the right hand.

“Hey,” Bucky said, head tipped back against the edge of the tub. 
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It’s up! The rest of Ch 13, with the Neko Atsume stuff and meeting Lakeisha’s family and getting some of her Tragic Backstory. We’re also getting more of James’s cyborg deal revealed. I promise that’s cooler than it sounds. 

Chapter 13, That’s All Right (Mama), and I’m so high on knockoff Mucinex that I’m starting to think I’ve already used that chapter title somewhere else so maybe I’ll fix that and maybe I won’t. Fuck, we’re all lucky if I haven’t just pasted the script from the Bee movie in there instead of the chapter I wrote, because I don’t know where my face is.

I am most proud of this line:

Lakeisha stared at him, and it was really good she’d transcended her physical form or there would have been more hitting. “You would love for this to be about that, wouldn’t you?”

Oh siblings. I love siblings. Also I might set a record for the number of times I have a character curse in one segment of dialogue. 

Also, Baghead Idiot: 

My dude literally has an actual figurine of this character on his keychain. He’s got a real name, but in our household he’s just called Baghead Idiot. 
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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.
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ok the chapter isn’t ready yet but here is a preview. because. yes. i was so hell-bent on incorporating this thing into the chapter that I did research. My dude has been playing this game for months and suddenly it’s popular like, everywhere, and he’s a little nettled because he had to figure it out before there was a translation, okay, and, well. Anyway. He sat next to me and showed me the whole game so I didn’t have to break my streak of never having played a video game except Tetris (it’s a dumb streak okay), and he is the best. 

Steve was sitting preoccupied on the steps down from the conference room, frowning deeply at his phone. Sam steeled himself, sighing inwardly. Great. More fuckin’ drama.

Kinda looked like that sculpture. Rodin. Thinker. Yeah.

Fuck.

“What’s the haps, Cap,” Sam said, dropping down next to Steve on the step.

Steve didn’t look at him, still frowning at his phone. “How’s your Japanese, Sam?” he asked finally.

“Uh,” Sam said. Oh hell no. “Why, are we going to Japan?”

“No,” Steve said, but didn’t elaborate, still frowning at his phone. He poked intently at it. “Fuck,” he said, then poked something else.

“Who do we know who’s in Japan?” Sam asked patiently.

“Nobody,” Steve said. He poked something. “Ah,” he said, satisfied, then poked again. Scrolling. “Shit.”

“You’re killin’ me,” Sam said.

“I know,” Steve said. “This is frustrating. I can’t figure out what it says.”

“Run it through a translation app,” Sam said.

Steve finally looked at him. “I gotta take a screenshot to do that,” he said. “I’m just tryin’ to figure out the navigation. It can’t be that hard.”

Sam blinked at him, and Steve blinked back. “What?” Sam said finally.

Steve turned his phone. It was a– it was like, a phone app game or something. In Japanese. “Bucky just sent this to me with like, no explanation.”

“It looks,” Sam said, highly aware that there was likely to be another shoe dropping any time now, “like a… game?”

“Oh,” Steve said, “yeah, it’s a game.”

“With… explosions?” Sam asked.

“No,” Steve said. He poked at it. “Cats. Apparently.”

Sam leaned in. “And that’s…”

Steve shook his head a little. “I ran the text from the website through the translate thing on Google. It told me, hang on.” He switched screens out of the game app to his internet browser with a perfectly fluid competence at stark odds with the inept poking he’d been doing a moment before. “Ahem. And aside the rice and goods
A cat who have gathered in the garden
It is healed by nothing but watching.
Basically, you are such application.”

“Uh,” Sam said.

“Yeah,” Steve said.

“I figured you had that sour face on because you found out something else awful about Bucky,” Sam pointed out.

Steve blinked at him. “What?” He laughed. “No! I was just trying to figure out what the fuck Bucky thought was so great about this game.”

Sam sighed, and let himself collapse until his shoulder was pressed against Steve’s. “I really thought,” he said wearily, “that this was going to be another one of those awful data drops where we find out more fuckin’ details about the awful shit they did to your soulmate there.”

“Oh,” Steve said, distressed. “Sorry. No. Jeez, Sam, no– it’s just, it’s a cute phone game he says is really relaxing.”

“Fuck’s sake, man,” Sam said. “You’re sure there’s no nefarious backstory here? Like, you’re not gonna play it for fifteen minutes and then suddenly there’s a whole hidden menu screen that has like a buffet of illicit content that’s just all shitty HYDRA codewords or whatever.”

Steve stared at him. “Oh Sam,” he said. “Oh, Sam. I work you too hard.”

“I’d protest,” Sam said, “but I don’t think you’re wrong.” Steve looked miserable. Sam sighed, and leaned in and hugged him. “It’s okay, man,” he said. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not,” Steve said, a little muffled.

“Well,” Sam said. He pulled Steve’s head down a little more comfortably against his shoulder. He was going to make Captain America a snuggler if it killed him.

Because it damn well might kill him.

“At least we have cute cartoon cats to look at in the meantime,” Steve said, angling his phone so he could see it without moving his head from Sam’s chest. “Look, you put out food and toys and they come to your yard. It’s really cute.”

“I do see the appeal,” Sam said. And it crossed his mind to wonder if anybody was teaching the Winter Soldier how to be a snuggler.

Neko Atsume, or What The Hell Are These Cartoon Cats Doing Everywhere Now
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Steve’s mom got him a camera when he was 13 and recovering from pneumonia. It was a cheap one, used, one of the really basic box cameras, but she knew he liked to draw, and knew many artists used photographs as references. She was, Steve thought rather bitterly, always on the look-out for things he could do without going outside or moving too much.

Of course Bucky instantly knew how to use it. His family had a much fancier camera, one of the kind that folded, and had a nice leather case, and had a lens that could be focused. It also had been purchased new, and that meant it had its instruction manual with it. The instruction manual was important, because it had the chart in it that told you how to make the pictures come out. Steve knew that developing film was expensive, and he didn’t want to waste any.

So Bucky came over after school with the notes he’d collected from Rosemarie Anderson, who was in Steve’s class, and also with his father’s camera, in its original box with the instruction manual.

“Dad almost never uses this,” Bucky confided. “He thought he would, when he bought it, but like Mom said, he shot like one roll of film with it and then put it back in the box and only drags it out when she makes him.”

It was a very nice camera, in a very nice box– black, with orange chevrons, and the interior of the box was a lustrous gold, matching the cover of the manual. The camera and its case were exactly the same shade of brown, and there was all kinds of fancy chrome detailing on the camera’s body. To open it, there was a button you had to press, and the door dropped down to reveal a folding bellows assembly and a lens that slid out onto the door on a track, and settled into place with a really substantial and satisfying click.

Steve’s own camera was much less interesting. Somewhat battered, and it was just a box, a solid box, and there was a lever to make the shutter go, and that was it. But Bucky wasn’t fazed at all. “This kind’s just as good,” he said. “The back opens like this, see?”

He unfastened the catch and opened the rear door. That much, Steve had figured out on his own. “I can’t see where the film goes in, though,” Steve said.

“You gotta pull out the film holder,” Bucky said, and his strong fingers wrapped around something Steve couldn’t make out in all that matte black interior. “And you gotta pull out the film winding knob. Here.” He wound the knob until it protruded, then pulled carefully on the very back of the camera’s interior, and worked out the camera’s insert, which was all matte black and looked like wood or cardstock. “Here, this is where the roll goes in. You take the empty roll out and put it in the takeup position, and then you put the new roll where the empty one was and wind it through.” He demonstrated deftly.

“You taken a lot of pictures?” Steve asked a little gruffly.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “Dad always made me load the camera because he said I had clever little hands.”

“They’re not that little,” Steve said, and Bucky paused, holding his hand out, palm up. Steve fitted his hand against it, and they were pretty close to the same size, but Steve’s hands and feet had always been kind of too big for his small frame. His mother had used to joke that it was because he was like a puppy and he’d grow into them, but he was starting to worry he might not. Most of the boys his age hadn’t hit their growth yet, but he privately doubted that his weak heart would be able to withstand the kind of dramatic growth spurt a lot of the older boys seemed to go through.

Bucky was still pretty small, but he was growing steadily, perfectly average for his age and bigger than Steve by the year. He’d grow into his hands too, but a lot sooner than Steve would.

His skin was warm and dry, and he held his hand against Steve’s longer than he had to just to measure. “I guess,” he said finally, and Steve couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “So what do you want to take pictures of?”

“I can’t go outside yet,” Steve said, glum.

“Me, then,” Bucky said, cheerful. “I’m the only interesting thing in this place.” He pretended to preen, patting at his curls like a girl– but his hair was too short for curls, so it was a meaningless gesture. He fluttered his eyelashes, too.

When it was long enough, his hair did curl, and quite fashionably too. Unlike Steve’s, which just flopped into his eyes. Like it was doing now. He shoved it out of the way a little fiercely. “Interesting is the nicest way to put it,” he said.

“I got character,” Bucky said. He neatly fitted the roll of film into place. “Anyway. It goes in like this, and then you pull the leader over this way and thread it through the take-up reel, like so. Then the whole insert goes back into the box like that.” He shoved the insert back into position and fastened the catch. “Then you gotta wind the take-up reel. You know it worked ‘cuz you can feel the resistance. Got it?”

Steve took the camera from him obediently, and wound the take-up reel in the direction of the arrow. “Okay,” he said. “Your camera doesn’t work the same way, though, does it?”

“Nah,” Bucky said, “but we had one of these when I was little, I used to load it for Dad too. Oh yeah, don’t load it outside, load it where it’s kinda dim.”

“Is it dim in here?” Steve asked, looking around the bedroom. The blinds were mostly drawn. He supposed it was.

Bucky laughed, and went over and opened the blinds. Sunlight streamed in. “That’s perfect now,” he said. “You can take a picture indoors if there’s sunlight. Here, in the book, it lays it out pretty good.”

Steve read through the charts, and Bucky got his father’s camera out and set it up and focused it and then went and posed, and Steve did as he was shown and took a picture. As long as it was a picture of Bucky, then Bucky’s mom probably wouldn’t complain about them wasting film. So he peered through the backwards-and-upside-down little mirrored finder and approximately centered Bucky in the frame, lit from the side, and took the picture when Bucky looked appropriately solemn and dreamy, gazing out the window with his eyelashes somewhat lowered.

“That’ll be a good one,” Bucky said approvingly, having heard the click. “Now you gotta wind the film.”

Steve did, and then he set up his camera, and Bucky posed him in the sunbeam and showed him how the view-finder worked to compose the picture, then took a portrait of him. Steve sat self-consciously, and tried to make the same expression Bucky had, tried to look interesting, tried not to look deathly ill, and Bucky said quietly, “Yeah, Stevie,” and took the picture.

“You think it’ll come out?” Steve asked, squirming a little.

“You looked like an angel,” Bucky said. “Your mom will like it, I think.” He wound the film and put the camera down. “Anyway, that’s enough of that for now, we gotta get through these notes.”
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Chapter Update: Full of Grace, chapter 10: If I Can Dream 

Sam Wilson is a superhero. And Natasha starts to think maybe they’re in over their heads. 

Content warning for discussion of suicidal ideation.

“I thought you were dead,” he said, blank-eyed. She retrieved the discarded grenade launcher– those things weren’t cheap– and started to walk back to the transport, but he was still standing there, so she doubled back and caught him by the arm. It wasn’t just his hand, his whole body was trembling finely.

“James,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“I thought you were dead,” he said again. “I couldn’t find you and I thought you were dead.”

“I’m better than that,” she said, a little crossly.

He blinked, and the expression he turned on her was so blank it didn’t look like he’d ever been a human. “Anyone can get unlucky,” he said.
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here’s another snippet, in which you can totally tell I’ve been reading a lot of Stucky fic, but I can’t put my finger on who this is *totally* ripping off, at least in tone. Which is how it goes for me; I absorb things and then totally bite those things’s style but can’t remember where I got them so people either think I’m a tool or misattribute genius to me, and I am vaguely guilty but not enough to take better notes. 
Again, this isn’t part of any of my big WIPs, it’s a bit floating around in my Giant Scrivener Doc O’ Fanfic, and it is Bucky/Steve immediately post-coitus. It’s part of something bigger but may or may not ever get finished, and some of the bits of this may not actually become my personal canon but I think I’m hilarious, and I wrote it today when I was supposed to be writing something else. LOLOLOL right? That’s actually my life. 

So tell me who this sounds like, it’s driving me nuts. I totally absorbed someone else’s style. 

“If you’re gonna put on a good show it better last longer than that,” Bucky said, right in his ear.

“I will punch you,” Steve said.

“What, right in the afterglow?” Bucky bit his ear.

“You dick,” Steve said. He was even still out of breath.

“My dick is down here,” Bucky said. “I mean, it’s not gonna do you much good right now but gimme a minute, if you need more practice.”

“I don’t,” Steve said, and rolled them both over. “Get off me.”

“I just want to cuddle,” Bucky complained. “God! People nowadays, nobody wants to be held after sex, they gotta go update their Instagrams.”

Steve rested his forehead against Bucky’s. “I’m not the one who Tweets every time he comes,” he said.

“Oh,” Bucky said, “that, that’s an app I installed. Interfaces with the heart rate monitor in the one molar.”

“It tweets the word booyah every time you orgasm,” Steve said.

Bucky laughed. “Sometimes it gets it wrong though,” he said. “Sometimes I’m just working out. Or having a panic attack. You can check, see if it got it right just now.”

“I don’t know why I keep you,” Steve said.

“Aw,” Bucky said, and freed a hand from his encircling arms to reach up and pull his face down, and kiss him sweetly. “I make it worth your while sometimes. C’mon.”

“Fuck,” Steve said, resigned, “you do.”


(dw/lj-exclusive edit: I LOVE WHAT THIS DOES TO THE TAG ART, man am I incoherent or what?)
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Chapter update! Full of Grace, chapter 5: the explanation for Bucky’s Internet presence, and the introduction of Wanda as a character– her role in this story is largely to be a good bro to Steve, because somebody has to be. 
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I wrote this and I don’t know if I can use it in any of my WIPs. So here, have it here, for Bisexual Awareness Week. 

2400 words of Steve Rogers on a talk show dealing with manufactured shock value and what in fact his superpower really is. 

Steve shifted uncomfortably in his seat, eyeing the girl on the couch next to his with no small trepidation. She was a pop star of some kind, a wholesome child star turned “bad girl”, and she was wearing what amounted to pasties and glitter booty shorts, her short hair spiked and her face gaudily glittered.

He’d been given instructions, and had showed up dressed as they wanted– jeans, and a t-shirt, and a buttoned shirt open over the top of that, with no logos on anything, plain leather shoes, no hat. The shirt was white, the buttoned shirt a blue plaid, the jeans blue, no loud colors. He’d added a red belt, because he’d figured someone was going to make a crack about his monotone outfit at some point. Being prepared for a punchline made it easier.

He had known as soon as he’d walked in and seen her that this girl was meant to shock him. She had given him a limp handshake and a languid-to-poorly-conceal-nervousness once-over, and he’d not squeezed her hand too hard and watched her decide he was judging her, as he carefully kept his eyes squarely above her neck and tried not to show any expression at all.

He was already exhausted.

So far nothing had really happened on the show; the girl and the host had talked first, and he was apparently the surprise guest, because they’d brought him out after a great deal of suspense and build-up. He’d been a little shocked at the extreme excitement of the crowd, but he supposed they really had pumped everybody up a lot about it. He could’ve been just about anybody, after that buildup, and he’d said so after the noise had died down, and they’d all denied it and the audience had gone nuts again, and he’d wondered if maybe they were collectively on something, or if there was a running joke he wasn’t in on.

So he was sitting next to the girl now, with a couple of feet of space between them, and as usual his body was too big for him and he had no idea where to put his knees and elbows and he knew that any awkwardness magnified itself about a hundred times on stage and a thousand more on camera, so everyone in the audience totally believed he was uncomfortable and disapproving of this girl and that was what it was, and not the fact that he was waiting for the inevitable moment he became the punchline.

“But you wouldn’t have listened to my album,” the girl said, reaching out and touching his arm. “You don’t like modern music.”

Steve gave her a look of surprise. “I like plenty of modern music,” he said. “I mean, I missed a lot, so I haven’t gotten around to everything yet.” He leaned over, reaching across her, which shocked her genuinely, and plucked the case of her album off the host’s desk, where they’d been discussing it. “I got this one on my list, I think,” he said, examining the cover art as he ignored her reaction. “If I’d known I was gonna be on here with you I woulda bumped it up to the top. I try to intersperse the new ones with the classic ones, y’know?”

“Really,” the host said. “Well, what do you like best?”

“I like that there’s so much variety,” Steve said. He was good at this. He could do aw-shucks enthusiasm about the modern world. “I have friends who make me playlists, friends with really good taste– but the other thing I like is how much everyone cares about music, and how much you can tell about people by what music they care about. Everyone loves making me playlists, and I love it when I can tell that someone really put a ton of themselves into making this playlist.”

“What about if the playlist sucks, though,” the girl said, and Steve laughed.

“I try not to think about it like that,” he said. “I try to think more that this is a person with a very different outlook than me, and even if none of it is to my taste I can still get something out of the experience.”

“You like to play nice,” she said. She was– aw, shit, she was definitely on drugs to cover up how nervous she was, and that was going to make this much more difficult.

“I try,” Steve said. “In my job, a lot of the time, I don’t really get to, you know? You don’t get to sit down and talk out your differences all nice when somebody’s got a death ray or killer robots or aliens or something. You just kinda have to punch things indiscriminately. So I generally like to play nice whenever I got the choice.” He shrugged. “You, though, you probably don’t have to punch people so much, so there’s likely a lot more temptation to do it in everyday life.”

“That’s true,” she said, a little surprised. “I guess if I had to punch people it’d take some of the shine off it.”

“It really does,” Steve said, laughing mostly in relief at having dodged becoming a punchline for the moment.

The host asked him about his job, and he gave her the standard, well-rehearsed line about the restructuring of SHIELD and the next phase of the Avengers Initiative and all of that.

“Wait,” the popstar said when there was a pause, and put her hand on his arm again. And it wasn’t the lascivious way women sometimes did, where they were feeling his bicep like a piece of meay– she sort of seemed to be checking if he was really there. Her fingers were cold and dry and light like an insect. “You’re a superhero, right? What’s your superpower?”

He had a standard line that he always gave, but as he looked at her he thought better of it. He laughed, instead. “You know,” he said, “I don’t have one. I got an official spec sheet and all but what it really boils down to is, I don’t have a superpower.”

The popstar stared at him. She wasn’t stupid, he could see her working that over behind the flat sheen of the drugs she was on. “I figured you guys picked a leader by who could beat everybody else up,” she said.

Steve laughed. “No,” he said. “We don’t really have time for that kind of thing. And you know, there’s a lot more to what we do than just beating people up.”

“So could you beat up Iron Man?” she asked.

“That’s a really great question,” the host said.

“That’s a terrible question,” Steve said. “I couldn’t beat up Iron Man, not in the suit. Outta the suit, no doubt, if it’s a fair fight, but Tony Stark has never been in a fair fight. That’s what you get when you have an engineering genius. And that’s why he’s on the team, y’know? Because he’s smart enough not to step to a genetically-engineered super soldier for a fair fistfight, he’d come up with something smarter before I’d even get there.”

“What about Black Widow?” the popstar asked. “Could you beat her up?”

“He wouldn’t hit a woman,” the host said.

Steve shook his head. “I’ve hit plenty of women,” he said. “I was raised by one, you know, and she taught me never to underestimate anybody, and that includes women. As far as beating up Black Widow, I hope to Christ I never have to. I don’t know if I could. We spar all the time, but I don’t think either of us has truly ever tried to hurt the other.”

“Did you two ever bang?” the popstar asked; he’d watched her eyes glaze over with disinterest in his answer. She was here to provoke; she was doing her job, and his every failure to rise to the bait was only making it worse.

“I don’t think he knows that turn of phrase,” the host said as the audience reaction died down, and there was another reaction.

Steve pried his teeth out of his lip. “I do, actually,” he said. “I understood the question. And I understand why people ask it. But you know, I can’t get over it. My mom marched to get women the right to vote, and a hundred years later all anyone wants to know about the most famous woman on my team is who she’s– banging. Natasha is such a good fighter, such a brave person, such a talented strategist, among the most intelligent people in this entire world– and I mean, to an extent nobody even knows, she’s that smart– and is such a fiercely loyal friend, probably the single most reliable person in my life right now, but to the world at large she’s just an object in a catsuit.”

“Yo,” the popstar said, but she had nothing beyond that, and the audience was reacting uproariously, and the host was egging them on, and the moment was swept on forward in a sea of chatter.

When it died down again, Steve saw her getting ready for her next onslaught of fake controversy. He wanted to interrupt her, but it would be rude to the host, who was still exclaiming over things. Instead, he braced himself.

“So are you gay, then?” the popstar asked. The uproar was huge, and Steve weathered it expressionless, because there was no point reacting. As it died down, she continued, and he let her, heart hammering in his chest. There was no right answer here. “I grew up just figuring you and Bucky were gay for each other and it meant a lot to me because I’m queer, but here you are and you’ve never taken a stand on it either way.”

A ruckus swept through the audience, but they hushed quickly. Steve breathed, and composed himself so his voice would come out neutral. He knew where the question was coming from.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve encountered that in writings– there was a novelization that popularized the notion, and a movie, where Bucky and I were– I get it, I’ve watched it, that’s definitely a thing. And I’ve heard people say it was inspirational to them, and I’m glad of that.”

“But you’re not gay,” the popstar interrupted, face twisting.

“Hang on,” Steve said, “I’m not there yet. Here’s the thing, Bucky was a real person and I was a real person and it wasn’t like the book or the movie, it was real life, and it wasn’t…” The girl looked bored and sullen, and the host was clearly waiting to interrupt, and he shoved on to finish the sentence. “We weren’t anybody’s poster boys of anything, back then, and I can’t–”

“So, no,” the popstar said, flat and bored and– no, bitter.

“Let me finish,” Steve said, with a flash of exasperation. “Here’s the thing. I am queer.” He hadn’t planned for this, but anything less was a lie.

There was stunned silence. “Did you say,” the host attempted.

“I am– whatever label you wanna put on that,” Steve said, “we used to defiantly call ourselves queer, if we dared to call ourselves anything, and it’s meant a lot of things since then but it’s still the same thing. I loved Peggy Carter, with all my heart, like a man loves a woman, but I loved Bucky Barnes too, not quite the same way but pretty much, the way a boy loves another boy with his whole heart and all kinds of things he doesn’t understand– and I don’t have a cute or clever tagline for it, I don’t have a rehearsed line or a reasoned PR stance or anything, that’s just the truth and I guess that’s my superpower. I tell the truth.”

The host was openly gaping. The popstar stared at him.

“Wait,” she said, and it was plaintive, soft– “really?”

And that was her, that wasn’t the drugs, that wasn’t the instructions she’d been given, that wasn’t her trying to hustle some controversy to feed the gaping maw of popular interest in a vain quest to stay relevant beyond whatever spotlight her scant talents and good connections had earned her. That was her.

“Really,” Steve said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and I didn’t see any way for it not to end in disaster, but I loved that boy more than I loved myself, and I still do.” There was ringing silence in the room, and he took a breath and went on.

“It wasn’t anything like the movies, I couldn’t even recognize myself in that book– nobody’s ever gotten it anything like right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true, down in the core of it. That doesn’t mean that all the little queer boys and girls who held me in their hearts like a secret were wrong.”

The popstar was staring at him and her eyes were huge, and he realized with some dismay that there were tears welling. “It’s true?” she said, faint and wavering.

“It’s true,” he said. “As Captain America, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t really affect anything I do. But as Steve Rogers, it’s everything, it’s who I am. I was a weird lonely queer little kid with a crush on his best friend and nobody to tell me that it was normal and okay. If I can be an example to other weird lonely queer little kids, maybe make them less lonely, then I couldn’t be happier about it.”

Tears spilled down her beglittered cheeks, and before he could think better of it, Steve reached out and pulled the tiny half-naked woman into an embrace.

“It’s okay,” he said, and she was a cold, frail weight in his arms, shoving her face into his chest, shaking with a sob. “It’s okay,” he said. He put his hand around the back of her head, smoothing down the soft-shaven part of her hair. “You’re not weird and you don’t have to be lonely.”

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dragonlady7

July 2017

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