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Steve slams his locker shut and walks down the hallway. He flexes his fingers and sighs at the pops in his joints. 

 

He is excited to begin his junior year. 

 

Except for one thing. 

 

P.E. 

 

His freshman year, he’d had an automatic out because of his shoulder and his hip. No one had even given him a second glance for why he didn’t have to take PE. And the 1st week of sophomore year, he’d received a fist to the face that had cracked his jaw and required surgery. 

 

Howard had been pissed. 

 

Tony had been pissed. 

 

Actually… Everyone had been pissed, but Steve explained over and over that he hadn’t gone looking for that particular fight, it had found him. 

 

Some goon was trying to mug an old man and he had to help. So he’d tried. It ended with him unconscious, with another concussion, and a cracked jaw, but his description of the mugger had gotten him caught in the next few days, and the old man was okay, so Steve had been relatively happy with that. 

 

No one else had been. But hey, you live and you get hit in the face. That’s just the way Steve’s life seemed to go. 

 

But now. 

 

Yesterday was the first day of school, and it had been orientation in PE. The distribution of uniforms and the class syllabus describing the sports they were going to be playing and learning about. 

 

He could have asked the doctor for a note to be excused. 

 

He could have and he would have gotten it because of his heart and his asthma. 

 

And everyone will probably be furious at him for straining his heart more but… 

 

He hates being weak. He hates giving in and admitting that he can’t do something. 

 

So here he is, changing in the locker room and keeping his back firmly against the lockers as he slips his PE shirt on. 

 

No one seems to care or look or notice the scars on his back, or the giant burn on his elbow, or anything else. They’re all distracted by their own need to change and it makes him relax the smallest bit. 

 

The elastic of the shorts rests on his sharp hip bones. He’s been trying to eat as much as he can, trying to put on some weight to help his frame, but he can never seem to eat enough. He’s always so freaking skinny. 

 

He’s frustrated by that. 

 

And more frustrated to know that if he didn’t have Bucky and Natasha as his friends that he would be the butt of every joke. 

 

And he hates that. 

 

He hates that they’re the only reason he’s not picked on. He knows they know it too. 

 

That people nod and smile at him instead of shoving him against lockers like they used to. 

 

He remembers his first week as a freshman:

 

He’d been walking towards the cafeteria on his second day back when his hip had given out on him and he’d stumbled against a senior. The senior had shoved him away hard, making him crash against the lockers. 

 

“Watch where you’re going, Stick Bug.”

 

Steve had apologized and they’d laughed and kept going. But his hip had locked up and was still throbbing, so  he’d slid down the lockers until he was sitting on the linoleum floor. He’d tried to move a few times but couldn’t manage to get to his feet. When Bucky came looking for him, he’d found him still on the ground. 

 

“What happened?” 

 

“Just hurt too much to walk.” He’d lied. 

 

“Here.” 

 

Bucky had helped him up and supported his weak side until they got to the cafeteria doors and then Steve had insisted he could walk from there. 

 

Two days after that, Bucky was standing at his locker next to Steve’s and the senior boy walked by. Steve was standing beside Bucky, watching the hallway as Bucky grabbed his books. The senior spotted him and smirked. “Hey Stick Bug.” 

 

Steve didn’t respond, just pretended to be busy looking down the hallway. 

 

Bucky glanced up, turning to Steve, “what was that?” 

 

Steve blinked at him, “what was what?” 

 

“Did someone just call you ‘Stick Bug’?” Steve was grateful Bucky’s back had been to the guy.

 

“No.” 

 

Bucky had narrowed his eyes at him but Steve had held a calm innocent face. 

 

“He better not have.” 

 

“He didn’t.” 

 

Steve could tell Bucky didn’t believe him. But he’d let it go. 

 

Until the next week. 

 

Steve had been walking down the hallway, carrying his new sketchbook for his drawing class when the senior appeared in front of him. 

 

“Hey, Stick Bug likes to draw. How cute of her.” 

 

Steve had refused to respond, just continued walking and gripping his sketchbook tighter. 

 

“Hey.” 

 

Steve kept walking. 

 

“Hey Stick Bug I’m talking to you!” 

 

Steve kept walking, eyes pointed straight ahead, which ended up being his downfall. Literally. A foot snaked in front of him catching his ankle and he went sprawling. His glasses and his pencils clattering to the ground and his shoulder and hip sparking enough pain to make Steve cry out. 

 

“Oh, oopsies.” The senior had laughed. “Watch where you’re walking, Stick Bug.” He heard the senior take off as he laid there.

 

Steve’s eyes were clenched closed in pain. And he could feel people watching him but he couldn’t move. His hip was killing him. Sam was going to be so mad. 

 

“Steve?” 

 

He looked up to see Bucky striding towards him, “what the hell happened?” 

 

Steve had gritted his teeth. “Fell.” 

 

“BULLSHIT.” Bucky had shouted, “who did this?” He looked around and glared at the people who were staring. 

 

“Buck.” Steve had said, “need some help.” He extended his hand, and Bucky had grasped it immediately, hauling him up. Steve groaned and pressed his bad arm against his side. 

 

“You’re lying to me, Steve.” Bucky had accused. “I thought we agreed that wasn’t going to happen.” 

 

“Buck. Everything’s fine.” 

 

“You’re a terrible liar.” 

 

Steve had foolishly hoped that would be it. That the senior would get bored and leave him alone. But no such luck. Three days later, Steve was in a passing period, walking out of the library when he saw the senior. He tried to turn around, to avoid being seen but it was too late. 

 

“Hey Stick Bug.” 

 

Steve didn’t respond, just tried to walk faster. 

 

“Hey, I’m talking to you.” The senior said with a growl, “I thought I already taught you this lesson.” 

 

Steve didn’t respond, turning a corner and hoping the guy wasn’t going this way. A hand grabbed his bicep and yanked, shoving him against the concrete wall. 

 

“When I say ‘speak’, you speak, little freshie.” The senior snarled in his face. 

 

“What do you want me to say?” Steve had snapped back. “That you’re part of a tired cliche?” 

 

The senior had blinked at him, unsure if he’d just been insulted. 

 

“What did you just say to me?” The senior had growled, shoving him harder against the wall. He could feel the anger of the situation burning too hot. He needed to take a deep breath. He needed to calm down. He could feel his heart pounding. 

 

“Just leave me alone.” Steve hissed through gritted teeth. 

 

“You better watch who you’re threatening.” 

 

“I’m not the one threatening people!” Steve had shouted, “you’re the one picking on me!” 

 

“Aww, is the little Stick Bug afraid of a little teasing?” 

 

Something boiled in Steve’s blood and he heard words exploding from his lips before he could really process whether it was the best thing to say at the moment. “Did you know that bullies who pick on kids littler than themselves statistically suffer from fragile ego, and self-image issues? What are you taking out on me, huh? Low intelligence? The fragility of your masculine identity?” When the senior blinked at him again, Steve scoffed, temper still running hot. “What, too many words for you? Or does your vocabulary only extend to the words used on Sesame Street.” 

 

The color red on the senior’s face informed Steve that that was probably not what he should have said as he was being held by a kid twice his size. He felt his body yanked forward, and saw stars as he was slammed backwards again. 

 

He felt the first punch to the gut, and saw the second one coming, but it didn’t land. 

 

A flash of blue crossed his vision and suddenly the senior was sprawled on the ground, with something on top of him. 

 

Bucky. 

 

Steve was frozen for one second while he watched Bucky land a punch to the kids face. “Stop!” He shouted, bounding forward and yanking on Bucky’s collar. “Stop!” 

 

Bucky reeled back to land another punch on the stunned senior, but Steve yanked with all his strength, meager as it was. Bucky tumbled backwards, knocking Steve over as his weight shifted. They hit the ground hard and Steve held onto Bucky’s collar. 

 

The senior sat up, touching his lip that was split. “Who the hell are you.” The kid spat. “Stick Bug needs a guard dog, huh?” 

 

Steve winced as Bucky’s eyes widened in realization. He felt Bucky tense, coiled and ready to snap, but he didn’t let go. “He’s not worth it.” He could feel the waves of fury rolling of Bucky’s shoulders, “Bucky. Don’t.” 

 

The senior stood staring at them, when Bucky spoke, low and voice like flint, “if I ever hear that you’ve laid even a finger on him again, I will find you, and I will kick your ass. Do you understand me?” 

 

The senior started to laugh but Bucky was up, yanking himself out of Steve’s grasp, and landing another punch that sent the kid flying back, limbs sprawling as they hit the ground. Bucky walked over and glared down at the kid. “Leave. Him. Alone.” 

 

Bucky’s fists were clenched tightly and something about his facial expression had the senior nodding slowly. Bucky turned back to Steve, expression murderous and grabbed his arm, hauling him down the hallway. 

 

Steve felt his own fury rising as he could do nothing but be dragged around teh corner and into an empty classroom. 

 

He yanked his arm out of Bucky’s grip and crossed his arms tightly over his chest, pulling at his shoulder. 

 

“Do you have a death wish?” Bucky asks darkly. 

 

“No.” 

 

“Oh yeah? Because I heard what you said. I turned the corner, saw him holding you against the wall, and I heard you insult his intelligence. What the hell, Steve? Do you like getting punched?” 

 

“I don’t need a guard dog. I can handle myself.” 

 

“Says the boy I pulled half-dead out of a dumpster.” 

 

Steve had heard the crack in his own neck from whipping his head around to meet Bucky’s too fast. 

 

“I didn’t ask you to come looking.” Steve snapped, his heart pounding. Shame at being the one who always needed to be rescued welling to the surface. He pushed past Bucky, back into the hallway, trying not to hold his arm stiffly. 

 

“Wait—“ He heard Bucky call, “Steve! Steve, wait.” Bucky caught up to him and slowed his stride to match his. “I’m sorry.” 

 

Steve stayed silent. 

 

“Steve, I’m sorry I mentioned the dumpster thing. That was low.” 

 

Steve sighed. “No. It’s fine.” 

 

He heard Bucky groan, but he kept his eyes straight ahead, pushing up his glasses.

 

“No, Steve, listen.” Bucky stepped in front of him, forcing him to stop. “Ever since that godforsaken day with the dumpster, I—“ he looked at Steve and grimaced, “I can’t help but feel—“ he groaned, his hands scrubbed down his face, “I dunno, over protective, I guess.” He shook his head and looked back up at Steve. “Seeing idiots treat you that way, I won’t allow it. I don’t care if they call me your guard dog.” 

 

“I care.” Steve snapped. Eyes boring holes into the floor. “I’m not some weakling to be chaperoned to each class, “I don’t need your protection and I don’t want it.” 

 

Bucky had flinched at his words and he’d felt a stab of guilt. “I just... I’m tired of having to have other people look out for me. I wanna look after myself.” 

 

“You looked after all those kids for years.” 

 

“That’s different.” 

 

“No, Steve, it’s not. You took the brunt of her abuse so they didn’t have to. Let me do that for you, here, at school.” 

 

“No way.” Steve had ground out, “Not a chance.” 

 

“Fine.” Bucky had growled, resuming their walk, “You wanna be stubborn? FINE. Two can play that game. I’m telling Clint and Natasha what happened and good luck trying to stop us.” 

 

Surprise crossed Steve’s face. “Don’t you dare.” 

 

Bucky pulled out his phone and tapped a message and sent it. “Too late.” He glared at Steve and Steve glared back. 

 

And that had been that. The next year and a half had them basically at his side constantly. Even after the senior had graduated, they stuck to the habit. Steve had grumbled about it constantly but they refused to back down. 

 

But now Clint was graduated. Working at a rock climbing place as he went to night classes to earn his degree and Bucky and Natasha were starting their senior year. So everyone was pretty busy, and even with him being alone more often, Steve had noticed that now that people knew they were friends, they left him alone. 

 

And he was grateful. He was. 

 

But furious all the same. Why couldn’t people just respect him for him ? Why did they only respect him because of who his friends were?

 

He snapped his gym locker shut and walked out the swinging door into the main gymnasium. 

 

The coach was gathering them at the center and he joined the group. 

 

“Alright, we’re going to do some warm ups, take three laps and meet back here.” 

 

The kids started running and Steve grimaced, here goes nothing. 

 

———

 

He had asked to go get a drink of water after the laps but had really gone to get his inhaler from his locker. He wasn’t embarrassed about having asthma. But… he just didn’t want to announce it or anything. 

 

When he walks back out to the court and the coach is separating them into teams. 

 

“The scrimmage jerseys have not yet arrived from the suppliers.” The coach is explaining, “so it will be shirts vs. skins today.” He points to the few girls in the class, “don’t mean to be sexist but y’all will be on the shirts team. Any arguments?” 

 

The girls laugh and shake their heads. “Good. They should hopefully be here by tomorrow so we won’t have this problem.” He points to Steve, “okay, you’re the last one on the skins team and that makes it even. Everyone out to the soccer field.” 

 

Everyone starts walking. Boys are already stripping their shirts off as they walk out the big double doors to the soccer field. 

 

But Steve’s frozen. This can’t be happening. 

 

He grits his teeth and follows them out, heart pounding. The teams are separating on the field and the September sun beating down on them. He walks to the coach and clears his throat, “uh, sir?” 

 

The coach turns towards him, “yes.. uh—“ he looks down at his clipboard. 

 

“Steve.” 

 

“Right, Steve, what did you need?” 

 

“I was… I was wondering.” He hates this, he hates this, he hates this. “Is there a way I could possibly be on the othe—“

 

The coach waves a hand, silencing him. “Listen, Steve was it? I don’t pick shirts and skins normally. It’s just today. But I can’t have people switching willy nilly. If I let you switch then I gotta accommodate every Tom, Dick, and Harry who’s unhappy with their body and wants to switch. Let’s have some body positivity, huh? Isn’t that what’s all the rage nowadays with you kids?”

 

Steve feels his heart pound even harder. Anger flooding through him. But he grits his teeth and tries to talk calmly, “Sir, please, you don’t—“

 

“Kid. I was skinny too. But hey, maybe this class will help you bulk up and then you won't be so self-conscious. Starting today. Let’s go, we’re wasting daylight.”

 

The coach walks away and Steve is left standing in the middle of the field, shoulders tense and hands clenched.  

 

He’s avoided this. He’s avoided this for almost two years. He tries to keep his head on straight when he hears laughter behind him. They’re laughing at him. They’re laughing because they think he’s trying to avoid being skins because he’s scrawny or too thin. 

 

His temper flares through the roof and something in him snaps. He grabs the hem of his shirt, ripping it up and over his head and yanking it off in one smooth motion. He feels his body shaking, anger coursing through his wiry muscles as the breeze brushes past his bare skin. 

 

It’s instantaneous. He hears the silence fall over the kids behind him. He knows they can see it. On full display. The pink jagged scars. The words. The burns. Everything. 

 

He turns around and watches as his teammates almost jump at his movement. He feels their eyes follow him as he walks to the side of the field, dumps his shirt there, and strides back towards where they’ve gathered. 

 

He walks up, and he notices that they refuse to meet his eyes. 

 

Great. 

 

When no one speaks Steve raises an eyebrow, “what positions is everyone playing?” 

 

The assigned team captain manages to stutter out where everyone should go and they break, walking to their positions. Steve’s eyes follow the coach as he sets the ball in the middle of the circle. The whistle blows and the game begins. 

 

It only takes about 2 minutes before the coach notices. The coach is shouting tips and instructions to the players when Steve hears his voice cut off abruptly. It takes one blink for Steve to process that he’s maybe 7 feet in front of the coach with his back towards him. 

 

Steve turns and stares at the coach dead on. His eyes meeting the coaches impossibly wide ones. 

 

A ripple passes over the soccer field as the other team pauses, wondering why the game has stopped. He hears the gasps as his back is on full display, facing the majority of the players on the field. 

 

He hears a gentle “what the fuck” from far off to his left and he almost smiles. But he doesn’t. He stares at the coach until he knows everyone has seen. Then he turns around and looks at the field of players. All of which are staring at him. 

 

He hates this. He hates this. He hates this. 

 

He puts his hands on his hips and looks around, “are we gunna play soccer or what?” He says through gritted teeth.

 

“Steve.” He turns towards the coach who’s walking towards him. 

 

“What.” 

 

“Let’s get you a shirt. I’m sure someone is willing to switch.” 

 

Steve scoffs, waving an arm at the field of players, “I think it’s a little late for that now.” And then, he glares at the coach and says in a sarcastic tone, “wouldn’t want anybody to think I wasn’t body positive.” 

 

The coach winces, hearing his own words thrown back at him, but Steve just turns his back to the coach and stares at the players, “we gonna play or are you guys just going to stare at me all class.” 

 

They pause for one more second before the game resumes. 

 

———

 

He’s sweaty and wheezing and still shaking with adrenaline when the final whistle blows. He walks off the field, snatching his shirt off the grass and clutching it in his fist. 

 

He’s in the locker room, throwing his PE uniform into his locker when he hears footsteps approach. He turns to find one of the kids from his team looking at him nervously. The kids a sophomore he thinks, he’s not sure.

 

Steve waits but the kid doesn't say anything. Steve rolls his eyes and looks at him, “Can I help you?” 

 

“Uh…” 

 

“Yes?” 

 

“Are you okay?” 

 

The question surprises him. It’s surprising because the tone is genuine and the kid is looking at him like he’s actually concerned. Steve huffs out a laugh. “I’m great, why do you ask?” 

 

The joke lands and the kid smiles at him, “I just… that’s—“ he grimaces, “those are some gnarly scars, man. You sure you’re okay? You in an okay home?”

 

The specificity of the question makes Steve take a deeper look at the guy.  Steve would bet money he’s experienced trouble at home. 

 

“My home’s good. And they’re old. I’m fine.” 

 

The kid looks at him. “How old?” 

 

Steve blinks at him, “just over two years.” 

 

“Aren’t you a junior?” 

 

“Yep.” 

 

“So you got those from before you were a freshman?” 

 

Steve’s eyebrows furrow, “yeah, just before freshman year.” 

 

“I’m sorry. That must have really sucked.”  

 

Steve blinks again in surprise. “Thanks.” 

 

The guy starts to walk away and Steve takes a step forward, “what’s your name?” 

 

The kid turns around and smiles at him, “I’m Scott.” 

 

“Hey Scott, nice to meet you, I’m Steve. You’re a sophomore?”

 

“Yeah, should be a junior, but my credits didn’t transfer right when I moved here from San Francisco, so I’m stuck being an underclassman.”

 

“Oh, sorry about that.” 

 

“No biggie.” The kids pauses and leans in with a knowing smirk, “It’s no skin off my back.” Steve’s stares at him for a second, his mouth parts in surprise at the bluntness of the joke and the kid looks at him, eyes wide as if he’s worried he’s gone too far. But Steve feels a laugh bubble out of him and suddenly he’s bending over, clutching at his stomach as he laughs and laughs. 

 

He finally settles down, sinking onto the wooden bench in between the lockers. “Oh wow, that’s a good one. I’m gunna use that on my friends later.” 

 

Scott grins at him and looks relieved, “thought you might like that.” 

 

Steve looks at him curiously, “you knew I’d laugh?” 

 

The kid tilts his head back and forth, “well… I wouldn’t say that I knew for sure, but I had a feeling. Humor helps work through some bad stuff.” 

 

“Bad stuff?” Steve asks, “you speak from experience?” 

 

The kid bites the inside of his cheek, “let’s just say that I was glad when people allowed me to joke about the bad stuff that had happened to me instead of being doom and gloom all the time. I figured…” he looks at Steve, squinting one eye and pointing at his back, “that not many people try to find humor in something like that. Thought I’d give it a go.” 

 

Steve feels the tension ebb out of his shoulders, he looks at Scott and smiles. “Thanks. You’re right. It did help.” 

 

Scott grins at him and gives a salute, “anytime. You need some macabre humor? I’m your guy. Scott Lang at your service.” 

 

Steve stands and extends a hand. “Steve Rogers, I’ll keep you that in mind.” 

 

Scott disappears and Steve closes his locker, grabbing his backpack and shrugging it onto his shoulder. He leaves the locker room and runs almost smack dab into the coach. 

 

“Hey, Steve.” 

 

“Hey, Coach.” 

 

The man, who obviously has never been in this situation in his life, scrunches his ball cap between his large hands and looks at Steve seriously. “I just wanted to make sure I spoke with you about today.” 

 

Steve looks at him, “okay… what did you want to talk about?” 

 

“Just…” Another long pause.

 

“Yes?” 

 

“Good job out there today.” The coach says in a rush, clapping him on the shoulder and disappearing into his office. Steve rolls his eyes and walks down the hallway. 

 

———

 

It does not surprise Steve that Natasha walks into his history class and politely asks the teacher if she can borrow him.

 

 “His dad is calling from the office.” 

 

The teacher nods and the smile Natasha gives him as she’s watching him gather his stuff makes him dread the conversation to come. 

 

They make it out the hallway and past two classrooms before she rounds on him and is jabbing a finger in his face. “Steve! What the hell! Everyone’s talking about it! What were you thinking! I thought you weren’t even supposed to be in PE! And the next thing I know, one of the girls in my class is describing your scars in morbid detail!” 

 

“So Sam isn’t trying to call me.” He says flatly. 

 

“Steve, this is serious!”

 

He shoves his arms across his chest, “oh, is it?” 

 

She huffs at him, “what is going on with you? You’ve been in such a bad mood lately!” 

 

“Sorry.” He says through gritted teeth, “I’ll try to be more cheery for you.” The acid in his tone makes her recoil in surprise. He feels his phone buzz in his pocket. Then buzz again. Then again. He knows who it is without looking.

 

Natasha grabs her own phone and looks down. “He’s pissed.” 

 

Steve groans, throwing his hands out in an annoyed manner, “So freaking what! He’s always pissed. He’s always mad at what I do.” 

 

Natasha scowls, “you mean he’s mad about your lack of self-preservation. This isn't helping your case, Steve! Do you want to be a target? Think about Tony and Howard! How hard they worked to keep this a secret! So you could be a normal kid!” 

 

“I’m not a kid.” He seethes. 

 

She rolls her eyes, “touchy-touchy. You know what I meant.” 

 

“Is Sam on the phone or not?”

 

“No.” 

 

He turns and stomps away from her, walking back into his class. 

 

————

 

He tells the teacher he isn’t feeling well, and she looks at him with a knowing look that makes him want to vomit. She nods and he slips out of his last class a few minutes early. It’s not technically a lie. He feels like garbage. That and the fact that everyone is staring at him. 

 

Word had spread quick and for the last two classes he’s had eyes on his back everywhere he’s gone. 

 

He’s been able to avoid Bucky so far, taking hallways he doesn't usually take and keeping an eye out and ducking into the nearest room when he sees him. 

 

But he knows he’s going to hear it on the walk home. So he decides to be a coward and leave early. Avoid it all together.

 

He slips down the hallway, changes out his books from his locker and leaves the building just as the final bell is ringing.

 

———

 

He’s sitting on the subway, and he’s mad. 

 

He’s mad at the coach. 

 

He’s mad at his classmates. 

 

But mostly he’s mad at himself. 

 

It’s his own damn fault. 

 

And his stupid temper. 

 

Or what Natasha described as his bad mood. 

 

Something he’s never struggled with before. 

 

Not until three weeks ago. 

 

During his last check up with his doctor.

 

But they didn’t know about that. 

 

Only Howard and Sam did. 

 

And he’d told them he didn’t want them telling anyone. 

 

They’d given him concerned looks but he’d stood firm. Telling them that it was his business and they didn’t have the right to share it. 

 

They’d looked at him with such pity it had made him sick. 

 

But they’d kept their promise. 

 

And now Bucky and Natasha, and even Clint who he sees a lot less, keeps asking him what’s wrong. 

 

He kept shrugging them off. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s nothing. 

 

I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. 

 

Liar. Liar. Liar. 

 

————-