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Friday Night Lights

Chapter Text


 Track 01

 Right Direction - Benjamin Lazar Davis 

 Track 02

 Bonfire - The Hunna 

 Track 03

 Weeknight - Livy


 

In the small town of Midgard, football is a way of life.

School might not start until September, but the first Monday of August is when the gates of hell open. And not just for the Stanley Lieber High School football team.

“Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty! You know what day it is!”

The locals have found many different ways to describe Natasha Romanoff over the years since making Midgard her home. Some said in awe, others out of envy or pure, unadulterated fear. Never in all those years, never in her sixteen years of life has Natasha been described as a morning person. Her green eyes slowly open and stare up at a vintage Moscow ballet poster fluttering against her cherry red bedroom wall with every knock of a fist against the door.

“First day of contact!” Nick Fury shouts. “Up and at it, missy!”

Natasha curls in on herself beneath a comfy duvet, her hair falling across her face in an unruly wave of red. “Hate you, Nick,” she mumbles into her pillow.

“Agent Romanoff!” Oh no, it’s his coach voice. She hates that even more. “You know the deal! Your mission awaits! Continue to ignore me and you can kiss that sweet, sweet car of yours goodbye for the rest of the summer! Don’t call me on my bluff!”

“I’m up, Nick!” Natasha shouts back. As she rubs the sleep from her eyes, she realizes the knocking stopped. Finally. Natasha’s good on her promises, though. She drags herself to the adjoining bathroom and gets ready for the day.

When she walks downstairs, in the process of pulling her hair up, Nick Fury’s in the kitchen neatly assembling sandwiches. He’s efficient with a butter knife, slicing bananas into equal pieces and spreading even layers of peanut butter on each slice of bread. He has a number of complete sandwiches packaged in individual bags on the counter.

In a town as small as Midgard, everyone knows everyone, but everyone especially knows the high school football team’s head coach. Nick Fury is intimidating as hell with a black patch over one of his dead shark eyes. He’s also one of the best men Natasha has ever known.

In a blink, Fury tosses one of the bagged sandwiches at her and Natasha snatches it out of air. Her reflexes are sharp and she’s always ready. “Eat up. Long day. Gonna be hot out.”

“Thank you. Going now. Gotta fill ‘er up.” The corner of her mouth pulls to one side, amused at her little imitation of him. Fury might not show it, but she knows he’s smiling on the inside. He slides a few of the sandwiches into a brown paper bag and folds the top over before handing it to her.

“Get going and make sure Barton wears some damn clean socks for once!”

“I’m a messenger, not his mother!” Natasha calls out just as she turns to leave.

“Maybe if the Barton boys had one of those, they wouldn’t be such a menace to society.” There’s fondness in his voice, buried beneath the annoyance, Natasha’s sure.

It’s barely light out, just a haze of blue and pink overhead, stretched and distorted clouds. Natasha takes a moment to appreciate the cool, early morning. It’s going to be hot as hell in an hour or so. Next to Fury’s black SUV is Natasha’s slick, black 1969 Corvette Stingray. Perfect in every way. It had been Ivan’s. Now it’s hers.

The engine purrs as Natasha starts it up and then she’s off, driving through sleepy streets. There had been a time, well, many times where she felt trapped in this town. All she wanted was to escape. Now it’s the summer before senior year, college brochures all over her room (that was another thing she got in exchange for playing Fury’s messenger—college tours over the summer) and now she’s taking it all in before all of it is in her rearview mirror.

First stop on her so-called “mission” is the nearest gas station. She leans against the Stingray, staring off, still a little sleepy, when she feels a tap on her shoulder. She turns and no one’s there. Further down the road she sees a figure in a gray hoodie jogging away. He glances at her from over his shoulder with a politician’s smile and a wink.

James “Bucky” Barnes. Also known as the Winter Solider, the Asset and, arguably most important, QB1. Lieber High’s starting quarterback. Maria begrudgingly refers to him as That Charming Motherfucker. And she isn’t wrong.

James “Bucky” Barnes. Smart, athletic, charming. He’s a stud quarterback with a god-given talent that can’t be taught, at least, according to the locals. Every college wants him. And Natasha can’t stop remembering the way he took her chin in the hand of his left throwing arm and kissed her in a quiet corner of Tony Stark’s mansion during a loud rager. They haven’t talked about it since and he got pretty cozy with Sue Storm minutes after, but…

Fury doesn’t ask much from her other than the usual—get good grades, stay out of trouble, do as I say. At the top of that admittedly short list is don’t date any of my damn players. Am I clear?

But James…

He needs to focus on school and football and college decisions. And she has her own priorities—school, ballet and college decisions. (And football, if she’s being honest with herself.) But that doesn’t mean she can’t look… And whatever happens, well, happens. Nick’s fury be damned.

Her second stop is a decent, working class house. Not the best neighborhood, but not the worst either. Out on the front lawn that’s overrun with weeds is a Clint “Hawkeye” Barton #47 cornerback sign with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels leaning against the leg.

Natasha invites herself right in. Anyone who knows the Barton boys knows to just walk in. Like hell Clint or Barney are going to indulge such an inconvenience as getting up to invite company in. It’s sort of an unwritten rule. Plus, Natasha can see through the screen door and her best friend is asleep on the couch with a curvy blonde wrapped around him.

“Barton!” Natasha shoves her way into the house that’s sort of a dump, the coffee table lined with beer bottles and nicks and notches in the walls from arrows and throwing knives. But at the same time, it’s oddly comforting. “Messing around with rally girls again? Hmm, I wonder what Bobbi would think.”

The head of blonde hair planted on Clint’s bare chest rises and Bobbi Morse’s tired eyes narrow at her human pillow. “Again, huh?”

“Mornin’ to you too, Tasha,” Clint mutters without even opening his eyes. He gives Bobbi a sloppy kiss wherever it may land—on the tip of her nose, probably where he intended. They don’t call him Hawkeye for nothing. “Coach Fury should’a named you Nark Romanoff when he mail ordered you from Russia.”

“Coach Fury is going to mail order your ass somewhere no one will find your body if you aren’t on time.” Natasha throws a peanut butter banana sandwich at him and it hits Clint in the face. “Think you can manage that without me literally dragging you there? I’m Steve’s ride to practice and I still need to pick him up.”

Bobbi laughs against Clint’s shoulder. “Second String Skinny Steve? So he can keep you company on the bench?”

Clint scoffs. “Have you seen Rogers lately? Puberty finally hit and hit hard. He’s as big as an ox now and he actually has an ass! We threw the ball around a little the other day. He’s got a decent arm. If I were the betting type, I’d say Rogers could give Barnes a run for his money this year.”

“Careful,” Bobbi hums. “Stark might take you up on that bet.”

“I don’t know,” Natasha muses. “I saw James on my drive over and he was already warming up on his own. Once he puts his mind to it, it’s done.”

“And he only gets better and trains harder as the season goes on, making the rest of us look bad,” Clint adds. “We don’t call him the Winter Soldier for nothin’.”

“Natasha, since when do you call him James?” That’s really what catches Bobbi’s attention. When Natasha doesn’t reply, just stares at a pizza box soaked through with grease dumped carelessly on the shag carpet, Clint laughs and starts making kissing sounds. Bobbi’s mouth drops open, so excited and so smug. “I knew it! Details, Romanoff!”

“You know nothing. Don’t take cues from assholes who don’t know what they’re alluding to.” Natasha kicks Clint’s foot that’s hanging off the couch. Suddenly, he lunges up and grabs Natasha around the waist, pulling her onto the couch with him and Bobbi purely to be annoying.

She’s about to show him what Fury-mandated Krav Maga since she was eight entails, but the front door squeals open as Barney Barton walks in. A yellow Labrador rushes ahead of him and jumps onto Natasha’s lap, nearly making the entire couch topple over.

“Clint, your dog smells like garbage.” Natasha scratches Lucky between the ears before trying to free herself from the tangle of limbs and fur.

“What’s going on here?” Barney shouts. “It’s the first contact practice of preseason and you decide to have an early morning threesome with the coach’s daughter and the townie? When I was on the team—”

“Oh great!” Clint interrupts him. “Another Trick Shot throwback! You think he’s gonna talk about the ring again? I think he’s gonna talk about the ring.”

Barney flexes his hand and sure enough he’s wearing his championship ring. Lieber High School etched into a thick, gold band holding a red stone in the center with a gold A on it. An older model and, honestly, gaudy as hell. The newer ones are even more over-the-top. Wearing one of these babies gets you respect in this town.

“I gotta go,” Natasha says. “Get to practice on time, Clint. I was sent here with explicit instructions to warn you that for every minute any of you are late, the entire team has to run a lap. And you know he’s good on his word.” Natasha starts toward the door, just to spin back around in time to see Clint take a bite of his sandwich. “And he said to wear clean socks!”

“Hey, I always wear clean socks!” Clint shouts through a mouth of food.

Bobbi mutters something along the lines of “doubtful” and then there are authentic kissing sounds followed by Barney snapping at Clint about football either being a ticket to a better future or at least a ticket to the best year of his life. It’s sad how true that is for majority of Midgard.

 

 

The last little box to check in order to complete her “mission” lives at a modest house smaller than Barton’s, but much homier. There’s a well-maintained flower garden out front and a little American flag on the mailbox. The rare sighting of an older Toyota Camry in the usually empty driveway makes Natasha giddy as she parks beside it. 

Before running up the front porch, Natasha notices the football sign faced down on the grass. She's careful not to step on the flowers as she picks up the sign that’s much smaller than Clint’s, smaller than most, and stands it back up. Usually, Steve’s home alone and Natasha lets herself in, but this time she pauses at the screen door and knocks against the wooden frame.

“Natasha? That you? Come in, sweetheart!”

She smiles at the sound of Sarah Rogers’ voice, inviting and sweet as honey. Natasha does just that, walks in to a small living room that’s open to the kitchen where Sarah’s in her scrubs at the counter with a coffee cup in hand.

Sarah Rogers has always been a slight woman, but it feels like she gets thinner and thinner every time Natasha sees her. It isn’t surprising with how often she’s on her feet at the hospital and how many hours she works. Fine blonde hair, a bright yet tired smile and bright blue eyes.

“Morning, Sarah.”

“Morning, hon.”

Sarah pulls her into a hug and Natasha’s learned to go with it. Sometimes it feels like the most normal thing in her life as far as human contact goes. Sarah’s one of the very few people who Natasha hugs without faking it.

It’s impossible to forget the first time they met. When Natasha first moved to Midgard, she woke with a terrible fever, wheezing and sharp pain in her chest. Fury rushed her to the hospital and Sarah was the nurse on duty. She stayed with Natasha from the second she was admitted to walking her to the curb once she was discharged. Not used to people, let alone a woman, doting on her, Natasha was almost embarrassed, but it felt nice. And it was painfully obvious that the skinny blonde boy who met Natasha at the curb on her first day of school was Sarah’s son. After all, they have the same blue eyes and insatiable need to help others.

“Are you just coming off a shift or on your way out?” Natasha asks.

“Regretfully, on my way out. Darn timing. Steve told me you were picking him up so I made a little bacon and omelets. And coffee, of course.”

“Thanks, Sarah.” Natasha plops down at the table and places the bagged sandwich next to the spread of food. She knows better than to refuse food. Sarah is almost always working and Steve almost always has to fend for himself, but when she is home, he eats like a king. All Fury can really manage is grilling meat and emptying a bag of salad into a bowl.

Sarah sets a fresh mug of coffee down on the table before hugging Natasha from behind. “It’s the least I can do with you chauffeuring my son around all the time. Eat up and we’ll catch up another time. Once you’re done, just put your dishes in the sink and remind Steve to wash ‘em, alright?”

“Alright. Where is Steve?”

Sarah throws her hands up and spins as she grabs her bags. “Oh, you know him. The second the mailman got here, he raced out the front door to see if he got a new letter from Peggy then raced to his room.”

Natasha cuts into the omelet with the side of her fork. “I’m pretty sure the five thousand miles just made them even more adorably disgusting.”

“Try living with him.” Sarah laughs, swiping her keys off the table. “I’ll see you later, Nat!”

“Bye, Sarah!”

She really does love that woman. Natasha has made it her secret mission in life to make sure Steve knows and appreciates his mom. Not that she has to try very hard. Steve looks at Sarah and talks about her like she’s superhuman, especially when he’s recapping his Sickly Steve childhood. If Sarah’s half as good to him as she is to her actual patients, Steve’s a lucky kid.

“Rogers, I’m here!” Natasha shouts, alternating between picking at the omelet and sipping her coffee leisurely. “Time’s a’ticking! Finish up with Peggy’s love letter, wash your hands and let’s go!”

Natasha finishes the omelet, the last slice of bacon, downs the coffee and still not a peep from Steve. She takes it upon herself to clear the table, taking all the dishes to the sink and starting to scrub them clean. She doesn’t get too far before hearing Steve’s heavy footsteps. Honestly, he’d make an awful spy. Steve slides up next to her, bumping his shoulder into hers. It’s impossible to not sense Steve Rogers coming, all six feet of him, broad shoulders and a smile you can feel.

“My ma would strangle me if she saw you doin’ my chores.” Steve whips out a dishtowel and dries the utensils and dishes once she soaps, washes and hands them over to him. “It’s bad enough you drive me around, Nat.”

“What are friends for?” Natasha bumps him with her hip and as strange as it seems, the smile she gets out of him is what makes the early morning and the rude awakening worth it. “It’s fine. Once you finish saving up for that Harley, you can pay me back, loan it to me now and again.”

Steve laughs in a yeah, right sort of way. “Coach Fury would kill me.”

“Probably,” Natasha agrees. “Plus, you have other things to save up for. Visiting Peggy in New York for one. How’s she doing?”

She already has a teasing comment on her tongue about his dumb grin at every mention of his beloved. Natasha freezes when it doesn’t come, when his lips press into a tight smile accompanied by that nagging crease between his brows. The crease always takes center stage when Steve’s concentrating on a particularly challenging task or when he’s trying to pretend nothing’s wrong.

“Ah, you know Peg.” His smile widens, but only marginally. “Making new friends, this Angie girl she talks about all the time, keeping the boys in line. She’s good.”

“Good.”

“Better hustle, Romanoff. You’re going to make me late for practice.”

She flicks her fingers at him, not enough to wet his worn plain white shirt (one of many), but enough to make him flinch and fuck is that amusing. When he bumps her a little harder this time, the smile he gives her is a little looser, a little easier, a little more real. He thanks her for the sandwich, slips it into his backpack and pulls on a blue baseball cap with a white A on it. In a matter of minutes, they’re in the Stingray and on the road.

Steve fiddles with the radio as Natasha drives and she can’t help, but roll her eyes. There’s a reason for the cassette adaptor just waiting for a phone with a playlist of real music. In Natasha’s humble opinion, all radio music is shit and the talk radio is even shittier. Steve seems to disagree when he stops on the absolute worst of the worst—local football frenzy talk radio.

“All I know is that Fury fella’s got his work cut out for him.” The voice isn’t as clear, a little muffled, probably a listener that called in. “After the supposedly number one ranked team in Texas got their behinds handed to them by Hydra in that bogus blowout last year? No wonder that last coach, He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named got the boot.”

“I hear ya, son—”

Natasha hums in mock thoughtfulness. “So a 9-1 record puts you in the same league as Voldemort now?”

Steve chuckles.

“—and that’s all anyone’s going to talk about this preseason, especially with that fancy ESPN news crew already on the field, filming every second.” The local radio personality clicks his tongue. “Sure is a lot of pressure.”

“I forgot about that,” Steve mutters. “No wonder Buck used all his gas money on a trip to the barber.”

“At least this year we’ve got a roster packed with weapons!” the caller shouts. “Spotted the Winter Soldier tossin’ the pigskin around, healthy as ever. That arm’s gonna spread out the defense and then when all eyes are on him, we unload Quicksilver!”

“Yessiree! The kid might not look like much, but man can he run! You get Quicksilver fifteen a carry, defense’ll worry about the sneaky son of a bitch then Barnes can air ‘er out! Stark goes long and look out, States!”

“Can we listen to something else please?” Natasha asks.

“Fine.” Steve switches the radio off and snags her phone, pushing the end of the cord into the headphone jack. “Where’s the playlist you made for me?" 

He finds the playlist entitled "There's More to Music than Jazz, Jock Jams and Showtunes, Steve." Some of her best work. 

“So, did you make any football-shaped Rice Krispies to celebrate the first day of contact?” Steve jokes.

“Do I look like a rally girl?”

He laughs and she can feel her brows pinch at the very mental image. “Not like I’d get any Rice Krispies either way.” Steve slumps down in his seat. “I’m not going to play at all this year, am I?”

Natasha pulls into the parking lot that’s already half-full. She glances over at Steve. “As quarterback? Steve, Nick talked to you about maybe being a guard or even defensive end.” She snags a stall, shuts off the engine and leans over the center console with a teasing smile that’s all teeth. “You’d make a decent tight end. A big, sturdy target for James. And the cheerleaders would love calling you that.”

He ducks his head and she swears she sees a blush. “We can’t have that. Stark might get jealous from all the attention not being on him. Plus, the one time I ran down the field to catch a pass from Buck, this pretty almost forty yard spiral, I had it in my hands and dropped it. We were just playing around, but Coach Fury saw. Next thing I know, he’s standing over me and tells me, if that ball were a baby, Rogers, it’d be dead.”

Natasha snorts at Steve’s Fury impersonation and shoves her door open. “A baby, really? When I dropped a ball as a kid, he’d tell me I just killed a puppy.”

“That’s awful.”

“That’s Nick."

Fury has been coaching football for as long as Natasha has known him, which means she’s been around enough jocks to know that football takes smarts. It’s anticipating and predicting what your opponent will do and beating them to it. Every player needs to know his assignment and execute in perfect synchronicity to succeed.

Now, does that mean there aren’t a handful of dull crayons or plain arrogant ones that are flabbergasted when they meet a rare teacher who isn’t willing to give them a free pass because they’re on the team? No. But contrary to every teen movie ever, they aren’t stupid guys even if they do the stupidest things.

Making their way across the field, Natasha and Steve walk right by the news crew interviewing the captain of the defense, Brock Rumlow, a high school senior with a five o’clock shadow and a bad attitude. Every time Natasha points it out, Fury replies, Good. Every winning defense needs that even if society doesn’t.

“We just finished filming over at Asgard High,” the interviewer says. “Thor, captain of the Warriors, has already broken and set the record for most sacks in a high school career even before his senior year. He’s saying his defense is number one in Texas. Anything you want to say to that?”

Rumlow just laughs with his muscular arms crossed over his chest. “Did he also tell you about his dumb ass Viking helmet and his magic hammer? I wouldn’t believe anything that wannabe Fabio says. Dude’s big, but the bigger they are, the bigger the tantrum when they get their ass kicked.”

“Well, according to stats, Thor and the Warriors are the number one defense in the division.”

Rumlow isn't rattled, just angry. “That was last season. I’m captain of the defense now. I’m calling the plays. Nothing gets past us on the ground or in the air. Every quarterback that crosses us will eat dirt, I promise. This season is where glorifying the offense ends and the defense gets some well-deserved respect. I don’t even need to promise. That’s a given.”

Rumlow gives the camera a charming smile then and when he catches Steve and Natasha watching, the middle linebacker throws the latter a wink. Natasha rolls her eyes and continues walking with Steve a step behind her.

“That guy’s a bully,” Steve mutters. “I hate how much I respect the way he talks about crediting the defense.”

“You and me both,” Natasha replies, but her eyes are already on a larger setup of reporters and cameras. At the center of all the commotion is Bucky with his polite smile and Fury, cold and disgruntled. He made it abundantly clear that there’s no place for a media circus on a football field. Principal Sitwell, booster club president Stern and even Mayor Alexander Pierce were quick to remind Fury that the cameras aren’t debatable.

“We’re a team,” Bucky tells the reporter. “Most of us have been playing together since pee wee and now we’re here. We know each other and we trust each other and I like to think it shows when we play. We’re going to go out there, play like every game is our last, and if we go out, we go out kicking and screaming.”

“What are the plans for after high school, James? If you could go to any university next year, any one you want, which would it be?”

Bucky doesn’t even have to think before answering. “I don’t have those thoughts. Right now, I’m focused on now. And I’m here in Midgard now. All I’m thinking about is playing football to the best of my ability for as long as I can where it feels right. This right now feels right.”

“Are we done here or do you want to play I Spy with my QB too?” Fury snaps.

“We’ve got one more interview,” one of the reporters says. “Stark.”

As if on cue, ACDC starts to play over the speakers as a metallic red and gold ATV zooms onto the field. The rider has a matching helmet and gloves, driving in circles, kicking up dirt and tuffs of grass.

“Stark!” Offensive Coach Phillips shouts at the top of his lungs. “Get that blasted thing off the blasted field or goddamn it I swear none of daddy’s money can buy you out of the world of pain you’re begging for!”

After one last lap, the ATV comes to a stop and Tony Stark removes his helmet, whipping his head back as he does it. The smile on his face screams arrogance, screams Stark.

“Did you say something, coach?” Tony asks after silencing the music with one click of his Stark phone. “I couldn’t quite hear you.” He walks around Phillips and right in front of the camera crew. “Gentlemen.” He flashes the one female reporter a charming smile. “Miss Christine Everhart of Channel Five News. I hear you have a few questions for me.”

“And you are?” Christine Everhart asks.

“Cute.” Tony laughs. “Tony Stark. Star wide receiver. They call me Iron Man.”

“Nobody calls him that,” Bucky says with an amused smile. “Just Tony.”

Tony laughs again and it’s a little louder to cover up what might be embarrassment as he rounds his arm around Bucky’s neck. “Get a good look, lady and gentlemen! This is the team to beat right here. The two of us and—where’s the little foreign exchange kid? Well, whatever. We’ve got the Howling Commandos up front, the Winter Solider under center, Quicksilver on the ground and Iron Man in the slot. Now I’m sure you already have a marketing strategy in place, but personally, I like hashtag Midgard Magic or—”

A loud, angry whistle blows.

“Enough!” Fury shouts, spit flying left and right. “Let’s go to work!”

“Good luck out there, partner.” Natasha taps a closed fist against Steve’s collarbone. “And remember what I said.”

“You do remember who you’re talking to, right?” Steve asks.

“The most stubborn punk on earth,” Bucky says, walking up to them. He gives Natasha a cool nod, which she returns just as coolly, before he grins wide at his big, broad best friend. “I don’t even have to know what you’re talking about to know what you’re talking about.”

“Nat and I were just taking bets on how many rally girls are going to come up to you on the first day of school, asking for the Winter Soldiers autograph.”

“An embarrassing number,” Natasha says. “And even more boosters.”

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.” Bucky smoothes his fingers through his short brown hair. “It isn’t easy being god’s gift to football and women, you know.”

“And now I’m leaving,” Natasha says. Before she does, she circles around Bucky and runs her fingers across his shoulder blades. He turns to hold her gaze and there’s that smile again. “Try not to die, boys.”

“Romanoff!”

Bucky nearly jumps out of his skin at the sound of her name coming from his head coach. Natasha pays no attention to Bucky’s reaction (that has Steve stifling a laugh) as she dutifully reports in. When he’s on the field, wearing his red polo, khaki pants and that trusty whistle, he isn’t Nick like at home, but coach even to her.

“You hollered?” Natasha asks flatly.

The pointed look on Fury’s face is an I saw that even though he won’t mention it, not on the field in front of the team and his staff at least. He just keeps giving her the look and drops a set of keys into her palm. “We’re going to stretch for ten and when we start tackling drills, I want you on the clock.”

“On it, coach.”

Natasha walks off the field and up through the stands, passing a giggly group of cheerleaders all in matching track suits, parents watching the field intently and boosters with their beer guts and sunlight glinting off their championship rings. She lets herself into the press box like she’s done a hundred times before and sets her things down on the counter that lines the glass window looking out at the field. As the boys start to organize, Natasha pulls out a worn paperback and sits back, waiting for the show to start.

Down on the field, all the boys take a knee in front of Fury. They all wait patiently for him to speak. Nick doesn’t talk about his past military experience with Natasha, shares lessoned learned, but never details of what he’s done. She likes to imagine he ran his team then a little like he runs his team now.

“90 minutes of full-contact and tackling practice a week,” Fury says. “90 minutes. A week. Back in my day, every second of practice was full-contact, every day, and we didn’t stop until the other guy couldn’t get up. They’re trying to make you soft, but that’s fine. We’ll play by the rules because that’s what kind of man I am and that’s the kind of men you’ll become. Men who win by the rules. Lucky for you, that full-contact rule doesn’t apply to preseason.”

The boys should have been worried when Fury started talking. If not, they are definitely worried by the time he ends his little spiel with an evil smile.

Natasha keeps time as groups of players rotate between five different tackling stations. All the while assistant coaches circle them like sharks and yell right in their faces. Eyes on the ball! Feet shoulder-width apart! Chest out, arms ready to wrap up that ball carrier! You run through that ball carrier! Run through him!

They’re instructed to keep their heads to the side while driving a shoulder into the runner’s chest or thigh, but the bone-rattling helmet-to-helmet collisions are the ones that get everyone excited. Fury is always right there to point out what they’re doing wrong and tell them to get back in line and do it again.

After the tackling drills, they move on to pursuit drills and then split up the offense and the defense. They work on individual skills, where guys like Stark show off and Coach Phillips works closely with Bucky on his footwork in the pocket. All the while, Steve runs around with water bottles, feeding his teammates water between drills since water breaks are a thing of the past. It makes Natasha frown, watching Steve out on the field for the wrong reasons.

Fury mainly works with the defense. It’s his specialty; being a star outside linebacker back in high school and helping the Lieber High Avengers win a championship. The defense is sharp, fast and vicious. Nothing gets past Rumlow, T’Challa gets around the edge in record time and there’s Clint in the corner, who’s the best in the league at reading a quarterback for an interception. Fury runs practice like a well-oiled machine, all while the clock runs down in fifteen-minute increments.

As practice winds down and the boys all take a knee in front of Fury yet again, Natasha shuts everything down in the press box, locks up and heads back. The sun is really out now and as she sits on the first row of bleachers, Natasha peels her top off, wearing a stringy black bikini underneath. She closes her eyes and tilts her face up to the blazing sun.

“Ten,” Fury says out on the field. “Ten regular season games. Ten chances to go out there and leave everything on the field. You may think you’re tough shit and this town may tell you you’re tough shit, but the only ones you need to prove you’re tough shit to are your teammates and your coaches and me. Not only prove your worth, but earn your spot. I demand full focus and discipline. If not, you might as well get off my damn field right now.”

Fury walks up and down the line of teenage boys in undershirts and tank tops soaked through with sweat, their eyes solely on him. At the end of the line is one boy in a red Atlanta Falcons muscle tee whose eyes are on a certain redhead soaking in the sun. Fury stops in front of him, jaw clenched, eye lit with fire.

“You,” Fury says. “Tommy Nobis, get your ass up.”

“Uh…” The boy stands and tries to put on a confident front. “My name is Sam Wilson. Tommy Nobis was white.”

“Did I say you could talk?” Fury snaps, getting right in Sam’s face. “I don’t know what you’ve been told growing up, but when someone is talking to you, it’s polite to give them your full, undivided attention. And where was your attention just now?”

“Uh, it’s nothing, sir.”

“So my daughter is nothing?”

Sam’s eyes bug out. “Sir, if I knew—”

“Oh, so if you knew she was my daughter, you wouldn’t be ogling her while I’m talking to you, but if she was just any other neighborhood girl you’d be ogling her while I’m talking? Is that it?” Sam stands military straight, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir. Just transferred here this summer, sir. Military brat all my life, sir.”

“Alright.” Fury nods. He likes that even though it’s far from enough to stop him from saying what he does next. “Because you’re new, first off, I’ll reiterate how things work around here. I’m not going to tell you not to date or have your good times during the season. I’m not going to tell you to restrict yourself to a pure football diet, but I am telling you to stay the hell away from my daughter or I swear, I will let her kick your ass and thoroughly embarrass you in front of all your teammates. We clear?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

Fury smiles a terrifying smile and clasps Sam’s shoulder. “Second, also because you’re new, Falcon, I don’t care about last year’s stats. I don’t care if you were your old school’s star player. I make the roster and you park your ass on the bench until you show me something that makes me tell you otherwise. We clear?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“Back in line.”

Sam backs up and gets down on one knee.

“That goes for all of you!” Fury shouts.

“Yes, sir!” the team shouts in perfect unison.

“Good,” Fury says, biting on the metal whistle hanging around his neck. “I hope you’re enjoying hell, boys. We’re just getting started.”

 

 

Fury makes them run more laps before finally calling it. By the end of practice, the guy whose eyes were on the coach’s daughter, his Falcons shirt covered in grass and sweat stains, collapses, trying to calm his breathing. Everyone else is hydrating and socializing except for Steve and Bucky who are throwing the ball back and forth. Perfect spirals right on target every time.

“Damn,” Sam mutters without thinking, eyes darting back and forth between Steve and Bucky.

Steve catches the ball and looks over at Sam sprawled out like a body at a crime scene waiting to be outlined in chalk. “What? You thought I was just the water boy?” Sam doesn’t reply, probably thinks it’s just smarter not to. It is. “I’m the backup quarterback actually.”

“Sam Wilson. Backup wide receiver, it seems.”

“Steve Rogers. And don’t feel bad, Sam. Fury does that to some poor new guy every preseason. At least three other guys were doing the same thing—one who definitely should know better—you were just the first one he caught.”

“Lucky me.”

“And I’m Natasha.” She slinks up to Steve’s side, wearing her tank top yet again. “Incase you wanted a name to go with my tits.”

“Cut him some slack, Nat,” Steve says. “Not hard to see why he’d be starin’.” He tries so hard to sound like he’s just stating fact and he is, but the self-satisfied little smirk on Natasha’s face is enough to make his face turn even redder and not from the heat or exertion. Then he just has to add, “You look awful in a bikini.”

Natasha swats his sweaty ball cap right off his head. “Don’t forget who drove your ass here, Rogers.”

“Same person I’m buying lunch, I know,” Steve says. “Hey Sam, you wanna grab a bite with us? If it’s okay with Nat, that is.”

She’s silent for a moment just to make Sam squirm. Not long ago, Natasha was the new kid in town. There’s no telling where she’d be if Steve hadn’t given her that friendly smile of his and invited her to eat lunch with him and his best friend.

“Cool,” Natasha says. “Let me just check in with coach before we go.”

Natasha waits as Fury talks with the other coaches before walking over with her bag swaying at her hip. He doesn’t acknowledge her, too busy scanning over the few players still hanging around. His lips press into a not-so-pleased line as his eyes focus in on Tony showboating for the camera crew. “What’d you see out there?”

Though she had her book open for all of practice, Natasha had been quietly observing the field and keeping time on the game clock. It’s become second nature with all the film Fury watches around her and the fact that she hasn’t missed a single one of his games — not even when he was coaching pee wee.

“Defense is good, lives up to all of Rumlow’s talk,” Natasha reports. “For such a loose cannon in everyday life, he’s surprisingly disciplined on the field. The Howling Commandos look decent. You might need someone to help Happy stop the pass rush. Stark needs a good smack on the back of the head.”

Fury smiles at that. “I would. Oh, you know I would and if I did, his dad would probably tell me to give him another, but…”

“He didn’t drop a single pass and Coach Phillips put those receivers through the gauntlet,” Natasha finishes. “It’s annoying when he’s as good as he thinks he is.”

“And the quarterback position? Barnes or Rogers?”

Natasha gnaws at her bottom lip and finds Steve introducing Sam to Bucky. They’re best friends. They’re all best friends. But that can’t factor into her answer, Natasha knows. She’s always had a knack for seeing the bigger picture, for making clinical observations based on fact, treating them like Fury’s players and not the boys she snuck into her first rated-R movie with.

“Steve’s gotten better, a lot better, strong arm, decent throws and he is all heart.” Natasha takes a quiet breath. “But if you’re eyeing up a run at States, James is your best bet. He has more actual game time experience and the precision of a long-range sniper. He gets the ball exactly where it needs to be when it needs to be there. James is QB1.”

Fury takes in her scouting report, the corner of his mouth hinting at a proud smile. “Did you ask Rogers if he’d consider playing a different position?”

“I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve tried.”

“Well, keep at it. The kid is finally big and strong enough to make an impact and help his team win. It’s his senior year. It’d be a shame if he spent the entire season riding the bench instead of contributing like we all know he can even if it isn’t at quarterback.”

“I’ll talk to him, but I can’t make any promises,” Natasha says. “He’s stubborn.”

“That’s why I have my most stubborn agent on the job.” This time Fury gives her a full smile, proud of himself and proud of her. “Did you see ATL almost cry? Works every year. Who’s going to cue the distractions speech when you’re off at college next year?”

“I guess you’re just going to have to get creative, Nick.”

“Don’t stay out too late and no drinking and driving.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Natasha salutes as she walks back over to where Steve and Bucky are roughhousing like they’re seven-year-olds and Sam smiles, more relaxed. “What’s for lunch, boys?”

“The usual,” Steve replies.

“What about you, Barnes?” Natasha asks. “With the Winter Soldier in tow, we could probably eat for free.”

Bucky laughs. “Maybe next time. There’s something I gotta take care of.”

Before anyone can ask what and why so cryptic about it, there’s a shout of, “Hey Asset!” from across the field. All four heads turn in scary synchronization and there’s Rumlow, his right hand man, Jack Rollins, and a couple of their defensive linemen buddies. They’re a tough group. Bullies, as Steve would say. And they’re looking—more like leering—at Bucky.

“I gotta go,” Bucky mutters, giving Steve a shove and pointing at Sam. “You should try the sweet potato fries. Eat a mountain for me, will ya?” Bucky flashes Natasha a smile that’s meant to be reassuring and heads over to Rumlow.

“Steve, care to explain what the hell that’s about?” Natasha asks.

“Bucky said he needs some part for his truck and Rumlow’s uncle owns that scrap yard on Simon Street. I asked if he wanted backup, but with my…colorful history with those jerks..."

“Colorful? Sure, if you mean black and blue and purple.” Natasha’s eyes stay on Bucky until he disappears with Rumlow. She then spins around and smiles up at Steve. “Alright, let’s eat.”

 

 

They take their new friend Sam Wilson to Isabel’s, a casual corner diner on Main Street with red vinyl chairs and a counter where all the old-timers sit and reminisce about the good ol’ days, fat championship rings on their fat fingers. The rest of the diner is packed with teenagers.

“This is where everyone eats.” Steve explains, sitting on one side of the booth with what’s left of a turkey sub in front of him. Natasha nurses a cup of tea beside him and Sam sits across from them, taking a big bite of his burger. “And by everyone, I mean everyone. Main Street is neutral turf so we get kids from Asgard in here all the time.”

The bell over the door jingles and Tony enters in dramatic fashion with the camera crew eagerly following him. A step behind are Happy, a lineman who thinks himself Tony’s personal bodyguard even though he isn’t the biggest or most coordinated and defensive safety, Rhodey, Tony’s much more level-headed bud.

Tony removes his sunglasses as he takes in the room. A booth of giggly girls wave him over and Tony lifts a hand in return. He suggests the camera crew take five and they gladly find their own table. Tony steals a glance over at the cheerleaders will full intent to join them (or maybe eat them), but he can’t stop himself from swaggering over to Natasha’s table first.

“Red, Spangles, Falcon,” Tony says as way of greeting. “So, first impressions of my entrance this morning. Give it to me. Don’t hold back. I can take it and pay to fix it, but you already knew that.”

“You’re an idiot, Stark,” Natasha monotones. Tony grabs his heart. “But you already knew that.”

“And gets off on it,” Rhodey adds, “I told him if these cameras weren’t everywhere, he would’ve ended up the bull in the ring five minutes later. At least then he’d actually have a reason to wear sunglasses indoors.”

“Why are there cameras following you around, anyway?” Steve asks.

“ESPN is doing a mini-series, a profile on all-American high school primary receivers and naturally, I was at the top of the list.”

“Why receivers, though?” Maria Hill slides right into the booth and fills the empty spot next to Sam, who's a bit startled. “I get that shining the spotlight on quarterbacks is overdone, but receivers? Why doesn't the o-line ever get any love? Without them, the quarterback wouldn’t even get the ball out and the receiving core would be like puppies chasing their tails downfield.”

“Maria Hill, atta girl.” Happy, proud right tackle, pumps a fist in the air. “Preach.”

“Yeah, no,” Tony says. “Save it for your sports column no one reads.”

“Your dad seems to enjoy it, Stark,” Maria shoots back. “The boosters commandeer our first round of prints every issue during their beloved football season.” Maria picks a sweet potato fry off of Sam’s plate and tosses it into her mouth before pointing her thumb over at him. “Who’s this guy?”

“I…I-I’m—”

In love, Natasha thinks to herself. Maria can’t see it or is venomously choosing to ignore it and Natasha smiles from behind her chipped mug. Falcon might actually make things interesting around here.

Before Sam can spit the words out, the bell on the diner door jingles. Bruce Banner shuffles through, dark curls falling in his eyes, shoulders up around his ears. Tony throws his arms up and jumps to hug his “science bro” as Clint calls them.

“Bruce, you came!”

“Tony, you texted me and told me to be here or else,” Bruce says flatly. “I’d rather not find out what or else means, especially coming from you.”

“Smart man.” Tony flicks his fingers at Bruce’s coke bottle glasses.

“Hey, Bruce,” Natasha says smoothly.

“Nope, no, no!” Tony points a finger at her. “Not happening. Weave your web elsewhere, Black Widow!”

One day she really is going to kill Clint for that nickname and then kill Tony for using it constantly.

“What?” Natasha shrugs with one shoulder. “Bruce and I are friends.”

“What do you two even talk about?” Tony challenges her.

“We both like classical music and the same kinds of tea,” Natasha replies.

“In fact,” Bruce says, “the first time Natasha ever talked to me, a couple months ago, after years of going to the same school and being in the same classes, she cornered me in the tea aisle of the grocery store and asked how I’d feel about playing football.”

“Wow, it’s love,” Tony says. “Marriage each other.”

“Let me guess,” Steve speaks up, sending Natasha a look. “She suggested you play guard or tight end?”

Bruce presses a finger to his nose.

“What can I say?” Natasha shrugs, this time the other shoulder. “We could always use a big body to help Happy on that side of the line.”

Bruce laughs, cleaning Tony’s fingerprint off his wire frame glasses with his sleeve. “Do you people ever talk about anything other than football?”

“No,” they all answer in unison.

“We’re Fury-created monsters and we love it,” Tony says. “There’s no other way to put it.”

Just as Tony slings an arm around Bruce’s neck and talks him up about how they’re going to chat up a few cheerleaders, Bobbi nearly knocks the Science Bros over as she approaches the table. “Natasha, where’s Barton?”

“Hold that thought.” Tony pats Bruce’s chest affectionately. “Can’t miss this.”

“He said something about bringing his dog to the vet,” Natasha replies. Bobbi just gives her a dry look, crossing her arms beneath her chest, deemed the best rack of the senior class. “What? You think I’d lie to you for him? Really? Ask Steve if you don’t believe me. He was there at practice and he can’t lie for shit.”

“She’s telling the truth,” Steve says. “Can’t say I’m surprised. I told Clint you can’t just feed a dog pizza every night. I even Googled to prove it, but he just started telling me his Google conspiracy theories.”

“Wait, since when are you and Barton back together?” Tony asks Bobbi, laughing a little, which she doesn’t appreciate at all. “Last I heard you had some Shield numbskull on a leash and Barton’s been ‘investigating’ local strip clubs.”

“Mind your own business, Stark,” Bobbi says before blowing past him again.

“Hot damn,” Sam mutters, watching Bobbi as she walks away. Can you blame him? She moves like fire. “Is every lunch this eventful?”

“Welcome to Midgard, Sam,” Natasha says as she sips her tea. “Hell adjacent.”

 

 

Natasha barely pulls into the Rogers driveway when Steve reaches over, shuts off the engine and steals her keys. His head tilts to one side as he gives his signature puppy dog eyes and isn't even aware how effective it is. 

“Steve…”

“Just for a little.”

She’s going to give in and they both know it. Natasha doesn’t even reply before getting out of the car, fixing his fallen football sign yet again and heading around to the side of his house. Like clockwork, Natasha takes her place on the other side of a hanging tire as Steve yanks a dirty duffle bag of footballs out of an old storage shed.

Steve spins a football in his large hand to test Natasha’s patience, she’s sure. On each throw, the ball spirals through the tire and Natasha catches it with perfect form. When Steve finds his rhythm, he starts to throw harder and harder, reaching a point where each catch has to sting a little. If it’s bothering her, Natasha doesn’t show it.

“Nice release,” Natasha says, tossing the ball aside, ready for the next.

“Not nice enough to start.”

“You do realize that you starting means your other half has to watch from the side, right?” Natasha throws the ball and threads it through the tire right into Steve’s chest. He's so impressed every time though it’s no surprise. After all, she knew Fury long before he became her legal guardian.

“I’m not saying I want to steal his position,” Steve argues. “Why don’t we rotate quarterbacks like we rotate every other position?”

“Nick would says, ‘because I said so damn it.’”

It’s Steve’s turn to laugh at her Fury impersonation. “He’d also says, ‘because that’s how things are goddamn done, how they’ve always been goddamn done and how they’ll always be goddamn done. Now get Barnes some water, Rogers!’ As in, he literally said that to me. I asked him. Twice. Since preseason started.”

Natasha presses her lips together, gears turning and turning in her head. “Think about it. The QB position is all about momentum, confidence and consistency. QB1 has to be on the same page as his offense and the timing has to be there. Switching out the quarterback every few downs or quarters or games, one will be making adjustments the other isn’t and it’d be hard for the rest of the offense to adjust every switch.”

“Doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. The ‘82 Dolphins had two quarterbacks and they went to the Super Bowl.”

“Did they win?” Natasha asks.

The way Steve’s jaw clenches is an answer in itself. “No, but—”

“See,” Natasha cuts him off. She starts to walk over to him, signaling the end of this extra practice session. “A two quarterback system could potentially work, but it isn’t something you can just decide and do. We’d have to change how the team is constructed and how it’s run to even try and there’s no time.”

“Yeah, ten games, I know.” Steve throws the ball and it hits the top of the tire, bouncing back at him. Just before he catches it, Natasha is there to knock the ball out of his hands and push him to the grass. She falls on top of him, both laughing. “Pass interference,” Steve scoffs.

“No, that was clean, butterfingers,” Natasha teases. When Steve doesn’t move, just stretches out and stares up at the sky, Natasha rolls off of him and does the same. “What about defensive end? You’re fast and strong. T’Challa on one side, you on the other, o-line won’t have a chance. You’d be a quarterback’s nightmare.” When he doesn’t say anything, Natasha sighs. “If you keep ignoring me, I’ll just have to give Peggy a call. She may be in New York, but that doesn’t mean we can’t gang up on you anymore.”

“You’re really trying to bring Peg into this? Low blow, Romanoff. Now I have no choice, but to ask what’s going on with you and—”

“Hush, Rogers.”

Natasha jumps to her feet and holds a hand out to Steve. It strikes her how they rarely talk about any of that—who she’s dating or might be interested in. Not that she asks for details about his relationship with Peggy beyond small talk. It just isn’t what they do and she isn’t about to start.

“Time to hydrate,” Steve says, letting Natasha help him to his feet. “You know, the only reason we even buy red Gatorade is you.”

Natasha tilts her head down, her hair falling around her face to hide her smile. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to, just shoulders into Steve and races him up the front steps of the porch.

 

 

On the first day of school, the Stanley Lieber Avengers are in the weight room doing speed intervals before most kids are awake. Fury picks the music they listen to on the first day—blues. He says it embodies the human struggle, rootsy and spiritual and down-and-out, but full of hope and swells of determination. They have a little bench press competition every Monday and whoever wins gets to pick the music for the rest of the week. It’s major incentive.

For a long time, Steve couldn’t participate. He’d been sickly all his childhood and skinny his entire adolescence. The fact that he’s here right now, sweating alongside players he only ever watched from the sideline for years, it isn’t an opportunity he plans to waste. Steve hears Natasha’s voice in his head, trying to sway him. He just grits his teeth and pushes himself harder.

Clint isn’t the biggest or tallest, but he is one of the strongest and quickest. The way he knows his body and his abilities and how to get the most out of both makes up for his weakness for junk food and liquor and bad decisions. Well, it makes up for a lot, but not that last one. Right now he’s crushing the competition. He’ll probably make them listen to Katy Perry just to be a troll.

“So much factors into how much you can bench, including height, body fat percentage, etcetera,” Tony complains. “Shorty McGee has shorter arms, shorter distance to bench. It’s not fair.”

“Life’s not fair, Stark!” Coach Phillips hollers. “Bout time you learned, son!”

“Plus, you’re barely taller than Barton,” Bucky points out with an amused little smile. “Can’t use a tall man’s shitty excuse when you aren’t even tall, Stark.”

“And why aren’t you participating, captain?” Tony shoots back at Bucky. “Scared it’s the only thing Rogers might actually beat you at?”

Bucky just smiles, knowing it irritates the hell out of Tony. “Common sense and science. Conditioning levels are different for quarterbacks. My arm is a perfectly calibrated weapon. Bulk hinders throwing motion. I’m good.”

“Twenty-three at 225,” one of the assistant coaches announces once Clint resets the bar, sweating and panting. “You’re a beast, Barton.”

“I do love me some Firework,” Clint says with a shit-eating grin, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the edge of his shirt. “You’re up, Rogers.”

Steve takes a deep breath as the assistant coach wipes down the bench.

“So, Hawk Boy,” Tony says, “I hear number 13 for Shield is wooing your woman. And he’s got an accent.”

“Ex-woman,” Clint grunts. “What’s it to you?”

“Just want to be in-the-know for the show. If I weren’t starting, I’d be sitting pretty on the bench with a bucket of popcorn and some Twizzlers.” Tony sighs dramatically. “I guess I’ll just have to live vicariously through Steve. So are you going to let the guy think he has a shot or take him out early?”

“No one’s taking anyone out,” Bucky says like the leader he is. “The last thing we need is an unsportsmanlike conduct call advancing the ball for them. Don’t make it personal.”

“Don’t make it personal, sure, Barnes,” Tony says. “We’ll see what tune you’re singing when we have to play that Red Guardian guy or Natasha’s other ex—the QB with the red sunglasses. Not Summers, the other guy—”

“I’m going out there and playing my game,” Clint says. “If someone gets in the way then he gets in the way. Whatever feelings Bobbi might have for ‘im isn’t gonna save ‘im.”

“Save him?” Tony cries out in outrage. “You’ve got it all backwards, birdbrain. Whatever game Bobbi’s playing with him is meant to destroy him! If it works, she’s MVP! The game ball should go to her!”

“You’re—an—idiot,” Steve puffs out, red in the face and sweating, as the assistant coach spotting him, guides the bar back in place. “Stark.”

“Twenty,” the assistant coach counts. “Barton wins again.”

“Fuck,” Tony mutters. “I guess I’m investing in ear plugs…”

As Tony continues to grumble and Clint mutters something along the lines of, “In your face,” Steve closes his eyes and tries to catch his breath. He feels a smack on his shoulder and opens his eyes to see Bucky smiling down on him. One of the greatest marks of their friendship is the fact that none of the constant chatter about the quarterback position ever touches them.

“Did you really just let the guy who considers pizza its own food group beat you?” Bucky teases. “Disappointing, Stevie.”

“You don’t get to talk, jerk,” Steve shoots back. “You didn’t even try.”

“You gonna lie there all day or we gonna go see what mystery treat some sweet, dedicated rally girl left in my locker?”

Steve sits up and reaches for a nearby water bottle. “If it’s one of those Rice Krispies treats in the shape of footballs, I call dibs.”

 

 

Their first game of the season is against the Kurtzberg High Shields.

A year ago, the Shields would be considered cannon fodder for a team like the Avengers, but then they hired Phil Coulson as their new head coach. Last year, when Fury was the Avenger’s defensive coach, Phil worked with the offense. Now they’re both first year head coaches going head-to-head.

Fury wolf-whistles as he walks by a candy apple red 1962 Chevrolet Corvette parked outside a dive bar. He takes a peek through the car window and sees play sheets, stat charts and scouting reports scattered all over the passenger seat. Fury smiles. He walks into the narrow bar that’s mainly just a counter. The place is empty, which is good. That damn talk radio bullshit would have a field day if they knew whom Fury was here to see.

“Phil,” Fury greets his old friend and former colleague. He slides onto a barstool beside the middle-age man with an infuriatingly kind smile. “Saw your car out front.”

“You like?” Phil asks smugly. “I call her Lola.”

“Nice. Almost as nice as my kid’s car.”

Phil laughs and nods. “That is a sweet car. How is Natasha?”

“You know her.” Fury locks eyes with the bartender and taps the counter. “More mature than my entire team combined. Hell, more mature than me most days. She’s got a list of colleges already, East Coast mostly, might be dating Barnes.”

Phil laughs. And when the bartender places a glass in front of him, Fury tosses it back quick and motions for another. “Really?” Phil asks. “The coach’s daughter and the coach’s quarterback? Oh, Natasha. A little cliché for her, don’t you think? If anything, I thought her and Barton…”

“Don’t even go there, Phil. You’re going to give me an aneurism before the season even starts.” The bartender places a new glass in front of him and Fury merely sips it this time around. “So, you and your boys ready to get your ass whooped come game day?”

“We’re in rebuilding mode, but my guys might surprise you,” Phil says with the twist of his lips. “After Ward up and left us for Hydra, the defense is playing like it’s Ward on the other side of the line with the ball. I hear they’re hashtagging ‘revenge tour’ on Twitter.”

“Kid didn’t leave you. He was lured away by Garrett and those Hydra bastards. Not unlike how you tried to take Rogers with you when you left.”

“Nick, I’d never!”

Bullshit, motherfucker.”

Phil just grins. “His mom’s got a good job in your district, Steve’s settled. It’s his senior year. I’d never try to take that away. But you know his talent is going to waste on your bench. At least with Shield, he’d be out there on the field.”

Fury nods, spinning his glass on the polished bar. “He wants to play and he could, but I built a team that can take home a championship and a town that expects it. Rogers doesn’t want or need the pressure that comes with being QB1. Barnes knows and he’s ready. Go with the hot hand. That’s what I’m doing.”

If he’s aware of how he sounds, like he’s trying to justify his decisions to himself more so than anyone else, Fury doesn’t show it and Coulson doesn’t mention it.

“I know there’s a lot of pressure on you too, Nick. Everyone in Midgard expects you to deliver and they’re going to blame you if those kids can’t make it happen. It’s obvious you have a stacked team. I have the computer club playing around with stats and analytics—”

“Really, Phil? Computers can’t play the game, can’t predict the game neither.”

“Some of the kids get a kick out of it,” Phil says defensively. “On paper, it looks like your team can go all the way. That’s all people see. They don’t understand that they’re kids. To every face in the crowd, there’s nowhere else to go, but up. It’s a dangerous place to start, especially if those kids do something, oh, human like, god, make a mistake and slide in the opposite direction.”

Phil tosses his drink back. A moment of silence passes as the bartender trades out their empty glasses for fresh ones.

“Maybe you should help out an old friend then and tell me how to disrupt your damn counter runs,” Fury mutters into his glass.

“Or I can just buy the next round.” Phil laughs again, relaxing into a smile. “How do you even know we’ll be running the ball? Gossip around school is that my wide receiver is dating your cornerback’s ex-girlfriend. Sounds like a fun matchup.”

“Barton?”

“Barton.”

“Damn Barton.” Fury shakes his head and laughter bubbles up again. Despite the laughs and the alcohol, Fury’s still more tense than he’d like and it’s starting to feel like it won’t completely loosen till the end of the season—which hopefully ends with a ring and no less. Fury holds his breath till he can’t anymore, slowly lets it go and clinks his glass against Phil’s. “May the best men win, Phil.”

“I’ll drink to that, Nick.”

 

 

“Why do I have to go to that?” Natasha asks from the doorway of Fury’s office just outside the boy’s locker room. The lines of her body are rigid and her eyes narrow like she’d stomp her foot if she weren’t so in control all the time. Fury barely pays her any attention, sliding a car key through the tape on a cardboard box. “Classes just started and I—”

Fury laughs out loud. “And you’re what? Behind in your studies? Have catching up to do? You’ve never been any less than on point with your schoolwork as long as I’ve known you.”

Natasha crosses her arms and leans against the red doorframe. “What if I think it’s stupid and don’t want to waste my time?”

“So supporting me and the team is a waste of your time?”

“When it’s something as dumb as the grand opening of a barbecue joint?”

Fury stops what he’s doing and eyes her, appalled. “Tell me, what is dumb about free barbecue?”

“When it’s creepy booster club president Stern giving out free barbecue? I wouldn’t be surprised if he roofied the sweet tea.”

“Be nice,” Fury says. “The whole team is going to be there. I’m making a speech. I wrote shit down and everything. Don’t do it for creepy Stern or free barbecue. Do it for me. Come on, this time next year you’ll be thousands of miles away from here. Come on, are you gonna make me say please?”

“It’d be a start.” Natasha watches him, deciding like she thinks she has a choice in the matter. “Fine, I’ll be there.”

“Just what I want to hear!” Fury cheers. As Natasha turns to leave, Fury calls out, “Natasha, wait!” He reaches into the cardboard box and pulls out a dark burgundy home jersey with white lettering. They’re Techfit uniforms, supposedly lighter and easier to move in, courtesy of Stark Industries. This particular jersey has Romanoff across the back along with the number 0.

Natasha deadpans. “Nick, I am not wearing that.”

Fury snorts a laugh and throws it to her. “Then don’t. From our kind, giving boosters to our resident secret weapon. Didn’t cost me a cent. And this...” Fury reaches into the box again and pulls out an itty-bitty Avengers baby jersey with Romanoff on the back along with the number 1. “I didn’t know if it should say Murdock or Barnes or—”

“You aren’t funny. I’m going to lunch now.”

“I’m getting it framed and hung in your room as a reminder! Babies come after degrees and six figure job offers!” Fury shouts even as Natasha is out the door and gunning down the hallway. “Hey, and see if Steve needs a ride to the thing!”

Once she’s gone, Fury stares down at the baby jersey and laughs to himself. “Fucking Howard Stark.”

 

 

“You should just go without me. I’m not in a barbecue mood, Buck.”

Bucky stops halfway down the front steps of the Rogers’ front porch, wearing his marvel red jersey with a white number 3 on the back and front. Steve, a step behind in an identical jersey with a 4 on it, wears his reluctance on his face, crease between his eyes. A car horn honks and there’s Natasha in Bucky’s old rusty truck parked in the otherwise empty driveway.

“If I have to go, you have to go, Steve!” Natasha shouts out the window.

Bucky grins from the redhead to his best friend timidly standing behind the open screen door. “Stay home if you want, but you’re gonna have to answer to Natasha. Talk about a fate worse than hell.”

Steve doesn’t even try to argue, just locks the front door and pockets his house keys. Bucky walks over to the driver’s side and slides behind the wheel as Steve goes for the passenger door, sandwiching Natasha between them.

“What’s the point of having a gigantic truck?” Natasha muses on the drive. “All they do it take up two spots in the parking lot.” And it feels like Bucky makes a point to hit every single pothole on their way. “So you got that part you needed, huh?”

“What part?” Bucky asks.

“The part for your truck,” Natasha says. “Steve said you were with Rumlow because you needed a part for your truck.”

“Oh, that,” Bucky says, tapping his palm against the steering wheel. “No, waste of time. They had the part, but wasn’t worth the price. I’ll live.”

“Mack’s uncle owns a shop,” Steve suggests. “Though, after we play them on Friday, I don’t know how accommodating he’ll be.”

“Don’t get cocky, Rogers,” Natasha warns him.

“Wow, you almost actually sounded like Coach Fury just then," Bucky says. “Do you ever turn off the mini-Fury mode?”

Steve answers, “No,” at the same time Natasha says, “Shut up.”

And this is kind of how they’ve always been since they were young. Steve and Bucky had been the inseparable dynamic duo as far back as they can remember. Then Natasha crashed into their lives. Pretty enough to be a model, tough enough to earn a paycheck as an assistant coach, Natasha’s amazing and Steve feels lucky to have her in his life in whatever capacity that may be.

Last year, Steve finally, finally got up the courage to ask Peggy to their 40s themed spring fling—hands down the best night of his life. He was a nervous wreck, but Peggy just took his hand, calmed him down and it was perfect. With Steve always with Peggy, Natasha and Bucky naturally gravitated closer even though they insist they aren’t “relationship people”. Everyone just rolls their eyes because the coach’s daughter and the star quarterback sounds inevitable.

But then Peggy moved to New York and Steve’s heart broke. Determined to keep their long distance relationship intact, they agreed to talk every day and even handwrite each other letters like sweethearts did back in the day, but the fact remains that she’s in one place and he’s in another.

It didn’t bother him so much in the beginning, but then Peggy started talking about her new friends and the places they introduced her to. She’s living a whole exciting life without him while Steve is stuck in Midgard still on the bench, worried about how he’ll fit back in when Bucky and Natasha have grown closer without him. All he can do it put on a smile and be present and try.

 

 

The grand opening of Stern’s BBQ is a zoo. Hundreds of guests, local media and not to mention young, pretty waitresses in itty bitty shorts and even smaller crop tops serving barbecue and beer. It’s practically a poor man’s Hooter’s, a place that’s probably inappropriate for a high school football team and families with children. Regardless, it’s a huge social and political event and all the bigwigs surround Bucky with Steve faithfully at his side.  

Natasha prefers to slip into the shadows, not be noticed. She nearly laughs out loud and gives away her position when she overhears boosters harassing Fury.

“Can we shut down that number 13, coach? I hear it doesn’t matter how green their quarterback is, that number 13 can snatch anything outta the air.”

“We will,” Fury answers.

“Ya hear about that Mack something down there? Big, mean.”

“I heard.”

“You shut that big OLB SOB down, coach. Shut. Him. Down.”

Fury just hums, more interested in his glass of sweet tea. (It’s a personal rule of his that he doesn’t drink around his players. That’s why he goes three towns over for a glass or two of bourbon.) Natasha sneaks by without him noticing (god forbid he drag her into small talk) and goes over to Clint, who’s at a table with a plate of ribs. He’s just all in there, sauce all over his mouth and fingers.

“Well, at least someone’s having fun.” Natasha snags the plastic cup in front of him for a taste. She isn’t surprised it’s beer. Wear a red jersey and you shall receive.

Clint smacks his lips and sucks sauce off his thumb. “Where’d your boyfriends go? They cut you outta the three-way?”

Natasha refuses to give his teasing the attention he craves, instead nodding across the room. Clint chokes on his laughter when he sees a woman thrust her red-faced baby into Bucky’s arms and shove her phone at Steve for a photo.

“I dunno who to feel worse for,” Clint mutters, “Bucky or Steve.”

“At least they have each other,” Natasha drawls as her best friend gnaws on a bone like his dog. “Why aren’t the paparazzi swarming you right now?”

“Because. They prefer to steer the perfect roster perfect season story away from the asshole that put a kid in the hospital in pee wee.”

“Everyone said it was an accident, Clint.”

“You tell the kid that. Oh wait, you can’t.”

“Wow, and I thought I was the barbecue buzz kill.” Natasha pushes the rest of the beer to him and Clint downs it. She also hands him a napkin that he only uses after some prompting. Natasha would probably punch the idiot who’d dare suggest she’s the mother hen of the group, but she knows what it’s like to lose people so she’s going to be there for the ones she has.

“These ribs are amazing,” Clint says, changing the subject. And she lets him. “Did you try some?”

“How could I when half the buffet went onto your plate?” Natasha teases him and the sound of Clint’s snorting laughter chases the tension away, fighting off that trademark darkness that clings to the Barton boys. Natasha spots Bobbi blazing toward them. “Bobbi’s headed this way and she isn't happy. How did you go from sexy mornings on the couch to whatever’s about to happen?”

“Cherry.”

“Clint. Again?” Natasha pushes her chair back. “And that’s my cue to leave. Where’d you get the beer, by the way?”

Clint squeaks when he notices the determined way Bobbi weaves through people to get to them. He literally squeaks. “Tasha! You can’t leave me alone with her!”

“Natasha!” Bobbi greets her with a smile, but then her eyes skirt over to Clint and if looks could kill… “Could you give us a minute?” Bobbi leans toward the redhead and shares, “You didn’t hear it for me, but the Commandos might have commandeered a keg.”

“Men after my own heart,” Natasha says. “Okay. Use words, not fists.”

“Traitor,” Clint fake-coughs.

Natasha gives Clint an encouraging pat on the shoulder before slipping away and giving them some space. Something tells her Clint is going to need a little more than that for this to end well. Natasha will do almost anything to take care of her people, but even she knows she can’t save all of them from everything.

 

 

Steve gets the worst feeling from Mayor Alexander Pierce. There’s just something about him, something that Steve can’t place even though it bugs him to no end. It especially bugs him, watching Mayor Pierce all over Bucky, posing for photos with his wrinkly ring-less hand on Bucky’s shoulder. Pierce wasn’t born in Midgard, just had enough money and friends in high places to take it.

“If he lets you call anything, throw the ball, son.” Pierce gives Bucky’s shoulder a rough shake. “Air it out. You’ve got the skill, let ‘er fly.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky replies stiffly.

“Kill ‘em. Kill Shield.”

“Yes, sir.”

Luckily, Fury appears out of nowhere like he always seems to do. “Barnes, Rogers, round up the team. Stern wants us on the stage in ten.”

“Yes, sir,” Bucky and Steve say in unison before gladly scurrying off.

Once they’re halfway across the room to where the offense has claimed a table near the back, Steve sees Pierce’s harassment has transferred to Fury, who isn't enjoying it at all. This is the annoying part of football, the part that makes Steve sort of relieved he isn’t the center of attention.

“Is that what I think it is?” Bucky snatches a plastic cup out of Natasha’s hand, but before he can even take a sip, Steve steals it from him and hands it back to the redhead. “You trying to start something, punk?”

“You can’t schmooze smelling like alcohol, especially when you’re the only one they want kissing their babies,” Steve says pointedly. He surveys the rest of the table and realizes the rest of them are a lost cause. “Fury wants us over by the stage. All of us. Now.”

“Good luck pulling Clint away from whatever’s going on over there,” Sam mumbles, licking his barbecue-slicked lips.

They all sneak look over at Clint and Bobbi standing together, talking in hushed voices. More like Bobbi talking in a hushed voice as Clint tries his hardest not to mock her. Anyone who knows those two knows it won’t stay that way for long.

“Not it,” Bucky says quickly.

“Real mature, captain,” Steve scoffs. “Rock, paper, scissors. Loser goes over there to get Clint.”

Bucky smiles and holds out a fist. “You’re on.”

 

 

Clint feels a little awkward as he twist the napkin Natasha had given him into a knot and then tears off bit by bit. Bobbi’s calm and confident as always. That’s one of the first things he noticed about her, one of the first things that attracted him to her. Then she turned into a bat outta hell on him and when he found that even hotter, Clint knew she was a keeper. Too bad no one said anything about her keeping him.

“Does he treat you good?”

“Depends on your definition.”

Clint squints his eyes at her a little, trying to sort out if she’s just putting him on or just being honest. She laughs out of nowhere, at something he isn’t privy to.

“He makes me think I’ve got a type.”

“You mean dumb asshole who’s bad at communication and shorter than you?”

Bobbi laughs at that and this time he feels included. It feels like one good pebble in a vast, empty jar. “He’s exactly your height, I think.”

“As long as he knows I’ve got a vertical crossbow with his windshield’s name on it if he ever screws up. The arrow will go through the windshield. I saw it done. On YouTube. I could probably pull it off.”

There’s no laughter this time, just anger on Bobbi’s face. “So, one day we’re having sex on your couch and a couple weeks later you hear from kids around school that I’m seeing someone else and instead of asking me if it’s true, you do that?”

“Is it true?”

“Yes.”

Clint throws his hands up. “Then why are you getting mad at me?”

“I tried leaning in ninety-percent and waiting for you to lean the last ten. Ten percent, Clint! That’s all I wanted, but most days you couldn’t even do that. So I stopped trying and you still just didn’t care.”

“I love you, Bobbi,” he says quietly. “I’m not stupid enough to think that means we should be together like for real, but...” And this last part comes out the softest he thinks he’s ever spoken. “I do.”

“Uh, hey, Clint,” Steve interrupts. “We need you on stage.”

Clint hears Steve’s nervous voice, feels everyone watching them, but he can’t seem to care. His eyes remain on Bobbi, who keeps inching away and it feels like she’s slipping through his fingers and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

"Go," Bobbi orders. "I'm on my way out anyway."

"Going to see him? He pickin’ you up?"

"Waiting in the parking lot."

"You want me to fight for you?" Clint asks. "Fine, let's go. What does he drive?"

Clint makes a beeline for the door, nearly knocking over Principal Sitwell in the process. Bobbi shouts after him and when he doesn't listen, she shouts for Natasha. Already anticipating Natasha's favorite little trick where she twists his arm behind his back, Clint speeds up and searches the parking lot with wild eyes. 

"Lance!" Clint shouts. "Hunter Lance!"

"Oi, that’s me. Do I win a prize or something?"

Bobbi wasn't joking about them being the same height, but Clint's got a few pounds of solid muscles on the guy. Hunter’s lean and desperate to grow whatever semblance of facial hair he can.

"Oi?" Clint blinks. "What the hell is that?"

"Oi as in oi you've got a little something on your face there, mate. Barbecue?"

Instead of trying to come up with a cool one-liner, Clint throws a fist. Hunter falls back into a bronze pig statue, the mascot of Stern’s Barbecue. Clint steps up like he's about to start wailing on the guy, but Steve grabs his shoulder and Natasha does her Natasha thing, twisting his arm behind his back and refusing to let go until he shakes the red from his vision. She doesn't get the satisfaction of getting him to groan "uncle" because Bobbi is there and punches him in the face. It hurts, but not as much as when Bobbi hisses, "This isn't love."

Then Clint is slumping down until he's sitting on the pavement and watching Bobbi help her boyfriend up and leave with him. Clint smashes his face into his palms and mutters something like, "Aw, hell."

 

...

 

“I just want to thank everyone for coming out tonight!” Stern says from the little stage at the front of the restaurant where the honky tonk band has been playing all night. “But first, gotta thank the man who’s helping create a tax friendly environment here in Midgard like no man has done before. Helping a small business owner and former Lieber Avenger like myself. It’s an honor to introduce Mayor Alexander Pierce!”

Alexander Pierce, whose expensive suit is in sharp contrast with the casual atmosphere around him, walks up onto the stage with a big smile. “Thank you, thank you. It’s my pleasure to be apart of this…”

As he starts talking, through the window just behind Pierce and Stern, everyone watches their star cornerback punch a dude in the face. Fury shoves Sam onto the stage, starting a line as the team files in behind Pierce and Stern, blocking the commotion outside. Pierce plucks Bucky out of the line and ushers him up front next to him.

“Thank you, thank you,” Pierce says again. “I am happy to support a fellow Midgardian, especially a former State Champion. And I’d like to thank you all for coming out to support your neighbor at this beautiful establishment, especially Coach Fury and the best damn football team in the entire state of Texas. We have the future of Midgard on this stage, ladies and gentlemen. Coach Fury?”

Fury is stoic as always even as he takes the microphone. “Thank you, Mayor Pierce. And thank you, Mr. Stern, for inviting the team to this grand opening.”

“It’s a pleasure, coach,” Stern replies. “Anything for the man who’s going to bring home that state championship, bring home one of these.”

Stern raises his ring finger in the air. The hundreds of men in the room also raise the rings on their fingers. Generations and generation of players, all with similar yet gaudy rings glittering under the overhead lighting. Some kind of war cry echoes through the room.

“It’s a privilege to be up here, representing this team and this town,” Fury continues. “I think I speak on behalf of the team when I say we’re honored and ready to represent this community this Friday and every Friday until your Avengers bring home a championship!”

The room erupts in cheers and even more war cries. When Tony pops up beside him, Fury shoves the microphone at him, done with this showy bullshit. As Tony relishes the opportunity and steps into the spotlight, talking up the crowd like only a Stark can, Fury takes the opportunity to blend back into the crowd and violently shove his way past the front door.

 

 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Barney throws Clint against the side of a random truck before grabbing him by the hair and slamming his face against the hood. “Starting shit in front of half the town? The half that matters! Over a townie?”

“Stop calling ‘er that!” Clint grits his teeth through the blood filling his mouth. He manages to slip out of his older brother’s hold and throws his fists, but Barney evades each shots and socks Clint right in the gut.

“Barney, leave him alone!” Natasha shouts, but when she tries to get closer, Steve holds her back. Neither of them have siblings, but they’ve known the Barton brothers for years. They know better than to get in the middle, especially when they’re talking with their fists. It’s like the blinders go on and all they see is red. Best not put yourself in a situation to become collateral damage.

“That girl you’re throwing fists over, she’s a townie, Clint,” Barney continues, slamming his brother against the truck once again. “That’s all she’ll ever be. A black hole that’ll suck you in and keep you from leaving this shit stain town.”

“What’s so wrong about this town?” Clint shouts. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I am,” Barney says. “But you could do so much more with your life and this football team is how. What’s wrong with this town? Nothing. Except the fact that you’re better than this town and it breaks my heart you can’t see that.”

Clint spits blood onto the asphalt before charging Barney like a bull. Barney avoids the attack and shoves Clint who goes skidding to the hard, unforgiving ground. When Barney walks over, lifts his brother by the front of his jersey and pulls his arm back, poised to leave an imprint of his championship ring on Clint’s face, a calm, chilling voice says, “That’s enough, Barton.”

Barney steps away and faces Fury. “Sir.”

Fury walks over and clasps Barney’s shoulder. “I’ll take care of this. You can head back into the party now. Steve, Natasha, you too.”

They do as they’re told while Clint remains on the ground. He doesn’t even try to get up. After a long moment of silence, Fury sits on the curb nearby. He doesn’t say anything. His calm is honestly unnerving.

“So, was it worth it?” Fury asks.

Clint sucks on the blood in his mouth and swallows. “She left with ‘im.”

“And I bet she won’t want to come within fifty feet of you after this.”

“If you’re going to suspend me from the team or something, just do it,” Clint says. “No disrespect, but I don’t need a lecture. Just get it over with.”

“I could. Picking a fight in front of half the town in uniform. I should sit your impulsive ass on the bench till I see fit, but I’m not going to. If I so much as try to sit our biggest defense against number 13, that same town would be in an uproar and Pierce would overturn it. But you already know that. You’re smart, Barton. Plus, we both know that kid is going to do everything in his power to make your job more difficult after this. I’d say that and losing the trust of someone you care about are punishment enough.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Sometimes sorry doesn’t cut it, kid. So I’ll ask, if it wasn’t worth it then what’s the point of doing it?”

“Sometimes I just do shit, I don’t know,” Clint mumbles. “I don’t know. I fuck everything up. I always fuck everything up.”

“How long have I been your coach now?”

“Too long,” Clint mumbles. And that actually makes Fury smile.

“In the time I’ve known you, there hasn’t been a single hard count that’s ever thrown you. Out of everyone on the team, hell, everyone I’ve ever coached, you have tremendous speed when you’re tailing a receiver, but you also have patience and good, quick decision-making out there.”

“I see what you’re getting at, but it isn’t the same. Football is a game. Life is…life sucks.”

“Even more incentive to use what you learn on the field,” Fury insists. “I’m not just up there spouting bullshit every goddamn day, man. I believe that. I believe you can do that and you’re going to, damnit. We clear?”

Barton lifts his puffy eyes and meets Fury’s one.

“Why do you care?” Clint asks.

“Your brother may have a shitty way of getting his point across, but he’s got a point. Not about your girl. That’s shitty of him and something tells me it’s more about his issues than it is about you or her, but when he said you’re better than this town, better than what you showed tonight, he’s got a point. And I believe it too. You can either sit here and feel sorry for yourself or you can start acting like it.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint says, and he means it. “I’ll try.”

“No, you won’t try. You will.” Fury stands, dusting off his black slacks. “A suspension may not stick, but I can make you run. Tomorrow morning, you report to me at the crack of dawn and you’re going to run until I tell you to stop. Tomorrow morning and every morning till I see fit for you to stop. Got it?”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

 

 

Back inside, as the honky tonk band plays on and the sufficiently liquored up adults and football players continue to party, Natasha watches Fury talk to Clint. She can’t hear anything through the window, but she does see Clint’s shift in demeanor. They all respect Fury. To some, he isn’t just a coach, but something of a father figure. Without football, they wouldn’t have this and Clint probably would have dropped out of school and joined the circus by now.

“Hey.” Bucky wraps his arm around Natasha’s waist. “Wanna get outta here? If I smile any more, I’m afraid my face will get stuck like this.”

“What about Steve?”

“What about that punk?” Bucky scoffs, the muscles in his arm contracting as he pulls her tight against him. “I’m sure he can find a ride home.”

“Have you noticed something off about him lately?” Natasha asks. “Did something happen with Peggy?”

Bucky tilts his chin down and looks at her with are you serious in his eyes. “The quarterback of the best football team in the entire state of Texas wants to whisk you away and you want to gossip about Steve instead?”

That’s one thing she’s always liked about Bucky. He respects the community and how much they love football and how much they say they love him, but he isn’t above mocking all of it, just a little.

Ignoring his question, Natasha continues, “So you’re saying you haven’t noticed him acting different lately?”

“You’re just as stubborn as him, I swear…” Bucky gives in when he realizes she wants to talk about this and won’t let up until they do. “I mean, maybe? But he always gets a little distant at the start of the season.” He shifts even closer, his lips hovering above her ear, his nose practically in her hair. “So, are we running away together or what?”

Natasha laughs. “And where should I tell Coach Fury I’m going? Lover’s Lane with QB1? Don’t wait up for me, Nick.”

Bucky chuckles. “Do that and Steve might actually get to start for once in his life.”

The way he says it, like the idea is funny or ridiculous, has Natasha pulling away enough to search his face. She needs to gauge his reaction when she asks, “Would that be so bad?”

Bucky is stricken by the question, like he wasn’t expecting the sudden seriousness and he doesn’t know what to do with it. “No. I’d be happy for him if he ever did, but that’s just not how things work around here." 

Natasha turns his words over in her head, fully aware that the light, flirty mood has dissolved into something else. It’s like they’re both holding back, like there are thing that need to be said and bluntly, but they never are. Before another word can be said, a little boy in a miniature Barnes jersey runs up to them with a football in one arm and a sharpie clutched in this hand.

“E-excuse me, M-mister Barnes, could you s-sign my football?”

That winning smile returns as Bucky squats so he’s eye-level with the boy. “Sure thing, kiddo.” Bucky takes both the football and the sharpie. “You play?”

“Yes, I do, sir. I play quarterback and I dab in the end zone just like Cam Newton.”

“Wow, you’re already cooler than me.” Bucky swirls the tip of the marker across the leather.

“Are you going to play professional football, Mister Barnes?”

“Thinking about it.”

“I think you should,” the boy insists.

Bucky laughs again and twirls the football in his hand before handing it to the boy and patting him atop the head. “Get good grades, stay light on your feet and keep your throwing arm strong. Then maybe you will too.”

The way the kid’s eyes light up is evidence enough that Bucky just made a memory the kid won’t forget for the rest of his life. As the boy runs back to his parents, Bucky smiles after him. When Steve joins them with enough miniature cream puffs for all, Natasha and Bucky don’t bring up running off together anymore. At the end of the night, Natasha rides home with Fury.

“I don’t know how ready the Avengers are,” the radio complains on the drive. “We got our star cornerback fist fighting outside of barbecue joints. I suppose it’s all good so long as it comes out on the field.”

Natasha lifts a hand to change the station, but Fury beats her to it and shuts the radio off completely.

 

 

Bucky never asked to be a leader.

He’ll always insist he’s just a kid who loves football. And he happens to be pretty good at it. When he runs his offense, when the guys line up for him and go where he directs them, it feels right. He’s been playing for a long time, hardly knows anything else. The coaches’ harassment doesn’t get to him; the talk doesn’t get to him; the expectations and watchful eyes don’t get to him. At least, none of that got to him before this season.

Before this season, college recruiters weren’t in the crowd to see him specifically.

College recruiters.

College!

If this year goes as planned, James Buchanan Barnes will be the first in his family to go to college, probably a big name university on scholarship. He tries not to think about any of that when he’s on the field, when there are more pressing matters at hand, like linebackers flying at him, ready to knock his head off, but it’s a little difficult when he sees men in the stands surrounding his mother, holding business cards out toward her, practically begging.

“Clearly, they are all here to see me.” Pietro Maximoff, cocky as all hell and only a sophomore, spins a football on the tip of his finger before tossing it to Bucky.

“Your scrawny ass?” Dum Dum lets out a bellowing laugh. “They’re here to see Buck.”

“Nah, they’ve heard and seen enough of the Winter Soldier’s infamous arm,” Tony says from Bucky’s other side. “Can you say free ride? I’ve been more or less committed and accepted into MIT since I was, oh, seven. Too bad a genius school can’t also be a jock school. Guess I’ll just have to watch this beautiful arm of yours go to work on, oh, national television.”

“From the throne of the multi-million dollar company waiting for you after graduation,” Bucky adds.

“Are you suggesting my big, beautiful brain hasn’t earned it? Hurtful,” Tony replies. “For that, you should be throwing every ball my way against Shield.”

“Thin chance, Stark,” Pietro argues. “We’re running it.”

“Are we running a play now or are we going to stand around talking about it?” Happy asks, sweating buckets. The entire starting offense searches for their offensive coach and find him yelling and making Steve dig through a trashcan.

“Alright, let’s run East Right Apollo Flop Forty-Five on one,” Bucky calls. They break. Once Dum Dum hikes the ball, Bucky hands it off to Jim Morita, running left, who then hands it to Pietro as he zooms right. The Sokovian Speedster (a Tony given nickname, though Pietro prefers Quicksilver) weaves through linebackers, breaks tackles and sprints down the field fast.

After his dumb little would-be touchdown celebratory dance, Pietro points to Bucky who throws his fist up into the air. That’s about as much celebration as Bucky allows. He isn’t as showy as Pietro or Stark, just acknowledges the sweet play and good execution and moves on to the next.

At the end of practice, when Bucky walks over just in time to hear his mom ask, “Do you really think he’s that good? You really want my Bucky playing college football for your school?”

A man in a polo shirt smiles like a used car salesman. “Mrs. Barnes, I’ve been scouting for some odd twenty years now and I can confidentially say, your boy is the best I’ve ever seen.”

Bucky has never felt stage fright, never felt nauseous at the thought of playing football. That is, until this season.

 

 

It's Thursday and every Thursday after practice and before game day, all the players, the girlfriends (and groupies) and anyone willing to chip in for the kegs meet up on the outskirts of town. They park their trucks and cars, build a bonfire and let loose as much as they can before the next day.

Steve, fresh out of the locker room showers, sits in the passenger seat of Natasha's Stingray. His blue ball cap sits on the dashboard as he eats a peanut butter and banana sandwich. He really does feel bad about how often she drives him around. It's always Natasha offering and insisting he isn't a burden.

By the time they get to the spot (it changes weekly as to stay ahead of the local PD), the light is mostly gone from the sky and the fire can be seen a mile away. For a long moment after Natasha parks, they just sit with the radio off. She can be damn silent when she wants to be, which is most of the time, so he knows it's a sign of trust that she's doing this in front of him—a breathing exercise.

It isn't the same as the one the doctor said would help with his asthma, but it's similar enough. He also knows to be quiet and respectful, but can't help himself and reach over, moving his hand over hers. He can feel her smaller hand beneath his and the way her tight grip on the gear stick gradually loosens. He's done this with her before, suggested they just ditch this thing altogether, but she just goes through her little process and the second they step out of the Stingray, it's like it never happened. This time is no different.

"You know, there are better ways to fog up the windows other than just sitting there," Tony says. But his usual level of snark is missing. His eyes aren't even on them, but out at the main road.

"She isn't coming, Tony," Natasha says.

"You know this for a fact?" Tony asks, sounding a little frantic and off his game. "You actually asked her and she actually told you this?"

Natasha hitches one shoulder up in a shrug. "After you spent all of third period begging me to? She said she's busy. If you ask me, she still isn't over the strawberry pie incident."

"I said I was sorry!" Tony's hands curl, ready to yank his hair out. "How was I supposed to know she’s allergic?"

Steve raises his hand like a shy schoolboy. "I'm pretty sure everyone's known since like third grade, Tony."

"Hey, forget you, Second String Spangles. Forget her while we're at it. There are a ton girls who actually enjoy my company and I'm going to get every single one of them drunk."

"Tony..." Steve sighs. "The game tomorrow..."

Tony doesn't even reply other than wagging his middle finger behind him as he kicks up dirty and heads to the fire. Steve shakes his head as Natasha's arm snakes through his. Her grip on his arm tightens as they near the fire and Steve can only duck his head, press his temple to hers and hope it helps in some way. He gets her a drink and it helps her relax or maybe she pretends it does, especially when they crash Sam’s attempt to woo the unwooable Maria Hill.

They all settle down on a picnic blanket not too close to the fire, but not too far either. Natasha nudges Steve as her eyes dart over to how close Sam and Maria are sitting while Tony has his arms around two blondes who giggle about his supposed biceps and Clint brought his dog, both of whom are eating pizza like they were born to. Steve keeps an eye out for Bucky, but there’s no sign of him even hours after they arrived.

“Guys, it’s Thursday,” Steve points out. “Slow down.”

“Says the glorified water boy,” Tony slurs, “Who, whose only job is to warm the bench, squirt all over the real player’s mouths and keep QB1’s girl busy while daddy’s working.”

“You’re an idiot, Stark,” Natasha says venomously.

“I’m kidding!” Tony stumbles over and worms his way in between Steve and Natasha, slinging his arms around them. “You know I’m kidding, right, Steve-o?”

“I know you’re plastered.”

“And you love it! Even if I am an idiot and you actually, truly hate me, we’re a team, right?” Tony slaps Steve hard on the back. “In ten years, all of this is going to be gone. Gone, guys. I’m gonna be a billionaire, running my billion dollar company and, I don’t know, Natalie’s going to be a scary lawyer or a scary paralegal or the first scary female coach in the NFL slash NFL wife—”

“Tony, you know my name—”

“And Spangles is going to be like, an internet meme, discovered after being photographed as apart of NFL quarterback James Buchanan Barnes’ entourage. I don’t know, Barton’s going to be in the circus or something.”

“You got a point, Stark?” Maria asks.

“My point is we’re never going to have this back and I’m happy to be here with all of you jock strap bastards!” Tony climbs to his feet like he just can’t keep still, swipes a couple of beers and tosses one to Happy. “Let’s shot gun these for Texas!”

“Texas forever!” Happy shouts in return. Almost everyone rolls their eyes, but can’t deny the smiles on their faces.

It’s a fun, reckless night and Steve considers having a beer or two, maybe it would ease the anxiety that creeps up his throat even though he tells himself it’s stupid to feel this way before a game. It isn’t like he’ll get to play. Ultimately, he decides against it once Natasha moves on from cheap beer to cheap vodka. She laughs in the face of hangover myths and indeed can hold her liquor, but Steve’s still prepared to drive her home if he has to and walk back to his house tonight.

He always thought he’d be here with Peggy someday. They’d sit together, quiet and close and watch the chaos and whisper about the future. She always had a way of making him so nervous yet dialing down his anxiety over the team and football. Now, she isn’t beside him and when he glances at the screen of his phone, there’s no voicemail, no text, no Peggy.

“Nu-uh, you’re lying!” Rhodey shakes his head at Sam, who’s laughing and nodding enthusiastically. “I’ve been watching you, Wilson. You’ve had just as many drinks as me. You can’t catch shit right now.”

“Man, you don’t know me,” Sam says. “Wanna bet?”

“Hundred bucks,” Tony says. “Hundred bucks says you can’t catch a thing right in front of your face, let alone five yards down.”

“Hundred bucks per yard.”

Tony laughs into his plastic cup. “Don’t push your luck, Falcon.”

“Hundred bucks. Deal.” Sam scrambles to his feet and grabs a nearby football, tossing it at Steve. “Let’s go. You’re gonna win me some cash.”

“Make that two hundred,” Tony corrects himself. “Hundred a piece.”

As Sam starts warming up, everyone around the fire chants Steve’s name. There’s a catcall in there somewhere and Steve smiles and ducks his head. If this were a real game, he’s sure they wouldn’t be encouraging him, but freaking out, full of doubt and uncertainty. Steve shakes the thought and turns the ball over in his hand. As Sam speeds out into the dark, kicking up dirt beneath him, Steve launches a bullet pass straight into the dark.

(At the end of the night, Steve sneaks the hundred bucks he won into the pocket of Natasha’s bag, figuring it might cover some of the money she’s spent on gas, driving him around.

Later, Natasha finds the crisp hundred-dollar bill and makes Steve sign it so when he becomes a famous football player or a famous artist, she can say she has the first autograph. Steve just laughs, blushes a little and signs his name across Franklin’s forehead.)

 

 

“Today’s the day, ladies and gents! We’ve been waiting all summer for this. We’re all wearing marvel red and white from head to toe all day, closing up shop early and following those beauuutiful lights! I don’t know about you folks, but I feel the shift, something different in the air. Something big is going to happen tonight and it’s going to change everything, I can feel it.”

 

When it’s close to game time, their opponents arrive on expensive-looking silver buses with the Shields’ eagle logo on the side. Kurtzberg High is in one of the more affluent, upper to middle class neighborhoods with more money to pour into the school as a whole, not just sports. Fury demands his players go into their bubble and have zero contact with anyone, but Steve can’t help himself and sneaks over to shake Coulson’s hand and slap Mike Peterson on the back. Peterson sat behind Ward and now he’s getting his shot at QB1. Steve’s smile is tinged with envy, but he knows Mike deserves the chance to play.

When Steve makes his way into the locker room, the atmosphere is confident yet serious. Some guys are still changing while others are drilling each other on play calls and formations. Tony tries to make jokes, but they fall flat. Clint hums “Firework” to himself. As per his ritual, Bucky sits alone off to the side, smearing eye black under each of his intensely focused eyes.

Just as Steve finishes dressing, Fury walks in and the room goes quiet. It’s time for the first of Fury’s many game day speeches. For the seniors, it’s the first of what’s to be their last.

“Boys, there’s been a lot of assuming going on around town,” Fury says. “People assuming we’ll win. Assuming, predicting, expecting. Now, I do see us winning tonight like I see us winning every night. I’m visualizing a win, not assuming, not expecting. What I do expect is for you boys to not assume you’ll steamroll right over this team. They will come at you with everything they have. They’ve come all this way to hurt you, destroy everything you’ve come to be so proud of and embarrass you in front of your family, the community that loves and supports you. Will you let them? In your house?”

“No, sir!” Sam shouts, springing up to his feet. And he’s the only one to. Everyone else stares at him as he shrinks back down onto the edge of the bench.

“It was rhetorical, but I appreciate the enthusiasm,” Fury continues. “Boys, tell your new teammate our motto.”

“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” the team shouts in perfect unison.

“Got that, Wilson?” Fury asks. “Clear eyes, full hearts…”

“Can’t lose,” Sam finishes. “Sir.”

“Can’t lose!” the team echoes.

“Get ‘er done, boys!” Fury claps repeatedly, faster and faster and the boys start to hoot and hype each other up. He turns to Bucky and it usually just takes one look between them and they’re on the same page, but Bucky’s eyes are on the floor. He’s so uncharacteristically distracted that Steve has to nudge him. Bucky meets Fury’s eyes and nods before leading the team out of the locker room, jumping and hollering and bumping into each other.

Steve hangs back a moment, wanting to savor it. The first of the last. Before he can follow the team out, he feels Fury’s presence beside him and knows it isn’t a coincidence.

“You deserve to be apart of that,” Fury says lowly. “Last year, last chance. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Maybe tomorrow, when we go over the film and start prep for next week, you can start studying and try your hand at rushing the edge. Then on Monday we can see how you fit in with the defense. Just think about it.”

Steve’s jaw tightens. “I’ll think about it, sir.”

“Good man. Now, let’s get out there.”

Steve ignores the way his eyes burn, pulls his helmet on and runs at full speed.

 

 

There’s nothing like the first game night of the season. The infamous lights are on, bright and proud just as the sun disappears from the sky. Families and fans pack in shoulder-to-shoulder on every single bench in the stands. Nerves and excitement and magic hang in the air and mix in the most delicious way.

Being chosen by the coaching staff and your peers to be team captain is an honor and a responsibility. The Avengers have three—Bucky, Tony and Rumlow. The three walk out to midfield to meet the referees and shake hands with the Shields’ captains—quarterback Mike “Deathlok” Peterson, middle linebacker Mack and wide receiver, Trip.

“Yo,” Trip says as he slaps hands with Tony. “Just a friendly warning, your boy Barton gave Hunter a black eye just in time for the team picture. He isn’t too happy about it.”

“That’s what you get for messin’ with a STRIKE defender’s girl,” Rumlow says cockily. “I say we let ‘em hash it out on the field.”

“Let’s just play, how about that?” Bucky slaps hands with Trip and gives him an extra little shoulder bump of love before they return to their teams.

And so the game begins.

 

1ST QUARTER 

Bucky leads a smooth Avengers drive down the field. He throws a beautiful thirty yard pass. Tony goes up, catches the ball and his feet hit the ground. He breaks a tackle and runs into the end zone for an easy touchdown. The crowd explodes with cheers for the first touchdown of the season. Tony sends flying kisses toward the stands before his teammates run over to celebrate. 

When the Shields have the ball, the Avengers defense live up to their word. They’re fast and lethal, stop the run game completely. Every time Peterson throws over the line to Hunter, Clint is there to make the tackle or knock the ball out of his hands. The tension between them is obvious even from afar as Hunter jaws at Clint who just gives him an infuriating smile in return.

Halfway through the first quarter, the Shields run a counter and Trip drags himself into the end zone with Rhodey practically on his back. The score is tied, but the Avengers don’t lose their cool. Bucky leads another drive down the field, a strong, calm, focused leader. This time, they go to the ground, with the Howling Commandos blocking well enough for Pietro to dive through a hole, weave through defenders and sprint into the end zone.

The score is 14-7. Avengers.

The crowd goes wild, full of teens and parents, families and fans of both teams. Natasha sits in the first row behind the Avengers’ bench and, no, she did not wear the jersey. Sarah’s right next to her, squeezing Natasha’s hand every time the Shields manage a first down.

 

2ND QUARTER

The Shields start red hot with Peterson throwing right down the middle to Hunter, who loses and burns Clint on a crossing route. Rhodey tackles Hunter, but it’s enough for another first down. At first and goal, just as the ball is hiked, Clint slips and a sweet little floater finds a wide open Hunter in the end zone. Touchdown. As the Brit does a little celebratory dance, Clint charges for him, but luckily, Rumlow and Rollins haul him away before it escalades.

The score is tied yet again. 14-14.

When it’s the Avenger’s ball, they try to go the ground again, but the edge rushers stuff Pietro before he can even cross the line of scrimmage. On second down, Bucky throws to Tony from the shotgun, but right as Tony catches it mid-air, a linebacker plows through him. Incomplete. On third down, Bucky’s bootleg doesn’t fool Mack, who runs him down for a sack. The Avengers are forced to punt as the clock ticks down.

The Shields put together a nice little drive, but just as they cross midfield, the Avengers defense has had enough. They go to work, denying two passes and dragging down a running back after gaining a yard. The Shields are forced to kick a field goal. The dark blue section of the stands celebrates loudly as the ball sails dead center between the goal post. The players in black and navy congratulate their kicker as they leave the field for halftime, up by three points.

The Avengers locker room is in a frenzy at halftime.

“Those refs are fucking blind!” Tony shakes his fists angrily as one of the trainers works on stopping the bleeding from a cut on his forehead. “It’s called pass interference, but no, they can’t bother to pull a single flag out of their—ow!”

Steve races to distribute water to the Howling Commandos until a firm hand on his shoulder startles him. Fury looks from Steve to where Bucky sits in the corner, alone and unhinged. Steve drops what he’s doing. For a long moment they just sit together, side by side. It isn’t unusual for Bucky to sit by himself during halftime, but never like this. Then again, last season, the Avengers rarely went into the locker room down at the half.

“Buck, you alright?” Steve asks tentatively. When Bucky doesn’t answer, doesn’t even react, Steve licks his lips and goes for it. “They’re doubling Stark and Mack has Pietro figured out. You need to start—”

“I know what I’m doing, Steve,” Bucky snaps. “Leave me alone.”

That hurt. And worse, it shows all over Steve’s face. But if Bucky wants to be like this, fine. “Fine.” Steve’s jaw clenches. “If you want to sit here and sulk like a sore loser instead of coming up with a game plan—”

Bucky laughs miserably and buries his face in his hands. “You don’t even know what I’m going through right now. You have no idea. You don't understand.”

“Why? Because I’ve never played in a real game? Because I’ll never be QB1?”

“Jesus, Steve, no.”

“Whatever you say, jerk.” Steve slams the water bottle in his hand down against the bench. “From now on, you can get your own damn water.”

Bucky groans into his hands again, a rough, burdened sound, but Steve’s too angry to care right now. He goes right to where he’s needed and helps Dum Dum with his gear and jersey that’s all twisted around his body and frustrating the hell out of the big guy. Steve knows the reality of the situation. He’s a glorified water boy. He knows he might never play, but you don’t see him taking it out on the people around him. If Bucky wants to be a jerk over football, let him.

“I warned you they’d come at you hard!” Fury shouts and the room goes silent. “Did you think this was going to be easy? Did you let all those people and their assumptions trick you into thinking this would be easy? Well, if you did, you feel like a damn fool now, don’t you? Lucky for you, we have a whole other half. We just need to be men, stick to your assignments, keep your emotions in check and keep playing. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, sir!” the boys shout in unison.

“Clear eyes, full hearts!”

“Can’t lose!”

 

3RD QUARTER

The Shields have the ball, still feeding off of their victory over the first half. They drive to the Avenger’s twenty-yard line and just as the defense holds, on third down, Peterson launches the ball downfield and Rumlow comes out of nowhere and levels him. A whistle blows and a ref throws a flag.

Rumlow jumps at the ref, pleading his case, but it’s no use. Roughing the passer. Fifteen yard penalty. The automatic first down brings the Shields even closer to the goal line. Off a fake handoff to Trip, Peterson keeps the ball and runs it in for a touchdown. The Shields score again. They’re up by ten points.

It’s Avengers’ ball again, but the stands are quiet now. They aren’t used to the Avengers losing. They aren’t used to Bucky’s throws being uncharacteristically off and missing receivers. It’s almost like he’s hesitating before every throw when he never has before.

“What the hell is your problem, Barnes?” Tony barks at him in the huddle. Because if they need that guy who’s going to call out the star quarterback in the middle of the game, it’s going to be Tony Stark. “Get your head out of your ass!”

“Shut your mouth, Stark,” Bucky snaps. “Run your routes. I’ll get you the ball.”

“You sure about that?” Tony challenges him.

“Just run the damn routes,” Bucky hisses.

The Avengers do score on that drive, but it’s hard fought. Blood, sweat and tears go into every single one of those points. They fight so hard that it hurts when the Shields get fantastic field position and score on the next drive. For the rest of the quarter, it’s a show of defenses making stops and breaking up passes until the clock ticks down to zero.

At the end of the third, the score is 14-24 with the Shields in the lead.

 

4TH QUARTER

On the Avengers’ drive, they go with a pitch play, Bucky throwing laterally to Tony. The defender reads the play and slips in for the interception. Frustrated and annoyed, Bucky rushes to tackle the defender. The sound of Bucky’s gear slamming into the Shield player is brutal and reverberates through the stadium as both boys hit the ground hard. A second goes by and then another and another and neither gets up.

The entire stadium goes dead silent.

The Shield defender finally rolls over and starts to sit up, but Bucky remains face down on the grass. More time goes by and Bucky still doesn’t move. The silence seems endless until Bucky’s mom cries out. Sarah is quick to console and comfort Winifred Barnes, but she just flails and shoves, frantically making her way down toward the field in a disoriented panic. The Avengers run over and surround Bucky, but no one dares touch him. His body is laid out, his left arm, his throwing arm is gruesomely, unnaturally twisted.

It all happens so fast. Someone screams for the paramedics. Coaches scream for the players to back away. The local news and ESPN camera crew try to move onto the field. All of a sudden, Bucky’s eyes snap open and he starts wailing in pain. He screams until his voice is hoarse and raw. He screams until he doesn’t sound human anymore. It takes forever for the paramedics to arrive, stabilize him and load him onto a stretcher.

Everyone just looks on in complete shock. Steve leaves the bench after minutes of being frozen and tries to run to Bucky, but Coach Phillips is there to stop him. And when Coach Phillips isn’t enough, when Steve nearly shoves the man to the ground, Natasha is there, her hand on his arm, holding him back. She seems to settle him down at least a little.

Fury can’t watch as they prepare to move Bucky and rush him to the hospital. He knows he has to be an anchor right now. He has to ground his team, this community, his daughter who might or not be dating the boy being lifted into the back of an ambulance. He doesn’t know how he’ll react if he looks. Instead, Fury keeps his one good eye on the scoreboard and the clock.

Three minutes.

Three minutes left in the game.

The Avengers are down ten points. Fury’s one good eye goes from the clock to Steve on the edge of the field and Natasha keeping him together. Football is the last thing on the kid’s mind. Fury then looks to the stands, thousands of people who’ve been running their mouths all week now in stunned silence.

Three minutes.

“Rogers,” Fury calls out. Steve and Natasha and everyone within earshot react to the sound of his voice after such a long stretch of silence. Natasha gets it first, eyes going wide. “Warm up that arm, boy.”

While everyone is still shaken, Fury starts moving. He moves down the sideline, clapping his hands and shaking a few of his players who are still dazed and lost. They’re mostly the same on the Shields’ side. But with Fury’s steady clapping, the players start to get back into the game as impossible as that seems right now.

“Three minutes!” Fury shouts. “Let’s go, men!”

Three minutes.

The energy in the stadium starts to build again. Steve throws passes to Sam on the sideline, jaw clenched, trying to keep his eyes from glazing over. One by one the Avengers jog up to Steve, giving him pats on the shoulders and taps on the top and back of his helmet, gestures of solidarity. Even Rumlow and Stark, though they might not get along or agree with Steve most of the time, are there to give him a little encouragement. That’s what a team does.

“You can do this, Rogers!” Dum Dum gives him a rough smack between his shoulders.

“Yeah, baby! Let’s go!”

“C’mon, Steve! Let’s get the W for Bucky!”

Steve continues to warm up, throwing harder and harder with each pass.

“Captains!” the ref shouts. “Coaches!”

Steve doesn’t pay any of them attention until Fury screams his name. Then it hits him. Quarterback is captain. Steve throws one last pass, a bullet to Sam before he hustles over to Stark and Rumlow and they follow Fury to midfield.

“Okay, we got three minutes, gentlemen,” the referee explains. Tony has to bite his lip to keep the sarcastic comment to himself. “Let’s play hard and clean. Remind your players to keep their heads up. Only hit what you can see.”

Three minutes.

With that interception, it’s Shields’ ball. Rumlow has the defense rallying, digging their feet into the dirt and making stops. Peterson throws a long ball meant for Hunter with Clint all over him. Clint knocks the ball out of Hunter’s hands. Incomplete. Shields try to run the ball. Rumlow flies in fast, grabs Trip by his ankles and drags him down for a gain of two yards. On third down, T'Challa gets around the edge as the offensive line collapses and tackles Peterson to the ground. Sack. A quick three and out. They have to punt.

On the Avengers sideline, Natasha helps Steve into his helmet with steady hands, the exact opposite of Steve’s that won’t quit trembling. “You can do this, Steve.”

“What if I can’t, Nat? Bucky was right. I don’t know how to deal with this. I can’t let everyone down…”

“Don’t do it for Bucky or this stupid town.” The corner of her lips tug into a reassuring smile and she takes his hands into hers to steady them, squeezing tightly. “Do it for yourself, Steve. You love the game so play.”

Steve nods, still shaky and nervous as hell, but he feeds off her relentless calm and the steadiness in her eyes. Natasha smiles fully and clips his chin strap in place before smacking him lovingly on the back of his helmet. “Get out there, partner.”

The ball is on the Avengers’ twenty-five yard line to start the drive. Steve jogs out onto the field in an actual game in front of thousands of people, nervous as hell. Natasha goes to stand by Fury as he surveys the field. 

“Breathe, Steve,” Dum Dum urges him. “First thing you gotta do is breathe.”

Steve is practically hyperventilating.

“Here’s your chance to backup all the begging for playing time you do,” Tony says. “Just follow the plays, get the ball to me or Maximoff. Easy-peasy. Let’s go. Lead us to Valhalla, Captain America!”

They go to the ground on the first play. Steve hands the ball off to Pietro who zooms through a hole in the line, but is taken down by Mack after a gain of five yards. On second down, Steve tosses the ball to Pietro again, but he gets stuffed. On third down, Steve drops back to pass and looks for Tony, but then he sees the defense blitz and blitz fast. Steve gets blindsided by Mack and smashed into the ground. Maybe he isn’t ready for this after all.

Dum Dum lifts Steve up off the ground and sets him back on his feet. Morita comes over and picks grass off Steve’s helmet and throws it back on the ground.

“Just keep breathing, Cap,” Dum Dum says, giving him a pat on his chest.

Cap? What is that? When did this become a thing? Sure, Tony was joking. Captain America. But… Cap? Captain? What? No. Bucky is captain of the team. Bucky is the Winter Solider. He’s the Asset. Steve is just…What is he? He—

“Rogers!” Fury screams from the sideline. “Get your head out of your ass and play some damn football!”

He has to get his head out of his ass and play some damn football. Steve starts with a deep breath and no huddle. They go for it on fourth down. They have to. He can do this. As they line up and prepare to snap the ball, Fury calls timeout.

“Rogers, this is it, boy,” Fury says. “I’m going to ride your ass to that end zone, you can be damn sure about that, but remember what I said? No assumptions. No expectations. Just do your best. Breathe, slow down and try to read the coverage. You know how to do that, right?”

“Look before I throw, see where the defense is, where our guys are, I know, but their edge rushers are too fast and Mack—”

“He’s all over Pietro like he’s getting fucking paid to and the backfield is doubling me,” Tony interjects. “It’s like they know who the stars of the team are or something.”

“Put Sam in,” Natasha interjects. All eyes fly to her.

“Who the hell is Sam?” Tony and Coach Phillips ask in unison.

“Wilson. Falcon,” Natasha says. “Have the tight ends block, use Stark and Maximoff as decoys and throw Wilson the ball.” Her ever so serious and steady eyes meet Steve’s. “Just like last night, Steve. The bet throw. You can do it.”

Holding Natasha’s gaze, Steve nods. “We can do it.”

Fury thinks it over for a second and nods. “Get it done.” He looks down the bench. “Wilson, get that damn helmet on and get out there!” As the boys run back onto the field and Fury falls back beside Natasha, he grumbles, “Studying at Maria’s house last night my ass.”

Natasha smiles.

It’s fourth down. Their last chance. If they blow this, they’re giving their opponent fantastic field position. Steve is steadier as he gets set and calls out the play. One glance at Sam and Steve takes another deep breath. 

Shotgun formation. Dum Dum snaps the ball. Steve drops back, eyes wide and attentive, but his movement steady and sure. Heavy pressure, but the offensive line holds. A rusher gets past Happy and lunges for Steve, but he cuts back and dodges the contact. Steve fakes like he’s going to run, then pulls up and hurls the ball with all his strength.

Everyone holds their breath as they follow the glorious arc of the ball as it spirals up, up, then down, down and right into Sam Wilson’s hands. The people of Midgard explode with cheers as Sam lands on his feet, not a single defender near him. He turns on the jets, flies down the sideline and runs the ball in for a touchdown!

The crowd noise is deafening. Fury, who’s usually stoic, thrust a fist in the air and hugs Natasha, who’s also usually stoic, but smiles just a little.

The score is 21-24. The Shields are up and have the ball. Time is running out.

Rumlow and the defense take over. The Shields choose to run the ball on their first drive, smartly trying to run out the clock. On the second, they run the ball again. Clint locks in on the running back and punches the ball loose. Fumble! Rhodey falls on the ball. The referees step in and signal Avengers’ ball!

This time, when Steve leads the offense onto the field, he’s ready for battle. Good field position. A hurry-up drive. Steve hands the ball to Pietro who weaves around defenders and breaks tackles, barreling toward first and goal. Steve looks over the line of scrimmage and reads the defense. His eyes widen and he starts talking to his guys, changing the play. He knows Fury is fuming, wishing they had a timeout left to chew him out, but it feels right. In this moment, this is Steve’s offense. In this moment, he’s captain and he’s going to act like it.

They snap the ball. The defensive backs swarm Tony and Pietro. Steve keeps the ball. It’s a quarterback sneak! The offensive line marches forward and Steve squeezes his way through, crossing the pylon. Touchdown!

Steve falls to his knees in the end zone, clutching the ball for dear life as his teammates pick him up and rain praise down on him. The victory feels good. Just being able to play feels good. Pride and success surges through him as his teammates, his friends surround him.

“Avengers win! Avengers win!”

As good as it feels to claim the first win of the season and with a nail-biter, the high passes fairly quickly. Players and coaches on both sides meet midfield and all take a knee. For Bucky.

 

 

Steve doesn’t even change out of his gear, not even his cleats before jumping into his mom’s car and driving to the hospital. They race down familiar corridors until they find Winifred sobbing hysterically. Rebecca Barnes does her best to calm her mother and though she isn’t getting through at all, she has the same cool, calm demeanor as her older brother.

“Sarah!” Winifred shouts, going right over to her friend for an embrace.

“Did they say anything, Winnie?” Sarah asks.

“Something about his cervical nerve root?” Rebecca says quietly.

“S-Sarah, they said he might l-lose his arm.” Winifred sobs into Sarah’s shoulder. That hits Steve particularly hard and his expression fractures. The game ball in his hand, the game ball he brought Bucky, slips and tumbles to the ground. “His throwing arm! He-he can’t! He w-wants to play football. He-he wants to join the military! He can’t do that without his arm…He-he…”

Winifred breaks down. Sarah hugs and guides her into the nearest chair. Steve's eyes blur with tears. When he spots Fury and Natasha, their faces are matching emotionless masks, but it’s easy to assume they heard. Fury stands tall, as strong and hardened as ever. Natasha is much the same, something she learned from the man beside her.

Steve tries to hold his head up, tries to match them, put on a tough front for Bucky and for their families, but he feels the wetness on his cheeks and his throat restricts and burns. He tries to take a breath to calm himself, but that only compromises his control. He hears himself mumble something about fresh air, hangs his head and rushes past them to the nearest exit.

He doesn’t expect her to, he doesn’t even hear her footsteps, but he knows Natasha is following him out. Steve shoves past the front doors and walks out into the night, surrounded by warm Texas air, but it doesn’t help at all. He starts to pace and that doesn’t help either. What does help is Natasha, her small hands on him. The warmth of her against his back steadies him and helps him breathe, but then there’s the guilt. She shouldn’t be out here with him. She should be inside, should be there for Bucky. They both should.

Natasha doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to. She knows he doesn’t need her to. She’s always been scary good at that. They aren’t really the touchy kind of friends aside from when she taps her knuckles against his chest and when they shoulder into each other to be annoying. They don’t hug. Except for now. Now she hugs him tight from behind until he lets out a shaky breath. He didn’t realize he hadn’t been breathing until just then.

Steve drops his hand to where hers rest against his belly, wrapping his fingers around the back of her hands. He feels the way she inhales deeply and so he does the same, matching his breathing to hers. Once he’s semi-sure he won’t fall apart, Steve turns to face her, wrapping her up in a hug, a thank you, his own extension of comfort because he knows she could use it just as much.

A car horn beeps. Steve and Natasha pull away in time to see a caravan of cars pull into the hospital parking lot. Some painted red and white while others are painted blue and black. Players from both teams—Tony and Trip and Clint and Hunter—along with parents and other members of the community pile out. Hundreds of people gather to show their support and light candles and ask about Bucky. The parking lot quickly turns into a candlelight vigil.

“What do we do now, Cap?”

Steve doesn’t even realize the question is directed at him, doesn’t realize all eyes are on him, until Natasha gives him a gentle nudge. They’re all looking to him for direction, for instructions, for hope.

“We wait,” Steve replies.

No one argues. No one scoffs. No one questions him.

Together, they wait.

Chapter Text


 Track 04

Breakfast - Momma 


  

“Don’t matter if your cup is half full or half empty any given day, we can all agree this is a tragic blow to the season. Bucky Barnes is the Avengers. They built that entire team around him. Now we’re left with this Stefan Roberts kid? He’s never played competitive football in his life! Six feet. One-eighty. He’s a big boy, but can he throw?” 

“More of a prototype linebacker if you ask me. The kid did okay Friday night, but how much of that was skill and how much was adrenalin? He had that miracle throw to extend the drive in the fourth, but miracles don’t win football games, not in Texas.”

“If you’re an Avengers fan, I’d say now is the time to get down on your knees and start prayin’. We’re gonna need it.”

Fury shuts off the radio, annoyed with himself for even listening as long as he did. Sitting behind the wheel of his SUV, he’s dressed in his Sunday best, which is something he just threw together at the last minute. All black. Shirt tucked in. Shoes shined. It’ll do. Natasha sits in the passenger seat, wearing a pretty dress, probably the only dress she owns that covers her knees. She doesn’t seem too pleased about any of it.

“Why are we here?” Natasha asks irritably. “You don’t even believe in god.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe. With the things I’ve done, I’ve obviously won no favor with the big guy. It’s just one morning, Natasha. They’re doing a little prayer thing for Barnes at the end and asked me to be there. What was I supposed to say?”

“No,” Natasha says bluntly. Like the headstrong teenager she is.

“Sometimes adults don’t have that luxury. Now put on your sweater. Covering your shoulders is a thing in there, I think.”

“God forbid anyone see my shoulders!” Natasha shoves her arms through the sleeves of a thin cardigan. “You never know what excites some people. Anything that distracts from Mass is wrong.”

Fury’s lips tilt in a smile. “Thank you for being here.”

“And let you go on this pity tour alone?” Natasha studies the imposing building in front of them and its Prayer Circle for Bucky Barnes sign. She stares until her eyes go out of focus and stares right through it.

The last time they had been in this church, Natasha’s only time, had been for Joseph Rogers’ funeral. A beautiful military service with a flag presentation and rifle salute. Fury had joined the military detail carrying the coffin to the grave as a young Natasha sat with the Barnes family. Steve never left his mom’s side. The kids were in middle school at the time, too young.

As they walk into the church, Fury can feel the way Natasha steels herself. Heads turn to watch them. Because of his job and reputation. Because of her beauty. And her reputation. Even with one eye, Fury’s observant. He notices the way some of the modest church girls turn up their noses and how Natasha’s reluctant trudge turns into more of a proud strut. Fury never asks about the social aspect of her high school experience. He just assumes she can take care of herself in that regard. He always taught her to roll with the punches and deal out a few herself. 

“Coach! Natasha!”

Sarah Rogers waves them over, her blonde head covered in a pretty, white lace chapel veil. Steve sits on the pew beside her in a suit, the shirt too tight and the pants a little big on him. Natasha walks ahead to greet Sarah with a hug and gives Steve’s navy and white striped tie a playful tug before sitting next to him. Fury nods his appreciation and tries not to sigh at the sight of Steve. Just seeing the boy brings up so many things he just doesn’t want to deal with, least of all the meaning of whatever his kid just did there.

At the end of Mass, Sarah is called up to say a few words about Barnes since Mrs. Barnes couldn’t attend. Everyone knows how close their families are. Sarah’s words are steady, full of love and faith. Faith that he will pull through. She doesn’t ask for him to miraculously regain complete use and strength of his arm. She talks about Barnes—and everyone—being tested and she prays that their souls will not be compromised.

They all bow their heads in prayer. Fury had grown up in a church, not like this one and not in this part of town, but his mother had been a traditional God-fearing woman so he does see the well wishes in prayer. Maybe it’s less about asking a benevolent being to fix Barnes and more about collectively sending positive energy to him. Fury makes a mental note to frame it that way to Natasha.

Once the church service concludes, donuts and coffee and juice are served right next to a donation box for whoever might want to help the Barnes family with the medical expenses. As most make small talk, a little boy runs up to Steve and Natasha with a football, more like a get-out-of-small-talk free card. Natasha tosses the ball to Steve and he runs with all the little kids jumping on him, trying to take him down.

“This is the most relaxed I’ve seen him since before preseason.” Sarah steps up beside Fury as they both watch Steve hold the football right above his head as the kids jump for it. Natasha tries to jump on his back, using his shoulder for leverage as she reaches for the ball from behind him. Steve just laughs, stumbling forward, but supporting her weight. “Does it scare you, the prospects of handing the reins over to my son?”

“Scared.” Fury scoffs at that word that bleeds weakness. Nick Fury is anything, but. “Boy better be ready to work.”

“Last night, he asked me, 'ma, what if I can’t do it?' I told him, 'son, suck it up and do your best,'” Sarah says. “I’m not one to be into all this football frenzy stuff…”

“Because you’re Brooklyn born and raised and too Brooklyn cool?”

“In part, sure.” Sarah smiles up at him. “But I believe it when you tell the boys football is a metaphor for life. He has an opportunity, on the heels of a tragic accident, but an opportunity nonetheless. There are bigger things than football going on right now, but focusing on something might be what we need to get through all of it without falling apart.”

“Maybe I should have you talk to the boys. Locker room guest speaker.”

She laughs. “No, I’m much too busy for that. I’m heading to the hospital in a little.”

“I’ll see you there then. Thought I’d check in on Barnes. Might be a few hours, though. I promised T’Challa I’d stop by his uncle's parish too. And I probably owe Natasha breakfast for going along with all this…I know I don’t have to tell you she’s got that thing about hospitals and I’m not about to force her to visit…”

“Steve is the exact opposite. If I didn’t order him away from the hospital, I’m not sure he’d ever leave or eat or bathe. Say, would you mind taking him with you so I can go straight to the hospital from here? I wanted to check in on Bucky and Winnie before my shift.”

“Sure. Maybe Natasha won’t chew me out in front of polite company.”

“Good luck with that.” Sarah laughs and the fact that the woman knows Natasha, that Natasha let her in, always gets to him. “I wouldn’t worry too much. If I know Nat like I think I do, she always has your back. And Steve is going to try his best for you. And Bucky…Bucky’s a tough kid. He’ll fight through this.”

Sarah offers Fury a bright, reassuring smile before being pulled away by some of the other church people. Fury sips his cup of what’s clearly instant coffee and watches Natasha expertly spin to avoid Steve’s half-hearted tackle and floats the ball down the lawn to a crowd of jumping children. She wouldn’t be a bad backup-backup QB. Hell, she could probably battle Steve for a shot at starter.

Fury feels someone approaching from his left side and fuck does he hate that. In a past life, he’d put beastly men on the ground for sneaking up on him like that, but it’s just Principal Sitwell, stern and nervous as always.

“Things are bad, coach,” Sitwell says quietly. “Let’s face the facts. Barnes is a question mark on the season. Best case scenario, he’s out for months. Worst case scenario, he’s out indefinitely. We need a plan.”

“I got one. Don’t you worry.”

“And what is that, may I ask?” Sitwell hisses. “Teach Steve Rogers how to be a stud quarterback in four days? I know we’re only playing those rich Xavier brats, but in a ten game regular season, every one counts. No offense, but Steve Rogers—”

“He’ll perform,” Fury says firmly. “Just leave the coaching to the coach, Jasper.”

“You know what football means to this town, Fury,” Sitwell says in a harsh whisper. “There are only two things keeping this town alive—Stark Industries and football. Tradition and community is what keeps it afloat. Without those two things, Midgard would be a ghost town. Hopeless and dead in the dirt. Just like your career if this goes even further south than it already has.”

Fury doesn’t indulge that with a reply, but his body radiates irritation. Sitwell isn’t stupid. He knows a silent, deadly cue when he sees one and walks away promptly. Fury keeps his eyes on Steve, who has the ball and tries to spin out of a tackle like Natasha had moments ago. Mid-spin, a boy half his size knocks the ball out of Steve’s hands and right to Natasha who mock-runs for a touchdown. Fury pats his chest as if reaching for his whistle just to realize he isn’t wearing it.

“Holy damn,” Fury mutters to himself. “Rogers!”

Steve straightens and his face morphs into something more serious as he jogs over, his shirt untucked and his tie flapping in the wind. “Yes, coach?”

“Rogers, I know Barnes is your number one priority and seeing him through all this takes precedence, but you need to remember what you signed on for as backup quarterback. The team’s counting on you to pick up and be a leader.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve says. “I-I’m not about to let Buck’s team down while he’s out.”

Fury shakes his head, feeling the start of a migraine coming on. “Steve, it isn’t Barnes' team anymore. You aren’t the backup. You’re QB1. They’re your team. Without that mentality, we’re fucking fucked. You understand?”

Steve stares up at the cross atop the church. “Yes, sir.”

Fury relaxes a little and pats Steve on the back of his head. “God help us.”

 

 

Natasha has always loved ballet.

Fury has a way of referring to it as her football when people ask about her and he feels like bragging. Said with a little laugh, but a proud smile before small talk drifts elsewhere. Football is a way of life for Fury and Midgard. It’s apart of everyday life for Natasha. Ballet isn’t a way of life to her, but a way to escape it.

She likes to lose herself in the music and the movement, the swell of the strings and the fluidity of the footwork. She loves the control it offers, that she greedily takes. It gives her a chance to clear her mind and avoid the things she wants to avoid thinking about. If her mind isn’t focused on the dance, it’s on game planning.

While the other girls spend their breaks talking and gossiping, Natasha sits in a corner with her back against a mirrored wall and headphones on. Pen in hand and eyes solely on her notebook, she draws her own football diagrams, a mess of x’s and o’s and numbers and arrows, choosing and designing plays that might work best against the Xavier Mutants defense. If nothing else, it helps to keep her mind occupied.

A pair of ballet shoes invade her peripheral and Natasha finds Madame B staring down at her. The very serious, no-nonsense woman runs the studio and puts the fear of god into every dancer who comes through. She has taken a special interest in Natasha over the years, meaning she pushes her harder and expects more from her than any of the others.

Natasha pushes her headphones off when she sees Madame B’s lips moving, but hears nothing, but Tchaikovsky. “Did you say something, madame?”

“Yes. What are all those x’s and o’s?”

“Just brainstorming plays and formations,” Natasha replies, tapping the edge of her pen against her knee. Madame B shows no emotion, no reaction. “Football.”

Madame B’s expression darkens with disdain, a disgusted sound gurgling in her throat. “I will never understand this town, this state and the obsession with men plowing into each other in pursuit of a ball like wild dogs chasing trash in the street.”

“It’s a sport,” Natasha says. “Some anthropologists would argue that physical competition is psychologically healthy, not just for the individual, but society as a whole. And if you actually watch football, there’s artistry to it. Some of the receiver’s moves can be considered balletic.”

Madame B laughs. Natasha keeps her face carefully neutral even though she feels like Madame B is laughing at her and Natasha doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like being laughed at, especially when it’s someone considered her superior.

“And you go to all the games? Your father is coach, yes?”

“Yes. Every Friday.”

“Interesting,” Madame B says. Though she doesn’t appear too interested at all. “We’re posting the roles for our production of the Nutcracker this year and I wanted to congratulate our Sugar Plum Fairy in person. I’m sure you will do our studio very proud.”

Natasha’s heart swells in her chest.

“Rehearsals are every Friday starting this week and lasting into December. Five o’clock. Sharp.”

And her heart sinks and shatters.

“But…”

“Failure to attend even a single rehearsal tells me you don’t care and your part will be given to someone who does. Am I clear?”

“Yes, madame.”

 

 

Fury doesn’t say anything for a long time after she breaks the news to him about having to miss games. He just sits in his brown leather chair for a long time. Then he stands and scoops his cell phone up off the living room coffee table that’s covered in play sheets and scribbled notes and a laptop with game footage on pause.

“What’s this Madame B’s number?”

“Nick…”

“This is bullshit! How long have you been going to that studio? How many years have you been in the damn Nutcracker? Since you could barely see over a ballet bar and they had you playing a flower in the background! When have rehearsals ever been on a Friday? On game day?”

“That was my first thought too,” Natasha agrees, sitting on the arm of the couch. “She’s testing me and my dedication to the studio.”

“She’s being a bitch.”

Nick.”

“Well, how else would you describe it?” Fury sits back down in his chair and drums his phone against his knee. “Do you really have to be in the Nutcracker?” Natasha’s eyes go wide and then narrow furiously, a slip of her usual very carefully crafted expression, which can only mean it’s genuine. “Well, do you?”

“It’s my last production. This time next year I’ll be gone.”

“Exactly!” Fury shouts. “You’ll be gone next year so why bother?”

Natasha’s hands curl into fists as she angrily springs to her feet. “Oh, so it’s Steve’s last year so he should get on the field any way he can, but it’s my last year, my last chance at being in the Nutcracker and, oh, I should just blow it off for football?”

“Can’t you?”

That only makes Natasha angrier.

Fury sighs and rubs his tired, wrinkled face. “Natasha, you know you can’t compare your situation with Steve’s.”

“Because football is more important than ballet?”

“Because you’ve been the star at that studio for years. You are the very well established shark. Steve’s a dolphin being dumped into shark infested water.”

“I read sharks are afraid of dolphins.”

And you could walk away if you wanted to,” Fury adds. “If Steve tried to walk away now, he’d have to pack his bags and move out of Texas because there’s no way he could live that down around here.”

“I don’t want to walk away.”

It’s quiet for a long time, Natasha still as a statue as Fury rubs his one good eye with the back of his hand. “Then don’t. You’re old enough to make your own decisions. I’m serious about you being our secret weapon, but if this is what you want, fine.”

Getting her way doesn’t quite feel like a victory, but Natasha doesn’t dare show it. “Rehearsals are from five to seven so if I hurry and I’m pretty sure there won’t be any traffic, I can get to the game by the second half.”

“Not away games,” Fury says under his breath. “Are you really doing this to me, kid? Now of all times?”

“You’ll live. The team will live.”

Fury sinks back even deeper into his chair and it can only be a sign of defeat. “You should wear your jersey to rehearsals just to stick it to Madame Banshee.”

Natasha hides her smile by spinning on her heels and heading into the kitchen. “You hungry?”

“You go ahead. I picked something up at the hospital cafeteria a little earlier.”

Natasha freezes with one hand on the refrigerator door. While Fury goes to visit Bucky in the hospital every chance he gets and Steve practically lives there, Natasha hasn’t been, not once. She’s only ever caught a glimpse of him through the open door of his hospital room. No one was allowed any closer on that first night and she hasn’t gone back since.

“The food isn’t bad,” Natasha says casually. “Steve used to bring lunch from the hospital cafeteria. The stroganoff wasn’t bad and you know how I feel about stroganoff.”

She can feel Fury’s one knowing eye on her back and she refuses to face him. Instead, she yanks on the refrigerator door to begin scavenging.

“He isn’t doing so well,” Fury says. “Barnes. Sleeping most of the time, too drugged up to do much. When he’s awake, which isn’t often since he’s in so much pain, he doesn’t talk to anyone, not even Rogers. I know how you feel about hospitals, but…”

“I already know what you’re going to say.”

“Okay.”

“So, I had this idea about how to trip up Colossus, more of a trial run before we play Thor and the Warriors,” Natasha says instead. “It’s going to involve the entire offense, Steve needs to get the ball out on time, receivers need to get open and fast and the protection is going to have to be flawless. I mean, constant communication and knowing where the help is coming from…”

“Especially Happy,” Fury says with a little smile.

Especially,” Natasha agrees. So maybe she’s the quickest to call Happy out on his spirited yet shitty blocking because it’s just so obvious. She knows Fury agrees and gets a kick out of it.

“Go on. I’m listening…”

 

 

It’s kind of weird how fast everything changes.

Steve hates how helpless this whole situation makes him feel. Then he feels guilty for focusing on how he feels when bigger, more terrible things are happening to people he loves. He’d move into the hospital if he could. Steve was there as long as he could stay Friday night, all Saturday and Sunday, pacing the hallway and passing out in chairs when he could not stay awake another minute. His mom literally had to chase him out and scold him for not taking better care of himself, saying Bucky would kick him for it. And she’s right.

By the time Monday rolls around and it’s time for school, Steve is so preoccupied with bugging his mom for updates on Bucky, that the change comes as such a surprise. Walking into school, it’s like visiting another planet. Kids who have never paid him any attention other than to maybe ask him to move if he’s blocking their locker, are suddenly high-fiving and congratulating him and asking how Bucky’s doing. A few even hug him. It’s nice and well-meaning, but just plain weird. Even the girls are making eyes at him in the hallway. He did see a bump in interest when he hit his growth spurt, but it never lasted with him in Bucky's shadow. 

All off them would lose interest except Peggy.

Steve glances down at his crappy pay-as-you-go secondhand phone. New York is only an hour ahead of Texas. She’s already in class. She joined the school paper, intrigued by the open investigative reporter position and has a meeting after school. He has football and is going to see if he can catch a ride to the hospital after. If they get a chance to talk, it won’t be until late, which sucks because he could really use Peggy’s calming presence and warm encouragement right now.

Focusing on staying focused, Steve opens his lockers and blinks at a gift box wrapped with a bright red ribbon sitting atop his Pre-Calculus textbook. Steve checks around him, wondering if this is some kind of prank. He doesn’t see Rumlow and his goons sniggering from around any corners so Steve opens the card.

 

To Our New Starting Quarterback,

Every starting QB needs the very best way for his coach to yell at him at any time of the day. Don’t worry. The bill’s on us. Keep making us proud, Avenger!

Howard Stark, Stark Industries

 

Now Steve’s even more confused. He pulls the ribbon away, opens the box and inside is brand new, shiny and beautiful Stark phone. Steve’s mouth drops open. Is this real life?

“He didn’ actually write that, by the way.”

Steve closes his locker door a little and sees Tony leaning against the locker next to his, eyes barely open, swaying on his feet, hair mussed and clothes rumpled like he hasn’t changed in a day or two. Either he’s coming down from a caffeine binge after an all-nighter working on one of his genius side projects or…

“Tony, are you drunk?”

The only son of the richest family in Midgard, one of the richest in the world, hisses like a cornered animal. “His pretty little assistant probably wrote it or Jarvis. He bets on the games, y’know. Like we’re horses at a track. Just keep winning, buddy boy…”

“Tony, maybe you should—”

“Dude!”

Sam shoves Steve hard in the shoulder before he can get the words out, which isn’t a good sign. If he didn’t notice an excitable Sam running at him, how is he supposed to notice a stealth master linebacker looking to level him?

“Nice to see you too, Sam.”

“So I’m having this conversation with Maria—”

Tony laughs boisterously. “Wait, you’re into that? Really, Falcon? Someone’s told you that when the spring moon comes ‘round, she picks up her tennis racket, transforms into Serena Williams and absolutely does not date, right? Hate to break it to you, but your time is a’ticking. She also allegedly eats men alive.”

Sam just stares at him. “Tony, are you drunk?”

Tony makes that same dismissive sound, pulls his sunglasses down over his eyes and kicks off the locker as he starts to spin away.

“Something’s up with him..." He cares, Steve always cares, but as a leader, as captain, he should say something, right? Steve tries to think of what to say and watches his opportunity run off with Tony and a couple of cheerleaders, giggling before disappearing down the hall. “So, you were having a conversation with Maria?”

“Yes!” Sam continues, just as excited as he was moments ago. “So I’m having this conversation with Maria and I’m getting around to asking her out, you know, on a date and I said something like, can you imagine going on a double date with Steve and Natasha? And her face got all confused and straight-up adorable, man, and she’s like, why would they be on a double date? And I said, because Steve and Natasha are a couple? And she laughed for a whole minute.”

Steve’s face crumbles with confusion. “You thought Nat and I are together?”

“Yes! For as long as I’ve known you two, yes! So, for more than a month, I’ve been walking around town, hanging around you two, thinking you’re Steve and Natasha, but just keep the PDA on the down low because you’re scared Coach Fury’s lurking around every corner. Not that I’d blame you. Dude!”

“What made you think that?” Steve asks. 

“Dude!”

“You already said that, a few times now.”

Sam leans against the locker next to Steve’s and starts ticking off his fingers. “You’re always together—”

“She’s my lab partner and I don’t have a car so she’s kind enough to—”

“And when you aren’t with her, you’re talking about her. Natasha this, Natasha that, Natasha thinks my hair looks sexy when it’s pushed back. Does my hair look sexy when it’s pushed back?”

Steve’s forehead crinkles at the observation. Does he really do that? He didn’t realize… And he tries to pretend he isn’t as shaken as he is. “Sam, did you just quote Mean Girls? You’ve been hanging out with Clint, haven’t you?”

“Dude.”

Steve shrugs, grabs a book from his locker and slams it shut. “Natasha’s…a very impressive person.”

“And then there’s the way you look at her when you’re together and when you brag about how cool she is. Dude, you look at her like she invented breakfast.”

“Shut up, Sam.” Steve just shakes his head at the ridiculousness of it all. “I’m flattered you’d think someone like me would even have a shot with someone like Natasha, but we’re just friends, lab partners.”

“What’s that about?” Sam scratches his head. “Someone like you? Someone like her? You mean two hot people who get friendly?” The warning bell rings. “Uh-huh. Saved by the bell.”

“I’ll see you at lunch, Sam.”

“Yeah, yeah. Thanks for making me look like an idiot in front of the girl I'm sweet on, by the way!”

Steve likes Sam. It’s still hard to believe how easy he gets along with everyone, so much so that it feels like he’s been friends with them for years. The guy’s so naturally charismatic he wouldn’t have had trouble making friends even if they didn’t invite him to lunch that day after practice. But is it weird that Steve was a little worried Sam transferring to Lieber might mean the end of Rogers & Romanoff’s seemingly permanent lab partnership? Thanks to every teacher’s best friend — alphabetical order — Steve and Natasha have been lab partners since biology freshman year. They rarely get new kids and if they do, the dropouts usually maintain balance. Without realizing, Steve breathed a little sigh of relief when Sam said his last name is Wilson and he’s taking astronomy, not physiology.

Steve walks into one of the science classrooms filled with long lab tables that seat two, expecting to find Natasha in her usual seat with her legs stretched across his. Instead, Steve walks in and sees a pretty blonde girl sitting in Natasha’s seat. She smiles when she spots him. Huh? One of them must be a little confused.

“Hi. Steve?”

“Uh, yes?” Steve sits in his chair next to her. “That’s…that’s me.”

Her smile stretches and she bats her eyes. Pretty eyes, alluring and almost hypnotic eyes. “I’m Lorraine. I’m yours.”

Steve balks, his mouth hanging open. “Uhhh?”

“Your rally girl. You’re first string now so you get a first string rally girl.” She touches his arm and leans in a little closer. “Basically, the way this works is you tell me what you like and I provide it. So, let me ask you, Mr. Quarterback. What do you like to eat?”

Steve sits in stunned silence and his mouth is probably still hanging open, but he isn’t sure, all he feels is his heart hammering and so much confusion. How does one even respond to that? To this situation? Is this real life?

“You’re in my seat.”

A grumpy as hell Natasha drops her books and her bag onto the table and the commotion breaks whatever spell Steve had been falling under. Natasha's hair is messier than usual and her eyes are half-lidded, sleepy and so over today before the day has even started.

“Hi,” Lorraine says. “I’m Lorraine.”

“Hi, Lorraine,” Natasha says, her tone of voice mockingly sweet. Then her face settles into that trademark look Clint and Tony refer to as the Widow Death Stare. “You’re in my seat.”

“Oh!”

Lorraine scrambles to stand as Natasha drops into her chair like she’s just come back from a long journey. Lorraine scribbles into a flimsy notebook, tears the page out and hands it to Steve, sure to glance over at Natasha, who either forgot Lorraine’s even there or is fantastic at pretending.

“This is my number,” Lorraine says. “Call or text me anytime, Steve. Don’t be shy. I’ll see you around, Mr. Quarterback.”

“Yeah, I guess you will.” Steve relaxes in his seat once Lorraine leaves the classroom, eyes skirting over to Natasha, who’s using her bag as a pillow, eyes closed. “So, how’s your morning?”

“I forgot to charge my phone so my alarm didn’t go off and I overslept, my hair isn’t cooperating to the point where I just want to cut it all off and I was late to school, which means all the good parking spots were taken, which means I had to walk five blocks, which mean I was late for first period.”

“Ouch. Does this also mean you have detention at lunch?”

Natasha just snuggles into her bag.

Steve cracks a smile. “No. God forbid someone give the coach’s daughter detention.”

“Shut up.” She swings out her elbow as if to hit him, but Steve’s too far away. “Is Lorraine making you Rice Krispies with your little number on them?”

“Ohhhh. So that’s what she meant when she asked me what I like to eat?”

A laugh bursts out of Natasha’s throat and when she goes to hit him, she opens her eyes this time so she doesn’t miss. Steve's face goes a little red at his own words, but making her laugh is worth it. When Natasha closes her eyes again, Steve takes her hand in his and draws a little hourglass symbol just beneath the knuckle of her index finger. The corner of her mouth tugs back as she steals the pen and draws a star on the back of his hand along with four rings around it.

 

 

After the grand opening at Stern’s barbecue joint, Fury wouldn’t complain if he didn’t see another sauce slathered rib for a while, but where else would the booster club and Mayor Alexander Pierce have lunch? Fury and Phillips spend lunch with a group of men in expensive suits, smacking their sauce slathered lips. And they have so many goddamn opinions.

“You should run more dives than counters, coach.”

“No, the foreign kid is too small. He’ll get gobbled up at the line, ‘specially since Xavier’s got those inside linebackers. They call ‘em Colossus and The Beast.”

“Rasputin and McCoy, we know,” Phillips says. “Getting hit by the former is like getting run over by a bulldozer, he’s said to have unimaginable strength and unstoppable momentum. The latter possesses ape-like physical strength and agility, big hands, big feet, not to mention genius-level intellect. Don’t worry, boys. We do our homework.”

“Homework alone doesn’t make you ready for the final exam, does it?” Pierce counters, drumming his fingertips against the edge of the table. “We need to know you have this handled. Coach Fury, care to weigh in?”

“No.”

The silence that follows is awkward and probably the reason Fury doesn’t have many people he calls friends. The boosters clearly mistake resistance to bullshit as arrogance, scoff and suck on their fingers.

Pierce just smiles. “For a champion and a military man, you aren’t much of a team player, are you?”

“Oh, I’m a team player, Mayor,” Fury assures him. “My team is my number one priority, not all of this, whatever this is.” Fury motions around the table. “My team has everything under control.”

“What about Rogers? He has everything under control?”

“Don’t let Rogers throw the ball, coach. Boy can’t do the job. He is going to lose us the game.”

“We threw him into one hell of a trial by fire and he came out fairly unscathed,” Phillips says. No one notices the way Fury stiffens except maybe Pierce. “Singed, but we got that well done W.”

Pierce hums in acknowledgement, but he isn't the least bit convinced. “As long as you have a plan, Fury. I wouldn’t want to wage the entire season on sheer dumb luck.”

The rest of the lunch is more of the same. At the end, Fury and Phillips thank Stern and the club for the meal and take their leave.

“Holy Christ on a cracker.” Phillips wipes at his forehead with the back of his hand. "I hope you actually have a plan, Fury, and it’s more than give Rogers the ball because I’ll tell you right now, I agree with them. The boy’s decent, but he’s not enough.”

Fury doesn’t answer and Phillips knows better than to push him. “I’m going to stop by the hospital and check on Barnes. I’ll meet you back at school.” Phillips nods, but before he gets far, Fury grabs him by the arm and shoves him against his SUV. “And I didn’t enjoy that analogy you used back there. Don’t use it again.”

Phillips shakes Fury’s arm off of him and doesn’t say anything, but Fury knows his message was received loud and clear. He also knows Phillips thinks he’s an asshole. Can’t blame him. There is method to his madness. Trial by fire. The last thing he wants is for Natasha to overhear that somewhere. He knows a trigger when he hears one. His reasons are his business and he doesn’t explain himself to anyone.

Times like these, being a leader isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, the glory feels good, but having to take responsibility can be a sour pill to swallow.

After putting up with all the ass kissing bullshit, Fury swings by the hospital. He grips a football in his hand as he walks the halls that have become so familiar to him now. Surprisingly, Mrs. Barnes isn’t parked inside or outside of her son’s room. Seeing no one around, Fury invites himself in.

Barnes isn’t the biggest kid on the team, but he has always been solid and dependable. Fury never thought he’d have to worry about him and he was always grateful, already having his hands full with Stark’s ego and Clint’s darkness and the way the defensive linemen do whatever Rumlow tells them without question. He never worried about Barnes. He hates the guilt that comes with that, especially now, seeing the kid in a hospital bed, hair a mess, skin pale and his neck in traction.

“Coach?” His voice is hazy and hoarse. He tries to sit up, only to wince and falls back against his bed. Fury holds his hand out as he walks in, motioning for him to stay down.

“Hey, I wanted to bring you something.” Fury pulls out the football from behind his back. The rough leather exterior is covered in get well wishes and signatures. “Rogers tracked down every member of the team and got ‘em to sign it, wanted to let you know that we’re behind you a hundred percent even if they can’t make it out to see you on account of school and things.”

Fury drops the ball into Bucky’s unharmed hand, watches as he bobbles it a little. Why? For god's sake, why did it have to be his throwing arm? Fury feels guilty for even thinking that when he should just be grateful the kid is able to walk and talk.

“Did we win?” Barnes asks. “Steve didn’t…I wasn’t…”

“We did.” Fury nods like it isn’t a big deal, like he didn’t almost burst a blood vessel at the time. “Rogers pulled it off.”

Barnes smiles and it’s a blissed out drug-fueled smile. “All it takes is…is one perfect drive…”

“I wouldn’t say perfect. I wouldn’t even say nice. It was a mess. Ugly. But those wins always mean the most, don’t they?”

“Right.” Barnes winces, beads of sweat building on his upper lip and at his hairline. “I-I shouldn’t’ve switched the play. They saw it comin’ a mile away. Shoulda listened to you…I shouldn’t’ve made that tackle. My fault, coach…All my fault.”

“Don’t be stupid, Barnes,” Fury says sternly. “It was an accident. No one’s fault. You have to believe that.”

Barnes nods his head even though the slightest movement is so strenuous, continuing to examine the football. “Natasha sign too?”

“I said the whole team, didn’t I? You can thank Rogers later.”

“Steve, he can do it, coach. He can lead the team, get…get you the championship. You gotta believe that.” Fury nods, forcing himself to be steady as Barnes struggles to hide how much he’s hurting. Even in pain and staring down an uncertain future, the kid still tries to remain strong. Maybe Sarah’s right. Maybe he can fight through this after all.

 

 

“I propose a pancake dinner!” Pepper Potts announces at the student council meeting. She’s the perfect class president, upbeat when she needs to be and sure to keep everyone on task. “All the proceeds will go to the Barnes family, Bucky’s medical bills and whatever else he might need. I already spoke with some local vendors after church yesterday and they’re willing to donate ingredients…”

Pepper’s voice trails off as Natasha stares out the cafeteria window at the football field off in the distance, wondering if Fury is actually running with any of her suggestions. She knows he takes her as seriously as he takes any of his coaching staff, but she also knows he’s relieved she’s keeping herself occupied more than anything else.

Xavier School (for the Gifted) is better known for their intense college prep and castle-like campus. They’re a young team lead by Scott Summers, the youngest coach in the league. They weren’t supposed to win their first game, but QB Bobby Drake threw a beauty of a Hail Mary into the end zone just as the clock expired. The team charged onto the field, shouting, he’s got ice in his veins! Hence his new nickname, Iceman. His main target is wide receiver, Warren Worthington III, a poor little rich boy particularly proud of his extensive back tattoo of angel wings. Their win was more luck than skill, the same thing people are saying about the Avengers.

“What do you think, Natasha?”

“Hmm?” Natasha stops chewing on the cap of her pen, realizes the entire table has eyes on her. “What do I think about…?”

“Everything,” Pepper replies.

“Um, yeah.” Natasha turns to Maria sitting beside her.

“Who doesn’t love a pancake dinner?” Maria slides in with the quick assist. “I say cut the check.”

“I second that,” Natasha agrees, tapping her pen against the table like a gavel.

“Fantastic!” Pepper agrees, but her eyes are full of concern and Natasha knows she isn’t about to let this slide. Pepper means well, but the implication is a little annoying. It isn’t like she’s Bucky’s girlfriend left to grieve. They weren’t...they didn’t even… If anything, Steve’s name is all over that role. She also already knows the best way to deflect with Pepper and it’s called pulling the Tony Stark card.

The conversation veers away from tiptoeing around pancake talk and things get a little lighter when it’s time to discuss Homecoming. Homecoming is the week after the away game in Asgard against Thor and the Warriors. Natasha taps her pen against the table louder and louder as she tries to remember who they play Homecoming week. Then she remembers.

Matt Murdock and the Devils.

Ugh.

Maria slaps her hand over Natasha’s to stop the pen tapping that has Victoria Hand glaring daggers at her from across the table. Natasha just sends her a tight-lipped smile to be annoying. She knows what majority of the school thinks of her. Natasha Romanoff is hot, but also a heartless bitch who hangs out with the football team so she must be fucking two or all of them. She knows and she wears their assumptions like armor.

“So, how are you dealing with all of this?” Maria asks when they’re the first two out of the meeting. As they walk down the hallway, Natasha just hugs her binder to her chest. She compartmentalizes, something she knows isn’t considered normal for a sixteen-year-old girl, but given what she’s been through… If anyone, they should ask Steve, who’s too optimistic for his own good. Natasha doesn’t know how to say any of this so she’d rather not at all.

“It’s just like, unfair, you know?” A rally girl cries to a circle of her fellow rally girls lingering in the hallway. “Poor Bucky. Of everyone on the team, why did it have to be him?”

“Please, you don’t even know Bucky Barnes so stop crying,” Maria snaps. The rally girls flinch at her intrusion and Maria refuses to buy the innocent, startled doe-eyed act. “Seriously, stop. It’s sad.”

Natasha pulls Maria away before she really gives them something to cry about. “Maria, you’re awful.”

“What? It’s true. I thought the hero worship was bad. The hero mourning is even worse.”

Before Maria can start to pry, clearly craving a good ol’ fashion interrogation, there’s a commotion further down the hallway. They hear the sound of slamming lockers and an angry Tony Stark. Just around the corner, Tony has Bruce pinned up against the lockers. Bruce’s arms flail, not knowing what to do, his glasses crooked on his face. Bruce is easily bigger than Tony and could easily break his hold, but he doesn’t. He just holds his hands up in surrender.

“Tony,” Bruce says gently, “I-I’m sorry.”

“You damn well should be!” Tony shouts in his face, his words slurring around the edges. “How can you stand here and talk about Barnes like he’s some goddamn case study you found in one of your medical journals? He’s our friend! He’s our captain! And you’re debating his diagnosis? Jesus Christ, Bruce!”

“Tony, let him go!”

Natasha thinks the words, but it’s Pepper who says them as she breezes through the students who’ve gathered to watch. Just when she says she’s done cleaning up after Tony and bailing him out, Pepper shows up for him like clockwork. Tony, who’s forgetful and careless and makes bad decisions like it’s his job. Natasha has never found the worth in the roller coaster carousel hybrid relationship, but she isn’t sure she’s ever looked at someone the way Pepper and Tony look at each other either.

“Tony, let him go now!”

Tony’s chest is heaving, his eyes glassy and unfocused. Pepper’s expression softens when she sees him like this and Bruce gives her a little nod, now relaxed beneath Tony’s fists clenched in his chord jacket. When Tony finally falls back and lets go, Pepper wraps her arms around Tony and Bruce places his hand on the back of Tony’s head, letting it drift down his neck and to his back. If anyone can talk down Tony Stark, it’s those two. Pepper slowly uncurls Tony’s shaking fists and he lets her.

“Alright, show’s over!” Maria shouts, resurrects her inner hall monitor who was a pain in the ass in middle school. “Move it along! Now!”

Natasha stands beside Maria and gives all of the bystanders a mean glare for good measure. They eventually move along, but not without hushed whispers turning into gossip before their very eyes.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” Bruce says again. “I really am. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Yeah, well, fact of life, Bruce, sometimes you don’t think and people get hurt.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Pepper asks with the toe of her heels tapping against the scuffed floor.

When Tony answers, his lips barely move and his voice is softer than a whisper. “If I caught the ball, Barnes wouldn’t…he wouldn’t be in the hospital right now…” There’s guilt in Tony’s watery, glazed eyes, so un-Stark. He collapses beneath it, leaning back against the lockers as he sits, sprawled out on the floor. “Bucky’s in the hospital because of me.”

Pepper falls to her knees at his side, but this time, she hesitates to touch him. “Tony, that’s not true.”

“She’s right, Tony.” Bruce moves down on the other side of him so Tony is sandwiched between the two most important people in his life. “You can’t think that way. It’ll destroy you.”

“Maybe I deserve that.”

“Tony…”

When Pepper lays her hand on his arm, Tony scrambles to his feet. He shakes his head like he means it and stalks down the hallway. Pepper follows after him and Bruce not too far behind. Natasha and Maria stare after them, stunned.

“Wow,” Maria mutters. “That was so dramatic.”

Natasha rolls her eyes, but it’s the easiest way for her to recompose herself and digest what just happened and for that she’s grateful. “Maria, you’re the worst.”

 

 

Practice that day is different from any other they’ve had before. There’s uncertainty in the air, mixing with the smell of sweat and iron. Steve walks in after checking with his mom who only told him that Bucky is napping, but sleeping easier now. It’s a small win, but a win nonetheless. Steve will take anything he can get.

All the chatter dies down when Fury walks into the room, light reflecting off his trusty whistle around his neck. Everyone stops what they’re doing and gives Fury their attention. They look to him for direction. Steve shrinks back at the idea of people looking to him for leadership, to lead by example. If he wasn’t Bucky Barnes’ best friend, Steve is sure he’d be completely invisible to all of them. 

“Just because Barnes went down doesn’t mean we stop playing,” Fury says. “We’re gonna have our hands full with Xavier this week. They aren’t a team to sleep on. The last thing you should be doing is writing them off as an easy win and going in unprepared. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir!” the team responds.

They head out onto the field and all eyes are on Steve. Not just his teammates and coaches, but all the people who turn up to watch their practices from the stands. It feels less like they’re looking for him for leadership and more like they’re waiting to see how badly he screws this up. And he screws up fantastically.

Phillips has a stopwatch on him and screams right in Steve’s ear every time he holds the ball for longer than four seconds after the snap. Every time that stopwatch hits four, Phillips stops the play and makes them do it over again and again and again and again.

Finally, Fury blows his whistle. “Rogers, get over here.” Steve runs over to Fury who’s been watching the whole time. “Xavier’s got two guys on defense—Rasputin and McCoy. Both manage to get to the quarterback in five seconds flat on multiple plays. You need to get that ball out in under four. Understand?”

“I know, coach, but I can’t—”

“You can,” Fury interrupts him. “I don’t want to hear you say you can’t do something ever again, don’t even think it. You know what you have to do, Rogers. Do it.”

And on the next snap, he does it. After the snap, Steve gets the ball out in 3.98 seconds. He throws it to Sam, but the pass is short, easy pickings for Clint who slides in front of Sam and grabs the ball for an interception. Fury massages his forehead and Steve gets another earful from Phillips.

On the next attempt, Steve barely has time to look down the field when Rumlow comes out of nowhere and slams into him for a sack. Rumlow pushes down on Steve’s chest with all his weight as he springs up to his feet and goes to celebrate with the rest of his hooting defensive linemen. Steve remains in the grass and closes his eyes, trying to catch his breath, trying to remember where he put his inhaler, trying to will himself to be better.

“Save it for the game, Rumlow,” Fury says.

“Just thought our dear captain should know what it’s like so he won’t go deer in the headlights in an actual game,” Rumlow replies. “Sir.”

“Do not lie, Brock,” Pietro says with a mischievous little smile, his silver hair swept back with sweat. “You’ve always wanted to get Captain America on his back underneath you.”

“You calling me a fag? That’s real cute coming from a little bitch.” Rumlow gets in his face, but it’s all for show. Their teammates break it up before it can escalade while Fury pinches the space between his brows in frustration.

“Let’s run it again!” Fury shouts. “We will run it again and again and again until you get it right!”

Steve drops the ball.

They run it again.

Steve gets sacked.

They run it again.

Steve breaks a tackle, but overthrows the ball down the field.

They run it again.

Steve gets the ball out in time just to throw it right to Clint. Another would-be interception. 

Again.

Drop.

Again.

Sack.

Again.

Drop.

Steve throws on time, the ball is in Sam’s hands, but then he drops it.

The whole practice plays out like this. They keep running plays late into the evening, long after the sun starts to set and the lights turn on. They practice until the boys are lagging and Sam’s mom comes down to the field to tell them that she doesn’t know about the other boys, but her boy has an exam tomorrow and she’s yanking him off the field in fifteen minutes, his chance at starting be damned. Fury, being Fury, has them run drills and just plain run for another sixteen minutes before telling them to hit the showers.

“Rogers,” Fury calls out to him while all the other boys trudge off the field. Steve tries to quiet his wheezing and uses his last bit of strength to jog over to his coach.

“Yes, sir?”

“I know you’re giving it your all, but I’m going to need you to do more. You understand, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

Fury nods and walks over to where Coach Phillips and the rest of the coaching staff are having a discussion in hushed voices. They keep stealing looks at Steve and he tells himself he’s imagining it, that they aren’t talking about him. Natasha has a habit of telling him he’s a terrible liar and she’s right, he can’t even lie to himself.

“Rogers is weak.”

Steve steps into his shower stall and closes his eyes tight. He can hear Rumlow talking, not even trying to lower his voice. He does his best to ignore it, but it isn’t like he can close his ears too.

“Rogers is a complete and total bust. You know what this means, boys. The defense is going to have to carry the team.” A few guys voice their agreement with enthusiastic grunts. “Not only do we have to drive the enemy into the ground, but we’re going to have to score. Forced fumbles, pick-six. We are going to destroy them and cash in.”

The shouts of agreement grow louder. Foot stomping and locker drumming ensues, the sounds build and build and build.

“There's no losing with STRIKE!” Rumlow shouts, feeding off of their energy, getting bolder and bolder with every word. “Only winning. And winning comes from order through pain. Who’s ready to bring the pain?”

“Shut up, Rumlow!”

“Kiss my ass, New Guy!”

“I bet you’d love that, wouldn’t you, Brock!”

“Eat me, Foreign Kid! Shit! Goddamn it!”

Steve groans, ducking his head under the showerhead, letting the water stream over his ears. It’s the closest to blocking out the locker room talk that he can get. Rumlow is an asshole, but it isn’t like he doesn’t have a basis to complain. Steve knows he sucked out there. He doesn’t have the game time experience. If he’s honest with himself, he never thought he’d get an actual chance to play. He doesn’t have the playbook memorized and sometimes when he’s out there he feels likes his brain isn’t connected to his arms and legs. Not to mention he’s really starting to learn the meaning of be careful what you wish for.

 

 

The practices don’t get any easier throughout the week, but at least Bucky’s condition starts to improve. They keep him in the hospital for more testing and Steve knows Bucky’s in extreme pain, but at least now he tries to hide it with a smile. And whenever Bucky asks Steve about practice, he tries to hide that truth with a smile too. In a matter of days, it becomes routine, almost to the point where they can ignore how horrible things actually are.

Almost.

“Hello, my darling.”

“Hey, Peg.”

Steve holds his brand new Stark phone up in front of him as he walks and nearly knocks over a medicine cart, too busy smiling at the brunette on his screen. Peggy who looks at him like no one else ever has, with confidence and faith and love. Just seeing her and her smile eases some of his anxiety and stress that’s been building and building since he became QB1. He’s also never felt further away from her.

“Now,” Peggy says, “Where’s James Grumpy Buchanan Barnes?”

Steve’s smile fades a little and even through a phone, Peggy’s expression shifts to one of concern, picking up on it instantly. “It’s a little more than that, Peggy.”

“I saw the accident made the front page of the Midgardian Post. I read about it online. They weren’t specific on his diagnosis. Is his arm broken?”

“No,” Steve replies. “They’ve been running tests all week, want to be sure before they say anything to Buck and Winnie. My mom thinks…” Steve lowers his voice. “She thinks it might be a…a spinal injury.”

“Damn does that sound serious.”

“Pray it’s not. Broken arm would heal. The spine…”

Steve can’t even bring himself to say it even though he thinks about it when he’s wide awake in bed at night. Peggy stares right at him like she sees past the smile, digging deeper, right into his soul maybe. “You sound strangely composed.”

“It’s Bucky, Peg,” Steve says. “He’ll pull through and bounce back. He has to. Right now, I need to be the strong, optimistic one. For Bucky. And the team and the whole town, I guess.”

“But who’s being strong for you, Steve?”

He almost laughs at the question. He has a ton of support. Sometimes he thinks they’re more than he deserves. His mom, the guys, Natasha…

Steve thinks of what Sam said and bites his tongue. He isn’t quite sure what he does with his face, but his expression has Peggy curious. Before she can call him out on it, Steve raps his knuckles against the open door to Bucky’s room.

“Knock, knock,” Steve says. “You have a visitor.”

Bucky gets better and better every time Steve sees him. His hair is messy, his arm and neck still in braces, but at least he’s conscious and maybe more coherent than he’s been since before the game on Friday. Steve drops his backpack at the door and sits on the edge of Bucky’s bed, holding his phone up so Peggy can see all of Bucky’s face and only half of his own.

“James Buchanan Barnes,” Peggy says very seriously, “I have one question for you…Are you behaving yourself in front of all those sweet, young nurses?”

Bucky laughs. He actually laughs. It isn’t as loud and long as his usual laugh, not even fifty-percent of a full laugh, but hearing it still sends a thrill of hope through Steve.

“You know me, Peggy.” Bucky attempts a smile. “I’m nothing, but polite when the sweet, young nurses come ‘round and ask me if I need my pillows fluffed.” Peggy scoffs at that. “And the sponge baths aren’t bad either.”

“And here I was, thinking the best thing in this place was the jello,” Steve says.

“Wow, Peg, it’s nice to know you found a leash that stretches all the way from Texas to New York,” Bucky says. “Talk about a model boyfriend. I think we need to start calling him Saint Stevie.”

Steve feels his nerves flutter and he’s glad Bucky is so focused on Peggy (and drugged up) that he doesn’t notice. He doesn’t notice the quick change of topic either, Peggy mentioning a Yankees vs. Dodgers game she’s going to with a couple of friends. Baseball has always been their spectator sport. So much relies on football, especially in this town, that watching and talking baseball is a fun escape.

Out of nowhere, the phone is ripped out of Steve’s hand and Sarah is standing at the foot of Bucky’s hospital bed with an expression that says she is not too happy about something, most likely something of his doing. “Sorry to interrupt, but I heard a certain Mr. Stark gave a certain someone a cell phone and is paying for the bill. And that someone what? Just took it and starting using it? Steven Grant Rogers, Howard Stark is not your sugar daddy!”

“Mom!”

Steve shrinks down and the tips of his ears are surely red. Bucky loves all of the above by the big smile on his face and even Peggy giggles on the phone. The sound alerts Sarah who sees the screen and smiles.

“Hey sweetheart, how’s New York?”

“Quite nice. The weather is temperamental, to be frank, but there’s so much to explore.”

Sarah sighs wistfully. “You don’t have to tell me. I lived there for twenty years and I still feel like I learn something new every time I go back. That’s good for you, hon.” Sarah flashes Peggy one more smile before flicking Steve on the arm. “And you, once my shift is over, I’m taking you to the Stark mansion and you are going to return this thing.”

“Ma, it’s not like it’s setting Mr. Stark back or anything,” Steve argues. His mother just flicks his arm again and the smack is louder this time. “Ow.”

“Steve, you have a perfectly good phone of your own.”

“Mom, my phone doesn’t even have emojis! It’s the kind of phone drug dealers and spies use.”

“I think Peggy will live just fine without you sending her a little yellow man with heart eyes.”

“Most definitely,” Peggy agrees.

“Listen to your mom, punk,” Bucky says, just to totally gang up on him.

“And it’s nice to see you sitting up and talking, Buck.” Sarah touches Bucky’s forehead lightly before going to check his vitals. “Your mom is just outside with the doctor. They’ll be in shortly, which means Steve should probably be elsewhere, doing his homework, right, Steve?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve replies. “I’ll talk to you later, Peggy.”

“Take care, sweetheart,” Sarah coos.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Rogers,” Peggy says. “And James, don’t you dare get cheeky with any of those sweet, young nurses or you’ll be answering to me.”

“We only have the best looking after Mr. Barnes,” Sarah says. “His nurse is named Glady, grandmother of seven, the best of the veteran nurses we have here.”

“Mrs. Rogers, they didn’t need to know that!”

Steve smiles as he makes his way out of the room, still holding his phone up in front of his face. He waves at Peggy and she lifts her hand in a goodbye before the call ends. Moments like that always feel so good, moments where they can ignore everything outside of how much they like spending time together. Only after the doctor and Bucky’s mom walk into the room, closing the door behind them, does Steve realize he left his backpack in there. He waits outside the room and has the worst feeling eating away at his stomach. It only gets worse when he hears Bucky shouting and his mom crying from the other side of the door.

 

 

Words.

All words.

All words Bucky doesn’t want to hear.

The doctor starts with the good news, saying the surgery was a success and it should help with the pain. Then all the words start running into each other. Words like C5 nerve root and C6 nerve root and C7 and C8. Then the words turn into things like weakness in bicep muscles and weakness in hand grip, numbness, tingling, back of the arm, middle finger. The doctor points to an x-ray of Bucky’s spine and giving a little anatomy lesson on the grounds of being thorough, but really, he’s just being annoyingly avoidant.

“How long till I can get back on the field?” Bucky asks. His doctor pauses, mouth open, eyes full of sympathy. The pain Bucky has been slowly training himself to tolerate and ignore suddenly ramps up to a dull ache. “Just tell me, doc. I can take it.”

“James, the collision resulted in severe damage to your nerve roots, resulting in loss of strength, dexterity and movement in your arm. Permanent damage, I’m afraid.”

His mom gasps and the sound is so loud in the small room. Bucky feels his eyes burn with hot tears.

“P-per-permanent?” Winnie covers her mouth as tears start to stream down her cheeks.

Bucky shakes his head hard. “No, you said the surgery was a success. You said with physical therapy—”

“Successful in that you didn't lose the arm completely and none of your other extremities are affected. Physical therapy will help reduce some of the lingering symptoms.” The doctor sighs loudly and frowns. “Son, I’ll be honest with you. Lifting a can of Coke without dropping it, brushing your teeth, drying yourself with a towel after a shower, it's all going to be difficult if not impossible for you. You’ll have to start learning to do everyday tasks with your right hand and arm. James, football is out of the question.”

“Thank you, but I want a second opinion,” Bucky says with barely contained rage. “I want to see someone in Houston or San Antonio. I want to see a real doctor.”

“Bucky…” Winnie reaches out to him, but she’s sitting on his injured side, flinches and brings her hand back to her chest.

“I want to leave!” Bucky shouts, losing control of the anger and the grief bubbling up inside of him. “I don’t want to be here anymore! I want a second opinion! Ma, call Mr. Stark. Mr. Stark, he-he knows someone. He has to…”

“Bucky…”

“I can’t lose my arm!” Chest heaving, tears streaming down his cheeks, Bucky lashes out, shoving over the flower vases and get well soon cards at his bedside. “I can’t lose football! How am I supposed to get a scholarship, huh? What college is going to want a cripple? I was going to join the Army...I was going to be somebody...”

From there, it’s all a blur of muscles screaming, vocal chords straining, eyes blurring and the future Bucky had always strived for meeting an agonizing death.

 

 

Telling the team about Bucky is one of the hardest things Fury has had to do in his life and he’s had to stand on strangers' doorsteps and tell them their children were dead. Standing in front of his players, a lot of them sitting with their pads still on, helmets in their laps, most of them just shy of eighteen, and stomping out what little faith they clung to isn’t something he’d wish on anyone.  

Once the words permanent loss of function leaves Fury’s lips, Tony stands, shoves his seat back, lets his helmet carelessly roll onto the ground and leaves the room. Happy rubs at his teary eyes, hoping to catch himself before anyone sees. Everyone is too busy drowning in their own grief to judge. Steve just stares at his grass-stained shorts like he can’t believe this is real life.

“Listen up,” Fury says after a long moment. “If any of you need to talk, you can find me in my office or you can call me on my cell phone anytime. That’s all for today, boys. Good practice. We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

Fury goes to his office and falls into his leather chair. He doesn’t expect any of his players to actually turn to him for comfort so he isn’t surprised when none of them stop by. He does get a visit from Natasha long after school’s out. He doesn’t have her schedule memorized, but he’d bet she just got out of an extracurricular activity meeting. The girl likes to keep busy. It’s how she copes.

“Did you hear?” Fury asks.

Natasha meets his eyes, nods and that’s it. "So, I got your email of house listings in D.C.?" Natasha plops down into the seat in front of his desk. "I don't need a ten bedroom house and you are not following me to Georgetown. I don’t even know if I really want to go there, let alone if I’ll get in."

“You’ll get in,” Fury assures her. “But just in case, I was about to send you listings in Manhattan if you decide Columbia is more your speed...It’s not for next year, Natasha. It’s for next month, maybe this month, in case the school board decides to fire my ass. There's no way we can stay here. I can get work in D.C. or New York easy."

"Coaching football?"

"No. Other work."

Natasha doesn't know the details of his past career choices, but she's a smart girl. Fury knows she's gathered enough to not like the idea of him going back to it. "Why are you checking real estate instead of, oh, figuring out how to make it work?"

"I thought I could make it work and maybe I can, but I ran out of time. The game is tomorrow. It isn't as easy as plugging Steve into the offense and telling him to go out there and win. He's got a decent arm, but he isn't quick enough, doesn't know what to do with it, isn't calibrate the way Barnes was." His jaw tenses at that. "Steve has the potential, we don't have the time to draw it out of him. Not to mention, the team doesn't respect him."

"Now you're making excuses."

"You weren't there last practice. Rogers was supposed to keep the ball and shoot the gap in a short yardage situation. The line created the perfect hole and what does Rogers do? Runs into Happy from behind. Then, I walk into the locker room and someone taped a piece of paper with ‘hashtag butt fumble’ over his name on his locker."

"I could have Clint find out who did it. Easy."

"That's not the point, Natasha. The boosters, the other coaches, the goddamn talk radio, they're right. I built this team around Barnes. And I don't know where to go from here."

"So you want to run away?"

"I'm just creating a contingency plan in case the townsfolk chase us out with their torches and pitchforks."

"How do you expect the team to respect and believe in him if you don't? It's a hell of an example you're setting, coach."

"Quite the attitude for someone who isn't even going to show up to see him play." Fury rubs his hand down his face, realizing his mistake. "Natasha..."

"I'm leaving. Steve wants to run plays at the pancake dinner."

"Natasha, I'm not trying to be an asshole.”

“You could have fooled me!” Subtlety flies out the window when Natasha slams the door after her. Fury sags in his chair and stares up, half-expecting a piece of the ceiling to fall right over him. Hell, that sounds less painful than everything happening right now.

 

 

“Uh…” Steve stares straight into the news crew’s camera as Christine Everhart holds a microphone up to him. “I, uh, I just want to say thank you to Pepper Pots and the student council for organizing this pancake dinner on such short notice. They’re amazing. And thanks to everyone coming out to support Bucky...”

“So, tell us, Steven,” Christine pushes, “are you and the Avengers ready for the game against Xavier?”

“Yeah, I mean, we’re getting there...you know…”

Christine is like a hawk out for blood. “Getting there? May I be candid with you, Steven? You don’t sound very confident. Are you aware that the game is tomorrow?”

“Very…” Steve coughs and feel his cheeks heating up. “I’m very aware, yes. Bucky is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, maybe one of the greatest in Lieber history, but I’m not Bucky. I’m Steve. Rogers. Steve Rogers. And I’m going to do my best to lead the team to a victory tomorrow night.”

“But, Steve, Steve Rogers,” Christine says almost teasingly (or maybe mockingly). “If Bucky Barnes is one of the greatest to ever play for Lieber High, what does that make you?”

He has no clue. And the camera’s still rolling.

“That’s a, uh, great question, ma’am. Who am I? Who am I?” Steve pauses and it’s not like anyone can answer that for him, which results in awkward silence. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out?”

“Uh-huh. Thank you for your time.” Christine turns to the camera. “That was Steven Rogers, the Avengers starting quarterback. Your Avengers will be playing the Xavier School Mutants this Friday at 7PM. Be sure to come out and support your team, Midgard.”

Steve walks away as soon as he’s allowed to, knowing he butchered that interview. He feels stupid with his stuttering and inability to string together words that make sense. At least now it’s over and he takes his ticket and exchanges it for a plate of pancakes and bottle of water. Lorraine waves him over and Steve’s steps slow in hesitation. He isn’t well versed in turning people down mostly because he’s never had to. Luckily, Sam comes up beside him with a hand on Steve’s neck, steering him past the table of rally girls.

“Yeah, you owe me. Just remember this when you’re looking down the field tomorrow night.”

Steve laughs. “As long as you can get open, it’s all yours.”

They walk out to the courtyard where the sun is low in the sky. Sam heads toward a table their friends have claimed, Maria slapping Clint across the face with a pancake, but Steve doesn’t follow. When Sam raises his eyebrows, Steve tilts his head over to the nearby playground where Natasha is sitting alone at the bottom of a twisting tube slide.

“I asked her to run through the plays with me,” Steve explains.

“Uh-huh. Breakfast.” Sam beams so brightly Steve has to give him a little shove. “I’m a fan of the long game, man. Respect.”

Steve doesn’t even entertain that with a response before trudging through the grass and over to Natasha. Her eyes are off in the distance and her expression is so pensive, he doesn’t think she notices his approach, but then again, it’s Natasha, she notices everything. Steve plops down on the bottom of the slide beside her, his hip jostling hers.

“What’s going on?” Steve doesn’t try to hide or downplay his concern and he isn’t capable of playing it cool or so he’s been told. Natasha meets his eyes, deciding. He holds her stare and when he thinks she’s right about to retreat, he turns his attention to his pancakes, cutting them up into pieces with his fork.

Steve finishes eating a whole half a pancake before Natasha finally says, “I’m playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker this year and rehearsals are on Fridays so I’m going to miss the first half of games.”

“Nat, that’s great!” Steve reaches over to hug her with so much enthusiasm his plate of pancakes nearly slips off his lap, but Natasha is quick to catch it, her eyes wide and confused. “Save two tickets for me and my mom. I’m sure she’d have no problem rearranging her work schedule to see you dance.”

“Steve!” Natasha pulls back like she can’t quite bring herself to believe him. “Did you not hear me? Rehearsals are from five to seven and I still have to drive back so I’m going to miss the whole first half, basically.”

"I heard you. You're playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker," Steve repeats and she's just so puzzled. "Clara is the center of attention, but Sugar Plum does the more difficult dancing. Believe it or not, I do listen when you talk and not just about football."

"Why aren't you upset?"

Steve hitches one shoulder up in a shrug and shoves another fourth of a pancake into his mouth. "I mean, I want you at the games, of course. If it wasn't for you we probably would have lost last game, but—"

"I didn't do a thing out on the field," Natasha says. "That was all you and the guys."

"You called the play. That was all thanks to you. If you didn’t suggest it, we probably would have went with a bootleg, I would have got sacked and we wouldn’t have that touchdown." Steve shrugs again and continues to eat his breakfast for dinner. "But like I was saying, I know what ballet means to you and you shouldn't have to give that up."

"Congratulations, Rogers, you are officially more mature than your head coach." Natasha lies back on the slide, stretching her spine and staring up the graffiti on the underside.

"Coach is going to be there, sitting front row every showing and you know it. I wouldn’t hold it against him. He's under a lot of stress right now no thanks to me..."

"Yellow 730 Go Y Out."

Steve sucks the syrup off his fork. "Uh, one step drop, pump fake toward the Out route...bounce and throw downfield.”

Natasha presses her lips together and her eyes crinkle in a smile and God help him that tiny bit of positive reinforcement feels so good. "You memorized the plays, now show me your form."

“What about the other two hundred forty-nine?”

“You can memorize words all you want, Steve. What you actually do on the field is what matters.”

Steve stares down at the last piece of pancake on his plate. "I'm eating."

Natasha sits up and steals the last piece, popping it into her mouth and licking the syrup from her fingertips. She makes an exaggeratedly pleased sound as she sucks on her thumb and if he stares a little, would you blame him?

"You look done to me. Now, let’s go." Natasha bounces up to her feet and spies on the pavilion, where Clint is whacking his drum sticks against books and binders while Sam sings something that might be Marvin Gaye or a poor attempt at least. “Clint! Throw us a football!”

Clint does as he’s told, kicking it in their direction with deadly accuracy. Natasha lifts her arms to catch it, but Steve is so much taller than her, he just reaches over and takes it. Natasha huffs out a laugh and shoves her elbow between his ribs until he drops back, proud.

“This is serious football tutoring, Rogers.”

“Okay, tell me what to do, coach.”

Natasha starts by correcting the way he holds the football and his throwing motion. She preaches the importance of taking care of the ball. It’s not that she’s less tough or intimidating than Fury or the actual coaches because she absolutely is those things and more. It’s that she shows him what she wants instead of screaming at him alone. Natasha tells him the three C’s of being a great quarterback — confidence, control, and comfort — and she says it all begins with a solid quarterback stance.

“Head up, eyes straight ahead, shoulders slightly in front of your hips…” She fixes his shoulders with an almost clinical touch. “Arms forward, right under Dum-Dum’s ass…”

“Thanks.”

“Pay attention, Rogers. Back arched, waist slightly bent...your knees should be comfortably flexed to make the exchange easy peasy. And feet shoulder width apart…” Natasha slots her foot between his, kicking at his feet so he widens his stance a bit. “Toes pointing straight ahead. Good. How does that feel?”

Steve rests his hands on his knees and blows out a breath. “More unnatural than I’m guessing it should feel? How are knees comfortably flexed? What does that mean?”

"It means, you should come with me and Maria to yoga class. It’ll help you learn your body. Not just that, it helps with things like functional strength, balance, flexibility, power, breathing, visualizations skills, focus, you know, the perfect quarterback package."

"It's a date," Steve says, walking back over to the slide and lifting his water bottle to his lips, just to choke when he realizes what he said. "Not a date-date.” Steve groans into his elbow. “Thanks for the invite. The second Sam hears about this, he'll want to come along, anything to spend time with Maria."

Natasha props her hands up on her hips and her hair lit up like it’s on fire, backlight by the gold hues of the sun before it sets. "So like a double yoga date?"

Oh God. Does she know? Did Maria tell her? Damn Sam for telling him.

"You feeling okay, Rogers? Was the box pancake mix radioactive?"

"They were delicious,” Steve says defensively. Then blows out a breath. “There's just a lot going on right now. Do you ever wish everything would just stop? Just for a minute. Just stop."

She motions for him to sit next to her on the bottom of the slide and when she lies back, Steve does the same. He rolls his eyes at the big cock Brock written on the underside of the slide above them in red permanent marker. When Natasha closes her eyes and just breathes, Steve follows her lead, closing his eyes and matching his breathing to hers.

“Natasha…”

“Yeah?”

Steve opens his eyes and notices the way she’s turned so that she’s facing him, her chin is just centimeters from touching his shoulder. Her long lashes flutter over green eyes staring right into his, so open and so pretty. All he can think is wow. Natasha has always been beautiful, but she’s more than that. Not everyone would come out just to help him run plays and seem genuinely invested in his success. She’s so low-key nice too and it bugs him that people don’t see her that way. Steve forgets what he even wanted to say to her so he just blurts out the first thing that comes to him.

“Uh, instead of the bonfire tonight, I’m going to see Bucky. Visiting hours are over around six, but I’ve got connections.” He flashes her a smile. “Wanna come along?” And suddenly, Natasha’s sitting up and all that openness evaporates. She might as well have slammed a door in his face. “It’s cool if you don’t want to. I just thought I’d ask...”

“I should probably go back inside,” Natasha says, keeping her back to him. “Student council is supposed to be hosting this thing and here I am. Pepper’s probably beyond stressed. I should go in and help.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Natasha stands and takes a few steps away, but then she looks back at him from over her shoulder. “Pro left X Y Eagle.”

Steve sits up on his elbows and bites the tip of his tongue as he thinks. “Uh, five-step drop, x-receiver runs five yards out and the fullback releases under the outside linebacker.”

Natasha nods and there’s that smile again, the smile that makes him feel damn good about getting something right. “At least you have two out of the, oh, two-hundred and fifty variations.”

“Thanks for your help, Nat.”

“Anytime, partner.”

He stares after her, mostly wondering what it’d take for her to open up to him without running away right after, and if his eyes slides down to her ass, yes, he feels bad, but, well, sue him. Steve falls back and covers his face with his forearm. And a second later, he hears an, “Aw, Sharpie,” as someone tumbles down the slide and knocks into Steve. He opens his eyes and sees Clint's spiky blond head pressed against his.

“Hey, Cap.”

“Hey, Clint,” Steve says. Neither of them move, they just stay like that, head to head. “Did you…?”

“See you and Tash gazing into each other’s eyes? No. Hey, why does Sam call it breakfast?” Clint asks in return, and Steve just covers his face with his arm again. Sam and Clint really have been hanging out it seems. “I take it he doesn’t know about Peggy and you haven’t said anything about your girlfriend because?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? Steve’s been waiting for someone to ask. Never in a million years did he expect it to be Clint.

“Peggy and I broke up over the summer.” It’s the first time Steve’s said it out loud to anyone. Clint doesn’t push or ask questions and Steve is glad because he isn’t quite sure he’s ready to talk about it, especially not with everything else going on. “Bucky’s in the hospital. I’m in over my head trying to lead this team. Peggy’s in New York. And Natasha's...just being nice.”

Clint snorts at that. "She isn't that nice to just anyone." 

“Still...Does she talk to you about why she won’t visit Bucky?”

“Even if she did, you know there’s no way I’d tell you and live,” Clint replies. “Just like how you know I’m not gonna tell anyone about you and Peg.” Clint reaches over and pats the top of Steve's head like he's seen him do to his dog. “By the way, no matter what happens tomorrow, I’m behind you a hundred percent on the field. And off it, maybe.”

“Thanks, Clint.”

When Steve moves his arm, he sees the graffiti now reads micro cock Brock in purple and Clint might or might not have purple permanent marker all over the front of his shirt. As Steve laughs despite himself, he realizes Clint Barton isn’t a bad guy to have on your side.

 

 

Steve hasn’t been back to see Bucky since the day they found out about his arm. He wanted to visit, but his mom insisted he and everyone give Bucky space. Steve tries to focus on football, but it only makes him more anxious. He just wants to hang with his best friend and forget about everything for a little bit. Just as Steve approaches Bucky’s room, Rumlow walks out. All of the warning lights and sirens go off in Steve’s head and that cocky son of a bitch has the audacity to smirk, not just his usual I’m better than you smirk, but something else, like he knows a secret.

“What are you doing here, Rumlow?”

“What? I’m not allowed to pay our real captain a visit?”

“Without an ulterior motive? No.”

“You’re paranoid, Rogers.” Rumlow laughs, so amused and full of himself. “And, ay, don’t stress about tomorrow night, alright? All you have to do is hand off the ball and not turn it over. Leave it in the hands of the run and the defense, alright? We’re more than happy to carry your dead weight to the championship.”

Rumlow is sure to shoulder into Steve as he walks to the elevator with a laugh. Steve glares at his retreating back before walking into Bucky’s room.

“Hey Buck, I brought you some pancakes.” Steve sets the container on the little table and frowns at all the flowers and cards that once decorated the room overflowing in the trash. “What was Rumlow doing here? What did he say? Did he give you any trouble?”

All the words tumble out of his mouth before Steve actually sees Bucky and the way he’s staring hard at the wall, not affected by Steve’s presence whatsoever. Only when Steve settles into his usual chair does his brows furrow in concern. “Bucky?”

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Bucky asks through gritting teeth. The effort and energy that goes into keeping his voice steady is as obvious as his terrible mood. Grief and trauma does that to a person. Even James Buchanan Barnes isn’t immune.

“Buck, what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Bucky repeats, his control slipping a little more with each syllable. “Are you fucking kidding me, Steve? Did you not hear? I’ll be lucky if I ever lift my useless fucking arm over my head ever again! What’s wrong? Everything is wrong!”

“What happened to getting a second opinion?” Steve fires back, his voice getting louder and louder with desperation.

Bucky’s jaw tightens and he shakes his head just to wince. “I feel it, Steve. My arm’s different and it’s never going to be the same again. It’s fucking useless. I don’t need another lab coat telling me, looking at me like he pities the gimp.”

“You have to have faith, Buck.”

“Faith in what, Steve? God?” Now Bucky’s shouting and it won’t be surprising if a nurse, maybe Sarah, shows up soon. “If the bastard’s going to give me all that talent and people telling me how bright my future is going to be just to take it away like that then I don’t want anything from ‘im ever again.”

“Bucky…”

“Don’t you have somewhere better to be?” Bucky shouts till his voice goes hoarse. “Take your damn pancakes and get away from me. I want to be alone.”

“You want me to leave you alone so you can sit here feeling sorry for yourself?”

“Exactly."

“No,” Steve says, planting both feet firmly on the floor. “Where would I be if you left me alone to sulk in my room every time I felt bad about myself, being skinny and sick and useless?”

“It’s not the same thing, Steve. Don’t compare that to this.”

“You were there for me then and I’m going to be here for you now.”

“Not if I can help it.” With his good hand, Bucky hits a button and a man in scrubs enters the room shortly. “Visiting hours are over. I want this guy gone.”

“Bucky, seriously?” Steve asks as the man starts to usher him out the door. “You called security on me? Bucky!”

But Bucky keeps staring at the same wall like he doesn’t even hear him and Steve shoulders the nurse away even though he knows he can’t blame the guy for doing his job. He feels like he wants to cry and he knows Bucky has it worse so he shouldn’t be complaining, but that doesn’t stop the emotion bubbling inside him.

“Rogers.”

God. Not now. Of everyone, why him?

“Yes, coach?” Steve wipes at his eyes before turning to face Fury, who is dressed in all black and as impassive as always. His chest heaves with repressed sobs, but somehow he manages to hold his head high and meet Fury’s eye.

“There’s something I want to show you.”

Steve takes another deep breath and follows Fury out of the hospital and straight to his SUV. They don’t talk on the drive, just listen to the football talk on the radio, locals who continue to call him Stephan Roberts. Right now, they’re listing all the ways he’s destined to fail. Steve doesn’t want to listen, wants to shut it off, but it isn’t his car and he doesn’t want to be rude.

Fury takes him straight to the football field. He knows some of the guys sneak out here and drink and try to persuade girls to let them feel them up in the end zone at night, but Steve has never been. It's so empty and enormous, quiet and lonely. He doesn’t know what they’re doing here, but he always has faith that Fury has something up his sleeve. Fury tosses him a football that rolls off his fingers and right into Steve’s hands.

“I’ll deny it if you repeat this, but when I was an Avenger, my first year as a starter, I threw up before every damn game,” Fury says. “Every single game, my face was in the damn toilet. No matter what my body was saying, what my head was telling me, I went out and I preformed. Once I stepped onto this field, nothing else mattered. So I know the pressure you’re under. I know the talk you’re hearing. I heard the same talk and I’m still hearing it. In less than twenty-four hours, you’re going to have hundreds of those voices yelling at you all at once."

And suddenly, crowd noise starts to play over the field’s speakers. When he raises his hand over his eyes, Steve sees Natasha’s silhouette in the lit press box.

“And your team is going to need to be able to hear you!” Fury shouts right in Steve’s ear. “Out of those hundreds of voices, your team will need to hear yours! Let’s hear it, Rogers!”

“Yes, sir!” Steve shouts till his lungs burn.

“Whose team is this?”

“My team, sir!”

“What’s your name?”

“Steven Grant Rogers, sir! QB1 of the Avengers! The best team in Texas, sir!”

“We’ll see about that.” Fury laughs and his entire face loosens. “How much do you want this, captain?”

“I want this!” Steve grips the ball and falls into the form Natasha corrected for him, moving his feet as if he were moving in the pocket. “More than anything, sir!”

“Good! Then get it done!”

Steve lets the ball go and watches it sail down the field and well past the goalpost. Fury motions up to Natasha to cut the crowd sounds.

“Now go get my damn ball back,” Fury says.

“Huh?”

“That’s my favorite goddamn football, Rogers. I want it back. Go! Run!”

Steve can't help the exasperated sound that leaves his lips and he swears he knows Fury is smiling on the inside. His lungs already feel overworked, but as he runs down the stretch of green, watching the markers as he passes them, this is the best he’s felt all week.

 

 

“I’m heading to rehearsal now." 

Natasha stands in the doorway of Fury's office with her red hair up in a neat bun, wearing her Avengers jersey over her leotard and tights. He feels downright giddy, pushing papers aside until he finds a sandwich wrapped in plastic and holds it out to her.

“Let me guess…” Natasha takes the sandwich. “Peanut butter and banana?”

“High-glycemic carbohydrates,” Fury says. “Post-workout the uptake should pan out, replenish your energy. Drive safe and do what you do, kid, knock ‘em dead.”

Natasha nods and Fury knows that’s her way of saying thank you. He’s happy she’s even here. He knows her assist last night was more for Steve and she could have gone back to ignoring him after so this is a nice surprise. “I’d say good luck, but you don’t need it. Good play calling, good execution, on the other hand…I wish I could be there.”

Fury waves off the tiny bit of regret that takes the form of lines in her forehead. “Go. You’ve got your own game to win. I’ll see you after.”

“And we can go over game footage together tomorrow.”

Fury nods and smiles, which feels foreign on his face, but he wants to show her he’s trying. She smiles back before pivoting gracefully and leaving the office. His smile fades once she’s gone. He knows it’s selfish to wish she’d drop this Nutcracker gig and be there at the games, another pair of eyes he trusts to know what to look for and know how to fix it, but that’s what he wants damn it.

He remembers when Natasha was a little girl, quiet and so detached. He didn’t know how to talk to her, how to relate. Ivan showed no interest in trying. Then Fury took her to her first game. The New York Giants were in town to play Washington back when he worked in D.C. and Ivan was still Natasha’s legal guardian. She was young, but she picked up on the beauty of the game, beauty entwined with violence. He remembers the way she tugged on his sleeve and said she wanted to know more about football and so he taught her everything he knew and that’s how they found a way to relate to each other, how they still do. Is it wrong for him to want to hold on to that as long as possible?

Fury texts Natasha to remember to hydrate throughout her rehearsal and when she replies with an emoticon he thinks is mocking him, Fury pushes his phone away and goes into game mode.

The Xavier kids are a bit of a mismatch hodgepodge that shouldn’t work, but they do. Their bus looks like a million bucks and so does their uniforms. That Angel Wings Kid isn’t wearing a shirt, likes to show off his angel wings back tattoo apparently and Fury shakes his head. If one of his players tried to pull that shit…

He actually smiles when he shakes hands with Scott Summers, the Xavier’s head coach who was their star quarterback a few years back. He’s young and gutsy, which means his team is young and gutsy, and the Avengers need to be ready. McCoy and Rasputin are even bigger in person, so much bigger than the team as a whole. Only Dugan can maybe match them in size.

After all the formalities and showing the Mutants to the visitors' side, Fury walks into his locker room and already he doesn’t like how quiet it is, the lack of confidence all around. Steve is hunched forward, his knees thumping anxiously, eyes closed, mumbling under his breath, praying. He really is a good kid. Shame this town is going to eat him alive if he can’t deliver.

“Everyone’s accounted for, ‘cept Stark,” one of the assistant coaches informs him. And so the headache begins…

“Listen up, gentlemen!” Fury makes his presence known and all eyes are on him. “Now I know we’ve suffered a big loss. Some of you may be nervous, some of you might be uncertain about the rest of the season, some of you might be downright pissed off. Whatever you’re feeling, use it tonight, channel that energy. You want to scream, you want to hurt someone, you want to feel something, do it out on that field. Remember, this isn’t just about one player, it’s about all of us and it’s going to take all of us to bring this one home. You with me?”

“Yes, sir!” They shout in unison.

“Wilson!” Fury shouts, and Sam shoots up from his seat on the edge of the bench. “You’re starting for Stark. You with me?”

“Yes, sir!” Sam’s voice cracks. Then quieter, “Damn, I shoulda went easier on those brownies that rally girl put in my locker…”

Fury chooses to ignore that and meets Steve’s eyes from across the room. He gives him a nod and Steve nods back before pulling his helmet on over his head. Steve isn’t much of a hype man, but he tries damn hard and at least the Howling Commandos, Sam and Clint respect that, go along with it, and soon the entire team is following Steve out to the field. God help them.

And the headache only gets worse.

If the game against Shield was ugly, this game against the Mutants is downright hideous.

That Bobby Drake is young, but he was clearly brought up as a quarterback. He shouts at linemen three times his size, telling them where to go and what to do. He isn’t afraid of the pass rush. He isn’t afraid of Rumlow, who looks like he’s literally trying to hunt him. He isn’t afraid to run with the ball or take hits. Fury hates the kid, but respects him. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise. After all, Logan was his pee wee coach.

Steve does as he learned. His form is pretty damn good and he throws short passes to Sam with focus and confidence. Fury can hear Steve calling out plays and directing from the line and he almost smiles. Almost. The offensive line does the best they can, but those defensive linebackers have Pietro on the ground just as he crosses the line of scrimmage every time they choose to run the ball. The Avengers have to fight for every yard, every inch, and only manage a field goal attempt that Clint goes out and bangs through the posts to get them on the board.

Avengers 3 Mutants 0

Angel Wings Kid is a show off, but his athleticism lives up to the rumors. The kid flies down the field and leaps into the air, catching balls over Clint. On one particularly beautiful play, Angel Wings Kid loses Clint, snatches the ball out of the air with one hand and accelerates past Rhodey. He runs in a touchdown to the delight of the Mutants' family, friends and fans in gold and blue in the stands and gets Xavier on the board in a big way. 

Avengers 3 Mutants 7

 Steve, he’s trying. He memorized all the play calls and the moves to match, but he still hesitates and it’s costing them yards and costing them downs, which is costing them points. By the end of the half, it’s up to Clint who kicks them to another three points.

Avengers 6 Mutants 7

 

HALFTIME

Fury walks off the field, calm and collected despite being down four points. Then he sees Tony in the locker room doorway, dressed for the game with his helmet tucked under his arm. Despite the gossip and the rumors and legends, Fury has never hit a kid. But goddamn does Tony Stark test his restraint.

“Nice of you to show up, Stark,” Fury says. “Did your mani-pedi run long?”

“I thought it was about time I swoop in and save the day,” Tony replies.

“Don’t push your luck, boy.” Fury steps in close, taking in Tony’s glassy eyes and the smell of liquor on his breath. “You aren’t playing tonight. You can sit your ass on the bench and support your team or you can take your ass home, you aren’t stepping foot on that field.”

“Come on, coach,” Tony close to whines. “It’s a big game. Put me in, I’ll put us up two scores easy, make Captain America look good, and if you still want to take me out then take me out. Either you put me in yourself or the Powers That Be can force you to put me in. It’s up to you, coach.”

“Bench or home,” Fury says with a growl. He turns sharply and sets his sights on Steve who’s having one of the trainers clean up a bloody scrape on his elbow. “Rogers!” The kid freezes like a deer in headlights and at least he’s yet to do that on the field. That’s one plus. Fury takes a breath to calm himself and goes to sit next to Steve. “What do you see out there?”

“You weren’t kidding about their pass rush…” Steve takes a noisy breath. “Those guys are fast, coming at me from both sides…” He wheezes. “Rasputin and McCoy, they’re tall and can jump…batting the ball down…I-I can’t risk throwing it over them.”

Fury takes that in and gives Steve a pat on the back that’s almost gentle. “Take a hit from your inhaler, two if you need it. We’re gonna go out there and you’re gonna run the damn ball right down their throats.”

“Yes, sir.” Steve scrambles for his inhaler and there’s a little star with four rings around it drawn on the plastic actuator. Fury swears he’s seen that symbol before, but doesn’t have time to dwell.

“We have a whole other half to play, boys,” Fury says, addressing the entire team. “We can either keep playing how we’ve been playing or we can go out there and start the second half with a punch in the teeth.”

The Avengers have the ball to start the second half of the game. Moments after Steve gets his hands on the ball, he finds out why they call the big guy inside Colossus. He’s larger than life and when he bulldozes through you it’s like being hit by an armored car. It makes getting sacked by Rumlow in practice look like being knocked down by Clint’s overexcited labrador in comparison. They’re supposed to be dealing punches, not getting knocked out by them.

On third down, the Avengers run this beautiful play where Steve hands the ball off to Morita who fake-hands it off to Pietro and when the defense swarms him, they realize he doesn’t have the ball. Steve kept the ball! Steve runs! He’s pulled down after a gain of fifteen yards and earns a new set of downs.

“Let’s get one thing straight. Steve Rogers is no Bucky Barnes, but you have to give the kid credit, coming out here in this situation and making things happen.”

“He’s got heart. I’ll give him that.”

On the next play, Steve throws an absolute bullet down the field. Sam goes up to catch it and the ball slips through his fingers. Incomplete.

“Coach, when are you going to play Iron Man?” someone shouts from the stands.

“Yeah, coach! Put in Stark!”

The crowd starts chanting Tony’s name and god if the kid isn’t eating up every second of it from the end of the bench. At one point, he even waves to the home crowd and the cheering intensifies. Fury knows he’s going to get an earful from Sitwell and his own coaching staff is going to trade words behind his back, but there’s no way he’s letting that goddamn brat play, especially with alcohol on his breath. He already lost Barnes. He isn’t going to walk into another on-field disaster.

The Avengers drive down the field into the Mutants’ territory, but settle for yet another field goal. At this rate, Clint is going to be the most popular kid at school on Monday, that is, if they win, which doesn’t feel entirely out of reach when the Avengers defense knuckles down. Clint has Angel Wings Kid figured out, denies him every time Drake throws his way. Rumlow and the linebackers shut down the run game and get a few good hits on Drake. It’s a miracle the Mutants squeeze out a field goal in the third.

Avengers 9 Mutants 10

The defense does its job and holds the Mutants scoreless for all of the fourth quarter. The ball’s in Steve’s hands with seconds left on the clock. They go no huddle and he calls out the plays at the line. Ball in hand, Steve sees Colossus running at him full throttle just like Rumlow had the other day in practice. Steve spins away at the last second, breaks the tackle, but just as he goes to throw, Beast comes crashing into him. The ball flies out of his hands and right to Colossus.

When Happy reacts and tackles Rasputin to stop him from scoring, Tony jumps up off the bench, eyes wide, letting his helmet tumble out of his lap and onto the ground. Both Happy and Colossus get up easily, with the ball in the giant of a boy’s steel-like grip and no time left on the clock.

And that’s how the game ends. The Xavier School Mutants win.

Steve drops to his knees as the Mutants run up and down the field, celebrating their perfect record. The home team crowd is quiet, shocked. They aren’t used to their Avengers losing so early in the season against a team that should be a sure thing. They aren’t used to losing at all.

Steve remains on his knees in the same spot long after helmets have been removed and the stands start to clear out. He remains on his knees, thinking about everything he could have done differently, better. He remains on his knees so long that Fury gets tired of looking at him like that and orders Dugan and Morita to go help him up and to the locker room.

And that’s how the game ends.

It ends in heartbreak.

 

 

“Again.”

Kneeling on the hardwood floor, Natasha looks up at Madame B who just stands over her, arms crossed, lips pressed into an unamused line. Natasha’s exhausted. Her body aches, she’s covered in sweat and not to mention she’s so damn frustrated. It’s late. No one else is left in the studio. She’d be surprised if people are still on the football field.

“Do it again.”

“I'm done.” Natasha presses her fists into the floor and stands up, marching across the room to where she left her bag. “It’s ridiculous I’m still here.”

“No, you are ridiculous. Rushing through the movement, distracted, sloppy. Then, you start messing up on purpose, thinking what? I will break first and send you away? That I will give in? I can watch your mediocre work all night if I have to because I know you can be better, you can be perfect, but you let inferior interests hold you back.”

“Football’s holding me back, really?”

“You need to let it go in order to be great.”

“Not tonight.” Natasha slings the strap of her gym bag over her shoulder, stomping to the door. “I’m done.”

“Do you know how many girls in this studio alone would kill for your talent and the guidance and attention I am willing to give you? You want to throw it all away? Why? For what?”

Natasha doesn’t reply. She doesn’t know. All she knows is it doesn’t have to be like this and she doesn’t want it to be like this.

“Think about it,” Madame B orders. “If anyone else pulled this ‘I’m done’ shit I’d say, go. I have a dozen girls who’d gladly step into your position. Yelena, maybe. But you, I will give you time to think. That is how much I believe in you if you would just give up your obsession with that stupid game. I expect to see you on Sunday and you better be early.”

Natasha doesn’t say anything as she pushes her way out of the studio. After unlocking her car and tossing the bag into the passenger seat, Natasha checks her phone and she feels even worse.

They lost.

They lost by the skin of their teeth, a measly point, but she also knows this means they didn’t score a touchdown and she knows the quarterback and the head coach are going to take the brunt of the blame. It’s Fury’s first loss as a head coach, Steve’s first loss as starting quarterback and Bucky’s first loss where the game was entirely out of his control.

Natasha pulls up her text messages and they’re all from Clint.

you seen my

nvm found it

pity party at rhodey’s stop by

If she knows him like she thinks she does, Fury is probably somewhere decompressing and compartmentalizing. He’ll spend the night angry, then game plan for the next battle in the morning. Natasha shoots him a quick text that she just got out of rehearsal and his reply is instant. Drive safe and don’t wait up for me.

Natasha tosses her phone onto her bag and reaches for the peanut butter and banana sandwich, taking a big bite. It’s stupid to feel guilty. It’s not like she could’ve gone onto the field, taken over the game and won it for them. The tactician in her itches to get her hands on game footage to see what plays they called and how they executed and how they can correct these issues for future games. But is this something worth giving up ballet, her art, her legacy, her escape?

Natasha finishes her sandwich and grabs her phone, sending Fury another text. Change of plans. Heading to the hospital to see Barnes. Even before Fury sends her an ok, Natasha starts her car and turns it to the football talk radio station. She already expects shit talk about whether or not Fury is qualified for the job and shit talk about whether or not Steve has any business being on the team, let alone quarterback, but she’s willing to sit through it to hear a recap of the game.

She also figures it’s about time she try with Bucky. Hesitation and avoidance be damned. It isn’t hard to imagine his frustration right now, how it mirrors hers, but amplified. If she’s being honest with herself, she doesn’t want to be alone right now and even if Bucky is asleep, the hospital is probably her best chance to find Steve. A nurse nearly turns her away, saying visiting hours are long over, but Sarah is on duty, loops an arm around Natasha’s shoulders and shows her the way.

“Where’s Steve?” Natasha asks, searching the eerily quiet hallway, doing her damnedest to ignore the way the florescent lighting and the sterile smell makes her skin crawl. It all makes her want to run. She probably would if Sarah wasn’t there, keeping her grounded.

“Not sure. I tried calling him when I was on break, but no answer. We all watched the game from here and Steve was just crushed. He probably needs some time alone...” They stop right outside of Bucky’s open door, low lighting inside. “Take all the time you need.”

“Sarah,” Natasha whispers, not wanting her to leave. “What do I say to him? I don’t…comfort.”

Sarah takes both of Natasha’s hands, squeezing lovingly. “Being there for someone, it’s more about faith than it is about knowing what to say or saying anything at all. Being there means you care and sometimes that’s all someone needs.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. Christ, she might as well have been talking in a Yoda voice. Sarah just pulls her into a hug, rubbing her hands up and down Natasha’s tense back. She always waits for it to feel weird and it never does. She wishes she could tell Sarah Rogers how much she appreciates her, but the words don’t form and Natasha has to settle for hugging her in return. Once Sarah gets back to work, Natasha hesitates again. Then she thinks of Pepper and Bruce rushing to Tony’s side and chasing after him, so natural, so easy. All that comes easy to her is running.

It could be easy. She’s steps away right now. After another minute of stalling, Natasha does it. She takes those short yet torturous steps into Bucky’s room. There’s a radio on his bedside table, but it’s off. He’s awake, staring blankly at the blank wall. Natasha could be silent if she wanted to, but makes it a point to make a little noise as she enters. Bucky still refuses to look her way.

“Hey, Barnes…”

He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t react. But it doesn’t stop her from grasping every ounce of courage she has, inching closer and trying to smile. She sees the football everyone signed for him on the ground beside his bed. Natasha picks it up and holds it between her small hands as she drops down into the chair that’s surely become a second home to Steve and the Barnes women.

“Tell me what you need,” Natasha says. She stares at his hand, trying to predict how he’d react if she tried to hold it. In all the years they’ve known each other, she’s never seen Bucky like this. His reactions are harder to anticipate and Natasha doesn’t like it when she isn’t fully prepared.

It takes a long time for him to acknowledge her, let alone respond. It takes so long that she almost doesn’t think he will. Then his dry, cracked lips part and he whispers, “Leave.”

Her heart aches in her throat and suddenly it’s so hard to breathe. None of this shows on her face, of course, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. “James, I know things are…things are rough right now, but—”

“I said, leave!” Bucky shouts. In the brief moment where their eyes met, Natasha sees an ocean of embarrassment and shame. Misplaced, she’s sure, but it isn’t like saying it would make him believe it, not when he’s like this. “Get out! I don’t want you here! Get out! Go!”

Bucky swallows hard and his eyes go right back to the same spot on the hospital wall. As the silence creeps back in and the darkness along with it, Natasha sits, frozen in her chair, hands tight around the football in her lap. Not knowing what else to do, Natasha stands, places the football next to Bucky on the bed and heads to the door. He wants her gone and he’s already in so much pain. That’s all she’s heard about all week, that’s the fact she’s been avoiding. Why put him in any more?

She can’t be sure since she doesn’t look back, but the room is so quiet it’s easy to hear Bucky grunt, swat the football away and let it hit the floor.

Chapter Text


Track 05  

Drive - Oh Wonder 

Track 06  

Take Care - Beach House 


Loser.

That’s what some dick graffitied on Steve’s football sign. On top of that, they trampled over Sarah’s flowers. Her car isn’t in the driveway. Did she see this on her way to work? The paint is dry so it must have happened a while ago. She must have seen. Newly out of the hospital (some would say prematurely) after an anti-inflammatory shot (in the butt) and pain killers snug in his pocket, Bucky feels anger swell in his chest. Anger that’s become his one and only constant confidant. That same anger is why he pushed Steve and Natasha and everyone away.

Mentally scolding himself, Bucky focuses on the task at hand. That’s always been something he’s good at. Find a mission. Complete it. Right now his mission is to scrub that stupid word off Steve’s sign. Bucky’s down on his knees in the grass with a wet rag, rubbing and rubbing at the sign again and again. The pain is killing him and his mom and the doctors and Mrs. Rogers would scold him if they saw him right now, but he pushes through. Under his breath, Bucky promises that once he gets his hands on whoever—

His shoulders drop and his one good arm goes limp. His one good hand clenches around the rag before he lets it go and reaches into his pocket for a bottle of prescription pills. He pops one into his mouth and eyes the water hose, but dry swallows it before he can find the strength to stand up. He gets back to work scrubbing, gritting his teeth through the pain, when a familiar Corvette pull into the driveway. Natasha walks around town like that car is God’s gift to motorheads and the locals drool over it, but Bucky has always had more of a thing for trucks. He thinks of his truck that still needs a new paint job. He thinks of his truck that he’ll never drive again. Without two functioning arms, how is he supposed to drive stick?

“Hey Barnes,” Clint says from behind him. “A for effort, bud, but, uh, you can stop. Should you even be doin’ that or, uh, be outta bed at all right now?”

Probably not. His mom wouldn’t have let him leave the house had she been home. He closes his eyes, knowing they can see him in this stupid brace that makes him feel like a freak. Once the moment passes, Bucky squints from over his shoulder and sees Clint holding a new sign that’s much larger and sturdier, painted red, white and blue. Steve Rogers Quarterback in big, bold letters. Then because he’s Clint, he starts to spin the sign like a minimum wage employee on a street corner.

“Be careful with that.” Natasha walks up beside Clint and shoves him. He bobbles the sign, but doesn’t drop it. The guy’s always going on and on about how he could drop out of school and make a decent living in the circus. Maybe he’s right. “Steve’s rally girl worked so hard on it.”

Clint chuckles. “She knew she’d get an earful from you if it was anything short of perfect.”

Natasha gives him another shove and when she doesn’t say anything, Clint takes it as a win. He’s also sure to move out of her reach, walking toward Bucky with the new sign.

“Clint, set up the new sign,” Natasha directs him, walking up the path to the front door. “I’ll get Steve. If we aren’t out of here in fifteen, we’re all getting an earful from your coach.”

“Hey Natasha,” Bucky manages to mutter as she’s halfway up the porch.

“Bucky,” she says as she walks into the house. His hand tightens as the screen door flaps after her. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. He was angry and in pain and embarrassed that night. There’s no excuse for hurting the people he cares about, who care about him, but…it happened. Reappearing on Steve’s doorstep without a word, an apology in his eyes, might have been enough to win him over, but Natasha…

“I fucked that up, didn’t I?” Bucky exhales.

Clint literally karate kicks Steve’s old sign. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and even if I did, I’m not talking.”

Bucky falls back onto his butt as gingerly as he can and watches as Clint kicks the old sign aside and thrusts the new one in its place. “Did she tell you I went by her house to apologize? I threw rocks at her window, Clint. And she flipped me off through the window so I left.”

Clint snorts at that, failing to hold back his amusement. “Mornings aren’t exactly her thing. You should know that by now.” Clint pulls out a hammer from the tool belt Bucky just notices and starts hammering the sign into the ground. It’s a fancy hammer he’s sure he’s seen before…

“Is that Thor’s hammer?”

Clint mimes zipping his lips that curve in a smile. Seems Rivalry Week started early this year.

“You realize who you’re talking to, right?” Clint asks, resting the hammer on his shoulder. “Bobbi wrote some nasty, totally untrue or, well, half-true shit about me in the girls’ bathroom and if I ever see Jessica again she’s gonna kick my ass and I should probably let her ‘cause I deserve it.”

“Jessica J?”

“Jessica D.”

“Ah.”

Clint’s pocket buzzes and he checks the cracked screen of his phone encased in purple. Whatever he sees makes a rich laugh slip from his lips. “Aw, Darcy.”

Bucky’s eyebrows fly up. “You’re cheating on Darcy Lewis too?”

“No.” Clint sends him this hard, protective glare that makes him look much older than he is. That’s the thing with Clint. He can’t maintain a functional romantic relationship to save his life, but he’s a good friend, loyal and protective and unafraid to show it. “What do you want from me, Barnes?”

“You’re her best friend. Tell me how to fix it.”

“It’s Nat, alright, which means there’s no step-by-step wikiHow or girly mag to tell you how to ‘fix’ it. You just gotta man up and earn it. She acknowledged you, which is a start.”

“She called me Bucky.”

“Well, she could’a called you a lot worse and you’d deserve it.”

Bucky doesn’t know if Clint is oblivious or just playing like he is. It’s hard to tell sometimes. That’s one of the things their star cornerback and his best friend have in common. Clint doesn’t offer any more, just stands back to admire his handiwork, tossing the hammer into the air so it flips and catching it again. Steve’s sign is just as large as all of the other starters now, the same size as the sign that used to be in his front lawn. The first thing he did when he got home from the hospital was pour lighter fluid on his sign and watch it burn. Dramatic, sure, but he’ll never forget how it made him feel. He vaguely remembers his mom screaming at him and crying, but all Bucky could think about was the heat of the fire against his face and how nice it was to feel something other than pain.

 

 

Natasha doesn’t know what to think or do about Bucky, who threw rocks at her window like something out of a goddamn rom-com his mom and his sister probably made him sit through. So maybe she flipped him off through the window (it was five in the morning, sue her), but reconsidered seconds later. By the time she crept downstairs, praying Fury wasn’t up yet or at least not looking out windows, Bucky was nowhere to be seen.

He’s angry and rightfully angry, but she’s not going to put herself in a situation to be his punching bag. His mom might and Steve will, but not her. Natasha knows what it’s like to be forced to sit there and take it as men take out their stress and insecurity on her. She isn’t doing that again, not for Bucky, not for anyone. Never again.

“Steve!” Natasha bounces down the hallway of the meticulously clean Rogers house and can’t help, but smile at the baby photos framed on the walls. The one of Sarah holding a tiny infant Steve might be her favorite, but she will never stop teasing him about the one of naked toddler Steve laying on his front with his bare butt in the air. “Steve, are you coming?”

Natasha pushes on his bedroom door that’s partially open, which is practically an invitation. She’s been yelling his name and making noise since she walked into the house as to not alarm him, but there he is, shirtless, sleeping on his front with his ass in the air. The first thing Natasha notices are the nasty bruises from the last game. Battle scars as Fury calls them. Freckled skin stretches over ridiculously defined muscles, sloping down toward his tapered waist. The bedsheets are barely draped over the curve of his ass. His powerful, bruised legs are bare too. Natasha allows herself a second to just look and then another…and another…

“Natasha…”

He mumbles her name into his pillow and it startles her out of that particular train of thought. She turns away and stares at the blue walls covered in drawings he’s done himself and vintage Brooklyn Dodgers posters. Did he catch her staring? Ogling? The idea alone has her face feeling hot, which is stupid because Natasha Romanoff doesn’t blush and it’s just Steve.

“We should, you know, go,” Natasha says, keeping her back to him and crossing her arms tight over her chest. When she’s answered with silence, Natasha takes another peak and Steve is in the exact same position, eyes closed, mouth open. Is he really still asleep? Then why did he say her—

“Steve!”

He jolts awake and the muscles of his back ripple. She looks him over again, but it’s different this time, purposeful. The kind of look that lets you know she’s the one in control. She tries not to use it on people she actually likes, especially not Steve who's still sleep disoriented, but it’s the only way to orient herself after feeling vulnerable. She knows she shouldn’t default to that, especially when there are at least three framed photos of Peggy around the room and even more sketches and drawings of her tucked away in his sketchbooks. Not that Peggy has ever faulted anyone for looking before, but still… Steve suddenly looks so alarmed as he quickly yanks the bedsheets more securely around his waist.

“Natasha!” he gasps.

“Good morning to you too.”

He's so flustered and finally awake, but maybe still a little disoriented. Seeing him so disarmed, Natasha lets herself relax and flashes a smile. Easy. How their relationship is and should be. Natasha takes mercy on him and averts her eyes, dropping down into the squeaky chair at his desk that’s covered in books, loose pieces of paper and art supplies. She runs her fingers along the edge of the table, dark oak stained with smudges of colorful acrylic paint.

“Get dressed, Rogers. Film session, remember?”

“Uh, yeah, right. Film…”

Even with her attention elsewhere, Natasha can feel Steve’s eyes locked on her like he’s afraid she’ll look back when his guard is down. Look back and see what? Nothing she won’t appreciate. In her peripheral, she notices the way he sits up and brings his knees up to his chest. So damn shy. So Steve. Even with her attention elsewhere, she doesn’t miss the way he blushes, which isn’t new, but the way it spreads down his chest is, well, at least to her. Huh. You learn something new every day.

“Bucky’s outside with Clint…” Natasha twists from side to side in the chair and takes in her surroundings. It’s neater than any teenage boy’s room she’s seen before, but it isn’t a surprise that Sarah runs a tight ship. “Did he apologize to you?”

“Uh, not really. We sort of don’t? We just show up for each other and that’s enough.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Natasha mutters, pushing Steve’s math homework aside and finding a half-complete pencil drawing of a skinny monkey in Steve’s football uniform getting pummeled by Rasputin, whose skin is actual metal and McCoy, who’s an actual beast. The one below it is of Steve, once again, skinny, on his knees, clutching the football jersey the paramedics had to cut off of Bucky. A looming shadow falls over him, but it isn’t complete so it isn’t clear whose shadow it is.

“Nat—”

“You aren’t thinking of submitting this to the paper, are you?” Natasha holds up the first sketch and pretends she didn’t see the second. “If Maria gets her hands on this, she’ll print it for sure. If the team sees it, I doubt it’ll help their confidence in you.”

“That didn’t even cross my mind.”

“Good,” Natasha says, setting the drawing back down, sure to cover the other. She pauses, eyes scanning his desk. Something about it seems off. “What happened to that picture of Peggy?”

“What?”

“There was a picture of Peggy right here. I remember. I took it and gave it to you.” Natasha points to the empty space between his outdated desktop computer and a New York Giants mug filled with colored pencils. Her eyes find Steve who now has his bedsheets pulled up over his entire body and covering half of his face. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nat, you think you could wait outside for me and, uh, close the door?”

Natasha hitches an eyebrow, leans toward him with a smirk. “Why, Steve Rogers, are you naked under there? Does Captain America sleep in the nude?”

“Natasha, please!”

She relishes the embarrassment in his voice as she heads to the door with a little sway to her hips. Her cheeks hurt from smiling. He’s just so Steve. He’s hot and half the senior class wants him and anyone else would abuse the power that comes with being conventionally good-looking (she knows she has) or at least find confidence in it, but he’s still so modest and coy and Steve. That’s one of the things Natasha has always respected about Peggy. Steve still refuses to hear it, but Natasha knows for a fact that Peggy liked him before the growth spurt. Steve still refuses to consider it, but Peggy wasn’t the only one.

 

 

When they arrive at school for what promises to be a long morning of watching film and screaming coaches, they come to find their locker room absolutely trashed.

Someone broke in. From the number of muddy footprints, a dozen someones it seems. Everything that had been neatly put away on shelves and in lockers is all over the ground and saturated in what looks like mud and smells like piss and Asgardians mead. There’s spray paint all on the walls. Average is written over Avengers and holes is written after every single A logo on the walls and all their helmets. The speaker system, projector and screen in the film room have been destroyed. It’s every shade of awful.

Fury hates goddamn Rivalry Week.

This mess pisses him the hell off just seeing it and smelling it, but as pissed off as he is, he doesn’t show it. He can’t show it. If this mess pisses him off, he knows the group of hormonal teenage boys all around him are pissed as all hell and unafraid to make the next move. He knows what the guys are feeling, how they’re likely to react and the last thing he should do is feed the fire.

“Those Asgardian bastards!” Rumlow kicks over a bench in a fit of rage. “They poked holes in all my goddamn Muscle Milk!”

“It’s on now,” Rollins says, quieter, but just as deadly.

“No.” Fury eyes those two before addressing the rest of the team. “There will be no retaliation. That goes for everyone. If I catch any of you getting caught up in this shit that is beneath every single one of you, if you aren’t kicked off the team, which you know is always my preferred option, you’d be lucky to see game time again, and, boy, I’m going to make you run. Understood?” His only reply is collective silence, which pisses him off even more. “I’m not up here talking for my own goddamn health! I said, understood!”

“Yes, sir,” the players reply, but it’s weaker, reluctant.

“What do we do about film, coach?” Steve asks.

No damn clue. But it’s not like he’s about to admit that to this lot.

“I might be of assistance,” a voice says from the door.

Fury would roll his eye if that was a thing he did. Tony Stark to the rescue yet again. Honestly, it’s a damn miracle the brat even bothered to show up after the last game.

“Nothing a little field trip to Stark Tower can’t fix,” Tony suggests. “At least, temporarily.”

It isn’t exactly sanctioned, but what other option do they have? There’s no game this week. He has half a mind to cancel, but the boys need to be hungry going into the long week. They need to build off that loss, not hide from it. They need to cauterize the wound, not let it bleed out.

“Okay,” Fury agrees. “Lead the way, Stark.”

Most have too much pride to admit it, but this town was nothing before Howard Stark bought up a bunch of land and made it his new base of operations and employed half the town. Midgard was a nothing hick town and now it strives because of Stark. So the locals can’t be too mad about his 93-story eyesore that’s ugly as hell and stands out more than anything else for miles.

After giving everyone clearance into the tower, Tony takes them to a large empty conference room with glass walls. The guys work together to move the glass conference table to the side as Tony taps his fingers against the screen of a Starkpad and mutters, “I just need to access the game footage and…”

Blue lights on the ceiling project incredibly accurate 3D renderings of all the players. Steve stands right beside his projected self, dressed in his Avengers uniform, and nervous as hell. Steve lifts his hand and it goes right through the projection.

“This is amazing,” Steve says in awe.

“Eh, but not so accurate.” Pietro motions to his projected self. “I am taller than this.”

“No, you’re not!” Dum Dum shouts back. “Accept it, little guy!”

Tony hands the Starkpad over to Fury and shows him how to play, pause, fast forward and rewind with the simple slides of a finger. “Take it away, coach.”

 

 

Even Natasha has to admit the sophistication of Stark tech is pretty cool. Not to mention helpful. It sucks that the janitorial staff has to clean up that mess of a locker room, but as she watches Fury point out the offense’s mistakes and Tony moves virtual Happy to where he should be with the pinch of his fingers midair, maybe the Asgardians gave them a blessing in disguise. This is a great tool for the guys who are more tactile learners like Steve and Happy.

Mrs. Stark comes into the room and suggests they break for lunch. Of course, Stark Tower has a floor that’s just a giant cafeteria. The coaches agree and as Phillips and the others herd all the boys out of the room and down to the fiftieth floor, Fury takes a moment to thank Mrs. Stark, who says something along the lines of, anything for my son and his friends.

Tony is different when his mom is around. Not different like he puts on an act for her, but different like he softens the act he puts on for everyone else. He groans and pretends to be embarrassed, especially when Mrs. Stark tugs on his cheek, but he smiles for her all the same. Mamma’s boys. Why does she hang out with so many of them?

“Hey T’Challa, c’mere a sec…”

Rumlow talking to T’Challa? That can’t be good.

Natasha stares down at the screen of her phone while straining her ears to listen in.

“We’re gettin’ those Asgardian jock straps back,” Rumlow practically growls. “You and yours in? We could use as many big black thugs as we can get.”

T’Challa stares at Rumlow, deadpan. “No.”

Natasha smiles to herself.

Rumlow scowls, offended like someone refusing him is unheard of. “Fuck you, nigger.”

T’Challa’s boys step up behind him, but he keeps his cool like always, just shakes his head and laughs. As soon as Rumlow skulks away, going back over to Rollins and their gang, probably to talk shit, Natasha slides up in front of T’Challa with a bright smile. They aren’t exactly friends, but they’ve known each other since T’Challa moved to Midgard to live with his pastor uncle.

“Hey T, you have any plans today?” Natasha asks.

All of T’Challa’s friends are straight out of the Wakandan community in Midgard and have come to be known as the Wakandan Defenders. They coo and catcall teasingly and when T’Challa smiles it’s one that lights the room. “What did you have in mind?”

“Practice,” Natasha replies. “A few of the guys are hanging around after film to work on a few things. Tony said we could use the grounds. Whether or not he attends is still up in the air. Happy’s already calling it Romanoff’s mini-camp from hell, but that’s a matter of perspective.”

His amusement grows. “Are you saying I need extra practice, Miss Romanoff?”

“Like I keep telling Rogers, everyone could use practice,” she replies. “He’s a thinker and I have this hunch that if he could understand the way a linebacker thinks and approaches the snap, maybe he could find a better way to beat the rush.”

T’Challa crosses his arms over his chest. “Perspective.” He pauses, thinking, and nods his head. “Sure, it’s not like I have anything better to do with the rest of my day off.”

“Cool.” Natasha ignores the hint of sarcasm and smiles. As she spins away, Natasha can feel T’Challa’s eyes linger on her, probably asking himself why he agreed to sacrifice his time.

“You chasin’ that?” Rumlow asks roughly. Natasha feels his eyes on her too and he doesn’t even try to lower his voice now that all the coaches are already out in the hall, Fury especially. “You realize she only sucks off QBs, uh? Shit. It’s been what? Two weeks since the Asset crippled his arm and already she’s ridin’ Rogers' dick? Hoes, right?”

That makes her pause and look over in time to see T’Challa remove Rumlow’s arm from around his neck with a calm, “Don’t touch me.”

“Offer still stands, by the way!” Rumlow laughs obnoxiously, sure to shoulder into Natasha as he makes his way to the door.

While everyone can’t wait to get to lunch, Natasha stays back and drops her guard when she’s finally alone in the massive room. She pushes herself up to sit on the glass table and just takes a moment to herself. She knows better than to let Rumlow and the shit he says get to her. She has trained herself not to and yet…

“They had a California turkey club sandwich or roast beef. I got one of each and I’ll eat whichever you don’t want. Clint’s still waiting for his fries. You know how he needs his fries straight outta the fryer and freshly greased.” Steve motions to the sandwiches, one in each hand, bottles of water pinned beneath his elbows. And he smiles at her like he always does, oblivious to what’s going through her head and maybe it’s for the best. “So what do I work on today, coach?”

“Footwork. Your footwork is atrocious, Rogers.” Natasha ops for the club. “Thanks.” As Steve plops down beside her and starts eating his sandwich, Natasha reaches for the Starkpad. She searches through the files and has it project a certain play in 3D slow motion right in front of them. “See, there. I can see you thinking about your footwork. You don’t have time to think about what your feet are doing out there. It needs to be all muscle memory.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Repetition, Cap,” Tony says, slinking into the room. “It’s like sex. The more you do it, the less you think while you’re doing it.”

Natasha narrows her eyes. “If you aren’t here to help, go to lunch with everyone else.”

“I’m sorry, who’s name is on the building?” Tony asks. “I could’ve sworn it said Stark, but I don’t know, maybe it changed to Romanoff. I can’t remember the last time I came home sober so.” Tony blows out a dramatic breath. “Don’t mind me.” He mock-dives onto the table, stretching out just behind them. “And here I was thinking hashtag Romanoff mini-camp was a sexy euphemism.”

“Luckily, you’re used to being wrong by now,” Natasha says.

Tony laughs. “Is it me or do you hear Fury’s voice every time she opens her mouth?”

“Cut it out, Tony,” Steve says in what’s becoming his captain voice.

“Sir, yes, sir.” Tony closes his eyes again and curls up on his side, facing away from them. “By the way, defenders are reading you like a book. In the first couple seconds of the play, you give away what you want to do with your drop steps probably because you memorized the playbook too well. On your favorite three-step drop in particular, the second they see you slow your backward momentum to set your feet and Wilson starts to turn into his route, they know to jump him.”

“So,” Steve says, “I have to move my feet without thinking about my feet, be aware that d-backs are reading my steps, throw the ball to the right guy at the right time, all while trying to avoid getting knocked into next week by linebacker or losing the ball?”

“A 300 pound linebacker who was purposefully held back two years to knock the shit out of you,” Tony adds. “Can’t forget that part.”

“You’re still thinking too much, Steve,” Natasha points out. “We can use audibles to confuse the defense and even if they’re reading your steps, they’re likely to have patterns of their own. If you see a d-back continuously reading you, we set him up for a double move.”

Steve rubs his hand down the front of his face. “How do you expect me to quit thinking so much when there’s so much to think about?”

“You wanted the job, captain,” Tony reminds him.

“I couldn’t sleep last night so I went over the footage and wanted to show you some things.” Natasha brings up her notes on her phone and swipes down a list so long it makes Steve groan with his mouth full of roast beef. “Mostly your terrible feet and bad decision-making. We start with correcting what you’ve already done then we move on to studying Thor and his defense and finding ways to confuse and dismantle.”

“Either of you want a drink?” Tony rolls up and hops off the table, lazily throwing his arms up like a gymnast sticking a sloppy dismount. “I’m getting a drink…”

“What do I do about him?” Steve asks once Tony drags himself out of the room.

“Why is Tony your responsibility?” Natasha counters, still playing with the 3D projection.

“I’m a captain now. I should know what to do and say. Bucky would.”

“Why don’t we focus on what we can actually fix right now, okay?”

“You’re the boss, partner.”

Natasha won’t admit it, but she definitely likes the sound of that. “Don’t worry so much, Steve. It’ll be fun.”

 

 

After a whole day of practicing, Bucky masters solely using his phone with his right hand. He could already do this pre-injury so it’s not a huge win, but it’s something. It doesn’t feel natural, but a lot of things he does in his new life won’t and that’s just something he has to live with.

He tells himself not to, that it’ll only hurt more, but he can’t help it and switches between social media apps—mostly Instagram and Snapchat—to see what his teammates are up to. Happy is the most enthusiastic of the bunch. His Snapchat story starts with #RomanoffMiniCampFromHELL accompanied by the fire emoji. Bucky gets glimpses of Steve throwing long, pretty spirals to Sam, Happy trying to block T’Challa (trying being the keyword) and Natasha bossing the boys around. The one that really gets him is Natasha slapping the ball out of Steve’s hand for a forced fumble. The way she laughs and the way he laughs, wrapping her up in his arms before she can run away. It just… It gets to him how happy they look. Without him. They look okay without him. It’s stupid, but that doesn’t stop him from throwing his phone across the room and it doesn’t land where he means for it to because it isn’t his dominant hand. His dominant hand is useless.

He should be there. Steve invited him to film session, said all this stuff about how just because he can’t play doesn’t mean he’s any less apart of the team. Clint even made the suggestion earlier, more offhandedly, but the offer was still there. And he said no. There’s no telling how he’ll react and the last thing he wants to do is offend anyone else who clearly doesn’t deserve it. So he chooses the hermit life instead.

It’s late in the afternoon and he’s just in boxers and a long-sleeve and the damn brace. His stomach growls and his mom isn’t home, just his sister, who’s in her room on the phone or something. Bucky carefully hoists himself off the couch and walks into the kitchen. Figures he should eat something. The sight of the sympathy food from the neighbors makes him feel sick so he pushes containers of casserole aside. He pulls out the egg container, sets it on the counter. He pulls out a skillet, sets it on a burner.

He stares down at the carton of eggs, remembering he doesn’t know how to crack ‘em with only one hand. Still, he has to try. The first egg breaks in his palm. He curses, shakes his hand out over the trash. He tries another, breaks that one too. His sister shrieks with laughter and it startles him. He turns quickly and knocks the carton onto the kitchen floor, breaking the rest of his eggs. His frustration and his anger built until he’s grabbing the skillet and throwing it as hard as he can across the room.

Before he can do any more damage, Bucky pushes his way out the back door and into the small yard of the small house. He paces until the tension leaves his shoulders and takes deep breaths, staring up at the rain gutters overstuffed with dead leaves. He was going to buy his mom a real house once he made it big in the NFL. He was going to buy his sister a sweet car and she wouldn’t have to worry about college tuition. He was going to take care of them like his father preferred not to. Now all of that is gone.

“Hey, Buck.”

He flinches. Usually he’s good at not letting people sneak up on him. Apparently, that’s gone too.

He tries to put on a strong front when he turns and sees Darcy Lewis on the other side of the fence. Dark hair, milky skin, trouble written over the curve of her smirk. Darcy Lewis, his part-time neighbor. They used to be full-time neighbors before her mom threw her into the backseat of their Sedan and moved her as far away from her trucker dad as possible. Bucky remembers standing on the sidewalk outside of their houses and waving goodbye.

“Hey, Darce.”

How many times has he rested his elbow on the rickety chain-link fence between them and leaned over slightly to smile at her? It’s so easy to fall into rhythm with Darcy Lewis. He even hears the ease in his voice, but then he goes to lean and his arm doesn’t respond. It makes him self-conscious when he never has been before. He sees the unease on her face and nearly blames himself, but then she tilts her head to the house just behind her and that’s when Bucky hears the screams and shouts from inside.

“Did you hear my father spaced on the date I was arriving so I had to call Barton for a ride, invited myself right into my childhood home and saw scarring, straight up traumatic images no daughter should ever, ever have burned into her memory bank?” Darcy asks, to which Bucky shakes his head. “Welp, now you have.” Darcy leans against the fence. “Her name is Cherry. I don’t know if she’s his girlfriend, but she sure did look pissed when I asked, Are you my new mommy?

Bucky laughs and it feels surprisingly good. “How long you in town?”

“As long as it takes to convince my mom I do spend quality time with my father and ease her guilt over, oh, ruining my childhood by whisking me away from the only home I ever knew. Direct quote. Seriously, I combed her hair while she cried to me about it on multiple occasions. Lewis women are not the prettiest crier and we aren’t proud, but we aren’t ashamed either. Am I rambling?”

“Just being Darcy,” Bucky replies. “I hope you comforted her with some of your famous caramel turtle brownies.”

“A recipe she taught me so she couldn’t have failed me too horribly.” Bucky opens his mouth, but is drowned out by the yelling from just behind her. Darcy shakes her head when she notices him notice. “Yeah, thank god for music to drown out the domestic drama.” She lifts her hand and Bucky just notices the CD player she’s holding and the earphones wrapped around her shoulders.

“Is that what I think it is?” Bucky asks.

“If you’re thinking, cool portable vintage time machine then you are correct, sir.”

“I was going to say ancient artifact.”

She hugs her CD player to her chest. “Don’t worry, baby, he didn’t mean it.”

Bucky smirks. “Your baby got a name?”

“Boys, I swear. Not every inanimate object you’ve imprinted on needs a name…” Darcy looks up at him through her lashes, twisting her body from side to side. “But to tell you the truth, I was totally down to steal the name Mew-Mew from Thor, but he still hasn’t retired the thing. And that was a total segue into you talking about your car you named, right?”

“Her name is Dot and she has feelings too.”

The sound of glass shattering inside the Lewis house makes both of them jump. Darcy's eyes move down to the grass. The girl’s a talker by nature, especially in awkward situations. The fact that she isn’t talking has Bucky gritting his teeth, scrambling for something to say next when usually James Buchanan Barnes never scrambles, especially when it comes to women.

“Uh, if you ever wanna get away, you could always borrow my truck,” Bucky suggests. Darcy’s eyes snap up to him and she’s clearly the type that can and will call bullshit. Bucky shrugs the best he can in his brace. “I clearly don’t have much use for ‘er. She’s yours to use if you want.”

“I appreciate the offer, I seriously do, like, that’s so cool of you, but I can’t drive stick.”

Bucky’s eyes widen. “Seriously?”

Darcy throws her hands up. “Dude! When am I ever going to need to drive stick other than like, hijacking my neighbor’s best girl?”

Bucky leans his good arm on the fence she’s leaning on. “How about when the aliens attack?” Darcy rolls her eyes. “Did you just roll your eyes? Well, we know who’ll be first to go.”

“I think you’re forgetting something, Barnes. I’m friends with Thor.”

Bucky laughs until his stomach aching turns into his stomach growling. “How’d you like to learn?”

“Seriously?”

“Our first attempt can be through the drive-thru because I’m starving.”

Darcy stares at him for a moment longer and nods her head. “Okay. Let me get my glasses.”

“Yeah, that might be important,” Bucky says with a smile. “I gotta get my keys. I’ll meet you out front.”

She laughs. “Uh, you might also wanna consider grabbing a pair of pants and shoes maybe?” Bucky realizes he’s barefoot and only wearing boxers. He’s so self-conscious about his arm and the brace he totally forgot. “Or not. I totally don’t mind either way.” She gives him a playful look that makes him feel good, a look girls would give him all the time before, but not once since the accident. Not till Darcy Lewis.

“I’ll take it into consideration,” he replies. Before she turns away, Bucky stops her. “Hey Darce, thanks for not saying anything. At least, not yet. I mean it. Thank you.”

Darcy turns back around to face him and meets his eyes for a moment. No looking away quickly or staring at the ground instead of at him like most people. Not that he can really blame most people for not knowing how to act around him. But with Darcy, there’s no fear or worry or pity and it’s nice.

“We’ll see how thankful you are once I’m the one trying to drive your precious Dottie.”

“It’s Dot,” he corrects her. “Short for Dolores.”

“Whatever!”

“Can’t wait!”

On his way back into his house, Bucky scolds himself for the stupid smile on his face, but it’s not a lie. Not at all.

 

 

On Monday, Natasha bursts into Fury’s office, eyes alight with whatever she can’t wait to tell him. “Thor is fast and flexible and surprisingly graceful, but they also moved him from the outside slot to the inside slot to compensate a team weakness—Nick, are you even listening to me?”

“Uh-huh,” he mumbles while scribbling on a piece of paper. “Thor…flexible…Nick, are you even listening?”

Natasha crosses her arms over her chest, unamused. “So that’s a no.”

“I appreciate the scouting report, Agent Romanoff, but maybe another time. I have a more pressing mission that deserves your attention. ” Fury scans over the paper one more time before holding it out to her. Natasha eyes him suspiciously and takes the paper, scanning it quickly. It’s a grocery list. “Rivalry Week means the annual dinner at the coach’s house, which mean we’re feeding an army.”

We?”

“Cleaning service is coming to the house tomorrow. I already left them explicit instructions not to step foot into your bedroom. All I ask is for you to pick up a few things from the market before you go home, show up and be semi-pleasant to our guests. Think you can handle that, agent?”

Natasha flips the paper over to see more items scribbled on the other side. Asking her to pick up a few things is a major understatement. “They’re not going to let me buy beer.”

“It’s essential to my chili recipe and the brats, you know that. Just stay in our district, find the line where the cashier is wearing a championship ring.”

“After you guys lost?”

“Point taken. I still think you could pull it off.”

“I’ll see you later.”

“Wait.” Fury stops her. “Does Rogers have a girlfriend?”

Natasha makes a face at him. “That’s an inappropriate question and none of your business.”

“The boy needs to loosen up. I can’t believe I’m saying this either, but we’ve got a bye week. There’s no game this Friday. After you put him through the ringer with your mini-camp, it wouldn’t hurt if he took a step back, concentrate on something else for an hour or two. A relationship suffering because of football maybe. Just an hour or two so he can come back into practice with fresh eyes and a clear head.”

“Fresh eyes, clear head? Huh. I thought it was something about clear eyes, full hearts.”

He smiles. “So he’s a spinster, huh? Maybe you should set him up with someone.”

“He has a girlfriend. She lives in New York now. Peggy Carter.”

“Peggy Carter? ROTC Peggy Carter?”

“Perfect Peggy Carter. The one and only.”

“Huh. Well, there goes plan A.”

“What was plan A exactly?”

“You tell him to relax, go out on a date, get a girl in the backseat of his car, etcetera. But then again, he doesn’t have a car either.”

“You’re ridiculous, Nick.”

“Plan B is you tell him to go out with friends, do something not-football-related, but I doubt hanging out with Barnes is very relaxing right now.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Natasha assures him. Fury raises his eyebrows, which in turn crinkles his forehead. “And I’ll do it without getting him in the backseat of my car.”

“Your car doesn’t have a backseat. That’s one of the reasons I let you keep the damn thing.”

“I’m going now,” she says and starts walking away.

“Hey, and don’t forget—”

“Your groceries, I know!”

(The cashier with the fat championship ring stares at her tits the entire time, but indeed, he doesn’t even ask for ID as he bags the beer for her.)

 

 

“Fury, a word?”

“What is it, Phillips?”

“Maybe we should think about switching our focus to the run game. We’ve given Rogers more than a few chances, more than I know you’d give any other second stringer, but maybe it’s time we admit he just isn’t enough and focus on what we know we have found success in.”

“The run game? Have you seen those monsters Asgard’s got? Maximoff is fast, shoots the gaps faster than I’ve ever seen maybe, but he’s too small, doesn’t have the power to drag a defender if he needs to. Part of the reason the kid’s a star is because the defense always expected Barnes to throw with that canon arm so whenever we ran the ball we caught ‘em by surprise.”

“So you just wanna keep doing the same thing over and over again? That’s insanity, Nick.”

“You saying you don’t trust me?”

“I’m saying I care about this team, I care about those boys and I’m not going to sit here with my thumbs up my ass while you ruin their chance at States their goddamn senior year no less!”

Steve walks away at that point. He probably shouldn’t have been eavesdropping anyway.

Maybe it’s time we admit he just isn’t enough…

…He just isn’t enough…

Steve feels himself getting worked up as the words echo in his head all throughout his next class. His face feels hot and the lecture flies right over his head. After he near begged for a chance at the quarterback position, all that bugging Fury, all that asking Natasha for extra help, all for nothing. He feels like a damn fool, honestly, and Steve isn’t about to sit with his thumbs up his ass either. Once the lunch bell rings, Steve visits the counselor’s office.

“Hi, Steve!” Rose Roberts, the school counselor, greets him enthusiastically. “What can I do for you today?”

“Uh, I was wondering where to get one of those forms to drop a class?”

“Alright. Why do you need to drop the class?”

Steve’s shoulders sink and he hopes to hide it by dropping into the seat in front of the cluttered desk. He was really hoping to just pick up a form and be on his way, but his counselor seems to have other ideas. “Just…Art III. It’s an elective and I already have enough electives to graduate. I could really use a free period instead.”

“Okay,” Rose says, searching through the papers on her desk. “I know I had a whole stack of them fresh from the copier somewhere… Is your course load too heavy? That’s why you feel you need to drop Art?”

“It’s alright.” Steve shrugs. “I just really need to be focused on football right now and a free period before practice in the afternoon would really help so I can go over plays and game footage and things…”

Rose pauses her search and her eyes zero in on him. Steve’s reminded of what Tony said about defenders reading him too easily and swallows hard, which probably makes things worse. “Hmm. You want to drop art to sit in a cubical in study hall, thinking about football?”

“I mean, I was thinking about asking Mrs. Jarvis if I could spend my study hall in the athletic department. If I drop Art, Coach Fury has that period free and he already said I could, that he’d work with me and make sure I don’t skip class if that’s what the school’s worried about.”

“Oh, Steve…”

“It’s just a semester,” Steve says defensively. “I could always take it in the spring and it’s not like a credit I need to graduate. I only signed up for it because—”

“Because you love it,” Rose says slowly. “Because you’re thinking to study art and art history in college.” Rose sits back in her chair and studies Steve in a way that’s unnerving like she’s counting the beads of sweat on his forehead instead of his drop steps. “Steve, you love football, right?”

“Absolutely.” There’s no question about it. None at all. Does he love the pressure and how much is riding on him performing in front of hundreds of people? Not so much. But he loves the game and the exertion and the simple fact that he can run and jump and throw the ball without an asthma attack and a trip to the emergency room. He also loves the team, working in unity, finally feeling included and apart of something. Not to mention, the adrenalin rush is like nothing he’s ever experienced before.

“Good.” Rose nods and eases up on her intense stare, plastering on a smile instead. “I’m just making sure. Are you absolutely sure this is what you want?”

“I don’t see any other way, ma’am.”

Rose nods and miraculously finds the form. “As long as you’re sure… Say, why don’t you take a day to think it over? The deadline’s Friday. Think it over and if it’s still what you want, I’m sure it’ll all work itself out fine.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

Steve carefully folds the paper and slides it into his front pocket of his binder. He loves art and he knows making it a career is a bit of a pipe dream, but if he’s going to pay all that money to go to school, he’s going to do something he loves and that’s art. He’s always doodling and breaking out the easel and charcoal when inspiration strikes. He knows basic perspective and shading and shadowing. He doesn’t need to take a class to hone his art, but…art class is the only time he isn’t worrying about football or Bucky. It’s the one time he lets everything go and he’s going to miss that.

“Hey, Captain America!”

Steve knows Rumlow when he hears him and that’s why he squares his shoulders and keeps walking. That doesn’t seem to deter Rumlow who even starts up a light jog to catch up.

“Why do they call you that anyway? Stupid ass nickname if you ask me.” Rumlow goes on like he doesn’t realize Steve’s practically running from him.

“If you’re going to try to talk me into whatever attack you’re planing on Asgard—”

Rumlow laughs loudly with his hand on his belly and everything. “I’d rather suck a cock than have your candy ass tag along on whatever we totally aren’t planning. You really think we’d want you along? I’m here to warn you about what happens to snitches. Shit, Romanoff’s got you as pussy whipped as your Bucky. Something tells me she doesn’t have to do much to get you to spill, though I bet she does it anyway, huh? Slut like her can’t help it.”

And before Steve even knows it, he has his hand bunched up in the collar of Rumlow’s shirt, slamming him back against the nearby trophy case, rattling all the medals and picture frames inside. Steve knows Natasha has thicker skin than most and would have the perfect comeback and can fight her own battles, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stand there as a bully like Rumlow says the most awful things about his friend.

“Gentlemen, is there a problem here?” T’Challa asks. He’s accompanied by his posse like always. Rumlow puts his hands up and doesn’t say anything, but the shit-eating grin on his face says he thinks he won this one. He just gets off on getting to people. T’Challa ignores Rumlow and looks to Steve instead. “Captain?”

Steve doesn’t break his heated stare on Rumlow, but he finally lets go and steps back. Rumlow smartly holds his tongue and slips away.

“That guy is a piece of work,” T’Challa comments.

“Tell me about it,” Steve mutters back. “Uh, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone…” He doesn’t say especially Nat, but from the way T’Challa nods, he knows it’s implied. “And maybe give me some tips on how you keep your cool? How are you so good at that?”

“My father is a king and diplomat. My uncle is a preacher. Some would say it’s in our blood.”

Steve laughs and glances down at his feet. “That…doesn’t help me at all.”

“Maybe not, but maybe I can help you on the field,” T’Challa suggests. “I was thinking to go to Fury and suggest I line up with the offense, provide Hogan with some much needed assistance on the right side, keep Thor away from you. Might be fun to play cat and mouse with a Norse god.”

“As much as I’d love to see that matchup, we need you rushing the edges to get to Fandral. I need all the help I can get, but not at the expense of leaving a hole in our defense and giving them the opportunity to score on us.”

“I could play both.”

“And risk you tiring out and them putting points on the board because you tried to do too much?”

T’Challa smiles and shakes his head. “You think I tire easily. Your girlfriend thinks I need extra practice.” T’Challa laughs before Steve can correct him. “It isn’t a secret I didn’t care much for your friend, Bucky. Now, I’d do whatever I can to help. Starting with helping you get this team on track.” He stares at Steve for a silent, unnerving moment. “My father is King of Wakanda. I know a thing or two about leadership. I think you could be a good one.”

“And we play a team you can't lose to in a few weeks and I'm a liability,” Steve adds.

T’Challa just smiles at being found out. “See, if you brought that sharpness to the field, we would be set. Yes. We’ve never lost to them, no, not once since I’ve been on the team and I plan for things to stay that way. I’m not losing that game, Captain. We aren’t losing that game.”

Steve straightens his back. “I’ll do my part.”

“Let’s make sure that’s enough.”

As good as this alliance with T’Challa feels, Steve can’t shake Phillips’ words.

He just isn’t enough.

 

 

"Nat, it's so obvious. He was totally having a wet dream about you."

"Maria, shut up."

Natasha rams her metal grocery cart that's already full with Clint sprawled out in it into Maria's empty cart. Maria's too busy sniggering to care and even Clint turns onto his side as he shakes with laughter. Natasha ignores both of them, eyeing the third list Fury gave her, hair pulled back in a ponytail and a ballpoint pen tucked behind her ear. While she tries to focus on the mission, Maria has other ideas.

"Let's review the evidence," Maria goes on. "You walked into his room, he was dead to the world asleep and moaned your name.”

Natasha turns to Maria with a sharp look. "Seriously, quit it or you're walking home."

"Touchy, touchy." Maria clicks her tongue.

"I don't see what the big deal is," Clint says, adjusting the tool belt he's worn every day this week, Thor's infamous hammer always at his side. "Morning wood is apart of every young man's daily existahhh!" Clint cries out after Natasha grabs a pack of hot dogs off the refrigerated shelf and shoved it down the back of his shirt. He wiggles until the hot dogs slide down his back and free. "I was helping you!"

"Can we just drop it?"

When they're both quiet, Natasha holds her head a little higher and turns her attention to the list.

"But he said your name in his sleep."

“Maria!”

The girl in question, who's usually so serious, dissolves into giggles and Clint joins in soon after. "Are you sure you didn't see anything impressive poking up—”

"Stop it," Natasha cuts her off. "I didn't see anything."

Except Steve's glorious back muscles and the way his blush spreads from the tip of his ears all the way down his chest...but like hell she's about to tell Maria that.

"Well, that's discouraging," Maria says with an exaggerated frown. "The rally girls would have loved a little confirmation that he's...proportionate."

"I'm never telling either of you anything ever again," Natasha decides. She stops in front of the meat and starts loading the empty cart with racks of ribs.

"Come on, Nat," Clint croons. "If we were talking about anyone other than Rogers, you'd be delighted to give us the low-down." Natasha narrows her eyes and when she tried to shove a packet of steak down the back of his shirt, Clint's ready this time. He grabs her wrists and tries to push her away until the steak flies out of their hands and hits the ground.

"Nice, Clint. I can't bring either of you anywhere!"

"Wait, wait, we're getting somewhere," Maria says in a much more subdued voice. "What makes Steve so different?"

What doesn't make Steve different? He's unlike anyone she's ever met. Kind and gentle despite his size and strength and so genuine. She can already picture how embarrassed and uncomfortable he’d be if he were in the next aisle and overheard the way they're talking about him. How weird that might make things between them and that’s the last thing she wants. Natasha wouldn't put him through that even though she trusts Clint and Maria to not share what they've said with anyone else. This is small town Texas. There's no telling who's lurking around the corner.

"Natasha Romanoff?"

Exhibit A:

Mrs. Hawley. Former councilwoman, active member of the school board and one of the Avengers' biggest critics. Natasha puts on a fake smile to match Mrs. Hawley's fake smile and she doesn't miss the way Clint motions to Maria and Maria takes control of the cart, the two walking over to the cheese section like gouda is the most interesting thing in the world. Assholes.

"Hi, Mrs. Hawley."

"Doing a little grocery shopping?"

"A lot, actually." Natasha motions to the cart stacked with ribs. "Preparing for the annual dinner at the coach's house."

"Oh! Of course! I can't wait."

"Oh." Natasha hopes her voice doesn't sound as dull and full of dread as she actually is. "I didn't know you'll be attending."

"Why, of course! In addition to the coaching staff, the players and their families, members of the school board, the booster club, alumni and the team's biggest supporters and contributors will make an appearance to rub elbows. Aw, did Coach Fury not tell you?"

"Must have slipped his mind," Natasha says through her teeth. "It'll be fine."

"I'm sure it will. If anyone can pull off a miracle, it's Coach Fury." Mrs. Hawley peers into Natasha's cart, her nosy tendencies surfacing. "If I were you, I'd double up on the meat." Mrs. Hawley gives her a wink. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you how much teenage boys like to eat."

What the everliving fuck?

"It was nice running into you, Mrs. Hawley," Natasha says politely.

"Take care! And I'll see you!"

Natasha takes her suggestion to double up on proteins to heart, but she needs to get away and makes a beeline out of that area. She can double back once the coast is clear. Whatever she does, she is not going to tell Clint and Maria whatever the hell Mrs. Hawley clearly tried to imply there or she will never hear the end of it.

Assholes.

 

 

"Hey Jane, mind if I sit?"

"Natasha." Jane acknowledges her with only utmost suspicion. Being Natasha, she slides into the seat across the table like nothing is out of sorts whatsoever, spreading out her stack of books like she plans to stay. "What can I do for you?"

"She means," Darcy Lewis cuts in, sliding into the seat next to Jane, "Midgard's Resident Redhead Hottie suddenly starts a conversation with the president of Astronomy Club days before the big game. Could it be coincidence or could it be who's dating the captain of the enemy camp?” Darcy hums before swinging her arm above her head, pointing and retracting and pointing at Jane repeatedly. "This is a big, blink-y neon sign, by the way."

"Darcy." Natasha nods to her. "Hey."

Clint comes out of nowhere with a loud whisper of, "She doesn't even go here."

"Eat me, Barton!" Darcy shouts just to get shushed by a nearby table, not that she or any of them really care. "By the way, you owe me an iPod!"

"Coulson took your iPod," Clint says snottily. For some reason, Clint and Darcy bring it out of each other. "How is that my fault?"

"You were using it when he took it!"

Clint tilts his head and scratches his fingers through his hair. "Okay, you got me there."

"Did you need something, Natasha?" Jane asks. Everyone knows that if someone doesn't keep them on task, Clint and Darcy can run in tangents around each other for hours.

"For the record, even if I thought you knew things like Thor's vert or his Achilles Heel on the field, that wouldn't be why I'm here." Natasha slides keys to a Maserati across the table to Jane. "I'm pretty sure you're going to see Sunshine before anyone else. Tell him to have fun and tweet a lot of pictures."

"Instagram is more Thor's jam," Darcy says. "Did you see when he posted that really artsy photo that was all purple with just a squiggle of blue? I sat there for a solid minute trying to figure out what it was from and why it made me so inexplicably nostalgic. Turns out it was a close-up of a Wild Berry Poptart! A Poptart!"

"Man's got taste," Clint says. "And he loves his Poptarts."

"Ain't that the truth," Jane agrees. "Thanks, Natasha. I'll make sure he gets it. I, for one, think this mutually agreed upon 'prank week' is an A+ effort."

"We'll see by the end of the week," Darcy says. "The only reason Thor didn't lead the charge on the locker room raid is because the missus would've thrown him in the dog house for being 'immature' again."

"So you have any idea who did?" Clint asks. "Not that I'm going to do anything dramatic about it."

"Pretty sure Rumlow's already got that covered," Darcy points out.

"How would you know that?" Jane asks. "As Clint pointed out, you don't even go here."

"Did you forget who you're talking to? I know everything happening in the county. I have eyes everywhere. I'm not saying the Illuminati DM'd me wanting to join forces, but I'm practically Gossip Girl."

"Seriously, shouldn't you be in school right now?" Clint asks Darcy. "I mean, technically you are in school, but I mean, your school."

"Teacher's strike in our district and my dad is on the road so much of the time I'm supposed to be spending 'quality time' with him which translates to channel surfing and passive aggressively turning up the volume while he fights with a stripper named Cherry in the kitchen."

"A stripper named Cherry, huh?" Natasha drawls. 

"I don't know if she's a real stripper and that might be presumptuous of me to say, but she's screwing my dad and raids my closet without asking so I'll say what I want."

"Hmm, Cherry," Natasha says again. "I wonder, how many Cherries do you think live in this town? Clint, don't you—"

As if on cue, he starts choking on nothing and slamming his fist against his chest. Faking asphyxiation with zero plausible reason is a new low, even for Clint. As he continues to cough, Clint pulls his phone out of his pocket and makes a face at the screen even though it's upside down and dead.

"Oh, look at the time! Archery practice with Katie-Kate. Gotta run." Clint nearly trips in his desperation to get away, but then he pauses in front of Darcy. "So how long are you in town anyway? Long enough to crash the big barbecue at the coach's house and be cordially invited to my afterparty?"

"You can't eat anything," Natasha says flatly. "I've already been to three different grocery stores five times in the last three days and I'm not going back to accommodate party crashers." Her phone buzzes against the table and after one glance, she buries her face in her arms. "Apparently he needs a specific top secret spice for his top secret barbecue sauce and I should be honored he's sharing his cooking secrets with me."

"You know he only does it to totally turn you off to ever consider being one of those football wives slash football moms," Darcy says. "He's like a football Dumbledore, but scary."

"Maybe a football Professor Moody," Jane suggests.

"Nah, too obvious." Clint covers one eye to mimic an eyepatch. "Not that he needs to. Nat's doing this new thing where she doesn't date or so she says."

Darcy laughs so loud it warrants a shhh from the librarian, who's also ignored. "Oh wait, you're serious? What the hell, lady? Why?"

"She—ouch!" Clint jumps and spins around, biting his lip to keep from whimpering.

"Clint, didn't you say something about Kate and archery? If not, we could always talk about Ch—”

"Alright, alright, I'm going. Just leave my toes outta it."

Clint nearly runs out the door and Natasha starts to re-stack her books, about to do the same, but in a calmer fashion when Darcy half-lays herself across the table to grab Natasha by her wrists to keep her in place.

"Whoa ho ho ho, hold on there, back that thang up," Darcy says. "What does that mean? Not dating? Like, no thanks, wine and dining someone else, Romeo, or like invisible chastity belt?"

"Try I'm graduating and nothing and no one is going to keep me in this town." Natasha shrugs carelessly. "I don't see the point of jumping into something serious when I won't be here much longer."

"Oh, that's all?" Darcy falls back into her chair, unimpressed. "Why didn't you just say that in the first place?"

"Because it was Clint's big mouth in the first place," Jane says. Darcy sticks her hand in Jane's face just to have it smacked away. "I'll make sure Thor gets the keys."

"Thanks, Jane." Natasha slings the strap of her bag over her shoulder. "Don't break too many hearts while you're in town, Darce."

"Can't make any promises.”

As Natasha turns, she hears Darcy continue to talk and the two continue to ignore the librarian and pretend they don't see others moving to tables that are further away and presumably quieter. She likes those two and they're friends with all the same people and hang out on occasion. Just as Natasha's out the door, she thinks she hears Darcy say Bucky, but the girl doesn't seem gossipy or full of pity, but beaming like...

Her phone buzzes again.

Fury.

Need pork bouillons STAT

She considers rebelling and buying beef or chicken bouillons instead, but he'll just send her back to the grocery to get the one he wanted.

Natasha glances back in time to see Jane apologizing profusely to the librarian while Darcy tries so hard to hold back her laughter before shaking off her earlier thought and heading to the grocery store.

 

 

Missed call from Pepper.

Text from Happy.

Another missed call from Pepper.

A strongly-worded e-mail from Jarvis. Something about football equipment and hygiene.

Nudes from Rhodey.

…Rhodey?

Nope. Ronnie. Hot Smart Girl from That Thing That One Time.

Thank god.

Mental note: see what she’s up to later.

Another missed call from Pepper.

“Jesus, why doesn’t she just text like a normal fucking teenager?” Tony swipes his finger down the rest of his notifications, stifles a yarn and drops his phone to the polar bear skin throw at the foot of his bed. He sits up enough to reach for the bottle of scotch on his bedside table. It’s the middle of the week and the middle of the day, but whatever. “I need ice! Ice, I say! Ice!”

A little robot clunks across the large room holding a chest of ice. “One lump or two, sir?” comes a robotic voice.

“Your assistance is ever appreciated, but I’m not above serving myself.” Tony grabs one large ice cube and drops it into a glass before filling it with gold liquor. “That’ll be all.”

“Yes, sir. Anything you say, sir.”

That always makes Tony smile. One of the reasons he even created the little thing is because Jarvis would smack him upside the heard if he ever spoke to him like that. And if he told his father, Howard would probably tell Jarvis to give him another and ooh, can I watch?

Tony sits against his headboard, taking lazy sips from his glass.

“Lights, dim.”

The lights dim.

“Play.”

Blue lights project from the ceiling and a 3D replica of the football team appears at the foot of his bed. It isn’t just any game footage. It isn’t just any play. It’s from the very first game of the season and the play where Bucky gets hurt. Tony watches as he fumbles the ball right into the hands of the opposing player and Bucky makes the tackle. He watches the collision.

“Play again.”

He watches it again.

“Again.”

He watches it again.

“Again.”

Tony watches it again and again and then he watches it in slow motion again and again. He watches it over and over until he’s refilled his glass three times and his eyes are starting to blur and he feels like he could float away at any second. But he doesn’t float away. He watches the play again.

Just before he slips into unconsciousness, Tony checks his phone again. He wants to see a pair of boobs. He kind of wants to see another missed call from Pepper more. Sadly, Tony doesn’t find either. Just a text from Rumlow:

u in for a lil revenge richie rich?

 

 

Natasha’s starting to think maybe she should have written out a list of demands in exchange for her cooperation and help when it comes to this dinner at the coach’s house thing.

For one, he sends her to the grocery store one more time the morning of because the chili needs more chocolate chips. The first store she goes to doesn’t have the brand Fury specifically requested so she has to drive two towns over to find the right one. By the time she returns to the house, there are already people there claiming to want to help set up and that’s a little annoying because she’d rather shower and get ready without strangers walking around her house.

The dress she puts on isn’t as conservative as the one she wore to church, but it also won’t offend anyone. She’s 87% sure. Not that it matters because it’s clearly too late to change when she shuts off her blow dryer and can hear someone’s horse laugh from downstairs. One of the mothers on the school board, if she has to guess. Once her hair is perfect and her makeup is perfect, Natasha’s sure to lock her bedroom door, tuck the key into the pocket of her dress and head downstairs to play hostess and make small talk with people she’d rather not interact with.

All the guys are wearing their football jerseys because of course. And they are damn comfortable so she hates them. They’re also pigs, leaving crumbs all over the floor so she double hates them. She hates them so much in this moment, Clint opens his mouth to say something, but sees her expression and reconsiders. Instead, he makes his way out to the backyard where Darcy’s chatting with Happy and Rhodey as they toss a football around. Fury is out there manning the grill and so Natasha monitors inside, handing out hor d'oeuvres and welcoming people and repeating the same words over and over again to different fake smiling faces.

She is not in the greatest mood. Steve Rogers doesn’t get the memo. “Hey, Nat.”

“Rogers.” Don’t test me right now is in her tone.

“Just wanted to say…you look awful in this dress.”

Her lips tug to one side when she sees that stupid, goofy smile on his face. “Oh, if your footwork wasn’t already atrocious, I’d be digging my stilettos into your toes right now.”

“Real kind of you, Nat.”

“Oh, you know. The things I do and don’t do for this team.”

“Isn’t this precious? The coach’s quarterback and the coach’s daughter!”

She didn’t even realize Steve and her were in their own little comfortable bubble until it popped.

Mrs. Hawley.

Again.

As if the first encounter wasn’t enough…

“You, young man, you look like you’re on the yearbook staff.” Mrs. Hawley flicks her finger to get a stick figure of a teenage boy’s attention. “Quick, get a picture of these two!”

Natasha just barely holds back from rolling her eyes and watches the way Steve starts to clam up like he still isn’t comfortable being in the spotlight. He was on the news for christ’s sake. Well, local news, but still. Natasha slides her arm around Steve’s waist, drawing him closer as a skinny kid who’s wearing his LHS press badge lifts his fancy school property camera and snaps a picture of them. Once the kid with the camera moves on and the woman closes in for small talk, Steve tries to pull away, but Natasha doesn’t let him.

“Oh, you are not sneaking away and leaving me here with his woman, Rogers.” The way she says the words through a perfectly composed smile makes the underlying threat much more menacing.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

His words reminds her of a certain conversation in the meat section of the grocery store and she nearly blushes. Nearly.

“So!” Mrs. Hawley clasps her hands, standing in front of the two. “Natasha, everything is absolutely perfect. It’s so sweet of you to let all of us stampede in and eat you out of house and home like this! It turned out to be a really nice little get together. And all planned without a proper woman of the house.”

Not knowing how she’s supposed to take that, Natasha just tosses her hair to one side and plays nice. “You know what they say. Mi casa es su casa.”

“Indeed. So! How long have you two been friends?”

Friends. That’s a surprising assumption. Not to mention accurate.

Natasha tilts her chin up to find Steve’s face, maybe make him feel more apart of this conversation. The less focus on her the better. “Steve was my first friend when I moved here actually.”

“I don’t know about that…”

“Well, I do.” Natasha links her arm with his and gives him a little tug. “He was really sweet.”

“And skinny!” Mrs. Hawley adds and does so loudly. “I saw the before and after puberty photos the Midgardian ran on you for their Transformation Tuesday!” Mrs. Hawley has some balls, reaching out and giving Steve’s muscular arm a squeeze. “Lucky for us you filled out. Isn’t that right, Natasha?”

“Definitely, Mrs. Hawley. We sure are.” Natasha smiles both at the flustered state of Steve’s face and also the way he leans into her and away from the middle-aged woman who lets her hand drop to her side and return to a safe distance.

Just as Mrs. Hawley starts interrogating them on what colleges they’re applying to, out of nowhere, the nearby window shatters. Mrs. Hawley screams while Steve instinctively grabs Natasha, shielding her with his body as shards of glass spray across the room. It’s over in a handful of terrifying seconds. Fury walks over to the broken window and picks up a cheap hardware store hammer with a piece of paper wrapped around it. Fuck the Avengers! written on it.

Fury curls his hand around the hammer, doing his best to control his anger. He looks over just in time to catch Steve awkwardly removing himself from Natasha. “Everyone okay?”

Natasha tugs on Steve’s arm so she can scan over his body for any sign of injury. “We’re fine.”

Fury stares down at the hammer once more and when he looks up, his eyes lock on someone in the crowd. Natasha follows his eye and it feels like an omen when the first two faces Fury finds are Rumlow and Rollins leering in from the next room. Fury continues to look right at the two and says, “No.”

“Careful where you step, kids!” a woman cries out. “Let’s get this cleaned up!”

“Let’s!” another agrees. “Coach, you got a broom?”

Fury’s glower dissipates and he goes to get the broom from the kitchen closet, but he’s far from happy. As fretful chatter erupts through the house, Natasha reaches out and squeezes Steve’s arm. A quiet thank you.

“Your reaction time is getting quicker,” Natasha says.

“Were you watching my feet?” Steve asks. “My footwork and my spin were perfect.”

 

 

“Those fucking fags thing they can come to our town, trash our locker room, shit on us at our coach’s house? I say fuck them,” Rumlow says to his group of friends outside Coach Fury’s house. He’s standing on a tree stump in the front yard as to be taller than everyone else for dramatic flare and because he’s Rumlow. “Tonight we’re going to show them what happens when they think they can walk all over us. Tonight we end what they started.”

“Can you believe that guy?” Rhodey asks and his voice scares Tony who nearly jumps. “You okay? And since when do you own a hoodie? I thought the extent of dressing down for you is your band tees?” Rhodey looks from Tony to Rumlow and his d-line. “No. Nooooo. Tony…”

“Did you get the invite?”

“Yes, and I said fuck no.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Tony, you’re drunk. You’re not thinking straight…”

“Don’t tell me what I am.”

“Alright, you tell me then,” Rhodey challenges him. “Tell me what you think you are.”

“What Rumlow said, sick of being stepped on, yada yada yada.”

“Or you got it in your head that what happened to Barnes is your fault. And what, Tony? Doing this, trashing someone’s home, getting the crap kicked out of you by some Asgardian meathead is repentance? You’re a dumbass, man. Barnes would tell you himself.”

“Well, Barnes isn’t here, is he?” Tony almost shouts, but reigns it in quick. “He can’t even bring himself to show at a fucking team barbecue. Let alone a team practice or a game. Even if it isn’t my fault, I could have prevented it and I didn’t.”

“Hey, Ritchie Rich!” Rumlow shouts from across the front yard. “We’re taking off.”

Tony nods, shoves his hands into the pockets of hoodie and starts to walk over. Rhodey stares after him before cursing and following along, hopping into the truck bed after Tony, who stares at him in shock.

“What the hell are you doing?” Tony asks.

“If we’re going to do this, let’s do this.” Rhodey taps the side of the truck with his palm. “What are we waiting for? Drive.”

“It’s about time your balls dropped, Rhodes,” Rumlow says through the open window of the cab.

“Rhodey, seriously,” Tony hisses. But Rollins is already hitting the gas petal hard and they’re speeding down the street.

“You’re the only one complaining, Stark,” Rumlow points out. “If you can’t hang with the big boys, maybe you should trade in your helmet and pads for pom poms and tampons.”

“First of all, ew,” Tony says. “Second, did you even hear yourself just then? Better question, do you hear yourself ever?”

Ignoring him, Rumlow continues, “Better yet, we could always use more rally girls. Bake me some cookies, biyotch.” Tony opens his mouth, ready with a reply like always, but it’s cut off by Rhodey slapping him upside the head. Honestly, it’s pretty surprising it hasn’t happened to him sooner and doesn’t happen more often. Smiling at the silence, Rumlow mutters, “Better. A friend over at Asgard High hooked us up with the addresses to the Warriors Three. We start with the quarterback, Fandral…”

 

 

The rest of the evening at the Fury house goes by much smoother. More small talk, more people asking question about the Avengers, more, more, more. It’s dark out once they walk the last guest out the front door, leaving the house in disarray with empty cups, plates and the like on almost every surface of the house, not to mention the broken window. Fury breaks out a box of trash bags and Natasha kicks off her heels before starting to clean the kitchen counter with a rag. All of her friends headed to the afterparty at the Barton house. All except one.

“Enough.” Fury pulls the wet rag from Natasha’s hand and tosses it into the sink. “You’ve done enough. All week. All the time. Get outta here. I know there’s an afterparty going on somewhere. Go. Bring Captain America with you.”

They both glance over at Steve who’s in the living room, trying to untangle the chord of the vacuum just to get tangled up in it himself.

“I know he’s only here helping out so he’s got an excuse to avoid participating in any retaliation that’s happening tonight,” Fury adds.

“No,” Natasha argues. “I honestly think he just likes to clean.”

“Steve Rogers might be a special snowflake, but it’s straight scientific fact that teenage boys are stupid. Hopefully, not stupid enough to get caught.”

“I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Go. Your mission’s complete, agent. Go be a kid for once.”

Natasha plays with the idea in her head. “Hey, Rogers! Wanna go to a movie?”

And that’s how they end up at one of those old-school drive-in movies a town over. It claims to be one of the last in Texas. Natasha parks the Corvette among all the other cars (most of which have foggy windows and rock rhythmically). They sit on the hood of her car with a blanket stretched over them and a bucket of popcorn between them, staring up at a black and white screen. Steve loves old movies. That’s another thing he got from his mother.

“Do you only hang out with me because Fury tells you to?”

His question catches her off-guard, but if it rattles her, Natasha doesn’t show it. She never does. Instead, she reaches into the bucket and pops a few kernels of popcorn into her mouth, chewing slowly.

Steve stares down at his lap, obviously not knowing what to do with the silence. “I know he tells you to, Nat. You don’t have to deny it.”

“He tells me to, but that’s not why we’re here right now,” she replies. “Maybe I needed to get away from Midgard too. Maybe I like spending time with you. Is that so crazy?”

“Yes.”

She scowls and throws a handful of popcorn right at him. “Seriously, you have so much to offer, Steve. What’s crazy is how you refuse to see that.”

He finds it in him to meet her eyes and it’s different from most times, from that moment in his bedroom. He feels like he’s actually seeing her and she's being honest like she really does believe that, believe in him. Steve wets his lips, feeling he should say something even though he isn’t sure what when her phone vibrates against the hood beneath them. The screen lights with a photo of a sleeping Clint with an impressive tower of Cheetos balanced on his forehead. Natasha swipes her finger across the screen with little thought.

“I’m in a movie. I’ll call you back…Wait, Tony went off with Rumlow? Really? …And we’re just hearing about this now?”

Steve straightens seeing her with big eyes like an alarmed meerkat.

“No,” Natasha continues. “Steve isn’t with them. He’s with me. We’re seeing a movie.” Her forehead crinkles and Steve reacts with even more concern. “Did you really just ask me that? Clint. Are you drunk? Maybe you should let Wilson take the wheel…Okay, keep us updated.”

Natasha ends the call and takes a deep breath. “I really regret not turning my phone off.”

“What’s going on?”

“Clint, Wilson and Maria are scouring Asgard, trying to stop whatever stupidity Rumlow has planned. Idiots.”

“What did Clint ask you?”

She lets out an exasperated laugh. “He asked if you and I were on a date-date.” It’s dark out and he hopes she doesn’t see the way he squirms, but she laughs so there goes that. “I know, right? You’re as good as married.” She places her hand on her chest with an innocent look on her face. “What kind of girl does he take me for?”

“Nat, about Peggy—”

Her phone rumbles against the hood again. This time it’s a text.

“Hold that thought…” Natasha swipes the text open. “Maria sent me a list of potential Asgardian targets and their addresses.”

“We split up the list, cover more ground, find them faster, hopefully stop them.” Steve slides off the hood, ready for action, while Natasha groans and looks back up at the giant movie screen wistfully.

“We’re supposed to be relaxing, escaping everything,” Natasha mutters. “I don’t even know how the movie ends.”

“My mom has the DVD. I’ll lend it to you.”

“You’ll make me popcorn on the stove and watch it with me,” Natasha says matter-of-factly. Steve smiles in a nonverbal promise and holds his hand out to her. “Stupid boys are ruining my life.”

Natasha doesn’t hesitate to take his hand. Steve helps her off the hood and walks around to open her door for her. As she mutters a quiet thanks, he can almost imagine they are on a real date. As he walks around the front of the car to the passenger side, he wonders if he should have told her and everyone about him and Peggy sooner. Maybe this and the morning in his bedroom could have turned out differently… Before he can make himself all flustered, Steve feels his phone ring, bringing him back to reality. As he slides into the car with his phone pressed to his ear, Sam babbling on the other end, he puts those thoughts to rest. He’s Captain America now, ready to do what he can for his guys, even off the field.

 

 

“Rich Asgardian assholes. All of ‘em.”

Fandral, self-proclaimed romantic and always seen with a bevy of young ladies, has a pretty sweet house. It’s a far cry from Stark Tower, but it is large and well-maintained while half of Rumlow’s crew call the trailer park home. It’s dark by the time they make it out to Asgard and the truck they’re all piled into crawls to a stop across the street from their target.

“That’s it, boys.” Rumlow sits with his upper body hanging out the window, watching the house with a long driveway that leads to a front door with a welcome mat and light lit like a beacon.

“So what are we talking?” Rhodey asks. “Are we going to teepee his house?”

Everyone laughs except for Tony and Rhodey.

“Think bigger.” Rumlow reaches back into the cab and pulls out a thoroughly used metal bat. He smiles at Rhodey and Tony before pointing to a perfectly polished green Mustang parked on the street. “The guy loves his eyesore. Brags about it all the time. Gotta Have It Green, he calls it.”

“Let’s see how much he loves it once we’re done,” Rollins says.

“You’re going to wreck his car?” Rhodey asks.

“Did they or did they not wreck coach’s window?” Rumlow counters.

“Exactly. They. How do you know Fandral had anything to do with that?”

“He’s the quarterback. Of course, he did.”

“You don’t see our quarterback here, do you?”

“That’s because Rogers is a pussy and I’m starting to think you are too, Rhodes,” Rumlow spits with disgust. “No one forced you to come along.”

“Rumlow, let’s not be stupid—”

“I call dibs on first.” Tony hops out of the back of the truck and holds his hand out for the bat. Rumlow smirks under the glow of the orange streetlight while Rhodey’s mouth hangs open in shock. Tony takes the bat and twirls it once and then twice. “Should I be blindfolded too? Add to the fun?”

Rhodey frowns. “Tony…”

“Like Rumlow said, no one forced you to come along.” Tony pulls his hood up over his head and grips the bat as he walks across the street. All eyes are on him and he can feel his heart beating hard in every other part of his body. Working up the nerve for the first swing is the hardest part. He hears the guys react and cheer him on at the first crack of the bat against the passenger window. It gets easier from there. Over and over, he slams the bat against the car, denting the vibrant green, shattering the windows. He doesn’t even stop when the car alarm starts to screech and the lights start flashing. You could probably hear it on the other side of the neighborhood.

Tony takes the sideview mirror clear off when he’s tackled to the grass by Rhodey. Not only that. Rhodey pulls back his arm and punches Tony right across the face. “What the fuck, Tony? What do you think you’re doing? Are you a fucking idiot!”

“I mean, clearly,” Tony replies.

“This isn’t a stupid game, man! You just—”

The alarm stops as the front door of the house swings open. Fandral, who looks like an actor in one of those old swashbuckler movies, can only watch with devastation. And he isn’t alone. Hogun and Volstagg, outside linebacker and defensive tackle respectively, both of whom are much bigger than Fandral and react quicker, zeroing in on Tony and Rhodey at the bottom of the driveway. Tony scrambles to his feet and holds his head high, accepting of his fate.

“Get out of here, Rhodey,” Tony whispers. “You don’t deserve this.”

“And you do? I always knew you were crazy, Tony, but shit.”

“Go!” Tony shoves Rhodey toward the truck that’s taking off without them. Tony stares after the truck with a long face. “Shit. Shit! Shit! Shit!”

“What did you expect, trusting fucking Rumlow!” Rhodey shoves Tony right back.

Tony’s panicked eyes turn back to the Asgardians, who is pissed as all hell and start walking closer. “Rhodey, run.”

“Not without you.” Rhodey cracks his knuckles and bounces on his feet, preparing for a fight. “Like I said, Tony. If you want to do this, fine, let’s do it.”

Tony looks from the Asgardians to his friend who deserves no part in this. He mutters a shit beneath his breath before grabbing onto Rhodey’s shirt and dragging him down the street. “RUN!”

Tony and Rhodey take off down the street sprinting with the Asgardians right on their tail. They have a good lead, but it’s physically impossible to run from Asgard to Midgard without slowing down or tiring out. Regardless, they don’t have any other choice, but to try.

“Tony, you’re an idiot!” Rhodey shouts as they run hard down the quiet neighborhood street.

“Why did you stay?” Tony shouts back, matching his strides. “You weren’t supposed to stay!”

“And what? Let you get the shit kicked out of you? Your suicidal ass is the only reason I’m even here right now!”

“I never asked you to!”

“Too bad! That’s what friends do, dumbass!”

Tony sneaks a peek over his shoulder and his eyes go wide when he sees a sleek, dark blue Japanese-made car behind them. He’s seen it before. It’s Hogun’s and it’s coming right for them with blinding headlights.

“Yep, Rhodes, don’t look back.”

“Why? Why not?” Rhodey looks back. “Oh shit! Tony, you’re an idiot!”

“I know, alright! Now run like Fury caught you with your hand up Natasha’s skirt!”

As absolutely pissed off he is at Tony right now, Rhodey can’t help, but let out a laugh. “Run like you know Fury’s gonna hold you down so Natasha can beat the shit out of you!”

Tony laughs, shaking his head. “He’d video tape it like a proud dad too!”

“And they’d watch it over and over so she can better beat the shit out of you next time!”

At this point they’re both laughing hard and still running with everything they have despite the car that’s quickly closing in on them. Just as they’re coming to the intersection, an old-school Corvette pulls up to a screeching stop right in front of them. Tony and Rhodey barely stop before running into the Corvette. “Speak of the devil,” Tony mutters, seeing Steve in the passenger seat and the Devil Herself behind the wheel.

“Hop in, boys,” Natasha says coolly.

“You have no backseat,” Rhodey points out.

“Nope, no,” Tony says, “I’d rather get the shit kicked out of me than sit in Captain America’s lap.”

“Get in the trunk,” Natasha suggests. Then shrugs. “Clint does it all the time.”

“Clint also got in a barrel and floated downstream for three miles just to win the last slice of pizza,” Rhodey reminds them. He glances behind them at the car that’s nearly caught up with them before heading to the back of the car and getting into the trunk. Tony sighs, but does the same, slamming the trunk after them, leaving them in the dark as the Corvette speeds off.

“Christ, how did she get her license? Like she thinks she’s the Fast and the Furiosa or something,” Tony mutters, trying to catch his breath. When stony silence follows, he rubs a hand over his sweaty face and sighs. “I’m sorry. Is that what you want to hear?”

“Do you have a death wish or something?”

“Maybe I do.”

“What was the plan exactly? Wreck his car, let him wreck you and somehow convince yourself it was karma for what? Not catching a damn ball and blaming yourself for what happened to Barnes? Tony, for the hundredth fucking time, that wasn’t your fault!”

“If I just caught the ball—”

“Yeah, and if I won the lottery maybe I’d be living in a mansion in Miami, surrounded by babes and shooting hoops with D.Wade laughing about the time I was friends with an idiot who thought he could orchestrate karma. Jesus, Tony, you can’t let a what-if wreck your life, man. And if you do, I don’t want any part of it anymore.”

They’re silent for the longest time after. No matter how many times Tony hears it from other people, it doesn’t change how he feels. Was it a stupid plan? Yes. Is he known for smart ideas? Yes. Is he known for making smart decisions? Not so much. It’s so fucking beyond him how his dumb decision-making keeps hurting the people around him, people that deserve better. It’s giving him a headache just thinking about it so he doesn’t, at least not for the rest of the drive.

When the car finally stops and the trunk pops open, the sweat-drenched duo are met with a not-so-happy-looking Clint, lightly hitting his palm with Thor’s hammer over and over again and again.

“Hi, honey, we’re home!” Tony tries to break the awkward because he can’t stop himself.

“I’ll take that back now.” Massive star linebacker, Thor, with his flowing blonde hair and chiseled features, steps into view and takes his signature hammer from Clint, tossing a set of keys to Stark. “We’re even. Hello, Man of Iron and Love Machine.”

“War Machine, but I’ll take it, buddy.” Rhodey holds out a hand and Clint helps hoist him out of the trunk. Tony holds his hand out and everyone walks away.

“Love Machine, sure,” Tony says, hopping out of the trunk and slamming it shut. His guard goes up because Thor must not know what just happened if he isn’t bashing his skull in. Who is he kidding? Thor is The Man in Asgard. He was probably the first to hear what happened. How could he not be? So why is he acting like nothing happened? Did the hoodie actually work as a legit disguise?

Fuck does paranoia make Tony want to drink himself to sleep.

Natasha and Steve linger by the hood, talking with Sam and Maria, like a teen fashion photoshoot in a magazine he must have seen in a waiting room somewhere. They’re parked outside their favorite diner, which is probably the first place the Asgardians would search for the assholes who trashed their QB’s car, but if anyone can keep the peace, it’s Thor. Inside, Jane Foster waves them over, already sitting with Bruce, probably discussing science-related inquiries. As everyone heads over, Tony hesitates, doesn’t think he belongs or even deserves to sit with them, not after what he did, all the things he’s done. Just as he turns to leave, he nearly runs into Steve.

“Going somewhere?” Steve asks. “The table’s that way.”

“Just realized I’m not in the mood for burgers and fries,” Tony replies, twirling his car keys around his finger. “Filet mignon and pommes frites are more my speed.”

Steve doesn’t buy the front at all. “Come on, stay for a milkshake.”

“Don’t tell me you’re trying to sneak out the back!” Rhodey shouts from their table. “After tonight, you owe me a burger in the very least, Stark!”

“Yeah,” Sam says with a playful smile, “If you leave, who’s gonna pay?” Maria’s sure to smack him for that. “What? We spent all night driving around Asgard, trying to save his tail and burning precious gas money in the process. That’s all I’m sayin’.”

Rhodey starts chanting Tony’s name and the always jovial Thor soon joins in and Clint even bangs utensils against the tabletop to match the rhythm of their joint voices. Steve lays a hand on Tony’s shoulder, gentle, but also keeping him from running away. It doesn’t take long for Tony to give in, half sitting on Bruce’s lap until they slide down the booth bench to make enough space for him. Not that he and his deflated ego need much room.

“So much for our idea to fake rivalry week pranks, hoping the actual rivalry week pranks wouldn’t be too bad.” Clint turns his hand into a crashing plane punctuated by explosion sounds.

Thor clears his throat. “I, for one, would like to say, Steven, it will be an absolute honor making you eat dirt and wish you were never born come Friday night.” Jane smacks the giant of a teenager with one of the plastic menus. “What?” When Thor’s eyes travel to Tony, his jaw tightens and his demeanor darkens. “And after what happened tonight, I’m afraid our friendship can’t save you on the field. It’d be best for you to avoid Asgard entirely, aye.”

“Okay, enough,” Jane says, sending her boyfriend a look. And that’s a big part of why Thor hasn’t squashed Tony like a bug yet. Self-proclaimed science nerd Jane Foster, Tony Stark’s hero. “Can we not talk about football for one meal please?”

“You realize who you’re sitting with, right?” Maria asks.

Tony stays quiet, which is new for him and everyone, but it isn’t awkward. As everyone goes on to groan about Homecoming and tell dumb stories about whatever half of them missed from Clint’s afterparty that ended early on account of the keg running out in the first hour and Clint not planning ahead, Bruce scribbles an equation onto a napkin and slides it over to Tony who solves it easy. Bruce comes up with another and they slide napkins back and forth to keep his mind occupied. Tony hopes Bruce knows how grateful he is that they can do this wordlessly and, yes, he picks up the bill at the end.

 

 

The next morning, Steve gets a text from Bucky, asking if he can come by his house on his early a.m. run. Honestly, it makes Steve’s heart leap in his chest. It feels a little silly, but it feels good too. For weeks now, his mom has been telling him to be patient and give Bucky space and time. Maybe camping out at the hospital and trying to be optimistic at every turn pushed Bucky too fast too soon in what’s clearly an adjustment period. So Steve has been patient and gave him space.

After circling the block three times, trying to build up the nerve despite not knowing what to expect, Steve arrives in front of the Barnes house and laughs at the sight of Bucky sitting out on the porch steps, earphones in, listening to music from a CD player.

“Where did you even get that?” Steve asks. “They still make those things?”

“Not Stark Industries,” Bucky replies, popping the earbuds out. He stops the CD and opens the player as Steve sits beside him. “Darcy made me a mix. The girl’s got taste.”

“Clearly.” Steve presses his finger to the still spinning CD until it slows so he can see the Sharpie CD art. “She doesn’t half-ass anything, does she?”

“That’s Lewis for ya.” Bucky cracks a smile and glances down at his lap and it makes Steve’s heart ache to see an expression he recognizes on his best friend. “I let her use my truck so she made me a mix to say thanks. I thought about making her one in return, but I’m not exactly a music snob hipster. What would I even put on it without embarrassing myself?”

“Wait, you let Darcy drive your truck? You don’t let anyone drive your truck. I’ve never driven the truck.”

“You are mean to the clutch. Darce isn’t so bad, but I had to teach ‘er how to drive stick.” Bucky shakes his head, but then the smile is back and wide. “Top 10 most terrifying experiences of my life. She’s always just on the edge of road rage, but she picked it up quick.”

“And here I was thinking you were locked away in your room, wallowing all this time.”

“I did a little bit of that too…” His voice trails off and it’s obvious they’re on the cusp of something big and important and Steve tells himself to be patient and let Bucky come forth with it at his own pace. “Steve, I need you to promise me you’ll take care of my mom and Rebecca now that I’m…now that I can’t.”

“Bucky, you can still—”

“I know,” he cuts him off. “But I’ve accepted I can’t do things like I used to, not the same way. So I’m asking for your help.”

Steve nods his head without even having to think about it. “Of course. Whatever you or Winnie or Rebecca ever need, I’ll be here.”

“Promise me, Steve.”

“I promise.”

Bucky lifts his big hand and drops it on Steve’s shoulder. Thank you.

Steve closes the CD player and hits the play button, stuffing one bud in his ear and leaving the other for Bucky to use. As they sit there and listen to music, it almost feels like old times even though it’s abundantly clear that things are very, very different now and constantly changing.

 

 

Before Tony can holler for his little bot to bring ice for his scotch, his phone rings.

Pepper.

Of course.

He debates just letting it go to voicemail, but it’s also a dick move to let her continue to call him, thinking maybe one day he’ll answer and say all the things she wants to hear when he won’t. He can’t. So he hits the green button and he plans to say everything he needs to and hopes the next time he checks his notifications there won’t be a call from her anymore because she knows. She knows and she’s given up on him.

“What?” Tony barks into the phone. “What do you think you’re accomplishing by calling me when you know I’m not going to answer? I’m fine, Pepper. I don’t need any of your words of encouragement or your disappointed looks that translate so fucking well through the phone. I don’t need you and you sure as hell don’t need me so you should just stop.”

Silence.

He’s about to check if she hung up on him when…

“Tony,” Pepper says calmly, “Rhodey’s in the hospital.”

Tony knocks his bot over in the dash from his room to his car. He drives straight to the hospital as safely as he can and politely asks Steve’s mother where he can find James Rhodes. When Tony sees him, Rhodey’s face near swollen to the point where he barely recognizes him, it takes every ounce of his strength not to crumble right there in the doorway. His knees wobble and his head spins because this is his doing again.

“Real nice guys,” Rhodey says hoarsely. “Didn’t break any bones because they couldn’t risk me not playing on Friday when they can—fingers crossed—break my bones.”

“This is all my fault,” Tony whispers.

Rhodey scoffs. “Man, stop. I’m sick of you saying that.”

“It’s true.”

“If you would’ve caught the ball, Bucky wouldn’t’ve gotten hurt. If Fury pulled Bucky out and subbed Steve in, Bucky wouldn’t have gotten hurt. If Bucky didn’t try to make that tackle, he wouldn’t have gotten hurt. We can play this game all day, Tony, but where does it get us? I’ll tell you. Nowhere.”

“What the hell do you suggest I do about it?” Tony raises his voice, his eyes glazing over at the sight of Rhodey’s cut, fat lip and his eye that’s barely open.

“You wanna make it up to me?” Rhodey shouts back, refusing to back down. “You want to make it up to Barnes?”

“Tell me,” Tony says, maybe the quietest he’s ever spoken in his life.

“Don’t wail on quarterbacks’ cars! Don’t fucking listen to fucking Rumlow at all. Shit, talk about terrible ideas.” Rhodey tries to shake his head and ends up wincing. “How about stop dropping the damn ball? Show up sober. Show Fury some goddamn respect! It’s not that hard, Tony. I’m going straight into the Marines after graduation and I’d like to do it with a sweet ass championship ring if you know what I mean.”

Tony smiles and if his eyes tear up, neither of them are going to mention it outside this room. “The sweetest ass championship ring like, twice the size of Fury’s. Maybe it’ll light up and transform too.”

Rhodey laughs along and when he lifts his arm, Tony clasps their hands together. “I’m gonna hold you to it.”

Tony sighs, rubbing at his eyes with his sleeve. “Who jumped you?”

“Man, I didn’t nark when Fury asked me. I’m not about to start…” Oh Rhodey, too noble for his own good. “I’m not about to retaliate and Rumlow isn’t about to retaliate on my behalf so that’s the end of that. Just be prepared for the game. It’s going to get ugly fast.”

“Sure.” Tony flashes him a smirk. “If they can catch me.” He gingerly loops an arm around Rhodey’s neck and presses a kiss to the top of his head, the only place that isn’t swollen or crusted with blood. When Tony’s phone starts to buzz, he digs through his pocket and his face drops when he sees the screen. “Uh, I gotta go…”

Tony.”

“Don’t worry. It’s nothing bad or even remotely alcoholic, thus, no fun whatsoever. Well, maybe fun. There’s always room for fun.” When Tony finally stops moving his mouth and Rhodey’s still giving him that stern mask, he sighs. “Barnes needs me.”

Rhodey nods. “Promise me I didn’t get my ass whooped for nothing.”

“I promise. Now, get some rest, Creed.”

“You’re lucky I’m no snitch, Stark, or else my momma would kick you in the balls on your way out!”

“The Stark family jewels thank you kindly!”

Tony smiles on his way out and hides the way his hands shake in the pockets of his hoodie.

Barnes needs me.

How dramatic.

Tony parks on the street in front of the Barnes house and he’d like a moment to recollect himself, to hype himself up, but Bucky’s waiting out front. At least he isn’t alone. Darcy Lewis is with him. She’s Tony’s favorite kind of human. She’s either going to make or break the awkward. As Tony walks up to them, he notices backpacks and duffle bags and a rolling suitcase on the porch steps beside them.

“You two planning to elope or something?” Tony asks.

“Eh, we were thinking more barnyard wedding,” Darcy replies, leaning into Bucky for effect. “All the bridesmaids would wear cowboy boots and the entire wedding party has to learn to line dance. Steve would have to learn to line dance. Our wedding invitation would just be Jason Garrett’s head Photoshopped on John Wayne’s body.”

“I hate the Cowboys,” Bucky mutters.

“I was going for irony, lover.” Darcy points over Bucky, who’s making a face, with her thumb. “See, we’re perfect for each other.”

“Modern day soulmates,” Tony agrees. “So how can I be of assistance?”

Bucky looks up and down the street, making sure no one else is around before he answers, “Drive us to the bus station? Our bus leaves in an hour.”

“As much as I love hanging around and listening to my dad yell at his stripper girlfriend, whose name is Cherry, by the way. Cherry! I thought I was over it, but clearly not. I will lose my mind if I stay in that house another minute. Who knew I’d be so desperate to go back to school?”

Tony nods his head as Darcy talks and talks and talks. It’s fact the girl is a talker, but it also kind of feels like she’s talking and talking and talking so Bucky doesn’t have to. Tony goes with it. Not like he’s in any position to question or criticize the guy’s life.

“I wish I knew it’d be the two of you,” Tony says as he starts to back away toward his car. “I would’ve brought a car with a backseat.”

“Oh, I don’t mind Bucky sitting on my lap or anything,” Darcy teases, shouldering her backpack. She reaches for her suitcase on wheels, but Bucky snatches the handle before she can. He lifts the duffle onto the suitcase, slings his backpack over his good shoulders and takes a firm hold of the handle of her suitcase. No one questions or tries to stop him as they walk over to Tony’s Audi.

Seeing an opportunity, Tony puts on a smarmy smirk and takes his turn to tease. “Knowing Jamie Boy, he planned for it. I’m stealing that. Smooth as always, Barnes.”

“He could totally write a book,” Darcy plays along. “I can see it now. A Hundred and One Ways to Get a Girl in Your Lap by James Buchanan Barnes.”

“New York Time’s Best Seller List easy,” Tony agrees. “Hell, I’d buy it. Hell, I’d endorse it.”

“What can I say?” Bucky says with exaggerated bravado. “When you’re good, you’re good.”

As Darcy goes on to toss out cover art ideas, Tony feels the tension ease. Bucky clearly isn’t fine, but he’s alive and joking and smiling. His life is forever changed, but he’s resilient. A little voice in the back of his head whispers, he’s also running away. But that’s Bucky’s business. After failing him, Tony’s ready to give Bucky whatever he wants and needs, what Steve and everyone else will think and say be damned. If this is what Bucky needs to heal, Tony’s going to deliver.

“What happened to me, it’s not on you,” Bucky tells him when Darcy runs into a local deli to grab them a few subs for the road. Tony’s tapping fingers still on the wheel of his car and he can feel Bucky’s eyes peering over at him. “If that’s what you’re thinking and why you’re being an asshole to everyone, in my honor or some backward shit, you can stop now. That might sound hypocritical. That’s part of why I need some time away. I’m gonna spend some time at my dad’s, seeing some other doctors. I don’t wanna take it out on the people I care about just because I’m mad at myself.”

Tony nods in understanding. “You know Steve is going to want to come after you.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t tell ‘im I was going or where and you won’t either.”

Tony nods again. “Maybe I should take a play out of your book. I hear Malibu is nice this time of year.”

Bucky’s jaw clenches and his expression darkens. “I can’t tell you what to do, Tony, but if I could, I’d be out on that field. I’m not choosing to abandon the team. I can’t play. I’m never going to be able to play again, but you can.” Bucky sweeps his fingers through his hair that keeps getting longer and more unkempt by the day. “Like I said, what happened to me isn’t on you, I don’t think you need it, but if, in some backward shit way you do, I forgive you, Tony.”

Tony wants to get defensive or sarcastic or a classic Tony Stark mix of both, but can’t make much of an effort to be vocal. The fact that Bucky texted Tony and initiated this moment, well, it certainly is something, isn’t it?

“I guess someone’s gotta bail Steve out on the field. We can’t exactly trust that Falcon guy or the speedster, can we?” Tony nods and squares his shoulders. “You take all the time you need. The team’s in good hands.”

Bucky cracks a smile. “When I get back, you assholes better be a ‘ship contender.”

“Oh, the pressure,” Tony says sarcastically. He has a superpower for knowing when it’s time to lighten a mood and his senses are certainly tingling. “So Darcy Lewis, huh? The Sometimes Girl Next Door.”

“We’re just going in the same direction.”

“Uh-huh. So does this mean both you and Red are back on the open market?”

Bucky glances down at his phone in his lap as he answers. “We always were. Not every almost has gotta be as complicated as you and Pepper.”

“Huh, never knew that. Why am I just finding out right now?”

Before Tony can probe purely because he likes to know things, especially things other people don’t, Darcy comes bouncing out of the deli with a brown paper bag swinging at her side. After she slides onto Bucky’s lap like she was made to, unafraid to be near or touch his lame arm. “What’d I miss?”

“Guy talk, Miss Lewis,” Tony says, starting the engine. “Top secret classified shit.”

And later, as he leans against the side of his car and watches Bucky and Darcy walk into the bus station, her talking his ear off a mile a minute and him genuinely interested in what she has to say, Tony wonders if this is a mistake. He knows that look Natasha would give him and what Steve would do, but he isn’t either of them. He isn’t going to try to make a choice for Bucky. This fucked up injury has already taken away so many opportunities Bucky could have had and choices he could have made. Who’s Tony to try to stop him from what he needs to do?

A lot later, when Tony’s in his lab, reading up on prosthetics and Stark Industries’ current research and development of cybernetic implants, his phone buzzes with a text from Darcy. Attached is a photo of her and Bucky with a Greyhound bus behind them and she’s smiling and her foot is popped and he’s smiling and it isn't forced for once. Tony smiles too, for what feels like the first time in weeks, and he doesn’t regret his decision one bit.

Chapter Text


Track 07 

Ego - A Tribe Called Quest 


  

Rivalry Week.

The Leiber High Avengers vs. The Asgard High Warriors

The score is 20-21.

The Avengers are down by 1.

At halftime, the Avengers hunker down in the visiting locker room for a breather. They’re all sweaty and dirty, still trying to catch their breath. Some are even getting patched up. Pietro, in particular, has nasty grass skin burns from his elbows to his wrists on both arms, but his face says he’s more disappointed in himself than in pain.

All the coaches circle the defense, reaming them for the piss poor job they’ve done thus far. After boasting to be the best defense in the league, it’s pathetic to let the other team score 21 points on you. Despite his superiors screaming right in his face, Rumlow, who’s got a black eye and a bandage on his chin, doesn’t take his murderous eyes off T’Challa, who in turn, ignores him.

Fury walks into the room and resists the urge to sigh or punch something. He doesn’t even have to say anything. The room quiets at his presence alone.

“I’ve got four words for you,” Fury announces, all eyes on him. He counts on his fingers as he says, “Points on every drive.”

Despite all the glum, frustrated faces around the room, a round of applause breaks out and multiple hands dart out to smack Steve congratulatory on his back and shoulder pads. Tony even leans over Hogan to flick his ear.

“No thanks to the run game and the damn negative three yards racked up,” Fury casts Pietro and Coach Phillips a look, “our offense managed to score on every drive. The line held and it’s about damn time that cannon arm of yours decided to show up on game day, Rogers.”

Sweaty and trying not to wheeze too loudly, Steve gives a thin smile to show his gratitude, but keeping up with the other team isn’t exactly winning. It means they still have a chance is all. There’s still so much game to be played. He needs to focus. After the past week, it’s a miracle he can focus on anything other than the fact that his injured best friend just left town without telling anyone, not even his mom or sister.

“Two touchdowns, no interceptions. Two field goals, dead center. Nice work, offense. Keep it up.” Fury gives Steve a little nod, nothing more, nothing less. When he turns and swoops down on the defense, his demeanor changes to one of outrage. “Now, you dumbasses. Newsflash, children, I don’t give a damn if you don’t like each other. I don’t give one single damn if you hate each other’s guts. If you don’t put your goddamn egos aside and play like a team, you’re going to lose this game for us. How does that help your defense deserves respect soapbox, Rumlow?”

“It doesn’t, sir.”

“That was rhetorical,” Fury says sharply. “But damn right it doesn’t.” He takes a deep breath, eyes sweeping over the exhausted yet determined young men in front of him. “Alright. Let’s go out and take this win home.”

“Yes, sir!”

As they run back onto the field, Steve sees the tension between the Wakandan defenders and Rumlow’s so-called STRIKE team. It’s definitely cause for worry, but no matter how much he racks his brain for a solution, he comes up empty. There’s nothing he can do other than his job.

After both teams go scoreless in the third quarter, late in the fourth, the Warriors put three more points on the board with a field goal.

The play of the game comes when the Avengers offensive linemen dig deep and hold off Thor and the Warriors as Steve looks down the field, poised to throw. When he can’t find anyone open, Steve tucks the ball under one arm and runs. He crosses the forty-five, then the fifty! Thor charges right at him. Steve fakes a toss to Pietro, who’s running a few steps behind him. Thor flinch. Steve keeps the ball and continues down the field. When two Warriors come right at him, Steve passes the ball laterally to Pietro, who speeds off down the field and takes the ball in for a touchdown!

Steve punches the air, watching all the guys run down to the end zone to celebrate with Pietro. Fury shouts for their attention, holding up two fingers. They’re going for the two-point conversion. Steve gets his head back in the game quick and runs to Fury for further orders.

When Steve’s running back onto the field, Fury shouts, “I didn’t call that play! That run and lateral pass to the back. Where’d you learn it?”

“Romanoff’s mini-camp from hell, sir.” Steve smiles up at the stands, where he finds Natasha sitting between Maria and Sif. As excited as he’d been at the thought of Natasha in The Nutcracker, he also likes having her here at the games. He likes finding her when he starts to lose his nerve and seeing the you’ve got this, Steve, in her steady gaze. It gets him through the game just like how she got him through this past week.

They line up at the two yard line. Hogan snaps the ball. Steve and the pocket roll out, buying enough time for Sam to get open in the end zone. Steve throws up a floater that Sam snatches out of the air, tucks and rolls to the ground for an extra two points!

The score: 28-24

The Avengers are winning with a minute thirty left on the clock. It’s up to the defense. All they need to do is keep the Warriors from scoring a touchdown and they win the game. Had it been a week ago, it would almost be a given that the defense has this handled.

“Listen,” Rumlow growls at T’Challa, who’s ignoring him even out on the field. “All I want to do right now is beat your ass out here, where your bald little whore can’t fight your battles for you, but you and me, we got a job to do, a game to win. Quit being a prick.”

“Ironic coming from you,” T’Challa says coolly. “The way you talk about women.” T’Challa hisses in disgust. “No wonder you’re still a virgin.”

Instead of barking out something along the lines of, I get plenty ass thanks for asking, like everyone expects, Rumlow stops in his tracks. Even with his helmet obscuring most of his face, it’s evident he is pissed. Once the Warriors snap the ball, Fandral throws up this short pass to the tight end right behind the mess of linesman. T’Challa easily wraps him up for a short yard gain when Rumlow comes charging out of nowhere right into T’Challa, helmets clashing, all three hitting the field.

Jesus Christ,” one of the commentators curses. “I’ve seen plenty of worked up, testosterone overload late hits, but have you ever seen someone ram his own guy?”

“The Avengers defense is a mess tonight.”

The referee throws out a yellow flag and Rumlow is quick on his feet to complain. Sam and Rhodey are there to help T’Challa, whose helmet flew off in the collision. “C’mon, ref! I wasn’t gonna let ‘im break the tackle and get that first down! It was the momentum! I couldn’t stop!”

No matter how much he complains, Rumlow gives the Warriors fifteen yards and an automatic first down, bringing them closer to the end zone. Fury’s boiling over with anger on the sideline, but makes no move to call Rumlow off the field.

Fandral, the opposing quarterback, has to be seeing red, still reeling after what happened to his car. So far this game, when the Avengers defense aren’t beating themselves, Fandral is on a revenge tour, putting up points every way he can. His eyes are on Jack Rollins. After all, Rollins’ truck was the one seen leaving the scene of the crime.

The Warriors go with a two tight end set and run the ball right up the gut. One TE peels to the outside, freezing Rhodey and drawing one of the Wakandan linemen away from the hole. When Rollins attempts to stop the run, the other TE runs him the hell over, clearing a lane for the running back to zoom through before being pulled down by Clint out of bounds, but not before picking up another first down.

Rollins doesn’t get up. As the Avengers coaching staff runs out to assess him, Rumlow has had enough. He goes right up to Fandral, getting in his face until their helmets crash against each other.

“Next time you mess with a man’s car, you might want to tell your boyfriend to leave his garbage truck at home,” Fandral coos tauntingly.

“Just you wait,” Rumlow hisses. “I’m about to make you my bitch.”

“Simmer down, Brock.” Clint grabs him by the arm and yanks him away like an annoyed owner would a disobedient dog. “Let’s just play football.”

“Quarterback’s mine,” Rumlow growls at his defenders while the offense huddles up.

“You need to get it together,” Rhodey scolds him. “If coach wasn’t desperate, he’d take your ass outta the game.”

“Just shut up and look pretty, Rhodes,” Rumlow replies. “I’m gonna have that bitch on his back so quick, you won’t have to do a thing.”

“Big talk,” T’Challa says. “Let’s see you back it up.”

Fourth down.

The Warriors are in field goal range, but it’s not enough. They have to go for it. All the Avengers need to do is hold them for this next down and they win the game. Fandral receives the snap and doesn’t step back. As the lines clash, Rumlow is so busy trying to find a way to get to Fandral, he misses the handoff to the dive back, who explodes through the line of scrimmage. With the secondary tied up with the receivers and Rumlow out of position, the dive back has a clear path to the end zone and runs it in for a touchdown.

The score: 31-28

The Avengers could tie the game with a field goal, but there are only seconds left on the clock. The Avengers need a miracle.

As the clock expires, Hogan snaps the ball to Steve. He backpedals and scrambles as the pocket collapses, trying to buy his receivers time to get to the end zone. Thor flies right at Steve and grabs him around the waist, but Steve breaks the tackle and runs toward the sideline. With every last bit of strength he has, Steve heaves the ball into the air, a beautiful throw that silences the crowd. The ball sails into the end zone and falls right into the crook of Tony’s arm, but before his feet hit the green, Hogun drives into him and the ball pops out, tumbling away.

“Stark could not hold onto the ball. The clock has run out! Warriors win! Warriors win!”

“And another heartbreaking loss for the Avengers.”

Steve remains on the field, frozen. He did everything he possibly could have. Everything. And they still lost. He can’t help, but hear Coach Phillips’ voice in the back of his head, telling him he isn’t enough.

Thor, with his helmet off and his golden, albeit sweaty hair flowing behind him, tears himself away from celebrating with his teammates to lift Steve off his feet in a bear hug.

“You play with heart, my friend,” Thor says, and you know he means every word. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Steve’s still crushed, but he forces a smile. It’d make him feel rotten to let his bitterness show when Thor is here, being so genuinely gracious. “Yeah, well, we’ll see you in the playoffs.”

Thor laughs that great laugh of his. “I look forward to it.”

As the Warriors continue to celebrate on the field, Steve removes his helmet and drags his feet all the way to the locker room.

 

 

“You owe me twenty, Hill.” With the biggest smile, Sif holds out a palm expectantly. “Cough it up.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Maria grumbles, retrieving a crumbled twenty from the pocket of her high-waisted shorts. “There goes my gas money for the week.” Maria's eyes shoot over to Natasha, who’s leaning back against a giant, gold mural of Asgard’s viking warrior mascot. “Looks like my super secret insider who encouraged me to bet on the Bad News Bears is driving me to school all week.”

Natasha drags her eyes away from deleting text after text from girls asking why she quit The Nutcracker. “I did not,” Natasha argues. “You asked me if their chances of winning were good. I said yes and I wasn’t wrong.”

“Also, the Bad News Bears was baseball, wasn’t it?” Sif asks.

“Double or nothing?” Maria proposes, bitting on the tip of her tongue. “Who are the Warriors playing next week?”

“We play those snotty Leviathan kids,” Sif replies, missing the absolute look Maria sends Natasha. “What about your boys?”

“East Hell Devils,” Maria answers. “Hmm, I wonder what those two teams have in common.”

“Maria, shut up,” Natasha snaps.

“They’ve all won and lost while the Warriors remain undefeated,” Sif practically sings. She isn’t a cheerleader or a rally girl, but a little more invested in the game and her hometown team succeeding than the average fan. It’s why she gets along with Natasha so well.

“Natasha’s dated superstar players from both teams.”

Sif’s eyes alight with excitement. “Tell me more, tell me more.”

“I was young and stupid,” Natasha says dismissively. “I don’t really keep up with Leviathan since we aren’t playing them in the regular season, but they won’t shut up about how strong their o-line is, brag about how their quarterback is untouchable.”

“Well, they’re yet to face Thor, aren’t they?” There’s pride in Sif’s voice, a little more than if she were talking about anyone else. “If the coach had enough sense to play me, I’d surely quiet those silly boys.”

Natasha smirks at the mental image of Sif, goddess of the hunt, absolutely running her ex-boyfriend the hell over. “Now that I’d put money on.”

“How about we double or nothing if your Avengers make it to playoffs, huh?” Sif’s sure to make the twenty dollar bill dance between her fingers and right in Maria’s face. “Give you a chance to win this back.”

“Deal,” Maria agrees.

Out of the corner of her eye, Natasha sees the Avengers boarding their school bus, gearing up for the long, probably sullen ride home. After making sure Maria has a ride back to Midgard, Natasha walks over. It isn’t exactly sanctioned, but none of the staff, least of all Fury, will argue or even say anything when Natasha invites herself aboard. It’s quieter than you’d expect from a small enclosed space full of teenage boys, but at least Clint and Sam seem to be in good spirits, chatting amicably near the middle of the bus.

“Hey Romanoff,” Sam says. “Kickback at my place?”

“His mom baked cookies,” Clint gushes, and from the excitement in his voice, you know he’s in. “And the entertainment for the night is Wilson asking Maria to homecoming.”

“Good luck with that.” Natasha finally spots Steve alone at the very back of the bus, eyes closed and forehead pressed to the window. Without saying anything else, Natasha makes her way over to him. Rumlow doesn’t make a snide comment to her as she passes him so you know he’s feeling just as shitty as just about everyone else.

“Hey, Steve,” Natasha says quietly.

His eyes open at the sound of her voice, but he’s so beat, mentally and physically, he can’t even pretend. He doesn’t try to hide how down he is. He played better than anyone could have expected and here he is, sulking in the back of the bus. Natasha knows there’s no cheering him up so she doesn’t try, not yet, at least. Her eyes dart to his bag on the seat next to him. Steve moves it to the ground so Natasha can sit beside him. She doesn’t say anything, just tucks her legs beneath her and rests her head on his shoulder. Steve leans into her and closes his eyes again. And they stay like that for the entire ride home.

 

 

“Losing a game isn’t the end of the world, Steve.”

Steve lifts his face from where it’s pressed tight against a pillow and Peggy is watching him from the screen of his computer. She’s giving him her I’m Peggy Carter and you’re smart enough to know to listen to me expression. Steve knows it well and always trusts it. After the game last night, he went straight to bed and he doesn’t feel any better this morning.

“It’s more than just a game, Peg.”

“Of course, it is. It’s football in Texas! It’s life!” She’s mocking him a little or, well, a lot, but sweetens it with a smile. Peggy taps her fingers against the screen of her phone and hums. “Oh, what’s this?” Peggy flashes her phone at him. “Game. Noun. A form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength or luck.”

“Luck?”

“It’s Google, Steve. Google never lies.” When Steve rests his cheek on his pillow and closes his eyes, Peggy’s lips tug down before her eyes light with an idea. “Let’s talk about something else, another pressing matter.” She pauses for dramatic effect, clearly wanting his attention, so he gives it to her. “Homecoming.” Steve groans and goes back to hiding in his pillow. He goes as far as pulling the sheets over his head, cocooning himself. “Real mature, Steven Grant.” He mumbles a muffled reply. “Could you repeat that? I couldn’t quite hear you.”

“I’m not going to homecoming," Steve says. "No one wants to go with the guy who led the Avengers to their worst start in the last ten years.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Steve. I could name five girls who would be delighted to go to homecoming with you just off the top of my head.”

“Your cousin doesn’t count.”

Peggy giggles. Before she can build a compelling argument as to why he shouldn’t squander his last high school homecoming ever, Natasha walks in and smacks Steve on the back with a folded newspaper.

“Nat—”

“Before you say anything, you have to hear this,” Natasha insists, unfolding the newspaper and reading, “Despite what’s been said by critics quick to jump the gun, the Avengers’ biggest weakness wasn’t their quarterback Friday night, but rather a breakdown in their defensive core. Quarterback Steve Rogers defied all doubt and scored over all expectations. Light on his feet, sneaky in execution, and unafraid to tuck the ball and run, a trait not even James Barnes possessed. He stepped up on the heels of tragedy and fights every second he’s on the field. Steve Rogers is our quarterback and Midgard is lucky to have him.”

“Did Maria write that?”

“It’s the Midgardian Post, dummy.” Natasha smacks him with the newspaper again just for good measure. “It sounds to me like all your hard work is paying off. And now we build off of it.”

“We still lost,” Steve grumbles.

“We lost because of the defense or lack of defense. The only reason we had a fighting chance was because the o-line handled Thor and you made quick, smart decisions. You’ve won the people’s respect, which is harder than winning games, if you ask me.” Natasha touches his arm, letting her fingers slide down the sleeve of his flannel shirt. “Trust me, Steve. This is a win.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself!” Peggy shouts cheerily.

Natasha reacts like a cat being doused with water, pulling her hand back and standing from the bed entirely. Her eyes scan the room before finding Peggy beaming at her on Steve’s computer.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” Peggy says with a Cheshire Cat grin. “Carry on, Coach Romanoff.”

Natasha lets out this little sound that almost sounds like a nervous, halted laugh. If he didn’t know any better he’d think the great, controlled Natasha Romanoff is flustered.

“Peggy, hey,” Natasha says. “I didn’t know you two were…I can leave.”

“No, no, no!” Peggy calls out. “Stay. We can tag team Mr. Captain America.” Natasha obliges and sits very stiff and very still on the very edge of the bed. “Steve seems to think there isn’t a single girl in Midgard who’d want to be his homecoming date.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Either he’s playing dumb or I might need to rush him off for concussion protocol.”

“I’d put my money on the former,” Peggy says. “Come on, Steve. It’s our last year of high school, last chance and you’re captain of the football team. You should be out enjoying every last bit of it, not here, video chatting with me and if those were your plans, sorry, I’ve already got a homecoming date of my own.”

Steve sees the way Natasha raises an eyebrow in his pretrials, but pretends he doesn’t. “Your cousin doesn’t count,” he teases.

Peggy laughs at him with so much love. He spent years wishing she’d just look at him and now here she is like this from thousands of miles away.

“I’m going to homecoming with Angie, actually,” Peggy explains. Steve’s heard all about Angie, but Peggy turns toward Natasha and continues on. “Nice girl. She’s got this very distinct New York accent that kind of reminds me of Sarah when she’s yelling at Steve to get his muddy trainers away from her freshly mopped floor.” Peggy sighs and Steve knows to tell his mom Peggy misses her. “Here’s an idea. Why don’t you two go together?”

Steve opens his mouth to suggest maybe that isn’t the greatest idea, but Natasha beats him to it. “No, I mean, I’m on the planning committee so I’m swamped with last minute prep and I have to get there early to set up and decorate. I’d be an awful date.”

“Steve wouldn’t mind,” Peggy insists. “He could hold your purse all night and you could teach him some proper dance steps. It’d do him well to learn from a ballerina. Lord knows he stepped all over my feet at the Stork Hop.”

“You never said anything to me!” Steve shouts accusingly.

Peggy throws up her hands helplessly. “What can I say? I thought you were cute and maybe I wanted you to like me as much as you wanted me to like you.” Steve realizes how hard he’s smiling, but can't stop. Suddenly, Peggy’s phone buzzes in her hand. “Oh, I’ve got to run. Dress shopping.” Peggy tilts her chin down and points a finger at him. “Steve, I expect pictures of you having the time of your life at homecoming. Natasha, I trust you’ll give him the push he needs.” Then she mock-whispers, “Set him up with a girl, but not just any girl, one who won’t just use him for his body.”

“Easier said than done,” Natasha says. “Steve’s, well, stubborn.”

“You don’t say?”

“Peggy,” Steve says firmly. “You don’t wanna keep Angie waiting.”

“Well, is this how it’s going to be then?” Peggy asks, mostly to Natasha. “I move away and he’s just dismissing me during our quality time.” Peggy slides her phone into her purse and hikes it up her shoulder. “Also, Steve, if you really do bring my cousin to homecoming, I definitely want pictures so I can laugh my arse off.”

“Aw, Peg, I miss you already,” Steve says with sarcastic affection.

“As I you, my darling.” Peggy leans into the camera with a soft, meaningful smile. As she stands from her desk, she waves at the camera. “Nice chatting, Natasha. I trust you’ll keep this one in line while I’m away.” In a mock whisper, Peggy adds, “And find him a homecoming date.”

“I’ll do what I can.” Natasha waves at the computer and once the video call ends, she picks up the nearest pillow and smacks Steve with it. “You could have warned me.”

Steve laughs and gets another face full of pillow. “What? It’s just Peggy.” Steve rubs his face and the amusement drops into something more serious. “Nat, I’ve been meaning to tell you—”

“Steve! Natasha!” Sarah shouts from downstairs. “I don’t want either of you leaving this house until you eat breakfast! Come on! It’s getting cold!”

“We need to leave soon and you still need to put clothes on,” Natasha says, on her feet and halfway to the door in the time it takes Steve to lose his nerve. “Tell me in the car, alright?”

He hears Natasha and his mom already chatting in the kitchen before he even sits up. With a deep breath, he exhales, “Nat, Peggy and I broke up, but we’re still friends, as you can see, and I don’t know why it’s so hard to tell you…”

Steve groans into his pillow, wondering what Bucky would encourage him to do. Not that Steve would consult Bucky on it. After all, Nat was sort of Bucky’s girl. He’d probably ask the why question too and Steve wouldn’t know what to say. Now he doesn’t feel right bringing Bucky up in front of her. He saves all his worry-laced thoughts for his mom, who tells him Bucky’s safe, staying with his dad in Dallas, and to give him time. It isn’t enough for Steve, but like most things, it’s out of his control.

For now, all he can do is carry on with his life, get out of bed and get dressed. It’s a new day. It’s the beginning of a new week. They have a new team to focus on. Just because someone at the Midgardian Post thinks he’s a decent QB doesn’t mean Fury won’t kick his ass for being late to film session.

 

 

Where are you?

Answer your phone.

Why aren’t you taking my calls?

I demand you return. This is where you belong.

Once upon a time, Natasha’s cell phone would explode with texts and voice messages like that, all from her once and now thankfully ex-boyfriend. It still makes her feel a little sick that she ever convinced herself she cared about him and that he cared about her. This particular flurry of texts isn’t from him, but Madame B. That’s even harder to wrap her head around.

After that first rehearsal, Natasha decided, to hell with it. The following Friday, she just didn’t show up, didn’t call. Now she receives taunting texts from the likes of Yelena and a few of the other girls, branding her a quitter, but she just deletes them without a second thought. If she won’t be investing all her time and energy into the Nutcracker, then there’s still school and football.

Then the texts from Madame B started appearing and of course, Natasha feels a little smug. The fact that the woman would crack first is a welcomed surprise. Natasha knows her ability and skill with her pointe shoes laced up her ankles. Out of all the girls hopelessly devoted to pleasing Madame B, there’s no doubt Natasha is the best fit to play Sugar Plum. Everyone knows it and Madame B has finally admitted it.

As nice as it feels to be needed, Natasha refuses to have another night like that first night. She also stubbornly refuses to miss any more football games.

“Uh, are you okay?”

Natasha blinks and realizes she’s been staring into her open locker. It’s a clean, sparely decorated locker. There are a bunch of Polaroid pictures stuck to the inside—Clint and Maria flipping off the camera together, Pepper and Natasha by the bonfire with Tony photobombing in the background, and one where Steve is sandwiched between her and Bucky. That last one leaves a bittersweet taste in her mouth every time she dares to look, which hasn’t been often lately. He’s been gone for more than a week now and Steve hasn’t mentioned him, not that she pushes him to.

“Natalia?”

She whirls around when she hears that and Pietro nearly jumps back.

“Where did you hear that name?” Natasha snaps at him.

“It is your name, no?”

“No. It’s Natasha.” She slams her locker a little harder than necessary. “Did you need something?”

“Yes, I was wondering if you would like to go to homecoming? With me, obviously.” The kid leans against the wall of lockers and slicks his fingers through his slightly wavy hair. Natasha has to resist the urge to laugh.

“No.”

Pietro screws up his face like he must have heard her wrong. “No?”

“No,” Natasha repeats, just to drive the message home. “For one, you’re a sophomore. Two, I’m going to be too busy to babysit. I don't need a date. Sorry.”

“Your loss,” Pietro announces with a simple shrug before strutting away with what he thinks constitutes swagger.

Boys.

“Jeez, Red, what is that? Like the twelfth eligible bachelor you’ve turned down today?” Tony asks. His hair is combed, his clothes are neat and he surprisingly doesn’t smell like a dive bar after midnight. “Who knew snagging a rose from you was such a recherché affair?”

“What do you want, Tony?” Natasha asks, straight to the point, no room for funny business. “If you’re going to ask me to homecoming, I’ll make it easier for you—no.”

“No, and if I did, I wouldn’t just ask. Who do you think you’re talking to here?” He scoffs at the idea of something so simple. “No, I’m asking Pepper via elaborate scavenger hunt at lunch today. I need you to be in plain sight and lure her to the courtyard. Can you do that, agent?”

“Yeah, that only works when Fury calls her that,” Clint says in passing.

“Clint, wait up.” Natasha picks up her pace to catch up with him and Tony is hot on her trail.

“Wait, you didn’t say yes or no. Come on, Red,” Tony presses. “Do you want me to beg? I promise it won’t be pretty.”

“Fine, I’ll do it,” she agrees. “For Pepper. And don’t be surprised if she shuts you down. You’ve been an ass lately, worse than usual.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Tony opens his arms up like he’s going to hug her and Natasha moves out of his reach, a clear warning not to touch her. “So, who are you waiting on to ask you? Since you’re helping me, maybe I can return the favor.”

“No,” Natasha says, just as Clint cough into his fist and it sounds a lot like, “Rogers.”

And Natasha turns right around and gives Clint a menacing glare, though it’s less effective on her best friend. Damn him.

“Interesting.” Tony twiddles his imaginary mustache. “You really, seriously have a thing for quarterbacks?”

“Peggy suggested they go together,” Clint says with a ready to start shit glint in his eyes.

“Ah, dear ol’ Aunt Peg,” Tony says, full of affection. “You know the rule, Romanoff. Do as Peggy says. She probably figured you’d do a decent job of keeping all the thirsty girls and their grubby hands off her precious Capsicle. Has anyone ever told you that you are terrifying?”

“Get to class, Tony.” Natasha pushes ahead with Clint at her side as usual. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“The lame fake cough, but also what was said with the lame fake cough in front of Tony of all people?”

Clint chuckles. “I just thought you might wanna go with him. What other dude do you use as a human pillow? Plus, if you said you were going with Steve, all the poor guys who never stood a chance will quit bugging you. Maybe.”

“And take away the satisfaction of saying ‘no’ and bursting egos?” Natasha kids and jokes, but she really does find it annoying, especially the guys who can’t take a hint as easily as Pietro did. “Have you gotten around to groveling for forgiveness and asking Bobbi?”

“She’s too cool for homecoming, remember?” Clint rolls his eyes and starts to turn down a different hallway than the one that leads to Natasha’s next class. “Anyway, I’ll see you at lunch. Fury wants to see me before I skip third period. Know what that’s about?”

“He didn’t say anything to me, but maybe you should wear your helmet just incase.”

 

 

Clint Barton isn’t a stranger to Fury’s office. If asked, having to sit in a big comfy chair in front of Fury’s large mahogany desk with that one eye getting under your skin to get to your soul and shred straight through it is unlike anything else, a fate worse than hell.

“One interception, one defensive touchdown, a blocked punt and countless textbook tackles,” Fury lists on his fingers after a full minute of just staring him down. “All in the Asgard game. Why, by the end of the game, their QB wouldn't even throw down your side of the field. It’s impressive.”

“Thank you, sir. I do what I can.”

“Do you know what’s not impressive?” Fury opens a folder and lines up paper after paper in front of Clint on the desk. “C in English, Ds in Math and History and the countless calls I get from your teachers about how you don’t show up to class and if you do, you’re either sleeping or carving arrows into the desk!”

Clint shrinks back at the fury behind Fury’s voice (ba-dum-tshh) and he honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the former linebacker flips his whole damn desk. Instead, Fury runs his hand down the length of his tired face and asks, “What do you want to do with your life, Barton?”

“With all due respect, sir, if I wanted to answer that, I’d go to the guidance counselor.”

“Oh, I spoke to the guidance counselor and she told me the only time you’re ever in her office is to try to drop classes you need to graduate. So tell me, what do you want to do once you’re free of this place? I know your brother has it in his head you could make a run at university, but not with these grades.”

As Clint sits in that plush chair that would be comfortable if not for Fury’s cyclops stare trying to pull him apart, he realizes no one has ever asked him before. Barney assumes he should want the whole college thing with some weird hope of living vicariously through him. Most just assume he’ll end up like his brother or his dad—stuck or gone.

“I-I don’t know.”

“Well, you best figure it out,” Fury says sharply. “Between you and me, it’s an unspoken truth that football players get it easier than most so for so many of your teachers to complain about you, you must have really pissed them off. At this rate, I can’t play you if you don’t bring up your grades and it’d be a damn shame to play without our best on defense, especially with the way your teammates are acting right now.”

Clint sits a little taller and nods firmly. “Yes, sir.”

“Damn right.” Fury grabs a slip of paper off a stack of documents on his desk and hands it to Clint. “I see you have study hall third period. From now on, every third period you’ll report to the library to meet your tutor.” Clint makes a face. “You didn’t think I’d trust you to mount this miraculous comeback on your own, did you?”

“Coach—”

“Right,” Fury cuts him off. “You can think of your tutor as an addition to my coaching staff and you will treat her as such. I talked to her personally and she’s a hardass who doesn’t give a shit about football so don’t even think of trying to charm your way out of this one.”

“Thanks, coach. You shouldn’t have.”

The bell rings and you’d think Clint would feel relieved, saved by the bell and all that, but Fury’s grin ruins it.

“You better head to the library, don’t wanna be late for your first tutoring session and make a bad first impression,” Fury warns. “I also told her not to be afraid to make you do push-ups or run laps if you aren’t compliant and if you aren’t compliant, you know I’m gonna hear about it and you know what happens after that.”

“I’ll try to do my best, sir,” Clint says, already out of his seat.

“You won’t try,” Fury corrects him. “You will.”

Clint pauses at the door and gives Fury a nod before heading to the library per orders. He wonders who Fury enlisted to be his tutor. He adores Mrs. Jarvis, the woman lets him eat his protein bars and cheers him on as he juggles and flips Gatorade bottles right beneath the no food or drinks in the library sign. He’d hate to see her turn into a hardass and take the fun outta study hall because Fury said so. Clint reads the slip of paper Fury handed him and finds a name:

Laura.

 

 

Sam Wilson’s mom makes the best chocolate chip cookies, a fact Steve will downplay if his mom ever asks him whose is better. Sweet milk chocolate, golden, crunchy outside and the good kind of chewy in the middle. Steve swears he’s in love with these cookies, stuffing his mouth as he half-listens to Sam trying to game plan how to ask Maria Hill to homecoming.

“Just ask her,” Steve suggests, stuffing another cookie into his mouth.

Sam narrows his eyes from across their usual lunch table. “You can’t just ask a girl to a school dance.”

As Bruce takes a seat at their table, setting down his tray, Steve asks, “Bruce, have you asked Betty to homecoming yet?” When Bruce nods, busy cleaning his glasses with the end of his shirt, Steve gives Sam a look as if to say, see.

“They don’t count,” Sam says. “Practically married couples don’t count.”

“I’ve known Maria for years now and I promise you, putting on some big production isn’t the way to go,” Bruce insists. “I’d take the Steve route and just ask her.”

Sam glowers and shoves a cookie into his own mouth. “Yeah, I’ll take the Steve route when Steve takes the Steve routine.”

“His girlfriend’s in New York and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have to ask Peggy, it’d just be assumed,” Bruce says, fixing his glasses on the bridge of his nose.

“So he don’t count either,” Sam says. “I know I can’t outdo Stark, but I gotta do something.”

Just then, Tony throws open the cafeteria door with a dramatic shout of, “She said yes!”

Right behind him, Pepper walks into the room with a giant bouquet of flowers tucked in the crook of her arm and a box of chocolate in the other. On the box of chocolate is a Post-It note that says, Contains No Strawberries. See! I remembered this time! And I’m still sorry about That Other Time We Don’t Talk About! Love, Tony. Natasha and Maria walk alongside Pepper, who yanks Tony down by his shirt sleeve as he attempts to climb one of the tables where a bunch of juniors are trying to eat their lunch.

“That’s enough out of you,” Pepper says, linking her arm with Tony’s and steering him over to where their friends are.

“What? Too much?” Tony asks innocently. 

“Yeah, I’d rather you not,” Pepper says sweetly. “It’s all too much, but it wouldn’t be you if it wasn’t.”

“And that’s why you love me.”

“We’ll see about that one.” Pepper bursts his bubble just as sweetly. “I may be letting you take me to homecoming, but that is one thing that won’t just be handed to you, Mr. Stark.”

“You know I love a challenge.”

Tony and Pepper sit on one end of their table, her asking Bruce how he thinks he did on their English exam while Tony pokes at the box of chocolates, whining for her to open it already. Before Bruce can answer, Sam practically shoves him off the bench to make room for Maria.

“Hey, hey, Maria,” Sam says with a big, nervous smile. “Uh, want a cookie?”

He grabs the container of cookies from Steve’s greedy grasp and when he realizes his hands are shaking, Sam practically throws the container at Maria.

“Thanks, Wilson.” Maria helps herself to the last cookie.

“Yeah, thanks, Wilson,” Natasha says sarcastically. “I love cookies too.”

Maria gloats just a little as she bites into the cookie with an exaggerated sound. Steve stares down at the cookie in his hand and offers it to Natasha, who gives him a smile and takes it off his hands no problem.

“These are awesome,” Maria praises, making Sam sit a little taller with pride. “You bake?”

“Yep.”

“His mom baked them,” Bruce says, for a little payback after the wide receiver nearly shoved him off the bench and on his ass.

“I helped,” Sam points out. “I got all the ingredients and my mom says I’m the official taste tester.”

“Then maybe you should’ve ate less now and saved more for your friends,” Natasha says offhandedly, taking dainty little bites of her cookie to make it last.

“I didn’t even have any!” Sam shouts.

“There are crumbs all over your shirt,” Natasha points out.

Maria laughs and brings a hand over Sam’s pocket tee to dust the crumbs away. “You are a mess, Wilson.”

“You should know already, Sam,” Steve says with this proud little smile on his face. “Nothing gets past Natasha.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”

 

 

Practice is more intense now that the Avengers have found themselves in a hole. In the last ten years, the football club hasn’t lost two games in a row this early in the season. These early mistakes mean they’re going to have to have one hell of a winning run to even have a chance at playoffs. Practice is more intense now, but necessary.

Long after Fury tells Steve and most of the offense to hit the showers, he has Tony still running complicated routes, catching deep balls and working on his ball control. Long after Tony is dismissed and the sun is starting to set, Fury has the defense still running drills and perfecting formations, coming up with answers for every scenario. Once he has the defense running customary end of practice laps, Fury has Rumlow and T’Challa doing push-ups side by side, under the lights.

“Boys, I am not your marriage counselor,” Fury says, pacing in front of them. “Hell, if it were up to me, both your asses would be on the bench for the homecoming game. Fact is, this team needs you and at your best. I don’t care who did what to who, if your every day shit is showing on the field, it speaks volumes about your mental toughness. And it ain’t saying anything good.”

Fury stops pacing and just watches the boys continue to push their bodies, dripping sweating and struggling to breath. “T’Challa, you can stop.”

T’Challa does one more push-up for good measure before bouncing back to his feet. Fury walks right up to him and looks into his eyes.

“Take a lap then hit the showers.”

“Yes, sir.”

As T’Challa starts to run around the track that encircles the football field, Rumlow huffs and puffs, slowly, but surely continuing to do push-ups. 

“Congratulations, Rumlow," Fury says. "You just lost your title as captain.”

Rumlow stops. “Coach…”

“If you’re going to treat your teammate like he’s nothing, you deserve nothing. Hell, if that’s the case, you can drag your ass home and stay there every Friday night. Football is a team sport. If you want to keep your spot on this roster, you best believe that.”

Rumlow stares down at the sweat that’s fallen from his forehead and dot the ground beneath him. He does another push-up despite his wobbly arms and grunts painfully. “I’ll earn it back, coach.”

“If we take another loss, our season is practically over, you understand that?” Fury presses his boot down on Rumlow’s back and the boy pushes back against him to complete another push-up. “And I’ll be damned if that happens because of your ego.”

Fury ups the pressure of his foot against Rumlow’s back until his arms give out and he collapses on the ground. Only then does Fury remove his foot and start to walk off the field with a shout of, “Five laps and get your ass home!”

 

 

Flowers.

Sam decides to get Maria flowers. A peek into his wallet and the reality of the situation is he doesn’t have the money to even compare to that beautiful bouquet of roses Tony gifted Pepper. (Roses imported from Ecuador, girls gushed in his third period class.) Maria might have to settle for a rose, which, considering Bruce’s suggestion, might be the way to go.

Imagine his surprise when he walks into the one flower shop in their tiny town and finds Maria Hill behind the counter, reading a magazine and thoroughly bored. The jingle of the bell on the front door draws her attention and she perks up a little when she spots him in the doorway. Sam likes to think she’s happy to see him, not that she’s just happy to see anyone because bored.

“Hey,” Maria says. “What are you doing here?”

“Uh, that’s a good question.”

He can’t very well tell her, oh, I’m here to buy you flowers to impress you so you’ll agree to go to homecoming with me. Nope. That won’t do at all.

“Oh, y’know…” Sam sets his eyes on a rack of stuffed toys, some holding hearts with your typical greeting card sentiments stitched on, and gives it a little twirl. “I didn’t know you work here.”

“My dad owns the place.”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “I thought your dad was in the military?”

“My mom’s a Lieutenant general in the Army,” Maria says, scolding him for making assumptions. “My dad’s a florist.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” Sam gives the rack another spin and when some of the stuffed toys tumble to the ground, he curses beneath his breath and scrambles to pick them up.

“What are you doing here again? You didn’t answer my question.”

After stuffing the pushies back in place, Sam rests his elbow on the counter between them and gives the suspicious dark-haired girl the best grin he can summon. “I just came in to, uh…I wanted to get my mom some flowers.”

Sam resists the urge to slap a hand over his mouth once he blurts out that probably unconvincing lie. Doing his best to play cool, Sam continues to smile and so does Maria, albeit viciously.

“Wow, Wilson, you might be an even bigger mamma’s boy than Steve, which I didn’t think was possible,” Maria teases. Then she closes the magazine she’d been reading and moves around the counter assumingly to help him. “Special occasion?”

“Uh, my mom’s birthday.”

“Budget?”

Sam makes a show of taking out his wallet to check like he didn’t obsessively count his cash and search beneath every couch cushion in his house before riding his bike down here. “I’ve got twenty bucks?”

Maria nods and leads him toward the back of the little shop. It’s kind of beautiful in there with walls of flowers, a mix of vibrant colors. It could even be considered romantic. At least, to Sam. Maria walks through the garden of a shop much like she does most everything else, with her business face on.

“You’re in luck,” Maria says. “Moms like anything you give them, really, so we can go with a mix of lilies and waxy flowers within your budget. We have a ton of those right now. It’s the roses we can’t keep on the shelf with the whole homecoming thing. Giving a girl flowers just to ask her to go to a dance with you? It’s overrated, if you ask me.”

Sam lets out this nervous laugh that sounds so loud in the little shop that’s empty except for the two of them. “Who would do that? Other than Stark.”

“As much as I’d love to rip on Stark for being such an unoriginal cliché, my dad almost cried when he charged him what he did for Pepper’s flowers. This is an industry that thrives on sappy dudes and their unoriginality, after all.”

Roses imported from Ecuador my ass, Sam thinks to himself. He wouldn’t be surprised if Stark started that rumor himself.

“Does your mom have a favorite flower?”

“Sunflowers. She’s big on sunflowers.”

Maria smiles, not one of those smiles she gets when busting on Clint or Natasha, but this real, honest I like her style smile that makes Sam’s heart thud. It’s way too early to think about introducing the girl to his family, but he thinks Maria and his mom would get along if he ever did.

The flower arrangement she shows him is full of vibrant sunflowers and deep pink tulips among a bushel of bright green ones and these monte casino aster white flowers that add a pop of purple. The very essence of Europe, is how Maria describes the bouquet, but these just remind Sam of the house they lived in two moves ago and how his mom absolutely hated having to leave the garden behind.

He might not have come into the shop for this reason, but he buys it anyway, excited to have it delivered to his mom while she’s at work. A little surprise and thanks for driving him to practices and going out to watch his games and that time she yelled at Fury when he kept them practicing after dark because as embarrassed as he was at the time, damn, that lady’s got nerve and he’s glad to call her his momma.

The flowers are a bit out of his price range, but Maria gives him the friends and family discount and as she’s processing the charge and ironing out the details of the delivery, he has the question on the tip of his tongue, but it still doesn’t feel right. By the time he’s walking out of the shop, Sam still hasn’t asked her, but getting to spend more time with her feels like a win alone.

 

 

When Steve accidentally makes eye contact with Lorraine, his rally girl, from across the crowded school hallway, he ducks and speed walks in the other direction. The girl has been dropping hints left and right about homecoming and after all the treats she’s baked him and the awesome sign she painted, he considers asking her to be his date as, you know, a thank you.

When he mentioned this possibility to Natasha, she just narrowed her eyes and told him not to lead the girl on. It’s obvious she wants to be the quarterback’s girlfriend or maybe devour him and his intentions don’t match. Also, it’s no secret Lorraine is the kind of girl who’s forward and confident, which isn’t a bad thing, but she will try to kiss him in public, long distance girlfriend or not, and why would he put himself in that possible situation?

Bottom line: he’s been avoiding her.

In his attempt to avoid his rally girl, Steve nearly knocks over someone who’s wrapped up in paper almost like a mummy. Thanks to his quarterback quick reflexes, he’s able to steady himself and the person before they fall. When they untangle themselves from all the paper, Steve realizes he knows this particular paper mummy.

Sharon Carter.

Pretty and blonde with a sweet face, but she also shares the same genes as Peggy so you know she could probably put you in your place at any given moment. He remembers Peggy’s teasing about him going to homecoming with her cousin, this cousin, and Steve nearly blushes.

“Sorry, Sharon.”

“It’s fine, Steve. I should probably thank you.” She gathers the paper in her arms, trying to keep it from dragging on the floor. “Actually, I could use someone with your…height. A little help?”

Off his nod, Sharon hands Steve one side of the paper to hold. She further untangles herself and he realizes it’s a banner advertising homecoming.

“We had to make a new one after someone ripped the old one,” Sharon explains, grabbing the tape at her feet. “Probably some jealous, date-less jerk.” Sharon's eyes move to the floor, her pin-straight blonde hair falling in her face. “Not that I should be talking…”

“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t have a date either,” Steve offers.

“Not that you’re looking. After all, everyone knows you’re with Peggy.” Sharon pauses what she’s doing and gives Steve a sly, knowing expression. He nearly rips the banner when he sees. “I won’t tell, but I am curious to know why you haven’t told anyone.”

Steve shrugs his shoulders, but when Sharon refuses to back down, he checks if the hallway is clear. “I already have people saying I can’t hold onto a ball, I could do without them saying I can’t hold onto a girl either.”

Sharon giggles, motioning to where they’re going to hang the banner. “And you’d have to beat girls off with a stick if they knew you were single.”

“Kinda already have that problem,” Steve mumbles. He knows it isn’t really him they’re after, but what some would refer to as The QB1 Effect. “Some are…persistent.”

He lifts the banner, but when Sharon doesn’t follow suit, he finds a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Maybe we should go together,” she says quietly.

And that’s when his face does flush. “Did Peggy put you up to this?”

“No,” she laughs. “I haven’t talked to her much since she left. Other than, you know, when she told me about you two and she asked me about Buck—” Sharon cuts herself off, realizing she was about to bring up what Steve has refused to talk about with anyone. He barely lets himself think about it, afraid if he does, he’ll start to obsess over it.

Since Steve would rather not go there, he quickly says, “Yeah, that’s a great idea. We should.”

“Really?”

“Who else would I go with?”

“I’m pretty sure if we made a sign-up sheet it would have more names on it by the end of the day than Clint’s petition for the cafeteria to serve coffee by the pot.” Sharon seems uncertain before peering up at him shakily. “Are you sure?”

Seeing the doubt in her eyes, Steve gives her a warm, reassuring smile. “Yeah, let’s do it.”

 

 

Laura.

Laura, Laura, Laura, Laura.

Laura, this mousy girl with her dark hair and oversize green Army jacket, who refuses to look at him for too long. Clint has seen her around school, but never had a reason to talk to her. Now, instead of catching a nap in his car during study hall, third period is Laura Time.

“Clint!” Laura shouts just to glance around the library, embarrassed by the volume of her voice. Then quieter, "I feel like you aren’t listening to me.” Staring right at her with his face rested in his palms, Clint bats his lashes and it just adds to her irritation. “Why are you doing that? Stop it.”

“Listen, Laura,” Clint says, “I’ll let you in on a little secret.” He leans across the table between them while she leans away, clearly preparing herself for a load of bullshit. She is one of the smart ones. “I’m not stupid. I know how this works. You read the book, you answer the questions, memorize the answers for the test.”

“Then why don’t you do it?” she asks exasperatedly.

“Eh, it doesn’t interest me.”

“And crashing head first into some dude as big as a house does interest you?”

Clint pretends to think about it. “Yes. There’s no better adrenalin rush. Believe me, I’ve looked. And I’ve learned more in football than I ever did in any classroom.”

She makes this sound that obviously means she thinks he’s ridiculous and, well, he is, but he means what he said. “Oh yeah, like what?”

“Other than how to will my body to do the impossible?” Clint outlines his figure with his hands and Laura scoffs. “For one, how to see what you want and take it. How to read people. I know what a dude as big as a house is gonna do before he does it and I know how to keep him from getting what he wants. You learn more about human behavior on the field than you ever will in any book.”

“But it won’t get you a diploma. I mean, football actually does get some guys diplomas, but not you apparently and I’m starting to see why your teachers and coaches decided to punish you by sticking you with me.”

Clint sighs heavily, face back in his hands, batting his lashes at her. She rolls her eyes, but Clint sees the little smile tugging at her lips. That’s sort of the affect he has on people. Most times it works in his favor and sometimes it works a little too well.

“So we’ve established I have no interest in school, you clearly do,” Clint says. “Why does rote memorization and standardize tests interest you more than bulldozing guys over and crushing dreams?”

“Some of us have to find alternate ways out of this town,” Laura explains. “I refuse to be a farmer’s daughter for the rest of my life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My mom was a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife and they live a great life, but you have to wonder what else is out there, right? There has to be more to life than Midgard…”

Clint has never really thought about it. He’s used to people nagging him about his potential and Barney sitting on him and telling him he’s gotta get outta this town, but Clint’s question has always been, why? He’s got his friends, a roof over his head and he can find work, nothing fancy, but work nonetheless. Why leave Midgard? The wonder and excitement in Laura’s eyes as she talks about this more, that might be apart of it.

When he doesn’t say anything, Laura clams up all of a sudden. “That was stupid, wasn’t it? I didn’t mean to ramble…”

“Nah, that’s really cool.”

Clint slouches in his chain and gives her a little nod wink combo and this time he gets a full smile out of her. The bell sounds and the disappointment he feels at Laura keeping her eyes down and collecting her books is surprising, but also not.

“I’ll, uh, do the reading,” Clint says, quick to help Laura collect all her pens and put them back in her little case. “And maybe answer the questions.”

“Maybe?”

“I will do the readings and answer the questions,” Clint says with a defeated sound.

“And write the essay so we can go over it together tomorrow,” Laura says, scooping up her books into her arm. She tilts her head down and narrows her eyes a little and, yup, he’s writing an essay tonight. Clint nods and places her pen case atop the stack of books in her arms. “Thanks.”

“Anytime, Tutor Girl.”

A group of girls, the plain jane types who don’t make it a habit to sneak out to hang out at parties hosted by the football team, call out to Laura and she starts toward them. He sees the little glance she tosses him from over her shoulder and he knows he’s in trouble. His tutor. Tutor Girl. What was that? Hell, Natasha and Maria are gonna have a field day when they hear about this.

 

 

“Dude! That is such a good picture of me!”

Sam leans over Maria’s shoulder, clicking through photos from the game against the Warriors on the school computer. She decided to forgo lunch in order to proofread the next edition of the school paper and Sam volunteered to keep her company. That easily led to them getting sidetracked, looking over pictures from the game taken by one of the paper’s best photographers, some underclassman named Peter Parker.

“You look thrashed.” Maria laughs, clicking through more pictures and stopping on one pretty impressive one where Sam hauled in a pass with one hand. “Your uniform looks like they used it to make the field green.”

“Yeah, but that catch!” Sam says enthusiastically. “Even with my jersey all ridin’ up on me. You know what, I’m pretty sure I could pull off crop tops.”

Sam leans closer
just as Maria turns and their faces come so close. He forgets about the pictures altogether in favor of staring at her lips.

“Go to homecoming with me.”

Maria says it so fast, Sam almost misses it. When her words register, he falls back into his chair next to hers with a chuckle and the biggest smile. Maria seems nervous and in the admittedly short time they’ve spent getting to know each other, Sam doesn’t think he’s ever seen her less than sure about herself until now.

“What’s so funny, Wilson?” There’s a bit of a defensive edge in her voice, bordering on anger and it just makes his cheeks hurt from smiling.

“Really?” Sam asks. “After I spent all week tryin’a figure out how to ask you, you’re just gonna come out and say it?”

Her rigid posture loosens and she smirks. “Aw. Did I steal your thunder?”

“Girl, and then some,” Sam mumbles, but can’t stop smiling. “Yes, I’d love to go to homecoming with you.”

“Good. I didn’t spring for two stupid tickets for nothing,” Maria says, going back to her work on the computer. “I figured it was the least I could do after you literally bought flowers just to come into the shop and flirt with me. Poorly, I might add.”

“I was getting flowers for my mom!”

“Please. Natasha told me your mom’s birthday was two weeks ago.”

Nothing gets past Natasha and never underestimate girls and their willingness to turn on you for each other.

“Well, you can also thank Natasha for the metallic pink suit she convinced me to buy from that thrift shop on Second Street,” Sam says. “It’s gonna be hard lookin’ good next to me, but something tells me you’ll pull it off.”

“Is it too late to refund a ticket?” Maria asks dryly. 

“I’m afraid it’s all sales final. You’re stuck with me.”

Maria rolls her eyes and gets back to whatever she’s working on, but Sam sees that little smile on her face and the way she keeps sneaking him glances between proofreading paragraphs. He’s never been more excited for a lame high school dance in his entire life.

 

 

“Natalia, how did I know I would find you here?”

That voice. It makes her stomach churn and it just pisses her off that he still has any effect on her at all.

Long after practice ended for the day, Steve asked if Natasha wanted to grab a bite to eat. She agreed and drove them to the diner. Just as they got out of her Corvette, a young family had approached them and asked if the kids could take a picture with QB1. Steve acts like he’s never held a baby in his life and Natasha has to snap a picture from afar. That’s when something caught her eye.

A stressed Pietro talking to Rumlow at the entrance to the alley between the diner and the next shop. Other than taunting each other at practices when Rumlow has to cover him, those two don’t interact. They aren’t friends. Something about the way they’re acting is fishy. Before she could riddle it out, in came that voice, a voice she hadn’t heard except in nightmares she refuses she has.

Alexei Shostakov.

Her first boyfriend and decidedly the worst.

He’s a football player (of course he is), left guard, with ample height and muscle, filling out his dark red letterman jacket with black leather sleeves and the Leviathan emblem on the chest. Big, bold and cocky, that’s Alexei. His family came to the United States from Russia when he was ten and that was one thing that drew her to him—their shared culture. She convinced herself he understood her better than anyone else, Fury included, because he understood where she came from. One of the many lies she told herself.

“What do you want, Alexei?”

“You. Always.” His voice is deep, masculine, thick with his accent. She used to think she loved that voice and now, it just makes her cringe. “But I am not here to win you back.”

He’s waiting for her to crawl back to him as he’s told her many times before.

“I am just a messenger boy. Madame B demands you return to the studio. Your understudy had an accident and will not be ready in time. She is willing to negotiate.”

Natasha scoffs. “That woman doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

“Just as she pushes you beyond your boundaries, you push her.”

“You can tell her, hell no, and leave now.”

“Why? Is your new boyfriend here to claim you?” Alexei crosses his muscular arms over his chest and flashes an infuriating smile. “I heard he ran away and left you behind.”

She grits her teeth, but like hell she’s going to let him know how easily he still gets to her. “You keep tabs on me, Alexei?”

“Always, Kukolka.”

“See, where I’m from, we call that stalking.” Steve wraps his arm around Natasha’s waist and presses a quick kiss to her forehead. “Nat, this guy bothering you?”

Better question, who is this body snatcher posing as Steve right now? Natasha tries to figure it out while blinking up at him, but Steve’s eyes are solely on Alexei, sizing him up. Then it clicks and she nearly rolls her eyes.

Boys.

When she was with Alexei, she was fifteen, young and naive. Even then, she knew he had quite the polarizing personality. It didn’t take a genius to realize his possessiveness would not mesh well with her friends’ protectiveness, Clint especially. Not to mention her fear of what he would think of her friends and what her friends would think of their relationship so she kept them separate and hid him from Fury at all cost until it all fell apart.

Alexei gives Steve a once over, smiling and rubbing at the beginnings of a beard on his hard jaw. “It’s funny, Natalia. When we first met, you were so desperate to be Russian. Now look at what you settle for.”

“Just leave, Alexei,” she hisses, despite the knot in her throat. It’s so stupid that she feels this weak just being in his presence again. When Steve pulls her in tighter, she curls up into him even though she knows she shouldn’t. Steve shouldn’t have to be her shield. She should be stronger than this.

“You heard her,” Steve says, when Alexei doesn’t move an inch. “Leave.”

“Just wait till you’re on my turf, mudak.” Alexei finally steps back, spitting on the ground between them. Just before he leaves, his eyes return to Natasha and roam all over her body. “Call Madame B. You have tested her patience enough.”

Once Alexei gets into his noisy car and drives off, Steve’s hands move to her shoulders, turning her to face him. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Steve.” She breaks out of his hold when she finds herself preoccupied with how big his hands are and how they feel on her, the skin to skin contact. “I don’t need you to do that for me.”

“I-I…sorry…” Steve backs down like a scolded puppy. “I saw that in a movie once…”

Natasha puts everything she has into reestablishing that distance she maintains even with the people she cares about, but hearing that makes her lean her body into his, backhanding his shoulder. 

“Dork,” she murmurs, pressing her face into his shoulder. He fights his natural awkwardness when it comes to girls and brings his arm around the small of her back in a hug that’s secure and yet loose enough to not be suffocating. So much neither of them are ready to talk about expressed in the simplest form of human contact and it feels so damn good.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispers. “Really. You just do so much for me and I thought I saw an opportunity to return the favor. I know you don’t need me to do that for you, but I’m still gonna because you’re kind of my best friend.”

“Kind of?”

“Considering my other best friend won’t even answer my texts and calls?” Steve tries to laugh, but it’s the saddest sound. That’s the first time he’s mentioned Bucky to her and it’s with far-off, grave acceptance on his face. “I can’t help Bucky, but I can tell your ex to buzz off.”

Natasha hasn’t tried to contact Bucky, not once, but she doubts she’d have better luck than Steve. She brings her arms up around his neck and initiates the hug this time because now he’s the one who could really use it. She can’t find Bucky and drag his ass home, she can’t arrange for Peggy to come back and she can’t win football games for him, but she can do this.

“You’re kind of my best friend too.” She knows it sounds lame, but it makes her smile and it’s true. “Just don’t tell Clint. He’s the jealous type.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” This time, when Steve laughs, it’s loud and beautiful and makes her feel something she can’t quite define, doesn’t want to, won’t ever. Not when his girlfriend saw their closeness and still asked her to have his back while she isn’t here to. Peggy trusts her and Natasha can’t betray that. Not to mention, Steve is vulnerable right now and she can’t take advantage of that, him, just because she can.

“C’mon.” Natasha pulls away from the embrace and tugs on the cotton of his shirt that just clings to him. “Let’s just go back to your house and watch a movie or something.”

“I did promise you that do-over movie night.”

“I could actually go for some popcorn. You promised popcorn, Rogers.”

“Fine.” Steve relents with a sigh and goes to open her car door for her. “And popcorn. Popped over the stove, I know.”

 

 

As Steve pops the DVD into the player, Natasha curls up on the couch in the Rogers living room with a quilt thrown over her legs. It wouldn’t surprise her if Sarah knitted the comfy throw herself. As much as she wants to get lost in the fictional world of the movie and not have to think about all the things going on in her life right now, she can’t.

“You dropped art class to focus on football, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Steve answers, while searching the living room for the clicker. “Why?”

“Do you regret it?”

“No. Why? Do you regret leaving ballet?”

Natasha curls up tighter and seeing the deeply contemplative expression, Steve abandons his search and sits beside her, giving her his full attention.

“I mean, I still don’t appreciate the way Madame B treated me even though that’s just her, some would say controversial methods. She was awful, but I miss dancing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret leaving because now I get to go to the games and see you play, but…”

“But ballet is something you did for you and only you and you miss it.” He took the words right out of her mouth. Natasha eyes him, wondering how he could ever know. “I know because that’s how I feel about art, but I can always take art next semester once football season’s over. There isn’t gonna be another Nutcracker, Nat. So if you went back, I wouldn’t blame you.”

“It’s not that simple, Steve.”

“Ah, because your ego can’t take having to march back in there and face everyone?” He's a little smug like he has her figured out when he can’t, he shouldn’t. “I’d call it a win as long as you make sure Madame B makes it worth your while. Play hard ball.”

Natasha hums as she sinks deeper into the comfy couch. “My specialty.”

“Don’t I know it.” Steve pats her knee supportively before resuming his search for the dumb little clicker, scratching his head over where he’d seen it last.

“Steve?”

“Yeah?”

With a wry grin, Natasha asks, “Do you still need a homecoming date?”

Natasha bites the inside of her cheek once the question leaves her lips and she swears she sees his face light up. His eyes shine and his mouth drops open, but a moment later, that crease in his forehead makes its grand appearance and his lips turn down in a frown.

“I’d love to, Nat, but see, I already said I’d go with Sharon.”

The moment the words leave his lips, Natasha can’t look anywhere near him anymore. Of course, he already has a date. Of course, it’s Sharon. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

“Cool,” Natasha says and her voice wavers more than she’d like. “She asked you?”

“We ran into each other and the subject came up and we sort of decided to go together,” Steve explains and for some reason he sounds nervous and his words all come out in a jumble. “But…you know I’d want to go with you.”

“It’s fine, Steve,” Natasha says quickly, awkwardly. Well, as awkward as Natasha gets, which is less than the general population and she is good at hiding it better than most. “I only asked because, you know, Peggy. I thought I’d save you from the lecture, but since you’re really, actually going with her cousin, don’t forget those pictures.”

“Yeah, yeah, so Peg can laugh her arse off.” Steve tries to lighten the mood, but still seems so upset. And Natasha reads it as pity so she suddenly needs to be anywhere, but here. “I know you’ll be busy, but hey, save me a dance? As long as you don’t mind me accidentally stepping on your feet.”

“Yeah, sure.” Natasha nods, but still keeps her head low. “I have to go.”

Steve sits up suddenly, alarmed. “We just got here? What about the movie?”

“I forgot I had a thing. I promised Clint I’d help with his tutor crisis or something.” Natasha throws the strap of her bag over her shoulder and snatches her phone off the edge of the table. “We can watch the movie another time.”

“Right.” Disappointment is clear in his voice as he walks her to the door and she still can’t look at him. “At least let me make the popcorn. You can take it with you? Clint loves popcorn.”

Natasha shakes her head and purses her lips. “I really have to go.”

On her frantic rush to escape, Natasha nearly knocks into Sarah, who’s just on her way in. Her Sarah Senses must be telling her something because the woman in scrubs appears just as concerned as her son, but then puts on a smile and invites the redhead to stay for dinner. Spaghetti is on the menu tonight. Sarah’s spaghetti is the best, but things are so weird, Natasha’s certain she made things weird and she can’t stay.

She’s so frazzled and embarrassed, Natasha can’t even think straight, telling Sarah a lie about how Fury is expecting her for dinner soon. If Steve realizes her excuses don’t match, he doesn’t say anything. As Natasha bemoans her stupidity with another chant of, stupid, stupid, stupid in her head, her phone rings with “Madame B” as the caller ID. Before she pulls out of the Rogers driveway, she answers the call.

Natasha doesn’t give Madame B a chance to speak before saying, “I’m ready to negotiate…”

Chapter Text


Track 08 

 Devil Town - Bright Eyes

 Track 09

World - Octavian 

 Track 10

Kids - MGMT 


 

Honestly, Homecoming Week is more hellish than Hell Week and not just because the Avengers play the East Hell Devils. All week, Natasha has been on the go, preparing for daily activities, executing daily activities, preparing for the homecoming parade and especially the dance. She tells herself she’s doing this voluntarily because she owes it to Pepper and not because she’s avoiding Steve. No. Why would she do that? Just because she asked him to the dance and he said no? That’s ridiculous. Silly. Pathetic.

Natasha comes home from one of the most grueling days of her life to find sale signs decorating the neatly trimmed front lawn. It isn’t just one sign, but at least a dozen stuck haphazardly into the green grass Fury takes pride in. She wrestles with a garment bag holding her homecoming dress and walks into the house with questions. All the lights are on, she can hear the stovetop grill sizzling and the house smells like meat. The deeper she ventures, the clearer Fury’s voice becomes. Honestly, she’d know his coach voice anywhere. After the football team took two straight losses, their first back-to-back losses in the last ten years, there hasn’t been much Fury has done outside of coach mode.

“But the thing about Murdock, he’ll look down one side of the field and throw the ball in the other and it makes it in the receiver’s hands. Every single time. Like he doesn’t even have to look.”

That unexpected voice makes her freeze.

Steve.

It feels like she hasn’t heard his voice in so long. Not that she’s been avoiding him all day or anything. She’s just…busy.

“Matt Murdock is like Stark,” Fury says, his voice unconcerned, blasé even. “He’s got the grades, college is his main focus. He’s a one foot out the door kinda kid and a one foot out the door kinda kid isn’t hungry. He doesn’t have that killer instinct to win. I need you boys to be hungry.”

“Speaking of the h-word, I’m starving.” A third voice. Clint. “Those steaks just about done there, coach?”

It puts her at ease, knowing Clint is here, that it isn’t just Steve. How weird would that be?

“Coach, I was thinkin’ maybe I should play safety on Friday,” Clint proposes among the sound of metal utensils clashing against ceramic plates. “Rhodes is still a little beat up and you said so yourself, the key to beating the Devils is the blitz. I can get on that QB faster than anyone. Well, anyone in the secondary.”

“Mahoney is Murdock’s favorite target and Rhodes isn’t in the condition to cover him,” Fury explains, which is a no. “I know our team’s called the Avengers, but this is business, Barton, not some revenge tour. I need you focused on the task, not beating the crap out of Matty Murdock.”

“That’s why that name sounds so familiar!” Someone—Sam, easy—snaps his fingers. “And here I thought you just wanna pimp out your stats, but no. Matt Murdock. Natasha dated him, right? He’s the quarterback? Maria showed me his new girl’s Instagram and—” He cuts himself off, probably after a look from Fury. “—She’s got nothing on Natasha. At all.”

Having heard enough, Natasha knows she should go straight to her room, but finds herself strutting into the kitchen instead. Steve does his deer in the headlights thing and Sam smiles nervously. Fury’s busy, moving steaks from the grill to rest while Clint is practically licking his chops like a mutt begging for scraps at the table. And all three boys are in pajamas. That was the theme of the day. Hooray for Homecoming Week.

"Are you seriously gossiping about me like a bunch of old ladies?" Natasha asks. Sam and Steve both avoid her hard stare while Clint gives her a thumbs-up and Fury acts like he isn’t listening, busy tending to his meat.

"We're game planning," Clint corrects her from where he's sitting on a chair, balancing on only the two back legs. He’s wearing a muscle shirt and purple pajama pants. Natasha has half a mind to shove him over. He might be a little psychic or knows her too well because he rocks forward right after she thinks it. "Your ex drama just sweetens the narrative."

“Have fun," Natasha says, ready to head up to her room.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Fury’s voice is half authoritative and half teasing. "Pull up a chair, talk football with us. Did you eat dinner?"

"I grabbed something with Maria after rehearsal. She lost her gas money betting on the Asgard game and made me her designated chauffeur." Natasha doesn’t sit, but doesn’t leave either, settling for leaning against the door frame. "Nick, I had the longest day and I still have homework."

"You sure you don't want some of this?" Fury motions to the glistening steaks. He insists he was a barbecue competition champion in another life and it shows. ”Powderpuff is tomorrow. You're gonna need all the sustenance and rest you can get, Captain."

Sam snorts with laughter, scratching at the neckline of his Atlanta Falcons long-sleeve. "I might have passed by as Tony was working with his team. He looked like he wanted to stick his head in an oven trying to teach some of those girls how to run an out route."

An actual laugh slips through Natasha’s indifferent facade. “Wait, Maria has you spying on the enemy?"

"I passed by," Sam insists, emphasizing every word. Clint is there to make taunting whipping sounds along with the appropriate hand motion.

"Okay, let's eat." Fury brings the steaks over to their little kitchen table, where Clint has a fork in one hand and a knife in the other, ready to feast.

“Goodnight, boys. If a slumber party breaks out, try not to wake me with your pillow fights.” Natasha waves them off and turns just as a chorus of goodnight, Natasha follows her. They’re mocking her a little, but she knows it’s out of love and it makes her smile a little. Idiots.

“Nat, wait up!” she hears just as she’s halfway up the stairs. And there’s Steve, wearing a tight, white a-shirt and baggy, blue plaid pajama pants. She didn’t see him around school at all today and wonders if this is what he wore, if the teachers were too busy ogling him to call it inappropriate.

Lengthy silence follows and it’s so annoying. Things aren’t supposed to be like this. She’s taken so many careful steps over the last few years to ensure there’d be no room for silences like this in their friendship yet here it is.

“Uh…” Steve does that thing where he scratches at the nape of his neck when he’s nervous and it’s so dumb because he shouldn’t be nervous around her. The other day he called her his best friend and she called him hers. Now, it feels like so long ago. “I know you’re busy with homecoming and everything, but I was wondering if you could help me with my seven-step drop?”

Natasha bites the inside of her cheek, smoothing her hand down the garment bag in her arms just to do something. “You’ve been working on it in free period, haven’t you? Nick says you look good in practice.”

“Yeah, but I was thinking I could use your expert advice…”

Natasha shrugs her shoulders that are loose because she reminds herself not to tense up. “I really am busy, but I’ll try to stop by after practice tomorrow. If I make it, it’ll only be for a few minutes because we have final touches on all the homecoming parade floats. Not to mention, I drew the short stick and somehow became the person whose top priority is making sure Pepper doesn’t implode from the stress.”

She takes a deep breath, can’t believe she just rambled on like that. What the hell is happening to her? What the hell is happening to them?

If Steve notices how weird she’s acting, he doesn’t mention it. Just smiles like he’s so grateful she can even bother to spare a minute for him. It only makes Natasha feel worse that she knows “something is going to come up” and she won’t be able to make it.

“Thanks, Nat,” Steve says, and means it, she knows. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Once she locks her bedroom door behind her, Natasha collapses on her bed and wants to scream into the pillows. This is stupid. Things shouldn’t be this weird. She asked him to stupid homecoming and he already had a date. She can’t blame him. She can’t even blame Sharon. She kind of blames herself. After turning down guy after guy, the one she asks, turns her down. Perfect. And she knows it isn’t fair to take her embarrassment out on him when he hasn’t done anything wrong, but she’s hiding in her room when she could be downstairs, getting her guys ready for a game they need to win. It’s stupid, but she doesn’t know what to do as she closes her eyes and tries not to think about anything, listening to the muffled voices downstairs.

 

 

Once they leave Sam’s house, after Clint sweet-talks his mom and she insists they take brownies home with them, it’s just Clint and Steve in Clint’s creaky truck and some oldies station on the radio. The street is poorly lit and bumpy as hell so they chug along in silence. The water-stained windows are down, Clint’s hand hanging out the driver’s side, fingers flirting with the wind.

“Don’t ask me,” Clint warns, seemingly out of nowhere.

Steve straightens, just realizing how lost in thought he had gotten. He just realizes neither has said anything since leaving Sam’s neat little neighborhood of military houses. Too many things run through his head. “Ask you what?”

“What you’re thinking.”

“How do you know what I’m thinking?”

“Haven’t you heard? I’m psychic.” Clint snorts, one hand on the wheel, relaxed and cool while Steve is the exact opposite, rigid and tense. Typical, really. “Gimme a break, Cap. It’s been written all over your face since you excused yourself to hit the can right after Nat left the kitchen.”

Steve feels caught even though he doesn’t entirely know why and that’s when he can’t hold back any longer. “Has she been avoiding me? I mean, it’s only been a day and we didn’t have class together today, but—”

“Dude, what part of don’t ask me, don’t you understand?” Clint interrupts him. “Aw, no. No, you’re doing the sad puppy thing.” Clint clutches his chest with his free hand. “And to answer your question, eh, no more than you’ve been avoiding her.”

“I haven’t been avoiding her,” Steve says resolutely, just to sag a moment later. “I asked her for help and I’m not gonna hold my breath. Just like how I’ll probably need a ride to school from someone else tomorrow or I could just walk like I did this morning. If I wasn’t sitting in her kitchen, she probably wouldn’t have skipped out on steak and talking football, right? She saw me and couldn’t get away fast enough.”

Clint’s amusement does nothing for Steve’s misery. “Sorry. Just, Barnes got as far as her bedroom window and you got in the kitchen, but both of you end the drive with a punt.”

The mention of Bucky makes Steve clam up even more, feel like he shouldn’t even be talking like this, shouldn’t even be feeling the way he does. It’s almost too easy to remember Bucky and Natasha flirting, the promise of more, and it’s enough for him to pull the breaks.

“Natasha and I, we’re supposed to be friends and that doesn’t even feel true right now,” Steve grumbles. “I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

“Eh, she feels like an ass, but she’ll get over it. Eventually.”

“She shouldn’t. She doesn’t have to.” Steve presses his elbows against his thighs and pushes his palms against his eyes. “I just wish I knew how to fix it.”

“It’s like I told Barnes, there’s no quick fix with Tash, alright. And he actually did fuck up. You just gotta wait it out, do a little dance in the pocket till the receiver gets open or, you know, wants to catch the ball…” Clint glances over at Steve, who really does look like crap. It’s kind of sad. “And it wouldn’t’ve hurt if you told her you’re single earlier and I don’t know, asked her.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“I’ve heard that one before. From Natasha. You know, on the surface, it’s like the two of you are nothing alike, but I’m starting to think you’ve got more in common than I thought.”

“What about Bucky?” Steve strikes out, almost accusingly.

“What about ‘im? Last I heard, he bailed and he didn’t even bother to right things with her before he did.” Clint tenses in that protective way Natasha hates. “His loss. By the way, if you went to homecoming with Nat just as friends, which is what you want, right? Then why would Bucky factor in?”

Steve doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know if he should say anything to Clint, considering how close he is to Natasha, but before he can check himself, he blurts out, “Because I look at her like she invented breakfast.”

Clint hoots and hollers, stomping his foot. “S’about time you owned up to it.” His phone lights in the space between them with a curt, your study guide better be done and not just bs. It makes him smile. “I’m starting to get that expression.” Clint shakes his head at himself. “I am the last person who should be giving any sorta advice, but at the expense of sounding like my annoying ass brother, this is the best time of our lives and the clock is a’ticking. If we learned anything from what happened to Barnes—”

“Clint, watch out!”

A bull as black as night and as big as a shed appears in the headlights ahead of them. Clint jams the break and they come to a screeching halt what’s probably inches from the bull that doesn’t even flinch. They sit for a long moment, Clint and Steve staring straight at this gigantic bull and it stares right back. A moment later, the bull finally moves on, crosses the road at its own leisure pace and disappears into the night. Another moment, and Steve and Clint burst out laughing.

“You saw that too, right?” Steve asks, screaming before he realizes how loud he’s being.

“Saw it? I almost turned it into roadkill! Extra rare fucking hamburgers!” Clint drums his hands on the steering wheel. “Fuck Texas, man. See, that just proves my point. We could have gotten into a serious accident—”

“And blown our season.”

“And Fury would probably hate us for-e-ver, but we didn’t. We’re fine. Dare I say, invincible. What do you want, Steve? What do you want? You figure that out, get it and don’t feel guilty about it, alright? The recipe of life.”

Steve lets that sink in as he rubs at his eyes. “Easier said than done.”

“I’ve heard that one too. I usually stall out before step one,” Clint says, once he sobers. “But did you see the balls on that thing? Christ.” Clint pulls his seat belt across his chest and clicks it in. “If a bull in the middle of the road isn’t a sign, what the fuck is?”

 

 

It’s Whacky Hair Wednesday. Most of the seniors get into the daily Homecoming Week themes. It’s their last year of high school. Why the hell not?

The best part is the fact that Tony agreed to let Pepper choose all of his outfits and make him do whatever if she agreed to let him take her to the dance. Monday was Disney Day so everyone got to dress up as their favorite Disney character. Tony had way too much fun being Captain Jack Sparrow, eyeliner and all. Tuesday was Pajama Tuesday and so he wore a ridiculous tiger onesie. On Whacky Hair Wednesday, he’s rocking blue hair styled like Morty Sanchez from Rick and Morty and he’s owning it in a way only Tony Stark could.

Clint gets distracted, watching Tony swivel his white lab coat like a cape. Laura snaps her fingers to get his attention. "Helloooo! Clint! Thought I lost you for a second there."

"Sorry, just Stark making a fool of himself for a chick." Laura turns to where Tony has Bruce in a headlock, messing with his science bro's dark hair that's always sort of tousled.

She turns back to Clint with a shrug that's a little too exaggerated, but natural to her. Fucking adorable. "Just Pepper Potts. The coolest, nicest ‘chick’ ever. She’d probably totally own anyone.” Laura turns her eyes down to his essay littered with red marks in front of her. “I don't know. It's sort of romantic, don't you think? Tony can be, well, Tony, which means his romantic gestures are always over-the-top, but it's nice to see he cares in a big way and doesn't care what his bros might think of it."

Clint snorts. "I am not Tony's bro. If anything, Tony is my bro."

"Okay, alright," Laura says in this way that calls bullshit, but with a smile. "So you aren't into that? Romantic gestures? Come on, what's the most romantic thing you've ever done for a girl?"

Clint drums his pencil against his open textbook as he bites on the tip of his tongue. “Depends on your definition of ‘romantic’…”

“Okay, how about nicest. What’s the nicest thing you’ve done for a girl?”

His first thought is put the toilet seat down. He tries to think if he’s ever opened a door for a girl before? Maybe Nat? But that’s more of Steve’s shtick anyhow. Nicest thing he’s ever done for a girl…? Clint spots Bobbi, whose long, blonde hair is done up in this faux mohawk style that makes her appear even taller than she already is.

“Bobbi’s really into science so for her last birthday I surprised her and brought her to that museum in Cedar Park.” He smiles at the memory. “I told her we were going camping and she fell asleep on the drive and woke up in San Antonio and she punched me for keeping it from her, but I’ve never seen her so happy…I don’t know if you’d call that romantic, though.”

“That’s plenty romantic,” Laura assures him, if the wistful smile on her face didn’t say as much. She draws aimless patterns over his essay with her capped red pen. “Is it true you two broke up? Not that it’s any of my business or anything. I’m just curious.”

“Yeah…” He isn’t sure there’s much more to say than that.

“But more importantly, Bobbi likes science?”

Clint smiles at one of Bobbi’s best kept secrets. “Yeah. She wants to go to Georgia Tech next fall, study biology.”

“That’s really cool,” Laura says. “And, see, I’d say a surprise road trip is a pretty big grand gesture that took planning and time and gas money, I’d imagine, and you did it all for a ‘chick’ so I think you can cut Tony some slack.”

“I’ll start when he cuts anyone besides Tony some slack, which is never.”

An announcement over the PA system cuts through their conversation. It’s Natasha, who’s supposed to be encouraging people to buy last minute tickets to the dance. She’s clearly reading a memo off a paper and doing so in a monotone voice. Clint knows Natasha hasn’t been feeling great lately, kicking herself over the whole asking Steve thing, but the lengths she’ll go to make sure she’s too busy to confront him is downright hilarious. Once the announcement ends, Clint purses his lips, about to ask Laura if she’s going to the dance with anyone.

Before he can, he sees a flash of blonde in his peripheral and hears a familiar purr in his ear. “I’m going to burry you, Barton.”

A smirk spreads across his face as turns to find Bobbi right over his shoulder, sporting one of her unnervingly confident smiles that has always driven him wild, both in a good and bad way. Clint hums and scratches his head like he’s considering her words, mockingly, of course, and, god, he’s missed being this close to her.

“Not to burst your teen dream bubble, but, uh, football is a team sport,” Clint points out, like it isn’t already obvious, “and if you forgot, I've got Natasha and Maria on mine.”

Bobbi is ready to roll her eyes, all annoyed and hot, and, yeah, he’s even missed that. ”The best stacked team doesn't automatically win. How else would you explain your one win this season?”

"Hmm, that's a tough one.” Clint pretends to think about it again. “Either we won because we're relentless and find ways to win games or purely because your boyfriend sucks and I shut him down."

"Hunter and I aren't together anymore, actually.”

Whatever halfway witty thing he was about to say evaporates, leaving Clint sitting there with his mouth open. He sits up straight, serious all of a sudden. ”He do something?"

Bobbi actually rolls her eyes this time and he swears her expression softens, but only for a millisecond. The girl’s got walls and Clint has never been good at knowing if he should give her space or try to scale those walls. ”Please, Barton. Don't pretend you care."

“I kind of promised Fury I was done with parking lot brawls, but if he did something, Bobbi, I want to know about it.”

“Put on your game face, Clint,” Bobbi says, as she starts to back away from their table. “I’m not going easy on your team and they have you to thank for that.”

Clint stares after her and makes a mental note to ask Darcy about what went down. The girl doesn’t even go to their school anymore, but she probably knows the scoop. He lowers his eyes, fighting the urge to shove all his open textbooks to the ground, needing some outlet for the way he feels. He’s almost upset powderpuff is tonight thus, no football practice. Running till he’s gasping for breath and hurting all over sounds good right about now.

"You do care," Laura says quietly. Clint blinks at her from across the table and almost winces. He kind of forgot she was there. That’s kind of how it always is whenever he's with Bobbi. When they’re in the same room, she’s all he sees, but once she’s not and another face comes along…

Clint rubs at a half-healed paper cut on his finger. Skin and how it repairs itself is weird. "Natasha says I fall too hard too fast, but then it's like a bungee chord, I guess. Fall hard and fast, but then I get sucked back up and out just as fast.” He offers her a smile that he knows is pathetic. “I always tell her, at least I got the balls to jump, you know. With Bobbi, it's like I'm always dangling by my ankles."

Laura likely doesn’t know how to respond and he figures he should spare her the trouble, distracts the both of them by reaching for his essay still in front of her. “So all I have to do is make the corrections and turn it in, right?” Laura nods. “Easy peasy. Mr. Heck is gonna flip out and accuse me of having someone else doing my homework again.”

“Now you can proudly tell him this one is all you.”

Clint stares at his essay, seeing the lengthy notes she left in the margin, but he also sees a smiley face in there. “I don’t think I can say I’m proud of anything else I’ve ever written homework-wise. Thank you, Laura.”

She grins at him, holding her face in her hands, elbows pressed to the table. “Anytime, Hawkeye.”

 

 

The powderpuff football game is a tradition and one of the best and most popular events. Sure, there’s the criticism that the game is demeaning, implying girls are fragile and can only handle flag football in some big spectacle and insulting to women’s athletic abilities. Natasha lives for it and people she’s never even spoken to turn up to see what she’ll do. Last year, Natasha led a team of mostly underclassmen to victory against a group of older, stronger senior girls in the biggest upset in school history. Now, Natasha’s a senior and ready to defend her title.

“I love powderpuff in the fall,” Tony practically sings. He surveys the people who’ve gathered in the stands, proudly wearing his red Avengers home game jersey, much like the group of girls stretching across the way. (Thank you, Stark Industries for the swag and sponsoring the event.) Tony is the powderpuff coach, after all. He can’t think of a more perfect way to experience his last year of high school.

Clint is coaching his opposition, wearing their custom white jerseys with red accents. He comes up to stand beside Tony, just as excited. “Aw, the freshman girls have no idea what they’re in for.”

“I know,” Tony says. “It’s going to be a good night.”

 

 

"Coaches." Fury can't call Clint and Tony that without laughing. Like hell those two deserve the title. “Alright, we’re here to choose teams for the annual homecoming week powderpuff game. Coin flip decides who gets to pick first."

“You call it,” Clint says. "Age before beauty, Stark."

"Don't mind if I do, youngster. Heads."

"Because he's got a big one," Clint mutters.

Fury ignores the two of them or is really good at pretending he does and flips the coin. He catches it in his palm and slaps it down on the back of his hand. Tails. Clint fist pumps while Tony kicks at the grass, but quickly tried to compose himself.

"Natasha," Clint says right away, pointing over his shoulder with a thumb. "Get over here, MVP."

Natasha jogs over, slapping Clint's hand when he holds it up for a high-five.

Tony surveys the group of girls brave enough to sign-up, most of them young and skinny and totally in over their heads. "I'll take The Other Carter. That way I won't have to hear it from dear ol' mom and pop at their monthly dinner with the Carters if you're chosen last."

"Thanks a lot, Tony.” Sharon is sure to shoulder into him as she goes to stand on his side. Tony blows a kiss at her in response. The Starks and Carters go way back, practically Midgard royalty, so no one is surprised by his pick or his explanation.

"Maria, my bruiser," Clint calls out, shooting some gun fingers her way. "I'll let one personal foul slide. One."

"One per half. It's ridiculous that you don't get to stiff-arm in powderpuff," Maria complains, flashing a smile that strikes fear in the hearts of the underclassmen still waiting to be picked. "Ridiculous wimpy rules.”

"Alright, gimme Hawkeye Junior," Tony says next.

"What? No!" Both Clint and Kate Bishop shout in unison.

"You can't do that," Clint grumbles. “Kate’s my kicker! We've been working on 50 yarders all week!"

"Can it, Barton!" Tony argues. "You have Romanoff and Hill. That's basically all you need!"

"Boys," Fury says impatiently. "We don't have all day."

Next Clint chooses Wanda Maximoff, hoping she's got more in common with her brother than a shared birthday. Tony picks America Chavez, who Kate promises is a sleeper. They keep choosing until the group of waiting girls rapidly shrinks.

Tony huffs. "We're uneven."

"I could play."

Bobbi is 5'11" and toned, dressed in running shoes and shorts like she was expecting to play right this second even though she didn't sign-up to. Clint pales at the vengeful fire in her eyes while Tony jumps for joy, calling her over and naming her team captain right on the spot.

 

 

Clint watches as Natasha and Maria, both in white custom jerseys throw a football back and forth between them, effortless and right on target every time. Just beyond them, Bobbi throws a deep ball to Sharon, who fumbles, but manages to stabilize the ball and continue running.

“Did you see that? Did you?” Tony asks. “Maybe it won’t be such a bloodbath after all.”

“Oh, it’s gonna be a blood bath, count on it,” Clint says decidedly. “Might not be so bad you got all the youngsters on your team. Should make it easier to comfort them after Natasha and Maria take turns bulldozing through ‘em.”

“Oh, that’s how you see it, huh? See, I envision Natasha and Maria being too busy attempting—note I said attempting—to contain Bobbi. You know what they say about a woman scorned.” Tony clasps Clint on the shoulder. “Besides, I am a changed man, Barton, or have you not noticed?”

“Oh, I’ve noticed your talent for groveling. I’m just not quick to buy in.”

“Well, I’m so sure I’d tell you to buy stock in it.” Tony gives Clint a hard poke in his hard chest. “After how many times I’ve disappointed Pep, god knows she deserves everything I’ve got left.”

Clint doesn’t have to look to know Tony's eyes are on Pepper, who’s making small talk with some alumni. What’s kind of surprising is how easily Clint finds Laura, selling baked goods at the concession table.

“May the best women win, Stark.”

“Oh, trust me, no matter which team wins, we all win.”

Natasha watches as Bobbi talks to her team, all of them in red. There's even a C sewn onto Bobbi’s jersey, which almost makes Natasha laugh out loud, not just on the inside. Oh, she laughs on the inside. After all the homecoming prep stress and emotional strain of whatever’s going on with Steve, Natasha can’t think of a better way to forget and alleviate than with football. Actual, physical football. On the outside, she’s cool as ever. On the inside, she’s giddy like Christmas morning.

"Well, this just got fun,” Natasha says casually.

"Pretty glad I didn't put money on this game," Maria confesses, stretching and getting limber. "Maybe it's good we aren't playing tackle. How many girls would it take to bring Bobbi down?”

Natasha just shrugs, all steely confidence as she sizes up their opponents. "With full speed and proper body position, leading with the shoulder and striking between the hips and numbers like we've been teaching them—three. You know what they say. The scarier the Amazon..."

"The harder she beats the crap out of you after the game because she's a poor loser."

Natasha gives Maria a playful shove. "Try not to run anyone over. And if you do, try to make it look accidental."

"I'll just blame momentum," Maria jokes. "It's science!"

Which is the exact opposite of Clint and his advice. As the girls prepare to take the field, Clint pulls Maria aside with special instructions. “Hey, I want you to run over the center before she snaps the ball."

Maria pauses, taken aback. ”So you want an intentional false start?"

"Clint," Natasha hisses.

"You give 'em the first down, but on the next drive, I guarantee all those girls are gonna think, damn, I don't want that to be me, I'm not gonna be the idiot who gets in Maria's way. They'll let you practically walk up to Bobbi and you take her down. I mean, grab her flags.”

Natasha sets her hands on her hips with clear disagreement in her eyes. "What happened to having a clean, fun game?"

"What happened to my one penalty cap?" Maria asks in return, more importantly, of course.

"That was before my ex rode in like damn John Wayne to save the sad, inexperienced townsfolk of Stark from the big, bad outlaws! I take back your penalty cap, just don't get kicked out of the game."

"Clint, stop, we've got it covered," Natasha says. By the way the other girls crowd around and focus solely on her, it’s clear who they consider their actual leader. "Maria, your penalty cap is still on."

A whistle blows and it's Pietro in a black and white referee getup, standing tall with his chest puffed out cockily. "Let's have a good game, ladies. And if one of you loses a shirt, that would be very unfortunate.”

Womp womp. All the girls roll their eyes and mumble under their breath. Pietro just grins even when his twin sister mumbles something in their native tongue and Maria raises a fist like she’s about to pummel him just to watch him flinch.

“Harassment of officials is a fifteen yard penalty! You’ve been warned!” Pietro shouts. “Alright! Let’s play ball!”

Tony’s team wins the coin toss and decide to receive it to start the game. Bobbi is their quarterback as expected. Her height means she can easily see over the line of girls and then some. When Sharon lines up in the slot, it doesn't escape Natasha, who's playing as a defensive back. She looks to her right and sees Wanda practically quaking in her flag belt.

"Hey," Natasha calls out. "Wanda, it's not life or death here. It’s just football. Barely football. Flag football. Nothing to worry about.”

"I don't know how Maria convinced me to sign up," the younger girl says. "I-I'm a school paper nerd. I'm in jazz band. I watch my brother's games, but I don't know how to play."

“Relax, it’s simple. We're the defense right now. Our mission, we don't let the ball get past us. The other team is going to try. Better yet, we keep them from getting the ball by running at them, in front of them, distracting them. Stay with whoever runs into your zone. If they do get the ball, we stop them, pull their flags. The trick is to rake your fingers down her back and grab her belt. Aim for the belt. It's easier than going for the flags. Make sure you don't pull on their clothes. That's a penalty, hurts us and helps them."

"That would be bad," Wanda concludes.

"Not as bad as what Maria's about to do."

They watch from a distance as Maria jumps before the ball is snapped and knocks into the girl in the middle of the line with the football barely between her hands. Before the girl even hits the grass, a whistle blows and penalty flags fly. The crowd reacts with claps and cheers and an “Oh, shit!” from Sam. Bobbi, who was born competitive, is quick to call Maria out and stick up for her teammate. Bobbi steps up to Maria, who puts her hands up with a mockingly innocent expression.

"She is quite the convincing actress.” Wanda giggles as her brother announces the fifteen yard penalty for pushing and the automatic first down.

"Oh, you didn't see our eighth grade production of Grease." Natasha smiles at the memory as they walk further down the field. "Maria played Rizzo and tried to do an accent. Let's just say, she should stick to proofreading and tennis."

On first down, Sharon is lined up in the slot again. The ball is snapped, Bobbi has perfect form in the pocket. (Maybe even better than Steve, but don't tell him that.) Bobbi gets the ball out quick, right to Sharon, just as Natasha anticipated. In three quick steps, Natasha is there to rip Sharon’s belt off the second she gets fingertips on the ball.

"Holy shit, she's fast," Bobbi and Tony both mutter to themselves.

As Bobbi huddles up her girls and assures them it was a completion and therefore a good first attempt, Natasha walks up to Maria and her own line.

"How conservative of you,” Maria teases Natasha, eyes on Bobbi operating like a general. “I thought you'd go for the interception. Like hell she's going to throw to whoever you're covering."

"Then you have to force her to," Natasha says. "Bring the pressure, flush her to my side of the field, force her to throw to Carter and I'll be there. If you could handle a run play or, you know, get Bobbi's flags before she even throws the ball, that'd be nice too."

"I'd say I'd like to see you try, but I'm pretty sure you will at some point and get a sack."

Natasha winks as she backpedals to where Wanda is posted and she's a little more settled than before. “You still with me, Maximoff?” Wanda nods and it makes Natasha smile. "Alright. Let's show these boys how to run an actual dominant defense."

On second down, Maria slides right between two girls who do little to stop her and Bobbi has enough sense to throw the ball out of bounds before Maria can get a hand on her flags. Bobbi wants to curse up a storm, but stays composed. Third down, Bobbi throws the ball to Sharon who has to jump to catch it and her toes are right on the first down marker when Natasha rips her flags off.

"You can't keep throwing to me." Sharon argues. "Natasha is all over me."

"No kidding," says Lilian, a junior who looked a little horrified when Bobbi told her to remove her nose ring if she didn’t want it accidentally ripped off during the game. "Care to share with the class what you did to personally offend her?"

"So the rest of us can like, not," her friend, Kristen, adds.

"Sharon, I'm going to you on every play so get open,” Bobbi says, ignoring the flash of dread on the other blonde's face. Sharon covers it up quickly with a dutiful nod. That readiness to persevere is exactly what they need. "We want Natasha preoccupied with you. We want everyone to think Natasha's got you handled and I'm stupid, then we run the rest of 'em around. Got it? Hands in. Avengers on 3. 1, 2, 3!"

"Avengers!"

“What the hell does that make us?" Maria asks, resting an elbow on Natasha's shoulder as they watch Bobbi go all Braveheart.

A little smirk curves Natasha's lips. "Anti-Avengers."

"I like it."

For the next two downs, Bobbi throws to Sharon. The first is incomplete with Natasha nearly intercepting the ball and the second is a hard-fought gain of five yards. On third down, Tony shouts for Bobbi to change it up, run the ball, but she just dismisses him, swatting at the air. The ball is snapped, Sharon runs down the field and hooks inside with Natasha right on her hip. Bobbi looks for Sharon, pump-fakes, keeps the ball and runs for a good ten yards, sliding in for a new set of downs.

"You like that, huh?" Bobbi asks as she purposefully walks by Natasha.

“Oh, I hope you enjoyed that," Natasha says in return. "You aren't getting another.”

"We'll see about that."

On the next play, Bobbi throws short to Sharon, but Natasha is there, sliding in front of her and catching the ball. Sharon makes a quick move to grab for her flags, but Natasha spins out of her reach. Another girl in red jumps in front of her. Natasha lunges right, but cuts back left and runs around the girl, only to be stopped by Bobbi yanking off her entire belt.

"You like that, huh?" Natasha repeats familiar words to Bobbi, who shoves the belt of flags back to her with an exhilarated smile.

"Just you wait," Bobbi taunts her. "You can't be on the field the entire game, Romanoff."

"It's like I told Clint—watch me."

Clint's team takes over on offense. Maria, who's ready to line up under center, draws all the girls' attention. An athlete in her own right, Maria is terribly competitive and no one is about to disagree with or defy her.

"Okay," Maria says, “if I say hot, hot, hot, it means I want you to go left instead of right. If I call you bitches, the play needs short routes instead of deep ones, got it?" Maria surveys the girls until her eyes stop on one in particular. "You, freshman, you're like a track star or pole vaulter or something, right?"

"My name's Ava and I prefer acrobatic ninja."

"Whatever,” Maria says dismissively. “You're in on this play."

When the ball is snapped, Kate and America both rush the edges and get around the line faster than expected, but Maria already throws a gutsy long ball downfield. Natasha, sandwiched between red defenders, goes up, grabs the ball, then in midair she pitches it to Ava, who's all alone and runs the ball in for a touchdown!

"Hot damn!" Sam shouts, standing and spilling his popcorn all over Steve beside him. "Did she just do that? Did you know she could do that? Damn, if he could, Fury would give her my spot on the roaster, wouldn’t he?”

"Nah," Steve says. "She'd take Stark's spot, Stark would take yours and you'd be on the bench."

"Wouldn't that be Fury's ideal scenario exactly."

Bobbi’s eyes are on all the girls surrounding Natasha in early, premature celebration. She isn't rattled. Natasha isn't the only one who knows a thing or two about football. Bobbi was born and raised in this shitty, obsessed town and she isn’t about to go down without a fight.

“Tony, what’s the plan?” Kate Bishop barks, refusing to call him coach or any name that would suggest he has a drop of authority. She’s sure to send a nasty glare over to where Clint sticks his tongue out at her because her archery “mentor” is so mature and all. “We don’t have all day!”

“Easy, munchkin,” Tony replies. “Our plan on offense? Let’s see. Keep the ball away from Natasha and if you fail to get the ball away from Natasha, you either step up and try to stop her, be a hero—though the probability of getting burned and making the SnapChat ultimate fail reel is ridiculously high—or you get out of Natasha’s way, which is really lame and tells the whole school you're scared.”

“I like the second option myself,” a small voice says from the back.

America shakes her head. “Dude, you’re useless.”

“Okay, don’t listen to anything this guy tells you, especially when the words ‘clothing optional’ come up and they will,” Bobbi preaches to the underclassmen, sure to ignore Tony’s ouch. “Listen, I’m not gonna lie to y’all. They can stomp our asses easy, but that doesn’t mean we step aside and let them. This is what we’re going to do…”

Bobbi gives the group some encouraging words and tugs Kate closer, whispering in her ear. Kate gives her a little nod and Bobbi slaps her ass as the freshman runs out onto the field.

“Have I mentioned how much I love powderpuff?” Tony sighs wistfully once Kate's already on the field and getting in position to receive the kick.

“You could shut up and actually help me, y’know.” Bobbi gives Tony a punch that has him frowning and rubbing his arm after. “Other than Natasha and Maria, the rest of the girls don't know what the hell they're doing. We need to capitalize on that, especially when they aren't on the field."

All eyes are on Kate who fields the ball cleanly and starts running. Girls in white jerseys go to stop her, but then Kate starts to slow down, her sprints turning into lazy steps as she approaches the line of scrimmage. In turn, the girls in white start to slow too. When they don’t even attempt to grab her flags, Kate jukes to the right, gets around a girl and turns on the jets, running the ball to the end zone for a touchdown.

Bobbi turns to Tony with a gloating smile and all he says is, "She was my first round number two pick. Yes, that’s Hawkeye Junior. I sure know how to pick 'em."

Bobbi doesn't even respond, instead running out to celebrate with her teammates who are all hyped and congratulating Kate on ruining the shut out Natasha probably envisioned. The tall blonde finds the redhead on the other sideline as if to say, your move, Romanoff.

"Don't worry about it," Natasha tells her girls, all a little down after that play. "Just don't let it happen again. If you don't hear the whistle, go for the belts. Let's go."

Natasha lines up as a wide receiver on both first and second down. She catches the ball for an easy five yards on the first, but America is all over her on the second and forces an incompletion. On third down, Natasha lines up in the running back position and the change has all of Bobbi’s girls lost. Bobbi tries to direct from the sideline, shouting, "Swarm her!"

Maria hands off the ball to Natasha who runs left. When the defense is there to meet her, she pitches the ball to Ava who has no one in front of her. She gets a good twenty yards down the field before Kate chases her down and rips off her flags. Both girls tumble to the ground in a tangle of limbs, no penalty flag, just cheers from the crowd. Natasha’s team scores easily on the next play, which brings Bobbi back out onto the field.

By halftime, Natasha's team is winning, but not by as much as people assumed before Bobbi decided to captain the other side. Her girls are sweaty and exhausted, but that doesn’t stop Bobbi from trying to explain different routes they can run and encouraging them to make lateral, but not stupid passes. Many aren't listening to her, staring longingly at the students playing a much friendlier, less serious game of tug-o-war as a halftime activity, but it's all over Bobbi's head anyway.

"Bobbi, it's just a game," Sharon reminds her, as they walk back on field for the second half.

Bobbi narrows her eyes at Sharon, who’s much shorter and slight. "You know, if you want to impress Steve, you could hustle a little harder out there."

Sharon turns away to hide her blush. "Why would I want to do that? He's Peggy’s—”

"Well, Peggy ain't here, is she? It's just fact, one not lost on Nat, who's frankly, kicking your ass. Come on, I know you've got more in the tank than this. It's now or never, Carter."

Bobbi gives Sharon a slap on the ass that earns catcalls from the football players watching on the sideline. Bobbi flips them off with both hands, not caring if any teachers see.

Natasha and the white jerseys have the ball to start the second half. Bobbi decides to shake things up and goes onto the field with the defense. Once the ball is snapped, she barrels through the line and steals Maria's belt, quick as lightning. Maria shouts to the ref about Bobbi using her hands and shoving two girls out of the way, but Pietro just tells them to play on. On third down, Maria fakes the handoff to Natasha, but throws quick to Ava. America has her locked down and yanks her flag inches before she can pass the first down marker. It’s their team’s first three and out of the game and they’re forced to punt.

"Yes!" Bobbi jumps and seeks out Natasha with a smug smile. "You ready, Romanoff? Carter's gonna torch your ass!" Sharon is quick to grab Bobbi by the arm and drag her away. "What? You need to have confidence, Sharon. Without it, we might as well hand Natasha the win."

“Sharon’s already going to homecoming with the hottest guy in school," Lilian pants loudly. "She could care less about winning." She laughs and it’s full of exhaustion. "Powderpuff MVP should've gotten Steve Rogers as their date. I know that ass would motivate me."

"Steve Rogers isn't a goddamn trophy." Natasha crashes their conversation, startling the underclassman with a voice that's all low, controlled fury. Sharon frowns like she's about to say something, apologize maybe, but Natasha is already heading back over to her team.

“Thanks for telling me she was right behind me!” Lilian shouts.

Kristen just giggles. ”Whoa, she really needs to get laid.”

"Oh, shut up, both of you," Bobbi says firmly. They might be on opposite teams right now and Natasha might have defaulted to Clint's "side" of the breakup, whatever, but Natasha is still her friend and too good to be disrespected by these children. "She'd make both you mouthy bitches cry if she heard you talking shit and I wouldn't mind the show."

Both girls go quiet and Bobbi leads them out onto the field, designated QB, of course. Just after the snap, Natasha shoulders through the line, sure to collide with Lilian who falls on her ass and takes Kristen with her. A whistle blows. Flags fly. It's a fifteen yard penalty, but Natasha's face says, worth it. Bobbi cracks a smile. She'll take fifteen free yards. Maybe she should try to get the girls to talk more if it means free yardage. If the dramatic way they moan and groan is any indication, there probably won't be a peep out of either for the rest of the game.

Bobbi's team settles for a field goal on the drive. Kate kicks the ball dead center of the posts and it has Clint fuming. Bobbi wipes the sweat on her forehead, ready to sit out, but then she sees Natasha take the field and line up as quarterback in shotgun formation. Oh hell no. Bobbi huffs, knowing she's going to sub herself in on the next down whether Stark agrees or not.

Natasha Romanoff puts on a clinic at the quarterback position. She audibles, scrambles in the pocket with sharp, precise footwork and her sneaky handoffs and play action passes always leave the defense confused, chasing Ava when it's Maria with the ball or focusing on the two of them when Natasha still has the ball and throws a beautiful pass to a receiver. They move the ball at will and it surprises absolutely no one when they score a touchdown off of Natasha throwing a long ball straight down the middle that hits Ava right in the chest, her two feet firmly planted in the end zone.

By the last play of the game, all the girls are tired and breathing heavily, sleeves rolled up and dirt on their knees. Bobbi has the ball, they're down by three scores and time is against them. By the undeterred fire in Bobbi’s eyes, if she's going down, she plans to go down in a blaze of glory. The ball is snapped. The line holds, holds, holds. Bobbi looks down field to throw, but something else catches her eye—Clint off to the side flirting with some short little string bean of a girl in a green Army jacket. He isn't even watching the game! The nerve!

Natasha waits and waits and once there's just enough space, she slips right through the clash of red and white, finding a clear path to Bobbi. When Bobbi finally notices the flash of red gunning for her, she steps back and steps back, losing her footing and falling just as Natasha gets her fingertips on one of Bobbi's flags. The force of Bobbi's fall rips at the Velcro. Time expires. Bobbi is on the ground and Natasha has a flag in her hand. Natasha's team wins!

"You're a monster, Romanoff," Bobbi says, smiling hard. Natasha returns the smile and holds out her hands, hoisting Bobbi to her feet.

"Likewise," Natasha says with the slightest of nods, her eyes bright with respect. "You know you're the only reason the mercy rule didn't end the game like, before halftime."

"Kate and America might’ve helped, but they're underclassmen, underclassmen don't count and you basically made Sharon your bitch so I guess it was all me," Bobbi jokes, rounding her arm around Natasha in a congratulatory gesture. "Hey, who's Barton's new flavor of the week?"

"Hmm?" Natasha scans the field until she find a bashful (what?) Clint talking to a girl just before Sam and Rhodey come up behind him with bottles of Gatorade, pouring red all over his white jersey. "Laura. She's his Fury-ordered tutor."

"Poor girl."

Before Bobbi can question her further, Steve sweeps Natasha up in a hug born out of the enthusiasm and adrenalin that follows a win. When their eyes meet, there's so much pride there and the distance between them evaporates for a breathless moment. It's short-lived and ends once Happy sandwiches the two of them in a hug and then the boys hoist Natasha up onto their shoulders. Her teammates and friends on the football team surround them to chant, "MVP! MVP! MVP!" Natasha pretends to hate the attention, but joins her hands and shakes them in the air, not missing the subtle smile Fury gives her from afar.

 

 

It’s Friday, which means it’s game day.

If Natasha was in Fury’s position, she would bench both Rumlow and T’Challa for the shit they pulled last game. On the other hand, those sale signs that keep mysteriously appearing in their front yard send a clear message—win or move the fuck out of our town—and it only adds to the stress Fury puts on himself. They need a win. Hopefully, Fury’s slap on the wrist works. It seems to. Rumlow is working hard, more importantly, he isn’t running his mouth and T’Challa went as far as to ask her for help before school starts. Even though she really is busy, Natasha makes time to help him, for the team and for Fury and because she hates sitting on uncomfortable bleachers for hours to watch them lose.

“So, when you meet after the snap, I want you to start to spin left,” Natasha demonstrates with T’Challa playing guard opposite her, “and when he’s ready to defend you left and shifts all his power and energy left,” T’Challa does as she says and Natasha spins right, beating T’Challa and running right around him up to where the quarterback will be. “Then you get that quarterback.”

T’Challa laughs and smiles his brilliant, bright smile. He clearly wasn’t expecting that move at all, can’t believe she beat him like that. “Impressive. So you have even more tricks than you showed off last night? It was equally impressive, I must admit.”

“Not tricks, skills,” she corrects him. “And it wasn’t just me out there. It was a team effort, which is what you guys need if you want to win tonight. The Devils have a lot of talented pieces, but they also have trouble working together. Exploit that. Try that move on third down,” Natasha suggests. “From there, you spend the rest of the game playing with his head a little. When he’s expecting the reverse, just spin like you normally would, beat him that way. Mind games work wonders on the field.”

“Certainly.” T’Challa’s eyes skirt over her shoulder and he raises his hand with a wave. “Cap!” Natasha hears sneakers shuffling through the grass and quickly busies herself, pulling out her phone and calling the first number at the top of her most recent menu. “Miss Romanoff was just helping me prepare for the game tonight.”

“Lucky you,” Steve murmurs from just behind her. His voice sounds the way it does when he’s too tired to pretend he isn’t sad, which needs to change before the game tonight. “Nat—”

“Hey Pep, I’m just wrapping up with T’Challa and I’m on my way.” Natasha presses her phone into her shoulder as she faces T’Challa and Steve, but only briefly. “T, could you fill Steve in on what I said about the Devils? I’m sorry. I have to go. Pepper and I still need to iron out logistics of the pep rally and parade before first period.” She doesn’t wait for a reply, just lifts her hand in a lazy wave before hurrying away.

“Were we supposed to meet or something?” Pepper asks.

“Physiology is my last class of the day and I need to get out of it,” Natasha says. “I’ll do anything. Pep rally prep, parade prep, anything. Please tell me you have the power to help me ditch class.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘ditching’ per say—”

“A yes or no would work, Pep.”

“Nat, you’re already taking on so much. Why?”

Because I spent yesterday’s physiology class sitting through a lecture, sharing a table with Steve and didn’t say a word to him. It was the weirdest thing ever and I refuse to do it again today, but on the plus side, at least my notes were extra thorough.

“I’ve been operating off of a steady diet of chocolate covered espresso beans this whole week and I cannot sit through a lecture, I need to do something,” Natasha replies. “A yes or no would work here too.”

“Sorry, Nat, but it’s a sort of. I can get you excused for the last twenty minutes if you help set up for the pep rally.”

“Alright. Sign me up.”

“Fine, meet me in the quad and we’ll get Mr. Fox to write you an excuse slip, but then we’re going to the cafeteria and I’m buying you a muffin. Nat, even superheroes can’t live off espresso beans alone.”

“Okay, mom.” Natasha makes her way off the field and toward campus. She swears she feels eyes on her, Steve’s eyes, but she can’t be sure because she doesn’t chance a glance back, not even a peek.

 

 

Steve hates this.

He can’t believe he’s at a point where he isn’t on speaking terms with Natasha and he can’t believe it’s lasted as long as it has. Aside from that little impulsive hug after the powderpuff game, they haven’t even looked at each other. Then there was physiology class, which was all kinds of weird. He almost wishes they had a lab assignment instead of a lecture so she’d be forced to talk to him. No such luck.

Steve isn't well-versed in the ways of women. That much is obvious. Truthfully, he has no clue how to make it up to her, what to do to make things go back to normal, but he does know that telling Sharon about Natasha asking him to the dance and how much he kind of would like to go with her is a dick move. Unquestionably.

When he spots Sharon yelling at Jack Rollins, her blonde hair loose and flying everywhere, all thought of even breaching the subject disappears. Rollins steps closer to her, too close, and waves his phone in her face. Steve can't stand by and watch any longer. He walks closer and the fragments of their conversation don't make sense, but that doesn't matter. Rollins is upsetting someone Steve kind of considers a friend so he isn't going to just keep walking.

"Sharon," Steve calls out, his narrowed eyes on Rollins who's as cocky as ever. Steve knows his captain status has almost no power with the defense, especially Rumlow's guys and T'Challa's friends, but he's had practice standing up to bullies even before he bulked up. "Problem?"

"No problem," she replies. "Go to class, Steve."

Rollins fully embraces his lackey role. "Aw, how cute. You trying to protect him?" He reaches for a lock of hair that fell across her face, but Sharon is quick to smack his hand away. It makes a resounding sound and Rollins just laughs harder. "Might as well just tell him. I already told Rumlow. Shit's probably spreading like fire already."

"What are you talking about?" Steve asks. "What's going on?"

"See for yourself."

Rollins shows him a grainy, low-quality Snapchat video of some kind of party. The movement is jerky and the room is crowded with people he's never seen before, but then he sees her. Peggy. Her impeccable 40s hairstyle is a little mussed and her bold red lipstick is a little smudged, things that happen when you make out with a girl. Peggy Carter making out with a girl, who he thinks is Angie, under the stairs at a party. Steve almost smiles, wants to video chat just so he can smile at her and probably see that flustered smile she only shows on rare, glorious occasions. Then he remembers they're supposedly still together and he should be destroyed right now. Damn it.

"I was just telling Rollins that isn't Peggy," Sharon says, wearing a poker face that might not rival Natasha's, but is still pretty damn effective. "It might look like her in your shitty video, but it's not."

"Nice try, but I've got a cousin in New York who's got a friend who's sister said they just got a new girl with an accent named Peggy Carter and she's now a snapchat star. So, how does it feel losing your girl to a chick? What's wrong with you, man? Sad."

“That’s all you have?” Sharon hisses at Rollins like he’s a waste of her time. “There’s no way of telling if it's actually her and if you start showing it to people, you're just going to cause drama no one needs so I suggest—”

Before Sharon can even finish her sugar-coated threat, Steve's fist cracks against Rollin's face. Rollins falls back and drops his phone as Steve shakes out his hand. Steve doesn’t have time to react before Rollins charges him, slamming Steve back into a wall of lockers.

"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Clint shows up like he seems to do a lot, grabbing Rollins and throwing him off of Steve. "Save it for the game, asshole." He can’t fight his amused smile when he sees Rollins' bloody lip. "Ouch, Jack'o. You might wanna see the nurse."

"He punched me!"

"Cap! Not your throwing arm!" Clint clearly does not give a shit. "Run along, Jack."

If the defense doesn’t respect Steve, they sure as hell respect Clint. They might not like him, but they respect him. Clint’s place on the team is a big reason why Rollins doesn’t fight, just grumbles as he picks his phone up off the ground. "Fuck you, Rogers. You bet I’m telling everyone about your dyke girlfriend."

Steve lunges like he's ready for another round, but Clint holds him back. "Hey, that's no way to talk about a lady!" Clint shouts after him. "Even I know that and I was raised by clowns.” Clint eyes up the other kids who’ve been quietly gawking at the confrontation. “Alright, nothing to see here. Move along.” Clint puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder and guides him down the hallway to where it’s empty. “You good, Cap?”

He nods, but can’t seem to form any words. Sharon sees, understands and does it for him. “Just Jack being a jerk.”

Steve breathes in and out, taking a moment to get his thoughts organized. He’s never liked a bully. Even when he was scrawny, in situations like that, he always chose fight. Some things never change.

“I have to call Peggy,” Steve mutters, reaching into the small pocket of his beat-up backpack for his phone. “Rollins thinks Peggy cheated on me and has video evidence, but you can’t exactly cheat if you aren’t together.”

“Oh shit,” Clint curses. Steve curls his fingers into a fist, but Clint grabs him by the shoulder and grounds him before he can punch anything else. “There’s a blindspot in the security cameras down this hall, between the lockers. Call her. I’ll keep watch.”

“I’ll watch from the other side,” Sharon says, walking ahead of them. She’s kind of great and Steve feels lucky to have her. Honestly, being her homecoming date is the least he could do to show how much he appreciates her.

“Thanks, Clint,” Steve says with a weak smile.

“Take it from the king of all this relationship gossip shit, you just gotta roll with the punches. I see you got a jump on that, literally. People are going to say what they want. Don’t let it get to you. Now, go talk to your girl and get the story straight.”

Steve nods, feeling like he has more of a handle on the situation than seconds ago when he was letting his fist do the emoting. Wedged between the wall of lockers, Steve calls Peggy, but even with the time difference, she doesn’t answer. He settles for a text, a lengthy text that’s basically a long run-on sentence. It does nothing for his anxiety, how he wants to run away instead of facing the gossip, but it has to do right now. It isn’t so much what they think or say about him, but what they’ll think or say about Peggy. Even though she’s in a different state and even though they aren’t dating, Steve still wants to protect her. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

 

 

As if piling on a pep rally, parade through town and football game all on one day wasn’t enough, there are rumors flying all around school about Steve Rogers, nicest guy in the world, beating the crap out of Jack Rollins, possibly the most questionable guy in school. Natasha isn’t stupid. She takes into account the time between when the fight allegedly happened and when she heard it (two classes later), calculating the amount of exaggeration that went into the retelling (a lot) and decides to seek out more reliable sources. According to one supposed eye witness, Lilian (ugh), Clint and Sharon were also somehow involved. Clint is fairly easy to find at lunch. After all, Clint Barton never passes up eating.

Natasha marches over to their usual table in the quad, where Maria is typing fast on her laptop and Clint is digging into his meal the cafeteria workers created just for the football players—grilled chicken, vegetable medley and pasta, an apple, orange, yoghurt cup. The question leaves Natasha’s mouth before she even really gets to the table. “Everyone is talking about Steve getting into a fight with Jack Rollins? What the hell?”

“Why don’t you ask Steve yourself?” Clint counters around a mouth of food. Natasha gives him her best glare, but he doesn’t really react, says he’s immune to it. Damn him.

“Rollins says he has some Snapchat video proof of Peggy cheating on Steve with some chick in New York,” Maria says matter-of-factly.

Natasha’s mouth falls open, but luckily, she doesn’t make a sound. Her grip on the strap of her bag loosens and it slips off her shoulder, hitting the bench with a thud. She doesn’t know what to think. What? Why? Who would ever do that to Steve of all people? Perfect Peggy Carter? No. That can’t be true.

“Peggy Carter would never do that,” Natasha says, “especially not to Steve. He’s Steve.”

“I don’t know,” Maria sings, her voice rising toward the end. “Long distance relationships at seventeen?” Maria scoffs and it’s a cynical sound. “Recipe for disaster, if you ask me.”

“They were already broken up,” Clint interjects, and has both Natasha and Maria’s undivided attention whether he wants it or not. “Can’t cheat if you aren’t together.”

“Who said they broke up?”

Clint hesitates before answering, staring at his food and not just for dramatic effect like usual. “It’s all gonna come out anyway,” he mutters with a heavy sigh. “Steve told me. They broke up in preseason. Hell, before we even started helmets and pads.”

Maria whistles long and slow at the reveal while Natasha’s entire body tenses. That piece of information hits her harder than it probably should. This entire time? All this time, all the time they spent together, working on football and not working on football, all the comments she’s made about Peggy and the times his reaction felt a little off. The fact that all the pictures of her have disappeared from his room. How hard Peggy pushed him to find a nice girl to go to the dance with. It all clicks.

“Wait, why did he tell you?” Maria asks.

“I asked him,” Clint replies.

“Why would you ask him?” Maria continues, and she gives off the impression that she’d be damn great in an interrogation room. “Why would you even suspect anything was different?” Maria motions to the redhead practically frozen in her spot. “Look at Nat’s face right now. She didn’t even know and before she started avoiding him, they were practically inseparable.”

“I’m not avoiding him,” Natasha says firmly. “I’ve been busy.”

“Busy avoiding him.” Maria snaps her fingers at Clint. “Answer the question, Barton.”

Clint throws his hands up before his eyes settle on Natasha with a prompting tilt of his head. Her mind is still racing, furiously putting all the pieces together, connecting all the weird little dots, but with him staring at her like that, she manages to glare.

“You knew he was single, that’s why you asked me if we were on a date that night we went to the movies,” Natasha muses. Clint nods and makes a keep it coming motion with his hand. “What?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe Nat and Steve on the twisty slide with the googly eyes,” Clint says, like they’re playing Clue and he just won the game. “There’s also the alternative, Nat and Steve in the back of the school bus with the sleepy sleep. I forgot about the drive-in movie thing. Thanks for the reminder.”

Maria’s eyes light up and whatever she had been working on prior is completely forgotten and pushed to the side. “What happened in the back of the school bus? Which school bus? Was I on this school bus?”

“Clint, stop trying to make something out of nothing.”

“Nothing? So that’s what you’re feeling every time you get lost in the blue of Cap’s eyes?”

“Like you’re such an expert on feelings,” Natasha mutters, hoping it works like an electric fence and the little zap will get him to back off. She knows he has some smartass reply ready so she shoulders her bag again, doesn’t want to hear it.

“What?” Clint shouts after her. “Are you too busy for us now too?”

“Yes, actually.” Natasha digs into the front pocket of his backpack and steals his peanut butter banana sandwich wrapped in plastic, more to show Pepper that she’s eating than anything.

Pepper and her friends can be a little much, but they’re easy to tune out and Clint and Maria being beyond annoying doesn’t leave her with many options. As she slides into the chair Pepper saved for her, sure not to interrupt whatever the group is discussing, Natasha lets her thoughts wander.

Peggy and Steve breaking up makes a lot more sense than Peggy cheating on Steve, for sure, but why didn’t he say anything? Natasha thinks she’s made it fairly clear she’s adept at keeping quiet, keeping secrets. Does he not trust her? Then again, it’s not like she’s jumping to share details of her relationships, especially not her failures. Maybe he was too embarrassed to tell her. Maybe there are more cracks in this friendship than she thought.

“Everything okay, Nat?”

Natasha blinks over and over until Pepper comes back into focus and she realizes, they’re the only two left at the table. “Yeah, peachy.”

“Really? For a second there, I thought you finally hit your wall and short circuited on me. Please refrain from short circuiting until after the dance.”

“Yes, Madame President,” Natasha says sarcastically. “Anything you say, Madame President.”

Pepper smiles and it’s a genuine, happy smile for someone who gets less sleep a night than any teenager should. “So what’s going on? Are you ready to have the conversation?”

“The conversation?”

“The conversation about the boy you don’t want to talk about.”

Natasha wants to throw in the towel, but decides to just pack her books into her bag, books she doesn’t remember unpacking in the first place. “I don’t know which boy you’re talking about and I feel like I should be worried what that says about me, but at the same time, I don’t care.”

Pepper hums like she’s processing it, but it might just be for dramatic effect. Tony really is a terrible influence on her. “That was more of a yes or no question.”

“No.” Natasha shoulders her bag and stands up. “Wait, did the bell ring? Where did all the minions go?”

“They aren’t minions. They’re cut-throat and blood-thirsty individuals in direct competition with each other to stack their college applications and edge each other out of spots at Ivy League schools. And the bell didn’t ring yet. They just like to get to class early.”

Natasha drops back down into her chair and lets her bag thump against the floor. She presses her face into her hands with a long groan. This is why she prefers tea over coffee on most days and usually just does what’s asked of her on student council rather than taking on every little task just to have excuses to leave rooms and avoid conversations she should probably have.

“Don’t worry.” Pepper runs comforting circles over Natasha’s back and it’s hard to tell if it reminds her of her mother because it’s something her mother used to do or because it’s something mothers are supposed to do and Natasha wants to think her mom did. “After Saturday, you can relax.”

“Not really. I have ballet Sunday. It never ends.”

“If you want, I can come in early on Saturday and stay till the dance with you, split the to-do list,” Pepper offers, too nice for her own good. “That way you don’t have to do everything yourself.”

“No. You do more than this on a daily basis and you don’t get nearly enough credit. You deserve to do the whole homecoming thing. Tony got a limo and he wants to do the whole walk up to your door teen dream routine. I also heard he’s paying that photographer kid fifty bucks to follow him around all night, taking pictures so he can build you a scrapbook or something.”

“Tony would not scrapbook, not even for me. He might pay someone to do it, though.”

Natasha smiles against her palm, lifting her face away from her hands. “He’s the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met, but he has his moments, especially for you.”

“Oh, he is far from off the hook, but he’s making the effort and that has to count for something, right? I know he still doesn’t tell me everything and I know that’s hard for him, but…” When Pepper smiles, it’s a softer smile, fond even. “I like him and I don’t see that as something to run from.”

Her words resonate with Natasha more than Pepper could ever know. The bell rings then and Natasha shoulders her bag yet again. They agree to meet before the end of last period so they can get everything organized for the pep rally. Natasha times it so she walks into class exactly when the bell rings. She hands her excuse note to their teacher, who reads it, nods and orders for everyone to quiet down and take out their textbooks.

Steve is right next to her. He’s right there, but he isn’t stealing glances anymore. His expression gives away none of what he’s feeling, focused on his open notebook and the PowerPoint projected on the screen at the front of class. He shuts down how he does before a game, which is good, he should. Natasha just keeps her eyes forward and counts the minutes until she can leave.

For the most part, the pep rally goes smoothly. The dance team does their thing, the cheer squad does their thing, there are skits involved. Tony takes hold of the microphone with the rest of the football team lined up behind him and gets the crowd hyped up.

The end of the pep rally leads right into the parade through town. It isn’t much. It isn’t exactly a Disneyland parade with uplifting music and lovable characters wooing the crowd, but it sure does seem like most of the town turns out to see it. Businesses close early and the townspeople come out to line the streets. Old, fat men who were once gods to this town, lift their fists to the sky, sun gleaming against their championship rings.

A truck bearing an American flag leads the procession. The marching band marches on, but everyone comes out to see the football team. The players, all in their jerseys, are scattered throughout. Some in the back of pick-up trucks, most on the school float Natasha and the student council worked on every day after school. Tony pulls Pepper onto the float despite her reluctance and as she rides and waves, it’s nice to see her loosen up.

Natasha drives her Corvette in the parade, the Avengers symbol drawn on the windows. Maria sits beside her, bored out of her mind and not afraid to say it. The tinted windows are up as her car crawls down the street inch by inch. There’s no waving or fake smiles, no one can see with the tinted windows raised and locked. One song plays over the car speakers on loop.

All my friends were vampires
Didn't know they were vampires
Turns out I was a vampire myself
In the devil town

 

 

This feels like the longest day of her life and there’s still a football game to be played. Natasha knows the exact seat she wants. Technically, she’d prefer to stand right next to Fury throughout the game, but there are at least some lines she isn’t allowed to cross. Instead, she settles for a front row spot right behind the home bench and it adds to her exhaustion when she sees people already in her spot.

Not just any people. Her ex-boyfriend’s best friend and his new girlfriend. Not just his new girlfriend, but the girl he left her for after some wild night where Elektra—that’s her actual name—convinced him to throw his inhibitions to the wind and steal one of her daddy’s expensive cars then make out in her daddy’s expensive, stolen car. Matt Murdock is a good guy, wants to help and defend the less fortunate for a living, and Natasha could tell he was sorry when he explained it to her and then broke up with her, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt like hell.

“Oh, hell no,” Maria utters beside her.

“We can sit somewhere else,” Natasha insists. “Maria, don’t.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Maria starts marching over and it’s a total coincidence she’s wearing her boots she dubbed her ass-kicking boots that she insist give her all her confidence. Natasha half-heartedly tries to stop her, but when Maria has something in her head, it’s hard to throw her off course. She walks right up behind Elektra and Foggy, who’s wearing a giant, red devil costume. “Hey, you’re in our seats.”

Elektra’s eyes go right past Maria to Natasha, bored already. “Oh, you.”

“Elektra.” Natasha gives her a curt nod. Her hard expression softens when she sees Foggy’s grin, his long blonde hair flopping over his shoulders. “Hey, Foggy.”

“Natasha Romanoff,” he says in a voice that makes him sound like a talk radio DJ. “Don’t worry, I was just about to head down to the sideline, start stretching. It’s a long game. Gotta stay loose.”

“Nice,” Maria says flatly. “And your friend?”

Elektra makes a show of relaxing in her spot, pressing her palms into the bench at either side of her and leaning back. “Oh, am I sitting in your spot? I wasn’t aware there was assigned seating.”

“Well, I just made you aware, didn’t I?” Maria says sweetly.

“And you sit here, in this exact spot, every game?”

“Since freshman year,” Maria replies. The bitch at the end of that statement is implied. Natasha purses her lip, too tired to intervene.

“Here’s an idea,” Elektra drawls. “Since your team is on a losing streak, maybe if you sat somewhere else for a change, they might be less sad and pathetic. It’s worth a try, don’t you think?”

Foggy erupts in a fit of coughs that Natasha thinks and Maria knows is to cover up wanting to laugh. He suddenly stands with his devil head tucked under his arm. “Oh! The teams are coming out of the locker room! I should probably get down there.”

Indeed, the Avengers in their red home jerseys and the East Hell Devils in their jerseys that are white with maroon detailing, emerge from the tunnels. Natasha wants to sink down and disappear into the earth when she sees #7 Matt Murdock jogging over to them, wearing his signature red specs, his hair bouncing with each stride. Elektra jumps out of her seat to lean over the railing and greet him with a kiss. The second her ass leaves the bench, Maria is sure to slide in there and claim what’s rightfully hers.

“For luck,” Elektra says, once she pulls away from the kiss.

“Luck? We don’t need no stinking luck!” Foggy shouts, getting pumped up and into character. His antics do nothing to remedy the tension. 

Matt smiles like he doesn’t feel the awkwardness, but it falters somewhere and Natasha knows he’s watching her. “Hi, Natasha.” She manages a lame little wave and curses herself for it. “So, uh, Foggy, Elektra and I applied Early Decision to Columbia. Is it still your number one choice?”

“Considering it,” Natasha replies. “I’m keeping my options open.”

Matt nods a few times too many and it conveys his nerves perfectly. He has always been the type to remain cool on the surface no matter what he’s really feeling underneath. “That’s cool. You should. Consider it, at least. Apply. We used to talk about it all the time…”

“I don’t know,” Maria interjects, and Natasha loves her a little for diverting their attention. “It’s sounding a little crowded. Plus, if Nat gets in, which she totally will, and decides to go, that means one less spot for someone on the wait list and then we might not be welcomed in Greece anymore, which would be a bummer.”

And she’s back to hating Maria, as much as one can hate a friend.

“Wow,” Foggy mumbles, probably without thinking. “I bet Northwestern can’t wait for you, Hill.”

“Or Duke on a tennis scholarship,” Maria says. “It’s a toss up right now.”

“Maria!” All heads turn to Sam, who shouts her name like he’s quoting West Side Story. He runs over, lugging his helmet with him. “Did you see my lucky socks anywhere?”

“Luck is a crutch and those socks were a crime against sanitation, Wilson,” Maria says, with an amused smile. “Now get back out there before Fury sees you slacking and benches you!”

“Slacking? What slacking? I’m always game to show off my moves! I just wish I could do it with my lucky socks!” Sam notices Matt standing next to him, the seven on his chest and almost giggles. “Hey, you’re Matt, right? Good luck out there, man.”

“Um, thank you?” Matt says with uncertainty. Sam actually does giggle then.

“Sam!” Maria shouts. “Go!”

Sam grins as he starts walking backwards. “Girl, what crazy bet did you place on this game? If I wasn’t so sweet on you, I’d accuse you of having a problem!”

“Idiot.” Maria grins despite herself. “Get your head in the game!”

“That’s your boy toy then?” Elektra asks, sure to eye Sam.

“Sure is. Wide receiver. Great hands. Super elusive.” Maria smiles, watching Sam exchange words with Steve. Both glance in their direction, Sam with one of his big smiles and Steve with concern. “And the guy he’s talking to, Steve Rogers, the hunky quarterback, Nat’s dating him.”

“Maria!” Natasha shouts while Foggy mutters, “Rats,” and Matt is too stunned to say anything.

“Backup quarterback or so I hear.” Elektra gazes across the field at said backup quarterback. He must realize he has their attention (all except Natasha) because he pushes himself harder through the warm-up drills. “He is yummy, though.” Elektra’s mischievous eyes skirt over to Natasha. “Maybe you’ll even manage to hold on to this one.”

“Elektra, enough,” Matt snaps. Her sharp eyes turn to her boyfriend, clearly displeased with his words and his tone, but he gives nothing away with his expression and stands his ground.

“Okay!” Foggy shouts, walking down the steps to join Matt. “As fun as this was, ladies, we should get going before Stick notices his quarterback, you know, not warming up and somehow finds a way to blame me. Natasha, Maria. It’s always…interesting.”

“See you after the game,” Matt says, while being dragged away by his best friend. Natasha feels his eyes linger on her even though she can’t see them and she doesn’t know how she’s supposed to feel. He nearly begged her for the chance to be friends after the breakup and Natasha agreed just so he’d stop, but this is the first time she’s seen or heard from him since.

“So, you’ve got a gambling problem?” Elektra notices Maria now in her spot, but doesn’t seem to care much about that any longer. “A hundred says the Devils win this game.”

“Deal,” Maria says quickly. “I’ll be by to collect after the game.”

Once Elektra slinks away, her hips swaying in a way that can only be intentional, Natasha glares at Maria. “I’m starting to think Sam has a point. You have a problem. And what the hell was that about Steve?”

“Steve won’t mind. He’s proven he’s willing to fake boyfriend for you. On top of what Barton implied at lunch, which we are going to get to eventually. Also, that girl sucks. She gets under my skin. Why would you put up with that crap?”

“Because in the grand scheme of things, nothing she says matters and I don’t really care.”

“At least I got our seats. Huh?” Maria scoots over and pats the spot next to her and Natasha sits without comment. She tells herself sports superstitions are stupid, but better safe than not. “Now, if we lose this game because Steve can’t focus, I’m so blaming you and the fact that you’ve been dodging him, oh, all week. You couldn’t make nice for the good of the team? Fury should revoke your jersey.”

“Maria, shut up.” Her voice is more tired than mean or angry. So, so tired, Natasha rests her head on Maria’s shoulder and Maria leans into her in return.

 

 

When the referees gather the captains in the middle of the field before the game, Matt still has his red specs on and holds a hand out to Steve and they shake. All he really knows about Matt Murdock is he has one of the quickest releases in Texas high school football and Natasha was the most distant anyone has ever seen her in the weeks that followed their breakup. It doesn’t make sense to Steve. How does a guy do that to Nat of all people? Can’t exactly blame Clint for telling the defense he’ll buy a case of beer for anyone and everyone who can get a good hit on the Devils QB.

“Steve,” Matt says, once everyone else starts to retreat. “I heard about you and Natasha.”

Me and Natasha? “What?”

“She’s great and she deserves the best, a lot better than what I gave her,” Matt continues. “You should be better for her, Rogers.”

Steve feels the space between his brows pinch. Yeah, things are weird between them right now, but this little rough patch doesn’t even compare to what Matty did to her, how he treated her, how he was supposedly committed to the best damn girl in this town, maybe in the entire state of Texas, and he forgot all about her the moment another girl came along. As cool and kind as he seems, who does Matt Murdock think he is? What right does he have to lecture? Their situations are totally different and they don’t even know each other.

“That’s rich coming from you,” Steve mutters. 

Matt’s eyebrows lift and his lips turn down in confusion. “Whoa, easy.” Matt gives him that crooked smile that might work on the girls, but it sure doesn’t make Steve feel any less riled. “I’m just saying, you’re lucky to be in her life and I hope you treat her right.”

“Murdock!” Clint appears at Steve’s side and it’s almost funny how quickly Matt puts his guard up. “Quit trying to get into my quarterback’s head, would ya?”

“We’re just making conversation, Barton,” Matt replies coolly.

“We’ll see how chatty you are after the game,” Clint says, his voice low and full of promise. “No douche who hurts my best friend gets to walk off the field with a clean jersey, s’all I’m saying.” Clint gives Steve a smack on the shoulder pads. “Alright, Cap, let’s go win us a ball game.”

“Good luck, Steve.” Matt nods to him. Steve nods back, but doesn’t echo the sentiment as he follows Clint back to the rest of the team.

FIRST HALF

Murdock does a quick sign of the cross before taking the field. His Devils have the ball to start the game. Even with his red specs off, his eyes aren’t any easier to read. Luckily, the defense is ready, locked in after the way they embarrassed themselves last week. This is the game Clint has been waiting for since their regular season schedule came out.

On first down, Murdock gets the ball out in under three seconds. He’s quick and decisive, knows exactly where he wants the ball, but Clint studied him. Clint is draped all over Murdock’s favorite target, Brett Mahoney. Clint swats the ball away before Mahoney can even think to catch it. On second down, Murdock throws up a little lob right over the line to a tight end who’s immediately brought down by Rumlow, but not before gaining five yards. Third down, the ball is snapped and T’Challa pulls off a beautiful spin and reverse spin move to get around the offensive tackle, slamming right into Murdock. The ball pops loose! It bounces on the ground. Rollins dives forward and grabs the ball. The Avengers recover! It’s their ball.

Now, it’s time for the Avengers offense to take over. Steve jogs out on the field, very serious, all business. He nods to Pietro, who nods back and doesn’t have a smarmy smirk on his face for once. Between the two of them, the determination is palpable. It’s one of the best kinds of short field situations. The end zone is so close, but Steve knows not to get distracted by that. This needs to be tactical to succeed.

On first down, Steve hands the ball off to Pietro who blasts through a gap in the left side of the line courtesy of Hogan and Sawyer. He gets tripped up by their star linebacker, Frank Castle, but not before a significant gain. On the next down, Steve hands it off to Pietro again, who runs a slant and picks up the first down. When the ball is snapped, Tony runs down the right side of the field, sheds the defender and curls in just in time to grab Steve’s pass. He’s dragged down, but not before picking up seven yards.

On third down, they try to run it again, but the Devils defense isn’t giving up without a fight. The second Steve hands Pietro the ball, they all learn why Frank Castle is known as the Punisher. He’s quick, grabs Pietro by the ankle and yanks him to the ground for a loss of yardage. Fury signals for the field goal unit to take the field and Clint kicks the ball in for an easy three points.

“Points are points, Cap.” Clint gives Steve a pat on the back, realizing the way he’s staring hard at the end zone. Two yards was all they needed. Two yards. “We’ll get it. It’s chess, not track.”

That isn’t good enough for Steve, but he nods, takes off his helmet and watches the defense work.

And the defense sure does work.

Murdock fakes a handoff to the running back, a slick self-proclaimed ninja who goes by Nobu, and just as Murdock cocks his arm back, Rhodey hits him right in the abdomen, the two of them hitting the grass hard.

“That’s what I’m talking about! Yeah!” Clint cheers and runs over to yank Rhodey up off the dirt and give him a slap on the helmet.

“You owe me beer,” Rhodey says, as Clint picks a clump of dirt out of his face mask for him. Rhodey watches as Mahoney and Melvin, the left tackle, pick Murdock off the ground. “Nothing personal, Murdock.”

“Nothing personal,” Clint echoes with a big grin. “Just football.”

Clint’s unabashed enjoyment of the public pummeling lights a fire under Murdock and the offense. On the next down, he throws a dart down the sideline to Mahoney for a quick nine yard gain. Then he hands off the ball to Nobu who earns his ninja title as he slices through the line, spins away from Rumlow and picks up an easy first down. They're on a roll and the Avengers are frazzled, but on the next play, Murdock throws right down the middle, where Mahoney catches the ball, but he’s sandwiched midair by Clint and Rhodey. The ball pops free from his hand as they hit the grass in a heap. Incomplete. The tight end drops the ball on the next play and on third down, Murdock narrowly escapes another hit and throws the ball out of bounds. They’ve forced to punt the ball.

Nobu punts the ball and it’s a beautiful punt, forcing the Avengers to start at their own five yard line. Steve gives the ball to Pietro, who somehow powers through the line for a pick up of fifteen yards. The crowd and the coaches are surprised and delighted. Steve throws the ball to Tony, but it’s short. Miss. He tries to throw a short pass to Sam, another miss. On third down, Steve grits his teeth and throws a long pass that Tony leaps up to catch, rolling to the ground at the fifty yard line. Steve throws another long ball that Tony takes to the twenty. Then he hands the ball off to Pietro who runs it in for a touchdown.

At the end of the half, the Avengers are up 10-0.

HALFTIME

The cheer squad does a little routine and it feels weird being able to watch because usually, they spend their little breather getting yelled at by coaches and adjusting the game plan. Their discussions were cut short due to the true purpose of halftime—announcing the king and queen.

“This is good, good,” Steve mumbles under his breath. And he snaps to attention, walking over to give Dugan and Gabe Jones a pat on the back each. “You’re doing great, guys. Great work on Fisk. Keep it up.” Steve moves on to Sam and Tony. “Tony, they’re probably going to try to adjust and put both Blake and Hoffman on you, so Sam, I’m going to need you to come through.”

“On it, Cap,” Sam agrees. “That Barrett can’t keep his hands to himself. Like, damn, at least buy me dinner first.”

Steve cracks a slight smile. “Stark, did you hear me? I’m going to need you to play decoy unless you can get open, which might even impress me.”

Tony smooths a Stark band-aid (the adhesive supposedly lasts for months) over a scrape on his knee. “Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time. Now, shut up. Can’t you see my successful, commanding girlfriend has something to say?”

Steve takes in everything else around them and Pepper is indeed standing where the cheerleaders were performing moments ago. She has a microphone in hand and a big, professional smile on her face. Giving Pepper his undivided attention is the right, polite thing to do, but Steve is preoccupied and goes over his playbook on his wrist for the hundredth time. He has to stay in his bubble. They need to win.

“Good evening, students, faculty, family and friends!” Pepper greets the crowd with a smile and the professionalism of someone much older. “Before the second half gets underway, I am here to announce our Homecoming King and Homecoming Queen.” She holds up the envelope in her hands and the band provides a dramatic drum roll. “Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff!”

Steve’s bubble of concentration bursts. The team roars with laughter, teasing remarks and a few catcalls. All of it drowned out by Steve’s overwhelming confusion. After a beat, he blurts out, “Who even voted for me?”

“You’re QB1, baby!” Sam slaps him on the shoulder pads. “Perks of being the big man on campus.”

“You can have this one, Spangles,” Tony says, “but prom is mine.” And in his best impersonation of a teenage girl, he adds, “bitch.”

“And most of the school thinks your hot girlfriend just left you for an equally hot chick,” Clint points out, there to slap Steve’s other shoulder and harder. “What? If I did things like vote for prom, you’d get my pity vote, for sure.”

“It’s homecoming, not prom.”

“Who the hell cares, Wilson?”

“Who the hell cares is right,” Fury says, appearing right behind them and seemingly from out of nowhere. “If we don’t pull out this win, it’ll all be for nothing, but I’m pretty sure Miss Potts will tear you to shreds if you don’t go out there right now, Rogers. Go!”

Steve jogs out to where Pepper’s standing and the crowd cheers so he waves. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be used to this. He isn’t even sure why these people think they like him. He’s sure once prom voting rolls around, long after football season is over, his name won’t even make the ballot. Unless they win States. Then maybe he could give Tony a run for his money. He knows for a fact Natasha won’t come up willingly. Pepper’s going to have to drag her off the bleachers herself. Steve finds her usual spot, but she isn't there. That’s happening to him more and more, too much for comfort.

SECOND HALF

The ball is in Steve’s hands to start the third quarter. They go with a run. It’s kind of amazing how much stronger and faster Pietro is. Maybe Fury’s tough love actually works. They pick up ten yards. Sam drops a pass on the next down and on second, Steve fakes a hand off to Pietro and drops back. When Fisk slips away from Dugan, ready to steamroll over him, Pietro throws an incredible block that gives Steve just enough time to throw the ball down the field for an easy gain of twenty yards.

At first and goal, Steve sees Fisk coming at him and so he throws the ball a little sooner than he’d like, a little off target. Barrett jumps to intercept the ball, but Sam is quick, cuts back, snatches the ball from over Barrett’s shoulder and holds on tight as he hits the ground. Fisk slams Steve into the ground, but all he cares about is the play and moving on to the next. On the next down, Steve hands the ball to Pietro who breaks through the line, spins away from Castle and steps into the end zone for a touchdown!

The Avengers are up 17-0.

Nobu runs the ball for six yards to open the Devils’ drive. He runs it again for another three. On third down, all the Devils need is a yard for the first down. The ball is hiked. Rumlow hits Murdock, but Murdock somehow throws the ball before he goes down. The ball soars through the air and ends up right in Mahoney’s hands, but Clint is there to rip the ball out before Mahoney can secure it. The Devils punt again.

Time is running down fast and Steve knows they’re pitching a shut out and need to kill clock. He gives the ball to Pietro who picks up a nice chunk of yardage. On the next play, Steve gives the ball to Pietro again, but this time, Fisk is there to body slam the kid for a loss of two yards. On third down, Steve wants to throw. Tony is doubled. Sam runs inside, cuts back out, shakes the defender and runs down the open field. Steve lets the ball fly just before Castle takes him down. Steve sits up enough to watch Sam catch the ball and run it in for a touchdown.

24-0.

As much fun as it is, watching the Devils get demolished, you have to respect Matt Murdock and his resilience. He still leads his team out onto the field like the game is only separated by mere points. He gets the ball out just before getting hit again and Mahoney catches it. He tucks the ball under one arm and stiff-arms Clint, which gets a rowdy reaction from the crowd, picking up extra yardage after the catch and a first down before Clint catches up with him, grabs him around the waist and throws him to the ground. The crowd loves the whole sequence for different reasons.

Despite his effort and energy, Murdock gets sacked on second down (T’Challa again) and when he throws a long ball on 2nd & 15, Clint jumps in front of Mahoney, snatching the ball out of the air for an interception. Mahoney tackles him before he can do anything, but Clint bounces to his feet and there’s an obvious pep in his step. The home crowd loves it, loves him, and the noise is the loudest it’s been in what feels like too long.

When Steve and the offense take over, they have the ball at the Devils’ thirty. All Steve has to do is take a knee and the game is as good as over. At least, that’s what Fury signals for Steve to do. Steve has other plans. As the clock whittles down to mere seconds, Steve audibles to the line. “Red Romanoff 42 shine!” He licks his fingertips and takes a deep breath. “Hike!”

Dugan hikes the ball and Steve drops back. The Devils defense isn’t even trying at this point, giving Steve plenty of time to find Sam and throw a bullet pass right down the middle. Sam catches the ball in the end zone for another touchdown right as the clock expires. The crowd and his teammates love it, but Steve knows there will be hell to pay with Fury. This feeling, putting up more than thirty points on a defense full of mean, physical players, the adoration of the crowd, wiping that smile off of Natasha’s ex-boyfriend’s face—worth it.

After the extra point that Clint drills right down the middle, the game ends with a 31-0 absolute shutout. Avengers win!

Steve gets attacked by hugs and mid-air bumps and slaps on the back of his helmet, but he makes the effort to pick Matt out of the crowd and make his way over to him. The guy took a beating, his uniform covered in grass stains and streaks of dirt. It’s satisfying, if he’s being honest, but Steve also thinks of Thor and what he said after their loss against the Warriors. Steve thinks about what kind of leader he wants to be off the field, finds Matt and shakes his hand.

“Good game, Murdock,” Steve says.

The guy still manages a smile despite being trounced. “I meant what I said about Natasha.”

Steve would rather not get into that all over again, but nods his head and tries for a smile, not that it’s hard with the adrenalin pumping so hard he can hear his blood thumping in his ears. “You know, she’d kick your ass if she heard you talking about her like this.”

Matt remains humble, barely broken up about the loss or so he seems. “Take care of her, Rogers.”

Steve doesn’t think to say it until long after Matt and the Devils have left the field, but the guy is wrong. Natasha takes care of him and Steve knows he can’t make it up to her, no matter how hard he tries, but that’s not going to stop him from trying. He tries to find her in the crowd, feeling emboldened, whether it be the adrenalin or this newfound determination. He tries to navigate the mass of people who’ve stormed the field, seeking out her face, but not before he feels a heavy hand on his shoulder and Fury tells him, “One word, Rogers. Hubris.”

Even after the high of victory dies down and people start to leave, Steve still doesn’t see Natasha anywhere.

 

 

“You look so handsome.”

Mom.”

Steve inspects his reflection in the hall mirror. His ensemble is a simple one—dark slacks, dark jacket, crisp white button-down and a light blue skinny tie. The moment she heard he was going to the dance, Sarah made sure he had an outfit and that it fit him impeccably. She’s in her scrubs now, about to leave for a shift, but not before she sees her little boy all dressed up and ready to go to one of his last few high school dances.

Sarah reaches up to fix his hair that’s combed neatly and held in place with actual hair products. Steve doesn’t usually mess with the stuff, but he figured, why not? He lets his mom fuss over him, more for her than him, and even smiles when she insists on snapping a picture or ten of him with her phone.

“Are you sure you don’t want the car, Steve?”

“Tony’s got a limo. And don’t forget your dinner!”

“Of course that boy has got a limo. It’s better than any of you driving, I suppose,” Sarah reasons. Steve disappears into the kitchen for a moment before returning with her lunch bag. “Thank you. What are you doing after the dance? Are you and Sharon going to one of those afterparties?”

“I don’t plan to, but I haven’t talked to Sharon yet.”

“She seems like a nice girl.”

Sarah had felt bad about missing Steve’s last few games so she made sure to have last night off. Steve introduced his mom to his homecoming date. He blushed when his mom said, “Oh, Carter?” She’s yet to tease him about the fact that he’s bringing Peggy’s cousin to the dance, but he feels like she’s just waiting for the right moment to spring it on him for fun.

“I’d remind you to take a lot of pictures, but I know you won’t, even if I ask nicely.” Sarah straightens his tie for what has to be the third time at least. “I’ll just wait and ask Natasha to show me that Instagram.” Sarah grabs her bags. “If she ever comes back around…”

Steve doesn’t think it’s a jab at him, but it kind of sounds and feels like one. His mom works a lot, but she isn’t blind or stupid. She was bound to notice the lack of Natasha around the house. It’s only been a few days, but his life feels emptier without her bad jokes, no bull football talk and just, her smile. Sarah doesn’t ask or push, just pulls him in for a hug and one last reminder about knowing his limits if there’s alcohol and respecting the limits of others.

Not long after Sarah leaves for work, a musical horn honks. When Steve opens his front door, he sees Tony through the sun roof of a super stretch limousine, wearing an outrageous red tuxedo and round red specs that are an exact replica of Matt Murdock's. Steve climbs into the limo where Pepper, Bruce and Betty, Maria and Sam are waiting.

“I can’t believe you agreed to go to the dance with this guy.” Steve points a thumb over at Sam, who true to his word, is wearing the ridiculous metallic pink suit jacket Natasha talked him into buying. Unlike Tony who is in head to toe red, Sam’s wearing the bright pop of color over a dark vest and a crisp white button down with dark slacks and dress shoes.

“Lucky for him, this monstrosity doesn’t clash with my outfit,” Maria says from behind a flute of champagne. Her dark hair is done up and her little black dress ends mid-thigh, green stilettos on her feet.

Pepper tries to hand Steve a flute of champagne, but he waves off the offer. He still has to walk up to Sharon’s front door to pick her up and the last thing he wants is for her mom and dad to smell alcohol on him. Conversation flows and none of them mention Peggy or the rumors around school and Steve is glad for it.

When they stop in front of Sharon’s little cottage home, Steve straightens his hair and walks up the long walkway to her house. Sharon’s dad answers the door and congratulates Steve on winning the game, but luckily, Sharon is right behind him so the small talk doesn’t run long. Her honey blonde hair is in loose curls and she’s wearing a pretty little flora frock. She looks beautiful because she is beautiful, but also because her excitement is so palpable. Steve tells her as much, smiling the whole time and humors her mom when she wants pictures of the two of them. 

 

 

The homecoming dance is just in the high school gym, decorated appropriately and with a gigantic disco ball hanging over the would-be dance floor. Laser lights of all colors race across the room and there’s a DJ off to the side. It’s pretty much the definition of putting lipstick on a pig, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Pepper and Natasha and they do.

Steve feels eyes on him the moment he walks in with Sharon on his arm. He can’t tell if it’s because he’s the quarterback and they (finally) won a football game or because debating about his relationship with Peggy and her alleged cheating that wasn’t cheating seems to be everyone’s new favorite thing. He reminds himself he isn’t supposed to care and lets Sharon talk him into going over to where the photographer is taking pictures of couples and groups in front of a massive red and white balloon display.

When Steve sneaks away to get them some drinks, he shakes his head at Clint leaning against a wall by the refreshment table, his bowtie undone, just hanging around his neck. Fury, dressed in all black per usual, eyes Clint from across the room, just waiting for him to make a move. It’s a scene out of Tom and Jerry waiting to happen.

“Here.” Steve sets a handful of different cups down in front of Sharon. “I didn’t know which you wanted so…”

“Thank you.” Sharon chooses the lemonade and when she lifts the cup to her lips, Steve sees the scrape that stretches from her elbow to her wrist. Sharon catches him staring and explains, “Powderpuff. If you ask me, it should have been a penalty, but the coach’s daughter was the perpetrator so what can you do?”

“Nat plays hard,” Steve says, with a shrug. “At least it wasn’t tackle?”

He tries to school his expression because Sharon is staring right at him, but watching Natasha out on the field is mesmerizing. Her intensity and skill, the level of confidence and deception she plays with, nothing short of amazing. If there was a camera on him throughout the powderpuff game, he bets he was grinning like an idiot throughout the whole thing. Speaking of… Steve cranes his neck to look for her, trying to be as discrete as he can, which probably isn’t very with how Sharon laughs.

“I guess I should have expected that from the guy who named a football play after her…”

Steve laughs and it sounds awkward even to his ears. “That’s just something the guys and I came up with. We kind of stole her play. We had to give Coach Romanoff credit. You were great too!” Steve clinks his paper cup against hers. “That wasn’t an easy assignment, but Bobbi put a lot of trust in you.”

“I’m not sure about trust. My leading theory is that she just thought I was more competent than a bunch of underclassman.”

They both laugh and then the silence slips between them.

“So, did you get ahold of Peggy?” Sharon asks.

“Oh! Yeah. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass—arse—what people are saying about her. She’s more upset about how people are going to treat me and then she asked why I didn’t just tell everyone and, yeah, I probably shot myself in the foot with that one.”

When one of Sharon’s friends, Val, comes over and starts talking to her about some afterparty, Steve finally spots Natasha. Her hair that she usually wears straight or in bouncy waves is in tight, taut spirals tonight. Her modest-length dress is a light blue and satin with a plunging neckline that stops just before crossing the line of breaking dress code. She seems preoccupied, talking to Pepper, walking over to the DJ, walking back over to Pepper and back and forth. It makes him think maybe she really was busy all week.

“The dress is pretty vanilla for Natasha Romanoff, don’t you think?” Val stares right at the person Steve can’t keep his eyes off of. “Someone has watched A Walk to Remember one too many times.”

“I think she looks really nice,” Steve interjects. He knows Val is rolling her eyes at him and doesn’t care. What Steve doesn’t catch is the way Sharon glances between him and Natasha, forlorn.

Suddenly, the lights dim and a spotlight snaps on the middle of the dance floor where Pepper holds a microphone. “Good evening, everyone! I hope you're all having an amazing night! Now, I think we should kick off the festivities by crowning our king and queen. So, without further ado, your Homecoming King, Steve Rogers!”

There’s hooting and cheers and Steve doesn’t think he’ll ever be used to that. A spotlight finds him as he stands from his seat and he waves to show his gratitude. Last year’s Homecoming King is there to present Steve with a silk stash. The librarian’s son, a boy of about eight, holds the crown that’s red satin with white faux fur and accented with a silver sequin band. It’s incredibly gaudy. Steve has to bend over so the little boy can place the crown on his head and the room cheers once he does.

“And now, your Homecoming Queen, Natasha Romanoff!”

The room explodes with applause and someone (Clint) shouts, “Long live the Queen!” For a long moment, no one says anything as they search for their missing queen. Natasha’s curls bounce as she heads for the door, but Fury steps in front of her and blocks her path.

“Natasha, your throne awaits,” Pepper says sweetly, her voice filling the room through the strategically placed speakers. When Natasha continues to argue with Fury, not giving a shit that half the school is watching, Pepper turns to Steve. “King Steven, could you escort our queen up here please?”

Steve kind of hates Pepper for putting him in this situation in front of everyone, but what choice does he have? He straightens his suit jacket and marches on. He can only imagine how furious Natasha must be right now, considering Fury is enjoy this so much he’s full on grinning. Steve didn’t know Fury’s face was capable of expressing that level of pure joy. When he's close enough to reach out and touch her, Steve doesn't know what to do or say and just lingers. Fury is the one who clears his throat and nods over her shoulder.

Natasha spins around to face him and her curls bounce with her movement. She sucks in a breath, but doesn't let it go and Steve does the same because, God, she's gorgeous. Not that he expected any less. Not that he hasn't been glancing over and openly staring as she trailed behind Pepper, the two of them conversing like generals ironing out the details of an op they're about to execute perfectly.

“Hi.” Steve motions behind him with nervous, frantic hand motions. “Pepper needs us.”

Fury snorts, so clearly over his chaperoning duties before the evening has even begun. “Aren’t you supposed to bow? Offer The Queen your arm? You will address her as Your Majesty or Ma’am.”

"Nick, really," Natasha mumbles under her breath.

With his coach watching him like he just made a poor, careless play, Steve bows his head and holds out his elbow. “Ma’am.”

Natasha won't meet his eyes, but she does take his arm and let's him lead her over to Pepper, who’s waiting alongside last year’s Homecoming Queen and a young girl holding a satin pillow where the tiara sits. Last year’s winner helps Natasha into her sash before taking the rhinestone tiara and settling it atop Natasha’s hair. When Steve and Natasha stand together as king and queen, everyone cheers and that photographer kid runs up and gets down on one knee to snap photos of them.

“Now kiss!” someone shouts from the crowd and is promptly ignored.

“And now,” Pepper continues, “our king and queen are going to kick off our festivities with a dance.”

Natasha’s eyes narrow over at her friend. “Pepper, what are you doing?”

“Starting a new tradition.” Pepper flips the switch on the microphone, turning it off. “Maria told me the only reason you’re actually doing your student council duties is to avoid whatever is going on between you two. This is our version of locking you two in a room until you work out whatever’s going on.” Pepper turns the microphone back on. “DJ, hit it!”

Steve swallows hard as Pepper flees, leaving just Natasha him in the middle of the dance floor. It's kind of weird because everyone is watching. Honestly, it's more daunting than stepping out onto the football field. It's also weird because he doesn't quite feel like he has any right to touch her, especially with the way things are between them. Natasha takes the lead, bringing her hands to his shoulders and he falls in line with her, placing his hands high on her waist. The song is a slow one and they just sort of sway, which is all Steve can manage if he doesn't want to embarrass himself or step on her.

"You...you look amazing, Nat, really, wow, your hair..." Steve cringes when he hears himself and feels the slightest movement of her hands on his shoulders as if she's trying to soothe the tension out of them, but she freezes as soon as she realizes what she's doing.

Natasha laughs quietly, staring down at the more than appropriate space between their bodies. "I've been here since eight this morning. I had to curl my hair in the girls locker room. This week has been exhausting."

"It has," Steve agrees, but maybe not for the same reason. The way her eyes dart up to meet his, she knows. Steve offers her a sweet smile. "You could always lean on me. I don't mind. I'll hold you up."

Her brows furor, but then she's pursing her glossy, pink lips. At Pepper’s insistence over the loud speakers, the princes and princesses, a pair from each grade, join them on the dance floor. It lets Steve relax once the spotlight isn't just on them. In the quiet that follows, the distance between them has never felt so obvious.

"If you wanna ask, just ask."

She seems surprised that he could read her, but it's only the elephant in the room. One of two elephants, but the more recent and pressing. "Why didn't you tell me about Peggy and you?” He cringes. He was prepared for it, but couldn't stifle his reaction regardless. “I don’t get it, Steve. I feel like an idiot after all the times I brought her up.”

"People talk about me enough. I didn't need to give 'em any more—"

"I'm not people, Steve!" The words sort of explode out of her and when she realizes that she lost her cool a little, Natasha lowers her voice exponentially. "At least, I didn't think I was. At least, not to you..."

"I'm sorry. I don't know why I didn't tell you. I tried, Nat. I did. Maybe I thought... We were spending so much time together and I couldn't let myself...I...if you thought I was with Peggy then I wouldn't...couldn't..." He takes a deep breath and his hold on her tightens just a little. "I'm afraid what I'm trying to say will make things weird between us."

"Steve, things are already weird between us. And I don't know, maybe it's my fault too. I've been..."

"Busy?"

"Embarrassed," she says, quieter than he's ever heard her speak.

"Nat, you don't have to be embarrassed in front of me. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. I, on the other hand, I embarrass myself in front of you enough for the both of us.”

Her chin tilts down and the corner of her lips quirk. “Would you say you’re the king of embarrassment?”

He laughs, his eyes crinkling and closing. All he can think is I missed you, I missed you, I missed you.

"So, Your Majesty,” she whispers, “what’s one more embarrassing moment between friends?”

But that might be the reason at the root, at the heart.

"I like you," Steve confesses, his voice barely loud enough for her to hear. "I mean, I really like you, Nat. And I know things like this...my feelings aren't your responsibility. We’ve just been spending a lot of time together and I like spending time with you. A lot. I thought, if you and everyone thought I was still with Peggy, it’d keep me in line. I don't know. It was stupid. I'm sorry."

She's quiet for a long time, too long maybe. So long the song comes to an end. Steve pulls away just as the song starts to bleed into the next, another slow one, but Natasha doesn’t let him. Her arms hook around his neck and she moves into his space just a little more.

“I read once that it takes two months to really heal after a relationship ends,” Natasha says calmly. “And the worst thing you can do in those two months is engage in destructive behavior, especially forcing yourself to be with someone new, hoping it’ll make you feel better. Temporary bandaids usually have the opposite effect.”

“Natasha…”

“Whether you realize you’re doing it or not, rebounding, it comes naturally after a breakup. And you’re right, we've been spending a lot of time together. It's normal, nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Nat, I don’t think you—”

“Steve.” She squeezes his shoulders and it stops him from saying anything else. “Going days without talking to you sucked. I don’t want to do that anymore. And in the last week, I ran into not one, but two of my exes, which also sucked. Guys who I really liked, I don’t even know how to talk to them anymore. I don’t want to anymore. I kind of envy how you and Peggy, when I walked in on you video chatting… I can’t do that.”

“Maybe you just need to date better guys.” Steve smiles even though he feels like he’s breaking inside.

“I don’t think I should be dating anyone right now.”

Steve nods. He thinks of Bucky again and how she’d respond if it was Bucky wearing this stupid crown and admitting he likes her and actually dancing with her without worrying about stepping on her feet. He tells himself not to compare, but it’s always been in the back of his head since they were kids. Even now, Steve doesn’t feel he measures up.

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t either,” Steve says. “Two months, huh?”

“Give or take. Apparently, feelings aren’t an exact science.” Natasha seeks out his eyes and he doesn’t think she’s ever looked at him like this before. So full of hope yet close to begging. “So are we cool?”

When he nods, a smile blooms across her lips and she draws him in for a hug so he wraps her up in his arms. This isn’t how he imagined it would happen. He’s always kind of been too afraid to tell her. It was impulsive and now…she just wants to be friends. What did he expect anyway? Where does he go from here? Be her friend. Natasha always has guys pestering her, trying to get close to her, usually because they want to sleep with her or date her and show her off. He isn’t going to be one of those guys. He cares about her and he’s going to continue to care for her in whatever way she wants. That’s that.

"So…” Natasha pulls back and gives him one of her sharp smiles that always mean she’s about to give him shit, but he wouldn’t trade for the world. “Red Romanoff 42 shine, huh? A little birdy told me he didn't make that up."

"I would never call Fury a little birdy. Maybe a pterodactyl."

"Bald eagle?" Natasha raises an eyebrow and when Steve cracks with laughter, she lays her head back on his chest to feel the vibration. "You make that up all on your own?"

“What can I say? I was inspired by a certain powderpuff performance.” Steve glances at table he was sitting at, but Sharon is gone. “You killed it! How you picked apart the defense, just surgical. I guess you can back up all your talk.” His hand moves higher up her back and holds her closer. It’s quiet for a moment and they just hold each other as if for dear life.

“So how are you doing with all this? Peggy, I mean.” Natasha meets his eyes, her lips turned down. “Does your mom even know?” Steve shakes his head no. “Shit, Steve. I’m not the best at talking about feelings, clearly, but you need to talk to someone. It takes a village to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

“Um, I think you’re mixing up your cliches.”

“Fun fact: the blending of idioms or cliches is called a malaphor and I’ve been spending way too much time with the editor of the school paper and Pepper’s Army of Overachievers.”

“Oh, you know you’d much rather be sitting in the quad with a bunch of dumb jocks, trying to figure out how to get a ball from point A to point B.”

She smiles and he thinks, this is what a junkie must feel like after a long anticipated fix.

“You’re not a dumb jock. You’re King Jock. And I think I meant to say sorry about you and Peggy, but it got lost in translation there.”

“Thanks. It’s not necessary, but thanks. It was mutual. We just decided, you know, with the distance and we’d be busy doing our own thing, it’d be best. Hurt like hell at first, but I just put my head down, focus on football and I think I’m okay.”

“Technically, you can’t put your head down. You put your head down and you get run over by a two-hundred pound linebacker.”

“So sensitive,” Steve teases. As another song ends and they pull away, he bows again, playfully this time, and offer his arm. She rolls her eyes, but takes his arm and he steers them off the dance floor. "What are you doing after this? Going to Tony's party?"

“No. I need sleep like, desperately. This week has been a lot, but I kind of want to just drive around for a while.”

“Can I come with?”

Natasha pauses. “What about your date?”

“She already told her parents she’s going to Tony’s thing and Jarvis promised he’d personally see to it that she gets home before curfew. I’m not in the mood for one of Tony’s parties and I could kind of use a ride home?”

“Sure. Sounds perfect.”

Natasha lays her head on his shoulder like she's comfortable there, like she was made to. Steve brings her closer, holds her tighter, and reminds himself, having her in his life in whatever capacity is better than not having her in his life at all.

 

 

“Hey.” Natasha pushes a few corkscrew curls over her shoulder and sits next to Clint, who’s in a staring match with Fury posted across the room. “What are you doing?”

“Letting Fury watch me like a hawk because he thinks I’m going to spike the punch when I just like making him paranoid.”

“Whatever,” Natasha says dismissively. “Do you need a ride after the dance?”

“Are you asking me if I need a designated driver?”

“I’m saying Steve and I are going to take off once this dumb thing is through, but if you’re planning on going to Stark’s thing, I’m sure there’s room in his limo.”

Clint willingly surrenders the staring match to give Natasha his best I told you so smirk and a little wiggle of his eyebrows. “Ah, you and Steve, huh? Lover’s Lane or is his mom working the night shift?”

“Don’t be gross. We just don’t feel like sitting in a room with people who annoy us, watching said people destroy Stark’s house. I’m just giving him a ride home.”

“Oh, you’re giving him a ride, huh?”

“See, that’s the definition of being gross. We’re not a thing if that’s what you’re thinking. We talked and decided avoiding each other was stupid and things are back to normal.”

Clint visibly deflates, nearly pouts. ”Natasha, you're such an idiot."

"Look in a mirror, Barton."

Clint slaps his palms against his face. “He named an audible after you. He told most of the school, hell, most of the town who owns his ass and you just want to go back to normal? I told him—Aw, fuck.”

Natasha narrows her eyes. “You told him what? Are you the one who put this whole thing in his head? What the hell, Clint?”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure he came to the conclusion all on his own. He told you?” Clint asks. Natasha’s face doesn’t change, she wears the emotionless mask well, but few things get past Clint and he is her best friend. “Aw, Nat. Steve Rogers told you he likes you. Steve Rogers, who for whatever reason doesn't have self-confidence proportionate to the rest of him, dug deep, found his balls and told you how he felt about you and what?”

“I’m not in a place where I can even consider that and neither is he.”

"Oh my god, Natasha! Nat, how do you even?" He rubs his face. "Is this about Bucky?" Her whole demeanor changes, hardens, distances herself, but Clint won’t back down or let her continue to get away with ignoring and avoiding and running. "Oh yeah, I'm calling you out. Because Steve sure as hell thinks so. He thinks he broke the bro code by hitting on you."

"Steve didn't hit on me. And why are you so invested in this? What the hell did you plant in his head?"

"I didn't plant anything in his head. Like I said, I didn't have to.” Clint shakes his head. "Can you honestly say you don't have the feels for Steve? Straight-up, Tash."

"I'm not a rebound and we’re friends.”

“So you're just wasting an opportunity with the nicest guy you've ever met who really likes you, admitted he likes you, why?”

"Maybe I don't like nice guys."

Clint makes that gurgle groan he does. "Don't like or don't think you deserve? I'm not buying it either way."

“What the fuck, Clint? Since when do we give each other advice about who we date or don’t date? I haven’t said shit about Bobbi or Cherry or Tutor Girl because I trust you to work that out or screw it up or avoid it on your own.”

“Forget it. Do whatever you want, Tash.” Clint starts scanning the room, inspired and urgent. “The black bull jumped out at us in the middle of the night and if Rogers can spring into action, what the hell am I doing?”

Natasha is all sorts of confused and Clint loves the girl, but he doesn’t have the time or the patience right this second. He stands up and his chair scrapes against the gym floor. His eyes go from one face to the next until he sees her, wearing a pretty dress that's purple (his favorite color), but probably has some other fancy name. He does up his bow tie as he walks over to her. At least the tie is doable. His hair is a total lost cause. She doesn’t see him until he’s two steps away and then she does see him and he smiles.

“Clint, hi.”

“Laura.” He swallows hard and suddenly, his throat is so dry. When did that happen? It’s usually so easy with girls. He barely has to try, but this, Laura, she’s different for some reason. “Wanna dance?”

“I wasn’t aware you danced," Laura replies. 

“Of course, I dance. I’m a football player. I wouldn’t be as great as I am if I wasn’t light on my feet. I’ve told you I play football, right?”

“Only every day.”

“So what do you say?” Clint holds his hand out. Laura sizes him up, just a little hesitant and he can’t blame her, not after the shit he’s done and the reputation he’s racked up. He lets himself get his hopes up though and he’s ready to jump for joy when she places her hand in his. He settles for giving her a little twirl that makes her giggle and everything around them melts away and he doesn’t feel like himself, he just feels like a guy who’s making a pretty girl happy and he likes that.

 

 

It takes Steve a few minutes to find Sharon, which probably makes him a lousy date. It’s not like she was supposed to just sit there while he slow danced with Natasha and got a drink with Natasha and got swept up in Natasha like he always seems to do. Sharon seems content enough, having a good time hopefully. Tony is teasing her about something and Pepper is there to take Sharon’s side no matter what they’re talking about.

“Well, well, well.” Tony eyes Steve, a lollypop stick poking out from between his lips. “If it isn’t His Majesty, King Steven the Spangly!” Tony bows to him in one low, smooth motion. “At first I was disappointed and frankly, enraged I wasn’t crowned king, but then I had a dare I say, genius idea for the main event of my afterparty—bedding ceremony.”

Their table of friends are sure to boo him, throwing empty cups, plastic plates and vegetables from the vegetable tray at Tony who doesn’t even try to dodge.

“Man,” Sam says, “if Natasha heard you say that, she’d shove her high heels so far up your ass and they’re pretty impressive heels. Shortie’s almost as tall as Steve in them and she’s practically a munchkin.”

“Who are you calling a munchkin?” Maria walks over and Natasha is with her. Maria sits herself in Sam’s lap and Tony whistles, which gets him a middle finger in response.

“And finally, Queen Natasha the Guileful!” Tony announces her with a bow that’s just as low and exaggerated. The whole table starts chanting, “Long live the Queen!” Natasha almost walks away from them right there, but Pepper reaches out and takes her wrist.

“Nat, sit, sit, sit,” Pepper insists. Steve stands from his chair next to Pepper and offers it to Natasha, who reluctantly sits. Steve shifts to the empty seat over. “Everything is fine, everything is going to be fine. Let go already and start having fun.”

“So, Simba.” Tony squats down between between Steve and Natasha, stretching his arms over the back of their cheap plastic seats. “Everything the disco ball touches is your kingdom.”

“You’re having way too much fun with this,” Natasha says, unamused. “Someone needs to confiscate his flask.”

“Over my dead body.” Tony puts his hand over his heart, which is really over the flask in the inside pocket of his jacket.

Suddenly, Sitwell appears out of nowhere and really puts a damper on the mood. “Miss Hill, Mr. Wilson is not a chair.”

“We were just about to dance.” Maria stands, taking Sam by the hand and yanking him out of his seat just as the DJ plays a much faster remix of a song that's been playing over and over on the radio for months. When Tony pulls Pepper out of her seat, she insists on Natasha going with them. Between Pepper and Maria, Natasha has no choice, but to be dragged out onto the dance floor, where Clint welcomes them, starting up the "Long Live the Queen" chant yet again.

Steve watches his friends from afar, watches Sam and Tony make some poor attempts at what he thinks are supposed to be pirouettes. Clint motions for them to stand back, but whatever mid-air twist he does with his body isn’t any more graceful or correct. The more they make idiots of themselves though, the more Natasha starts to loosen up and her curls bounce as she dances underneath the racing laser lights in the mostly dark gym.

“Steve, you wanna dance?”

He manages to tear his eyes away and realizes Sharon is still sitting with him. Bruce and Betty are still at their table too, but they seem to be in deep conversation despite the thumping music that has just gotten louder as the night went on.

“I’m not much of a dancer,” he insists. “But you go ahead.”

She seems a little disappointed and Steve wishes he could take it back, but his anxiety has taken over yet again and he just feels stuck. “Suit yourself.”

Sharon starts to stand, but Steve finds himself stopping her. “Sharon, wait! Uh, I don’t think I’m going to Tony’s party after this. I’m just not feeling up to it…”

“You know Tony was just screwing with you with the whole bedding ceremony crack, right? I mean, he says stupid things sometimes or a lot of the time, but he’s not that gross.”

“I know. I just don’t feel like it. I’ll probably just catch a ride home.”

“With Natasha?”

Steve doesn’t know why he feels like he’s been caught. What for? Catching a ride home with his friend? The rejection and how easily Nat glossed over it still kind of stings, still kind of keeps him from losing himself in the festivities. He’d much rather go home and kick himself, but he also knows he hated being apart from her this past week. He just needs to accept it and move forward.

Before he even answers, not that he has to, Sharon sighs and stands in front of him. She rights his crown that has gone crooked atop his head without him knowing. “Just be careful with her, okay, Steve? She’s not like Peggy.”

He isn’t sure what she means by that even though that deep-seated need to defend Natasha at all cost kicks in right away. Before he can say anything, Sharon is turning away and walking over to her friends. It’s probably a relief to her. She doesn’t have to play nice with his friends any longer. At least, that’s what he tells himself and maybe it’s more about him, so he doesn’t have to feel bad if she had a terrible night.

“Something wrong?” Natasha is there and has never been shy with her searching, searing eyes.

“Nothing,” he replies, and he knows he’s a terrible liar and she sees right through it. “I’m starving. Could we get burgers and ice cream after this?”

“Sure. If you pay.”

He laughs and it feels genuine so hopefully it sounds as much. “Only if I get to drive your car.”

“In your dreams, Rogers.”

“King Rogers and Queen Romanoff!” Tony shouts into the microphone he has somehow commandeered from the DJ. “Will the Homecoming King and Queen care to share a dance with their loyal subjects? And that might have sounded like a question, but it was actually royal law. Get out here!”

“Peasants,” Natasha says with a playful scoff, but she must be in a good mood because she decides to humor Tony of all people. When she holds her hand out, Steve takes it, laces their fingers and tries to push everything else out of his head.

Chapter Text


Track 11 

Hell - Tegan and Sara 

Track 12 

Dream - Japanese Breakfast 


  

The Avengers dominate the rest of September and the beginning of October. They go on to win their next three games straight and emerge as a serious competitor in the league.

The North Valley Fighting Frogs were easy enough to beat with their quarterback, Jack Thompson, barking out calls straight out of a 1946 playbook. Once upon a time, the guy gave Peggy a hard time. She never let him get to her, but Steve could never forget. The Avengers lived up to their name and, honestly, Steve found it all kinds of satisfying, watching Thompson explode, helpless and angry. The Avengers won by a whopping twenty-two points and on the road.

Next, the Avengers faced the Lemurian Stars, whose top prospect free safety, a kid by the name of Batroc, made it a point to hit Steve helmet first every chance he got. Early in the second quarter, Batroc hit Steve so hard, Steve’s helmet went flying off. The hit drew a flag and got them a new set of downs, but nothing pisses off the Howling Commandos more than the enemy landing a mean lick on their QB. For the rest of the game, the offensive linemen buckled down, put two guys on Batroc every time and gave Steve enough time to throw the ball and steal a road win by three points.

Their latest game was against the Wundagore Knights. On offense, Pietro had a breakout performance. Apparently, he’s deceptively strong, somehow staying on his feet even after one hit and another, lunging forward for extra yards and more often than not, converting on third down. Coach Phillips cheered him on from the sideline when Coach Phillips never cheers for anyone. T’Challa stepped up on defense, getting to the quarterback, stopping the run, dropping back and guarding the big tight ends with great success. The Avengers didn’t let the Knights score and ran the ball so effectively, Steve completed 16 of his 22 throws for 203 yards and a touchdown, bringing home another win. In the locker room after the game, Fury gives Pietro the game winning ball and names T’Challa the defensive captain.

(Pietro spends the whole bus ride back to Midgard boasting, spinning the game ball on his finger, while Rumlow bitches to his friends about T’Challa, but everyone’s too hyped to really pay him any attention.)

All in all, the team is finally clicking on all cylinders. Every level of their game is working and all the players are working together. They communicate well, even the ones who aren’t too fond of each other. It’s like everything Fury tells them about putting everything else aside and playing together is actually paying off. If only taking the SAT was a team sport.

Steve chews on the end of his pencil, a bad habit and kind of gross, he knows, as he fills in bubble after bubble on the testing sheet. The room is unnervingly quiet and filled with more than a dozen other students from all across the county. The nervous energy in the crowded classroom is almost suffocating and the loud ticks of the nearby clock doesn’t help. It’s all very serious. After all, it’s just their futures riding on their ability to get a perfect score.

The closest testing site is IGH in West Hell, home of the Bolts. It’s pure coincidence that they have to take the SAT at the same high school their football team plays this upcoming Friday. It’s no wonder Steve found himself on the receiving end of more than a few dirty looks on his way into the school, but he was so nervous about the test, he barely noticed at all.

Burleson College is Steve’s first choice with San Antonio State College as backup and a pretty sure thing. He also applied to Empire State University in New York City, an expensive, Ivy League long shot. Burleson is closer to home and has a good art program, less costly than ESU, but a lot more than SASC in both cost and quality. Steve and his mom have already researched financial aid and loan options, all of which made his head spin. He isn’t going to hold his breath for a football scholarship. Steve even picked up a pamphlet about joining the military and earning a degree while enlisted, though that one he kept from his mom.

“Relax, Steve.” Once the test lets out, Natasha turns to him and rises up on the toes of her sneakers to rub her thumb over the crease between his brows. “I’m sure you did fine.”

Steve opens his mouth to reply, but then—

“Steve? Steve Rogers?" An unfamiliar, feminine voice calls out to him. The girl standing just behind him is tall and blonde, sweet and feminine, but she also gives off a vibe that she will not let you walk all over her whatsoever. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever seen her before, well, other than inside the classroom minutes ago, the absolute picture of focus and determination.

“I’m Steve Rogers.” He feels dumb when he hears himself talk. She just said his name. She’s clearly aware. Will this ever get any easier for him? Probably not.

“Trish Walker.” She holds her hand out and Steve is a little surprised by that. Even more surprising is what a firm grip she has. “I’ve heard about you. Backup quarterback carrying a hopeless town on his very broad shoulders—” Her eyes flick to his shoulders, “—but now, your team’s hot and you’re the guy that made it happen. I find you fascinating.”

“A lot of that credit goes to my teammates, but thank you?”

“I have a little podcast and I was wondering if you want to be my guest this week?” Her expression is pleading though she doesn’t come off as a girl who begs for anything. How is he supposed to say no to that? “I want to discuss, well, you and I would love your perspective on Texas’ obsession with football. What do you say?”

“Uh…” He hears his voice trail off dumbly and mentally scolds himself. He can decide where he’s going to throw a football and execute within seconds, but can’t answer a simple question from a pretty, somewhat forward girl? Nice going, Rogers. “Uh, I’d love to help you out, but I’m not great with that stuff.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll just be you and me, no one else. It’ll just be like we’re talking.” Trish swings her designer leather purse in front of her and rummages inside. “Why don’t you think about it and text me? Think of it as practice for when all the reporters are jumping to interview the new state champion quarterback.”

Trish holds out a little card, but even when Steve takes it, she doesn’t let go. She catches his eyes and they're green like Nat...who’s been watching the entire time. He almost forgot until he hears Natasha clear her throat and ask, “What seventeen-year-old has business cards?”

When Trish’s eyes shift over and down, she presses her glossy, pink lips into a more subtle smile. “Oh. Natasha, hi. I didn’t see you down there.”

Natasha’s eyes narrow, but only slightly. “Patsy.”

“Don’t waste your time, Patsy.” Maria crashes their conversation with Sam on her hip, a common sight these days. The blonde flinches when she hears that name twice, but tries to hide how it upsets her. “You know tall guys always go for the teeny tiny Polly Pockets,” Maria continues, resting her elbow on Natasha’s shoulder just to be shaken off.

“I go by Trish now, actually,” she says pointedly. All that bite disappears when she turns back to Steve like he’s the only one who exists. “FYI, tall guys and their fascination with Polly Pockets makes no sense. Your sons will never be tall enough to play professional basketball, probably not even see over a high school offensive line.”

“It’s more about the size of your hands than height, playing quarterback, I mean,” Steve adds.

Trish glances down to where his hands are in front of him, fidgeting with the little card she gave him. “I see.”

“Trish,” Natasha says. Was she just looking at his hands too? “Have you met Maria’s boyfriend, Sam?”

“I have not. Nice to meet you, Sam.” Trish also shakes Sam’s hand just as firm as when she shook Steve’s. “And you are the new transfer student from Georgia, right? So did someone give you the nickname ‘Falcon’ or did you come up with that yourself?”

“Coach Fury gave him the nickname,” Maria says proudly.

“Once,” Steve reiterated. “Coach called him Falcon once because of the shirt he was wearing and Fury didn’t care to learn his actual name. Tony is the reason it caught on.”

“Why’re you asking?” Sam asks. “And how do you know so much about us? Are you a spy or something?”

Trish laughs and the sound of it is bright like sunshine. “Not even close. I hate our football team. If anything, I’m pulling for you to win this Friday.” Trish gives Steve a flirt wink, Sam grins giddily and Maria sends an impassive Natasha a look as if to ask aren’t you going to do something about that? “Anyway, I should go find Jess, make sure she isn’t getting into too much trouble. Text me with your answer, Steve.”

“Um, sure. I—yes, I will.” With the card she gave him still between his index and middle finger, Steve gives her a little salute that has Trish laughing like she finds it charming, not incredibly awkward. Though the latter is how he feels. Fascinating, she said. Steve knows his mom would smack him across the back of his head if she saw the way his eyes follow Trish as she walks off, noticing the perfect fit of her denim jeans and the confident sway in her hips. How is he expected not to...notice? Even Sam notices. Steve was raised a gentleman, but he also has eyes. Trish Walker is like an angel or a country star.

She barely turns the corner before Sam shoves Steve, both hands driving into his chest and nearly knocking him off balance. It knocks him out of his trance for sure.

“Watch the merchandise, Wilson,” Natasha chides, steading Steve with a hand on his elbow. “We still have half a season to play.”

“Dude, that girl is fine!” Sam bounces on the tips of his Jordans and grins in response to Maria’s raised brows. “Maria, come on. Come on. Am I wrong? We both saw the same girl, right? She's like a less scary version of Bobbi and she’s got a thing for Caaaaap…”

“You are not wrong.” Maria pulls out her phone and starts tapping the screen. “Wait till you see her Instagram. It’s like millennial Martha Stewart.”

“Did she ask you out?” Sam asks Steve, eager for an answer. “She ask you out right in front of Natasha and everything? Damn.”

“It’s not like that.” Steve inspects the little card that has Trish Talk printed on it along with a phone number, web address and e-mail. He tucks it into the breast pocket of his flannel shirt for safe keeping. “She asked me if I wanted to be a guest on her podcast. I don’t even know what that means.”

“She’s hot, but she’s got issues.” Maria hands her phone to Sam so he can scroll through pictures. “Model, former child star. I heard she ‘accidentally’ set fire to some club one night while partying. Now I guess she has a podcast.”

“Former child star?” Sam asks.

“Have you heard of a show called It’s Patsy?”

“I knew I've seen her before!” Awe lights up in Sam’s eyes. “Damn, Steve, you gotta date Patsy!”

“Trish is Patsy?” Steve asks, equally surprised.

Maria rolls her eyes. “Please don’t tell me It’s Patsy was the first show you jerked off to.”

“She obviously goes by Trish now and she’d probably kick you in the crotch if you called her Patsy.” Natasha gives Maria a sly albeit slightly shaken smile, as if daring her to do exactly that. “Can we go now? Lunch is on me.”

“You mean lunch is on Fury,” Sam points out.

“That was implied,” Natasha says. “Meet at Isobel’s?”

Sam and Maria agree before taking off down the hallway, him with his arm around her waist as she shoves her phone into his face. They make it look so simple, Steve thinks to himself. Sam moves to Midgard and a handful of months later, he’s starting receiver on the best high school football squad in Texas and he’s got a girlfriend. Steve likes Sam, the guy is reliable and easy to be around, but he can’t help, but think about how long it took him to become a starter on the team, the amount of pining that came before his relationship with Peggy and the same with—

“The test wasn’t that hard,” Natasha cuts into his thoughts. “Don’t tell me it completely melted your brain.”

Steve blinks his thoughts away and gives Natasha an apologetic smile. “Sorry, just thinking.”

Natasha slides into his space and bumps his hip with hers. She has more power than you’d think, enough to jostle his solid bulk and make him stumble before he walks straight into her path, letting their shoulders knock into each other. Natasha gives him a playful shove and smiles up at him, this adorable smile that betrays how cold and standoffish most people assume she is. She smiles up at him in a way she wouldn’t dare let most people see, but Steve tells himself not to read too much into it. This is what friends do. All she wants is to be friends and he’s gonna honor that. End of story.

 

 

“Take a knee, gentlemen!”

Monday before practice, Fury decides it’s time for a little talk with his players. Their practice clothes are still clean, but not for long. Each player does as he’s told and takes a knee in front of Fury, who surveys his players from behind a pair of dark, tinted sunglasses.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” Fury says, walking back and forth in front of the players. “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. Any idea who said that?”

“Who is who gives a shit,” Rumlow mumbles to Rollins who chuckles.

“Martin Luther King, Jr,” T’Challa says.

“Correct,” Fury says, shaking his head. “The Wakandan kid has a better grasp of American history than the lot of you…” Truthfully, he’s not too surprised. “This week I want to focus on character. What are we talking about when we say character?”

“You do what’s right,” Steve says, “and don't expect anything in return.”

The corner of Fury’s mouth pulls back as he considers the answer. Then adds, “Character is who we are in the dark. Character is revealed when we’re alone, when no one is watching. I know we’ve won four games in a row, but don’t get cocky. The worst thing you can do is become complacent, let a little taste of success lull you into some false sense of security. We can’t afford to lose a single game going forward. Stay focused. Watch your mental attitude. Watch your words. Watch your actions. Watch how you choose to spend your time. B’cause all of that becomes habit. Watch your habits. Habits become character. Watch your character. Understood?”

“Yes, sir!” they shout. Whether it’s from actual understanding or reflex, who the hell knows.

“Alright! Get out there! Go!” Fury blows the whistle around his neck and the players take the field to begin practice. Fury has been feeling good about their chances of making the playoffs himself, but stopped short of falling into that mental trap. Hopefully, his players can do the same.

“Coach Fury, can I have a second?” Clint asks.

“Practice is starting, Barton.” Fury walks around him and toward the rest of the boys spacing out, preparing to stretch. “If you wanna talk, my door’s open after practice.”

Clint doesn’t say another word, just jogs over to join his teammates. Fury forgets all about the little exchange until after practice when he’s about to text Natasha and see what she wants for dinner when there’s a knock on the door. Clint swings into the doorway, his hair still wet from his shower and standing on ends.

“Would now be a good time to talk, sir?”

“Clint Barton walking into my office by choice?” Fury sets his phone down and leans back in his chair, getting ready for what he assumes is going to be a show. “Alright. Get in here. What do you need?”

“Um…” Clint slips into the room with surprising grace and takes his usual seat. “I just wanted to let you know I might be a little late for practice tomorrow.”

“I’ll need a note from a doctor or else you know the consequences. You signed the contract.”

“I’ll be here as soon as I can,” Clint insists. “Just, I got a job interview after school.”

Fury raises his eyebrows in surprise. “A job, huh?”

“Yeah.” Clint twists his fingers together nervously. “You know the tutor you set me up with? Her father’s got a farm and they just lost one of their farmhands. I offered to lend them a hand, nothing too strenuous. Just sweeping up, fixing fences. And, uh, her father wants to meet with me first.”

Fury hums curiously. “You know, there are easier ways to impress a girl than manual labor.”

Clint laughs and it’s loud and with just a tiny tremor from nerves. Anyone else probably wouldn’t be able to hear it, but Fury does and it makes him smile on the inside.

“You and Barney and everyone are always tellin’ me I should be thinking about the future. It’d be good to have something to put on a resume, right? Plus, I should find some way to repay Laura for putting up with me. Have you seen my grades, coach?”

No. Fury just took the lack of complaints from his teachers as a good sign.

“Alright,” Fury says. “Go to your interview and hurry back. You know the consequences for missing practice or arriving late. Everyone who misses practice will do extra conditioning upon return. If you’re just one minute late, that’s five gassers after normal conditioning.”

“I’m willing to do that, sir.” Clint springs out of his chair. “Good talk.”

“Barton, you are planning to bathe before your job interview, right?” Fury asks. “And by bathe I mean thoroughly. I can see the dirt under your fingernails from here. What are you planning on wearing? Do you have a clean button-down and slacks? And a clean pair of socks wouldn’t hurt neither.”

“Uh, it’s a farm so I thought—”

“You should probably let Natasha choose your outfit for you. Even if it’s a job on a farm, it wouldn’t hurt to impress the girl’s father, would it? First impressions are everything. Have I taught you nothing?”

“I’ll run it by Tash.” When he’s halfway out the door, Clint swings back in, a sudden softness to his face. “Thanks again, coach.”

Fury waves him off like he could care less, his eyes already focusing on his phone and thoughts of dinner. As soon as Clint is down the hallway and out of sight, Fury nearly smiles to himself. Damn. Maybe there’s hope for that one after all.

 

 

Natasha’s forehead wrinkles at her latest text from Clint.

Need shirt help assap

She types back, I'm not your stylist. But she’ll probably end up helping with whatever he’s gotten himself into this time. What are friends for, right?

“Someone’s puking in there,” Maria announces as she exits the girls restroom.

“How dare they not override a completely involuntary biological function.” Natasha peeks over to see what has Maria’s attention and rolls her eyes when she sees a photo of Trish Walker with Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock, who has Jessica’s signature gray scarf wrapped around his eyes like a blindfold. The only reason Natasha even knows Trish and Jessica is through Matt. It’s no surprise that things are much less friendly now that she isn’t dating their friend anymore.

“Aren’t you going to tell him?” Maria asks.

“Tell who what?”

“Warn Steve about Trish Walker.” While Clint went off on her at the homecoming dance (so weird), Maria hasn’t said a thing regarding Steve and Natasha prefers it that way. “She doesn't run with a rough crowd, Natasha. Trish and Jessica are the rough crowd. Have you seen Malcolm lately?”

“Trish and Jessica…” Natasha shakes her head, reminding herself that it’s none of her business. “They’re alright.”

“Alright with binge drinking and drugs and crazy hit it and quit it sex with poor dudes and each other if you believe the rumors. And Steve’s like your boy. Don’t you want to look out for him?”

“If you’re so concerned, you warn him.”

“It would be weird coming from me. We aren’t as close as you.”

“Maria, when have you ever known me to start that conversation?” Natasha’s face scrunches just at the thought. “No. Have Sam do it.”

“Sam hasn’t lived here long enough and did you see him the other day? He’d probably pay Steve for a pair of Patsy’s panties.”

“You really know how to pick ‘em, Hill.”

Maria smirks in a way that says, yes, I do. “And you really know how to avoid ‘em. But have you even seen her ex-boyfriend? Wait! Hold on.” Maria grabs Natasha by the arm and pulls her down a particularly deserted hallway, turning to Instagram yet again. “Tell me what’s the first thing you see.”

She sees Will Simpson’s Instagram account. He’s the IGH quarterback, tall and athletic with blonde hair. He also owns a pair of American flag swimming shorts. Not unlike another quarterback Natasha considers one of her best friends.

“Will Simpson is Trish’s newly ex-boyfriend,” Maria points out. “One, she totally has a type. Two, she’s in full-blown rebound mode! She also deleted all photo evidence that they even knew each other off her account. Can you blame her? The guy is a total roider.”

“How do you know that?” Pietro pops up between them. And he did it with such surprising stealth too. “I mean…how do you know he is a—what do you call? Roider?”

Maria stares at the underclassman, slightly offended he would even try to talk to her. “Have you seen the guy? It’s pretty obvious.”

“Obvious how?”

“Easy.” Maria swipes down his Instagram and finds a photo of Simpson from last summer. “He’s twice the size now. Unusually fast muscle growth—check.” She scrolls back up to a more recent photo. “Unusually greasy hair or oily skin—check.” Pietro scrubs his hand down his acne-covered face. “Extreme mood swings, increased aggression—check and check. And I’ve seen him pop a few red pills. ‘Combat enhancers’ he calls them. Right before an arm wrestling contest at the last county fair.”

“Does Texas have to be so Texas?” Natasha grumbles. “Why so interested, Maximoff?”

Pietro laughs nervously. “It is crime to be curious?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer before taking off down the hallway and like most things, he does it with speed.

“Hmm, what a weird kid.”

 

 

“Sam, quit being weird. Drop it. I mean it.”

“Steve, dude, all I’m sayin’ is you gotta take advantage of this whole QB1 thing sooner or later! There’s no other time in your life where you can use the QB1 excuse and get away with murder. When one of Charlie’s Angels wants to ‘interview’ you for her ‘podcast’, you comb your hair, put on your letterman jacket and don’t forget the condoms.”

Steve lets out a rumbling sigh and wants this conversation over before they get anywhere near the other guys. A group of them are in Clint’s backyard because Clint’s backyard is famous for its lack of parental supervision. There are wooden targets stuck to walls of hay bales that line the property and a rusted truck with no wheels in lieu of patio furniture. Clint sits on the hood, kicking his legs back and forth while Tony and Bruce tinker with what they call their “potential entries” for the upcoming science fair.

“Guys!” Sam shouts, running over to them. “Please tell Steve that when a hot girl throws herself at you and you’re newly single, the only polite option is to give the pretty girl what she wants!”

Steve glares at his new friend. This is the exact opposite of what he wants. “She didn’t throw herself at me.”

“Who are we talking about here?” Clint asks with his head tilted, much the same as his dog that peeks out from under the truck. That doesn’t seem very safe, but Clint isn't worried.

“Trish Walker,” Sam says, completely ignoring Steve. “Patsy from It’s Patsy!” Clint tilts his head even further. “What the hell did you watch growing up, man?”

“Football or WWE and nothing else,” Clint replies. “That was the only rule in the Barton house.”

“That explains so much about you, Hawkeye!” Tony shouts, wearing safety goggles and leather gloves as he welds something. Sparks fly and Steve takes a step back even though he’s already a safe distance away. “Wilson has a point, Cap! Single stud muffin like you, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be scoring touchdowns between a pair of shapely legs.”

Steve ducks his head, unsure how Tony says things like that and so freely. A self-control problem maybe. He knows locker room talk. He’s heard it, but has never felt the need to partake. Tony doesn’t even seem to realize he did anything even remotely questionable. So much for Fury’s speech about character.

Even Bruce, whose glasses sit crooked on his nose, a little red in the cheeks, argues, “Maybe Steve’s just too much of a gentleman.”

“There’s being a gentleman and there’s being a wallflower that graduates high school a virgin,” Tony retorts, pulling up his goggles to rest in his tousled, dark hair. “Alright, Hawkeye, give this baby a whirl.”

Clint hops off the hood of the truck and grabs his trusty recurve bow. The arrow Tony hands him isn't like the arrows Clint keeps in his locker, which he never gets into trouble for, but probably should? Clint loads the arrow, pulls the bowstring back, adjusts his shot angle and lets it fly. They all watch on bated breath as the arrow strikes a baby doll right in its eye and explodes. Steve jumps back while Sam shouts, “Oh damn!” The hay bale catches on fire and Bruce, ever responsible, runs out there with an fire extinguisher, putting out the flames before they can spread.

“Bullseye!” Tony cries out, throwing up both his fists.

“Not bad,” Clint says, much more subdue. “I’ll take a dozen. How much they going for?”

“You can’t show that at the science fair,” Steve says strongly. “You’ll burn the school down right before we get our diplomas!”

“Relax, Capsicle,” Tony coos. “You think I’d bring exploding arrows to a nerd fight when Richards and his little pal are bragging about their prototype teleporter? No way am I going to let those geeks show me up. The exploding arrows are just for fun.”

Steve sighs, propping his hands up on his hips. Relieved, but at the same time, not really. If exploding arrows are mild, what does Stark consider a showstopper? “Is there a reason you sent a car for us, saying we had to come to Clint’s right away?”

“And who was that driver anyway?” Sam asks. “He pulled up to us outside of school and gave us the, come with me if you want to live.”

“Everyone loves a good bit of drama.” Tony grins at his handiwork. “I was wondering if you'd consider continuing with your little mini-camps and what you’d think about adding drones into the mix.” Tony motions toward the drone on the table behind him. The drone is rigged with a kind of claw holding a football. Tony swipes his finger across the screen of his Stark Phone and the drone comes to life, moving higher and higher until it’s barely a speck in the sky above them. Tony tosses a pair of gloves to Sam. “Let’s see if you can catch this.”

“My pleasure.” Sam puts the gloves on finger-by-finger with his eyes already on the sky.

While Tony has his fun, moving the drone and making Sam race around the yard, anticipating where the ball may drop, Clint leans over to Steve and mumbles, “Maybe you should.”

“Should what?”

“See where things go with this chick.”

Steve’s eyes go wide. “What? But—I—you know—”

“I know,” Clint cuts him off with a grunt-whisper. “I’m not saying marry the girl, Rogers. It doesn’t hurt to meet new people or so I’m told. And if a certain someone gets a glimpse of what she’s missing out on, well, that happens.”

“Are you suggesting—” Steve cuts himself off. “Clint.” Steve stares down at his worn sneakers. “I don’t think I’m ready for that…”

“That’s fine, Cap.” Clint gives him a pat on the back that's meant to be comforting, but it's Clint so it kind of hurts. “You did a brave thing, telling her the way you did. It says something that she didn’t double down on avoiding you. Trust that.”

Steve nods. He knows, even if it doesn't feel that way.

“Stop fooling around and drop it, Stark!” Sam shouts, his hands up in the ready position. “Ya jackass!”

“As you wish.” Tony presses a thumb against his phone and the drone releases the ball.

Sam shuffles from side to side, steps back, then steps forward, backtracks. Right at the last second, Sam realizes he’s too far forward. He jumps and reaches back over his shoulder. He just gets a hold of the ball by the tips of his fingers before his back hits the grass. Steve worries for a moment when Sam doesn’t move, but then his arms stretch up, holding up the ball, gloating.

“Yeah, baby, that’s what I’m talking about!” Sam jumps back to his feet and spikes the ball against the grass in celebration.

“I call next!” Clint shouts excitedly. “Put the ball back in the doohickey and get it back in the air!”

Bruce shows Sam and Clint how to attach the football to the drone and they're more excited than children picked as volunteers at a magic show. Steve watches from afar and can’t help, but be a little impressed and a lot amused. He doesn’t necessary see how this can help hone their skills, but it’ll be fun. Sometimes fun gets lost in the pressure, expectations, and coaches screaming.

“Got any more?” Steve asks. “What else can it do?”

“Well, if you’re tired of the cute little tire target in your yard, how about floating, moving throwing targets?” Tony suggests. “I’ve got truckloads back at my place. We could call it Tony’s Technophile Mini-Camp from the Future.”

“Your naming game could use some work!” Clint shouts, diving forward to catch the football and keep it from hitting the ground. “But count me in!”

“I know you think I’m a callous, insensitive egotistical genius and I am,” Tony says shamelessly, “but I mean it when I say it’s our last year of high school and we should probably end it with fat, ugly rings on our middle fingers. Reinventing the average practice couldn’t hurt, right, Cap?”

Steve isn’t so sure how much it will help, but if Tony is devoting his time and effort toward something positive rather than destructive, something that could help the team, that means less time for him to potentially get into trouble. Sounds good. Steve holds his hand out and Tony smiles like he thinks Steve is an old-fashion loser, but shakes his hand anyway.

 

 

Steve Rogers is a nice guy.

Steve Rogers isn’t the kind of nice guy who wears “nice guy” on his sleeve then calls you a cunt when you break his heart on the gym floor under some cheap laser lights at homecoming. Natasha took a relationship and everything that goes with it off the table and he still skipped the afterparty with her. They still sat on the hood of her car, him still in his tux, but with his tie undone and her still in her dress, but her high heels long abandoned. They still spent the rest of their night talking about football and all their friends’ lame dance moves and the future. He didn’t ask her again, didn’t push. The next day she showed up at his house, feeling a little awkward, but he smiled at her like he always smiles at her and they both sat down to a rare breakfast with his mom.

Usually, when she turns them away, they call her a bitch under their breath and find a new girl to bother. These so-called “nice guys” who count the instances they respect women and believe they deserve sex proportionate to it. Natasha feels no guilt rejecting these guys because she sees through them and how they play the victim. The Black Widow claimed another one. That’s why she’s wary of making friends, wary of opening up to boys other than Clint.

Steve Rogers isn’t just a nice guy, he’s a good person. He deserves a good person in return.

Damn Peggy Carter for moving away.

Natasha always thought of Steve as off-limits because he was with Peggy and head over heels in love with Peggy long before that. They just seemed to fit in the most obvious way. Even before Steve and Peggy started to date, just the idea of them together made too much sense to ignore. Peggy is strong and resilient. She stood up whenever she felt she was mistreated, the epitome of bravery. And he thinks he can just go from Peggy Carter to her, Natasha Romanoff, who’s cold and emotionally unavailable, whose shitty sexual history is public knowledge?

No.

But all the sweet things he said on the dance floor…

No.

He could do so much better, Natasha thinks to herself, sitting behind the wheel of her car, scrolling through Trish Walker’s Instagram. Everything about her is so put-together, too put-together, staged. Mirror selfies in cozy sweaters. One where she’s wearing Jessica’s one pair of jeans she owns. A video of Trish working a punching bag, wearing pink gloves, her hair perfectly pulled up and knotted atop her head. A photo of Trish blowing out candles all stuck in cupcakes.

Like she eats cupcakes or keeps them down—

Stop it.

Natasha swipes the app away, annoyed with herself. There’s nothing wrong with a girl who knows what she wants and makes it known. More power to her. Natasha knows she has no business going around, judging girls who might or might not be interested in Steve, except for those underclassmen who were talking about him like he’s an object or prize. Those bitches can fuck off.

She’s had enough of sitting in the parking lot and getting lost in her thoughts. Just as Natasha starts to reverse, she spots Wanda Maximoff walking out of the school alongside Pietro. The sophomore girl talks in harsh, inaudible words while her brother walks on like he doesn’t hear or see her there at all. Natasha prides herself on her lip-reading abilities, but lip-reading and translating is a little more of a challenge. Pietro turns on Wanda and screams something right in her face, something that makes Wanda flinch.

Natasha has her hand on the car door handle, ready to intervene when a group of guys from the football team sneak up behind Pietro, blindfold him and drag him into a nearby truck. They just leave Wanda standing there, staring after him, sad and concerned. A girl as sweet as Wanda shouldn’t have to put up with her brat of a brother and his inflated ego. Wanda hugs her books to her chest and starts walking home. The Good Samaritan in Natasha puts the car in drive and rolls right over to her.

“Need a ride?” Natasha asks, through the open passenger side window.

Wanda pauses in her step as if unsure Natasha is talking to her or someone else. When she realizes they’re the only two out there, Wanda blinks and points to her chest. “Me?”

“Get in.” Natasha leans over and tugs on the latch of the passenger door. Steve’s flannel shirt from the other day hangs over the passenger seat headrest and Natasha pushes it into the little space behind the seats. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Wanda says. Natasha just gives her a pointed look, a look not to be messed with, and Wanda gets in. “Thank you.” Wanda puts her home address into Natasha’s phone and spends the rest of the ride running her fingers along the interior of the car in awe.

Sometimes Natasha forgets how other people see her Corvette. They see vintage and one-of-a-kind and cool. She sees one of the two good things Ivan ever did for her. The other being naming Nick her emergency contact and guardian. “Your car is very nice. Pietro will be so jealous when I tell him about this!”

“Thanks,” Natasha says politely, a smile tugging at her lips. “Steve barely fits in that seat. He's like an overgrown child trying to stuff himself into one of those life-size toy car.”

Why did she just share that with Wanda? Why bring up Steve at all?

Get a grip, Romanoff.

“You spend a lot of time with the football team, yes?” Wanda asks.

Natasha’s eyes darken as she grips the steering wheel with one hand and shifts gears with the other. “That’s what people say.”

“Oh. No!” Wanda blushes hard, horrified. “I just meant that you are friends and you, uh, observe them. You are at their practices a lot because your father is the coach and you enjoy football and you are very good at it. You know what normal football player behavior is like.”

Natasha hums, unsure of what this conversation is even about. “Where are you going with this, Maximoff?”

“My brother…” Wanda’s eyes shift down to her lap and she plays with the hem of her pleated skirt. All the excitement gone and replaced with that sadness from earlier. “He has been acting different lately, angry. At first, I dismissed it as stress, but there is something going on with him, something he does not want me to know and we tell each other everything. He has been distant and I cannot help, but worry…”

“I’m sure you’re right, it’s just stress,” Natasha says. “This town puts a lot of stress on the team to win so they put stress on themselves to win. It’s a shitty cycle, but it’s Texas football.”

“Do you think…” Wanda’s voice fades and trails off. She’s so quiet and uncertain, reminds Natasha of herself at that age, which feels like a lifetime ago now. “I know I have no right to ask you for any favors…”

“Asking never hurts.”

“Could you find out? No. That is too much to ask. Could you keep an eye on Pietro for me?” Wanda asks, her voice and eyes so full of hope. A combination of cute and sad usually reserved for Disney princesses and cartoon animals. “If you see anything suspicious, I would like to know. He is all the family I have left now and I do not…I do not want to lose him. If he is doing something dangerous…”

Natasha refuses to make the girl say any more. “Sure.”

Wanda’s big, wide eyes dart up to meet Natasha’s. “Really?”

“Why not?” Natasha shrugs a shoulder coolly. “Like you said, I’m around all the time anyway.” Natasha memorized the rest of the way to Wanda’s and hits the home button on her phone. “Here. Give me your number and I’ll text you if I have anything to report.”

“Wow. I mean, wow.” Wanda presses her lips together as if to keep herself from embarrassing herself and does as she's told without complaint.

“Good. Now call your phone so you have mine.”

Wanda does just that. Her ringtone is the Godzilla theme song. Cute.

Natasha keeps her eyes on the road like every good driver should, but the one time she glances over, she sees something like admiration on Wanda’s face. Natasha is no role model. She’s no hero. Wanda’s probably better off admiring whatever fictional protagonist thwarts Godzilla in her favorite reincarnation. She isn’t good. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better.

Natasha pulls up in front of the house Maps claims is her destination. It’s a rickety one floor house with peeling paint and broken toys in the front lawn that’s overgrown with weeds. There’s no football sign out front, which is weird because Pietro seems like the type who would pride himself on his sign. A rusty station wagon is parked in the driveway. A thin woman unloads groceries from the back while an overweight, bald man shouts at her. Three young children pop out from the backseat of the car and chase each other into the house.

“Your family?” Natasha asks.

Wanda scowls under her breath. “My parents sent Pietro and me here to live with an aunt. They were supposed to follow us here, but they did not make it.” Her voice is hard, chilling, so un-Wanda. Witnessing death and experiencing loss at a young age can do that to you. Natasha knows it too well. “Then our aunt, she passed too. We have no other family so Pietro and I…we live here now.”

The bald man scratches his belly and notices the girls watching. He notices the Corvette and a lecherous smile takes over. As he starts walking toward them, Wanda hurries to grab her things and get out of the car. Natasha narrows her eyes, ready to reach for the pepper spray on her key ring or the tactical knife Fury insists she keep under the driver’s seat. She reaches over and grabs Wanda’s wrist before she can escape.

“If you need anything, anything at all, text me,” Natasha says, sure to hold Wanda’s stare.

Wanda nods slowly. “Thank you for the ride.”

Just as the man reaches the curb, Wanda shuts the passenger door and Natasha drives away. It’s clear Wanda wanted her to leave before the man could say anything to her. Whether out of embarrassment or fear of what that man might say, that’s unclear. Though she only agreed to keep an eye on Pietro, Natasha now feels the need to help Wanda any way she can. She might not be able to get Wanda out of that house, but she can get to the bottom of whatever Pietro is involved in.

Sitting at a stop light, Natasha spots Steve’s flannel shirt. He’s always complaining about overheating and forgetting his things in her car. It’s the same shirt he wore to take the SAT. If she stares hard enough, she can see the outline of that business card in the pocket. Trish Talk. What is that? Who has the time to make a podcast and who has the time to listen to it? If you ask Natasha, it’s a lot of trouble just to get a hot guy to talk to you.

Natasha grabs the card and dials the number. It rings and rings and rings.

“Hello? Steve?”

Well, at least Trish Walker isn’t giving her business to just any guy.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Natasha drawls, not meaning it one bit. “I’m actually looking for your partner in crime.”

“Oh, hi, Natasha. Sure.” Her voice is tense and full of disappointment and Natasha knows she shouldn’t be amuse by that, but she sort of is. “Hold on a sec.” There’s some shuffling and incoherent mumbling.

Another familiar voice says, “If this is a booty call, I like your chances.”

Natasha smiles. She’d know that sweet sarcasm anywhere.

“Jessica Jones,” Natasha says. “I hear you’re doing some Veronica Mars shit these days.”

“What the hell is a Veronica Mars? Is that some weird sex thing? You and Hill would know, right?”

Natasha sighs, forgetting how mouthy Jessica Jones can be. Oh, the things Natasha puts up with to help orphans who remind her entirely too much of her past self.

 

 

Natasha finds Steve in the cafeteria the very next morning. Pietro is across the room, chatting with a few of his friends. Natasha doesn’t know any of their names, but she does know them by jersey number and greatest weakness. She keeps an eye on them even as she sits across Steve who’s happily shoveling a hearty breakfast into his mouth while catching up on reading.

“You should do the interview thing with Trish,” Natasha says. It almost comes out like a command.

Steve seems to interpret it as such and reacts quizzically. “Uh, yeah, I already texted her to say I’d do it.”

Oh.

“How? I have your little Trish Talk business card. It was in your shirt pocket.”

“I put the number in my phone.” Steve turns his attention back to his breakfast or what’s left of it—eggs, toast, ham, a glass of orange juice and carton of milk. Football players and their ability to eat. “Hey, what happened to my shirt?”

“My car ate it,” Natasha says nonchalantly. “So when’s your little interview?”

“Today after practice. Why?”

“I can give you a ride to West Hell,” she suggests. “I have a favor to ask Jessica Jones and they live in the same house so…”

“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks, Nat.” Steve takes a sip of his milk and for a split-second he has a milk mustache before wiping it away with his napkin. He almost seems embarrassed, which means he caught her staring and why is that so endearing? “Honestly, I’m kind of nervous.”

“Why?” Natasha reaches across the table and steals a sip of his orange juice.

“It’s an interview.” Steve shuffles in his seat and licks his top lip, something he does when he’s trying to think of the right words to say and so unsure of himself. “If you haven’t noticed, I sort of suck at those.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow, not quite buying his stammering rationality. “Steve, if you’re interested in Trish, you can just say that.”

“Interested?” His voice cracks just a little.

Natasha swishes the glass of orange justice from side to side, watching a small, orange vortex begin to form. “She’s clearly interested in you. Why wouldn’t you want to…investigate further?”

“Investigate?” He lifts an eyebrow of his own. “Natasha, I’m just thinking about the interview. Did Sam put you up to this?”

“Put me up to what?”

“He thinks…forget it.”

“No,” she says. “Tell me what Patsy’s number one fan has to say about all of this.”

“What Tony says all the time. What Clint has said…” Steve rolls his eyes, pushing food around on his plate. “That I should be taking advantage of my power as QB1. I don’t know. It’s stupid.”

Natasha sits back and considers this. Tony—totally unsurprising. The guy maximizes his star receiver status in every way possible, not just wooing chicks. He’s practically known for pushing teachers just to see if he can break them. But Clint? Clint giving advice? To Steve of all people? She briefly thinks about the dance and how weird Clint had been, blowing up at her and not in any way that makes any sense. But maybe they have a point…

“Not bad,” Natasha says.

“Not bad?” Steve repeats, his voice rising in question. “Natasha…”

“Have you considered that maybe you’re less nervous at the idea of an interview and more nervous at the idea of an interview with a hot girl?”

Steve starts choking on a bite of eggs, pounding his fist against his chest before taking a few gulps from his trusty water bottle. His voice is rough as he asks, “What?”

“Like you didn’t notice Trish is hot.”

“I mean, I noticed, but that’s not what I’m going for.”

“Oh, really?” She asks. It really is amusing how Steve pretends to be so mature and moral like he isn’t a hormone-driven teenage boy just like all the rest.

“Really,” Steve says firmly. “Putting words together isn’t a strength of mine. I’m just thinking…practice makes perfect, right?”

“And it doesn’t hurt that you get to practice with a hot blonde.”

Steve laughs like he’s the one who’s amused and Natasha isn’t too fond of the role-reversal. “If you’re so interested, I could put in a word…”

“Judging by how she couldn’t take her eyes off of you and didn’t even realize I was standing there, I’d say we know who she’s interested in.” Ignoring the sour taste of those words, Natasha realize she only left a sip of orange juice left in the glass and decides to finish it off. She sets the empty cup down, the beginning of a smirk tugging at her lips. “How much do I owe you for the OJ?”

Steve turns shy all of a sudden, finishing the last bit of egg on his plate. “S’on the house.”

“Ever the gentleman, Rogers.” Natasha discretely glances across the room to find Pietro and his friends have disappeared right from under her nose. Damn it. Natasha pushes her chair back, yanking the strap of her bag over her shoulder. “So, we’ll meet on the bleachers after practice?”

“Sounds perfect.”

There’s a term for someone who rejects a guy and then practically shoves another girl at him in the following days. The shrink Ivan forced her to see after her parents’ death probably knows what that term is. Natasha doesn’t think about it, what it says about their friendship, what it says about her. She especially doesn’t think about it when Steve suggests he walk her to class and Natasha agrees with the rationalization that her class is on the way to his anyway.

 

 

Really, Steve agrees to be on Trish Walker’s podcast because, well, she asked and she seems nice. He wouldn’t want to disappoint her (doesn’t know how to say “no”) and maybe it really might do him some good. As he walks up the little path to her beautiful mansion of a house with Natasha a step behind him, Steve tells himself to think of this as practice just incase Christine Everhart ever corners him again. The front door swings open before Steve can even knock and there’s Trish Walker, just as tall and blonde as he remembers. She’s wearing cut-off jean shorts that are frayed at the ends and a white long-sleeve crop top.

“You’re here!” Trish grins widely. “And on time. How punctual.”

“I try?” Steve returns her smile bashfully.

Trish just stares at him for a moment and Steve feels uncomfortable in the way he’s always uncomfortable when center of attention, but he also feels wanted and that’s kind of flattering. At a school as small as Lieber High in a town as small as Midgard, it’s no surprise he’s known most of his classmates all of their lives. Being in a different town, standing in front of a girl who’s something of a mystery to him, it’s different and sort of exciting.

“I’m here too,” Natasha says, and she sounds bored. “Where’s Jones?”

“Natasha, hi. Again,” Trish says, with just a bit of forced sweetness in her voice. “Come in! Jessica stepped out, but she said she’ll be back in a minute if you wouldn’t mind waiting down here.” Trish’s eyes drift back over to Steve even as Natasha pushes her way past the large, glass front door.

“If you two are going to stand there staring at each other all night, the least you could do is close the door. It’s freezing out,” Natasha says as she passes by.

Trish tears her eyes away, the faintest hint of a blush on her cheeks, and if that’s what she looks like when she’s embarrassed, Steve must be mortified, his face feeling like it’s on fire.

“Sorry about that,” Trish says timidly, even though everything about her suggests she’s the exact opposite. “You just work the whole blonde hair blue-eyed All-American thing so well.”

Never being one to know how to take a compliment (that’s a compliment, right?), Steve just smiles sheepishly in return. “Thank you?”

Trish clasps her hands excitedly. “Well, let’s get started!”

She takes Steve by the hand, which is all sorts of surprising and drags him inside. The house is really nice, high ceilings and crown molding, something that you could find in a magazine. Steve thinks of his own house and his mom, always watching that home improvement channel to unwind and swearing to fix the place up one day, but never finding the time. After all, she does work more hours in a week than she sleeps.

“Natasha, Steve and I are about to get started!” Trish shouts, halfway up the staircase. “Make yourself at home! There are drinks in the kitchen if you want!”

Trish doesn’t let go of his hand even as she pauses to talk to Natasha whose face is unreadable as she shrugs and mutters, “Got it.” It feels like she’s distancing herself on purpose and as hard as they’ve been trying to act like nothing changed since the dance, he knows this is just another side effect of telling her that he like-likes her. No matter what Clint says, he’s still kicking himself over that one.

His attention hones in on Trish when she pulls him the rest of the way up the stairs and into what he assumes is her bedroom. It feels weird, mostly because he’s never been in a girl’s room before. Not Peggy’s, not even Natasha’s. Trish’s room is really clean, like she works really hard to keep it that way or maybe pays someone to. Cream walls, lots of glass windows and fancy blinds, her bed neatly made. She lets go of Steve’s hand just to drop to her knees and he nearly jumps back. Trish wiggles a loose floor board and lifts it, revealing a secret little compartment. She glances up at him, blonde hair falling out of her high ponytail to frame her face.

“A little help here, Steve?”

“Yeah!” Steve drops down and cringes at the awkward thud of his knees hitting the polished floor. At one point in his adolescent stage, he was known for his knobby knees and chicken legs. Not anymore, Steve reminds himself as he helps Trish pull out microphones, a mixer, an armful of wires and holds everything as she sets up.

Trish glances over at him just standing there and takes mercy on him. “You can sit, you know.”

“Oh, okay.” Steve still doesn’t know where he should sit exactly until Trish mercifully pushes the rolling chair over to him. “Thanks.”

“Are you always this awkward or should I be flattered?” she asks.

“Both maybe,” he confesses. “I’m just not good at this…situations where I don’t know what to expect.”

Talking to girls, he means. Which is ridiculous. Natasha is his best friend and she’s a girl. He has plenty of friends who are pretty girls and he has no problem with asking to borrow Maria’s history notes or checking in with Pepper on how Tony’s doing, a self-appointed duty as team captain. Maybe because he knows them and they know him and that’s why it’s so easy. On the other hand, Trish Walker is a beautiful anomaly and Steve has no idea what goes here.

“You should have seen the last interview I did with a lady from the local news.” Steve almost winces at the memory alone. “She asked me, who is Steve Rogers? And I couldn’t tell her. I don’t know.”

“So questions that could potentially lead to an existential crisis are off the table? That’s cool with me.”

There’s something warm and comforting about Trish and the easy smile she gives him, something that makes Steve relax a little more. She hands him her phone with Spotify open and tells him to play some music while she finishes setting up the equipment. He doesn’t know what she likes and doesn’t want to make assumptions about her. He doesn’t want her to judge him either. He goes with something honest, something real and hits the play button. 

Trish pauses to appreciate the cool, calming sound. “A jazz man, huh? I like your taste, Mister Rogers.”

“My mom gets all the credit. It’s all she listens to while she cooks or does the dishes, calls it therapeutic. It helps me relax.”

Suddenly, Jessica Jones falls in through the window and lands on the fluffy throw rug in a heap of dark hair, leather and well-worn denim. Trish doesn’t pay her any attention while Steve can’t seem to move his eyes away from a leaf that must have caught in her hair on the journey from the tree outside, through the window and onto the floor.

Jessica rights herself so she’s no longer scrutinizing Steve upside down. “So this is the guy?” She bounces to her feet like she didn’t just fall in through the window. “You’re friends with Romanoff, which means you know Hill. Tell her she owes me twenty bucks.” Jessica starts rummaging through the desk drawers, moving around Steve like he isn’t even there. “Have you seen the duct tape?”

That pulls Trish away from her work. “What did you break this time?”

“No bones. At least, I don’t think so. None of mine anyway.”

“Top shelf,” Trish replies, like this is routine for them and not strange at all. “By the way, Natasha Romanoff is waiting for you downstairs.”

“I thought I heard ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ when I was climbing the tree.” Jessica’s eyes dart from Trish to Steve and back to Trish. “So Natasha Romanoff is just going to wait downstairs while this—” Jessica motions between Trish and Steve in some entirely blunt way. “—happens.”

“This what? Me conducting a professional interview with a guest?” Trish flips her blonde ponytail over her shoulder as she glares at Jessica pointedly. It’s almost as if they’re having an entire conversation with their eyes, a conversation Steve cannot decode for the life of him, a conversation that’s none of his business anyway.

“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” Jessica asks sarcastically.

“Out, Jess,” Trish orders.

“I’m going. I’m going.” Jessica fixes Steve with narrowed eyes. “Seriously, with Black Widow right downstairs and everything? Jury’s out on if you’re very brave or very, very stupid.”

“JESSICA!” Trish shouts.

“All I’m saying is, you couldn’t rebound with someone less Black Widow territory? Because I will back you up if things get ugly, Trish, but I heard she mowed down twelve girls playing flag football and stole this guy from his homecoming date. I read somewhere that spiders are territorial and calculating. They only attack what they estimate they can handle if it gets too close…”

“That’s not how it—” Steve starts to say.

“She’s screwing with you,” Trish says, sounding like she’s used to it. “The truth won’t make any difference.” Trish grabs a roll of duct tape and throws it at Jessica, who catches it, letting the heavy ring encircle her wrist. “And maybe don’t call her Black Widow when you talk to her?”

“If Hill insists on calling you the p-word, two can play at that game.” Jessica salutes them sloppily, ready to step out the door when Steve lunges toward her.

“Wait, you—” Steve reaches over and plucks the leaf from Jessica’s dark hair.

“Wow, Captain Guy saved the damsel from the killer leaf!” Jessica shouts, with mock excitement. “And I thought chivalry was dead…yep, pretty sure it’s still dead.”

“You know, normal people just say thank you,” Trish points out, grabbing the leaf from Steve and tossing it out the window that’s still wide open. “And close the door on your way out.”

“I think Natasha Romanoff and your mom would prefer it open!”

“With your natural gift for breaking things? You’ll ruin the sound quality! Jess!”

When the door remains open, Trish huffs and stomps over, closing the door herself. “Sorry about her. Another one of her natural gifts is being a pain in the ass.”

“It’s okay,” Steve assures her. “I have one of my own. Or a few, actually.”

“Bucky Barnes?” Trish asks. Steve can feel her eyes on him, soft eyes, sympathetic eyes. “Before we start recording, if you say something is off-limits or you don’t want me to use it, that’s fine by me. Just let me know. I’m not doing this to upset anyone.”

“Why do you do it?”

“Have you listened to an episode yet?”

“I looked at your website, but between school and football…”

“Say no more,” Trish says. And she doesn’t sound upset or offended at all. “The last girl I had on my show, her name’s Hope Shlottman. She was from Omaha. She had a good future, track team, college plans. Then she met the wrong guy. She devoted her life to him, left home, cut tied with her parents and he ruined her, then left her. She shared her story on my show, thinking of herself as some cautionary tale and her parents heard it and drove down here to see her. Now, she’s back in Omaha with her family and living her life on no one’s terms, but her own.”

“Wow,” Steve says, wide-eyed and completely genuine. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to top that.”

Trish laughs and she even sounds pretty. “I enjoy a challenge.”

“Sorry to disappoint, I don’t know if I’m that special.”

“Are you kidding?” Trish spins around to face her desk and grabs a newspaper clipping to show him. Steve almost shrinks away from embarrassment, seeing a photo of him now next to a photo of him from freshman year when he was short and skinny yet just as determined. “Steve, do you ever look out into the crowd while you’re on the field?”

“I try not to. Coach says we’re supposed to block all of that out.”

“Well, I was at your game against Matt’s team. There was this little boy sitting next to me. Eight or maybe nine, small for his age and he never took his eyes off of you. He was cheering for you specifically. He kept saying, ‘c’mon, Steve, show ‘em what little guys can do!’ I’ve never seen anything like that before. You might not think there’s anything special about you, but there’s a whole town that does and I want to be able to say I got the first in-depth interview.”

There’s a fire in her eyes, a passion that’s hard not to be drawn to.

“You are really good with words,” Steve says, because it’s true and he doesn’t really know what else to say.

“It’s not so hard. I take it you aren’t much of a public speaker?”

“Not at all,” Steve confesses. A complete understatement in his mind.

“Are you asking me for a few pointers, Mister Rogers?”

Steve pulls off his Avengers windbreaker, unsure if it’s warm inside or he’s just blushing that hard. “You offered, right?”

“Steve Rogers, it would be my pleasure.”

 

 

The Walker house is too perfect. Unnervingly perfect.

It isn’t the military precision grade cleanliness that Fury demands, but the Walker house is another level entirely. You could walk circles around the couches and bookshelves of carefully chosen and placed nicknacks and come away knowing absolutely nothing about the people who live here. There aren’t even family photos on the walls, just framed paintings, one abstract painting in particular that basically amounts to graduations of white. Natasha finds herself wandering the hallways, searching for something, something that says anything about these people.

Even her own house has photos of her on the walls, most marking some sort of achievement—the time she collected every Girl Scout badge in record time much to the other girls’ envy (and Fury’s absolute delight), the time she made a boy cry at a karate competition, her sixteenth birthday when she got the keys to her car—and in each moment, Fury stood behind the camera, smug, proud even.

Natasha pushes on the first door down the hall from the kitchen and—jackpot. The room is like a giant Patsy shrine. Promotional posters cover the walls along with photos from red carpets and other events. There are shelves and shelves of the short-lived It’s Patsy toy line and an actual glass showcase full of awards—most noticeably a Teen Choice Award. It’s like that scene out of Toy Story 2, but creepier.

“When Trish said to make yourself at home, I don’t think she meant go snooping.”

Natasha jumps when she hears the voice from behind her, Jessica Jones leaning in the doorway.

“Hi,” Natasha says, hiding how rattled she feels at being caught. “Is there a restroom down here?”

“Missed it by two doors.” Jessica eyes her in an assessing way, like she doesn’t quite believe her, but if lying were an Olympic sport, Natasha would take home gold every time. Jessica steps back so Natasha can walk out and the door slams hard after her. “Do all of us a favor and forget you saw any of that.”

“Saw what?” Natasha plays innocent. And it seems like enough for Jessica to drop it.

“I’ll be in the kitchen once you’re done snooping through the medicine cabinet too.”

Shit. Coming off as untrustworthy is not the way to go before asking for a favor.

Natasha steps into the bathroom and locks the door behind her. She takes in her reflection. Sure, she’s on the shorter side, a lot shorted in comparison to Jessica and Trish, for sure. She spends a moment, wondering what she might look like with blonde hair or maybe auburn and in some complicated 1940s up-do. Natasha scowls at herself for even feeling self-conscious, shakes her hair out and washes her hands for something to do.

After spending enough time in the bathroom to corroborate her excuse, Natasha walks to the kitchen where she finds Jessica Jones pouring herself a glass of liquor. It catches her by surprise, not that she hasn’t heard the rumors about Jessica Jones and the Never Empty “Water” Bottles. Jessica stares her down with glassy eyes that seem dead, older in a way that suggests she’s been through too much for someone so young. Matt said both of Jessica’s parents and her little brother died in a car accident. Jessica was the lone survivor. Another orphan.

Natasha wonders if she looks the same way. Of course, Natasha had Nick to help her through all the shit in her past. From what she's gathered, Jessica has Trish and Trish has Jessica. End of story.

“So?” Jessica asks impatiently.

Natasha leans on the kitchen island between them, trying to come off relaxed and casual. “I was just wondering how this side hustle of yours works.”

Jessica tosses back what’s left in her glass. Her face doesn’t contort the way Steve’s did the time Crazy Old Selvig from Down the Street let them take a case of Norwegian beer, that is before he became Crazy Old Selvig, Lieber High Physics Teacher. “If you’re talking about my gig where I dress like a sandwich and hand out flyers on the street, it isn’t exactly rocket science.”

“I hear you help people,” Natasha says, “for cash. I hear you help your classmates dig up dirt on their parents, helped someone take revenge on a revenge porn ring run out of your school’s computer lab and got pictures of your art teacher’s husband cheating on her? I’d call that fairly impressive.”

“Are you looking to hire or trying to steal my business module?”

Lesser humans would have bruises after a conversation with Jessica Jones, her words like a jab straight to the gut each. Not Natasha. 

“I was thinking more along the lines of cashing in the favor you owe me.”

“Fuck off, Romanoff.”

“I distinctly remember the words I owe you one the night—”

“Yeah, let’s not rehash the details, alright?” Jessica takes her glass to the sink and rinses it thoroughly. “How did you get here?”

“I drove.”

Jessica’s eyes light up. “How about you drive and I listen to this case you have for me? That I’m doing pro bono apparently.” Jessica heads off back down the hall that leads to the foyer and stops at the foot of the staircase. “Trish, we’re going out! TRISH! America Guy could probably use a breather so why not acknowledge me!”

“Thanks for ruining a perfect take!” Trish shouts in return.

Jessica grins to herself, not sorry whatsoever. Natasha pauses at the bottom step of the stairs, thinking about Steve. He’s either a stuttering train wreck fumbling his way through or falling for Trish Walker’s charm and pretty face. This time, it’s Natasha who catches Jessica staring and the girl is clearly intuitive, being an amateur private eye and all.

“Where are we going exactly?” Natasha asks.

“You need my help, right? Go with it.”

 

 

Jessica directs Natasha to an old, dilapidated apartment building across the little town of West Hell. Her car sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s a thin, almost skeletal boy with shifty eyes and sunken in cheeks waiting for them on the corner. Jessica cranks down the window as they pull up to the curb.

“Natasha, Malcolm. Malcolm, Natasha,” Jessica introduces them. “You’ve met before, but one of you had Matty Murdock’s tongue down your throat and the other one was high.”

Natasha tenses, wondering why she’s even putting herself through this.

Malcolm leans into the window and groans. “I don’t even wanna know which was me.”

“You got the pictures for me?” Jessica asks, all business.

Malcolm sniffs and pulls a thick manila envelope out of a ragged backpack. He hands it to Jessica, who removes the contents for a thorough inspection. Natasha catches a glimpse from across the car. Every photo shows a woman in a white lab coat.

“I don’t know what you think you’ll find,” Malcolm says. “Far as I can tell, she’s clean.”

“We’ll see about that,” Jessica mutters to herself. “No one is clean, if you know where to look.” Jessica digs her hand into the pocket of her signature leather jacket and pulls out a wad of cash. She holds the cash out to Malcolm, but just as he tries to grab it, she pulls back. “If I hear—”

“Jessica, don’t sweat it.” Malcolm takes the cash and tucks it into his own pocket. He doesn’t bother counting it, just leans further into the car window with a sweet smile. “You trust me, right?”

“I trust you,” Jessica says, though her tone implies the opposite. “It’s the fucking smack I don’t trust.”

“I’ll see you at school tomorrow, alright?” Malcolm starts to back away.

“And try on time for once,” Jessica barks back. Malcolm just keeps smiling even as Jessica rolls up the tinted window. “Alright, Romanoff, I’ve got three more stops then I’ll return you to your precious Stevie Boy.”

“Malcolm Ducasse,” Natasha muses, watching Malcolm push his way back into the building behind him. “He had a promising career as a wide receiver even before high school. And I wouldn’t say that about just anyone. It’s too bad.”

“We all make our own choices so,” Jessica says.

“Do you really think he won’t…” Natasha stops herself and puts her car in drive, remembering it isn’t any of her business.

“No idea,” Jessica confesses. “That’s less about him and more about the fact I’m shit at trust. As inconvenient as it is, we can’t make decisions for other people.”

Jessica just leaves it at that and Natasha is content to let her. She isn’t the type to philosophize, not with Natasha, at least. The silence that fills the car might be awkward, but Natasha doesn’t care. She’s still thinking about Malcolm. Back when she didn’t have her license and had to rely on Fury for rides, he would force her to go on his little scouting trips and Malcolm was one of the prospects they scoped out.

Lean, but fast, Malcolm could lose a defender quick and get up high to grab the ball. He could fight for 50/50 balls with the best of them and usually, he won. That was before he entered high school, developed a drug habit and disappeared from the football scene entirely. Natasha doesn’t understand it. If one of her guys ever…

Best not to think of that.

All of her guys know better. If not, they have her and Fury to answer to.

 

 

Trish beams, listening to Steve reminisce about one of his first pee wee game, where he ran in a touchdown but it was for the other team. She’s so laid-back, so engaged and easy to talk to. Steve almost forgets all of the recording equipment and the fact that all of this is going to be made public. At least there’s no camera. Maybe that’s what makes him so anxious and tongue-tied when Christine Everhart from Channel 5 News asks him all the hard-hitting questions.

“That’s adorable,” Trish says, letting her hand fall to the back of his. She has pretty hands, so soft. “Sweet, smart, captain of the football team. The girls in Midgard must love you.”

“Sort of,” Steve answers honestly. “In a way, it’s become sort of hard to trust people. Not just girls, but everyone. I mean, I have my family and my friends, people who liked me before I became this, Captain America, but other people, it’s difficult sometimes…”

“To know if they hang around because they like you for who you are, behind your success, not because they like your success.” Trish’s fingers curl around his hand and give it a squeeze. “Yeah, I’ve definitely been there…” She stares at their hands before turning toward her equipment. “And I don’t think we’ll be using that.”

Steve sits up straight, alarmed. “Why not?”

She purses her glossy lips, carefully arranging words in her head. “This is supposed to be about you.”

He hasn’t listened to any of her other interviews, but Steve has a nagging feeling that she likes to keep herself out of it at all cost. Trish has walls maybe as high as even Nat’s and she doesn’t compromise easily or when she does, she’s sure to shut them out quick. That’s the impression he gets, at least. A door slams downstairs and they both just assume it’s Jessica and Natasha, but then there’s the click of heels against the floorboards and Trish’s face floods with panic.

“Patricia!” a woman calls out. “They wouldn’t let me in without my invitation! Can you believe that? The nerve! Who do they think they are? Don’t they know whose mother I am?”

“Quick you need to hide!” Trish whisper-shouts. She starts shoving her recording equipment into the nooks and crannies of her desk, throwing what she can into the floor and replacing the floorboard. Trish takes Steve by the hand, yanks him out of his seat and shoves him toward the walk-in closet. “She cannot find you here or else—”

“Patricia!” her mouth shouts. “Are you home? And you better be.”

“I’m in my room, mom!” Trish shouts, motioning Steve deeper into the closet. She spins around just in time to greet her mother whose noisy, clattering heels stop abruptly. From behind the floor-to-ceiling shoe rack, Steve can make out an older woman in a glittery sequin dress and a fur-lined coat. “Hi.”

Mrs. Walker doesn’t reply, just eyes Trish suspiciously. Steve swallows hard, sure to keep his breathing slow and silent.

“What’s going on?” Mrs. Walker asks. “Where’s Jessica?”

“I don’t know.” Trish sits at her desk and picks up a pencil she left on her open history textbook, pretending to do work. “She went somewhere with some girl. I’d rather not associate with that crowd.”

“Good,” Mrs. Walker says firmly. “Anyway, I’m just here to grab my invitation—” The woman rolls her eyes dramatically. “—and I’m off. Don’t wait up. And if you see that retched Jessica, encourage her to wash her hair from time-to-time. It’s looking stringy.”

“Uh-huh.” Trish scribes in her notebook, not even paying her mother any attention. “Have fun.”

But Mrs. Walker doesn’t leave the doorway. Steve turns away, pressing his back to the shoe rack.

“Something wrong, mom?” Trish asks casually.

“I’m just wondering if I should change my shoes. I know you have those darling peep toe pumps in your closet—”

“No!” Trish shouts, a little too eager. “I mean, no. The ones you have on go perfectly with your outfit. And your feet are so much more petite than mine. I’m sure I’ve stretched them out by now.”

Steve swallows hard in the tense silence that follows. He’s never hidden in a girl’s closet before. He never thought he'd be the kind of guy who'd ever have to.

“You’re right,” Mrs. Walker says. Finally. “And you’re getting fat. When’s the last time you weighed yourself?”

Mom.”

“What was it? I swear, if Jessica is on her way back from the Alamo Freeze with burgers and milkshakes, you know you aren’t allowed to eat any of that shit—”

“Mom! I know! Would you stop it?”

“First thing in the morning I am taking your weight and if you’ve gained a single pound, I don’t care if I have to shove my finger down your throat myself! Ungrateful little…”

Mrs. Walker’s voice trails down the hallway and a loud slam of the door follows. Steve keeps his back to the shelf of shoes, eyes closed, his heart refusing to slow. After a long stretch of silence, Steve peeks his head out and sees Trish frantically digging through her desk. When she pulls out a little clear package with some kind of white substance in it Steve doesn’t think before reaching out and laying his hand over hers. All the fight seems to leave her the moment they touch. They stand together, still and quiet. This moment feels monumental, maybe one of the most important of his life and it’s with a girl he barely knows yet can't help, but to care about.

“You don’t have to,” Steve says quietly.

Her eyes are full of tears when she meets his concerned gaze. They haven’t known each other very long, but this is the first time he’s seen her appear anything less than put together, less than perfect. Steve offers her a thin yet genuine smile and the next thing he knows, she's clinging to him and he’s holding her tight in his arms. After what feels like an eternity, Trish tilts her head up to look at him and doesn't even bother to brush her tears away. 

“Wanna get some food?” Trish sniffles, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. “I’m feeling burgers and milkshakes.”

“I don’t have a car,” Steve says.

“I do. There's a place just a few blocks down. Jess and Natasha can meet us there.” Trish scrambles to grab her keys and heads for the door. Steve follows after her with his hands stuffed into the front pockets of his tattered jeans. He knows he has every right to feel freaked out, to want to run away, but he’s going to stick with her to make sure she’s okay. It’s the right thing to do.

Trish is a little shaky so she hands her keys to Steve, which is a lot of trust to give a virtual stranger. Steve tries to be extra careful, which just makes Trish tease that he drives like a grandma. She directs him to the nearby Alamo Freeze, which has a Go Bolts Go! banner above the door. They order burgers and limp French fries and milkshakes that come in paper cups with red straws. Every bite and sip Trish takes is with defiance while Steve remains supportive across from her.

“You know…” Steve hesitates, swallowing down a larger bite than intended. “My mom’s a nurse and she has friends in the child services department…”

Trish closes in on herself, walls going right up. Steve would know what that looks like. He's seen Natasha do it so many times. 

“And where would I go, Steve? I don’t have other family. Seventeen, a known cash cow in a foster home? No.” Trish sits a little straighter, shoulders squared like she’s ready for a fight. “I’m graduating, I’m turning eighteen. I have money saved up that my mom doesn't know about. A few more months and Jessica and I are getting the hell out of Texas. That’s for sure.”

“That’s good.” Steve nods. “I mean, it’s good you have her. Means you’re not alone.”

Trish relaxes somewhat and sets large, curious eyes on Steve. “Is that what Natasha is to you?”

He considers the question. Happy for an abrupt change of subject if that’s what Trish needs. As much as it’s probably a distraction, a way for them to stop talking about her situation, Trish does seem genuinely curious. Dangerous. Just a couple of months ago, he would have said, that’s what Bucky is to him. Bucky was always on Steve’s side, always had his back, kept him from feeling alone. Steve thinks about the texts and voicemails he’s sent Bucky and the radio silence he’s gotten in return.

“Too personal?” Trish asks, and Steve realizes he’s left her wondering for more than a few seconds. “All of this is completely off the record. I don’t have a single recording device on me, I promise.”

As uneasy as the situation has been, he isn’t uneasy around Trish. If she hasn’t thrown a strawberry milkshake in his face yet, the feeling must be mutual.

“I trust Natasha,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about her… it’s like what we talked about earlier, how I can’t tell if people like me for me or because I’m the ‘star quarterback’ or whatever…”

“Captain America,” Trish says with emphasis, making him smile. “Again, who chooses the nicknames?”

“I’d tell you if I knew.”

“So you’re totally in love with her, right?”

Steve stops at that particular, incredibly direct question. “What? I—” Steve sputters more than he ever did while recording and gets an absolute look in return. There’s no use denying it at this point. “That obvious, huh?”

“Just a little.” Trish is fully relaxed now, leaning against the back of her bench, toying with the straw of her shake. “What’s not to love about a redhead? Hell, I used to be one. So why aren’t you dating? Is it one of those things where you don’t date during football season or you’re scared of her father?”

“Neither. I mean, it’s true I don’t have time for much more than football and school right now and the fact that her father is my coach is scary…” Steve draws his fingers through his hair, a nervous habit Trish probably sees right through. “See, I haven’t even thought that far ahead because…” He takes a deep breath. “It’s not going to happen. Ever. She had a thing with Bucky… Plus, I told her I like her and she shut it down fast.”

“She’s lying.”

Steve shakes his head. “And why would she do that?”

“Denial,” Trish says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Maybe she trusts you just as much and she’s, I don’t know, scared dating would ruin your friendship. That’s pretty standard as far as high school bullshit goes. Practically cliche.” Trish laughs. “Natasha Romanoff, a high school cliche. She would hate hearing that.”

“She would,” Steve agrees. “So what do I do? Because everyone I know is telling me I should go after someone, anyone else. Hell, even Natasha pushed me to meet up with you like she can’t wait till I’m with someone else like it’ll make my feelings for her just suddenly go away…”

“Oh, they won’t and she should probably be careful what she wishes for. Just, I don’t know. Don’t push or nag her because guys who do that need to take a hint. Just be you, Steve. Win her over with your natural charm.”

“What natural charm?” Steve knows she's just putting him on. She has to be. 

That,” Trish insists, motioning at him from across the table. “Your humble hometown hero boy next door thing. Trust me, it works for you. I mean, she dated Matt so she’s clearly open to the boy scout variety.” Trish leans toward him, fiddling with her fingers like a maniacal, scheming cartoon villain. “If you ever need someone to hang all over you and show her the errors of her ways, you have my card. I clearly have no problem being a cliche and I’m always looking for new ways to make small town life a little more interesting.”

“No thanks.” Steve turns bashful. “But I will hold onto your card just incase.”

“You’re sweet, Steve Rogers. Anyone who could date you, but chooses otherwise is so completely wrong.”

He shakes his head in disagreement, but doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t seem like an argument he can win, especially against Trish Walker Word Wizard Extraordinaire.

“Sorry we didn’t get to finish your interview,” he says.

“Or even get started, really,” Trish adds sourly. “When are you free next? I really wanted to get this online Friday morning, before the game.”

“Sorry, I have practice every day after school, not sure if I can come all the way out here.”

“What if I came to you?” Trish asks. “Tomorrow late afternoon? Is your house okay?”

“Yeah, that should be okay.”

“How about giving me one more thing? A selfie?” Trish walks around the table and slides onto the bench until she’s pressed up against his side. “Something to tease the podcast and for Natasha to see on my Instagram, stubbornly refuse to ‘like’ and kick herself for not leashing you immediately.”

Steve’s face turns serious as Trish pulls up the camera on her phone. “Uh, what I told you about Nat is confidential. Please don’t tell anyone, not even Jessica.”

“That isn’t fair,” Trish argues. “Keeping anything from Jessica Jones is near impossible. You’re setting me up for failure.” All Steve has to do is frown and she gives in almost instantly. “Fine. As long as you don’t tell anyone about…about earlier, especially Jessica. She gets worked up…”

Rightfully so. It sounds like that wasn’t just an isolated incident, episodes like that with her mom have happened before and it sounds like Trish is resigned to them happening in the future. She shouldn’t be. That shouldn’t happen to her. Jessica has every right to get upset, to fight back. That makes her more than alright in Steve’s book.

“If that’s what you want, okay,” Steve says. His voice comes out weak so he clears his throat. “Okay.”

“Good. Now, smile for the camera, Steve Rogers.”

Steve does just that, stretching his arm across the back of the bench behind Trish, who tilts her head into his shoulder and smiles herself. She snaps the photo and pulls it up so they can see the results. From the photo, you’d never suspect what had happened less than an hour ago at her house, how broken Trish had been, crying into his chest. She pulled herself together so quickly, so precisely, it has to be a practiced skill.

“Thank you,” Trish says. “And I meant it when I said she was lying. Natasha wants you too. I’ve known Natasha for a while now and she’s never been that standoffish, not like she was when I was offering you my card or pulling you upstairs.” Even when she lets her phone fall to the table, screen dimming, she doesn't move her head from his shoulder. “I'm glad I met you, Steve Rogers.”

He lets his arm curl around her and doesn't even feel out-of-line for even considering it. “I'm glad I met you too.”

“Aw, it’s like a panel out of an Archie comic,” Jessica teases, walking right over to their table with Natasha lagging behind her. “All you’re missing is the one milkshake with the two straws in it.” Jessica sits across from them and helps herself to the basket of fries between them.

“How’d your interview go?” Natasha asks.

Steve figures he should defer to Trish, let her explain and go along with what she says.

“We got interrupted, actually.” Trish frowns a little, but Steve knows what she looks like when she’s actually sad and this is a put on, if anything.

“That’s unfortunate,” Natasha says, “but if you want a ride, Steve, we should go.”

Steve and Trish finalize their plans for tomorrow while walking out into the parking lot. Natasha walks ahead of them to her car, distant and serious. Could Trish be right? The blonde in question tugs on Steve’s arm and drags him into a hug. With her arms around his neck and his arms around her lower back, Trish asks him to remember their promise not to tell anyone anything. He agrees, doesn’t see any other option. Trish also smirks and leans dangerously close to his ear to tell him Natasha is so jealous right now. That makes him hug her tighter.

 

 

When they’re back on the dark road headed to Midgard, Natasha hears herself speaking without thinking to. “It’s a little soon to be introducing her to your mom, don’t you think?”

Steve chuckles and Natasha bites the inside of her cheek, mentally kicking herself for saying anything at all. She’s been thinking it ever since Steve told Trish he’d text her his address. This is only the second time they’ve met and already they’re hugging and constantly touching and entirely comfortable. There's an entirely soft, longing quality to his eyes when they're on the blonde and Natasha just can’t wrap her head around how this developed over the course of an afternoon. So if the question just slips out—whatever.

“Who? Trish? It’s not a big deal. My mom’ll probably be at the hospital anyway.”

“So you and Trish are going to be alone in your house?”

That just slips out too.

Steve makes a sound, something between another chuckle and a scoff. “You and I are alone in my house all the time.”

“It’s different.”

“How?”

“We’re friends. Trish Walker wants to eat you alive.”

“Trish is a friend too. She’s…” Steve pauses like he’s actually choosing his words carefully and damn him for being so thoughtful. “She’s really…I’m glad I met her.” His angles his body so that he’s facing her, all of his attention on her, and she’ll be damned if she lets her eyes stray from the road. “I can have friends that are girls other than you, right?”

“Debatable.”

“What’s really going on, Natasha?”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s something bothering you.” His gaze turns assessing like he’s trying to read her and Natasha prides herself on being unreadable. “It’s whatever you’ve got going on with Jessica, not Trish.”

Not entirely. But she should probably be glad he thinks that. The last thing she wants or needs is him thinking she’s jealous of Trish Walker. Natasha grips the leather cover on the steering wheel, debating if she should tell him or not. Maybe there’s a way to talk about it without getting Steve involved. He has a hard enough time focusing on his own game, he shouldn’t have to be burdened with his teammate’s alleged stupidity.

“How do you feel about someone our age playing football while taking human growth hormones?”

“Steroids?” Steve’s entire face crinkles in confusion. “Someone on our team?”

“If you found out, would you go to coach?”

“I never thought about it before…” Steve sits back for a long moment, his eyes on the street lights as they zoom by. “Those can be really dangerous.” Steve pauses to think about that too. “I’d go to Fury. If anyone can get through to a kid making some dangerous decisions, it’s him.”

Natasha chances a glance away from the road because she needs to see his face. Steve stands up to bullies, fights when provoked and doesn’t shy away from a confrontation, but he definitely doesn’t initiate them either. This boy who stutters through a conversation with a pretty girl, is willing to step up when necessary and be a nark. He’d take on that responsibility when he could easily pretend he knows nothing. If that doesn’t scream leader, what does?

“What brought this on?” Steve asks. “And what does Jessica have to do with it?”

“If I was put in that situation…” Natasha’s grip on the steering wheel loosens, but her sense of conviction doesn’t. “My biggest concern would be Nick. He’s so stressed on a daily basis, you know. Adding to that, forcing him to make a decision, report the guy, ruin his future, possibly lose the season or pretend it isn’t happening.”

“This is football in Texas, Nat. I like to think there’s potential for good in everyone, but there are people who’d put football before…before God. Why wouldn’t they bury the truth? And for what? A game. I love football, but it isn’t worth it.” Steve shakes his head, jaw clenched the way it does when he’s serious. “Why? What do you know? Who are you talking about?”

“I don’t want to say anything if I don’t know for sure.”

“But you’ll tell me when you do?” Steve asks, his voice swelling with hope. “I’ll be the first one you tell?”

That’s asking a lot of her and he knows it. Natasha doesn’t answer and Steve doesn’t push her to.

“Trish’s ex-boyfriend is a total roider, by the way,” Natasha says, hoping that will throw him off before she even really knows if she's even on the right trail. “And he's the quarterback of the team we’re playing Friday. You really know how to pick ‘em, Rogers.”

“I think she actually picked me.”

There's a fondness in his voice when he talks about Trish, something that hadn't been there earlier in the day. Natasha tries not to find it incredibly annoying.

 

 

Natasha wants to think Wanda is just worried for no reason, a natural reaction for a sister, a twin to have, but the mounting evidence is curious.

After dropping Steve off at his house, Natasha accessed Fury’s game footage. Pietro might not look any bigger, but he is stronger. At the beginning of the season, he relied solely on his speed. If they can’t touch me, they can’t take me down has been Pietro’s mantra ever since he went straight from the freshman squad to the varsity starting running back. In the last few games, he’s been able to fight off guys twice, sometimes three times his size. His speed has nearly doubled alongside his ego.

Wanda might have brought up her concern, but the thing that sparked the theory (and Natasha really hopes she’s wrong) was Pietro butting into her conversation with Maria about Will Simpson. Natasha prides herself on her ability to read people and Pietro, who thinks himself smooth, suddenly guilty and nervous as all hell. But a hunch isn’t substantial evidence. That’s where Jessica Jones comes in…

“Anything to report?” Wanda asks, almost cheerfully. She’s making a valiant effort to pretend what Natasha saw in front of her house didn’t happen and Natasha understands and she’s going to respect that.

“Nothing yet.” Natasha glances up and down the empty bleachers. “Wanda, does Pietro have his own room?”

“No.” Her eyes turn down as if embarrassed and Natasha almost regrets asking. “We share. Us and two other kids.”

So if he’s using, where would he keep it? Nowhere Wanda could find it or two other kids for that matter. He couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to keep it at school, could he?

“You can’t get into his locker, can you?”

“I can barely get into my own,” Wanda confesses. Her eyes appear larger and wider than usual, again reminiscent of a pleading cartoon animal. “Natasha, do I have anything to worry about?”

She doesn’t mind being the bearer of bad news, not usually, but there’s something about Wanda that makes her want to slide on the kiddie gloves. She’s a nice girl, a good kid, the kind that you just want to shield from the horrors of the world even if it might be too late already.

Still, Natasha tries with a kind smile. “Don’t get yourself all worked up. It might be nothing.”

Wanda doesn’t believe that, but nods anyway. “Thank you. For everything. If I could get into his locker, what would I be looking for exactly?”

“Just leave it to me for now.”

There’s a fire in Wanda’s eyes like she doesn’t appreciate being told to do nothing, but she’s polite enough not to say anything. It just further emphasizes both why she’s so different from her brother and why they’re alike.

 

 

Turns out Sarah does have the night off and she seems full of energy unlike most nights or mornings where she can barely manage to kiss her son on the cheek before trudging off to bed. Sarah having the night off means the stove is on, smooth jazz is playing from an old record player and the smell in the Rogers house is mouthwatering and divine. Steve mentions having a visitor and Sarah is sure to set an extra place at the table.

“Natasha?” Sarah asks. Can’t blame her. It’s an easy assumption to make.

“No. Her name is Trish Walker. She wants to interview me for her podcast.”

“Interview, huh? Next you’ll have an entourage and fan club and they’ll be putting cardboard cutouts of you in used car dealerships. Just don’t forget the little people!”

“Ha ha,” Steve says unenthusiastically. Just then, the doorbell rings. Steve smooths his hair down and straightens his shirt before answering the door. Trish stands there in tight black jeans and a smart blazer.

“Hi, Steve! Ready to get started?”

“Not before you sit down and have dinner with us!” Sarah shouts from the kitchen.

Steve sees the way Trish freezes up, the bright smile on her face fading into an uneasiness that doesn’t suit her at all. No one can fault her for feeling uncomfortable at the idea of being in the same space as someone’s mom, given how her own treats her. Steve doesn’t know what to say, just reaches out and gives her arm what he hopes is a comforting touch.

Sarah pops up from around the corner, wiping her hands on her thin, floral apron. “Welcome! Welcome! Steve, don’t just make her stand there! Come in!”

The smile that crosses Trish’s face is different from any he’s seen before. It’s the kind of smile you put on to try to hide how nervous you are. He wants to tell her it isn’t necessary, that his mom is the last person who’ll judge her, but before he says anything, Sarah is dragging Trish into a big hug, the kind of hug you give a friend after being apart for years. Trish isn’t used to such a warm welcome and it shows. This doesn’t throw or discourage Sarah, who pulls back with a big, genuine smile.

“Trish, right? I'm Sarah, Steve’s mom.” Sarah takes Trish’s bag, probably filled with her recording equipment, and shoves it into Steve’s arm. She then hooks her arm through Trish’s and leads her toward the kitchen table that’s set for three. “I hope you eat pork chops. If Steve told me ahead of time, I could have meal planned a little better…”

“Pork chops sound amazing,” Trish says. “It smells delicious in here, Mrs. Rogers.”

“Thank you, darling. How sweet are you?”

Though she has no idea what to do with her hands when Sarah says grace, Trish starts to loosen up as the evening goes on. Her laughter loses its nervous quality and she hangs on Sarah's every word, mostly a plethora of embarrassing stories about Steve. He’s just as engaged, endures it because Trish is so at ease, her whole attention on Sarah, captivated. Sarah is much the same. She always tells Natasha she wanted a daughter and seeing his mom now, she might seriously mean it.

“That’s hysterical!” Trish’s face is alight, evidently having a good time. “Here’s an idea. What if I interview the both of you? Like a sort of conversation with a hometown hero and the person who knows him best, who watched him become what he is today. Not to mention, it might take the pressure off you, Steve, having your mom with you through the process.”

“If I can’t think of anything to say, I’m sure mom would have no problem jumping in with an embarrassing story from my childhood.” Steve glances over at his mom, who’s smiling from behind her glass of sweet tea. “It’s up to you, ma. If you aren’t too tired or busy…”

“Nonsense!” Sarah shouts. “Do I ever pass up the opportunity to brag about my son?”

He groans into his paper napkin. “You’re going to make me regret this, aren’t you?”

Sarah swats at Steve with her napkin.

“Excellent,” Trish says, watching mother and son interact with something like envy in her eyes. “Just give me a minute to jot down some questions and set up the equipment.”

“Would the living room be good?” Sarah asks. “There's also the dining room, but we only ever use it for special occasions. I was sorting mail earlier and left it all over the table…”

“The living room sounds perfect. I’ll just set up on the coffee table. We’ll keep it super casual.” Trish pushes her chair back, but remembers her manners at the last second. “Dinner was lovely, Mrs. Rogers. I’ll set up and call you in when I'm ready for you.”

“You go right ahead, dear!” Once Trish makes her way into the next room, so passionate in what she does, Sarah pokes Steve in the shoulder, grinning madly. “I like her. Another blonde, huh? I'm starting to see a pattern, son…”

“Mom, stop it. I’m begging you. Please.”

“Does Peggy have anything to worry about?”

Steve makes quick work of gathering all the dishes and bringing them to the sink. “Peggy and I broke up. I know I should have told you sooner…”

“Oh, Stevie.”

He hears her footsteps against the creaky wooden floor and should expect her approach, but the hug she pulls him into is still unexpected, makes him flinch. Steve grew up knowing it was okay to show emotion, to cry. His mom made sure he knew that, even though the world outside, this town, still tells him the opposite, that boys are strong and being strong means not crying. Most days it's still hard to reconcile the two, even now.

“Mom,” he groans. “I’m fine. It was a mutual thing.”

“First, everything with Bucky and now Peggy…on top of school and football! I know how strong you are, but you are dealing with a lot. You do know that it’s perfectly okay to be not-fine, right?”

“Yes.” He scrubs at a dish with a vigor that betrays the calm attitude he wants to project. “Can we please just help my friend out with her podcast?”

“Friend, huh?”

“Yes, friend,” Steve says exasperatedly.

Sarah wraps her arms around her boy in a hug and Steve has no qualms about hugging her back after he wipes down his wet hands. If he wasn’t grateful to have such a close relationship with his mother, seeing how horribly Trish’s mom treats her, something Steve still can’t wrap his head around, he appreciates Sarah and everything she does for him even more. He gives her an extra tight hug just because he feels like it, because she deserves it.

In the next room, Trish has all her recording equipment set up. She invites Steve and Sarah to make themselves comfortable, warns them not to trip on any of the wires. Trish sits on a cushion on the floor, headphones on, adjusting something on her laptop before giving Steve and Sarah a thumbs-up.

“Now we’re joined by Steve’s mother, Sarah Rogers,” Trish says. “Mrs. Rogers, thank you for agreeing to talk with us today.”

“Thank you for having me,” Sarah says.

“So, I and our listeners would love to know what it was like raising Steve.”

“I’m not going to lie and say it was a walk in the park.” Sarah laughs, full of mirth. “It was a challenge. We lost his father when Steve was quite young. It was...unexpected. My career as a nurse had just barely started. I was low on the totem pole, working crazy hours. Steve was very sick as a child. But we have a great house, great support from friends—the Barnes family in particular. It was a challenge, but we had a lot of fun, I think. Right?”

Steve nods, then remembers the people listening won't be able to see him. “Yeah, ‘course, ma.”

“I worked a lot. I still do…” Guilt flashes in Sarah’s blue eyes, soon to be replaced with nostalgia. “But we had our routine. Chocolate malts on Fridays and we’d watch Power Rangers together.”

“I loved Power Rangers!” Trish shouts, louder than she meant probably. “I wanted to be the pink ranger more than anything. I was fascinated by super heroes growing up. I still am.”

“Steve is the same way!” Sarah leans across the table toward Trish, as if forgetting about all the recording equipment between them. “Steve was always the red ranger, but I guess he’ll settle for football captain.” Sarah beams at her son. “Steve was always the red ranger and Bucky—who was Bucky again?”

“The white ranger,” Steve answers.

“Because the white ranger gets the girl,” both Steve and Sarah say together, trading smiles.

Sarah reaches up and tries to smooth down the blonde hair that sticks up at the back of Steve’s head. No luck. “It's a simple life, but good. We never had much, but Steve was a very creative kid. Still is.”

“Who, me?”

“Yes, you!” Sarah grabs Steve’s arm and shakes him, but the bashful expression remains. “Don’t you remember how I’d always find you out back, painting the trash can lids?” She leans closer to Trish who’s engrossed in the mother-son dynamic. “One Christmas, I bought Steve a new set of paints, but I forgot paper. I told him I’d get him some the next day after my shift. I come home with painting paper, come to find he painted all the trash can lids in the neighborhood! Stars were always his favorite. Some of the neighbors weren’t too happy, but I loved it!”

“Sounds to me like you really support Steve in everything he does,” Trish says, something like admiration on her face. “Steve, would you consider your mom a strict disciplinarian?”

He grins over at his mom. “What can I say? I value doing the right thing, respect, integrity, and that’s all my mom. But when I was pretty young, I kind of…I never went around picking fights—”

“Oh, but you sure didn’t shy away from them neither,” Sarah interrupts.

“I never back down, no,” Steve continues, narrowing his eyes at his mom with her hand over her mouth, trying to keep the laughter at bay. “I’m not very good a-at turning the other cheek? I guess. Especially when I see something I know is wrong. She’s strict when she has to be, definitely, but I always brought it on. Mostly, nowadays, she just says, ‘you’re smart and I trust you.’ And I know she has my back.”

Sarah sighs dramatically. “For better or worse.”

“Nice.” Trish nods, sitting back against the couch. “Steve Rogers, former red ranger, now football captain, childhood brawler and artist. The picture is starting to take shape. How else would you describe Steve in his younger years?”

“A good kid,” Sarah says firmly. “Well, basically good.” Steve ducks his head in mock shame and Sarah shakes his arm again, more vigorously this time. “Oh, did that sound bad? He was!” Sarah insists. “There was the occasional fight, but I always knew he was on the right side of it. He didn’t get into too much trouble that I knew about, but he was scrappy. I think he surprised people.”

“I was a shrimp,” Steve says easily, like he's long accepted it. “I don't think many people expected a kid as small and short and sickly as me to come out swinging. Not that it won me many fights…”

“He was a late bloomer,” Sarah says, a phrase that makes Steve wince. “Now look at him!”

“Very good genetics, I agree,” Trish says. “Sarah, do you remember the first time you saw Steve play football?”

Sarah contemplated that, tapping her thin fingers against her chin. “I remember his first game. He sat on the bench the whole time, but I could just see Stevie’s energy just wanting to burst out… The first time he actually played…flag football, right?”

Steve nods again, quick to correct himself. “Flag football. Natasha Romanoff was the star running back on the other team. I was on defense. I was supposed to stop her from killing us. Instead, I fell trying to grab her flags, face planted in the dirt. I gassed out, had grass burns, a scrape on my chin, and nearly had an asthma attack.”

“I remember that!” Sarah shouts. “Natasha scored a touchdown on that very play! Your team was losing so badly the mercy rule went into effect and they stopped the game there.”

Sarah is so proud of Natasha, Steve can’t even be mad at the reminder of his less than stellar performance.

“Back then, did you ever think you’d be here now?” Trish asks. “Captain of the football team, win streak, possible playoff run, possible state champion?”

Steve shakes his head no, but Sarah says, “Something that Steve had then and still has now is heart. Even when he was sick, wheezing, I had to pick him up and carry him off the football field. He always kept at it, when I told him no, it was too dangerous or he was pushing himself too hard, when coaches said he was too small or too uncoordinated, Steve always showed up and did his very best. He got clobbered, but got back up. And I knew, if he seriously wanted it, he would get it. Even back then, for sure.”

Steve just realizes he has a big smile on his face, listening to his mother talk. “I don’t know about all that…”

“I knew!” Sarah insists.

“I didn’t want to play football just because it’s Texas and that’s what everyone does in Texas,” Steve explains. “I wanted to play because I love the game, I love the feeling of being out there with my team, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn't feel good, proving people wrong. I’ve always liked art and drawing. I was a little dweeb. But Bucky played and hung out with other guys who played and mom always nagged me to be more social. Dad didn’t care much either way…”

“He didn’t?” Trish asks, surprised. “I thought it was some sort of unwritten rule that every father in Texas dreams of his son playing football?”

“Dad wasn’t a man of many words,” Steve reminisces. “He loved the game, watched his Texans every Sunday without fail, but he never put those expectations on me. Maybe it’s because he saw how small and sick I was…” Steve shrugs his shoulders, doesn’t talk about his dad often and certainly not while being recorded. “He’d take me fishing a lot. Simon Pond. Not too far from here. That’s what we did. We’d sit on this tiny dock, not even talk and it was...great. I still go there when I want to get away from everything…”

“He’d be very proud of you, Steve,” Sarah says.

“Thanks, ma.”

“Lastly, Sarah, what do you hope for Steve moving forward?” Trish asks.

Sarah's eyes shine as she squeezing her son's hand tight. “I hope he has a good life. That’s what I want. The rest is up to him and I hope that he knows that I will always have his back. I hope we stay connected like we are now because he’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I thank God everyday for him.”

Trish is poised to ask a follow-up question, but stops herself when Steve suddenly launches himself at Sarah, wrapping her up in a hug that almost has them tipping over. They both have tears in their eyes. Steve whispers something to her, something much too quiet for the microphone to pick up and just as well. Those words are only for his mother to hear as she hushes him and holds him tight.

 

 

Natasha sits in her car, reading peer-reviewed articles on growth hormone usage in teenage athletes when she spots Clint walking down the dirt road leading from the farm Laura’s family owns. His normally uncontrollable spikes are neatly combed through with hair product and he's in process of untucking the button-up shirt from his slacks that are two sizes too big. Why Fury wanted her to see him through his interview process is beyond her. He's just lucky she finished all of her homework.

“I take it things went well,” Natasha guesses.

Clint throws his fist up in the air like that greaser at the end of The Breakfast Club. Pepper made them watch it once. Natasha swore never again. She has a hunch Maria secretly cried.

“That well, huh?” She asks.

“I'm not a mind-reader and he didn't laugh at any of my farm puns, but I think it went well.”

Natasha lifts an eyebrow. “Farm puns?”

“You didn't have to come all the way out here, Tash. What? Did you think I'd chicken out?”

“Nick thought you'd chicken out.” Natasha watches Clint claw his way out of the button-up and he didn’t even bother to wear a shirt underneath. He tosses the shirt over his shoulder, mighty proud of himself. “What's gotten into you? All of this for a farm girl?”

“Pretty much.”

“And if she doesn't like you back?”

“Are you asking me if I'm gonna spread rumors about her, fuck up her reputation? I like to think you know me better than that, Nat.”

“Say if you start dating Laura the farm girl, but then Bobbi comes back around or some stripper you met—”

“Don’t you think you’re over-thinking this a bit?”

“Maybe you should be thinking a little more, Clint.” Natasha feels her phone vibrate and sees a text from Jessica Jones. Finally. “All I'm saying is Laura’s nice and naive—”

“And I'm not a nice guy, that’s whatcha really mean, right?” Clint yells back and it takes her by surprise. He never raises his voice at her ever. When he continues, it’s with a quieter, cooler tone. “You already over-thought things and turned Steve down and that's on you, Nat. You can quit trying to justify it already. It's done.”

Natasha blinks. Then blinks again. “What the fuck, Clint? Why are you still giving me shit for that?”

“I just feel like you don't give yourself the chances you deserve…”

“Why don't you let me decide that?” Natasha tears her eyes away from Clint, trying to calm the anger simmering inside. She opens the text from Jessica to distract herself. All it contains is a familiar address she can't quite identify. She’d rather be anywhere else right now. Natasha shrugs and plugs the address into her phone.

Fogwell's Gym in East Hell.

That’s where Matt Murdock's dad used to box.

“Aw, Nat, don't do that pouty thing, c’mon. I'm your best friend. Who else is gonna give you shit, huh?” Clint leans into the window, smiling like he finds her glare amusing or something. Asshole.

“Just don't make me say ‘I told you so,’ Barton.’”

And with that, Natasha’s car takes off, barely giving Clint any time to back away and leaving him in a cloud of dirt. The nerve! Who the hell does Clint think he is these days? Just because there's a new girl in his life, his grades are better than they’ve ever been, his game on the field has been better than it’s ever been and he might be employed, he thinks it gives him the right to go around telling people how to live their lives.

He thinks she doesn’t give herself the chances she deserves?

What the fuck does that even mean?

Natasha pushes all of that nonsense out of her head. She’s on a mission here. She has to put her game face on. Compartmentalize. That’s how she dealt with a shitty childhood. That’s how she’s going to deal with high school drama bullshit.

The moment Natasha pulls up to the curb in front of the gym, Jessica Jones ducks into the passenger seat, shouting, "What are you waiting for? Drive!"

Natasha feels like a getaway driver in a heist movie, stepping on the gas and zooming off down the street. Jessica Jones, panting a little and close to sweating, glancing behind them like she’s expecting someone to be following them, surely a side effect of how she decides to spend her time.

"Tell me you have something for me," Natasha drawls.

"Jesus, you don't waste time, do you? I can't imagine your definition of foreplay." Jessica sits forward, straightening the lapels of her trusty leather jacket. "And yes. You might want to pull over. I wouldn't want you to crash from the shock of dumb boys being dumb.”

Natasha rolls her eyes, but pulls into the mostly empty parking lot of an Alamo Freeze. "What'd you find?"

Jessica forks over her phone that’s old and been through hell apparently, so similar to Clint’s. Natasha’s eyes widen at the photo on the screen.

“Swipe left. It gets…juicier.”

Natasha does just that. Photo after photo captures Pietro, his silver hair poking out from under a hoodie, paying a bodybuilder in exchange for a bag of bottles and there’s definitely a syringe in there. She can’t be sure, but it appears to be a little more than vitamins. Human growth hormones. Performance enhancers. The last photos have Natasha’s eyes wide, unable to comprehend what she’s seeing.

“Idiot,” Natasha mutters. “I’m sending these to myself.”

“And my work here is done,” Jessica says, sounding bored. “Consider my debt to you paid in full.”

“Sure.” Natasha continues to frown at the photos.

“Do you know the kid?” Jessica asks. “He is in some deep shit and if he’s a friend of yours…” Jessica gets a sort of far away look on her face, something like regret in her eyes. “Maybe you should stop the people you care about from fucking up their lives or whatever.”

Jessica always has to play the tough guy. It’s how she protects herself or maybe how she copes. Natasha gets it, wouldn’t dare call her out for it when she would hate the same treatment in return.

“Need a ride anyway?” Natasha asks.

Whatever Jessica had been thinking, whatever she had been feeling is completely gone from her face just like that. She slouches in her seat and idly hangs her hand out the open window. “I’m supposed to meet Trish at Steve Rogers’ house. Know it?”

Natasha just hums and starts her car. She doesn’t even have to think about it. Driving to Steve’s house is practically muscle memory at this point. Instead, Natasha sorts through this Pietro situation in her head. Her first instinct is to tell Fury. If people at school knew, they’d call her a snitch, but things like that never bother Natasha. Her loyalty is to Fury, not her peers who have no problem gossiping about her to entertain themselves. Part of her concern is what this could possibly mean for the team, their chance of winning a championship their senior year. That is, if Fury decides to do something about it. He could cover it up, make her delete the photos, forget all about this…

All she knows is the sooner this situation is out of her hands, the better.

The drive to Steve’s house is a quiet one with neither of them in the mood to make small talk. Some indie song plays over the speakers, a synth-heavy melody, subdued female singer. It mates the mood perfectly. Jessica can be a snarky pain in the ass, but she isn’t so bad in the quiet. Things aren’t half as awkward as they could be.

The Rogers house is completely lit up and Sarah’s car is parked in the driveway when they arrive. Steve and Trish sit close on the front steps of the porch, shoulders touching, talking quietly. Natasha’s car pulls up just as Trish leans in and presses an innocent little kiss on Steve’s cheek. Natasha gets caught up in staring and Jessica curses out loud when the Corvette hops the curb. Natasha is quick to correct the car, keeping her eyes down, her heart pounding in her chest for reasons she isn’t ready to address.

Jessica gets out of the car before the engine even turns off. Natasha remains, staring straight ahead, trying to pull herself together. So she was right about Trish having a thing for Steve. That was practically a no-brainer. Trish also moves fast. Apparently.

“Are you done?” Jessica asks impatiently.

“Just about.” Trish grins up at Steve like a schoolgirl with a crush. “I think we both got exactly what we wanted. Maybe more.”

“Jesus, Trish, I didn’t ask for your wedding vows,” Jessica says, though by her tone it’s clear she could care less. She doesn’t say anything else before heading over to Trish’s shiny, silver Sedan parked across the street.

“Thanks again, Steve,” Trish says sweetly. “I had a great time.”

“Thank you for…everything.” Steve gives her the goofiest smile, like a lovesick puppy. Natasha hangs back, isn’t fuming per se, but she has better things to do than bear witness to two beautiful, blonde human specimens making googly eyes at each other. “If you need anything else…”

“I know who to call,” Trish says. “And I’ll definitely shoot you a text when the interview’s up.”

“Sounds good…”

Trish flashes Steve one last smile and only glances at Natasha briefly with a quick hello before crossing the street to where an angry rock song literally rocks her car. Trish is quick to turn down the music (Bad Reputation — Joan Jett, an obvious yet suiting choice) and reprimand Jessica, who doesn’t even seem to be listening. Natasha and Steve watch the silver car streak down the street before Natasha turns to Steve, her pony tail whipping over her shoulder. The words just fly out of her mouth—

“What? Did you make out while your mom was asleep in the next room?”

“Natasha!” He plays the innocent card so well, it’s unnerving. “What?”

Natasha rolls her eyes, annoyed at herself for even asking out loud. “We need to talk.”

His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows hard. “About?”

Natasha checks their surroundings for nosy neighbors that all share a compulsion to hold their ears to the cracks in their windows. Wary of all the porch lights and screen doors, Natasha grabs Steve by the arm and drags him inside before showing him the photos Jessica took. His forehead frowns as he takes in the scene, tries to make sense of what he’s seeing. Once he gets to the last one, his face is one of complete shock. Natasha had felt the exact same way even if she didn’t exactly show it.

“Did you show Coach Fury?” Steve asks gravely.

“No.”

Steve tears his eyes away from the photos and finds her eyes. If he’s asking if she’s being true, he finds the answer he’s searching for and goes into business mode. “Coach should know about this.” Steve squeezes his hand into a fist at his side. “What is Pietro thinking?”

“His home situation isn’t the best,” Natasha says, remembering the house the Maximoff twins live in and those people they’re forced to live with. “He probably thinks football is his ticket out. It probably doesn’t help that his coaches yell at him about things he can’t help, like being undersized every day.”

“Are you defending him?”

“No,” Natasha says sharply. “I’m just saying there might be a reason behind it. It doesn’t excuse what he’s doing and it’s downright stupid, but he isn’t the first. It isn’t exactly unheard of.”

“This is what you were talking about the other day when you asked?”

“I didn’t want to worry you about a hypothetical theory, but now it’s less hypothetical.”

“Well, what are we waiting for? We need to tell Fury right now.” Steve grabs his letterman jacket hanging on the wooden coat rack and slides his arms through the sleeves.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Natasha asks.

“With you. I need to be there when you show Fury.”

“No, you don’t.” Natasha grabs Steve by his sleeve and yanks him away from the door. “No. Can you imagine what the other guys will think if they find out you snitched? Me, they expect me to nark on them to Nick, but you, you’re team captain.”

“Exactly! I’m team captain. If I’m not going to hold any of them accountable, who will? Especially when one of the younger guys is doing something as stupid as this?” Steve angrily stomps toward a side table and grabs his house keys before returning to stand in front of Natasha with steely determination. “Now, can I ride with you or am I gonna walk and meet you there?”

Steve Rogers is so good and confident when he needs to be, but the word Natasha mutters as she turns to leave is “stubborn.” Steve takes this in strides, just barely holds back from gloating. He scribbled down a note for his mom to find when she's done with her much deserved soak in the tub and follows Natasha out to her car. He should know by now that Natasha Romanoff chooses her battles more wisely than most, which makes this less of a win than it is, but that doesn’t stop him from puffing his chest out, proud of himself. And she really needs to stifle the sudden, troubling urge to kiss that dumb look off his face, and not just on the cheek.

 

 

Surprised doesn’t quite capture Fury’s reaction when Natasha comes home with Steve in tow, the two of them more serious than two teenagers should, saying they have something to talk to him about. For a second, he thinks to himself, goddamn it no, no, no, my kid and my quarterback, goddamn it, they’re gonna tell me they’re dating, aren’t they? I ask her to do one thing! ONE THING!

“Sir.” Steve stands military straight and with a confidence he rarely exhibits off the football field. Well, damn. “There’s something we need to show you…”

“If it’s a pregnancy test or ultrasound, you’ve got a head start while I get my gun, Rogers.”

It takes about half a second for all of Steve’s newfound confidence to melt right off his face, replaced with confusion and dread. “Sir, I-I—”

Natasha scoffs and pinches the space between her brows. “You would hear it from Sarah if you even showed Steve your gun collection, let alone pointed a gun at him.”

Fury raises his eyebrows challengingly. “Oh?”

“Sir, this is important,” Steve says once he recomposes himself. “It’s about Pietro.”

“What about Maximoff?”

Natasha steps in, offering her phone to Fury. What he sees chills him to his bones. Fury swipes through photo after photo, zooming in to make absolutely sure he’s seeing what he’s seeing. When he reaches the photo of Pietro behind a dumpster, drawing and injecting himself with a slin pin, so sure of himself and what he’s doing that it can’t possibly be the first time, Fury sets the phone down and leans back in his chair, trying to slow his racing thoughts. On the inside, he’s screaming, but he has to wear an emotionless mask for Steve and Natasha.

“Who else knows about this?” Fury asks. His voice comes out strained with the effort to keep calm and you can damn well bet it’s taking everything in him to not lose his temper.

“Just my friend, Jessica,” Natasha answers. “She’s the one who took the pictures. She won’t say anything to anyone, I guarantee it.”

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Fury says stiffly. “It’s getting late and you have school in the morning. Natasha, drive Steve home. Then straight back and to bed.”

Natasha nods and takes her phone back. Mission complete. She turns toward the door without arguing, but Steve remains stern and rooted in place. 

“You deaf, Rogers?” Fury asks. “I said you can go.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Steve asks boldly.

“What I do is what I do, none of your business, Rogers,” Fury replies. He thought he made it pretty clear that the conversation is over. The kid just has to prove he’s so damn hard-headed over and over, doesn’t he?

“I’m the captain,” Steve says. The bite in his voice is surprising, but Fury isn’t intimidated in the least. “I know I don’t have a say in what happens, but I deserve to know.”

“And I’m the coach.” Fury stands from his chair, rising to his full height. Rogers is tall, but Fury is still taller and intimidating to boot. “You’re right. You don’t have a say in what happens. I will take care of it the way I see fit. You may be captain, but it doesn’t mean you can act all entitled and demand shit from your superior.” Steve falters, but clenches his jaw from saying something he shouldn’t. Smart move. “And I know I don’t have to tell you to be discrete. We keep this between the three of us, you hear me?” Fury doesn’t wait for a reply and takes his seat yet again. “Try to get some rest, Rogers. You’ll need it tomorrow.”

Steve doesn’t say anything before storming out of Fury’s office with Natasha following right behind. They’re playing a dangerous game, running around town like they’re Nancy Drew and a half of the Hardy boys, goddamn Fred and Daphne. You don’t bring cameras into places like that. He makes a mental note to question Natasha more thoroughly in the morning to make sure she’s in the clear.

“Damn it,” Fury murmurs. He waits until he hears the sound of Natasha’s car driving away before he goes to pour himself a bourbon.

Damn Maximoff.

He should’ve learned after Barnes’ accident…

The run game is very much built around Maximoff the same way the passing game was built around Barnes. The only difference was that they had a decent backup quarterback who turned into a godsend in Rogers. Morita is their second running back, compact and strong, never gives up on a carry, but he doesn’t have the game-changing star power Maximoff does. Their opponents aren’t going to be intimidated and game plan specifically for Morita the way they do for Maximoff. Their next running back behind Morita is a freshman named Eugene “Flash” Thompson who gave himself that nickname and is yet to earn it.

“Goddamn shit.” Fury tosses back his drink fast and pours himself another.

There’s always the option to do nothing. It makes sense now, how the kid has made strides so quickly in the last few weeks. Maximoff has always been fast, a pure, god-given talent, but lately, he’s also been sharper and stronger. Apparently it was naive to think the remarkable improvement is due to hard work and good coaching. Fury laughs to himself, squeezing his fingers tight around his glass.

Doing nothing, saying nothing, would make his job a hell of a lot easier.

It’s not my job to judge. My job is to win ball games. Period.

But what if something happens to the kid? After Barnes…

Fury groans, at a complete loss as to what he should do. For now, he has another drink, waits up until Natasha gets home and goes to bed where he’s guaranteed to get little if no sleep at all.

 

...

 

The next day, Fury goes through his game day routine as if it’s just another Friday morning. He dresses in his red Avengers polo shirt and khakis and goes downstairs to make breakfast. Natasha doesn’t bring up the night before, just eats the pancakes he flips (in certain instances cooking helps him think) and drinks her tea while fiddling with her phone. She leaves early, saying she has to pick up a friend. Fury takes her word for it, doesn’t ask her to elaborate, assumes it’s Rogers and tells her to have a good day.

By lunch, Fury knows he’s on the clock, thinking and thinking and thinking as he walks down the hallway, supposedly monitoring lunch hour, when he sees the boy in question. Pietro’s wearing his letterman jacket, silver hair slicked back as always. The kid, who’s usually laidback and cool, appears annoyed, yelling at his frantic sister as she rips through his locker, searching. Books and papers, pens and pencils spill out, but that doesn’t stop the girl, Wanda (he thinks) who’s distressed, tears in her eyes, screaming in her native tongue. Fury understands and speaks many languages, but not this one. It isn’t hard to read body language and right now, hers is saying, she knows.

Pietro shouts back in what he assumes is the same language, seizes his sister by the wrist and yanking her away. “There is nothing to find! You are acting crazy!”

“I will not let you do this to yourself any longer!”

Fury decides to step in before someone says too much. “There a problem here?”

Pietro turns to his coach, eyes wide, fingers loosening around his sister’s wrist until she pulls away violently. Pietro lowers his head in respect, but Wanda doesn’t have the same obligation. She glares up at Fury, defiance burning bright in the eyes of what seems like a normally mild-mannered girl. If she knows and Fury thinks she does, she has every right to feel what she’s feeling. She has every reason to blame him for not running a tighter ship.

“Maximoff, a word,” Fury says. “My office now.”

“Yes, sir.” Pietro hastily stuffs all his fallen books and papers into his locker, slamming the door and running after Fury. Wanda mutters something as they leave. Fury wouldn’t be surprised if it was a curse of some kind. The walk to his office is silent. Though the locker room is empty, Fury makes it a point to shut his office door and sighs as he takes his seat behind his desk.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” Fury asks. Pietro can’t quit fidgeting, not an admission of guilt, the kid was made to move. “You can either tell me on your own or we can do this the hard way.”

“Sir, I do not know what you mean.”

Well, he gave him a chance. Fury pulls his phone out of the pocket of his khakis and pulls up the most incriminating photo, the one behind the dumpster. Pietro’s face drops when he sees the photo. He sits dead still maybe for the first time in his life. Fury shuts his phone off and tosses it away, setting his disappointed, pissed off gaze on the boy who can’t be more than fifteen if that.

“It is fake,” Pietro says strongly. “Someone is trying to—to—frame me!”

“So you’re saying if I made you take a test right here, right now, you’d pass with flying colors?” When Pietro doesn’t reply, just squirms in his chair, Fury sighs again. “I’m benching you for the game today. Maybe for the rest of the season.”

Pietro appears more pale than usual, more frantic, scared. “Coach…”

“You screwed yourself over and you screwed your team over!” Fury tries to rein it in, especially when the spit starts flying, even though he’s for damn sure getting yelled at is the least this kid deserves. “I want to know what you’re on, how long, who else knows, I want to know where you got it from and don’t think there’s any way in hell you can talk your way into playing in the game tonight. You’re out.”

“No! You need me!” Pietro shouts. “Our win streak—”

“You. Are. Out.” Fury emphasizes each word, gritting his teeth. “And when I announce it to the team, they’re going to want to ask questions. You keep your mouth shut. You understand or do I need to spell it out further?”

“I understand.”

“Good. Now start talking…”

As Pietro begins to talk, confession after confession that comes out like a busted dam, he tests every last bit of patience Fury has. He tries to listen and tries his best not to interrupt just to ask the kid what he was thinking at the top of his lungs. There are going to be questions from the other players and the coaching staff. Beyond that, there’s going to be questions from the school board, the booster club and the media. Fury can already feel the headache coming on and he has no idea how to proceed.

 

 

The quarterback of the West Hell Bolts is Will Simpson, “Nuke” as they call him for the ultra accurate long balls he throws with perfect timing. That just means the defense can’t give him time to throw. IGH’s uniforms are a deep purple with white accents and Clint stares at them longingly, nearly sheds an actual tear. Purple is his favorite color and all. Simpson is a decent athlete, but he’s a hot-head, which can lead to bad decision-making. If the defense is as smart as Natasha thinks they are (on a good day) then they’ll capitalize on the opponent’s mistakes.

Natasha walks down the steps of the bleachers, toward her usual spot, and freezes when she sees Maria isn’t alone. Jessica Jones is beside her, scuffed boots propped up against the railing in front. There’s a blonde sitting beside Jessica. That isn’t unusual. What’s unusual and striking is the fact that that tall blonde is wearing Steve’s windbreaker with his number on the back. Natasha relaxes her fingers when she realizes they’re clenched into a fist.

“Am I missing anything?” Natasha breezes down the aisle and squeezes into her usual spot between Maria and Jessica. She doesn’t even glance at Trish. It’s better she not.

“Oh, I was just asking Jessica Jones about her new gig as the Veronica Mars of Hell,” Maria says, in that intentionally unnerving way Maria has mastered.

Jessica is unshaken, taking a drink out of a water bottle that probably isn’t filled with water. “Again, what the hell is a Veronica Mars? Not that it surprises me you two share a kink.”

Trish nudges Jessica. “You love that show almost as much as Grey’s Anatomy.”

Ah-hah.

“What’s your point, Hill?” Jessica asks irritably.

“I was just wondering if you had business cards like your adopted sister slash lover,” Maria replies.

“As a matter of fact, I have one right here.” Jessica reaches under the lapel of her leather jacket and pulls out her middle finger. “Alias Investigations. Resume includes threatening my principal’s wife who happens to be the school nurse to sign divorce papers so my principal can run off with her secretary. And stalking a bunch of ‘roiders.” Jessica stands after finishing off her bottle. “I have to pee.”

“Tell Luke I said hi,” Trish teases.

Jessica pulls Trish’s beanie down over her eyes as she skitters down the row and heads to the exit. Trish pushes her beanie back up and straightens her hair. She stares forward, watching the Avengers start to warm up in their red home jerseys. Natasha watches Trish out of the corner of her eye, sees the way her lips stretch into a smile once Steve comes jogging out of the tunnel. It’s surprising the girl didn’t make him a sign or something. Good grief. They just met.

“Does Steve know you raided his closet?” Natasha asks.

“Oh.” Trish acts surprised and Natasha knows she’s playing innocent. She’s done it enough times. “This?” Trish wraps the windbreaker tighter around her. “He forgot it at my house the other day. I thought I could return it to him tonight.”

“And you didn’t think to return it the other night when you went to his house?” Natasha asks.

“I didn’t think to, no.” Trish frowns at the accusation in her voice. “That’s why I brought it tonight. Sorry, sweater police.”

Natasha purses her lips, ignoring Maria’s wide eyes and the way they dart back and forth between her and Trish as if she’s watching a particularly vicious tennis match. And loves it.

“Did Steve tell you that I met his mother?” Trish asks. “She is wonderful. The three of us had a beautiful home-cooked meal together. Pork chops. Have you ever had Sarah’s pork chops and mashed potatoes before?”

“Yes, I have,” Natasha says sharply.

Awkward silence follows, but you wouldn’t know it by Trish’s smile, her head tilted up, not a care in the world. Why does she have to be so aggravating? Natasha chews on her bottom lip and keeps her eyes on the boys scattered across the field even if she’s a little more than distracted. It doesn’t help that Jessica left, leaving her right next to Trish, feeling short and lacking in comparison.

“Hey, it’s Patsy’s ex!” Maria whistles. “Wow. I didn’t see that on Instagram…”

Will Simpson walks to center field alongside his receivers. Will Simpson who apparently has an American flag tattooed on his face. Trish groans loudly and hides her own face in her hands. Steve shakes Simpson’s hand. It’s a miracle Steve manages to wear a straight face while doing it. The guy has an American flag tattoo on his face! Just as he turns to rejoin his team, Steve smiles in their direction like he does on the cusp of every game. Natasha smiles back, but notices Trish waving to Steve, who waves back. Was that smile meant for Trish, not her? Natasha feels stupid, but like hell she’ll let it show.

Trish stands up and cups her hands around her mouth. “Kick his ass, Steve!”

Natasha glares at her. “Are you trying to put an extra target on his back?”

Trish whips her hair over one shoulder like a freaking super model. “Why? You don’t think Steve can handle it?”

Natasha laughs exasperatedly. “You act like you didn’t just meet each other six days ago.”

Trish sits back down and Natasha almost feels bad for blurting that out, but then the blonde adds, “At least I’m not the one acting like a jealous girlfriend.”

Both of Natasha’s hands curl into fists in her lap, angrier than she’s been in a long time. Who the hell does this girl think she is? Natasha’s right about to ask her exactly that, but then she sees Will Simpson approaching Steve with some aggressive words. Steve says something in return because he’s Steve and he can’t stop himself. There’s some shoving, but their teammates are in there quick to break it up.

“That’s on you,” Natasha mutters loud enough for Trish to hear.

“You know what, Natasha—”

“Damn it! I missed something exciting, didn't I?” Jessica slides back between them and this time she has a paper cup of soda and a greasy bag, probably from one of the food trucks that like to camp out on game night. “Did I miss the part where the toxic masculinity spills over onto the field and someone loses a head?” Jessica nearly drops her snacks as she leans forward to get a better view of the field. “Jesus! Is that Simpson? What happened to his face? Just because you live in Texas doesn’t mean you have to be a sad fucking stereotype.”

“That smells amazing.” Trish dips her hand into the greasy bag in Jessica’s lap, snagging a criss-cross waffle fry. “You didn’t find these in the trash, did you?”

Natasha keeps her eyes on the field. She’s very good at locking down her emotions, but after that exchange, after being called out by someone who doesn’t even know her, just the sound of Trish’s smooth voice is like nails on a chalkboard. She doggedly ignores Jessica and Trish bickering on her right and the sly smiles Maria’s sending her from her left. The game’s about to start. Nothing else should matter right now. She can’t let it.

 

 

Steve lifts his hand in shy acknowledgement when he sees Trish waving at him from the bleachers. It takes him by surprise to see Trish sitting with Natasha and Maria, but they do know each other through Murdock so it isn’t too weird. Trish texted him early this morning to say their interview is live online and that she would be there to cheer him on at the game. She’s even wearing his windbreaker. He’s been wondering where that went.

“What the hell?”

Steve feels someone approaching him from behind and quickly turns to see the opponent’s quarterback coming in hot. Steve had tried hard not to stare at the American flag tattoo (American flag tattoo?) on the guy’s face when they shook hands. Not easy. Simpson’s head is covered in sweat and the ink isn’t running, which means it must be real. Who let him do that to himself and why?

“How do you know Trish?” Simpson asks, agitated and testy. “She’s mine. We might be on a break right now, but I don’t need some pretty boy getting into her head before she realizes how wrong she is and comes back to me.”

“She isn’t yours,” Steve says automatically. “You don’t own her.”

Not you. Not her mom. No one.

“What did you say to me?” Simpson chuckles, walking up to Steve with his hands balled into fists. “You probably shouldn’t talk about things you don’t understand, pretty boy.”

“I understand fine.” Steve holds his ground, tilts his head up to appear taller. “If Trish wanted to spend time with you then she would. If she wants to spend time with someone else,” Steve shrugs, “tough luck.”

Simpson laughs and laughs straight from his belly. Then he snaps, getting into Steve’s face with speed the scouting report clearly underestimated. Steve gets his hands up without even having to think to, an automatic reaction after years of surprise attacks from bullies. Luckily, Sam is there to yank Steve out of harm's way while Clint gives Simpson a hard shove until he stumbles back into his teammates, still laughing like a madman.

“You’re dead, Rogers!” Simpson yells, even as his teammates drag him back to their sideline, where their coach, Kozlov, waits. “You hear me? You’re dead!”

“Settle down, Romeo.” Sam drags Steve back to their sideline, sure to stay alert and make sure Simpson doesn’t try anything with their backs turned. “With Pietro out for ‘mysterious circumstances,’ the last thing we need is to lose you, fighting over a girl.”

“I’m cool,” Steve insists. “That guy on the other hand…” When he rejoins his teammates, Steve gives T’Challa a pat on the shoulder pads. “Your Highness, do me a favor? Hit that quarterback. Hard.”

“With pleasure, captain.” T’Challa’s smirk disappears beneath his helmet.

Simpson has the ball to start the game. On the first attempt, he hands the ball off to his running back, Cooper. He barely gets a yard past the line of scrimmage before being met by the Avengers line and taken down. On second down, Simpson hands off the ball again. Cooper gets slammed down again. Third and long, Simpson has great protection, pump fakes and throws a beautiful spiral downfield. The ball is right on target to the receiver, but Clint is there, gets a hand in there and just pushes the ball out of the receiver's hands. Incomplete. IGH is forced to punt.

The Avengers seem to have just as much success running the ball. Steve hands the ball off to Flash Thompson, just to watch the underclassman take a hard hit for no gain. Winces echo through the crowd. Someone on the sideline (Rumlow) shouts, “Welcome to varsity, Fresh Meat!”

On second down, Sam runs a few yards downfield, then suddenly turns toward the center and runs parallel to the line of scrimmage. Steve hits Sam with a little floater down the middle just before he’s shoved down by a linebacker. The Avengers need two yards for the first down. Steve fakes a handoff to Flash and hands it to Morita instead. Morita tries to take the ball straight down the middle. It’s no use. He gets bounced back by a defender and they have to punt the ball away.

On the very next play, IGH runs the ball again to no avail. Simpson is getting more frustrated by the second, snapping at his running back for everyone to see. It's the kind of frustration that leads to mistakes. On second down, Simpson is done trying to make the run game work. He makes to throw long and does. Clint reads him perfectly, stays close to Simpson’s favorite target and snatches the ball out of the air for an interception. The Avenger fans go wild, and Steve gets his helmet back on, ready to go out there and get to work.

Fury gives Steve the okay to take the air. Steve fakes a handoff to Flash, but the defense knows their run game isn’t working, knows they’ll try to throw. They don’t bite. The defense rushes the Avengers linemen and force Steve to throw the ball out of bounds. Just as the ball leaves his hand, Steve gets hit by a defender and rolls to the ground, cursing in his head, but trying to stay calm. There’s nothing to do, but dust the dirt off his uniform and prepare for a long third down. When he sees both Sam and Tony covered and covered well, Steve throws the ball to an open Flash. The ball hits Flash right in the hands, but he drops it, forcing yet another punt.

The rest of the first half is much of the same. Every single time Simpson throws the ball, Clint is there to either blow the play up so it ends in an incompletion or steal the ball away. Clint has himself a game with three takeaways in the first half, but every time the Avengers offense takes the field, they can’t seem to move the ball, let alone cash in for points.

By halftime, the score is knotted at 0-0.

And Fury is far from happy.

Before the players can even catch their breath, Fury marches into the locker room and shoves their white board so it clatters to the ground. “Punt! Punt! Goddamn punt! That, gentlemen, is what happens when there is no fear of the ground game!” Flash lowers his head, looking like he wants to disappear into the floor. “Is anyone going to step up and put this team on their back or are we just going to roll over and give them the opportunity to strike first!”

“I’ll run the ball.” Steve tosses his inhaler aside after taking a puff and stands up. “Call the designed QB runs, coach.”

“Sit down, Rogers.” Coach Phillips sighs, crossing his arms. “If you forgot, you’re already the backup quarterback. We aren’t risking you getting hurt or worse, fumbling the ball away.”

“I can do it, coach,” Steve insists. “I know I can.”

Fury ignores his colleague who continues to argue what a dumb idea that is and chews it over. “Alright.”

Happy, sweating so profusely his hair is drenched as if he had just gotten out of the shower, raises his hand with dread on his face. “B-But—”

“No buts,” Fury says firmly. “Gentlemen, this is becoming a year of stepping out of our comfort zone. We lost Barnes and I know a lot of people counted us out, called it a losing season before we even lost a game, but we overcame and we’re going to do it again tonight. Let’s get back out there!”

Some of the faces out in the sea of players are still shaky, unsure, but there’s a fire in Steve’s eyes as he leads the team out to the tunnel. Fury likes what he sees even if he’s less than vocal about it and less than optimistic about the situation they’ve gotten themselves into. There’s going to be a lot of talk behind his back within his own staff, lead by Phillips no doubt. Still, it’s worth a try.

The Avengers have the ball to start the second half and they don’t waste a single second. They bring an extra offensive lineman onto the field. The tight end, Simon Williams, kicks out the corner to open up space inside. The ball is snapped. Steve keeps the ball. Another tight end, Hercules, climbs around and blocks the first defender in his path so Steve has nothing, but green grass down the left side of the field. Steve secures the ball under his arm and runs right in to score a touchdown!

After the extra point kick that Clint drills dead center, the score is now 7-0 with the Avengers in the lead.

This doesn’t sit well with Simpson, sweating desperation. Clint feeds off of it, watching the quarterback and following his eyes. Simpson throws the ball right where Clint anticipates, leading to yet another interception.

The Avengers take over. This time, they move Happy and the other offensive tackle to the left side, putting Williams where the right tackle usually is. This has the IGH defense utterly confused. Dum Dum snaps the ball. Williams runs a flat route and the backside defenders stay with him while the offensive line blocks. Steve sees this, watches the defensive end close down the line so he keeps the ball around the edge and slides for a good gain of seven yards.

On the next play, Sam is aligned out wide and a IGH linebacker follows him, giving Steve an idea of the coverage. It has to be some form of man coverage. Steve brings Sam in motion closer to the formation, manipulating the linebacker closer. At the snap, Sam makes a crackback block on the defensive end and Happy pulls around for the linebacker. Steve fakes a handoff to Flash, who stalemates the safety, clearing an alley for Steve to run down and run in for another touchdown!

Up by two scores, Clint seals the win with yet another interception, having the best game of his high school career.

Now, when the IGH defenders expect Steve to keep the ball and run, he hands it off to Flash who picks up a handful of yards at a time. Flash isn’t Pietro, nowhere near as talented, but all they need is to run down the clock. Steve can hear Simpson yelling at him from the visitors sideline, clearly trying to get under his skin. Steve is tempted to push it over the top, to rub the win in the guy’s face like he did again Murdock and the Devils, but the game is too close. One interception, one pick six and IGH is only down one score from tying the game and there’s no room for that.

Hubris, Fury said at the end of the homecoming game.

Character, he said at the beginning of the week.

Steve doesn’t do anything cocky or risky as much as Simpson is egging him to do so. He may be tempted to, but he doesn’t, just takes a knee at the end of the game and that’s how they win it. Surrounded by cheers and the adoration of the people of Midgard, Steve just walks off the field and tosses the ball to Clint, who, in Steve’s opinion at least, deserves the game ball. After all, if Clint hadn’t gotten those interceptions and given the offense a short field to work with, they might not have scored those points. His teammates seem to agree, charging Clint and lifting him onto their shoulders in celebration.

“Good game, Captain,” Fury tells him. Steve just nods and heads to the locker room.

He knows not to get too comfortable. Tomorrow the process begins all over again.

 

 

After the locker room clears out and all the boys go off to celebrate yet another win with their friends and family, Pietro remains, wearing an Avengers hoodie and ratty jeans. The kid can’t keep still to save his life. It must have been torture to have to sit on the sideline and watch his teammates battle without him. Not only that, but struggle to run the ball without him. Fury watches the kid from the door of his office, just a little longer to make the kid squirm a little more. It’s the smallest of punishment and wholly deserved.

Fury smoothes the black patch over his eye and takes his time straightening his things on his immaculate desk. He already knows he’s going to drive home with the radio off. Questions are flying on air and in whispers throughout the crowd at the game. Why didn’t they play Maximoff? Why risk their quarterback like that? Something must have happened.

“Maximoff.”

Pietro straightens and stills as Fury exits his office. Something about this feels familiar. Reminiscent of a past life, a scene all too familiar, a boy too young to even know what war is, waiting to be reprimanded by Fury himself. Despite his reputation for running his football team like an army squadron, Fury knows, at the end of the day, his players aren’t soldiers, they’re teenage boys and teenage boys do dumb shit.

“Come on,” Fury says. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

Ignoring the fear on Pietro’s face, Fury walks out of the locker room and down the hallway that seems so much larger without teenagers milling around between classes. It’s almost eerily empty like this. New florescent lights, the supposedly energy-saving kind, flicker, triggered by their movement. Fury doesn’t try to explain. He walks along the long line of trophy cases, the pride and glory of Lieber High School.

“Just tell me if I’m off the team or not,” Pietro snaps.

Fury raises his eyebrows, not that he should be surprised. The kid has spark. That’s apart of what makes Pietro so good in his role on the team. “I’m trying to get a lesson through that damn thick skull of yours. This is the part where you be quiet and listen.” Pietro huffs, like it takes everything in him to keep his mouth shut. “That’s better.” Fury points into one of the cases. “I don’t advertise, but you can find me in here.”

Pietro tries, squinting his eyes at all the photos, most of them faded with age. “I’m guessing you had hair back then.”

“Funny,” Fury says humorlessly. “Try number 98.”

Pietro finally spots Fury in the state championship photo. He’s almost unrecognizable, much younger, thinner and more muscular. There’s one thing that hasn’t changed, though...

“You never smiled back then either.”

“No, but you’re damn right I did have hair.” Fury smiles at the photo of him with an impressive jheri curl, tight curls falling in front of his menacing stare. And he has both of his eyes. “One row down, number 15. Robert Gonzales. Running back. And, man, could he run. He was a real leader on the team, held guys accountable. Then about mid-season, our quarterback blew his knee. Soonest he’d be back was the postseason. We said, okay, all we gotta do is keep winning until then, get our QB back then it’ll be business as usual.”

“And you did. You won that year.”

“We did. The footnote on the ‘miracle’ season that everyone seems content to ignore is the fact that a lot of guys started juicing. Not exactly what coach meant when he said we had to step up to salvage our season. Gonzales was one of ‘em. It made him stronger, faster, like a mirage. He could hit a hole like you couldn’t believe and when there was no hole, he would make one. We won that season, in big part thanks to him. He got a football scholarship and got the hell out of Texas.”

“What is the moral or this story? Not to get caught? A little late for that.”

“He’s dead,” Fury says frankly. Pietro’s eyes snap to him. “Apparently, when you’re buying shit in a motel parking lot, you can’t exactly tell what you’re getting. When you’re already deep in it, you stop caring about precautions. He got a bad batch his freshman year in college. They found him dead in his car, left behind his high school sweetheart with their infant son.”

Fury brings his hand up to the glass case and his face hard to describe. “I knew what he was doing. We all did. And not one of us said anything.” Fury makes a fist against the glass before turning away. “I like to tell myself it’s not my job to judge you young men, that I have one and one job only—to win ball games. But does that mean I’m going to let you, a kid with all the potential in the world, ruin everything—”

“Coach—”

“Why? What told you this would be a good idea?”

“You!” Pietro explodes. “You and Coach Phillips and the rest of the coaches! You spend all day every day telling me I am not good enough! So I got good enough.”

“You get better with dedication and hard work,” Fury says, his voice wavering with anger. “What you did—you didn’t want to put the work in. You wanted a quick fix. All this told me is you are the kind of person who takes the easy way out and doesn’t care about compromising his health to do it. You need to get your priorities straight or you’ll end up dead. That mean anything to you?”

“Football is all I have!” Pietro tries to keep his lip from quivering and fails. “Without football, I have nothing. No future. I live in a dump with people who only care about getting a check every month, who do not…” He let’s his voice trail off and turns angry, wet eyes on Fury. “I do not want a better life for me and my sister, I need a better life. Football is my way. If I cannot play, I cannot do that. Please, coach. You need to give me another chance. I beg you.”

Fury has known this kind of desperation, he’s felt it before. The kid is fifteen-years-old. His life has barely began. On the other hand, he should know better. He should be better.

“I made a mistake, yes,” Pietro says. “I know that now. I will be better, I swear.”

Blowing out a long, resigned breath, Fury finally says, “You get clean.”

Pietro’s face lights up and it’s premature at best. “Thank you, sir!”

“I don’t want no thank you.” Fury points a finger right at Pietro and that momentary relief fades from his face as it should. “Let me tell you what’s going to happen. You are going to submit to private, voluntary drug tests until I decide I can trust you again. This doesn’t automatically mean we forget all of this happens.”

Pietro’s expression sobers. “I understand. I will work, sir.”

“You’re damn right.” Fury rubs his hand down his face and motions toward the door. “From now on, your ass is on the bench. Your ass is on the bench until you can prove to me that you deserve to be on the team, that you deserve your spot, that I can trust you again. If you aren’t willing to put in the work, that’s that, ain’t it.”

“Thank you, coach.”

“You let me down, you let your team down, but more than anything, you let yourself down,” Fury lectures. “You wanna blame me or the coaching staff, but none of us stuck a damn needle in you, did we? All the times I talk to you kids about character, about disregarding expectations… I hope you realize how far I’m sticking my neck out for you. I’ve got a daughter who’s going to college next year. I’ve got a mortgage. I could, should lose my job over this.”

“I will not let you down, sir."

Remembering what it was like to be a scared kid, he’s got to give Maximoff a chance even if this might come back to bite him in the ass. Fury stakes his reputation and his livelihood on a fifteen-year-old who’s made a grave ass mistake turning his life around. In Fury’s mind, it’s worth the risk.

 

 

“You’re a tough egg to crack, Romanoff, but I think I get you now.”

Natasha keeps her eyes out on the road ahead, driving to the pop-up bonfire that’s happening in Clint’s backyard, which doesn’t sound very safe. Not much that happens in Clint’s backyard is very safe. But it’s a Friday night, the team is on an incredible winning streak and people are probably going to get drunk in celebration. There’s no turning that down, is there?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Natasha says. “I’m an open book.”

“Oh, now you are.” Maria grins from ear to ear and it makes Natasha more nervous than she’d like to be. “You know, I wondered, when Matt Murdock’s new plaything had it out for you and you just sat there, didn’t even say anything. I couldn’t figure out why you didn’t put her in her place. Now, seeing you go toe-to-toe with Trish Walker, it all makes sense.”

“What makes sense?” Natasha asks. Call it morbid curiosity.

“You didn’t care about Elektra taking free shots at you and all Trish had to do was show up wearing Steve’s windbreaker and the gloves came off.”

“Maria, you’re stupid.”

Maria laughs. “And you’re cute when you’re in denial. I might have to apologize to Clint. I thought he was full of shit when he was making fun of your freak out over the whole Peggy Carter thing, but I see it now. You’re in love with Steve Rogers and it is adorable.”

“Maria, shut up.”

Hearing that just fuels Maria’s spirit and her need to poke the bear. “What I can’t figure out, if you’re in love with Steve Rogers—”

“I am not—”

“Why don’t you just take him? Hello, Natasha, he had a wet dream about you—”

“Maria, if you don’t shut up you can get out and walk!” Natasha grips the steering wheel tight, realizing how loud she’d been and how she can’t remember the last time she’d yelled at someone like that. Natasha Romanoff is quiet, calculating and concise when she speaks. That display, not so much.

“Wow.” Maria stares, but it doesn’t take long for her lips to curl up. “You’ve got it bad.”

Natasha groans and worries at her bottom lip with her teeth. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay, I’ll shut up,” Maria concedes. All of a sudden, everything about her is so much gentler, from the smile on her face to the way she reaches out and touches Natasha’s shoulder. “But can you believe Patsy from It’s Patsy dated that ‘roider with an American flag tattoo on his face? What is that about?”

“Heh.” Natasha fakes a laugh. “Too bad you can’t delete people from your life as easily as you can delete them from your Instagram.”

Natasha settles into her seat, settles back into her skin once she knows Maria won’t bring it up again. The more Maria goes on and on about Simpson, the more Natasha lets herself relax. Talking about feelings and the possibility of feelings isn’t something she does ever, especially not with Maria. A part of her wishes she could do the girl talk thing other than trashing people they barely know, but a greater part of her, one weaved into the fabric of who she is, feels relieved. If she can’t even convince herself to sort through her shit, how is she supposed to talk about it with someone else?

When they arrive at Clint’s house and park in the garage (like hell she’s going to park three blocks away and walk), Clint’s shirt is already soaked through with beer and everyone is chanting his name around the improv bonfire. Natasha keeps her distance while Maria runs right up to Sam the moment she sees him. They make it look so easy, so simple, when military brats who move around a lot have the most reason to be wary of jumping into a relationship. Seeing them together, you’d never know it.

“Hey.” Steve pops up beside her. Usually, it’s comforting, the way he slides up and settles into her side, the way they just fit together, but after this past week, after homecoming, she’s just so hyper-aware of everything about him. The way his hair is darker, still wet from his post-game shower, the way his t-shirt just clings to his chest and the hole right over his belly button that’s just large enough for her pinky to fit through, the way his eyes sparkle all leave her wondering if he has any idea how much he affects her.

“Hi.” Natasha scans the yard, where groups of teenagers are all socializing and generally being loud, each with a plastic cup in hand. “Where’s Trish?”

Steve scratches his fingers through his hair that’s getting a little long, she notices. “My best guess? Trying to bail Jessica out of some sort of trouble.”

“Or getting into trouble with Jessica,” Natasha mumbles. “Shouldn’t you be celebrating your win and your podcast debut?”

“Ah, you know…I invited them, but…” Steve throws his hands up, his eyes on his sneakers.

“She stood you up. She got what she wants from you and now she's dodging you.” Natasha grits her teeth, trying to process the unfathomable. For one, Trish was all over him at every opportunity. It feels odd that she would turn down an invitation to be near him. Her loss.

“No!” Steve is quick to backtrack. “You can’t blame her if this isn’t her scene…”

If she likes you, she’ll make it her scene, Natasha thinks, but she doesn’t dare say it.

“This place is a madhouse.” Steve can play football and win while hundreds of people watch, but crowds at parties make him anxious. “I just wanted to show face. I think I’m going to head out…”

“Wait.” She grabs his arm without thinking and drags him into the house. While Natasha sidesteps every drunk, overzealous teenagers on her way to the kitchen, Steve bumps into every single one. She snags a six-pack of beer, then it's back outside. They walk to the back of the yard, far from the bonfire. Natasha leads him between two trees and nods up at a treehouse that's strategically hidden among the branches. Natasha starts climbing the rickety, makeshift ladder and Steve follows with the beer cans hanging off his wrist.

"All the times I've been over and I never knew this was up here," Steve says.

"It's technically Barney's, but Clint took over the Barton tradition of deflowering innocent virgins up here."

Natasha hears a scraping sound and catches the way Steve's foot slips. He regains his footing quick enough and the way he's putting maximum effort into not staring at her ass as he climbs after her is so Steve.

"Steve, I was kidding."

He scoffs. "Sure."

Once she reaches the top, Natasha turns around to help Steve. He lets out a breath and leans against the wooden railing, staring down at the blazing bonfire and the silhouettes dancing around it. Natasha cracks open a beer and laughs as the foam spills over her fingers. She leans in and noisily sips off the top. She hands one to Steve and when he pops the tab, his erupts like a third grade science fair volcano.

Natasha licks her lips, glancing over as Steve wipes his hands down his shirt. "So," she says, "I downloaded Trish Talk onto my phone if you wanna give it a listen..."

"I don't know..."

"Come on..." Natasha reaches into her back pocket and pulls out coiled earbuds. "How bad can it be?"

“I’m…awkward.”

“Trish didn’t seem to think so.”

“Yes, she did.” Steve brings the beer to his lips for something to do. He doesn’t seem to like it or dislike it, but takes another sip regardless. “You were right, what you said, about not being ready and I like Trish too much to—what did Tony say? Cash in on the QB1 Effect.”

“Not listening to Tony is the first smart thing you can do.”

Steve sits so that his legs are hanging off the side of the tree house and Natasha carefully sits beside him. He takes the earphones from her and starts to untangle them and pops one into his ear. Natasha takes his cue, placing the other in her ear and pressing play on her phone.

Helllllo Texas, and welcome to another edition of Trish Talk. Here with me is Steve Rogers, a.k.a Captain America, starting quarterback for the Lieber High School Avengers. Today we’ll be discussing the cult-status of football in Texas. And a little later, we’ll be joined by the one person who knows Steve best, his mother, Sarah Rogers, for stories of Steve’s early life and the moment Sarah knew her son would be a star…

Natasha rolls her eyes at Steve’s face just at the sound of Trish’s high-energy, trying-too-hard voice. Friends. Sure. She takes a long swig of her beer, craving some kind of buzz. She lets her head fall onto Steve’s shoulder as she listens to Steve’s nervous laughter, so unaware Trish is flirting with him when she clearly is. As she toys with the hole in his shirt, it’s too easy to imagine that they’re together right now, the girlfriend-boyfriend high school sweethearts kind of together. It’d just be more of this, spending time together, content in each other’s company, with the added bonus of knowing what his lips taste like, right?

No.

Relationships change everything. Expectations would shift. His expectations of her would shift and what if she can’t come through? What if she just falls short and disappoints him? What if everything gets fucked up like they had with Alexei and Matt and even Bucky? Avoiding each other for a week was torture. What if she ruins things and he never wants to see her again?

No.

What they have now is good. Friendship is good. Why mess that up? Just so she can hold his hand and ward off girls like Trish Walker and Sharon Carter openly, girls who would make infinitely better girlfriends than her? Is that what I want? Natasha asks herself. Is that fair to Steve?

“So, what’d you think?” Steve asks at the end.

“Your mom is…the greatest.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Natasha’s lips push to one side as she answers, “I think your honesty comes through. That’s what makes you so likable, someone the town and the team can get behind.” Natasha drums her fingers against the side of her aluminum beer can, a little anxious, being less analytical and more honest herself. “All the moms in town are going to love you, if they don’t already.”

Steve chuckles, so embarrassed. “You’re just being nice.”

Natasha scowls. “When am I ever nice?”

“All the time,” Steve says. “Just…in your own way.”

It’s baffling how well he reads her, how easily he sees into her fiercely guarded heart and just knows her. Natasha finishes off her beer and tosses it into a bucket filled with other empty beer cans before grabbing another and popping the tab with less spillage this time around.

“I meant to thank you for letting me know about Pietro first.” Steve stares right at her now, emotion pouring out from every bit of him. “You told me before Fury. That means a lot to me…”

What do you even say to that? You’re welcome?

Luckily, he goes on before she has to say anything. “I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should have confronted Pietro first. Maybe I could have talked to him, convinced him to stop. That way we wouldn’t have to involve Fury at all…”

“Steve, you did the right thing,” Natasha insists. “It’s no use thinking about what you could’ve done differently. All that’s left to do is trust Fury, trust that everything works itself out…”

“Yeah…”

Steve downs the rest of his beer and Natasha takes a long gulp of her own. It feels like he was trying to have a moment or something and she totally sabotaged it. This is why she doesn’t do this. She doesn’t have sentimental moments. She doesn’t know how to connect, just how to issue facts, give an analytical, measured response. Usually, she thinks she’s better off not even trying, except moments like this.

“I’m changing your name to ‘Red Ranger’ in my phone, by the way,” Natasha says.

Steve gives her that smile she loves.

…loves?

“I’m just happy there was no camera. My mom would have definitely brought out the baby pictures. That interview could have gone sideways fast.”

“You still would have enjoyed it,” Natasha says knowingly. “You and your mom make a good team.”

“Yeah, I guess we do…” Steve looks at her, still with that smile she can’t look at too long because it makes her feel warm and buzzing? Or maybe it’s the beer. “You know I consider you apart of the team, right? My mom does too. I think we make a pretty good one…”

Yup, she’ll blame the beer. It’s the beer’s fault when she leans into him a little more and whispers, “Me too.” 

Chapter Text


Track 13 

Freak Show - Ingrid Michaelson 


 

Life is going pretty well for Clint these days and the last thing he wants is to jinx it.

He spends more time in the library than he does Midgard’s dismal selection of piss poor strip clubs. A month ago, the most math he ever did was count dollar bills after swindling crumpled cash from guys who underestimated his skills with a cue. Now, Clint goes to school, gets to class on time, practices hard and encourages his guys to do the same. Sure, he might be doing this to impress a girl, but if it’s making him better. Does the reason really matter?

“I’m not saying you’re boring now, but you’re boring now.”

Clint glances over at his protege who would smack him if he ever called her that out loud. Kate Bishop focuses on the target a good fifty feet ahead of her with excruciatingly perfect form, manning the long-range bow daddy bought her for Christmas. Their school doesn’t have an official archery club. Clint and Kate just refer to it as “archery club practice” when they decide to go to his backyard and shoot stuff.

He waits until she lets the arrow fly. “I think the word you’re looking for is healthy.”

Clint blinks at his own words. Healthy has never been a word to describe any Barton. If he could be the first, maybe he could be the first Barton to do other things too…

“Healthy,” she relents. Then adds, “And boring.”

“Fair enough.” Clint twirls one of Stark’s exploding arrows between his fingers. “If you’re feeling neglected…”

Kate scoffs like he knew she would.

“Or not…”

“Just being realistic.” Kate readies another arrow, adjusting her aim after missing the dead center of the target by a handful of centimeters. She lets go of the arrow. Bullseye. “But it’s good for you, I guess.”

“Wow, I’m so honored my life choices get your stamp of approval.” Clint twirls the arrow again before holding it out to her. “Here. Try this.”

Kate snatches the arrow away from him and examines it, ever cautious and skeptical.

“You hear about Stark’s big All Hallow’s Eve bash?” Clint asks.

“Who hasn’t? Stark hasn’t shut up about it all week.” Kate closes one eye as she takes aim. Her form is exactly the same as before. She’s perfect. “Not like lowly freshmen are invited…”

“Well, I’m inviting you.”

Taken by surprise, Kate lets the arrow slip from her grasp, something he would shake his head at if he didn’t just cause it. The arrow strikes the target and explodes in sparks and flames. The unmistakable glee in Kate’s eyes matches the way Clint feels whenever he lets off an exploding arrow or steals the football right from between a diva receiver’s hands.

“Clint, you could have warned me it was going to do that!”

“And ruin the surprise?”

“What if I missed and hit the neighbor’s house?”

Huh. Clint scratches his head. “Luckily, Hawkeye Junior doesn’t miss.”

“Yeah, don’t call me that. It’s just Hawkeye.”

He smiles. Let her think that.  

“So, Halloween party,” Clint says. “At Stark Tower? You in?”

“I’m not going to get all dressed up just to be turned away at the door.”

“No one gets turned away at a Stark party. It’s a Stark party. There’s a friggin’ cage fight every time without fail. C’mon, invite your friends. It’ll be fun. If someone tries to stop you, gimme a call and I’ll handle it.”

“And Laura’s going to be there so you’ll be on your best behavior,” Kate says knowingly.

“You got it,” Clint agrees without a bit of shame.

 

 

Natasha prefers to drive, but since her car only fits two and there are four of them going on this little adventure, she ignores her slight discomfort and gets into Jane Foster’s Pinzguer all-terrain vehicle. It’s appalling a teenage girl would own and love a beige monstrosity. Jane’s “baby” is big, clunky and easily takes up two parking stalls. Worst of all, sitting in the back row, Natasha is forced to listen to Jane and Pepper sing along to 80’s pop hits. Maria mouths out the words, but doesn’t actually make a sound.

There’s only one Halloween shop in town, which means everyone is picking from the same supply. Jane mentions a pop-up Halloween shop she saw in Asgard and Maria persuaded Natasha to miss one football practice so they can go right after school and be home before dark. She agrees because it’s the last Halloween everyone is going to be together and it might be fun to dress up. Also, she’s been hyper aware of how much time she spends with Steve and maybe some time apart, some time with the girls, might be good.

“Thor is super excited for Halloween,” Jane says. “I love him, but it’s a little exhausting. He seems to have his heart set on Tarzan and Jane, thinks it’s a no-brainer. I’m just like, um, I’m either going as a thoracic surgeon, Jackie Kennedy or a galactic senator.”

“But Tarzan and Jane is sort of cute,” Pepper argues. “You’re really going to break his heart like that?”

Jane glances away from the road to glare at Pepper. A car in the next lane honks. Either Jane doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. “Please. I’ve heard Tony imply he’s dressing up as a pimp. As dutiful girlfriend, does that mean you’re going to dress up as his woman of the night?”

Maria sputters with laughter. “Did you just say woman of the night?”

“I’m sure Tony was just running his mouth like always.” Pepper rolls her eyes like she can’t quite understand why she’s with him, but the fact that they’re together makes her smile. “I’m not going to dignify that with a reply and, don’t worry, he’ll hear all about it. What about you and Sam, Maria?”

“I already have my outfit set. The only reason I’m here is because I need to buy tooth enamel. No clue what Sam’s doing. Knowing him, it’ll be like Tupac or Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“Sam’s been asking anyone who’ll listen if they have a VHS tape to complete his costume,” Natasha says. “Whatever that means.”

“How do you know that and Maria doesn’t when she’s made Sam her permanent lap cushion?” Jane asks.

“Because Natasha’s a spy,” Maria whispers. “And Sam is always playing third wheel to Natasha and Steve.”

All the girls (except Natasha) trade big smiles and croon, “Steeeeeve.” Natasha stares out the window at the farmlands that seem to stretch on forever, determined not to show an ounce of emotion. She loves these girls and, thus, she knows they’re like sharks. Once they smell blood in the water, there’s no stopping the carnage.

“Any idea what Steve is dressing up as?” Pepper asks.

“Think you could convince him to go shirtless?” Jane asks. “He would make a great Rocky from Rocky Horror Show!”

“I’ll bring the baby oil,” Maria jokes.

All the girls laugh and giggle. Natasha plays along to not draw attention, but the conversation makes her feel more uncomfortable than Jane’s monster van and how much of the lane it takes up.

“We probably shouldn’t joke,” Maria says once the giggling subsides. “Natasha did beat up the last two girls who were, what? Talking about Steve like a piece of meat?”

“A trophy, actually,” Natasha corrects her. “I blame the adrenaline.”

“It was incredible!” Jane shouts.

“I’ve got photos,” Maria says. “I’m trying to sneak one into the yearbook.”

“Jane,” Natasha says, ready for a subject change. “Where’s Lewis?”

“Not sure,” Jane replies. “Darcy says she has something she’s working on and it’s been taking up a lot of her time lately, but she loves dressing up and she rarely turns down a Stark party.”

“Twenty says Darcy turns up dressed in risqué lingerie and animal ears,” Maria says.

Pepper shakes her head, ever the disapproving mother hen of their band of misfits. “You just can’t help yourself, can you?”

As the conversation turns to Maria and the white board in her locker detailing the various bets she has a hand in, all written in code just incase a faculty member sees, Natasha lets her mind wander. Her love for Halloween may not be as overt as others. Trick-or-treating wasn’t something she did as a child living in DC, the adopted daughter of a dignified Russian ambassador to the US.

“What are you thinking about?”

Natasha turns away from the row of different kinds of monster teeth and doesn’t even blink when she sees Maria standing perfectly still in a Jason hockey mask, holding up a rubber axe.

“Jason dismembers his victims with a chainsaw,” Natasha says.

“I left it in my other fictional serial killer outfit.” Maria yanks the mask off and blows hair out of her face. “You’re thinking too much. This Halloween is going to be stupid, but you can at least try to have fun. I promise, it’s okay, Natasha. And this is coming from me.”

Natasha walks over to an entire rack of colored contacts and gives it a spin. “Your level of enthusiasm is scarier than anything in this store.”

“Halloween is by far Tony’s craziest party every year. Last year, Danny Rand drove Ward Meachum’s car into Tony’s pool! Like I said, it’s going to be stupid, but pointing and laughing is half the fun.”

Pointing and laughing is most of the fun, actually. Natasha already has an outfit in mind. It might not be the most creative, but she isn’t trying to win any contests. Still, Maria might have a point. Why not try to relax and have fun even if it is just for a night? Natasha grabs a pair of red colored contact lenses and heads to the register.

 

 

Steve should have known better when Rumlow gave him a speech about wanting to be a better football player and a better teammate. Being team captain, Steve knows he can’t turn down a teammate asking for help. He also knows Rumlow and T’Challa, the newly crowned defensive captain, don’t get along. Nothing productive can come out of forcing it. So after practice, Steve meets Rumlow in the school parking lot, willing to do what he can.

“What are you waiting for?” Rumlow asks from the open window of his old Honda Civic stripped of paint. “Get in.”

Steve frowns. “I thought you said you wanted help with football.”

“Yeah, but I gotta run an errand first. For my mom. I figure you could get the lecture part over with while I’m driving so we don’t waste too much of either of our time.”

Squeezing his fingers around the thin strap of his backpack, Steve doesn’t feel right, but he silences his doubts and gets in. It’s weird to see Rumlow without the rest of his crew, guys who thrive on intimidation and aggression. Some of that comes from football, taught to tackle, to take down, to trash talk if you can play the mental game. It becomes second nature to some guys. Others know exactly what they’re doing and like it.

When Rumlow revs his extra loud engine and speeds off down the road, but doesn’t say anything, Steve takes the initiative. “To tell you the truth, I’m surprised you asked me for help.”

Rumlow laughs as he cuts off another car, setting off a stream of horns behind them. “Shit, you’re gullible. No wonder you end up on your ass as least once a game.”

Steve bristles at the insult, but reminds himself it’s expected with Rumlow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t act like a bitch on me. I’m gonna change your life.”

Narrowing his eyes, Steve doesn’t like any of this. “Pull over and let me out.”

Rumlow studies him the way he does an enemy quarterback, observing, trying to figure out the best way to put him down, and presses harder against the gas pedal. Rumlow can’t be bothered to reply, and focuses on the road. Steve makes sure his seat belt is secure across his chest and watches the light fade from the sky. He has the worst feeling in the pit of his stomach, a swirl of anxiety as they weave through traffic.

It’s dark out when they arrive at an old ranch-style mansion on the outskirts of town. There’s a guard shack at the start of a long driveway and as Rumlow talks to a man in tactical gear, Steve sees the rifle slung across the man’s chest. What the hell is this? Where the hell are they? Rumlow is no help, just tells Steve to shut up as he drives the rest of the way to the mansion that’s well-lit and enormous.

“What are we doing here?” Steve asks.

Rumlow huffs like he’s annoyed, texting on his phone. “Go straight in. He’s waiting.”

“Who?”

“Why don’t you get your ass in there and find out?”

Steve holds back words his mom would definitely disapprove of, slips out of the car and slams the door harder than he needs to. Still with his backpack on, Steve walks up the porch and knocks on the door. He can almost hear Rumlow groan from inside his car, but Steve isn’t going to barge into a stranger’s house, especially not on Rumlow’s word. The door opens and Steve is greeted by a petite woman in a plain beige uniform.

“Good evening, Mr. Rogers,” the woman says warmly, and with a distinct accent. “Mayor Pierce has been waiting for you.”

Mayor Pierce?

This is Mayor Pierce’s house?

“Right this way please.”

Steve can’t help how distracted he gets by how out-of-place his dirty sneakers are against the immaculate marble floors. The inside of the house is enormous and richly decorated yet impersonal, no family photos anywhere. His sneakers squeak against the polished floor with every step as he follows the woman who seems to have mastered being able to walk down the long, silent hallway without making a sound. She knocks on a closed oak door and calls out, “Mayor Pierce, Steve Rogers is here to see you.”

Without knowing and against my will, Steve adds in his head.

“Please come in,” a voice calls out.

The woman twists a gold door knob and pushes the squeaky door, the second loudest source of sound in the house, Steve feeling like he’s the first. The woman does not make to step inside, but motions for Steve to.

“Thank you, Renata, that’ll be all.” Mayor Pierce waves a hand and the door closes behind him. He stands there, not knowing what to do with himself, much less why he’s here. “Ah, Steven! Come in and have a seat.”

“Thanks.” Steve sees two chairs (even those seem to be polished) in front of a neatly organized desk. He sits in one chair, still with his backpack on and trying not to touch anything. “To be perfectly honest, sir, I have no idea why I’m here.”

“Oh? Brock didn’t say anything? That’s a silly question. He isn’t the talkative type, is he?”

He sure knows how to run his mouth, but not in any way that matters. Steve keeps that one to himself for obvious reasons.

“You’re here because I like you, Steven,” Pierce says. “You’re a winner. You’ve proven that. You also seem like a trustworthy kind of guy. Is that true?”

“I like to think so, sir.”

“Good! As you know, I’m in a position of power. It’s in my job description to be connected to the community and my friends, some of the most prolific men in Midgard, socialize while watching your games. A lot of my friends like to have friendly wagers on your games, as do I, with certain point spreads. And I’d like to have trustworthy players on the team who can make sure certain point spreads are met or upset. Do you understand where I’m going with this, Steven?”

Steve knows and feels queasy, more so when he first got into the car with Rumlow.

“You want me to cheat for you,” Steve says as calmly as he can.

Pierce laughs. “Cheat? No! As with every game, I want you to win. I want the Avengers in the playoff. We have the same goal here. By how much or how little you win by, that’s of little consequence. That’s something you can control. If what you do lines up with what a potential donor needs, well, that’s just a happy coincidence, isn’t it?”

It’s a rigged game manipulated by rich men for rich men to profit. It’s blood money.

“Coach Fury calls the plays so I don’t have control over anything, really…”

“Come on, Steve.” Pierce gives him that smarmy smile that could only belong to a politician. “You’re a playmaker. I’m sure Fury trusts you and as long as it doesn’t result in a loss, he shouldn’t have a problem, right?”

“Sure, but—”

“There would be something in it for you, of course,” Pierce continues as if he hadn’t heard Steve’s protest and doesn’t notice his discomfort. “I know your mother is a nurse at the local hospital, a noble profession if you ask me. I also know she’s a single parent. You’re a good kid. I’m willing to bet, more than anything, you want to help her with the bills and college just around the corner. I would compensate you. That was a big selling point when your friend James agreed.”

Steve feels his mouth drop open. No.

“No,” Steve breathes out. “Bucky wouldn’t…”

“Wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he do anything to help his mom and sister, Little Becky? I asked Rumlow to bring James or Bucky if you will, here late last summer and presented him with the same offer. Gave him time to think it over like I will with you and he was doing a good job in that first game before that very unfortunate accident.”

No.

No no no no no!

It takes everything Steve has to keep from shouting it right in Pierce’s face. Bucky would never! …Would he? Would Bucky really make this kind of deal with the devil?

“Don’t worry, Steven, I wouldn’t put you on the spot and expect an answer right this second. Take the night, think it over. I would like you to get back to me before the game.”

Pierce picks up a heavy gold pen on his table and scribbles on a piece of paper that he then hands to Steve between two wrinkly fingers. Frozen in his seat and sweating through his shirt, Steve hesitates before reaching over and accepting the slip of paper.

“I appreciate the opportunity, sir.”

“I hope to hear back from you tomorrow.”

There’s no hope in it. Mayor Pierce expects. He isn’t a man who takes disappointment lightly. Pierce walks Steve to the door and tries to pass off a question about Pietro being benched as small talk. It takes everything in him to walk, not run out the front door. He plays it safe and says even if he did know, Fury would kill him for telling anyone. Pierce’s laugh is flat, must be the same answer he got from Rumlow, and shuts the front door after bidding him a good night.

“You didn’t do anything stupid in there, huh, Cap?” Rumlow asks without looking up from an MMA fight on his phone.

Before he can talk himself out of it, Steve shoves Rumlow against the side of his car. “Did Bucky take the deal?”

The shorter, dark-haired teen is ready to throw a punch, but then he recognizes the willful denial in Steve’s voice and loves it. “Did he take the deal? The Winter Soldier was the very first. Aw, what’s wrong, Rogers? Didn’t know your Bucky as well as you thought?”

Rumlow laughs cruelly as Steve shoves him one last time and starts walking down the long paved driveway. There’s zero chance he’s getting into a car with Rumlow ever again. Not that Rumlow is going to waste any of his precious time fretting over how Steve plans to get home. Rumlow is the complete opposite of a decent human being and further proves it when he speeds down the driveway, zero regard for Steve walking along the side. Sometimes no amount of baggage can justify being an asshole.

Steve doesn’t mind the walk however long it might turn out to be. There’s so much on his mind, so much to consider and walking, running, movement of any kind usually helps him think.

Rumlow is clearly in on this. Are there others on the team? There has to be. Who else is taking cash in exchange for fixing games? Which of the guys who run and laugh and play hard alongside him are missing tackles on purpose to give the other team a chance to score or dropping balls to end their drives? And all for money.

The love of money is the root of all evil. Greed, desire and the willingness to gain it unethically.

His mom and Father Jack drilled that lesson into him at an early age and it stuck.

The love of money is the root of all evil, but what about the necessity? Electric bill, medical bills, mortgage payments, car repair, college tuition…

As all these things run circles through his mind, creating this swirling vortex of anxiety, Steve ends up in front of Natasha’s house.

It kind of sucks that the one person he wants to talk to lives in a house with Nick Fury. It isn’t too late, but something tells him Fury isn’t too keen on boys showing up at his front door to see Nat without warning. The light is on in her room and it’s so quiet out, it isn’t hard to hear music flowing from the windows. He isn’t an expert, but if he had to guess, it’s a song from the Nutcracker. It never ceases to amaze him how Natasha can manage to balance schoolwork, being in every club Pepper heads, all her football shadow work for Fury and ballet. Not only can she balance all of that, but she does so flawlessly.

Steve calls her number, cursing his sweaty hands, and even as Natasha answers, the music doesn’t stop.

“Steve?”

“Hey.” He clears his throat when his voice comes out hoarse. “Hey, can you talk?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I’m kind of outside your house.”

“Oh.”

Steve winces and doesn’t even try to hide it. “I know I shouldn’t just show up…”

“Steve, it’s fine. I’ll be right down.”

A minute goes by before Natasha opens the front door, dressed in black yoga pants and her gray Leiber High cheer hoodie. It makes him smile, remembering freshman year when Natasha had tried out for cheerleading and her attitude might not have been the greatest, but she was too skilled to not make the team. Natasha detested the rudimentary moves and annoying rhymes, but Fury had insisted she pick an extracurricular. Never being one to quit, if only to avoid that look from Fury he knows she hates, Natasha suffered through the entire year then hung up her pom poms, but kept the hoodie because it’s comfy.

“Hey,” Natasha says. “Come in.”

Steve doesn’t move a step, staring into the open door apprehensively. “Does Coach Fury know I’m here?”

“Yeah, before I came down, I popped into his bedroom and said, hey Nick, not only is your stud quarterback out on the night before the game, but he’s downstairs.” Her sarcasm earns her a dry look from Steve and it amuses her endlessly. “No, of course not. He goes into his bubble twenty-four hours before the game and locks himself in his office. Coast should be clear.”

“I just wouldn’t feel right being in his house without him knowing…”

Natasha heaves a heavy sigh, steps outside and shuts the front door after her. She sits on the porch steps, prompting Steve to do the same. Being here with Nat on a cool fall evening, it feels like the first time he can relax since before getting into Rumlow’s car.

“Not to sound uninviting, but what are you doing here?” Natasha asks.

Steve feels disgusting, his hair matted to his forehead with sweat and he’s sure there are damp patches on the back of his shirt and under his arms. Steve feels disgusting after what Pierce asked him to do and the money he promised in return. He tells Natasha all of this with his eyes down like he’s ashamed to even know what goes on. He explains what Pierce said about Bucky to try to gauge her reaction even though he knows it’s pointless. Natasha keeps her reactions and emotions in a mental vault.

“Do you think it’s true?” Steve asks. “About Buck?”

Natasha does that thing where she simultaneously shrugs and presses her lips together. It usually means uncertainty, trying to play it off, masking what she really feels. “He was disappearing with Rumlow that first week and after a near-perfect start to the game against Shield, something did feel off about his game…”

“You think he was doing bad on purpose to fix the game? And when I asked him where he got the money for his truck, all he said was not to worry about it.” Steve shakes his head and presses his face into his hands. “Listen to me, talking about my friend like this. He wouldn’t. Would he?”

“I can’t answer that, Steve. You’d have to ask Bucky. I know he’s a good guy, but it sounds like Pierce offered him a lot of money and you know he’d do anything to take care of his mom and his sister. Could you really judge him if he did?”

“It goes against everything we were taught growing up.”

“So you didn’t even consider it, not even for a second?” Natasha asks. “You could use that money for art school, take your mom on a vacation or at least help her out enough she doesn’t have to pick up so many extra shifts.”

“Maybe for a second,” Steve confesses. He must look beyond pitiful for Natasha to reach out and give his shoulder a squeeze. “But I’m not going to. I’ll let him know tomorrow.”

“Pierce doesn’t seem like a guy you say no to.”

“But the alternative, Nat? Say yes, do what he wants and collect his blood money or I fail on the field and make him lose money? If I do what he wants, he’s never going to let me just stop. If I agree and suck out there, I don’t think he’ll just let me go quietly.”

“He won’t hurt you,” Natasha assures him. “Pierce publicly supports the Avengers so every time you win it makes him look good. He needs you to succeed for his public image. He isn’t going to send guys to break your fingers. At least, not until the season’s over.”

“Well, that’s encouraging,” Steve says with a sarcastic smile.

“Maybe we should tell Nick.” She’s already bracing herself for his disagreement. “I know that’s the last thing you want, but he isn’t just a football coach. He worked in private security years after the military. He knows how to deal with men like Pierce.”

“I’m not going to go running to Coach Fury—”

“This isn’t like dealing with a bully at school, Steve. This is bigger, a lot bigger—”

“I know and I’ll deal with it, Natasha.” Steve stands, adjusting the straps of his backpack he’s still wearing. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell Coach Fury.”

Natasha remains sitting, staring up at him in a way that’s hard to decipher. She seems almost…worried. Then she’s standing up and she may be a head shorter than him, but the way she carries herself makes him feel ten inches shorter. For a second, he’s almost afraid she’s going to smack him. “You expect me to just stay silent and watch until something bad happens to you? What did you expect me to do when you told me, Steve?”

“I thought I was talking to a friend, not my coach.”

Or Fury’s spy. He thinks it, but he would never say it out loud to her or anyone. She knows that’s what some say about her and she takes pride in it on the surface, uses it as an extra layer of armor, but she’s more than that. He knows she works in the shadows to help Fury and the team any way she can and gets no recognition and appreciation in return. Not insulting her is the least he can do.

Natasha falls back and he already knows she’s cursing how pigheaded he can be. “Need a ride home?”

“Thanks, but I’ll walk. I need to think.”

Steve starts walking backwards, watching Natasha slip back into her house. Only when he hears the lock click in place and sees the porch light go out does he turn and start walking home under the glow of the streetlights. All of his thoughts are still swimming in his head and it’s hard to sort through the mess of it, unlike when he’s sitting with Natasha and feeding off her unwavering calm. He has enough on his mind. For now, he has to push everything else out and concentrate on the game tomorrow.

 

 

Pietro is the first one in the locker room before the game. He goes through the room like he’s been demoted to equipment manager, making sure everything is in order, doing whatever he can to make life easier for his teammates. He sits with Flash Thompson and Jim Morita to go through play after play one last time and contains his frustration when Flash gets panicky and defensive.

Fury sees all the work the kid is putting in off the field, less messing around with his friends and more supporting the guys who have to pick up his slack. When he’s not doing prep with the backs, Pietro is at Steve’s side, sometimes Clint, taking cues from the older leaders on the team. It’s impressive initiative and maturity from a sophomore. Not to mention, his latest drug test came back clean. Still, Fury refuses to put him back on the field no matter what the jackasses on the radio and on his own staff think.

“If anything, you’re drawing more unwanted attention by not playing him,” Coach Phillips says in a hushed voice.

“Spectacular insight, coach,” Fury replies, sarcasm in his voice thick as venom. “When you’re head coach, you make that call. Until then…”

Get in line.

Phillips is a former military man much like Fury himself, a high ranking one at that. It’s clear in the man’s stone cold face that he doesn’t like being put in his place, especially by someone younger, and in Phillips’ mind, less deserving. Knowing all of this, Fury can’t help, but push back solely because he can.

Pietro is listed as out for this game. The idiots on the radio can speculate all they want about injury or behavioral issues.

Bottom line: a number of things need to go well for them to get out of this with a W.

The Frost High Giants are from the small town of Jotunheim, famous for cold weather. They’re a team that thrives deeper into the season and in the cold at home so the Avengers lucked out getting them at the end of October when the weather is brisk, but not freezing, and on Avengers turf. The Giants’ coach, Laufey, instructs his players to go into a game like they’re going to war. This game is no automatic win, far from it.

Steve walks into the locker room, in the process of ending a call on his phone. Fury’s eyes fly to the analog clock on the wall.

“Rogers!” Fury shouts. “You’re late!”

Steve’s eyes snap up, an oh shit expression on his face if there ever was one. “I-I was here. I just stepped out to make a call, sir.”

Oh Rogers. He should know by now that Fury will never pass up the opportunity to make an example out of someone. As he walks up to Steve with slow, almost leisurely steps, it draws the attention of the players around them who quickly grow quiet.

“Rogers, did you know that Shield hasn’t lost a game since playing us?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you know that the Shadow Hawks are undefeated? They’ve got some white boy calling himself the Iron Fist and crediting his ‘chi’ for the reason they haven’t lost a game.”

“Yes, sir. I’m aware.”

“Do you know what that means for us? What happens if we lose tonight?”

Steve grits his teeth so at least he understands the stakes. “We might not make the playoffs.”

“We might not make the playoffs,” Fury repeats. “We might not make the playoffs! This is Texas football, gentlemen. This isn’t amateur hour. For some of you, the seniors especially, this might be as close to the big time as you get. So I’m going to need every single one of you playing beyond your capability, playing like this game might be your last. We need maximum effort from top to bottom and it all starts with the quarterback. That’s you, Rogers.”

Steve’s back straightens and his gaze hardens. “I’m here to play, coach.”

Fury nods and the fire behind his single eye says you better.

 

 

“Aw shit. What the hell is Sif doing here?”

Natasha scans the packed bleachers when Maria hunches down to try to keep out of sight. Sif isn’t alone either. Thor is at her side, sticking out from the crowd like a gigantic, beautiful sore thumb with his long, flowing blonde hair and cheery disposition. The Warriors Three are with him as always along with Jane, who isn't happy to be here at all. Not surprising for a girl who will gladly list a dozen things she would rather do than watch a football game. Natasha throws Maria a sly smile before waving Sif over.

“Why?” Maria demands. “Why did you have to go and do that?”

“Sif, hey,” Natasha says once the dark-haired girl slides down the aisle and fills the empty spot beside them. “Congrats on making the football team. That’s amazing.”

“She’s the kicker,” Maria butts in. “Is the kicker really apart of the team? Really?”

“Thank you, Natasha,” Sif says. “It’s unfortunate what happened to the previous kicker, but I’m happy to get out onto the field in critical field goal situations.” Sif hums and taps a finger against her chin. “What did you say, Hill? Something about how a Texas football team would never let a girl on the squad and you’d give me a thousand dollars if I managed it?”

“Why are you here exactly?” Maria asks sharply.

Gracious as always, Sif lets it slide. It’s too kind of her really. “It’s our bye week. The Warriors absolutely hate the Giants so we thought we’d come out and watch the game. It’s so nice to be able to watch a game without stressing every second of it.”

“No idea what that’s like,” Maria says.

“Not at all,” Natasha agrees.

“Sif, there you are!” Thor bellows in a voice that’s sunshine personified, tinged with that slight accent everyone from Asgard seems to have. Thor, Jane and the Warriors Three make their way down and sit in the row right behind them. “Lady Natasha, Lady Maria. Is it not a glorious night for football?”

“Absolutely,” Maria agrees. “You’re division rivals with the Giants, right?”

“Aye,” Thor replies. And the Warriors Three start to get worked up just at the mention of it. Jane rolls her eyes, not even trying to pretend she cares. “Natasha, have you delivered your scouting report yet? I expect it to be most thorough.”

“Let’s see…” Natasha turns her eyes to the field where the players are warming up. The Avengers are in their red home jerseys and the Frost Giants are in blue jerseys with brown trim and detailing. “They call their quarterback Jack Frost. He isn’t very big so it doesn’t take much to bring him down, but he is elusive, unafraid to run if necessary. If they want to sack him they’re going to have to go through Hailstrum, right tackle…”

Natasha turns slightly and raises an eyebrow at Thor. “You know a thing or two about Hailstrum, right, Thor? He is the reason you went sack-less your last matchup?” Natasha refocuses on the field, watching Steve start to throw. If he’s still hung up on their conversation last night, he doesn’t show it. “To round out the offense, the quarterback’s favorite targets are the tight ends, Slingard and Tuurgid. They’re both easily bigger than any of our defensive backs.”

“Do you know what they call Tuurgid?” Thor asks.

“Tuurgid the Unbeatable,” Natasha answers. “He hasn’t dropped a single pass in his last twenty-three games.”

“Aye,” Hogun says, and adds, “A right bastard that one.”

“He’s Clint’s responsibility tonight so we’ll see how good he really is.” Natasha’s eyes roam over the opponents, moving from one to the next to the next, putting information she’s collected to the numbers on their jerseys. “The guy with the blue mohawk is Bragmir, defensive end, their star. If he lives up to his reputation and the most recent film we have on him, Happy is about to have a long night. Grundorth and Raze aren’t terrible safeties. They only have more than a dozen takeaways between them this season alone.”

“Fandral knows about that,” Volstagg teases. The Warriors quarterback with the feathered blonde hair and bits of facial hair is too busy making eyes at a pair of junior girls, pretending not to listen. “Last time we met, he only threw the ball right to them. Twice.”

“Shut up,” Fandral drawls. “They didn’t score any points off the turnovers.”

“Thanks to Thor and the defense!” Sif is quick to remind her teammates.

“You’re welcome.” Thor smirks smugly and it shouldn’t be as charming as it is, but that’s Thor for you. “I take my gifts of gratitude in chocolate fudge, classic strawberry and wild! berry.”

“The Giants have only lost once this season,” Natasha says, rounding out her scouting report. With a little reluctance, she finishes, “and it was to the Warriors.”

The Asgardians hoot and high-five each other in revelry. There’s a reason the parties that follow a Warriors win are much talked about, said to last late into the night and early into the next morning, sometimes all weekend.

Thor claps his hands with respect in his shining eyes. “I am impressed, Natasha. You certainly do your homework. I wouldn’t dare ask what you have on me and my men.” Sif clears her throat, causing Thor to open his mouth with an, “Uhhh, me and my team, I mean. My team of men and women, a woman, Sif. Did you hear Sif is apart of our team now? Isn’t that amazing?”

“So amazing,” Natasha agrees, and she’s completely genuine about it. Natasha would never want that for herself, not even if Fury begged, but more power to Sif. “I’d give you my scouting report on your team, but I think I’ll save it for the playoffs.”

Thor chuckles. “Very well.”

“Not to be pessimistic or anything, but those guys are more like literal giants,” Jane points out. “They make Steve look like a normal sized human being. It’s freakish.”

“We made a plan and Fury spent all week making sure everyone knows it,” Natasha says with an air of calmness even though she knows too many things can go wrong on the field to ever be sure of anything. “It all comes down to execution.”

Thor is practically licking his chops, watching the captains from both teams greet each other at midfield in a clash of Marvel red and azure jerseys. There’s no pushing or shoving, no cheap shots or even cheaper words, but they aren’t exactly friendly rivals bidding each other good game. Only one word can describe the exchange: cold.

“Let’s see what your boys can do,” Thor mutters to himself.

From there, Natasha tunes out everything else—the crowd noise, the school marching band, even the coaches shouting from the sidelines. The Giants win the coin toss and choose to defer. Either they’re confident in their defense or wouldn’t even give Steve and the offense a second thought. Either way, the Giants have the ball to start the second half, a move Natasha can’t find fault in.

Steve lines up under center and shouts, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

Hand off and run to the right, Natasha thinks before Steve does just that. He gives the ball to Flash Thompson who runs as fast as he can to try to get the edge, just to be laid out by Bragmir. Before Flash is down, the ball pops right out from under his arm! Bragmir gets to the ball first, picks it up and starts running to the end zone. There’s no one there to stop him, but Steve.

Steve digs in and sprints to catch up, lunging forward, wrapping his arms around Bragmir’s waist and dragging him down. The two go tumbling out of bounds in a heap of muscle and flailing limbs. The Giants and those who’ve traveled with them cheer on the turnover, but all of the Midgardians go quiet. Natasha stands up to try to get a better look, but it’s no use.

“Shame,” Sif mutters. “Why aren’t they playing the silver-haired running back?”

But Natasha’s not listening, not present enough to answer even if she wanted to. She and everyone else are afraid to move, afraid to breathe too loudly, until Tony and Sam are hoisting Steve back to his feet and he’s walking normally. Steve’s posture is rigid, but if she had to guess, it’s more about frustration than pain. Natasha sits back down and eases her fingernails out from where she dug them into her palm.

Still, the damage is done. The Giants have the ball at the Avengers’ ten yard line. It’s going to be a challenge for the defense, but Clint and the others live up their reputation. It’s annoying when Rumlow gets that cocky tone to his voice and talks about the defense having to carry the offense to State when Steve and the offense are more than capable. But in moments like this, the defense has to do their job. And they do.

The Giants have no problem putting their disrespect for the Avengers defense on full display. The Giants run the ball on first down just to get stuffed for no gain. The only one they seem to have any respect for is Clint, refusing to throw the ball anywhere in his general vicinity as he harasses Tuurgid. Instead, they pick on Rhodey. The quarterback throws a straight bullet into the end zone. The ball slips right through the receiver’s hands, but a yellow flag is thrown. Rhodey, who had been draped all over the receiver, complains to the referee, who ignores him completely.

The flag puts the ball right at the one yard line. The offensive line for the Giants is twice the size of the Avengers defense. It makes sense to power the ball right down the middle. They run the ball once. Stuffed at the line. They run the ball a second time. T’Challa breaks through in seconds and grabs the giant running back by the ankle, yanking him back for a loss of yardage. The Giants try to run the ball a third time, denied a third time when Rollins fills the gap and makes the tackle.

On fourth down, the smart albeit safe move is to kick the field goal and put points on the board. Not the Giants. They try to run the ball for a fourth time just to have their running back moved backwards until he’s smashed into the ground. The crowd in red and white go wild with cheers and the Avengers players feed off of it, jumping and jumping into each other, happy for the momentum.

“Scared yet?” Maria asks the Asgardians sitting behind them.

“I’d be more impressed if the offense didn’t put the defense in that situation in the first place,” Fandral says loftily. As a quarterback, if he isn’t taking notes, he should be.  

Natasha zones out all the talk, leaning forward and resting her arms on her knees. Steve is operating out of the shotgun. She eyes Bragmir, who is watching Flash Thompson, salivating at the thought of embarrassing the poor kid even more. She hopes Steve sees that. The ball is snapped. The lines clash. Happy blocks Bragmir as Steve fakes a pitch to Flash. It freezes the defense just enough. Steve keeps the ball and cuts right upfield past Happy and Bragmir, sliding in for a gain of twelve yards.

On the very next play, the Giants load up the box to try and take away the run game. They’re forcing Steve to beat them through the air against two proven safeties. The ball is snapped. Steve drops back, poised to throw. Flash steps up and throws down a mean block just as a defender nearly gets a hand on Steve. He knows better than to target the middle of the field so he tries the sideline. Just as the ball leaves his hand, a bulk of muscle steamrolls right over Steve who hits the ground hard. The hit doesn’t affect the throw. The ball sails down the sideline, put in perfect position, where Tony goes up and snatches the ball. The giant corner tackles him, but Tony manages to break away and runs the ball right into the end zone for a touchdown!

The Avengers are on the board to start 7-0.

If playing from behind bothers the Giants, they don’t show it. The quarterback comes out throwing. He targets his favorite tight end who runs simple routes for short gains. The guy pushes off of Clint to the point where even from the stands you can see Tuurgid pulling on Clint’s jersey, but the refs don’t catch it, let alone call it. When Rhodey drops back to help Clint, that leaves Slingard wide open to catch the ball and run it in for a touchdown.

It’s a 7-7 ballgame.

The rest of the first half is more of a battle, defenses adjusting to what they see, ending drives with punts. Steve continues to run the ball better than either Flash or Morita. Neither is much of a power runner and lack Pietro’s speed and his ability to get downfield in seemingly hopeless situations. The Giants manage to score another touchdown (the big tight end Tuurgid runs it in, who else?) and the Avengers settle for a perfectly kicked field goal. Fury probably isn’t happy and neither are the guys.

At halftime, the score is 14-10 with the Giants in the lead.

“Is anyone else hungry?” Thor stands up and stretches at halftime. Hogun’s hand goes up and fast. “Fierce battle always leaves me starving.” He starts to follow Sif and the Warriors Three to pursue the food trucks and pillage the concession stand, but stops to take Jane’s hand in his. “My lady, would you like anything?”

“I’m fine, Thor. You go ahead.”

Thor flashes her one of his most handsome smiles and kisses the back of her hand before running to catch up with his friends. Jane sighs and climbs over the bench to sit in Sif’s vacant spot next to Natasha.

“Jane, your sighing is distracting me from mentally cursing the refs for not giving Sam any calls,” Maria says, unhappy with the scoreboard and the lack of balls going to her boyfriend. “If you hate football, why are you here right now?”

“It’s less about football and more about the company, though I don’t know how you two just sit here for hours, watching boys plow into each other, chasing a weird-shaped ball,” Jane says. “And by company, I don’t mean you two. Does it make me a bad person if I’m not into the belching and the endless football talk and the loud, so much loud?”

“No, it doesn’t make you a bad person,” Natasha assures her. “Why didn’t you just tell Thor you didn’t want to come?”

“He surprised me by driving all this way and I do want to spend time with him,” Jane insists. “Relationships are about compromise. Back me up here, Maria.”

“Sam and Maria are still in the honeymoon phase,” Natasha explains, “which means he does whatever she says.”

“And he loves it,” Maria adds. “But compromise, sure. And blackmail. When he’s grumbling about having to be at your science fair, just remind him of tonight. And that’s how compromise in a relationship works.”

Halftime always feels like it lasts much longer than it actually does. Natasha wishes she could be there in the locker room, standing by as Fury lets out his aggression, then step in with possible solutions. The run game isn’t working. The Giants’ linebackers are fast and big. The safeties are the best in the state. Other than Tony’s touchdown play, whenever Steve gets the ball out, whoever catches it is usually down on the spot. They just need to figure out ways to run the ball and open up the pass game.

When Thor and his friends return, they offer her and the other girls an array of greasy food options on trays and wrapped in paper, but Natasha is too focused on the game to think about eating. She’s also wary of accepting food or drinks from someone she doesn’t completely trust. Nothing against Thor. The list of people Natasha trusts completely isn’t a very long one. Actually, she could probably count them on her fingers.

The Giants have the ball at the top of the second half and they start by going three and out. Every time the Giants try to run the ball, it results in negative yardage, thanks to T’Challa beating his man and getting to the running back. The Giants’ kicker punts the ball and it lands out of bounds, giving the Avengers great field advantage, knocking on the door of Giants territory.

It’s hard to see Steve’s face as he takes the field, but Natasha can read his demeanor. He isn’t frantic or panicking, even after going into the half down, even after getting an earful from Fury. He is steady, confident and calm, such a change from his first game. All necessary if they plan to make their goal of winning a championship a reality.

Steve gets the ball. He steps back. The pocket collapses so quickly, a mess of bodies all over each other. It’s ugly. It looks like a sack, but Steve manages to come out of the mess, still with the ball. Steve runs right up the field, right pass the first down marker and slides for another huge gain. There’s no celebration. Steve gets the guys back to the line for the next play before the defense can get organized.

Natasha sits forward, eyeing the defense. See that, Rogers? Three deep zone, Natasha thinks to herself just before Steve steps up to his linemen and shouts, “Red! Three! Red three!” The linemen point and shout back. Natasha sits back with a smile. He’s slowing the game down in his head and reading the defense just like he should.

Dum Dum hikes the ball. Steve fakes the hand off to Morita who runs right up the middle and Steve throws a bullet right into the end zone. Tony jumps up and comes down with the ball. Touchdown!

The score is now 17-14 Avengers.

In the fourth and final quarter, the Avengers are winning and have the ball back. This is the part of the game where they need to try to run down the time on the clock by running the ball except their running game isn’t exactly foolproof. Steve hands the ball to Morita and he forces his way right down the gut for a measly two yards. On second down, Flash loses seven yards.

Don’t try to do too much, Rogers. Give the ball to a back. Leave the game in Clint and the defense’s hands. Natasha tries to mentally will the information to Steve. And she’s sure Fury is in his ear doing much of the same. Either Steve doesn’t get the message or blatantly ignores it. Steve tries to run with the ball himself, but Bragmir beats Happy off the block and tackles Steve shoulder first into the ground. Dum Dum runs over, grabs Bragmir by the back of his jersey and tosses him off of Steve, who’s then helped up by Morita and Gabe Jones.

“Well, at least he didn’t fumble,” Maria says.

Steve is clearly beating himself up for that and there’s a limp to his walk. To make matters worse, the Giants manage to score another touchdown on their next drive.

The score is 21-17 Giants. The Avengers have two minutes to deal.

The Giants load up the box once again and virtually take away the run option. Steve has to take his chances with short, safe tosses for little gain, but they’re running out of time. On third down, Steve drops back, ready to throw. Sam can’t lose the defender on him. Neither can Tony. Steve feels pressure coming from his right and has to throw it away. He manages to throw the ball out of bound and stops the clock.

4th and 8. On their 45 yard line.

Fury calls a timeout.

 

 

Down on the field, Fury keeps all the emotion off of his face. “What do you think we should do?”

Steve freezes with his mouth hanging open. “Me, sir?”

“Of course you, Rogers! Who else would I be talking to?”

So much for telling Pierce he has no say in anything.

“I’ve only been looking to Tony all night,” Steve says, trying to keep his panting from being too noticeable. “We use him as a decoy, set him in motion. It’ll be enough to draw the linebackers. Wide open grass in the flat.”

“You know why it’s so open, right? Those Giants safeties are some of the fasted damn safeties in Texas. A dozen interceptions combined. It’s a trap, Rogers. That’s exactly where they want you to throw it!”

Steve swallows and his throat feels like it’s on fire. “Sam’s got the speed and I can hit the gap.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“You’d put our season on the line? You have to be that damn sure.”

“I’m sure.”

Fury chews on that, the muscles in his jaw tensing. “Do it.”

It’s 4th and long with the game on the line.

Steve surveys his teammates, sweaty and exhausted. They only need to hang on for less than a minute. He steps up, ready to lead by example. “Listen up, guys. Shift 69 high inner on one. Ready? Break!”

They clap in unison and take their spots. At the last second, Tony crosses to the other side, drawing the attention of the Giants linebackers just as planned. Steve calls for the ball. It’s a high hike Steve has to jump to get, but the protection is good. He throws the ball right to Sam in the open field. Sam breaks left, avoiding a safety. He stiff-arms another, turns on the jets and crosses the line in the end zone for a touchdown! The time ticks down on the clock and the Avengers win another close one 24-21!

 

...

 

“Using me as a distraction? Me? I mean, I guess it makes sense from a tactical perspective, but leaving Falcon to execute the glory play? I’m just afraid it might go to his head.”

“We won, Tony.” Steve brushes his fingers through his wet hair, unaware of what a pretty boy catalog model he is and equally unaware how many girls dig that apparently. “That’s what matters.”

“Steven!”

Tony steps out of the way just in time to avoid Thor who wraps Steve up in a bear hug and lifts him off his feet.

“Hey Thor,” Steve says mid-air. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s our bye week and we thought we should check out the competition.” Thor drops Steve and nods to where the other Asgardian players are talking with Natasha, Maria and Jane. “We would never pass up the opportunity to watch the Frost Giants crushed into tiny shards of ice. You are much improved since we last met, my friend.”

“Well, this is nice, but I’m just going to go…be anywhere else right now.” Tony slips away from the blonde bro fest and tries to be inconspicuous as he slides right up to Jane, who's like the world’s most obvious third wheel while everyone else gets animated talking about football. “Jane Foster, a word?”

Jane raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t move an inch. “If you’re trying to get me to tell you what I’m planning for the science fair—”

Tony laughs at the very suggestion. “No, I’m not worried. Not that I don’t see you as competition. Bruce did offer you the final spot on our team, but it’s fine, I get it. I’m sure whatever you come up with will be great. I was actually wondering how our friend is doing.”

“Our friend?”

“You know, our friend. Dark hair, very pale, almost sickly or Disney princess pale, about yea tall—” Tony holds his hand out horizontally and much shorter than him. “—can talk about a mile a minute, sexy, cool drawling twang in her voice, luscious b—”

“Darcy?” Jane interrupts him. Probably for the best. “She’s fine.”

“I notice she isn’t here with you tonight.” Tony rises to his tiptoes and scans the crowds. “Unless she’s hiding behind an Asgardian. They are pretty easy to hide behind.”

“She’s not here. She’s been busy working on something.”

“Shame. You haven’t heard from her about another mutual friend of ours?” Tony raises his eyebrows and it just makes Jane confused, but it’s not like he can just straight out ask how Bucky is doing, especially with all the eyes and ears and Natasha around. “Well, could you invite her to my Halloween house party? And she can bring whoever she might want to bring along.”

“Sure.”

“Well, you could be a little more enthusiastic, maybe grateful—”

A shoulder roughly drives into his and after already landing on it earlier in the game, Tony winces. He sees Fandral, who doesn’t seem to have forgotten the episode with his car and the baseball bat during Rivalry Week.

“Hey Fandral, hold on a second,” Tony says, speeding off to catch up with the blonde who wants nothing to do with him. Not that he can blame him. “I want to sincerely apologize for the car incident. I was going through a…rough patch. I’d be happy to write you a check to cover the damages—”

Fandral scoffs. He might as well have spit at him. “That’s the problem with you rich boys. You think you can just throw money at a problem to make it go away.”

“I don’t want to ‘make it go away.’ I want to throw money at a problem to fix it.”

“Keep it, Stark. Do yourself a favorite and stay away from me.”

“But!”

But Fandral is already walking away with Volstagg and Hogun who may or may not be eating a deep fried turkey leg.

“Really blew that one, Stark,” Tony mutters to himself.

“Money doesn’t fix everything, friend,” Thor says.

“Only if you’re a stubborn ass about it,” Tony mumbles under his breath.  

“Fandral can be both of those things, aye, but you can’t change people. You can’t change things you’ve done in the past either. Just have to figure out how to live with them.” Thor gives him a sympathetic smile. “On the bright side, I am looking forward to your party! I doubt they compare to any of our Asgardian celebrations, but I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

A smile starts to tug at Tony’s lips. “Is that a challenge, Odinson?”

Thor is ecstatic, thinking he brightened Tony’s mood if only a little. “Would I have said it if it wasn’t?”

“Oh, it is so on.”

 

 

Bucky hates hospitals. That much is obvious, but if that’s what it takes to get his life back on a somewhat bearable path, that’s what he’s going to do. He’s been here two hours thus far and will not budge. Darcy—bless her—is at his side like she is a lot nowadays. For the first hour, she was antsy, couldn’t keep still. Now, it’s as if she has melted and become one with the uncomfortable waiting room chair. At least, that’s how she put it.

“Dude, I get it, alright,” Darcy says. “But your sheer stubbornness is totally testing my itty bitty attention span. I feel like we’ve been here a week. Why don’t we go get some lunch and see if this Dr. Strange guy can see you in an hour or two?”

Bucky studies the map of the hospital from afar, hands tucked into the pockets of his hoodie. “You can leave if you want.”

“Barnes, I’m not going to just leave you here.” Darcy sinks deeper into her chair. “Especially not after you sprung for gas, which you didn’t have to do, but it’s greatly appreciated.”

Bucky tilts his head toward her with a weak smile. “Anything for you, doll.”

“Womp, womp,” Darcy mutters like she always does when he gets a little flirty with her. She pretends like she thinks he’s being stupid when he calls her that, but he sees the little gleam in her eyes that can only mean good things. If he’s being honest, when they have moments like this, when things like that slip out without him even trying, Bucky almost feels like his old self. It’s the only time he feels like his old self actually.

“James Buchanan Barnes?”

A brown-haired girl in light blue scrubs who can’t be much older than them looks around the waiting room. Bucky is quick to hoist himself up and his hood falls off his head, exposing his dark hair that’s now long enough to fall in his face.

“I’m James.” His voice doesn’t sound quite right to his own ears. These past few weeks, Darcy is the only person he really talks to. Though he shares a house with his emotionally distant father, they generally stay out of each other’s way and mostly communicate with grunts and silence.

“Hi, James.” The girl plasters on that smile she must use for everyone who walks in through the front door. “I’m Christine Palmer. I’m the medical student and scribe assigned to Dr. Strange. Unfortunately, he can’t see you today.”

“What the hell?” Darcy blurts out. “We’ve been waiting here for two hours! Two!”

Christine frowns. “I’m sorry. The doctor is very busy, but if you try to come back…”

“Yeah,” Darcy snaps. “Like he was busy the last time we came in to see him and the time before that and the time before that…”

“Does he know I’m James Buchanan Barnes? The quarterback—”

“I don’t know him that well, but I doubt Dr. Strange follows high school football,” Christine says. There’s pity in her eyes, but she must have some sort of bedside manner because she isn’t staring at his arm like most people can’t help. “Lieber High, right? I’m from Sutton. Last year, I saw you play in that overtime game against Xavier. One hell of a battle. I’m sorry to hear what happened to you…”

“Then help me,” Bucky mutters lowly.

Christine looks up at the ceiling for a moment, tapping her nurse shoes against the floor. “Dr. Strange is on his lunch break right now. He’s very particular about not being disturbed.”

“I just need one minute with him. Please Christine.”

Bucky has always been the type to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, to win. If he has to pull out the act that earned him quite the reputation with the girls in school so be it. From the sound Darcy makes beside him, she knows exactly what he’s doing and finds it annoying. Whether it’s his god-given charm that wins Christine Palmer over or she pities him that much or she’s just a nice person, whatever convinces her, it works.

“Okay, follow me,” Christine whispers like they’re about to pull off a heist or something. “But your girlfriend has to stay here.”

“Girlfriend?” Darcy squawks. “So just because we’re like, standing together, you assume we’re dating? That my only role in this whole operation is ‘love interest’? And you work in a hospital? Do you just assume diagnosis based off of episodes of Grey’s Anatomy you’ve binged-watched?”

“Darcy,” Bucky mutters.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Darcy plops back into the chair that she calls home. “I’ll be here.”

Bucky gives her a nod before following Christine to the elevator.

“Your non-love interest is something,” Christine says, making conversation in the elevator.

“She is,” Bucky agrees, not knowing what else to say.

“It’s good you have her. I was just a volunteer here when Dr. Strange had his accident. He didn’t have anyone and even when colleagues, friends tried to be there for him, he pushed them all away. I’m not sure it was for the better…”

“He recovered, didn’t he?” Bucky counters. “He went right back to being the best damn surgeon in the world.”

Christine tosses him a sideway glance. “I’m not sure anyone can ever really go back.”

Bucky almost wishes Darcy were here. She’d know what to say. She’d fill the silence in a way Bucky can’t even think to. A moment later, the doors slide open and he follows Christine through the labyrinth of windowless hallways beneath unnerving fluorescent lights before they stop right in front of a door. It seems this is as far as his guide is willing to take him. He’s on his own from here on out.

He bursts into the break room that’s empty except for the doctor sitting at a table with his newspaper. Dr. Strange is a lanky man that surrounds himself with an arrogance that reminds Bucky of Tony, but on steroids.

Most nights, instead of sleeping, Bucky would search the internet for stories like his, similar injuries and successful recoveries. He wants hope. That’s when Bucky stumbled upon Dr. Strange, the acclaimed surgeon who has one of the highest success rates in the country. Bucky took extra interest in Dr. Strange after reading about how he had badly injured his hands in a car accident, made the long journey of recovery some said was impossible and is back to operating even now.

“Who are you?” Dr. Strange asks. “Who said you could come in here?”

“My name is James Buchanan Barnes. I was the star quarterback of the Lieber High School Avengers before there was an accident on the field. They said I lost function in my arm. They’re saying it’s a lost cause. I’ve had second opinions and thirds, but I want the best and that’s you, Dr. Strange. My primary said she sent you my file and when I didn’t hear from you, I thought I’d drop by.”

“Barnes, yes. I’ve received your file,” Dr. Strange says. The man doesn’t even acknowledge Bucky while talking to him and few things grind his gears more than that. If his mom caught him talking to anyone the way Dr. Strange is talking to him, Winnie Barnes would’ve given her son the talking to of a lifetime.

“You did?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

The disappointment hurts. Bucky knows there shouldn’t be any room to be any more disappointed than he already is, but it really hits him in the gut, stings at his eyes. It also makes him angry. The jerk could have called to say this or hell, had his scribe or intern or whoever do it, not make him wait downstairs and dodge his every attempt to meet.

“But you’re the best in the world or so you say,” Bucky argues. Dr. Strange chuckles and actually looks at him this time. Bucky sees his opening and goes in for the Hail Mary play. “Think about what people will say, what they’ll print if you give a promising star quarterback his arm back. Before this, every college in the country was scouting me. I could’ve went pro. I still can and my entire NFL career would be thanks to you.”

Dr. Strange actually puts his newspaper aside and gives Bucky a thoughtful stare. “You make a compelling case, feeding my ego and all, but surgery isn’t sorcery. I’ve received your file, Mr. Barnes, and I’ve looked at your scans. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. If you’re asking for me professional opinion, for free, might I add, you might even want to consider amputation. It might save you a lot of pain.”

Bucky stumbles backwards as if Dr. Strange had actually hit him with some mystical wave of pure ice. Amputation? What the fuck kind of solution is that? No. I fucking refuse.

“But you recovered! You—”

“Had excessive damage to my hands, yes. But the spine is a completely different animal. The spine controls the function of every single cell, tissue and organ in the body. I would take on your case in a heartbeat if I was confident I could succeed, but, and this is the truth, I’m not. I don’t say that very often so enjoy it. As a doctor, it would be unethical of me to put you through experimental surgery and give you false hope for all of it to be for naught and leave you and your family with unnecessary medical bills. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to return to my lunch now.”

Dr. Strange, the world class prick, goes right back to his newspaper as if he didn’t just shatter Bucky’s world all over again. Going in, he knew it was a long shot. All the other doctors told him something similar and were much more gentle about it. Dr. Strange was his last play, his Hail Mary pass to the end zone and it seems the receiver had no chance to even make a play on the ball.

Bucky doesn’t say anything as he shoves through the door and he doesn’t say anything as he passes Christine who had been waiting outside. She doesn’t ask how it went. She probably doesn’t have to. She just falls in step beside him, which is good because he was too nervous on the way up to remember how the hell to get back to the elevator. Once back in the waiting room, Christine grabs his good arm with such a gentle touch it reminds him how long it’s been since someone, anyone has touched him.

“Hold on.” Christine hands him a little slip of paper. “Jonathan Pangborn. He runs the best rehabilitation clinic in the entire city, if not the entire state. If nothing else, I think it’d be helpful just to talk to him. His story is incredible. Please consider stopping by.”

Bucky reads the slip of paper in his hand, unsure how he manages to nod because he feels numb. “And the second number?”

“Mine,” she replies. “I meant what I said about how important it is to have a support system. I’m sorry if this didn’t turn out how you wanted it to, but if you ever need anything else, don’t hesitate.”

His lips tilt in what he’s sure is a pitiful excuse for a smile, especially when the one she gives him is so full and real. She’ll probably make a great doctor someday. Much better than that jerk Strange.

“Thank you,” Bucky mutters.

“Take care, James.”

He watches Christine walk away and she even gives him a little glance back. It surprises him that he’s even capable of feeling like a boy who just got the infamous over-the-shoulder bonus look from a pretty girl. It surprises him that he’s even capable of feeling anything. Darcy scowls right over his shoulder and Bucky feels his smile fill out.

“Any luck?” Darcy asks.

“Guy was a bust.” Bucky turns to face her with his best imitation of a smirk and holds up the slip of paper between two fingers. “But I scored the hot med student’s phone number.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.” Darcy bumps his good shoulder with hers. “Medical students are socially awkward because they spend all their time at the hospital and when they aren’t at the hospital, they’re studying. Zero social lives. She’d cheat on you with a hot, older resident who speaks to her daddy issues and who will be left to pick up the pieces? Not me, Buck-o.”

Bucky shakes his head and pulls his hood up over his hair. “Alright, let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Bucky doesn’t know if he’ll go to the rehabilitation clinic, doesn’t know if he’ll ever text Christine Palmer, doesn’t even know what he would say to her, but he slips the piece of paper into his back pocket just incase.

 

 

“Can Fury be a bigger idiot? Calling designed run plays for Rogers when we’re already on our backup quarterback? Damn Frost Giant rusher put Rogers in the dirt, down on his throwing shoulder. His throwing shoulder! I can’t believe he’d put the kid in harm’s way like that! What a joke!”

“He had to do something to get the run game working since he ain’t playin’ Quicksilver and still hasn’t given us a reason why.”

Natasha shuts off the stupid radio as Fury zips up his old, beat up duffle bag, pretending he hadn't been listening. He knows she hates stupid talk radio and she knows he hates it yet he’s always listening to it and secretly committing every word to memory. It just gets him worked up for no good reason.

“You won the game,” Natasha reminds him. “In the end, that’s all that matters, right?”

“You know me. I’m already on to the next game. We play Seagate in the snake pit next Friday night. They’ve got some big boys on that team and you know that bastard Coach Rackham rewards the defense for any lick they can land on a quarterback. We always knew once teams saw us using Rogers to run the ball, they’d adjust. They’d have us figured out. We can’t do it anymore. Time’s up.”

Natasha knows all of this because she’s done the same recon as him and has the same concerns, but they have time to figure it out. “Can you at least try to enjoy this weekend?”

Fury grunts and that’s as close as an agreement as she can get out of him. “Are you going to Stark’s annual Halloween party?”

“I’ll probably stop by.”

“Mhmm. Do I want to know what you’re dressing up as?” Fury shakes his head before he even sees the way she presses her lips together. “Stay safe and don’t enjoy your self too much. I’d tell you some stuff like don’t drink and drive or don’t go and get yourself pregnant, but I know you aren’t stupid.”

“Say hi to Coach Pym for me. And Hope, if she’s there.”

“Stark’s got the money to hire truckloads of people to clean his place and make it look brand spankin’ new,” Fury continues to grumble like an old man who not only yells at kids to get off his lawn, but turns on the sprinklers too. “Better trash his house than here. I just replaced that damn window.”

“You know I won’t throw a party while you’re gone. I hate having people over,” Natasha reminds him. 

The neighbor across the street gives the two a friendly wave as he decorates his front yard with hay and plastic Halloween decorations. Fury’s pristine, decoration-less front yard is plain in comparison, but that’s exactly how Fury likes it. He clearly finds their neighbor’s exuberant festiveness distasteful and he isn’t afraid to let it show on his face.

Fury tosses his bag into the front seat of his SUV before turning to Natasha with a sigh that seems to travel from his shoulders down through the rest of his body. Neither are the hugging type, not really, but she holds her arms out anyway and he pulls her into a one-arm embrace. He smells strongly of his cologne that all men over the age of fifty seem to have. He smells exactly the same as the first day she met him, when Ivan introduced her to this very serious one-eyed man all dressed in black and said he was here to protect her.

“Drive safe,” Natasha says into his shoulder.

“Aw, are you worried about little ol’ me?” Fury calls her out with a rare smile as he settles behind the wheel.

Natasha folds her arms across her chest. “It only makes sense. You only have one eye.”

Fury laughs with his head tilted back and everything. “And I still drive better than half the idiots on the road.”

Before he drives away, Fury hangs his arm out the window. “Remember, if anyone, anyone tries to teepee my house, I want pictures so I can ID the little bastards and you chase them down and kick their little asses.”

“I doubt any of the neighborhood kids would even try after the incident last Halloween!”

Fury gives his best, spookiest laugh and beeps the horn twice before reversing and coasting down the street. Natasha watches him go before turning on her heels and heading right back inside. She has a party to get ready for.

 

 

Hank Pym’s big birthday bash is the reason Fury hauled ass to the city. Of course that clown would be born on Halloween.

Hank Pym is one of the most successful college football coaches in Texas and you’d know it by how he acts. The man is damn proud. He has extended job offers to Fury in the past, but he always declined. Most of the offers had come in after he moved back to Midgard and already laid down roots. Seeing a kid as reclusive as Natasha make friends and run around the neighborhood on Halloween with a skinny sheet ghost Steve and cardboard box robot Bucky, Fury wasn’t about to rip away what little stability she found.

(For the record, he did let eleven-year-old Natasha dress up as an assassin drenched in the blood of those who’ve wronged her because she wanted to and it was incredible and fuck whichever anonymous parent fucking complained to the teacher about it.)

“Nick!”

“Pym.” Nicky puts on something of a smile as Hank Pym embraces him in a hug like they’re brothers when they both know their relationship is much less than that, more icy.

“Good to see you. How’s Natasha? Hey, tell me the truth. You handed off the headset and she’s been calling all the plays for the Avengers, right? That’s the reason for the turnaround and win streak.”

“You know she’d love nothing more,” Fury replies. “What about Hope? She here?”

“No, no. She’s away at her fancy boarding school. You know how girls are at that age. She’s very invested in her education so she can make her own money and have nothing to do with me anymore.”

Hank laughs and Fury laughs along even if privately he thinks that’s kind of sad. As determined as he is to keep Natasha focused on the goal and get her into a quality university far, far from Midgard that can give her the education she deserves, he’d never want her to bail on him once she’s on her own two feet. He may not express it well, but he hopes she knows. He’ll be damned if he says something like that about his kid.

“Nick, I want you to meet someone,” Hank says, motioning to a tall, lean teenager with a closely shaved head. “Nick, this is Darren Cross, my protege and quarterback at TMU.”

“Yellowjacket,” Fury regards him. “I saw you on ESPN the other day.”

“Thank you, sir.” Darren takes Fury’s outstretched hand in a firm shake. “I’ve heard what you’re doing out in Midgard. They call you a miracle worker.”

“Ah, I can’t take all that credit. I can give them the tools and the direction, but I can’t make the plays for ‘em. I’ve got a good group this year.”

“And humble,” Darren says. “Coach Pym told me stories of when you two were roommates in college and carried the team.”

Hank laughs. “All good stories, I assure you, Nick. Motivational stories, if you will.”

“Mhmm.”

“Darren, would you excuse us?” Hank asks. “You don’t want to hang around a bunch of old guys, go have fan.”

Darren offers his hand again and Fury shakes it to be polite. The kid has skill on the field, for sure, but he’s also very arrogant and it wouldn’t surprise him if Hank encourages that kind of attitude. Hank grabs Fury by the elbow, which he hates, but doesn’t mention, and steers him off to a quieter area.

“Listen, Nick, I’m going to let you in on a little secret because I know that mind of yours is guarded like Fort Knox. At the end of this football season, I’m retiring.”

Fury tries to keep the surprise off his face, but it’s hard. “Shit. No shit?”

“No shit.”

“Damn. I thought you’d coach forever.”

“I thought I would too. The school and everyone knows about it, but we want to keep it under wraps. You know how the media can be. I don’t want to dominate the headlines when my team is trying to make a run. The school has asked me who I think they should consider for the head coaching job and I threw out your name.”

Before he knows it, Fury lets out a long, loud laugh straight from his belly. “Now you’re shitting me.”

“Is that so hard to believe?”

“If you were in my shoes, what would you think?”

Hank pretends to think about it. “I’d think this was just like that time in college where you told me that gorgeous blonde called for me, but I said no, Nick, you’re shitting me so I went to a Halloween party on campus instead of meeting her. I should have listened to you.”

“Should have listened to me? That crazy nailed a bloody rubber rabbit to our door because she thought you stood her up!” Fury shout with a nostalgic gleam in his eye. “Can you imagine what she would have done if you actually dated then broke up with her? Also, if I recall, if you went out with the blonde that night, you wouldn’t have met the mother of your child at that party.”

“Right.” Hank’s fond smile hints at the young, go-getter he used to be. “What do you think?”

Fury runs his hand over his head. “Isn’t there supposed to be more wining and dining?”

“They’re waiting for me to give them the thumbs-up that you’re interested. Then they’ll reach out and you bleed them for all they’re worth.” Fury is a thinker and a tactician. He’s quick on his feet, but this kind of decision requires a lot more. “Come on, Nick. What’s stopping you? You used Natasha as an excuse the last time I offered you the assistant job, but now she’s graduating, going off to bigger and better. Go get your high school ring, go 1-0, then drop the mic and move on to bigger and better.”

“What’s the catch, Hank?”

“Christ. Is it so hard for you to just accept I think you’re the best guy for the job? You know my system. We ran a similar system in college. You run a little bit of it in Midgard. Look what you did with that Rogers kid. Four months ago, people would say, ‘Steve Rogers who?’ Now, they’re even talking about the kid here. Hell, they showed a clip of him throwing up a beauty on national television and named you Coach of the Week! Can you imagine what you could do with Darren, who’s already established?”

Fury doesn’t reply right away even if what Hank’s saying seems to make sense in the moment. All the pieces seem to fit together. Maybe too well. That’s the goal of a pitch.

“I need to think about it,” Fury says stubbornly. “But thanks for the referral.”

“Nick Fury, always so calculating and damn hard to read. I’d ask you to act surprised when you get the call, but I know you too well.”

And I know you too well to know there are strings attached, Fury thinks, but he’s much too smart and too disciplined to say it out loud. Instead, he tips his glass to Hank. “Happy birthday, old man.”

Before Hank can press him any more, he’s pulled away to go cut the birthday cake and Fury takes the opportunity to slip out of the room for some air. The weather is getting colder, the sun setting sooner and so he’s met by the cold night air. He fills his lungs and stares at the tall buildings around him. Born and raised in a small town and going to college in a college town, Fury has always found cities busy, noisy, claustrophobic.

For a long time, he operated as the man behind the scenes and under the radar. In the Army, in private security, when he first started as an assistant coach, Fury made a career of working in the shadows. Stepping into the head coach position had been his moment stepping into the spotlight. To go from a high school sideline to a prime time Saturday game, surrounded by thousands and televised to millions, it goes against his nature, but the level of competition, the challenge, it’s what he lives for.

“Aw, shit!”

That voice sounds so familiar. And rudely interrupts his thoughts.

Fury walks around the corner and sees a scruffy man in a chauffeur outfit, swaying on his feet. The closer Fury gets, the stronger the smell of alcohol.

“Logan?”

The chauffeur straights somewhat and turns in his direction. “Walk away, Fury.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. The Wolverine.” Fury walks closer even when the man flinches, his body languages makes it clear, he wants the exact opposite. “Is this what you do now? Drive rich people, bachelorettes and prom dates around while on a bender?”

Logan growls, living up to his football nickname.

“How long have you been out?” Fury doesn’t expect an answer, which is good because he doesn’t get one. “You still keep up with football?”

“Cowboys are assholes and Texans are ass.”

“What about high school? There’s this quarterback at Xavier who’s making a name for himself. The way he moves outside the pocket, damn, has your fingerprints all over it. Too bad Summers is getting all the credit.”

“Summers was a pocket statue. Didn’t know shit about being a mobile quarterback, probably still doesn’t.” Logan takes something from the inside pocket of his suit jacket—a flask—and takes a shameless sip.

“I’ve got a quarterback at Lieber, Steve Rogers. We’re in short supply of elite running backs at the moment. Hell, we’re in short supply of quarterbacks at the moment. Everyone thinks I’m an idiot for calling design quarterback runs, but I know the kid’s capability. I can only do so much for him. I could use a quarterback coach if you’re ever compelled to leave this glamorous gig you’ve got here.”

“I left football for a reason.”

“So did I,” Fury says. “And I went straight into the military like you. I saw some shit. I did some shit. Saw more shit. Now I’m back. Sometimes we’re just creatures of habit, Logan. Sometimes once you hit rock bottom, it’s nice to go back to what you know or at least hide in it for a while.” Fury pulls out his wallet where a few business cards have been taking up space for what seems like ages. “No pressure. If you’re ever tired of cleaning other people’s shit outta the leather seats, give me a call.”

Fury holds out his business card, but Logan doesn’t take it, doesn’t even move, just keeps staring at him like an animal backed into a corner. Eventually, Fury places his card on the trunk of the black limousine Logan had been braced against. He doesn’t say another word, just leaves out the bait, bait Logan quickly pockets when he thinks Fury isn’t looking. Now that is how to recruit. Hank Pym should take some damn notes.

 

 

Fury probably wouldn’t approve of the dress Natasha has picked out for tonight, but what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. It’s much shorter and more form-fitting than the dress she wore to homecoming. It would probably make the dress she wore to church blush. But what else would a vampire queen wear on an All Hallows’ Eve night out?

It surprises the hell out of her when she gets a text from Steve saying he and a bunch of guys from the team are going to Tony’s early to help decorate (transport the kegs) so he doesn’t need a ride. Maria’s taking her own car because she has to pick up Sam and won enough gas money for the week on the Avengers’ latest win. So it seems she won’t be seeing anyone’s costumes until she arrives.

Once it’s dark out, Natasha heads to the Stark estate in her black minidress and black heels with the red soles. Her hair is teased out and the biggest she’s ever worn it. To complete the look, her face is powdered white and she’s wearing the red contact lenses and vampire fangs. It might not be the most original, but it’s classic and screams Halloween.

The Starks own almost the whole south side of Midgard. There’s Stark Tower and the Stark factories, where most of the Stark Industries business is conducted. Then there’s the Stark estate, which might be the nicest, most modern house in all of Midgard if not all of Texas. Fog rolls down the long driveway leading up to the mansion and all the surrounding trees have been strung with orange light and ghoulish decorations.

It’s no surprise that Stark would use Halloween to go as big as possible. There’s an entire pumpkin patch in the front yard with gourds of all sizes and colors that have been expertly carved. The largest of the pumpkins has Tony’s face literally carved onto it and at least a dozen have the Avengers logo on them. A line of pumpkins even spell out Iron Man and Natasha has to roll her eyes.

Inside, the mansion is packed with people in all sorts of costumes. Everywhere she looks is just a reminder that everyone regardless of gender or sexuality use Halloween as an excuse to wear as little clothing as possible. Loud music plays throughout the entire house that’s filled with spooky, dim lighting and endless fog. Natasha pushes her way through the droves of people, each with some sort of drink in hand, searching for her friends. Something lit up and mechanical swoops down, nearly crashing into her head. Of course, Tony Stark would have multiple drones that look vaguely like Jack-o’-lanterns flying around his party. Why not?

“Vampire? Really, Nat? Where’s your originality and imagination?”

Natasha spins around to find Clint…wearing green and brown. Even the felt hat on his head is green with a red feather poking out. The fact that he’s lugging around his bow and arrows makes it obvious who he’s supposed to be.

“You’re one to talk,” Natasha shoots back. “You chose this outfit solely so you could show off your bow.”

“Show off? Me?”

“Is Laura dressed as Maid Marien?” Natasha asks.

“Velma from Scooby-Doo. She’s got the glasses and the bob and the sexy turtleneck dress and everything.”

“I bet you like that,” she teases.

“You’d be correct.”

A grin spreads across Clint’s face and it makes Natasha smile despite how skeptical she is deep down. This isn’t the first time she’s seen him fall hard and fast for a girl. When he and Bobbi first shacked up, she was sure it would end in a secret shotgun wedding. Bobbi wasn’t the first girl Clint had behaved stupidly over. The Clint in Love Pattern goes something like: Clint finds himself enamored with a girl, gives her his undivided attention, can’t deal when things go downhill, does something stupid and ends up hurt.

“Be careful,” Natasha says, suddenly so serious.

“I’m not even drinking tonight and if I shoot anything, I’ll do it outdoors, duh.”

“I mean with this.” Natasha reaches forward and taps over his chest. “Hers too.”

God, that’s mushy, but she feels like it has to be said. She’s seen the pattern play out before, but never with a girl as sweet and innocent as Laura. It still shocks her, remembering how Clint had accused her of thinking he isn’t worthy of Laura or not enough of a good guy. It’s not that at all. Natasha just knows matters of the heart can suck. After all, she tried dating the exact opposite of Alexei with Matt Murdock and look how that turned out.

“Clint! There you are! Did you hear that there’s some kind of fight club downstairs?” Laura pops up, rocking the trademark Velma Dinkley orange. Laura’s happy-go-lucky expression wavers, but only for a second. “Hi, Natasha! You—you look great.”

“So do you,” Natasha says, not just to be polite, but because it’s true. She tells herself she shouldn’t love and feed off of how intimidated Laura is. The girl has no reason to be, but Natasha knows her reputation often proceeds her.

“Clint!”

They all turn to see Kate Bishop, who has dog tags and a stethoscope hanging around her neck. Her friend, America, is right by her side. She doesn’t seem to be wearing a costume and really doesn’t seem to want to be here.

Natasha turns back to Clint and Laura. “You kids have fun.”

“You gonna go find Steve?” Clint asks. Natasha lowers her chin and narrows her eyes ever so slightly, warning him that she doesn’t want to hear it. They haven’t mentioned their conversation outside of Laura’s family’s farm ever since the day it happened and Natasha wants to keep it that way. “All I’ll say is his costume is howling good.”

Laura giggles, tilting her head up toward him. “You really love your puns, don’t you?”

“What can I say? I love ‘em a latte.” Clint wraps his arm around Laura and the way she leans into him is adorable. He’s so gentle with her. That’s what sets this relationship apart from his past ones. If it were any other girl, especially Bobbi, his hand would be on her ass and they’d be swapping spit no matter who sees. Clint is happy to take it slow with Laura. Maybe this is more than a passing infatuation. Maybe this will break the pattern.

“Nat!”

Natasha spins around at her name. She honestly shouldn’t be surprised when she sees Maria wearing a gigantic Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, actual helmet and has a few of her teeth blacked out. Maria plays tennis and she’ll watch football, but hockey is her favorite spectator sport. It does catch her off-guard when Maria rolls right into her, almost knocking both of them down.

“The skates are a nice touch.” Natasha grabs onto Maria’s shoulder to steady the both of them. “But I gotta say, I’m kind of disappointed you aren’t wearing the shoulder pads too.”

“Shoulder pads make my boobs look small!”

Natasha laughs and lets Maria drag her away and through the party until she comes across two familiar faces. Sam is wearing a loud, orange #58 football jersey with a can of Axe and a VHS labeled sex tape taped to him. To complete the look, he’s wearing a comically large ten-gallon hat, glued-on facial hair and thick square glasses.

“Damn girl!” Sam shouts when he sees Natasha. He tugs down on the collar of his shirt, exposing the skin of his neck. “I volunteer as tribute!”  

“I thought you’re a Falcons fan, Falcon!” Natasha shouts over the party noise.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the MVP!”

Natasha sets her eyes on Steve. Werewolf Steve. His costume is impeccable from the brown fur covering his arms to the torn flannel shirt. He prowls toward her and his expression can only be described as wolfish. When the Howling Commandos pass by, all dressed like green Army men, they’re sure to howl appreciatively at Steve, making him laugh and grab his chest.

“Nice costume, Rogers,” Natasha says, sure to smile with one side of her mouth, revealing her vampire fangs slowly and dramatically.

“My mom made it,” he confesses. “That’s lame, I know.”

“No, it’s cool.” Natasha runs her hand over the fur and ripped, red flannel covering his shoulder. “Your mom is the greatest.”

“You look amazing,” Steve says. The way he makes sure not to look at her too long, too appreciatively shouldn’t make her want to step closer to him and try to catch his eyes, but she feels it and fights it. And she hasn’t even started drinking yet. God.

“Um, I think you screwed up your couple costume,” Maria teases. “Aren’t vampires and werewolves like sworn enemies?”

Sam hangs one arm around Maria’s neck. “Aye, it’s forbidden love!”

“Let’s go get a drink.” Maria grabs Natasha by her arm and starts dragging her away again. “Also, you won’t believe who’s in the kitchen acting like it’s her own personal galley.”

“Galley?”

It all makes sense when they walk into the kitchen to find Elektra sitting on the counter, wearing a pirate costume, complete with a red bandana. Feels fitting somehow. She has a plastic cup resting on her knee, watching as Tony, dressed in all black and with an eyepatch, shouts, “Chug! Chug! Chug!” He seems really enthusiastic about whoever is currently being held upside down by viking Thor at the keg stand. The brawny body in a white lab coat has suddenly had enough, pulling away and spewing foamy beer all over the kitchen.

Natasha squints her eyes at the boy who’s clearly dressed as Einstein. “Bruce?”

“Sorry, Banner can’t come to the phone right now, the Hulk is too busy being awesome!” Tony shouts, smiling the biggest smile anyone has seen on him in a while. “Hulk! Hulk! Hulk! Hulk!”

“HULK! HULK! HULK! HULK!” the crowd of jocks chant back.

Thor helps Bruce back to his feet and gives him a hearty smack on the back. Bruce nearly falls forward, but Thor catches him with a hand on his neck. “You did great, my friend! Lasted longer than I ever thought you would. Don’t worry, that’s a compliment! Not that you’ll remember this in the morn.”

“I-I think I’m going to be sick.” Bruce crumples in on himself like he’s about to hurl and just let it all go. Both Natasha and Maria step back instinctively.

“It’s okay, big guy.” Thor, who must be at least halfway to drunk himself, has no fear. He wraps Bruce up in his thick arms and sways from side to side as he almost sings, “Sun’s getting real low…the sun’s getting real low…the sun’s getting real low…”

Tony lifts up the eye patch so he can look at Thor and Bruce with both eyes. “Is everyone else seeing this right now? What the fuck is happening?”

Bruce belches loudly and it ends with a gag, but he reels it in. “Ugh, h-has anyone seen my glasses?”

“Success!” Thor grins triumphant and releases Bruce, sizing up the crowd. “Who’s next? Who dares take on the upside down?”

“Me!” Rumlow steps up. He’s shirtless with boxing gloves on his hands, wearings American flag shorts. He wolf-whistles as he rakes his eyes up and down Natasha in the most intentionally obvious way. She would roll her eyes if she wasn’t already ignoring his existence.

“Where did Pepper and Jane go?” Maria asks.

Tony plops his eye patch back in place and shrugs. “They’re around here somewhere. I’d like to imagine they snuck off to have a pillow fight and whipped cream is involved.”

Natasha tunes out Tony’s most recent wordy fantasy when she accidentally makes eye contact with Elektra.

“You two again?” Elektra empties her cup in one go. “Don’t you look cute.”

“Where’s your boyfriend?” Maria asks. “Last I saw, he was helping Karen with her bra strap. I didn’t peg her for the sexy mouse costume. I thought she would go sexy vampire.”

“I trust Matt to handle himself and I assure you Karen Page is a mouse.” Elektra sets her sights on Natasha, a challenge sparking in her eyes. “Matty told me you have quite the reputation for holding your liquor.”

“I am Russian,” Natasha says plainly.

“And I’m Greek,” Elektra retorts. “Care to put your reputation on the line?”

What is this girl’s problem? Whether Elektra is insecure over whatever Natasha might have had with Matt (which everyone can see is deeply, deeply buried in the past) or she’s just the type of person who needs to assert her dominance by calling out the biggest bitch in the room, it’s irritating as fuck.

“What are we playing for?” Maria asks, inserting herself into the drama because. “Matty Murdock’s heart?”

“You can keep it,” Natasha says quickly.

“Bragging rights,” Elektra replies.

“Good enough for me,” Maria agrees.

“One condition,” Natasha says.

Elektra raises an eyebrow. “Name it.”

“We drink vodka.”

“Go easy on her, Nat,” Maria says, though her tone suggests the exact opposite. She leers at the pirate across the kitchen island, leftover feelings from their encounter during the game against the Devils probably. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, wench.”

A smile spreads across Elektra’s pretty face. “Challenge accepted.”

Natasha doesn’t really drink. She’ll have a beer at a party or at a bonfire, but she doesn’t consider that drinking. After her parents died, when she went to live with Ivan, they spent that first day sitting across from each other, sizing each other up in silence. He obviously did not want to become her guardian. No one bothered to really explain the details to her, but it seemed he had no choice so he poured two shots of vodka and dedicated them to her parents. It didn’t matter that she was a child. It didn’t matter that she hated the smell. She drank it and that was her first taste of the stuff.

When she was dating Alexei, there was no refusing vodka. There was no refusing anything Russian, anything that connected them to their culture. There was a lot of sitting around someone’s basement, taking turns doing shots of the good stuff from the motherland. Natasha absolutely hated when Alexei would act like he was ashamed of her weakness so she pulled on things Fury taught her, locked down her emotions, focused on the mission and took pride in her ability to drink and hold it down.

It doesn’t surprise her that Elektra’s talk exceed her ability to perform. Three shots deep, Natasha is just starting to feel the edges of her brain go fuzzy while Elektra is clinging to the granite counter for dear life. Natasha tosses back another shot and leaves the empty shot glass upside down. Elektra tries to reach for another one and ends up knocking over the empty glasses. She’s done for.

“What the hell is going on here?” Matt Murdock walks into the kitchen, dressed like—surprise—a pirate. He just radiates righteous judgement and it’s still so weird for Natasha to remember she dated the notorious altar boy as brief as it was.

“Just girls being girls,” Maria insists. “Loosen up, Murdock.”

“Don’t bother,” Natasha drawls, playing with an empty glass. “He’ll just blame me like always.”

Matt’s face remains as serious as ever, coming in here like a white knight rescuing a damsel in distress. “Elektra, I think it’s time to go…”

“Nooo.” Elektra pushes on Matt’s chest weakly. “We aren’t done playing…”

“I think you are,” he argues.

“Just so you know, your girl started it,” Maria calls out after Matt, who has to half-carry Elektra away. Maria winces as she watches them go. “Not a good look.” With glassy eyes of her own, Maria collides into Natasha, who plants her feet into the floor to not appear to be swaying, not appear weak. “Let’s celebrate with beer!”

Maria shoves a plastic cup into Natasha’s hand. Her head is foggy at best, but it’s manageable and worth it, putting Elektra in her place. Rumlow steps into Natasha, pressing his beer-dripping chest against her, bumping her enough to make her lose her footing, beer spill down over her fingers. Natasha may be buzzed, but she isn’t helpless. She makes a textbook fist with her free hand and delivers a punch right to his liver. Maria stomps on his foot with her skate just for good measure and says something about finding Sam and Steve. Natasha follows her, sipping her foamy, watered down keg beer. She doesn’t see the way Rumlow watches them as they leave.

 

 

If anything, Tony’s party just gets louder, crazier and sloppier as the night goes on. There are grown men with beards by the pool table and there’s no way they go to their high school or any high school. The DJ is either wearing the East Hell Devil’s mascot head or has a remarkably similar one.

Steve is having a mostly good time. There’s a flash of blonde and arms wrapped around him before he knows what’s happening. Trish is wearing a mask with pointy cat ears, a yellow skin-tight catsuit and leather gloves with claws for finger tips.

“Trish!” Steve hugs her and it feels like they’ve been friends forever. “Catwoman?”

“Hellcat, actually.” She smacks his fur-covered arm. “I’m a little offended, Wolf Boy.”

“My mistake.” Steve scans the room, but doesn’t see Trish’s dark-haired other half anywhere. In his defense, it’s hard to play I Spy in a room of costumed drunk people falling over each other. “Where’s Jessica?”

“Off finding the quality whiskey. I swear she sniffs it out like a bloodhound. You are looking at tonight’s designated driver. If this wasn’t the kind of party you dress up for, I would have said forget it.” Now it’s Trish’s turn to take in their surroundings. “Where’s Natasha? Let me guess, you’re Jacob and she’s Bella.”

Sam, who’s had enough to drink he’s having fun just feeling the music on his own, leans over to invade their conversation. “He’s Jacob and she’s Edward.”

“Ah,” Trish says, though Steve has no clue what they’re referencing. He’s a little unclear how Sam even gets the reference. “Did your mom get the flowers I sent her?”

“Yes, my mom loved them and asked why I never send her flowers.”

Trish beams, truly happy to have pleased his mom. “Flowers are the least I can do. Our interview is the most popular episode on my little podcast and I have you and your mom to thank for that. We should do it again once you take home the championship.”

“Girl, don’t jinx it!” Sam shouts.

“Who’s your drunk, opinionated friend, Steve?” Trish asks.

“Sam. Uh, he took the SAT with us? Maria's boyfriend.”

“Right. Good luck with that one.” Trish gives Sam a pat on the chest and he nearly falls over. “I have time to kill and I have to do it sober…” Trish straightens the collar of Steve’s flannel shirt so it stands right up and stays that way. “Okay, so judging by Natasha’s reaction at the football game last week, she’s so the jealous type! And I am living for it!

Sam’s reddened eyes practically bulge out from behind his fake glasses. “Say what?”

“Come on, Steve! Dance with me. Just one song.” Trish tugs on Steve’s arm. He swallows hard, eyeing the makeshift dance floor where his schoolmates are all squeezed together, gyrating to electronic music under the orange lighting. “Jessica won’t dance with me and no one will get too handsy if they see me with the Big Bad Quarterback.”

“Uh, I would, but I don’t...dance.”

Sam laughs. “You should’a seen ‘im at homecoming. He’s got that eighth grade dance sway!”

“Please, Steve.” Her bottom lip sticks out a lot further than the top and he finds himself going with her when she drags him. Sam laughs even more, even louder, shouting what he thinks are encouragements.

Steve finds himself more than self-conscious, feeling the social pressure, surrounded by bodies that are more grinding than dancing. Trish acts like he’s the only person in the room. She takes his hand and lifts his arm to twirl her before she’s falling back into his chest. She’s so confident. Steve tries his best to let go, forget how stupid he might look or feel. He has a good enough time, trying to forget the rest of the world for once. In the process he misses when Natasha walks into the room and freezes when she sees Hellcat and the Wolf Man. Her eyes don't leave them as she finishes off whatever she’s drinking.

Trish promised it would only be one song and the music shaking the house seems to be an endless stream of synthetic beats, but a minute or two later, they’re pushing their way through nameless faces and twerking bodies to search for water. Sam is no longer in the corner where they left him. There’s no sign of him anywhere.  

They do stumble onto Thor engaged in an intense arm-wrestling contest, beating some guy in a long, red leather trench coat with a loud thump. Everyone explodes with cheers and energy. Thor eats it up. It reminds Steve of playing football in Asgard and how the home crowd had been nearly deafening much to Thor and the Warriors’ advantage. Thor stands, wearing his viking costume well, comically large hammer resting on his shoulder.

“Are you not entertained?” Thor shouts, and he’s met with screams and shouts. A girl with white markings above and below her eyes is rather unimpressed as she drains a 22 oz. glass bottle without stopping. “Who’s next? Don’t be shy. There’s no dishonor in losing to the god of thunder.”

Tony grabs Bruce’s elbow discretely and pushes Bruce’s hand up in the air.

“Banner!” Thor shouts happily. “Step right up, my friend.”

Bruce groans, pushing up his glasses to rub his eyes. “Not sure…not…good idea.”

“It’s a fantastic idea!” Tony eggs him on like only Tony can. “Remember, tonight you aren’t Poindexter Banner. You are the Hulk! The strongest Avenger! Nothing’s going to stop you tonight! Look at this guy, Hulk! You can beat Point Break easy. What does Hulk do? Hulk smash! Smash, Hulk, smash!”

“Your chatter bores me, Stark,” Thor says, pulling no punches.

“I think that’s called peer pressure,” Trish adds.

“Don’t worry, he’s ready.” Tony pushes Bruce into the seat across the table from Thor. “Ladies and gentlemen, be prepared, my buddy, The Hulk, is ready to shock and amaze!” Tony leans down to Bruce and whispers loudly, “C’mon! You’ve got the guns. It’s about time you put those bad boys to work!”

Tony isn’t wrong. Bruce is more into mental exercises, but he is stocky and built strong. Tony has been trying to get Bruce to join the football team to beef up their offensive line, but Bruce has zero interest in football and doesn’t let Tony talk him into things as easily as others. This time might be an exception. Thor and Bruce lock hands. Tony animatedly shouts for them to begin.

Trish leans up to Steve’s ear. “I think I should go find Jessica and make sure she isn’t unconscious in a pile of trash somewhere. Maybe Natasha is buzzed enough to realize denial is stupid and she’s about to rush over and sweep you off your feet.”

“Don’t get my hopes up,” Steve tries to joke, but the sadness creeps in at the end. Trish leans up to hug him and Steve returns the warm embrace. “Tell Jessica I said hi.”

“If you want a sober, safe ride home, we’re taking off at one.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Steve watches Trish until she disappears in the sea of people constantly moving through the house. It would be so much simpler if he wanted to be more than friends with Trish or Sharon or even Lorraine, the rally girl who he saw when he first arrive. She has flowers weaved into her hair, wearing this flowing dress that could be medieval, but also showed off a lot of skin. But he doesn’t. Steve takes a long pull of his water before turning back to Thor and Banner who, much to everyone’s surprise and Tony’s delight, are locked in a stalemate.

“Hi, Steve.”

Steve lowers his water bottle from his lips and turns around to find Sue Storm in a fantastic and fantastically detailed astronaut suit. Her father does work for NASA. It wouldn’t surprise him if her costume was as accurate as it is detailed.

“Hi, Sue. I like your costume.”

“Thank you. Yours is cool too.” Sue shifts from side to side like there’s something she wants to say, but she isn’t quite sure how. He wishes she would just say it. The stalling makes him anxious. “I’ve been meaning to ask you…How’s Bucky doing?”

Steve feels his mood dim exponentially. And suddenly, he doesn’t feel so great. Namely, he hasn’t thought about Bucky once tonight. Steve and Bucky spent every single Halloween together going back to when their moms dressed them up and they could barely waddle from house to house in their neighborhood. They would compete to see who got the best candy by the end of the night. Almond Joys didn’t count.

“As well as anyone could...in his situation,” Steve replies. It isn’t technically a lie, but he doesn’t know Sue well enough to go into the simple, devastating fact that he has no idea.

Sue nods and either she doesn’t know him well enough to tell he’s lying or she’s just too nice to call him out on it. “Well, when you talk to him, tell him I said hi.”

“I will.”

He doesn’t mention that he doesn’t know when he’ll talk to Bucky next, but that isn’t something he’s going to get into with someone who isn’t asking for him to pour his heart out. He isn’t sure he’d tell someone even if they were.

“Excuse me.” Steve’s voice is drowned out by the sound of a rumbling, revving engine and Sue Storm takes off in the direction of the door, cursing her brother under her breath. The room explodes in cheers, the loudest yet, when Bruce slams the back of Thor’s hand down against the table. Even the girl with the white markings on her face smiles, impressed. Tony jumps up and lifts Bruce’s arm in the air, declaring him the victor. Everyone starts to chant, “Hulk! Hulk! Hulk! Hulk!”

Steve feels far from celebrating right now. He feels alone. It wouldn’t surprise him if he left and no one even noticed. He’s about to find Trish and ask for a ride when he spots Natasha. There’s something weird about the way she’s moving. Natasha isn’t just graceful, she’s efficient when she moves. No wasted motion. No wasted energy. Right now, her steps are sluggish, zombie-like, as if she might fall over any second. He watches as she reaches for the doorknob to the nearest room, but her hand misses. She drops her purse, but doesn’t even seem to notice, preoccupied with the damn doorknob.

Steve tries to find Maria, but it wouldn’t surprise him if she and Sam are off having couple time somewhere. He does see Rumlow and Rollins watching Natasha and he doesn’t like it. When they make a beeline for her, Steve moves the quickest he’s ever moved in his life, squeezing between couples making out and dodging stumbling strangers.

“C’mon, we just wanna talk to you,” Rumlow says, wrapping an arm around Natasha’s back. She tries to shove him away, but it’s weak at best. “Just tell us why your daddy won’t play Quicksilver.”

The second Rumlow touches Natasha, Steve sees red. He yanks Rumlow’s arm off of her and shoves the linebacker a good distance. Natasha’s weight falls into Steve and she lets him hold her up. One time, on a field trip, Natasha rolled her ankle. It began to swell and she had to have been uncomfortable, if not in pain, but still, she refused to let anyone help her. Once they got back to school, and she was forced into the nurse’s office, turned out it was a sprain. The way she willingly falls into his chest can only mean something’s wrong.

“Natasha,” Steve says, softening his voice. She's barely conscious, her eyes lulling behind heavy lids and her body limp against his. She tries to talk, but her voice is reduced to slurring sounds. Steve keeps her upright and turns his angry eyes on Rumlow. “Did you do something to her? Huh? Did you?”

“Not my problem Coach’s Daughter had too much to drink,” Rumlow replies. “I was just going to help her find her friends.”

“If I find out you did, I swear to God, you bastard…” Even with one arm occupied, Steve shoves Rumlow hard enough that he falls back into the china cabinet, rattling the glass.  

Right when Steve thinks he can’t hate this guy any more, Rumlow chuckles like all of this is fun to him. “They allow that mouth in church, Cap? Take good care of Coach’s Daughter. I’m sure that’s what your precious Bucky would want.”

The guy is just asking to be punched in the mouth and if Natasha’s head wasn’t falling off his shoulder, her legs threatening to give out any second, Steve would punch him, give Rumlow a face to match his costume. Steve just stands there, watching as Rumlow and Rollins high-five before taking off down into the next room. Only after he reins in his anger does he focus his attention on Natasha. He makes sure she’s steady before reaching down for her purse.

“Natasha…” He brushes her hair out of her face very carefully so he can see her eyes. “Hey Nat, can you hear me?”

Her bloodshot eyes blink open and the dopiest smile spreads across her face. She still has her vampire fangs on. “Steeeve…”

The circumstances are terrible, but she still makes him smile. “Nat, does Coach Fury expect you home tonight?”

She leans into him and when she rests her hands against his chest, it’s not to push him away. She doesn’t answer him either. Steve sighs and has to remind himself that she either had too much to drink or worse, but she’s safe now and that’s what matters. He’s going to keep her safe.

Maria would know what to do. The Stark estate is gigantic and he isn’t sure he can lug Natasha around in the state she’s in. Hobbling to a quieter corner of the study is difficult enough. Steve places Natasha in an arm chair and she bonelessly spills onto the patterned cushion. Natasha prides herself on her alcohol tolerance and she’s too Natasha to put herself in a situation to get this messed up. He can’t ignore the nagging feeling that Rumlow did something, but getting her somewhere she can sleep this off is top priority.

Steve doesn’t have Maria’s phone number so he calls Sam and is send straight to voicemail. He texts Sam and waits a whole, grueling five minutes, but still no reply. Steve tries to call Sam twice more with the same results. Guess he’s on his own.

As uncomfortable as he feels about it, Steve digs through her little purse, happy to find her keys. With one arm around her and her purse under his other, Steve does his best to navigate through the crowded house and down the driveway to where Natasha’s car is parked. He feels weird, knowing a mansion full of people must have seen him lugging around a barely conscious girl and no one tried to stop him or even asked.

Steve gets Natasha in the passenger seat and buckled up without too much trouble. Now begins the fun part. Her Corvette is old and operates with a four-drive manual transmission. Steve never learned how to drive stick shift, but he knows how to in theory. He cringes every time the car makes a noise it probably shouldn’t and he drives so slowly, multiple cars go around him and he can hear Natasha calling him a grandpa in his head.

“W-where a-am I?” Natasha sits up so suddenly it startles him.

“Hey Nat, it’s me.” Steve keeps one hand on the wheel and reaches his other out for her to take. Her hand clamps around his. “I’m taking you home, alright?”

“Steve…” His name comes out as a whimper and he squeezes her hand tight.

Before reaching her house, she drifts off again and asks where she is a second time. Steve wonders if he should be worried about how disoriented she is, but every time he calls out to her, she opens her eyes so she’s responsive at least. She would never forgive him if he brought his mom into this, he knows that much. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.

To his surprise, all the lights are off in her house and Fury’s SUV is missing. Every time he’s been to the house, Fury’s SUV is always in the same spot in the driveway. Did he park in the garage? Is there enough room to park in the garage? He’s never seen the inside of the garage. Steve takes a deep breath and tells himself they can’t just sit out here all night.

Deciding to just go for it, Steve walks around the front of the car and opens Natasha’s door. “Nat…Natasha…” He gives her a gentle shake and her eyes pop open, but it's like she isn't quite there. “Nat, can you stand?”

When she mumbles something he think is Russian and closes her eyes again, Steve wraps her arm around his neck and hoists her out of her seat. He makes sure the car is locked up tight before moving toward the house. After some fumbling with the keys, Steve gets her inside just for the security alarm to go off. Steve panics and almost drops Natasha.

“Fingerprint authenticity required,” a female robotic voice says. “Fingerprint authenticity required. The police will be contacted in three…”

“No!” Steve looks around and sees the lit panel on the wall.

“Two…”

He picks up Natasha’s wrist.

“One…”

He presses her thumb to the panel. A red light scans over her thumb. The panel turns green.

“Welcome home, Miss Romanoff.”

Steve sighs in relief. What the hell? Then again, it shouldn’t surprise him that Fury has some high-tech security system in his house that seems average and unassuming on the outside. Natasha did say Fury was in the security business before becoming a coach. For a brief moment, he wonders if there are cameras in the house and it sends his eyes from one dark corner of the room to the next. He can’t see Natasha being cool with that, but it’s hard to say what Fury is or isn’t capable of.

When she mutters his name against his collar, it prompts him to get his ass moving. Steve scoops her up in both arms and carries her upstairs. He peeks into each doorway, trying to figure out which room is hers. Natasha likes her privacy and even if she didn’t, Fury would probably make sure Steve doesn’t spend enough time in their home to know.

After passing rooms with bare walls and hotel-level neatness, Steve figures the room with the most personality belongs to Natasha. After setting her down on the bed, he takes off her heels and pulls a blanket over her. It’d be ideal if she drank some water and he thinks to have some ready in case she wakes up. He tiptoes down to the kitchen and fills one of those fancy, insulated steel water bottles Fury loves. Steve heads back upstairs, on edge, wondering where Fury is and if he’s just going to pop out of the shadows all of a sudden.

Steve sets the water on the nightstand for when she wants it. He sends a text to his mom, who’s working the night shift, and tells her that he’s safe and he’s just going to crash and see her tomorrow morning. She probably won’t see it until her break, but he knows she trusts him and won’t ask for photo evidence like Sam’s mom does. He just hopes she doesn’t ask where he’s crashing at because he really doesn’t want to lie to her, isn’t sure he can.

“Steve?”

He sees Natasha staring at him with glassy, red eyes.

“Wh-Where am I?” she asks. Her eyes dart around, taking in her surroundings, but it’s like what she sees isn’t clicking in her head.

“Home.” He makes sure to approach her slowly, sits on the very edge of the bed and places his hand over hers. “You should drink some water.”

Natasha groans and wraps her arms around his forearm before he can reach for the water. She rests her cheek on the back of his hand. “Steve…my teeth’re gone…”

He laughs despite how worried he is because, yes, she no longer has her vampire teeth and he has no clue when that happened. “How do you feel? Sick?”

“Fine.” She closes her eyes again, cuddling up to his arm. The sound that leaves him is pure exasperation. Even when she clearly isn’t fine, when she keeps losing track of where she is and fought a friggin’ doorknob, “fine” is still a big part of her vocabulary. “Stay.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll stay.”

“They say that, but don’…never do…Ivan…Matt...James…”

Steve frowns, not knowing what to say. Not like Natasha is really expecting deep conversation right now. She continues to mumble in Russian, names maybe, more people who have let her down. Steve turns his hand over and strokes over her cheek with his thumb, back and forth against her soft, perfect skin. “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”

She seems to relax, her even breaths hot against his skin. Natasha peaks an eye open at him as she presses a kiss to his open palm. Steve feels the heat rise up his neck and his eyes go from the Moscow ballet poster to the music box on the vanity, anywhere that’s not the beautiful mess of a girl who he really, really likes.

“You’re special,” she slurs. “Nice. Beautiful.”

Steve laughs out loud. “Beautiful?”

“Girls think so. Lotsa girls. Blonde girls…Me-haired-girls.” She giggles as she retreats and the sound is so not Nat.

But Steve’s too taken with what she’s just said. He can’t help, but lean toward her with his eyes wide open. “You?”

“No.” Natasha closes her eyes and purses dry, faded red lips. “‘m not special. Not...nice.”

“Natasha, you’re plenty nice,” Steve says strongly. On some level, he’s aware she isn’t in her right mind and she probably won’t remember this in the morning, but facts can’t stop him. “You help me without expecting anything in return, you help anyone who asks and do it with more patience than anyone I know. I heard what you did for Wanda. Natasha, you’re everything.”

Even intoxicated out of her mind, Natasha is still stubborn as hell. Her eyes are wide and glazed when she fights to focus on him. “Not enough. Not…not for you…”

Even when Natasha rolls over and presses her face into her pillow, Steve can’t move. Too busy mentally scratching his head over all of this. He should have just made her drink some water and told her to sleep, not push her to say things she probably wouldn’t say sober. Natasha probably didn’t even know what she was saying so there’s no point in jumping to conclusions. She already looked him right in the eyes and said she wanted a friend. He shouldn’t need to know more than that. That’s enough, Steve. Enough.

It’s late. He would take the couch downstairs, but what if she needs him in the middle of the night? What if Fury comes home after all? Every little sound is going to keep him on edge no matter what. There’s a window seat Natasha could easily curl up on as she reads, but Steve isn’t sure his body will fit. He could try his luck with the wool rug, but the floor is wood, which can’t be good for his back. The window seat it is.

Steve crosses the room, then stops at the vanity mirror. There tucked into the bottom corner is a drawing he did of a ballerina in red crayon. He drew that for her when they were little, when she had first moved to Midgard. Red like your hair, he remembers telling her. He remembers the first time he saw her hair and how he had been obsessed with recreating the exact shade with his art set. It was dumb and not very well done and yet, she kept it all these years.

“Goodnight, Nat.” Steve tries to use the decorative pillows to block out the chill coming from the glass window. He tries to find a comfortable position and keeps staring at his little drawing and glancing over at Natasha every once in a while. She’s facing away from him and twisted up in the sheets, but he can see the way her body rises and falls with every regular breath. He makes sure she’s okay before he can even try to sleep.

As Steve tosses and turns, he misses the way Natasha’s phone lights up in her purse with a string of text messages:

Did you see the vid?

fucking video!

Fuck Rumlow

Clint is going to kill him

Might wanna check him before he reacts stupid

Nat???????

????

??

?

Chapter Text


Track 14 

Street Fighters Mas - Kamasi Washington 

Track 15

Another November - Stolen Jars


 

 

Natasha wakes up, feeling gross and dehydrated and not like herself.

She wakes up alone in her bed at home. Sun shining. Birds chirping. It all just adds to the fuzziness in her head that keeps wandering away into the white nose, fading into the dark. She tells herself to snap out of it, wake up, focus, but the white noise is so loud, the dark so calm and inviting. It buzzes in her ears, nearly unbearable, too much to ignore. It’s so easy to just drift back to sleep. Her eyes slide shut. She returns to the dark and instant comfort. Before she gives in, she tries to remember the night before and realizes she can’t. Nothing. Nothing at all. Not since...

The party.

The feeling, the realization, is a spring-up-out-of-bed level of panic, but it’s like there’s a disconnect between her brain and the rest of her. The first thing she does is a systematic check of her body from head to toe. All fingers and toes are accounted for and wiggle when she tries so there’s that. She’s still wearing her clothes from the party sans heels. Her feet ache, but it isn’t anything private lessons with Madame B haven’t prepared her for.

What’s more concerning is how she can’t remember, well, anything. She walks through what she can recall from the night before: getting dressed, driving to Tony’s, seeing Clint and Laura, Maria on roller skates, feeling up Steve’s fuzzy werewolf arm before even a sip of alcohol, drinking Elektra under the proverbial table, then nothing. Not a thing. No clue as to what else she might have said or done, what might have been said or done to her. No clue how she got home.

Natasha then takes inventory of her surroundings. She doesn’t remember leaving that water bottle on the desk. The pillows on the window seat are all flat and out of order. Parts of Steve’s werewolf costume are on the vanity. Steve. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. He had to have brought her home. Before she even realizes, Natasha lets herself relax. She sits up with great effort, grabs the water bottle and takes a tentative sip. Part of her wants to curl up and go back to sleep, forget everything a little bit longer. More of her needs to know what happened last night.

If she concentrates on listening, ignoring the buzzing, Natasha can hear a faint sizzling sound. She sniffs the air. Meat. Sizzling meat. Bacon.

Somehow, Natasha manages to move to the edge of her bed. She finds a hair tie on the bedside table, smooths down her unruly curls and gathers them all into a messy bun. Next, she reaches for makeup remover, suddenly desperate to erase all evidence of the night before. She trades in the dress for a large shirt that’s purple so it’s probably Clint’s and black leggings. A shower would be ideal, but she needs to know what happened.

Just walking downstairs leaves her winded, leaning against the doorframe, looking into the kitchen. His back is to her as he mans the screaming hot stove. Steve wouldn’t hurt her or take advantage of her. The idea is so ridiculous she doesn’t give it much thought at all. It strikes her how deeply she trusts him. Natasha stumbles into the kitchen, footfalls louder than normal, louder than she’d like, and hugs Steve around the waist, pressing her face into the space between his shoulder blades. He drops his hand over her laced fingers, rubbing comforting little circles around her knuckles. They stay like that for a long moment, Natasha marveling at the feeling, a most unusual feeling. She feels safe.

“Tea?” Steve asks. She spies her trusty black and red tea kettle already warming on the stove. “I don’t know how how your stomach’s feeling after last night, but—”

“What happened?” Natasha drops into the closest chair at the small kitchen table. Nick has never really invested in more furniture than absolutely necessary, knowing neither of them likes having house guests.

Nick.

Natasha turns her head to the kitchen clock so quickly it nearly gives her whiplash. Fury didn’t specify when he would be home, but it has to be sometime today. Whenever he goes away, he usually texts her before he leaves. Shit. Her phone’s upstairs. And probably dead.

Steve sets a mug of herbal tea in front of her and they start with what she remembers from last night. Then, between bites of bacon and toast, he fills in the large blank with his own account. As he goes over getting her away from Rumlow and taking her home, Natasha stares into the tea she’s yet to drink. She can’t help, but wonder what might have happened if Steve hadn’t spotted her, what Rumlow and Rollins might have had planned…

“Don’t do that, Nat,” Steve says quietly. She raises an eyebrow. He thinks he can read her mind, does he? The Black Widow’s mind is an impenetrable fortress. She nearly tells him exactly that, but he interrupts her. “Nothing happened. I would never let it.”

It has never been easy for her to ask for or admit she needs help. Nick Fury raised her to be self-sufficient. He always wanted her to rely on herself before anyone else.

“Thank you,” she whispers. “I owe you.”

“No,” Steve says, anger behind his eyes. “Don’t thank me for doing what any decent person should.”

“Not everyone in the world is as good as you, Steve.”

I’m not, she thinks it, but knows better than to say it. She already feels like crap and doesn’t think she can handle his disapproval. Instead, she lets her head fall into his shoulder and lets her eyes slide closed. It strikes her that she might be leading him on, knowing he likes her more than he should and she’s already shot him down once, but it’s so easy to get sucked into how solid and warm he is and the way he makes her feel shielded and protected and…

No, no, nope.

She doesn’t let herself think that.

She can’t.

Crap.

 

...

 

All Steve wants to do is collapse on his bed and not move from that spot for a solid hour or two. That thought evaporates when he sees a sleek Lexus parked in his driveway alongside his mother’s old car. T’Challa is so reserved and keeps to himself, just about the opposite of Tony, that it’s easy to forget he’s actually royalty. Two women with shaved heads and stern expressions stand guard at his front door. Only can mean one thing.

He’s met with the sound of laughter and the smell of freshly baked apple pie when he gets permission from the two women to enter his own house. T’Challa sits with his mother at the kitchen table, glasses of her famous sweet tea perspiring atop the cream table cloth and two plates with only crumbs leftover.

“Ah, Captain!” T’Challa greets him. “You are not an easy man to track down.”

“Steve! There you are!” Sarah takes his face in her hands and there’s something different about her. The concern is bright in her eyes, which he totally feels bad about, but there’s something else too, something she won’t mention in front of a guest. “T’Challa has been waiting for you to get home. We’ve tried calling your phone, but it goes straight to voicemail. You had me worried sick.”

“Yeah…” Steve pats down his pockets and realizes he doesn’t have his phone on him. “It must’ve died. I think I left it at Nat—” He realizes the confession he’s leading to much too late. “…Natasha’s…”

T’Challa does a poor job of hiding his amusement behind a sip of tea.

“Is that where you stayed last night after the party?” Sarah’s sigh is deep and heavy as she sets her hands on her hips. Steve already expects to be dragged to a confessional by the ear. “Steve, you have to be careful. She’s your coach’s daughter!”

“Mom!”

“And she has big plans for the future you aren’t going to screw up because of your carelessness and teenage hormones,” Sarah continues, despite the expression on her son’s face that says he wants to go crawl into a hole and stay there forever. “Don’t you give me that look, Steven Grant Rogers! Please.”

“In Wakanda, do you know you’re in for it when your ma uses your whole name?” Steve asks.

“In Wakanda, you know much sooner,” T’Challa replies. “It is all in a mother’s eyes.”

“Aren’t you two precious,” Sarah says sarcastically. “I should send you straight to confession, Steve.”

“Before that happens, I was hoping to borrow him if it is okay with you, Mrs. Rogers,” T’Challa says. “We have much preparation to do if we are going to beat Seagate on Friday.”

Sarah crosses her arms like she needs to give this serious thought. Honestly, a part of Steve hopes she doesn’t let him leave the house. He could really use a few hours of decent sleep. Trying to sleep on that little window seat in Natasha’s room with his limbs all twisted up like a pretzel is proving to be one of his dumber ideas.

“Go ahead,” Sarah relents. “I want you home in time for five o’clock Mass, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Steve kisses his mom’s forehead then gulps down two glasses of water. T’Challa bids his mother goodbye and she’s so thoroughly charmed by the Wakandan prince. Steve can’t figure out how T’Challa can be so well rested and put together when he’s sure he saw T’Challa at the party last night, dressed as Jackie Robinson, trying to romance a girl with wild white hair who goes to Xavier School.

“Where are we going exactly?” Steve asks.

“First, we are going to pick up your friend Sam and then we are going to the barber,” T’Challa explains. “I thought to invite Rumlow and make an effort toward peace, but after what he did last night, I refuse to try to cooperate with someone who behaves that way.”

“What did Rumlow do now?”

 

 

After indulging in a long, hot soak in the tub, Natasha proceeds to do more lounging in bed. She finds her phone in her purse—dead. Figures. She plugs it in to charge and once the phone comes back to life, it buzzing over and over again, text after text flooding the lock screen. Natasha often prides herself on being able to take care of herself, and would be fine with being a loner, but knowing there are people out there who care about her, especially a certain blonde quarterback, it’s nice.

Most of the texts are from Maria and make her head hurt even more.

She taps on a link that brings her to Twitter. A video that had been ripped straight from Snapchat is impeded in the tweet that only consists of the bulging eyes emoji. Natasha taps the play button. The camera is shaky, background noise screeching through the speaker. She has a visceral reaction to Rumlow’s distinct laughter. It makes her nauseous almost on cue. The camera moves toward a red-faced Rollins who flips two of his middle fingers up, happier than the asshole has a right to be.

The video jumps to another clip of Rumlow bringing a finger up to his lips with a silent shhhh before slipping a pill into a plastic cup left on the kitchen island. Rumlow quickly scurry away, but the camera stays on the drink that a blonde girl reaches behind her, grabs, and sips. Natasha sits up, suddenly tense, waiting for proof that Rumlow did the same to her. Rumlow and Rollins run away, both erupting in laughter. The clip ends there.

Her eyes dart up to the Twitter handle. Who the hell even posted it?

@aos_quake

Who is that? How do they even steal a video from Snapchat? Is there more?

She clicks the Twitter handle. There is more. More than she’s ready for.

There’s a video that isn’t from Snapchat. It’s also shot canvas and moving so much it’s hard to make out what’s even happening at times. Natasha’s heart starts beating faster when she sees Kate Bishop, Clint’s friend, Hawkeye-in-training, call Rumlow out about putting something in someone’s drink. Rumlow just takes a swig of his beer, ignores her. Kate doesn’t back down. She wouldn’t. When Kate follows him, Rumlow hits her across the face. He hits her with a closed fist, sways on his feet, then laughs. Laughs. The camera drops into darkness as the person filming assumingly ran in to help. At least, she hopes. Natasha sits completely still, sick to her stomach.

That piece of shit.

Rumlow is most certainly, literally dead if Clint already saw this.

She can’t trust her memories from last night, but she knows Clint was with Laura and wasn’t drinking. The chances he left early to take her home before curfew are high. In the video, the party is less crowded than a Stark party usually is. That had to be later into the night.

The latest tweet is a screen shot of Rumlow from the video alongside his football team picture day photo in his Avengers uniform with his helmet under one arm, respectable for Rumlow. It’s unmistakable. That’s him. Natasha doesn’t even hover. She hits the retweet button. Her account is private, of course. The last thing she wants is Fury or future employers to see her undying love for cat videos. @aos_quake, however, is public and already has double digit retweets and replies about what a scumbag Rumlow is.

One reply, however, rocks her to her core.

He’s a football player. He’ll get away with it.

If Clint has any inkling of what’s going on, Rumlow will be lucky to get away with a bloody nose. Clint isn’t big on social media and he forgets to charge his phone most of the time so there may be a chance for her to get ahold of him before he does something stupid.

Natasha tries to call Maria, but it goes to voicemail. She throws her blanket off her legs and gets out of bed. As much as she wants to lounge for the rest of the day and not think about anything, she has investigating to do. First, she’s going to try to track down Clint. Then go to Tony’s. He’s a self-proclaimed tech genius (nerd). If anyone knows anything about this stuff, it’s him. If anyone can provide more video from last night, proof of what happened to her, it’s him.

 

 

“Sam’s house is just down this—hey, there’s Sam.”

There’s Sam just walking down the street with a certain swag to his step. What’s more unusual are leaves and twigs caught in his hair. He has his orange jersey from the night before hanging over one shoulder and the fake glasses resting on the collar of his undershirt that’s stained with dirt along with his jeans. 

“Sam!” Steve shouts out the window as T’Challa’s car slows at his side. “We were just coming to pick you up. Why do you look like you just fell into a bush?”

T’Challa smirks from behind the wheel. “Seems you were not the only one caught doing the walk of shame this morning, Captain.”

“I was walking Maria to her door and her parents pulled up so she pushed me into a bush! She hasn’t told them we’re dating yet. And, ay, the fact that Maria’s dad owns a flower shop doesn’t change the fact that he is scary as fuck.” Sam yanks on the door and throws himself into the back seat. “Where did you walk of shame home from, hmm, Cap?”

Steve turns his withering expression from T’Challa to Sam. “You’d know if you answered your phone last night! I was trying to get ahold of Maria. It was kind of important.”

“Yeah, what we were busy doing was kind of important too.” Sam turns to the woman beside him in the back seat and holds his hand out. “Hi. I’m Sam.”

She doesn’t reply, just assesses him as a non-threat and turns to face forward.

“Where are we going anyway?” Sam asks, pulling a leaf from behind his ear.

“We’re going to see someone who can fix that fade, Wilson,” T’Challa replies.

Steve stares out the window at the dry stretch of Texas land as Sam defends his haircut. He lets his mind wander, glad Sam is easily distracted and doesn’t ask questions. Natasha didn’t ask him to keep what happened a secret, but he knows her. She’s angry about it, but also embarrassed and he isn’t going to go around telling people. At some point Steve dozes off and when he wakes up to a smack on his shoulder, he blinks awake.

They’re in Harlem’s Paradise. Outside a barber shop called Pop’s.

“Hujambo!” A man in a fedora and a collared shirt crosses his arms in an X over his chest. T’Challa smiles brightly and mimics the gesture in return.

“Pop, good to see you again!” T’Challa shakes the man’s hand. “I brought you two new customers.”

“Wait, wait, wait, lemme guess.” Pop stands back and strokes his chin, looking at Steve first. “You have to be the quarterback, Steve Rogers. I’ve been hearing a lot about you. Enough to get our Seagate boys yappin’. A lot. And you…” He turns to Sam now. “Too small to be a linebacker. I bet those chicken legs got some hops. Wide receiver, right?”

“Chicken legs?” Sam makes a face.

“It was a compliment, young fella,” Pop assures him with a great, infectious laugh. “What I would give to be eighteen and move the way you boys can!”

“Pop, I told Sam you were the only one who could fix his unfortunate fade,” T’Challa says.

“Right you are.” Pop spins his empty chair and motions for Sam to sit.

“Don’t worry, I drove you here as a surprise. Haircuts are on me,” T’Challa insists. He gives a nod to a giant of a young man in a yellow hoodie who keeps his head down as he sweep the scuffed shop floor. “Luke.”

“Your Majesty,” Luke says with a bit of a teasing tone to his deep, baritone voice. He clasps hands with T’Challa in greeting and continue on with a kind of complicated handshake that ends with exchanged smiles and chuckles.

“Steve.” Sam nods to a piece of paper clinging to the wall with clear scotch tape: 

MUHAMMAD ALI
NELSON MANDELA
RICHARD ROUNDTREE
AL PACINO

and

NICKY FURY

DON’T PAY
EVERYONE ELSE DOES!
NO CREDIT!

Sam breaks out in laughter. “I’m sure Coach would cash in if he had hair.”

“Boy, you should respect the sign when the man who created it s’got clippers near your ears,” Pop scolds him. “Lemme tell you about your coach back when Midgard and Asgard were just Gard and Nick Fury was the man. He had the entire offensive lines with their heads on swivel! Fasted DE in Texas history. Quarterbacks would have nightmares before facing Nick Fury. Hell, his damn name is a badass nickname in itself. And he had a whole head o’ hair back in his day.”

“Anyone even close to that on the Seagate team?” T’Challa asks.

The man reading his newspaper behind a chess board gives a, “Mhmmm. Insider trading.”

“There’s nothing wrong with talking a little football, Fish,” Pop insists. “Not that we have the keys to the castle to give ‘em. I bet you boys know more with all the tape Coach Fury makes you study, ain’t that right?”

“Of course,” T’Challa says. “Just making friendly conversation.”

“Is it true they all have snake nicknames?” Sam asks. “What’s up with that?”

“The field is called the snake pit and though they are terrible on the road, they haven’t lost a single game at home this season,” Pop explains. “Talk to anyone around here and you’ll find those boys can call themselves whatever they want as long as they keep winning ball games.”

“This is why you brought us here?” Steve whispers to T’Challa. “To get dirt on Seagate?”

“Recon, Captain.” T’Challa stares at the top of his head. “And you really could use a haircut.”

Steve ducks his head and runs his fingers through his hair that could probably use a wash more than anything. In truth, he’s never had a haircut from someone who isn’t his mother. He never particularly cared, especially when money was tight. This is going to be a first.

The mood in the room is easy, casual. That’s before the bell on the door jingles and there’s an immediate shift. Cornell Stokes enters the shop. He’s lanky with sharp, angular facial features, but his presence is larger than life. The guy is a prototype wide receiver and a Seagate star. Sam wasn’t wrong about the team being full of snakes. Cornell Stokes goes by Cottonmouth.

“I see we got some new business,” Stokes says in a deep voice that doesn’t quite match his gangly exterior. Not yet anyway. He walks slowly, drinking in the sight of T’Challa, then Sam and finally Steve, which makes him laugh. “You boys are a long way from home.”

Sam doesn’t like the patronizing tone. “It’s a free country.”

That just makes Stokes laugh. “Not for all of us, my nigga.”

“Hey,” Sam snaps. “I’m not your anything.”

Stokes tenses much like a snake about to strike. His two friends are at his back, not reacting, but watchful, ready to step in if told to.

“I’ve seen you before,” Stoke says, taking a step closer to Sam. “You’re that new guy over in Midgard. Falcon, right? I hear you’re into them white girls. That true?” Stokes breaks out in a big grin. “I see you, bruh.”

“Hey, don’t talk about my girlfriend like that, man, and I ain’t your bruh neither.”

“Who do you roll with over in Midgard?” Stoke takes a turn, circling Sam in expensive leather shoes. “Until today, I haven’t seen you following T’Challa around like the rest of his helpless pussy cats. No, you hang with this slice o’ white bread right here and that little rich bitch, Stark, like some kind of house nigga.”

Sam jumps out of his seat, caring little for what it might do to his hair. T’Challa is quick to act, to hold Sam back. Steve realizes he’s just frozen and can’t do more than watch.

“Stokes, you know the rules.” Luke Cage is the one to speak, standing tall and towering over everyone else in the shop. “Pop’s is like Switzerland. Neutral territory. Everyone acts accordingly. Isn’t that right?”

Stokes holds Luke’s stare for a long moment before breaking out into a smile that’s more dangerous than expressing any kind of emotion. Suddenly, it’s like everything else falls away as Stokes figuratively circles Luke, pursing his lips, calculating.

“You spilling all our secrets, Luke? Giving the enemy the blueprint to beat us?”

Luke relaxes, leaning against the broom handle, showing no fear whatsoever. “I don’t know if they need a blueprint. Your quarterback is volatile. Run game is soft. All they have to do is keep from making their own mistakes and let you beat yourselves.” Luke gives the Avengers a wink that makes T’Challa and Sam laugh, but the entire situation just makes Steve uncomfortable.

“You’re lucky Pop is protecting your ass,” Stokes continues to push. “Don’t you fucking forget that.”

Luke crosses the room to grab a red and yellow tin can with swear jar written across it. He shakes the can in front of Stokes and says, “Pay up.”

Stokes’ smile disappears and it transforms his entire face into something darker, something mean. Both Stokes and Luke seem so much older than their young age. Steve has heard things about Harlem’s Paradise. People say the kids who grow up here, who grow up in and on the streets are forced to grow up sooner than most. He’s seeing it firsthand now.

Without another word, Stokes walks out the front door, letting it slam shut behind him. One of his buddies stuffs a hundred dollar bill into the can before following him out. The third, a kid wearing sunglasses indoors, mutters a, “See you around, deserter.”

Stokes and his friends leaving diffuses the tension in the shop, but not by much. Luke puts the Swear Jar back on the counter and heads straight to the back room.

“There you go.” Pop unbuttons the sheet draped over Sam and brushes off his shoulders. “QB1, you’re up.” Sam checks himself out in the mirror as Steve takes his place. “What are we thinking, Captain? Clean up the sides, a little off the top?”

“Just so it’s not in my eyes?” Steve suggests unsurely.

“I hear ya,” Pop says as he gets to work. “Now try to keep your chin straight and let Pop take care of ya.”

“Pop…” T’Challa lowers his voice. “Is it true Luke used to play for Seagate?”

“Mhmm.”

Steve hears a snip and watches bits of blonde hair fall to his chest.

“He played. Made varsity his freshman year. Skilled, athletic, fast for his age and his size. Kid’s built like a linebacker. With Willis Stryker—Diamondback—slinging the ball to Cornell—Cottonmouth—and Luke running the ball, they had championship contender written all over ‘em. Everyone could feel a chip coming to town. Finally.”

“What happened?” Sam asks.

Pops hesitates, but only for a second. “There was an incident. Hazing. It happens everywhere. Everyone knows it happens, but everyone turns a blind eye. Just boys being boys, you know. Well, one of the boys, Reginald, died.”

“Damn shame,” Bobby says. “Squabbles was a good kid.”

“A good friend of Luke’s,” Pop continues. “The next day they ruled the death an accident and no one talked about it anymore. Everyone forgot poor Squabbles, except Luke. He quit the team. Everyone gave him a hard time for it, but Luke’s got thick skin, he knows the different between wrong and right, even better than I do.”

Pop rubs some styling substance into Steve’s hair and runs a comb through it. Steve doesn’t really put anything in his hair, least of all effort, never even really thought to. More often than not, he pulls a hat on before running out the door. It's a lot neater and cleaner now. His mom would probably approve.

“Thank you.” Steve holds his hand out and Pops is so amused as he shakes his hand.

“You’re welcome here any time, QB1.”

“Pops, any suggestions on where three Avengers can grab a bite to eat?” T’Challa asks.

“The diner on 39th and 3rd Ave is good,” Bobby butts in. “Luke likes the ‘coffee’ there.”

Pop laughs, boisterous and loud. It’s hard not to like the guy. “Hey, Luke! Why don’t you take your break now and take Fury’s boys to that diner you like?”

 

...

 

Clint isn’t answering his phone. It isn’t surprising, but it is annoying.

Natasha goes as far as driving to the Barton house, but Barney tells her Clint left for work (“Or so he said…”) and took the dog with him. Probably Laura’s farm. Would it be weird to just show up there? The last thing anyone needs is for her to break the news to Clint and watch him go on a warpath in front of Laura’s family.

Maria does answer her phone. Finally. That’s where she heads next. After some small talk with the Hills, they head back to the scene of the crime—Tony’s.

It isn’t until they’re in her car that Maria asks how her night was. Natasha doesn’t answer right away. Truthfully, she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t even want to think about it. Nothing happened. There’s nothing to report. Who needs to know other than her and Steve? But then she thinks, Rumlow knows. And Rollins. Other people at the party who saw and didn’t think twice. Rumlow can’t get away with it so Natasha explains what little she remembers and the details Steve provided. Maria goes very stiff, very serious, almost guilty.

“I should have—”

“Maria, I’m not your responsibility,” Natasha cuts her off. She grips the wheel tighter than normal, sits straighter and keeps her eyes forward. They aren’t the kind of friends who talk about feelings and whatever. She’d rather not start.

“No, but I’m your friend,” Maria says sharply. “I could act like it once in a while.”

Natasha shrugs a shoulder, feeling Maria’s eyes on her and knowing she looks like shit. Her eyes feel swollen and heavy. Her head is still a little foggy. She probably needs sleep, but there’s too much to do. “It’s one of those things you hear about, but you never think will happen to you until it does.”

“I’m going to knee Rumlow in the balls.”

“Get in line,” Natasha says, only slightly amused. “Any idea who @aos_quake is?”

“Self-proclaimed hacktivist. I spent last night and this morning scrolling through the profile. No other identifying info.”

“At least we know we have allies. Someone recorded that video probably from a phone. Someone who was invited or at least got word of a Stark party.”

“That isn’t exactly anything to go by,” Maria argues. “I swear there were thirty-year-old vultures hanging around last night. If Thor and half of Asgard showed up, there’s no telling who else from other schools were there too.”

Natasha sighs, trying to keep her frustration from distracting her. “Hopefully, Tony has something for us.”

The rest of the ride is spent in silence other than the moody music playing from the car speakers. It suits Natasha’s mood and she just lets herself drown in the sound for a while.

 

 

By the time they reach Tony’s house, there’s a van for a cleaning service parked outside and at least a dozen people inside, wearing the same polo, manning different cleaning devices. Natasha and Maria invite themselves right in through the open front door and find Tony eating a bowl of cereal in his pajamas.

Maria has no time to waste on pleasantries. “Did you see the video?”

Tony remains unmoved. “There’s a video?”

“Rumlow. Kate Bishop,” Maria says. “It needs a fucking trigger warning.”

Tony groans into his cereal and rubs his eyes. “I didn’t see it happen. I was…occupied. Happy told me about it. He and a bunch of the Commandos threw Rumlow out on his ass and Pepper made sure the girl was okay and got home safe. Now there’s a video apparently! Does it look bad? Can you tell it’s my house?”

“It’s kind of hard to mistake for literally anywhere else in Midgard,” Maria replies.

“All you care about is saving your own ass,” Natasha says, more statement than question.

“What do you want me to say?” Tony asks. “Rumlow is an asshole. He’s banned from future Stark parties. I didn’t fucking want him here in the first place. We’ll make a wall of shame and post it at my front door. Does that make it better?”

“No,” Natasha replies, “but it’s a start. You had those drone things flying around and taping the party, right? I need all the footage. I need you to text everyone you know, everyone I haven’t already got, have them send pictures from last night. Anything and everything, especially if Rumlow is in the background.”

Tony taps out his passcode on the screen of his phone and slides it over to Natasha. “Just don’t read my text messages. The ones between me and Rhodey can get particularly steamy.”

Natasha rolls her eyes, but doesn’t comment. She’s a little surprised he’s giving her full access to his phone and so easily, but she isn’t about to ask questions and make him second-guess himself. She doesn’t snoop through his text messages, but it’s hard not to notice who’s at the top of his most recent ones—Pepper, Happy, Rhodey and…Darcy Lewis? Natasha restrains her curiosity and creates a big group chat. She tries to make it sound casual like Tony just asking for pictures to admire his handwork. She adds a few emojis with the sunglasses for good measure.

“Clint is going to murder Rumlow,” Tony says plainly.

“He might have already,” Maria says. “We can’t get ahold of him.”

“It’s going to be a blast trying to win a football game with those two on the same unit and by ‘blast’ I mean impossible fucking nightmare,” Tony complains, standing up from his chair. It strikes her then how football, something she priorities without thought, is the last thing she cares about right now. “I’ll transfer all the footage from my drones onto an external hard drive for you. It might take a sec. Make yourselves at home.”

Tony leaves the kitchen, sluggish and hungover. Maria goes through the refrigerator, a literal approach to Tony’s parting words. Natasha sits, forwarding photos to herself as Tony’s phone buzzes and buzzes. So many pictures of underage drinking, smoking, vaping sent with little thought of consequences. Then again, Tony is probably the least likely to nark. Natasha cares a lot less about that. She cares more about finding visuals to match what she heard happened to her and making Rumlow fucking pay.

 

 

It’s more than obvious why Luke Cage likes this specific diner when Claire Temple introduces herself as their waitress. Just the sight of her brings a cool, flirty smile to his stoic face. Claire has a kind of worldliness about her that comes from living her entire life in this neighborhood and knowing all the characters and all their antics. Luke is no exception. Except maybe he kind of is with the way she smiles from over her shoulder on her way to the kitchen.

“Think she’d be into me?” T’Challa asks with a knowing smirk.

Luke chuckles, tracing the rim of his coffee cup with his fingertip. “An actual royal who can whisk her away and literally treat her like a queen? You’d have to wait until after she graduates nursing school and gets her license. That one’s got dreams and no time to waste on any boy who’s going to stand in her way, not even a prince.”

“Don’t you worry, I know exactly what that is like.” T’Challa’s smirk softens like he’s thinking about someone from home. He barely talks about Wakanda, let alone the people he left behind.

“What is a Wakandan prince doing in Texas of all places?” Luke asks. “If you don’t mind me asking…”

Sam turns his attentive eyes to T’Challa, just as curious.

“My father is open to diplomacy,” T’Challa explains. “Not everyone back home agrees, but it is what he thinks is best, how we grow. Some day I’ll take his place. It wasn’t my idea to leave home, but my father’s argument is how am I supposed to learn to work with other countries for the betterment of the world as a whole when I’ve never experienced life outside of Wakanda’s walls?”

“Damn,” Sam curses. “And I thought my dad sending me to summer camp was rough.”

“So what do you think of our country so far?” Steve asks.

“Well…” T’Challa’s face turns thoughtful. “The lack of affordable health care for everyone is appalling. The way a bunch of men think they are more qualified to make decisions about women’s bodies than women themselves is unacceptable. Black men and women being shot, killed, harassed because of biases and baseless fear is an epidemic and should be treated as such. The public education system is a joke and teachers are barely paid yet paying out of their own pockets for school supplies. I do enjoy the NBA. Viktor Oladipo, he is my guy.”

While Steve and Sam stare blankly, Luke chuckles and sips his coffee. “And you think you’re going to change all of this one day?”

“I can try,” T’Challa says, so sure of himself. And in this moment he sounds so much older than his seventeen years. “I can lend a hand in any way I can. I’ll start with the Avengers football team and someday, the world.”

Luke nods, his dark eyes gleaming. “Respect. Though if you’re interested in ball of the basket variety, you have to learn your history. Basketball back in the day where refs weren’t so trigger-happy with their whistles and every night was straight bully ball, that’s real basketball.”

“Yeah?” Sam asks, intrigued. “And who’s your team, Cage?”

“The New York Knicks.”

Both Sam and T’Challa burst out laughing, prompting Luke to square his shoulders and list all of the accomplishments of the New York City Knickerbockers. Steve has never been a huge basketball fan. It’s always been football and baseball for him, but it’s nice to sit around and just chat. It’s nice to see T’Challa off the field and in this different light. He takes being a leader to a whole different level.

A group of boys walk in, only wearing the finest brand name clothes and thick ropes of gold around their necks. Luke tenses across their little back booth and puts on his stoic face yet again. “See the guy in the middle there? Willis Stryker. Quarterback. Diamondback. Thinks he’s clever. And…he’s my…half-brother.”

They try to be discrete as they glance over. Steve has watched some film on the Seagate quarterback in preparation for the week ahead. Stryker has one hell of an arm and good feet. He can more swiftly in the pocket and will not hesitate to tuck the ball and run. That’s something he and Steve have in common. Behind a decent offensive line, he’s good. The defense is going to have their hands full.

“Dysfunctional family drama,” T’Challa mutters under his breath. “Not even future kings are exempt from that.”

“They sure have expensive taste,” Sam points out.

Luke’s expression darkens further. “I love Harlem’s Paradise, but it isn’t an easy place to live. Playing football opens doors with some of the heavy hitters in town if you know what I mean…”

Steve thinks about Mayor Pierce and the offer extended his way.

Suddenly, gun shots ring out through the streets. Steve and Sam duck instinctively. T’Challa’s security detail springs into action, going as far as to cover him with their bodies. Everything freezes, but only for a few moment before everyone goes back to what they’re doing. The chatter starts back up and the waitresses continue to dance around the room, taking care of their tables.

“Uh,” Steve mutters. “Is that…?”

“Normal?” Luke shrugs his massive shoulders and sips his coffee. “Welcome to paradise, Avengers.”

 

 

Two more games determine if the Avengers make the playoffs.

Not only do the Avengers have to win this last game of the regular season, but Thor and the Warriors have to beat the Kree for them to make it to the regional round. Their fate is in their hands, but also not. Since the Warriors are a lock for the playoffs, there has been talk that they plan to rest all their starters for the last game. If they lose that game, it’s inconsequential to them, but knocks the Avengers out of the playoff picture.

“Have you met anyone from Asgard? They aren’t going to go easy in a game even if they already have a playoff spot. Thor is as hot as a pistol, folks, and if he can help his team overcome some of those blue freaks that means our Avengers will be in the playoff. And trust me, they will.”

“Did you just speak it into existence?”

“I sure did.”

“Well, whatever happens, it all starts with Friday night. Road games are always hard, but going into Seagate is like going to another planet and the team is looking mighty hard. The hogs are out of the gate, the clock is ticking and it is on!”

Fury tries to push the stupid talk radio out of his head and schedules a team meeting early Monday morning. This could be their last game of the season and they’re going to sprint to the finish line.

“Take a knee, gentlemen,” Fury says. “I called this meeting because I need you all to be in the right frame of mind, not only when we’re practicing or on the field. You need to be prepared around the clock, twenty-four/seven. For this next week, you eat, breathe, sleep football. I know a lot of things have to go right for us to even make the playoffs. This week we are going to focus on what we can control. Some things are out of our control. That’s life. We aren’t going to let that knowledge shake us. We’re going to keep working like we always do. Also, the Annual Woman’s Booster League Rodeo Fundraiser and Fair is this Saturday.”

The players let out a collective groan. Fury's menacing stare shuts them up fast.

“Like I was saying,” Fury continues. “These ladies do a lot for us and support us every week so I expect to see each and every one of you at the fundraiser on Saturday. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the boys respond collectively.

Before Fury can start talking about the Seagate tape they should have already started to study, he sees Barton walking toward them. More marching. Hands balled into fists. Picking up more speed and momentum the closer he gets. Negative energy radiates off the young cornerback and the expression on his face can only be described as determined rage.

“Mr. Barton,” Fury says. “Fashionably late, I see. You know the consequences—”

Fury doesn’t finish his sentence before Clint textbook tackles Rumlow to the ground and starts punching him, landing merciless blow after blow straight to the face. It leaves everyone frozen, shocked, questioning if this is even real. It’s Rollins who finally reacts, trying to yank Clint away. Soon, more hands join, pulling Clint off of Rumlow. Not before blood trickles down from Brock’s nose and Clint’s knuckles come away red.

“Barton!” Fury bellows. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“How do you like that, you piece of shit!” Clint yells, eyes locked on Rumlow. It’s as if no one else is around. “You like punching girls, huh? How about you try someone who punches back just as hard?”

“You’re crazy!” Rumlow shouts with blood dripping from a cut on his lip and another above his eye.

“I’m not even close to done!” Clint lunges forward and it takes three other boys and an assistant coach to keep him at bay.

Just as Fury starts yelling in an attempt to restore some kind of order, a police car pulls into the parking lot and uniformed officers make their way across the green grass towards them. Shit. Everyone goes quiet and still, even Clint. This is the last thing anyone needs on a goddamn Monday morning the last week of the regular season.

“Can I help you, officers?” Fury asks.

“Sorry to interrupt your practice, coach.” The officer tips his hat respectfully. “We’re here for Brock Rumlow. We’ve got a warrant for ‘im.”

Lowering his voices, Fury asks, “What do you got on him?”

“Assault.”

Fury doesn’t know what to say to that, not like he can argue, so he doesn’t say anything, just watches as one of the officers pulls out a pair of thick steel handcuffs. Rumlow, trying to staunch his bleeding face with his shirt, tries to laugh and ask if this is some kind of joke, insists that Barton is the one who belongs in cuffs, but the officer just has him put his hands behind his back while the other reads him his rights. Everyone on the field, from the water boy to the cheerleaders practicing not too far off, just stare as Rumlow is hauled off.

“Fucking Monday,” Fury murmurs under his breath.

 

 

News of Rumlow’s arrest and Clint beating the shit out of him travels fast. Long before the morning announcements, it seems like everyone is whispering about it and watching the video, keeping their phones hidden under their desks.

“It’s stupid,” Jack Rollins tells a bunch of students gathered around him. “It’s not like he raped her.”

“Oh, so assault without the sexual part is just fine,” Maria spits back at him.

“She shouldn’t have gotten in his face like that. It’s her fault this happened to her.”

“You seriously believe that?” Jane asks, getting just as worked up.

“When Steve Rogers punched me in the face I didn’t bitch out to the police, did I? You girls want equality and shit then when we give it to you you want to cry bullshit. You can’t have it both ways.”

“Steve Rogers didn’t knock you out cold then laugh at a camera. Your friend is a sadistic fuck and—”

“Sadistic fuck or not, we need him to win the game on Friday or we’re screwed.”

“Football?” Natasha asks. It’s the first time she’s speaking up and she does it without really realizing. “With everything going on, that’s your biggest concern right now?”

“Isn’t it yours?” Jack asks. “All Fury cares about is football. If he can burry Barton’s groupie then he will. That’s why he’s the best.”

Natasha shakes her head, goddamn floored. Right as Maria and Jane are about to launch another verbal attack on Rollins, Mrs. May walks into the the classroom. The bell rings shortly after and everyone takes their seat without having to be told. If Mrs. May feels the tension in the air, she doesn’t bring attention to it. 

Natasha spends most of the class period thinking. If she wasn’t drugged by Rumlow and it had been some other girl, not Kate, but some faceless underclassman, would she feel the way she does now or would she still care about their chances of winning a football game? Would she be trying to help Fury figure out a way to wiggle out of this and steal a win? What does that say about her as a person? What does that say about Fury? The hypothetical haunts her.

Most of her free time is spent in the library, clicking through all the party video footage and photos she collected on her laptop. There’s so much of it, but that doesn’t stop Natasha. When she wants—needs—something this badly, nothing can.

 

 

Fury sits behind his desk as Steve, Tony and T’Challa stand on the other. They’re the captains of his team. Not only does he expect them to lead by example on the field, but off the field. Steve’s face is hard and cold like a safe with dark secrets hidden behind a brittle paper-thin door. Just waiting to be cracked. Unusual for him. Tony is talkative. Not unusual, but this degree has a franticness about it. Guilt. T’Challa shows him the videos. Those goddamn videos.

“Damn kids and your social media,” Fury mumbles under his breath. “We’ve yet to make the playoffs, I’m already taking heat for my decision to bench Maximoff and now I have to deal with this Rumlow situation? Listen here, from now on when you’re out, you three, you hear something, you see something, you stop it before it can escalate. As leaders of this team, that’s apart of your job now. We clear?”

“Yes, sir,” the three answer in unison.

Fury leans back in his desk chair, exhausted before the day even started. “Good. Now get to class.”

 

 

“Sam, are you even listening to me?”

The train of thought going at warp speed in his head crashes when he notices Maria’s annoyance that quickly turns into concern. “Yeah, Rumlow’s a dick. Rollins is a dick. You’re going to kick someone in the balls?”

“Yeah, we officially know each other too well because I know for a fact you weren’t listening.” Sam groans like he knows he’s just been caught, resting his head on Maria’s thigh and gazing up at her face that’s softer than he expected. “What’s on your mind, Wilson?”

He hesitates for maybe a second, then blurts out, “Have you noticed I’m the only black guy in our group of friends?”

Maria blinks at him and what he hopes doesn’t register as regret on his face. “Did you forget Rhodey?”

“Rhodes is Tony’s friend. And congratulations! You named another black guy!”

“What’s your point, Sam?”

“I don’t know… Something someone said to me the other day…” Sam closes his eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of Maria’s fingers carding through his freshly cut hair. “I’ve lived all over the world, but mostly in military housing.”

“I know a thing or two about what that’s like.”

“And I never really hung out with anyone else who looked like me. What does that say about me? I don’t even know why it matters so much…” Sam sits up, resting his forearms on his thighs and leaning forward. “I don’t know how to explain it…”

And he doesn’t get a chance to try, not when Maria takes off like a rocket. Sam’s left staring after her, confused, but then he sees what got her moving so fast. Rollins harassing a pair of girls—one in a purple hoodie and the other in American flag-print. Shit. He knows what’s happening almost immediately and races after her.

“Do you know they hauled him off to jail?” Rollins spits at the girls. “And you have the nerve to show up to school like nothing happened? How does it feel to be the most hated person in Midgard, you little bitch?”

“I said leave me alone,” Kate hisses. She has the hoodie of her jacket up over her raven hair, casting a shadow over the top half of her face, but the heavy concealer is obvious enough, along with the bandage under her eye.

“You heard her.” Maria puts herself between Rumlow’s lackey and the underclassmen girls. “Fuck off, Rollins.”

“I’m just having a conversation here,” Rollins says.

“A conversation and harassment are two different things.” Steve rides in like the white knight he is and his presence alone puts Sam at ease, though Rollins doesn’t seem any more intimidated.

“What, Rogers? Are you going to hit me again so I can cry assault too?”

“No,” Steve says calmly. “After everything that happened, the coaches are going to be watching us to see how we react. Harassing Kate isn’t going to make a case for stable, in-control and ready for Friday. Cut it out, Rollins. I mean it.”

“You heard the Captain,” Sam says just to drive the message home.

Rollins curses under his breath, but it’s obvious he’s more than a little lost without Rumlow here to take the lead. After shooting Kate one last look of disgust, he walks away and takes the rest of the goons he calls friends with him. Maria immediately turns to Kate to ask if she’s alright, but the girl runs off without another word. Probably embarrassed or shaken.

“You think he was the first one to say something to her?” America scowls before running off to catch up with her friend.

“And he probably won’t be the last,” Maria says. “People suck.”

“We wax poetic about how football is life and Texas is the soul of football, but then we treat others like crap all in the name of football. I love the game, but that right there, it’s bullshit,” Sam muses. “But what can we do about it, huh?”

“We do whatever we can to help,” Steve says, though it’s unclear if he even knows what that entails. “Rumlow should get kicked off the team, expelled, something. There has to be consequences and Kate Bishop shouldn’t be the one suffering from them.”

“Too bad that’s not our call,” Maria says.

“No,” Sam says. “It’s Fury’s.”

 

 

Apparently Flash Thompson pulled something and has been ruled out for the upcoming game, his linebacker is in jail and his cornerback who beat up his linebacker before he was hauled off to jail sat outside the principal’s office for a whole forty-five seconds before taking off, leaving campus without permission. What a mess.

Fury doesn't even know what to do at the running back position. He always knew both Rumlow and Barton were live-wires and potential problems. Out of all his players, those two are the most likely to get stuck living their entire lives in this town and they both know it. There’s always been resentment and anger simmering beneath the surface. He thought he could contain Rumlow. He thought Clint had really started to turn his life around. He was wrong about both.

Instead of stressing over either of those two, Fury takes his own advice and takes charge of what he can control. The principal over at Seagate, Mariah Dillard, is one tough ass cookie. If Fury is going to negotiate with her, he’s going to need some backup.

At lunchtime, he knocks on the door to the history classroom. Melinda May sits at her desk, reading The Art of War for what’s probably the hundredth time. The woman takes no prisoners. May and Coulson had been the dynamic duo of getting shit done at this school. Most were surprised she didn’t follow him when he took the head coaching job for the Shields.

“What do you want, Fury?” May asks. Her tone implies she has no time for bullshit. She rarely does.

“A favor.”

She lowers her book away from her face, giving him a great view of her withering expression. “No.”

“Ah, I thought you’d say something like that.” Fury idly spins the globe sitting on the corner of her desk.

May sighs. “What’s the mission?”

“When we hosted Seagate last season, we provided first-rate accommodations then whooped their asses. This year, we’ll be playing in Harlem’s Paradise and there’s the simple task of demanding they provide the same accommodations for us.”

“And you need me for this because?”

Fury taps the cover of her book. It speaks for itself.

“The first rule of getting what you want, it’s probably best to leave out the part about us whooping their asses last year.”

“See, this is exactly why we need you to lead negotiations.” Fury grins even though it feels unnatural on his face. When May doesn’t buy it one bit, he drops it completely. “It’s Mariah Dillard, May.”

That speaks for itself too.

May stares him down for a good long moment. It’s surprising the woman isn’t military or law enforcement of some kind. That hard, assessing look on her face would probably get the most hardened criminal to sing. She’s probably made a kid or two cry in her day. Tough as nails and perfect for the job.

Eventually, May breaks eye contact, lifting her book up to continue reading. “You’re buying me lunch for the next month.”

Got it.

“As long as it’s barbecue.”

The I eat there for free is implied. May waves him off dismissively. At least one thing has gone to plan today.

“I knew I could count on you, May. Tomorrow we go to the mattresses.”

“You should probably leave before I change my mind.”

Fury zips his lips and shows himself the door.

The second good thing to come out of what might be the worst day ever is getting a call from the administration office and finding Logan sitting in a plastic chair that's entirely too small for him with a visitor badge pinned to his shirt. The guy could have put a little effort into his appearance, but he wouldn’t be Logan if he did.

“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” Fury could smile, but doesn’t. “Follow me.”

“Is this a bad time? Things feel a little…” Logan eyes the phones ringing off the hook, leaving the receptionist in a tizzy, and the screaming matching happening behind the principal’s shut door. “Hectic.”

“Now’s as good a time as any. We have a championship to win. Let’s go to my office.”

“Your office, huh? Fancy.”

Fury chuckles. “We’re just getting started.”

 

 

“I’m glad Mr. Sitwell called me in on this one, Mr. Fury.”

Steve Benowitz meets Fury outside of the local police station with a friendly handshake. Fury knows better than to trust someone who wears an expensive suit for a living and someone Sitwell insist he meet with, but his options are limited. Thus, Fury puts on a mask that suggests he’s a team player.

“Glad for your assistance. I know it’s below your pay grade.”

“Nonsense. We can’t have our best defensive player sitting in a jail cell when we’re still trying to win our way into the playoffs.”

Fury doesn’t comment. He knows almost all of the faces in the police station. The sheriff was in the year above him at school and a star linebacker. At least two people on the force have sons on the football team. Everyone watches Avengers games and if they don’t, they know enough to recognize the head coach. They take him through the process and eventually, Fury ends up in an empty, ugly interrogation room with Rumlow, who's defeated, broken down, swollen. He’s only been here for a few hours.

“You good?” Fury asks.

The eighteen-year-old avoids eye contact. “Other than the fact that I’m here?”

“I mean, are they treating you okay.”

He isn’t sure he’s ever seen Rumlow look so young and scared, not even when he was a freshman and plowing into quarterbacks and receivers like it was either tackle or die.

“I made a mistake, coach. I don’t know what to do.”

“Yeah, you made a mistake. They have video of you making this mistake. Someone posted it on the internet.”

“She provoked me. I told her to get away from me, but she wouldn’t. She said some things…about me and my family…called me white trash. You know I’ve been working on my anger, sir, but when someone goes after my family like that…”

“You know no matter what someone says to you, that doesn’t give you the right to cause physical harm to them. And a girl of all people! You understand that.”

“Yeah, coach.”

There’s a knock on the door and they both see Benowitz through the window, motioning Fury to join him. Fury cast Rumlow one last glance. He’s just a boy who fucked up. He fucked up big time, but maybe this is something to learn from.

“Stay strong, kid. Keep your head down and don’t make the situation worse.”

Rumlow nods his head and his eyes return to the gray metal table that separates them. Fury heads to the door just as two officers come in to the room to escort Rumlow out. Fury watches the boy led away in chains, shaking his head.

“This might be over with sooner than expected,” Benowitz explains. “I made some calls. The girl’s father is Derek Bishop, an extremely wealthy publishing magnate.”

“And this is good news?” Fury snaps.

“Yes. He runs in particular, exclusive circles and I’m sure he’s a man of reason.” Benowitz’s eyes say there’s more to it, more than he can probably say in the police station. “Trust me.”

“Get it done.”

 

 

Fury isn’t home when Natasha drags herself in through the front door after a long day at school and an even longer practice at the dance studio with Madame B’s cold eyes judging her every move.

She still has an essay to proofread and a short story to read for AP English, but the moment she shuts the door after her, Natasha pulls out her laptop and sifts through more pictures and video from Tony’s party. The events of the last forty-eight hours has expanded her scope. She isn’t just looking for anything that can bridge the lost time in her head, but anything suspicious.

Just thinking about the party makes her feel angry, but also vulnerable. It isn’t something she wants to feel ever again. Despite the negative feels associated with the party, a lot of what she sees makes her smile—Bruce beating Thor at arm-wrestling, Sam doing one of Von Miller’s sack dances (so much hip thrusting), Happy and Foggy trash talking each other across a beer pong table lined with LED lights because Tony would.

She hits the pause button when she spots Steve and Trish Walker who’s dressed as the bimbo drummer from Josie and the Pussy Cats, but slutty? Or something. She hits play again, watching the way Steve smiles as he twirls Trish and pulls her back into his chest. He says he doesn’t dance yet here he is. She hits pause again, not because she’s a masochist, but because of the familiar redhead in the background and how she’s watching Steve and Trish like some wallflower at the school dance, disappointment and jealousy plain on her face.

So embarrassing.

Why? Why? Why?

When she was younger, Fury would tell her that it was natural to be curious about alcohol and that someone would most definitely offer it to her before she was of legal age. He warned her that getting drunk might be what the other kids are into, but it also makes it harder to hold on to your secrets. A failed scare tactic seeing as she would knock back shot glasses of vodka with a bunch of first and second generation Russian kids at fifteen, but with this video evidence right in front of her, Fury wasn’t completely wrong.

Would it be so bad, though?

To date Steve. To have him smile that smile she privately thinks is just for her and hold her hand and take her on dates he would probably put a ton of thought into because that’s the kind of person Steve is. To let him take care of her. He already proved he can and will.

But…

What happens when they graduate? What happens when she goes off to school on the east coast and leaves this sad town behind like she always said she would? What happens when she lets herself get too into her head or lashes out, fucks up because she knows she will and pushes him away?

Natasha closes out the video and opens a different one. This drone hovers in the kitchen during her little drinking contest with Elektra. She’s almost too busy enjoying the sour look on the pirate’s face that she almost misses it. Almost. Natasha nearly slams her hand down on the trackpad. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play.

There.

That fucker.

Rumlow bumps into her. His hand passes over her drink. And that damn expression of triumph on his face.

That’s it. That has to be it. It isn’t clear evidence, but it has to be when it happened.

Her phone vibrates before she can let her head spiral. She reaches for her phone incase it’s Clint. He hasn’t responded to any of her texts or answered any of her calls all day. She feels mildly bad for dodging Laura in the hallway when the girl looked like she was desperate enough to ask Natasha about him. She hasn’t even scratched the surface of Clint’s world and she has no idea.

The text isn’t from Clint, but Maria.

CHECK THE QUAKE TWITTER NOW!!!

Normally, Natasha wouldn’t think anything is worth all-caps, but it’s turning out to be that kind of week. And it only gets worse when she pulls up Twitter to see what all the commotion is about.

A photo taken from a reasonable distance—Rumlow leaving the police station with a curly-haired man in a suit and…

“Nick,” Natasha mutters under her breath, eyes wide, disbelieving.

He’s a football player. He’ll get away with it

“Bullshit.” Natasha is so pissed off by what she sees, she doesn’t even know how long she spends pacing the living room, trying to wrap her head around it. Rumlow assaulted a girl, a student at their school, there is clear evidence of it and Nick is what? Paying his bail? Rollins’ words echo in her head…

All Fury cares about is football. If he can burry Barton’s groupie then he will. That’s why he’s the best.

Before she can even think through what she’s doing, Natasha’s upstairs in her room, stuffing clothes into her gym bag. She doesn’t want to be here when Fury gets home. She’s about to leave a note on the fridge when the front door unlocks and Fury pushes his way in.

“This day has been a month long,” Fury grumbles. “What’d you eat for dinner? I’m starving.”

“Did you bail Rumlow out of jail?” Natasha stands perfectly still though she’s just itching to grab her things and leave the house. “He hit a girl, a girl I know, Nick. He knocked her out cold and you’re going to help him get out of it? It’s inexcusable! What the fuck?”

“Natasha, the girl dropped the charges.”

That’s news to her and less surprising than it should be.

“The girl has a name. It’s Kate. Kate Bishop. She’s a student of yours. A student you swore to protect when you agreed to work for the school. And Rumlow assaulted her.” Natasha’s voice rises and trembles with anger. “So what? We just go on and forget this happened? He comes to practice tomorrow like it never happened? Why? For some stupid football game?”

“A stupid football game and not to mention, my job.”

Rollins was right and that sucks. It more than sucks. It hurts. 

“Your job,” Natasha scowls. “What about your integrity? Have you seen the video? The whole world has! There’s evidence! He is violent, he has no respect towards women or anyone and that isn’t all of the shit he did at the party. He—” She stops herself from saying too much, taking a deep breath in through her nose. “Do you want me to pull up the video for you? It’s on the internet. Along with pictures of you leaving the police station like you’re his security detail. There’s no way the whole town hasn’t seen it.”

“I saw.”

“Before you made a plan to weasel him out of this or you couldn’t be bother with the details?”

“Natasha—”

“What if that was me, Nick?” Natasha asks. Despite her disgust and her outrage, she forces herself to steady and stare right at him. He’s damn unreadable, which doesn’t surprise her, she learned it from him after all, but it still pisses her off. “What if I was the girl in the video? Then what?”

“I would have let Barton beat his ass and I’d make sure he’d never play football again.”

“Why doesn’t Kate get that? She’s a goddamn person, Nick! You don’t know her personally so it’s fine? Rumlow deserves far worse than a black eye or being kicked off the stupid football team! It shouldn’t have to be personal for you to be a decent person and do what should be done. It almost was…”

“Almost was what?” Fury asks. When she doesn’t answer, never planned to tell him, she just got carried away there, he hisses her name, “Natasha.”

“Rumlow slipped something into my drink at Tony’s party,” Natasha says, keeping any emotion out of her voice. “He did the same thing to at least another girl. There’s video of him doing it online and I got some video from the party.” Fury’s expression darkens, but then softens when he tries to step closer. Natasha steps back, feeling more exposed than she ever wants to feel, especially in front of him. “I’m fine. Steve saw Rumlow harassing me, asking me why Pietro isn’t playing like he thinks roofies are truth serum. Don’t worry, I didn’t say anything. And I got home safely. There’s video of it, but you’ll probably just blame me for how I’m dressed. I was asking for it, right?”

“No,” Fury hisses. “Never.”

“Neither was Kate. So what are you going to do about it?”

Fury runs his hand down the front of his face. “Her family dropped the charges, Natasha. Rumlow will serve a four day suspension and he’ll be back to school on Friday.”

“Just in time for the game—shocker,” she says sarcastically.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“More than this.” Natasha shoves her laptop into her bag, swings the strap over her shoulder and grabs her duffle. “I’m staying at Maria’s tonight. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”

“Natasha…”

“What?”

He pauses as if changing his mind at the last second. “Drive safe.”

 

 

Ever since Steve’s breakup with Peggy became public knowledge, Lorraine the Rally Girl doubled down on her effort to seduce him. Her weapon of choice: food. Although she’s a little more forward than Steve might be ready for, the girl sure can bake.

Steve knows he really shouldn’t be eating a slice of divine pumpkin bread (“It’s whole grain and I only use natural sweeteners,” Lorraine assured him, playing with the drawstrings of his hoodie) at this time of night, but his mom’s at work and, well, he wants to. His body needs to be in tiptop shape at this point in the football season, but practice was brutal and a little indulgence can’t hurt. Steve cuts himself a thick slice, takes a bite and instant satisfaction. Before he can really enjoy it, the doorbell rings. It’s dark out. Who could that be?

Natasha. With a gym bag. She’s doing that thing where she tries to plaster over whatever she’s actually feeling. He considers himself lucky that she even tries, that she’s here at all when she’s so clearly rattled under the surface.

“Hey,” she says softly. “I need a place to crash.”

“Why?” Steve asks, though the question is muffled by the pumpkin goodness in his mouth. It’s a good thing, he thinks a second later. Making her explain herself should be the last thing he does. Instead, he moves aside so she can walk in.

“I’ll just take the couch.”

Steve swallows and smacks his lips. “No, you can have my room. Lemme just change the sheets and you’re good to go.”

“I’m not going to make the star quarterback sleep on the couch.” Natasha drops her things on the couch and proceeds to the kitchen. She inspects the tin on the table and snatches up the Post-It on top. Her face is incredulous as she flips the Post-It for him to see “pumpkin bread” in neat cursive (with a heart dotting the i) and the pink imprint of a pair of lips.

Deciding not to address it, Steve insists, “Star quarterback or not, my ma raised a gentleman.”

Natasha snorts, slapping the Post-It back on the tin and pushes it aside. She goes straight for the jar of peanut butter and a spoon, knows exactly where they keep it and everything. “Where’s Sarah? Working late? You don’t think she’d mind, do you?”

“Don’t think so.” Steve sits across from her at the tiny kitchen table and takes another bite of his pumpkin bread. It’s seriously good. His mom had been skeptical when he insisted it was heathy, but conceded after tasting it. “She’s been weirdly nice to me lately.”

“Your mom is nice.”

Steve shakes his head. “She’s been different these last few days. I tracked mud into the house and didn’t get a chance to clean it up before she saw. I thought I was in for it, but she just got teary and told me a story about when I played in a puddle when I was a kid and nearly caught phenemonia. And…” Steve lowers his head. “And I let it slip that I stayed over at your house the other night. She definitely gave me a talk, but she wasn’t upset like I thought she might be, being a devout Catholic woman and all.”

“Did you tell her what happened to me?”

Steve shakes his head. “Not mine to tell. Not to anyone.”

Natasha licks her lips, taking that in. “You’re always honest with me, aren’t you, Steve?”

“I’m always honest all the time.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Natasha leaves her spoon in the sink and grabs her bags before heading toward his room. Steve watches her go. The confidence with which she navigates his house always makes him pause. They’ve been friends for so long, she’s walked these halls hundreds of times and seems so comfortable in his space. They’re comfortable in each other’s space and sometimes, not at all. Sometimes things feel different like they’re on the cusp of becoming something else. But that’s one-sided probably. Yet it never ceases to feel…right. Like this is where she belongs.

Steve eats another half a slice of pumpkin bread and takes his time washing and drying the dishes in the sink. He makes sure all the doors are locked and turns off a few lights. After brushing his teeth and fishing some fresh sheets out of the linen closet, he finds Natasha sitting crossed-legged on his bed, typing away on her laptop. He tries to be as smooth as possible, giving a pile of clothes a swift kick so they slide beneath his bed even though he’s sure she already saw. Natasha sees everything.

“I saw that,” Natasha says without looking up from whatever has her attention. Steve just belly flops onto his bed. It makes her laugh and gaze over at him fondly. But then her eyes go right back to her laptop like it never happened.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Steve asks.

“About what?”

“I don’t know. All the craziness going on at school? Why you’re here and not at home?”

Natasha hums like she’s thinking about it, her fingers flying across the keyboard. “No.”

“Alright.” Steve stretches his arms above his head and the tips of his toes to the foot of his bed. “Wanna get up a sec so I can change the sheets?”

“Nope.” She smiles a bit behind her laptop. “Give me a minute to make this conclusion make any sense.”

“Whatever you say.” Steve lets his eyes slide shut, sinking into his bed and finally acknowledging how sore and overworked his body is. “I’m just going to close my eyes a sec.”

“Go right ahead.”

Her voice sounds so far away even though he knows she’s just on the other side of his bed. It soothes him along with the rhythmic sound of her fingers dancing across the keyboard, lulling him to sleep. When the typing ceases for a moment, he feels her fingers moving through his short strands of hair.

“Nice haircut, by the way.”

He leans into her touch. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

When he wakes up, Steve is surrounded by darkness. It takes him a moment to come to grips with where he is and how he got here. Natasha is asleep to his left with a quilt his mom made pulled up around her shoulders. It’s dark, but from what he can make out of her face, she's sleeping peacefully. The fresh sheets he fished out of the laundry are still folded on the nightstand. He knows he should probably take his pillow and sleep in the living room, but it’s so much easier to sink back down in bed and fall back asleep, comfortable with her presence at his side. Probably too comfortable.

In the morning, they get ready for school, moving in each other’s space seamlessly. Steve makes some eggs while Natasha’s getting ready in the bathroom and by the time he’s done washing his face and brushing his teeth, there’s warm, buttered toast on the table and Natasha is chatting with his mom, who’s just gotten home from the late shift at the hospital. He’s relieved to see nothing has changed between them even after he let it slip about where he was after the party.

Steve knows to be more careful. The last thing he wants to do is ruin Natasha’s relationship with his mom or give his mom the wrong idea about them. Steve knows to be more careful. He can see himself getting used to this, which might be the most dangerous feeling of them all.

 

 

A dozen people are blowing up his phone (Natasha, but she never leaves a voicemail; Laura, whose voicemails he can’t bring himself to listen to), but none of them are the person Clint wants to hear from.

Kate’s house is pretty much a mansion with white columns all along the porch and large bay windows. Clint’s been to her house a few times. Never when her father is home. Most of the time his truck is idling in the driveway, pretending to be annoyed that he’s somehow become her personal chauffeur. He thinks he could probably scale the house to the second floor, but Lucky might have trouble following. Plus, he popped open a beer as he waited for her father’s car to leave the house and it takes a lot to get him drunk, but still, drinking then scaling a building isn’t his best idea.

Once Kate’s father’s car leaves, Clint slips out of his truck with Lucky hot on his heels. He’d try to call her, but he’s already done that and she isn’t answering. He swears he calls her more than Bobbi and Nat called him the time he disappeared for a few days and woke up in Mexico with his face painted like a sad clown and no recollection of how he got there or why.

Clint settles for ringing the doorbell. Then ringing it again and again in fast succession. The house has at least two floors and a dozen rooms, he doesn’t blame her for how long it takes her to make her way to the door. Still, he has a trigger-happy finger and keeps hitting the doorbell until he hears, “Stop, would you! What are you doing here, Clint?”

She sounds more irritated than anything else. It’s just nice to hear from her.

“I was in the neighborhood,” Clint says casually through the door. “Your ol’ pal, Lucky, figured you were playing hooky today and wanted in.”

There’s a pause as she carefully considers that and then the door opens. Lucky rushes forward and Kate immediately crouches down. Lucky jumps up and rests his paws on Kate’s shoulder, licking her face. “Hey, friend,” Kate says softly.

Worked like a charm. With her dark hair falling into her face and Lucky all over her, Clint can’t tell the extent of the damage done. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t try.

“You could’ve at least brought me food,” Kate says lightly.

Clint grins, showing her the pot of coffee he has in one hand and the pizza box he has balanced on the other. “Pizza’s cold, but the coffee’s hot. My favorite combination.”

Kate lets him inside and Clint has to whistle, taking in the luxurious surroundings. His house is a dump by definition, a lovable dump, and in no way can even hold a candle to this place.

“Fuck,” Clint mutters. “I knew you were filthy rich…”

“You mean my dad. None of this is mine.” Kate takes the pizza box from him and when she walks further into the house, Lucky follows dutifully. “Not even my own life apparently…”

Clint may not be the smartest guy in town, especially standing next to nerds like Stark and Banner, but he can read between the lines. He figures what that’s about. “Your dad made you drop the suit against Rumlow?”

He can read between the lines, but tact certainly isn’t his mainstay. Maybe in the future.

Kate scowls, dropping the pizza box on the kitchen island and flipping the lip. When he finally gets a look at her face and molten purple bruise on her cheekbone, it makes that angry vein in his arm pop, ready to hunt Rumlow down and beat the shit out of him again. Kate notices him looking and meets his eyes, no light behind hers.

“You should see the other guy,” Clint tries to joke. “I kind of beat the shit out of him.”

Kate takes a big bite of pizza. “Are there pictures?”

“His mugshot has to be somewhere. Every local article about what happened used his football photo.” Clint tears off his own slice to distract him from wanting to break something.

“Figures,” Kate mutters. “Did it make you feel better?”

“That there were any consequences to the shit he pulled? Hell yeah. Didn’t make me feel any better about inviting you to that party then leaving you there.”

Kate aborts mid-eye roll and winces. “Clint, shut up. He’s the drunk asshole who hit me. He should pay and he’s probably going to get away with it because he’s a football player in a football town. It took one phone call and my dad told me to drop it or else I can kiss my college plans goodbye.”

“What an asshole,” Clint says. Kate agrees with a murmur, mouth full of pizza. “Still, if I wasn’t—”

“Just stop,” Kate cuts him off with a hiss. “I’m surrounded by assholes, but surprisingly, you aren’t one.”

Clint chuckles, licking pizza grease off his thumb. “That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Hawkeye.”

“Don’t get used to it, Hawkeye.” Kate pours herself some coffee and when she takes a sip, she breaks out in a series of coughs. Her voice is rough as she asks, “What the hell is that?”

“Coffee!” Clint tries for innocent, then breaks out into a grin. “Spiked with whiskey. Or maybe bourbon. Rum maybe? I don’t know. It was early when I made it, alright?”

Kate licks her lips and makes a deeper sip of the coffee. Though she’s easily more mature than him, Clint has always seen Kate as a kid. The kind that feels she has to act tough to hang with the older kids. Archery has been their lone common interest. And she always had the top of the line expensive bows and arrows and access to her cool toys might have been his initial motivation to shoot backyard targets together, but now…

“Dang, looks like we both missed first period.” Clint glances at his watch-less wrist. “How about we get drunk and shoot stuff? Then we work on payback.”

Kate doesn’t even have to think about it. “Payback’s a bitch.”

 

 

Mariah Dillard.

She can be a good ol’ Texas woman or your worst nightmare depending on the day and what she wants.

Fury knows he has to play this cool. He turns up the charm, something most don’t think he has, but he can be a charismatic bastard when the situation calls for it. Mariah laughs along with his jokes and he swears her foot bumps his beneath the table more than once. He knew he was right to bring May, whose face remains as cold as porcelain long into their little lunch meeting.

“This is nice and all, but we should be getting back to Midgard soon,” May interrupts when Mariah’s laughter starts to sound a little too flirty. Bless her. “Why don’t we move on to the motel situation?”

“Straight to business, I see,” Mariah says teasingly. “I like your style, Melinda.”

“I have an idea.” Fury leans across the table, folding his fingers together. “Why don’t you put us in a wing of your five star hotel just for the night of the game. We enjoy our complimentary breakfast bright and early and we’ll be on our way. It’s as easy as that.”

Mariah hums and takes a sip of her sweet tea.

“You and I both know we will bring the entire town of Midgard to Harlem’s Paradise with us,” May says carefully. “Give us a wing and the rest of the hotel will be sold out, I guarantee. Concession business will be through the roof. And maybe if you called the hotel, explained this to them, they would happily bring the rates down.”

Mariah purses her lips, studying May for a long moment, almost angry, but then smiles wide. “Are you sure you aren’t the football coach here, Melinda?”

Mariah laughs loudly and Fury joins in. May doesn’t make a sound, but does let a smile flit across her face.

“Consider it done, a gift from your friends over here at Harlem’s Paradise,” Mariah says, pride emphasizing the name of her city. “Now Fury, what do you think about a friendly little wager between sister cities?”

May shoots him a look that’s pure play nice until the deal is done and on paper.

Fury nearly scowls. This isn’t his first rodeo. Not even his hundredth.

“And what do you have in mind?” he asks.

“If my boys win on Friday night, you buy me dinner. If your Avengers win, I’ll buy you dinner.” Mariah licks her lips, looking for all the word like a snake toying with its prey. 

“Are you trying to tempt me to lose on purpose, Miss Dillard?” Fury asks lightly.

“Not at all! I’m sure you’re fine, so fine at your job, coach, but I’d bet on the pride of Harlem’s Paradise every time.”

May looks nauseous having to witness what’s happening and Fury doesn’t blame her. Back when he was just an assistant coach, Sitwell would always demand he attend because Phil Coulson sure as hell wasn’t going to play the part of eye candy and flirt their way into getting what they want. It was so much easier then. He never had to make the hard decisions, just carry out the orders.

Afterwards, when he’s walking May to her car in the parking lot outside of Harlem’s Paradise’s finest barbecue joint, which she doesn’t think is necessary, Fury sneaks a glance at his phone. Multiple texts from Sitwell. Missed calls from the local radio station. Nothing he wants right now. Usually, Natasha texts him when she gets to ballet practice and when she gets out. This week has been nothing, but radio silence.

“Something wrong?” May asks. “You just got everything you wanted without selling your soul to Mariah Dillard. Why don’t you look as smug as I expected?”

Fury keeps his private life and his work life completely separate. It isn’t a line he would cross lightly. He even takes his lunch breaks in his office, annoyed at the very idea of making small talk around the water cooler in the faculty break room. Phil was the closest thing he had to a friend at the school and May by extension because the two were the definition of partners in crime. She isn’t someone he’s going to spill all his fears to, but she is one of Natasha’s teachers, probably saw her more in the last few days than he has.

“It’s my kid, Natasha. She’s been giving me the silent treatment.”

“Ah.” May almost smiles. “I see.”

Fury grunts, has to grit his teeth to get the words out. “I raised her to be stronger, smarter, better. She’s loyal and obedient until I do something she doesn’t agree with and then she’s calling me out on my shit and giving me the cold shoulder.”

May really lets herself smile then. “She is a smart girl.”

“Maybe too smart,” he grumbles. “The worst part is she’s right.”

“If you know what’s the right thing to do then do it,” May says as if it’s that simple. “Isn’t that what you’re always telling your players? If not, it should be.”

Fury laughs humorlessly, finally feeling how tired he is. “And all my inspirational speeches have worked so spectacularly given current circumstances.”

“Listen, I spend all of my working hours with teenagers. They are loud and messy, but most of the time they just want to feel heard and acknowledged and respected. Natasha’s a lot more mature than a lot of her classmates and like you said, she was right. Acknowledge it. Accept it. And you could even apologize for good measure.”

That isn’t what Fury wants to hear, but it’s the truth. Still, he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore (not that May of all people would push) so he deflects. “You and Andrew ever considered having kids?”

May narrows her eyes and proceeds to get into her car. “Goodbye, Fury.”

“Thanks again, Agent May.”

She pauses and cuts him one last look. “Also, after we crush Seagate, there’s no way you’re letting the team eat the hotel’s complimentary breakfast and risk spiteful food poisoning. You should know better than to underestimate the enemy, especially after winning the battle.”

Fury laughs and it feels more genuine than anything he let show on his face all throughout lunch. If he had a hat on, he would tilt it to her as he watches May drive away.

 

 

Things are a little awkward at football practice. Mostly because of the unspoken rule that they aren’t allowed to talk about Rumlow. Just because they don’t acknowledge it doesn’t mean it isn’t on everyone’s mind. T’Challa has stepped further into his role as defensive captain, getting guys ready if one of them has to take over Rumlow’s spot. Rollins doesn’t like it. He doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious and puts Steve on edge.

“Rogers!”

Steve blinks his jumbled thoughts away, finally noticing Fury rushing over to him with another man in tow. The stranger is grumpy as all hell and his dark hair is dishevels like he had just gotten out of bed. He’s also built in a way that if you pointed out either of those things he might deck you.

“Rogers, this is Logan,” Fury introduces them. “He’s your new quarterback coach. Logan, this is our very own Captain America.”

Resisting the urge to cringe at his nickname, which Fury says in a way that makes him feel even more embarrassed, Steve wipes his hands on his shorts before holding it out for a shake. “Nice to meet you, sir.”

The intimidating man in a Midgard Athletic t-shirt that’s a tad small for him, has zero emotion on his face. He doesn’t shake his hand either. Okay then. “This is how it’s going to work, Captain America. You throw the ball. I tell you what you’re doing wrong. You adjust like your life depends on it. You win ball games. It’s as simple as that and as hard as you make it. And drop this ‘sir’ stuff.”

“Yes, coach,” Steve says promptly.

The normally stony-faced head coach lets a laugh slip though like he can’t help himself. “You two have fun.”

Practice goes by as normal, except for the extra pair of eyes on Steve at all times. He tries to focus and do everything as he would without the man with his pointy tipped hair sitting away from both the players and the other coaches. He’s a quiet observer and probably hates the sun.

“Sir—I mean, coach, can I ask you something?” Steve tries to even his breath as he falls in line beside Logan.

“And if I said no?”

Steve swallows, his throat already dry and forces himself to continue. “I noticed your dog tags and I was wondering… I’ve thought about joining after graduation, but my ma isn’t a fan, wants me to go to college and get an education. My dad served, which is why I want to and seeing as he died—”

“Listen, kid, I’m not your life coach. I’m not here to help you pick colleges or plan for the future, but the military, it isn’t for everyone.”

Steve straightens, feeling the sudden tension in his shoulders. “It was for you and Coach Fury and—”

“And look at the pair of us, where we came from and where we ended up. Kid like you with a mom that cares, I’m sure you have brighter, easier options.”

“Just because it’s the easier choice doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for me.”

“Just because it’s harder doesn’t always mean it’s worth it. Not that I would have listened to some old bum telling me that when I was your age. Go talk to your counselor. Schools still have those, right? Before you do that, get some ice on that arm already.”

“Yes, coach.”

Logan mumbles incoherently beneath his breath and Steve swears he sees his eye twitch at that title. It’s hard not to smile after the guy. He’s a little odd. It seems Fury has a talent for collecting misfits and giving them a home. Steve rotates his throwing shoulder a few times and makes his way to the locker room.

 

 

Friday morning, Rumlow walks into the front of the school like a flash mob is about to break out behind him in a musical number. His face is cut and bruised, but it can’t diminish the big fat smile on his face. Rollins and their other friends are with him and just as pleased. People clear a path for them as they make their way down the hallway like they own the school and the entire town along with it.

Not Natasha.

She makes a beeline for Rumlow, stepping in his path and meeting his dark eyes, not with fear, but barely restrained anger. He has the audacity to smirk at her. No remorse or acknowledgement of what he’d done. None of it. She can’t make him feel bad for being a deranged dick, but she can never let him forget it.

“Miss me?” Rumlow reaches out as if to touch her face. Before his fingers can even graze her cheek, Natasha has Rumlow on his knees with his arm in a lock. She puts just enough pressure on his arm, brings him just to the edge of breaking, so much so that he cries out.

“Are you crazy?” Rollins shouts at her. “We need him for the game tonight!”

“Touch me and I break his arm.” Natasha pushes just a little harder, watches them all silently balk, before letting go and stepping away. Humiliation is written all over his face. Natasha stands over him, chin tilted up, daring him to retaliate.

“What are you going to do?” Natasha asks him. “Hit me too?”

“I’d probably get away with it too, bitch.” Rumlow returns to his feet and spits at hers.

She’s almost tempted to hit him, curious about how Clint must have felt when he punched Rumlow over and over again until his knuckled were bloody, but she’s too smart for that. She uses her words instead.

“What did you get out of it?” Natasha asks. “What sick satisfaction do you get out of hitting girls half your size?”

“I was drunk and did something stupid.” His voice is defensive if anything, zero trace of guilt. “Ever do that, Romanoff? Get drunk and do something stupid. How was your night after the party?” His eyes rake up and down her body. “You were dressed like you were looking for some fun, but I bet Boy Scout Steve—”

“You’ll never be half the man Steve is.”

“Oh, I am all man.” Rumlow steps closer into her space. “You’re just itching for a taste, aren’t ya?”

“If that means being drugged again, no thanks.”

Rumlow laughs. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I thought it would help you loosen up.”

“So you admit that you drugged me?”

If only it were that easy or he was that dumb.

“What happens between you and me stays between you and me, Coach’s Daughter.”

“And you hitting Kate?”

Rumlow falls away from her and shrugs innocently. “Already forgiven and forgotten. Guess I’m lucky like that.”

“Or society caters to assholes like you based on athletic ability and the fact that you have a penis no matter how small. It must be really small, right?” Natasha frowns exaggeratedly. “I mean, why else would you feel the need to compensate with microaggression and all-around dick-behavior.”

“Jealous? You like sitting on the sideline, wishing you had a set of these.” Rumlow grabs his crotch. “So you can ball and daddy can love you? I mean, I’m sure Daddy Fury loves you, but not as much as if you were a boy and played real football.”

Natasha lets hurt show on her face before shutting it down in a blink. “At least I have a dad.”

It’s kind of comical how quickly he unravels and with something he set himself up for. He really might hit her or spit in her face this time, but before either can calculate their next move, a stern voice calls out, “Rumlow, my office now.”

It should be satisfying, how Rumlow realizes how this must look to Coach Fury standing behind him. He puts on a disgustingly fake humble expression before turning to Fury and heading down the hallway. Fury meets her eyes, his face unreadable as ever before following the linebacker to the athletic department. Natasha’s first instinct is to follow and listen in the way she would when Ivan and Fury would talk in the study with the door closed, but with the way news spreads around this school, she’ll probably know soon enough.

 

 

Fury shuts his office door, glad the locker room and the rest of the office is empty. This isn’t a conversation he wants to hear about outside of this room. Rumlow takes a seat without having to be told, wringing his fingers nervously.

“Natasha and I,” Rumlow starts, “we were just talking, coach, I swear.”

Don’t you dare say her name, Fury thinks, nearly snaps at the kid. After everything he did, he thinks he can just put on some poor attempt at puppy dog eyes and brush his sins aside. Fury heard what he said to Natasha when she mentioned Kate. He heard all of it.

Forgiven and forgotten.

The kid is a piece of work.

Using every bit of his willpower, Fury manages to remain as calm as any reasonable human can be expected to be.

“I had a whole presentation ready for you, Brock, make you sit down, watch the video of what you did to Kate Bishop, but apparently, the Twitter account was either deleted or shut down.”

Guess I’m lucky like that.

“You remember the players handbook we ask you boys to read and sign at the start of every season?” Fury sits back in his chair and laces his fingers against his LHS polo shirt. “Our program is based on three simple guidelines. Can you name them for me?”

Rumlow laughs, a nervous tremor to his voice. “Sorry, sir. I’m not a boy scout like Rogers or someone…”

Fury holds out his thumb. “One: do the right thing. Know the difference between right and wrong and avoid the things you know to be wrong.” His index finger rises to join his thumb. “Two: don’t do anything to embarrass your family or your team on and off the field. Conduct reflects on both. You have a responsibility to represent them to the best of your ability.” Finally, Fury lifts his third finger. “Three: treat others the way you wish to be treated. With dignity and respect. In what way does your behavior reflect any of our rules?”

“Coach, I apologized! The girl’s family dropped the charges!”

“The girl has a name. Like I said, Kate Bishop. She’s a damn good kicker and I hear she’s a hell of an archer too. She was calling you out for your unacceptable behavior and she didn’t deserve what you did to her. You hurt her and laughed about it. You’re off the team.”

Those last four words have Rumlow’s attention, his eyes going wide. “Coach…”

“Clean out your locker by the end of the day.”

“Coach, you need me.” Rumlow stands from his seat, gripping the edge of Fury’s desk, eyes pleading. “Coach, the team needs me. We’re so close! The playoffs—”

“You should’ve thought of that before. This isn’t the first time you’ve sat in this office, on that side of this desk. That code of conduct also says we operate on a three strike system and you’ve just been hovering in front of that third strike since you made varsity.”

“Coach, you know what I’m going through. My home situation is a mess. I barely have the grades. Football is my way out of this town, to get a better life. I’ve been trying, sir. Now you’re kicking me out? It’s my senior year! Please, coach. You can’t do that to me. Please…”

“You did this to yourself,” Fury reminds him. “As a coach, you bet I’m damn disappointed. I gave you chances because I knew no one else in your life ever did and I pushed you because I knew you could be great. As a father, I can tell you you’re damn lucky I have more self-control than you.”

“Did Natasha say something—”

“Nothing video evidence didn’t already tell me. Did you know drugging someone is considered assault? Someone who ‘administers to or causes to be taken by another, poison or any other destructive or noxious substance’ is guilty of Assault in the Second degree. That law includes sedatives or other sedating type drugs. It’s a class B felony and punishable by imprisonment up to ten years. You should be thanking me, getting kicked off the football team is all that’s happening to you. I hope you use this to make better choices in the future.”

Stony silence follows as Rumlow comes to the conclusion that nothing he does or says will get him out of this one. A moment later, he smoothes over his panic with an emotionless mask.

“Am I excused now?” Rumlow asks.

Fury nods and Rumlow leaves, nearly tipping over the chair as he does so. It’s a shame to see potential waste away like that and there’s going to be backlash, even more than benching Maximoff. Fury isn’t one to take comfort in doing the right thing. He made a successful career making those hard calls and operating in the gray, but this decision isn’t one he’ll lose sleep over. His career might suffer and his public image certainly will, but in the very least, maybe Natasha will finally come home.

 

 

Rumors about Rumlow fly around school for the better part of the day. Rumors about him being seen cleaning out his locker are confirmed when the team boards the bus to Harlem’s Paradise and Rumlow is nowhere in sight. Coach Phillips does roll call, doesn’t say Rumlow’s name, announces everyone is aboard and the bus driver starts the engine.

“Coach,” Rollin calls out. “What about Rumlow?”

All eyes turn to Fury. The usually noisy bus is completely silent. “Some of you might have noticed your teammate, Brock Rumlow, missing. He violated our code of conduct and he’s been dismissed from the team. As I told M’Baku earlier today, the start at OLB is his.”

T’Challa is the first to lean across the isle and clasp M’Baku’s hand in congratulations. The Wakandan players hoot and holler in their own special form of celebration.

Rollins turns red with outrage. “But—”

“Listen up, all of you,” Fury calls out. “We have a job to do and we’re going into hostile, enemy territory to get it done. The last thing we need right now is outside distractions. I don’t want to hear any more about Rumlow or anyone else. All any of us have time for right this moment is football. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the boys reply.

Fury stops right in front of the seat Barton has all to himself. His young eyes are full of disbelief, but surprisingly clear. The cornerback nods and that’s good enough for Fury, who turns right back around and heads back to the front of the bus. The caravan of cars headed to Harlem’s Paradise include two police cars, one in front of the yellow school bus and the other behind. It’s protocol. He wasn’t lying when he said Seagate is hostile territory.

When they arrive, the Avengers head straight to the visitor’s locker room. A chain-link fence separates them from a line of Harlem’s Paradise fans shouting and heckling. Someone throws a plastic water bottle over the fence and it nearly hits Happy in the back. Phillips barks something at the crowd who just laughs in response, happy to get a reaction.

Even the atmosphere on the field is different in the Snake Pit. The stands are full, loud and rowdy. Music thumps through the speakers situated all around the stadium. The Seagate Serpents’ uniforms are Sedona red with a black snakeskin design accented in gold. They dance around and hype up the crowd during warm-ups. Fury warns his Avengers not to let themselves be distracted.

“Please welcome the Midgard Avengers!” a voice shouts over the speakers.

The bleachers filled to maximum capacity with boos and jeers. It's overwhelming, absolute madness. Steve can see Tony’s mouth moving, probably a sarcastic comment, but it’s so loud, he can’t hear. It’s Tony, who thrives off the sound of his own voice, not to mention they’re standing right next to each other. The power of home field advantage has never felt so important.

“And now, your Seagate Snakes!” 

The marching band plays them onto the field with Seagate's signature hype music.The Serpents players run out onto the field, jumping and getting the crowd into it, not that they needed the encouragement, all on their feet like the bleachers are one big party. One of the Seagate players bounces right over to where the Avengers captains are.

“Yeah, this is my house! Y’all ain’t ready!” It’s #1. Willas Stryker. Diamondback. The quarterback. He shoulders right into Steve, who ends up on the ground. Clint is quick to shove Diamondback with both hands and suddenly, Serpents and Avengers are getting into each other’s faces while the cheers from the crowd grow even louder. The coaches and referees do their best to break it up, rounding up their players and ushering them to opposite benches.

“Get your heads together right now!” Fury bellows. “The only way we get out of this alive is if you play smart, alright? Play smart!”

And they try.

Well, some of them try.

Every time Steve fakes a throw and keeps the ball, he’s met with a Seagate player and tackled. More often than not, it’s one of Stokes’ flunkies, Tone, who takes Steve down, growing more and more confident with each play that leads to the Avengers punting the ball away. The Serpents don’t pull any of their punches. Every attempt, Steve gets hit right in the chest or abdomen and driven into the dirt, picking up little to no yards. One notable time, Steve is on his back on the ground. The play dead. And one of the Seagate players steps on his hand. Steve cries out in pain and the Howling Commandos converge on the player fast. There’s pushing and shoving and whistles being blown, refs trying to restore some kind of order.

Steve cradles and flexes his hand. It’s sore, but this isn’t the time to complain or whine.

“You good, Cap?” Sam asks as they reset.

“Yeah. Let’s go get ‘em.”

Steve abandons any attempt to run the ball himself. He steps back, scrambles out of the pocket, does everything he can to get the ball out of his hands quick. Sam, Tony and the receiving corps run faster, more complicated routes. Majority of the crowd is against them, the odds are against them, but for ever touchdown the Serpents score, the Avengers answer right back, running up the score, but keeping it close.

At halftime, both teams have a lot to be happy and worry about.

Fury doesn’t see it that way. The moment he steps into the locker room he shoves the whiteboard right to the ground. He walks right up to Rollins, practically breathing down his neck.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing out there?” Fury demands to know. “Besides not a damn thing! What’s wrong, huh? Are you sad your pal, Rumlow, got himself kicked off the team? Is that it? Is this some kind of piss poor protest?”

“He should be here, sir,” Rollins says. Though his face is hard, his voice cracks, giving him away. “He’s our leader.”

Fury falls back a step and takes a sweeping glance around the room. “That’s how you feel, huh? Well, who else?”

A few other of Rumlow’s friends and followers stand with Rollins in solitary.

“Okay,” Fury says calmly. “You’re all benched for the rest of the game.”

Rollin’s emotionless mask finally fractured. “But sir—”

“We have a game to win and if you aren’t going to contribute then you can sit down,” Fury hisses in a low, angry voice. Then he turns away, surveying the rest of the room for a second time, thinking about who he has left, who he can count on. “Captain T’Challa, your call.”

T’Challa stands straight up, a sheen of sweat across his forehead, face ready. “W’kabi in for Rollins. Tyler and Whitaker on the line.”

“Get them up to speed,” Fury says. T’Challa nods and gathers his defensemen.

“Fury,” Phillips calls out to him in a hushed voice. “Maybe it’s time to put Maximoff back in. The kid has been breaking his back to get outta the dog house.”

Fury searched the room for the silver-haired underclassman who’s currently rushing from place to place, getting his teammates towels and water without complaint.

“No. Not yet.”

“Damn it, Fury,” Phillips curses, “if we lose tonight, there’s no next game!”

“Then we better not lose.” Fury crosses the room to where Tony and Sam are standing around Steve, who’s taking a much needed hit from his inhaler, winded and beat. He’s already taken more bumps and bruises than a quarterback should, let alone in a single half of football.

“If you haven’t already figured it out—and if you haven’t then we’re really in trouble—if we’re going to win this, it’s going to be with your arm,” Fury says. “Hear me, Rogers?” Steve nods, still trying to catch his breath. “Hear that, Commandos? I know that Tone kid is a slippery bastard, but you need to do everything in your power to shut him down.”

And they try.

Try being the operative word.

The game continues into the fourth quarter. It’s a high scoring game.

Steve drops back, looks for a screen on the left, but the Serpents get a jump on the Avengers. Steve steps back, steps back, steps back, the kid called Tone breaks through the offensive line and tackles Steve into the end zone for a safety.

The score:

Serpents 34 Avengers 31

The crowd goes wild. The Serpents both on the field and sideline bump into each other, already celebrating. There’s barely any time left. They think they’ve won this. The Avengers season slowly start to slip between their fingers.

Steve won’t stand for it. He sees his teammates heading toward him to help him up, but gets up on his own, breathing through the pain radiating throughout his body.

“Guys! Guys! Guys! Let’s focus!” Steve shouts. “There’s still time on the clock. The game is still in our control so let’s win, alright?”

Grim, dirty faces nod back at him. They don’t give up.

On their next drive, Morita moves the ball, but only by inches, a yard or two. He does manage to get out of bounds every time to stop the clock and buy them time. He knows Fury is right. This game is riding on his arm. He looks to Coach Logan as if for help, but the man’s face says, you’re on your own, kidG'luck.

Steve takes charge, shouting to his offense. “Pro right 21 shovel! Blue 28 hut!”

Steve drops back. The defense blitzes. Tone manages to slip through the offensive line yet again. It looks like he’s about to get smashed into all over again, but then Morita throws a mean block for him. He buys Steve just enough time to move left and throw long down the field. Sam has to jump high to get his fingers on the ball and secure it. Domingo Colon, the Serpents safety, throws himself at Sam, who absorbs the contact, manages to work himself free and takes off down the field. Sam passes the fifty yard line, the forty, the thirty, there is no one anywhere near him. Sam runs the ball in for a touchdown! That shuts up the crowd really quickly.

Avengers 38 Serpents 34

There’s not much time left on the clock, but there’s time. Steve is forced to stand on the sideline, resigned to watching as T’Challa leads the defense out onto the field. Clint and Rhodey hang back, their sole focus is to not give up the big plays. Time is running out and the Serpent offense knows their run game isn’t what it should be. Maybe with Luke Cage, they could smash their way down the field, but no. Diamondback has to throw it.

“Yibame!” T’Challa shouts, sounding so much like a general at war.

“Yibame!” his men echo over and over, growing stronger with each repetition. Their chanting rivals that of the Serpents crowd.

1st and 10. Diamondback throws a little floater, but the ball doesn’t even get past the line. M’Baku raises up and deflects the ball. It bounces off his hands and hits the ground.

13 seconds left.

2nd and 10. Diamondback tests the secondary. He throws a long ball meant for Cottonmouth, but Clint is there, manages to get a hand in and knocks the ball out of the serpent’s hands. Once they pick themselves up off the ground, Cottonmouth steps into Clint’s face, their face masks clashing, as the two exchange words. Rhodey jogs over to break it up, but Clint walks away—more like skips away—on his own.

3rd and 10. The ball is hiked. Diamondback drops back and back. Time is expiring. Clint is harassing Cottonmouth. Rhodey has Shades covered. Diamondback tucks the ball under one arm and tries to run—right into T’Challa. T’Challa textbook tackles the quarterback. The ball pops free. Time expires.

Avengers win!

All of the Avengers on the sideline run onto the field in celebration. All the people in the stands forgotten. Everyone crowds around T’Challa who has already ditched his helmet, smiling broadly. M’Baku embraces T’Challa and lifts him off his feet, roaring with laughter. Winning doesn’t guarantee the Avengers a spot in the playoffs, but they’re sure going to celebrate like it does.

“Yo, Falcon!”

Sam turns around and his guard goes right up. Cornell Stokes walks right up to him, helmet discarded, his gold chain hanging outside of his jersey. Sam is seconds away from putting his hands up, anticipating the snake to strike, but then Stokes holds out his hand.

“Good game, man,” Stokes says. “You got heart and hops. Respect.”

Sam shakes his hand cautiously. “Uh, thanks?”

“You’re alright, Falcon. If you ever get tired of hanging out with Captain White Bread and Starkie Rich, you know where to find us.”

Sam doesn’t know what to make of that, not that Stokes waits for him to respond before heading back over to his teammates exhibiting an array of emotions ranging from heartbreak to outrage. He feels a pair of arms wrap around him from behind and already knows it’s Maria. His initials are written in marker on the back of her left hand and his number written on her right. The moment he sees that, he has to kiss her so he does.

“I’ve decided to do something nice for you.” Maria beams up at him, twisting their fingers together. “You’re basically required to go to the fair tomorrow.”

“I got a dope ass cowboy hat and boots that I’m definitely wearing.”

Maria shakes her head. “I’m never leaving you, Steve and Natasha alone in that thrift shop ever again.”

He chuckles and pulls her flush against his chest. “You were saying?”

“I am going to win you something at the fair tomorrow,” Maria says confidently. “After two months together, I think it’s safe to tell you…I get really into carnival games. Natasha literally refuses to play with me because she can’t take the heat.”

“And those things are rigged!” Natasha shouts from somewhere in the crowd behind them.

Sam licks his lips, but that doesn’t erase his smile. Not at all. “I’m game. You know I like a challenge.”

He leans down to kiss his girlfriend again and wraps an arm around her shoulders just to hear her complain about how sweaty and gross he is. When Maria inevitably gives in and hugs him back, Sam tries not to notice the looks they get from Stokes and his friends across the field. He tries not to notice, but he still does.

 

 

The Annual Woman’s Booster League Rodeo Fundraiser and Fair marks the end of the season. For the team anyway, it’s usually a way to celebrate the end of regular season, a short moment without worry before buckling down for the playoffs. Not this year. Since the game between the Warriors and the Kree got postponed due to the weather yesterday, they’re making up the game today. The Avengers won’t know if they’ve made it until after that game so the air around the fairgrounds is going to be more than a little tense.

Natasha heads out to pick up Steve to go to the fair, but not before sitting down and having breakfast with Fury. She walks into the kitchen to find a plate of syrniki on the table. Russian cottage cheese dumplings. Alongside fresh fruit, a bit of jam and dusted in powdered sugar. A complete throwback to her childhood if you can call it that.

“As you know, I’m not much of a cook, but I can follow orders when I want.” Fury turns to her with a dish towel over one shoulder, so domestic it’s weird. “Lyudmila has the thickest accent I’ve ever heard and the woman hates to repeat herself, but I think I did alright.”

“Lyudmila?” Natasha takes a seat at the table. “My mean Russian nanny back in DC? That woman was a bitch.”

“Bitch or not, Ivan always said her cooking could make a grown man weep for home.”

“Ivan said a lot of things.” Natasha lifts one shoulder in a careless shrug and picks up a fork to start eating. “Is this some sort of apology?”

“Apology. Welcome home. Whatever you want it to be.”

Natasha studies Fury for a moment. They have never really been at odds before. Not about anything serious. As far as she’s concerned, Nick Fury took an orphan out of a shitty “home” situation and tried to give her as close to normal as she could get. Though she would never tell him, he’s something of a hero to her. So to see him so tentative, hanging on her next word, it’s weird.

Instead of making him suffer anymore, Natasha presses her toes to the seat across the table from her and pushes it out in offering. Fury takes the hint and sits.

“Last night shouldn’t have ever been that close,” Natasha says. “What are you going to do about Rollins and the others?”

“I think I sent a pretty clear message. Put in the work or sit on the bench. It’s as simple as that.”

It’s not. But for now, they’re both content leaving it at that.

When she swings by Steve’s to pick him up, he seems a bit disappointed his mom won’t make it. Sarah got home late last night and is still asleep. Steve didn’t have the heart to wake her. On the drive, they exchange fond memories of the local fair. Steve’s eyes shine when he talks about being knee-high, holding onto his mom’s hand and walking through the different stalls. He remembers begging for cotton candy and a chance to try to win her a goldfish. In turn, Natasha tells him about the joint tantrum she and Fury threw once, insisting the games are rigged, nearly making the attendant cry.

Natasha isn’t a fan of the bull riding competition or whatever happens at a rodeo so Steve drags her along with him to drool over funnel cake the size of his head, but ultimately settling for a tub of popcorn. They spend most of the day side-by-side, drifting from attraction to attraction. She eyes his large hands more than once, wondering how he would react if she just reached over and laced their fingers. That would be weird, right? Steve is completely oblivious to her internal struggle and why is that even cute?

All thought of holding hands evaporates when they run into Sam and Maria. Sam is indeed wearing his discount cowboy getup and Maria must really like him because she doesn’t break up with the dork on the spot. They spend a good portion of their afternoon laughing at Maria and Sam trying to throw darts at balloons, land rings onto glass soda bottles and throw footballs through wooden cutouts.

(Maria beasts him at everything they try. Sam falls a little more in love with her every time she trash talks him and shoves another prize she won into his arms to carry.)

The main and arguably best attraction is the dunk tank. It’s the thing everyone talks about for weeks after every year without fail. Someone (bless whoever did—Pepper probably) convinced Tony to change into swim shorts (he argued for a speedo, but that was vetoed for good reason) and sit on the plank, goading everyone and anyone into trying to “get him wet”—Tony’s words, obviously.

Rhodey uses all his strength to throw a baseball at the target and misses it badly.

“Ouch.” Tony exaggerates a wince from where he’s suspended above a tub of water. “And that’s why you’re a DB, not a QB.”

“Quit shamin’ the D, Snark!” Clint stumbles over to them. His shirt is on backwards and it’s the shirt he was wearing last night after the football game. The natural smoothness with which he usually moves is completely gone as he stumbles, fingers tight around a glass bottle in a brown paper bag.

“I’m shocked you actually bothered to put it in a bag,” Natasha murmurs. It only gets worse when she notices Laura and her big, concerned eyes on Clint as he shoves a handful of singles at the game attendant, who tries to explain that you’re supposed to exchange money for tickets. Clint ignores her and grabs a baseball, tossing it up, missing the catch and laughing up a storm.

“C’mon, Hawkeye!” Tony jeers. “Let’s see if you really deserve that nickname of yours.”

Clint picks up the baseball, turning it over and over in his hand. “You talk too much, Spark.”

“Now you’re just being cute,” Tony says.

Clint does a sloppy imitation of a pitcher’s wind up, but when he throws the ball, he hits the dead center of the target. The seat from beneath Tony collapses, dumping the receiver into the water to the tune of cheers and cat calls. Clint throws his arms in the air, liquor sloshing out of the bottle in his hand and spilling over his fingers.

“Bow down, Stark!” Clint shouts, high on his success and totally wasted. “M’aim only gets better!”

“That was great, Clint,” Laura says tentatively. “How about we go get you some water? Yeah, let’s do that. Maybe even sober up a little.”

“M’fine.” Clint tugs away when Laura tries to take his arm. “We’re having fun, aren’t we?”

“A little too much,” Laura mutters.

Clint turns to her and all that reveling in