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Emperor's Clothes

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No matter how many times he wakes and up remembers it, it still doesn’t feel like it’s his body.  No matter how many times he’s showered since then, dressed himself, caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, jerked himself off and marveled at the things he can do now, now that the asthma isn’t drowning his lungs, now that his arms and shoulders aren’t these useless birdlike appendages meant to suggest what’s not there. 

It’s his body, but it’s not. 

It’s what everyone sees, but it’s not him

Steve Rogers is a small, skinny runt from Brooklyn with a perpetual black eye, an old belt wrapped around his waist twice to hold up his pants, and with drawing pencils tucked under his arm, even though the body he wears doesn’t convey that part of him anymore.

And even though he’s died and been reborn, frozen into half-rendered consciousness for seventy years, gone through hell and back, been shot at, been punched, kicked, clawed at, stabbed, the body he wears manages to recover just as quickly each time, even as each serum-enhanced healing period breaks him a little more, like scissors cutting though stitches one at a time, the frayed ends of thread all unraveling and growing rawer with each cruel snip. 

It’s not supposed to be like this. He’s supposed to be able to be hurt, to suffer, to die like any other person. It’s wrong that he can deliver damage like this, that he can squeeze with only a modicum of effort and bones will break, skin will split, windpipes will be crushed. It’s not right. It can’t be right.

This body isn’t his. It’s Captain America’s body, meant for the stars and stripes, meant to stand on a USO stage, meant to be cheered, to be adored and followed into the heart of battle every time. 

Steve Rogers doesn’t have a body.

Not anymore.

Bucky had realized it when he’d seen “big Steve” for the first time, Steve often thinks to himself, with a pang behind his ribcage too fluttering and bloody to properly ignore. That it wasn’t as simple as everyone had thought, that no, being changed from a weakling who could barely do a push-up into the perfect soldier wasn’t a totally cut-and-dried good thing. 

It’s why Bucky hadn’t quite gotten used to it until the very the end, because Steve himself hadn’t—isn’t used to it. That it wasn’t a merely matter of becoming taller, stronger, more robust, agile, resilient—

Erskine had understood. Steve is sure of it.

He wonders if Howard had. 

If Peggy had. 

She had to have—she’d seen him before they’d injected him and stuffed him in a coffin-like container. She’d seen that it was Steve Rogers who had gotten the flag, who had thrown himself on what he’d thought was a live grenade, his knobby knees clacking together painfully, body tensed and curled around the weapon, prepared for the worst. She’d known, and loved him then.

Once.

If all the others who’d admired his new body could have even understood that it wasn’t him they wanted. That it was this body, this body that wasn’t—and isn’t—his. That the chorus girls who had kissed him, touched him, moaned in pleasure once they’d stripped him of the buttoned-up uniform and run hungry fingers along his chest, his torso, his back—the ones who loved the weight of him atop them, the way his arms tensed around them, supported him above them as their legs had wrapped around his waist, as the sheer size of his body threatened to break squeaking army cots—

It’s him, but it’s not

They didn’t want him because he’s shy and steadfast and double-knots his laces before he leaves the house every morning. 

They don’t now.

They want him because of the body he wears.

“Everything special about you came out of a bottle!”

Tony had cut to the heart of it right there, his words heated by venom and a little unnecessary magical interference. He had known then what Steve had feared all this time—that this body was all he was, even if it wasn’t him. Isn’t him. 

Being Steve Rogers in 1945 had meant something. It had meant a mother named Sarah, a best friend named Bucky, a few loose teeth from too many blows to the jaw, afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum sketching from marbles, and weekends at Coney Island, fingers stained by cotton candy. 

Being Steve Rogers in the twenty-first century doesn’t mean anything. 

He’s only Captain America now, the symbol, the man out of time who wears this body like it’s the only thing he has to his name. Because it is. Bucky’s gone. His mother hadn’t even made it to see him in the uniform. Peggy’s memory is withering away like leaves on a browning vine. He’s a museum exhibition and a million posters and, apparently, vintage trading cards, but it’s not him

Steve Rogers doesn’t matter anymore.

And when Steve Rogers dies, Captain America won’t. It doesn’t matter what happens to Steve Rogers, because Captain America cannot die.

It is not for the first time that he thinks that Steve Rogers had died in the ice, and that every remaining part of him had gone the same way.

“You know you’re still you, right?”

Steve had looked up sharply from the dazzling coals and floating bright sparks of the bonfire, the overlapping murmurs of the other Commandos’ conversations snapping lightly and warm around his head in the night air, and turned to his right, feeling like someone had poked a fresh bruise.

Bucky’s smile was gentle, eyes observant as he flicked them from where he’d been stirring a tin of beans in his lap with a blackened stick, fixing them on Steve’s anxious, breathless expression.

“You’re still you. You’re still Steve Rogers, the damned idiot who didn’t—doesn’t—know when to walk away.” Bucky’s voice was low, rippling with mirth, as he lifted the tin to his mouth and gulped down a few mouthfuls of Boston’s finest baked beans, sticky and syrupy sweet.

Steve had smiled sadly and lowered his gaze to his hands slowly, reluctantly, folded in his lap.

“I don’t know, Buck.”

Bucky had thrown back his head and let out an exaggeratedly aggrieved sigh before resting his hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeezing quickly, reassuringly, and Steve had tried to ignore the way his skin had prickled at the sudden pressure, even though layers of ungainly army fatigues, the way his chest felt too tight and too fragile whenever Bucky had looked at him the way he had looked at him then.

“No, see, you don’t understand. You’re still Steve. You’ve always been Steve, and you’ll always be Steve. You’re brave, and honorable, and a right pain in the ass.”

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve had managed to reply drily, before Bucky cut him off, Steve sucking in a tiny, shivering gasp as Bucky’s hand had slid down to rest on his tricep. 

“You’re a natural leader. People—people follow you, and look up to you, and damn well they should. If it—” Bucky had paused then, a crinkle disrupting the smooth skin of his forehead as he’d looked for the right words, Steve still holding his breath, his eyes inexorably drawn to Bucky’s open mouth, his reddened and chapped lips, the smear of syrup at the corner of his thoughtful smile—

“If it took the serum for everyone to see you—see you the way I see you, Stevie—then—then there’s no way it wasn’t worth it.”