‘Alright, bishes, listen up,’ Sam says, reading from his phone screen in the front passenger seat. Bruce is driving today, which means that Tony, Bucky and Thor are squished into the back seat of the, admittedly giant, truck. They’re heading to Savannah, for the finale episode of season three. ‘This week’s hero is a retired army captain and current bar owner, who’s has been nominated by his best friend and business partner, Natasha.’
There’s the requisite whooping and general excitement from the gang, before Sam manages to shush them enough to play Natasha’s pre-record. For the sake of the crew filming them, the reality TV breakout stars known as the Fab Five all lean in and pretend to be able to see Sam’s phone screen. A sultry redhead appears in close-up, giving the effect that she’s recorded her message on her own phone, amateur style.
‘I’m nominating Steve,’ Natasha’s throaty voice comes through the speakers, ‘because, honestly? He’s definitely one of the best guys I’ve ever known,’ Bucky and Bruce do a weird synchronized coo-ing thing, ‘but since he’s been back home it’s like he’s lacking the motivation to get out there and build new connections.’
‘Ohhh, but we do like a military man,’ Tony says, eyebrows waggling dramatically behind his heavy-rimmed, purple tinted glasses. Thor legit giggles.
‘The thing is,’ Natasha’s voice continues, ‘Steve’s been through some stuff.’ She chews her lip. ‘In the army, and in his personal life. And Clint and I—that’s my partner—we haven’t wanted to push him, but….maybe it’s time for a bit of tough love. We just want him to be happy and in a good place, where he can enjoy new experiences and maybe even meet someone special. Instead of being stuck in a rut, with the fashion sense of a ninety-year-old, shunning any kind of self-care and barely leaving the house except for work and grocery runs.’
‘Ok, honey,’ Sam says, even though Natasha isn’t actually speaking to them in real time. ‘We hear you. And we got your boy’s back. Right guys?’
The raucous chorus of positive affirmation from his co-stars almost deafens him, and Sam grins that sweet, gap-toothed smile that’s carried him to TV and Instagram stardom.
‘Leave no man behind,’ Bruce grins.
‘Yass, honey,’ Thor bellows, flicking a wavy blond lock of hair over his shoulder. ‘Gonna find your inner kween bee and set her free!’
‘Captain Rogers,’ Bucky leans forward to dazzle the camera with his perfectly lined deep blue eyes. ‘We’re coming for you.’
‘I guess this is where the good Captain works,’ Bruce says, as they all pile out of the truck and blink in the sunlight.
‘SHIELD, right?’ Tony says, pointing to the huge sign on the side of the building, adorned with an arty mural that’s focus is a circular red, blue and white shield with a star at its center. ‘Looks like the place.’
Bucky grabs Tony’s hand and tugs him up the steps.
‘C’mon, let’s go find Steve.’
Production—led by insanely competent Producer Pepper—goes ahead to set up, so it’s actually twenty minutes before Bucky gets to bound to the top of the steps and make it through the doors.
‘Whoa,’ Tony whistles, looking around and nodding to himself. ‘This place is pretty cool.’ It's got an earthy, down-home vibe, both sleek and welcoming at the same time.
‘Thanks,’ comes a familiar throaty drawl, and Natasha from the video appears from the other side of the bar.
All five team members trip over themselves in an effort to greet her, and she takes their enthusiasm in stride with good grace and a warm, if slightly wary, grin.
‘I’m so glad you guys are here,’ she says, while Thor is still half smothering her in a bear hug and Bucky is congratulating her that her lipstick is flawless.
‘We’re glad you called us,’ Bruce says, easy and charming as ever. ‘What a great bar. So, you own this place with Steve?’
‘Yeah,’ Natasha shrugs, looking bashful for the first time. ‘It was a dream of mine for awhile. Steve got back from overseas and he had a bit of cash at his disposal, and he said he wanted to help me out. I honestly couldn’t have done it without him. He’s the best business partner and an amazing friend.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘I just don’t think he knows what his own dream is right now, y’know? And I really want him to start caring about that again. I try to set him up on dates, get him to meet new people….It’s like he’s not remotely interested.’
'Well, we'd love to meet Steve,' Bruce says.
'Yass, take us to the fair Captain,' Thor chimes in. He's looking particularly effervescent today, with his L'Oreal-worthy long blond hair all shiny and loose. His bulging arm muscles are out to play in a thin, cropped tee that's distressed almost to the point of structural failure, and has actual neon green safety pins holding it together down one side.
'Sure, boys,' Natasha drawls, pointing through the back of the bar towards what is presumably the staff-only section of the building. 'He's back there in the office.'
As one slightly manic, very gay horde, they surge through the doorway in search of this week's hero.
They find Steve sitting at a desk in a plain, clean room, head bent over his paperwork. As is the custom on this section of the show, he acts like he had absolutely no idea the Fab Five had arrived yet, but he can't quite disguise his nerves, even as he manages to greet them with a friendly smile.
'Oh God, hi, guys,' Steve says, standing up from the desk, and Bucky doesn't think he's the only one to low-key do a double-take as all six foot two inches of Captain Steven Rogers looms into view. Sure, the man is dressed in atrocious baggy khakis and an ugly, ill-fitting button-down. Sure, his hair looks like he's been cutting it himself, his beard is wildly out of control and he's wearing the least flattering pair of eyeglasses in existence. But, hold up. Underneath all that, this guy is clearly a grade A hottie, just waiting for Sam to coax him into some form-fitting jeans.
Meanwhile, everyone else has introduced themselves and is busy sweetly fawning over their new project in that heartfelt, unabashedly sincere way that's cemented this show's place in the hearts of the nation's reality-TV addicts.
Steve seems to notice Bucky's stare and bring his hand up through his mess of hair, in a self-conscious gesture. He removes his glasses and shoves them on top of a stack of paperwork.
'Um, hi,' he says, reaching out a hand to Bucky, who finally snaps out of his badly-timed crush activation sequence and takes Steve's hand to shake.
'Great to meet you.' He thinks is voice is under control. 'I'm Bucky.'
'Damn boy,' Sam is saying, pushing Bucky out of the way to paw at sagging edge of Steve's oversized collar. 'We have got to get you out of this shirt.' Steve honest-to-God blushes, and it's adorable. 'Don't worry,' Sam says, flashing an easy grin. 'I'm married.'
Sam is, in fact, very married. Really, seriously, the most married person Bucky's ever known. He and Riley were childhood sweethearts or something disgustingly cute like that.
'Uh,' Steve manages. 'Ok.' His cheeks are now the sweetest shade of pink.
Thor, hovering at Steve's left shoulder, is tugging experimentally at the Captain's mop of blond-brown hair.
'This has glorious potential,' he declares, 'but I'm not getting the vibe that this look is expressing your best, most confident self.' He peers intently at Steve's face, like he's trying to look into his soul. 'Fear not,' he says, giving Steve's cheek a light pinch. Bucky cannot even deal with Thor sometimes. 'We'll find you, under there, and we'll rescue you.'
'Ok,' Bruce speaks up, always the one getting things back on track. 'Let's not overwhelm the guy.' He manages to disengage Sam and Thor from Steve's personal space. 'Steve, why don't you tell us a bit about yourself?'
'Sure,' Steve says, leaning against the desk. His eyes track Tony, who's picking up every item in the room that isn't screwed down, to stare at it with a critical eye. 'I mean, there's not much to tell. I grew in Brooklyn, but moved with my ma to Georgia when I was sixteen. Joined the army pretty young. Served three tours overseas and that was enough. I've been back for nearly two years now-- Nat and I opened SHIELD nearly one year ago. You know... I'm doing alright. Or,' he rubs a hand over the back of his neck. 'I don't know. I could be better. Some things are difficult, now I'm back, but people have it so much worse off than me, I can't complain.' He looks at the photo frame Tony's manhandling. It's a picture of a blonde woman in her fifties, head thrown back in laughter. 'My ma passed soon after I got home,' he says quietly, with a soft sigh. 'It's been tough. And I guess, aside from that...I don't really known where I fit in anymore. Nat thinks I've become a bit of a hermit...maybe she's right. I know it's time to make some changes.'
'Man,' Bruce says, 'that's a lot for any person to deal with. Thanks for your honesty, Steve. We want you to know that we're here for you, and this week we're going to help you start to unpack some of the things that are maybe holding you back right now.'
'Absolutely, man,' Sam joins in. 'Trust us, there's lots of easy steps we can help you take to get closer to living the life you want. If you're open to it, I know this is going to be a great experience for you.'
'Yeah,' Steve says, nodding slowly. 'I'm going into this with an open mind.' He smiles, holding his hands up. 'Do your worst, I guess.'
'Oh boy, you should never say that to us,' Tony says with a smirk, as the others all echo that sentiment with good-natured laughter and ribbing at each other's expense.
'I want to see where Steve lives,' Bucky finally says, which is a) true and b) the link he's supposed to provide that sets them up to move location. Thor squeals and practically drowns Steve in a giant bear hug, which pretty much takes care of how to close that scene.
Steve lives in a two bedroom apartment in the old warehouse district. It's not the worst they've seen, from the show's heroes. It's fairly, if not squeaky, clean. It's not horribly cluttered. The washing up is even done, bar a couple of mugs resting next to the sink. What it lacks, is any shred of personality.
'Are you sure you actually live here?' Tony has his most skeptical face on, as he moves around the double height loft space that, on the face of it, should actually be pretty trendy. The living spaces are all one open area, with three doors against the far wall that lead to two bedrooms and a bathroom in the middle. The space is amazing, with great light from the top windows and an exposed brick wall at one end. It's just utterly bland. The walls are plain, and devoid of any pictures. The sofas are mismatched, but both massive and dark coloured. There's a coffee table with a few books and a stack of papers. A half-filled book case, a couple of sad looking pot plants and an overhanging lamp are the only other items to be seen.
'Talk me through what's going on here, Steve,' Tony says, as Sam and Thor let themselves into Steve's bedroom to start rifling through his wardrobe and Bucky drags Bruce over to check out the refrigerator. 'Where's all your stuff?'
'I never accumulated too much in the way of stuff, while I was in the army. I guess, since I've been back and got this place, I haven't made too much of an effort to make it homely.' His hand is on the back of his neck again. 'I actually do have a lot still in boxes in the spare room.'
Tony visibly perks up.
'Ok,' he says. 'Let's gloss over the fact that you haven't unpacked for, what, more than a year? Let's take a look at these boxes.'
Fifteen minutes later, Tony is hollering for everyone to come into the spare room. They arrive to find him knee deep in opened packing cases, and looking triumphant.
'Major breakthough,' he announces, 'in finding the real Steve.' He grins at Steve. 'Do you wanna show them what you just showed me?'
There's the requisite 'oooh, eerrrr' from the peanut gallery, and Steve's blushing again by the time he reaches into a large packing crate in the corner of the room. He carefully pulls out what looks like a large watercolour painting, depicting a couple dancing in the rain. It's stunning, by anyone's standards. Of all of them, Tony knows the most about art, and he's looking smug as all get out.
'Wow, that's lovely,' Bruce compliments. 'Is this stuff you've been meaning to put on your walls, Steve?' There's clearly another four or five paintings in the crate.
'Better than that,' Tony practically bursts out. Steve is looking extra squirmy right now, and Bucky suddenly gets it.
'Captain Rogers, did you paint these yourself?' he asks, aiming for an extra sexy drawl, just because.
'Um, yeah, kinda,' Steve says, looking a bit like he ought to be embarrassed or something. 'A long time ago. I haven't really painted—or drawn, or anything really—since I've been back.'
Tony's got another painting out of the case now, and the team's gawping over it and vocalising how impressed they are with their usual exuberance.
'They're really, really good, Steve,' Bucky says, seriously. Steve shoots him a slightly dazed look. Bucky gets it. The five of them are, like, a lot to take, even without the production and camera crew's constant presence and the stop/start of filming that interrupts the natural flow.
'Thank you,' Steve says.
'We have definitely got to find a way to showcase your art on the walls,' Tony says, 'and, let's talk about what you actually want to do with this spare room. Long term storage is not an option. We need to get you unpacked, buddy.'
Tony's redecorating of a whole apartment is going to mean working long days, and possibly nights, all week. Sam's got to shop for a whole new wardrobe for Steve ('No way, baby, these grandad pants are all going straight to the Goodwill. Christ, what is this cardigan? It's not even meant to be ironic, is it? I'm genuinely horrified.') and Bruce has got his work cut out for him as a completely unqualified life coach. Bucky knows that he often gets off easy, overhauling the heroes eating habits, but this time it's the opposite challenge from usual.
'Steve,' Bucky says, affecting his best pout, 'are you a clean eating freak or just really uninterested in food?'
Steve actually rolls his eyes.
'Neither,' he argues. 'Well, maybe the first, a bit. I am interested in food. It's just that keeping myself in good shape, well, I suppose it's been one of the only things in a life since I got back that I've felt is really under control. I exercise a lot and I eat healthy. That's not bad, is it?'
'Ok, pal. There's eating healthy, and then there's eating boring. You, Captain, have a fridge and cupboards entirely devoid of flavor. Are you about to star in a topless action movie I don't know about? Are you on a contractually imposed boiled chicken and green veg diet?’
‘Because, I don’t know if you’ve seen my abs, but I actually still manage to find joy in what I eat. '
Steve's laughing out loud now, apparently entertained by Bucky's ire.
'I guess I could stand to shake things up a bit,' he says, smile warm. Bucky absolutely does not almost drown in those ocean blue eyes. Bucky is a confident, much-admired TV star with a dozen top magazine spreads, modelling campaigns and a thriving Instagram following to his name. He's at his sexy best today, in black skinny jeans, a custom made white tee with 'ice my bun' printed across his chest and a handful of leather bracelets. His eyeliner is on point and his man bun is artful AF. Bucky will not crush out on a dude who thinks it’s acceptable to wear khakis and boil chicken. No, sir.
'Let's go food shopping,' he says, shutting the fridge door a bit too viciously. 'I'm going to introduce you to the spice and herbs aisle.'
‘So, let’s talk about the important people in your life,’ Bruce says. They’re back at Steve’s apartment, after what was probably a very stressful morning for Steve: clothes shopping with Sam. Sam’s possibly one of the nicest guys ever to exist, but man is he a demon when he’s forcing you to embrace your most fashionable self. Bruce seems mild-mannered, but clearly he likes to attack when his prey is weak.
‘Uh, sure.’ Steve settles back onto his ugly sofa.
‘Because I want to get to know the real Steve, man, and what better way to start.’ Bruce is rocking a fitted blue shirt with the sleeves casually rolled up, and flashing quite a bit of chest hair along with the quirky man necklaces he brought home from a recent trip to Botswana. He’s hot, but not, like, in a way that you think about too much until you suddenly realise you’ve spent three hours unburdening the secrets of your soul as you gaze in those chocolatey brown eyes. Steve doesn’t know what he’s in for.
‘Well, you know Nat and Clint are my closest friends.’ Bruce nods, encouraging Steve to continue. ‘You’ve not met Clint, but he’s a great guy. Those two are like family to me. Them and Wanda. She’s Nat’s cousin and she works at the bar. I, uh, I haven’t got any actual family left, since Ma passed. Only child. I never knew my da—he died when I was real young.’ Steve’s holding it together, even though his eyes are getting a bit watery.
‘So,’ Bruce says, gently. ‘I’m thinking that between the culture shock of being thrust back into civilian life and the emotional upheaval of your mother’s passing, you’ve not had a lot of energy to dedicate to looking after Steve.’ He pauses a moment to let that sink in. ‘Am I way off base there?’
‘No,’ Steve admits, chewing his lip as he thinks it over. ‘Burying Ma. Getting this apartment. Getting SHIELD off the ground so Nat and I have a steady income. That’s been about as much as I’ve been able to manage.’
‘And, Steve, that’s been enough,’ Bruce is quick to point out. ‘Plenty wouldn’t have been able to keep it together the way you’ve done. I’m not criticizing. Hell, I’m in awe of your strength. All joking aside, all this hassle from your friends—you know they just love you, man. The only reason we’re here—the only reason Tony’s customizing storage furniture right now and Bucky’s scouring his recipes books for tasty ways to consume broccoli—is because everyone can see that you deserve to finally get back on the path to happiness. Whatever that’s gonna look like for you, from now on.’
‘Yeah. I know…I know it’s time to pull myself together,’ Steve says. ‘I didn’t used to be this closed off from people.’ He glances up the ceiling, and all bets are off as to how many TV viewers around the country will be sobbing into their wine glasses when this episode airs. ‘I lost some close friends on my last tour,’ Steve admits. ‘Really good guys. I can’t go into detail, but it was pretty awful. I think that I’ve been scared to seek out new friendships since then, let alone anything romantic.’
Bruce nods, as if traumatized veterans are totally something he deals with on a daily basis. With Bruce, you never really know.
‘Understandable. When was your last relationship, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Steve huffs out a breath.
‘You’re going to judge me,’ he says, forcing a small grin. ‘This is why Nat rides me so hard about getting out on dates. I haven’t dated anyone seriously since my girlfriend before I joined the army. Basically, my high school girlfriend. I mean, there was this amazing British officer I met while we were both posted in the Middle East. Peggy, her name was. If things were different, I think maybe we could have had something special. But…it was one of those things that just never quite happened, for a million different reasons, y’know? The timing was never right.’
‘Sure,’ Bruce says. ‘I actually do get that. Timing’s important. I mean, my boyfriend and I knew each other for a long time before anything romantic happened between us. This sounds really dramatic, but Phil was actually presumed dead for a few days after he got caught up in some local conflict in Columbia—he travels a lot for business. And it was only when I found out he was alive that I realized how damn happy I was to still have the opportunity to ask him on a date. And, ok, don’t get me started on Tony and his partner,’ Bruce chuckles. ‘They actually hated enough other when they first met. I’m not breaking any confidences—Tony talks about this all the time. Loki’s also a very talented designer—they had a doozy of a bust up at a conference in New York one summer, before they realized they could basically take over the world if they teamed up inside of fighting.’
Steve looks interested.
‘I’m just saying,’ Bruce shrugs. ‘Deciding to let another person into your life, allowing yourself to be vulnerable to them—it can be messy, and complicated.’
‘What about Bucky?’ Steve asks.
‘Ah, Bucky’s a single pringle,’ Bruce says with a grin. ‘Ain’t no-one come along so far special enough to catch that beautiful butterfly.’ He grabs a glass of water from the coffee table and takes the opportunity to drive the conversation home. ‘So what do you think, Steve? Are you ready to let some new people into your life?’
‘Yeah, I’m ready to try,’ Steve says, and Bruce looks super pleased. Also a tiny bit smug.
‘That’s good to hear, man, because next Saturday night, you and Nat are gonna be throwing a party to celebrate SHIELD’s first anniversary, and your friends are inviting a whole lot of new people for you to meet.’
Steve mock-groans and throws his hands over his eyes, rolling back into the sofa cushions.
‘Fair warning,’ Bruce adds. ‘There will be attractive single women not-so-subtly flung in your direction.’
‘Any single men?’ Steve manages to uncover his face and stomach-crunch his way upright. ‘Because I’m equally interested in both. I mean, I’m bisexual.’
‘Oh, cool,’ Bruce nods, finishing his water. ‘Yeah, dude, Nat should get Bucky and Thor on the case. Pretty sure that between the two of them they have the number of every hot single guy in Georgia, who’s ever even thought of sleeping with men, in their phone contacts.’