Operation In The Hole
The woman- Kat Jestings, 24, French, an art teacher with a special interest in pointillism and 6ft tall in heels- delicately circled the rim of her coffee cup with her fingers and leaned forward over the table.
“So,” she said, her soft accent affecting her speech, “where is this friend of yours?”
Sam hesitated. Kat was nice, she seemed adventurous, stable, interesting, and most of all, not likely to be too freaked out by the whole ‘Captain America’ thing. She’d probably be great for Steve, a good connection for him to have even if it turns out not to work out. It’d probably go perfectly if Steve was his usual charming self. But then, if Steve was his usual self, Sam wouldn’t need to be here at all.
Kat was looking at him, eyebrows raised, and he couldn’t avoid the big reveal any longer. He just hoped she wasn’t the type to slap. Usually public spaces like the art deco cafe they were at helped, but not always.
“My friend is...okay I’m going to need you to suspend your disbelief for a little while okay?”
Sam looked at her from under his eyelashes with a small, shy, grin, trying to look as non-creepy as possible. Kat’s eyes narrowed slightly, but her lips curled up on one side in an intrigued smile and she gestured for Sam to go on.
“Right, so just imagine I’m a superhero, and my friend is Captain America.”
Kat snorted loudly, then covered her face with her hand with a blush, removing slowly it when Sam laughed along with her, giving her an encouraging wide smile.
“Ridiculous, yeah, I know, putting these dashing good looks on the line every time aliens attack, who would ever risk that?” Sam rolled his shoulders back and framed his face with his hands.
“It would be a tragedy to all art,” Kat agreed with a wink. Another good thing for Steve, he needed someone who wasn’t afraid of sassing him.
“Yes, yes it would. But for argument’s sake, let’s say I’m a superhero, and my good buddy Captain America- or Steve as I’m sure I’d call him- got into a...sticky situation. He’s raiding an evildoer’s base-”
HYDRA to be exact, but spilling that kind of detail to the public would definitely result in stern phone calls from Natasha, Director Fury, and Maria Hill in quick succession
“-and he ends up stumbling into one end of a machine which was left running and turning it on with one of his ridiculous arms.”
There was a shuffling in the fibreglass box on Sam’s lap at that, but Sam ignored it.
“What does this machine do?” Kat asked, amused.
“Well, as it turns out, this particular hypothetical base is the work station of a one Hank Zimmermen, who was working to test the effect of emotional states on complete genetic transformation.”
Testing it on a lot of distressed birds. Sam can vividly remember the dire conditions of those poor test subjects. It was only luck and a few hours that got him and Steve to the base in search of Bucky before the scientist scumbag started human testing.
“Complete genetic transformation?” Kat repeated with a smile, shaking her head and making a few loose curls of her afro fall into her face, which she pushed them back with practised irritation. “Is your friend a science fiction writer?”
Sam chuckled, “It would definitely be easier to keep up with him if he was.”
The box jumped a little, its red lid bumping against the table and catching Kat’s attention.
“What do you have in there? It keeps moving.”
Kat reached out for it, but Sam held it closer to his chest and swatted her hands away playfully.
“Hey, come on now, let me finish my story and then what’s in here will be a hell of a lot easier to explain.”
Sam waited for Kat to hold her hands up in surrender before continuing, “Alright, so, Captain America is trapped in a genetic transformation machine, and when I- a superhero if you’ll recall- let him out he’s a little...different.”
“Different how? Did he turn purple and sprout a pair of antenna?” Kat giggled, and Sam fought to keep his smile seeming natural. If only it were so simple. He could live with a purple Steve. Just so long as it was still Steve.
“No. Zimmerman’s machine changes one animal’s form into another, and the last thing he’d programmed into the system was small and warty so, what came jumping out of the doors was not the same Captain America I’d gone in with but instead was-” Sam took a deep breath and steeled himself, “-a toad.”
Kat looked blankly at him for a few seconds, then burst into a fit of snorts and giggles, drawing the attention of several other curious customers. It was not going to be easy to convince her after this, Sam reflected, but at least it was better than the last woman (Jessie, athlete, green eyes, Irish) who went on a thirty minute rant about disrespecting the Captain’s good name. Sam had made the executive decision to leave without attempting the next phase of Operation In The Hole.
“Very good story,” Kat said finally, when her laughter subsided, “Now what is in the box and who is the friend you want me to meet?”
“Before I tell you, actually,” Sam says, pulling out his phone and opening his photo gallery, stopping on a close up of him in his falcon gear that Natasha had taken when he wasn't looking, “I was wondering if you could look for any resemblances between the guy in this photo and any people you see in this café?”
He handed the phone across and waited, a smug feeling rising in his chest as Kat looked from the picture to him, expression flitting through confusion, scepticism, surprise, and settling on awe.
“You’re the Falcon. I knew I recognised you from somewhere,” she said, her voice hushed to keep it from the other patrons. A good grasp of when to stay quiet, there's another check in the ‘right for Steve’ column. Plus, she ID’d him from the photo very quickly, not like Jason (chef, 27, tall) who spent five minutes squinting at the picture only to say “wow wait, you’re that Hawkeye guy right?”.
Sam raised his arms.
“The very same,” he said, with a smile that showed his teeth.
He liked to be recognised, it made the whole superhero thing seem bigger somehow. It could get pretty bleak, slogging through HYDRA bases and chasing dead leads to look for a guy they might not end up glad to have found. He couldn’t have a better partner than Steve, that was for sure, but neither of them were invulnerable to hopelessness.
“So, your story,” Kat said slowly, putting the pieces together in her head, “That was true? Captain America is a- a-” she glanced around as if checking for spies, “a toad?”
Sam scrubbed a hand over his face, feeling suddenly tired, “Yup.” Now he was going to have to convince her, and make this stupid unbelievable story sound like it could possibly be true in any sane universe and-
“How are you going to change him back?” Kat asked, sounding worried. Sam looked up, surprised.
“You believe me? That Cap’s a toad?”
Kat’s fingers drummed on the table, and then she sighed.
“A kid at my school had to drop out because she started to burn everything she touched, another tried to jump a hurdle and ended up on a roof a mile away . Strange things happen every day.”
She took a sip of her drink and wrinkled her nose, it had probably gone cold with how long they’d been talking. She waved a hand toward Sam.
“So, can you change him back?”
Sam let out a low whistle. She was certainly adaptable. Steve will love her, Sam thought, and ignored the stab of pain in his chest. He was here to help Steve, not feel jealous over his friend’s time. He pushed the feeling down and focused on the task at hand.
“The best shot we have is a hunch, really,” Sam said, moving the box gently onto the table and taking off the lid.
A brown toad sat in the middle, all bumps and long toes and disgruntled expression. Steve was looking at Kat, or at least, he was pointed in her direction. Sam didn’t know if there was still enough Steve in there left to suss her out, or even properly perceive her presence, but he hoped he did.
Kat looked back at the toad, her eyes wide.
“This is so surreal,” she whispered, pulling her cup closer to her and away from the box.
“Yeah,” Sam said, “I know.”
It had been a full week since the base, and Sam still couldn’t quite believe that this overgrown toad spawn was all Steve was at the moment. He missed his friend, missed waking up to his singing pop songs in the shower, making fun of his eating everything in sight, his kind heart and his earnest smile when children pushed drawing into his hands to sign. A toad wasn’t nearly so good at soothing nightmares of Riley falling over and over with calm words and warm hands.
Kat glanced up at Sam, and he realised he’d stopped in the middle of an explanation.
“According to Zimmerman’s notes,” Sam continued, and Kat looked back to Steve, “the animals would revert to their natural state when they received physical stimulation from their mate. Power of romantic love saves the day again. Oh, don’t worry,” Sam clarified, seeing the horror rising in Kat’s face, “it doesn’t have to be anything creepy, it was usually the animal equivalent of a kiss on the cheek.”
“And you bought him here because you want me to do it?” Kat asked, and Sam nodded. “But I’m not his, uh, ‘mate’-” Her fingers flicked into quote marks. “-So how could I help?”
“Zimmerman found that it changed them back even if they were potential mates, or if they only knew each other briefly. Just so long as there was a strong romantic emotional connection. Don’t ask me how he measured the romantic attraction between magpies, because his handwriting was terrible and I don’t think even he knew what he was on about sometimes.”
“So, you’ve been offering Captain America around to people to kiss after talking him up to try and reverse the process?”
“It’s not like he has a girl back home anymore, and Peggy’s relatives wouldn’t let me anywhere near her with Steve like this. This is my only option, and I’m not giving up on him. Hey, and it’s not just anyone,” Sam defended, “only the ones I think he’ll definitely like.”
Kat deliberated, rubbing her thumbs over each other and glancing from Sam to Steve and back again.
“Just one kiss?” she said, voice wavering slightly at the prospect, and when Sam nodded, she nodded back. “Alright, I’ll do it. Let it never be said I’ve done nothing for this country.”
The tight worry in Sam’s chest that she’d refuse like so many others had dissipated, only to be replaced with new mounting tension as to whether it would work this time. Out of thirty people, he’d managed to convince five to attempt it, and obviously none had been right for Steve. Damn Steve and his discerning taste in romantic partners.
Sam’s hands didn’t shake as he opened the box and picked Steve up, hands around him like he was holding a particularly warty burger and presenting him to Kat to kiss, if only because if he didn’t keep a firm grip Steve would squirm out of his hands. Steve had started being difficult after the first two failed attempts, and Sam didn’t know whether to hope it was genuine distress at the situation or from Steve steadily losing his humanity.
Kat took a deep, steadying breath, then screwed her eyes shut and placed the world’s fastest kiss between Steve’s round eyes. Steve kicked a few times, then croaked loudly. Sam put him gingerly back in the box, heart hammering in his chest, and he and Kat watched, rapt, as Steve blinked a few times and settled in a corner of the box.
Definitely still a toad, then.
Sam sighed and replaced the lid, struggling not to sound completely defeated as he thanked Kat for her time. He wasn’t sure he succeeded, based on the pitying look she gave him, and she put her hand on his arm as they rose to leave.
“I hope you find a way to turn him back,” she said, and Sam pulled the kind of smile he gave to his family when they found him after a nightmare.
“I’m sure he’ll come back soon.”
His voice sounded flat even to himself, and Kat clearly didn’t buy it for a second. She pulled him in for a one armed hug around the box. She was warm, and smelled faintly of flowers.
“Don’t lose my number,” she said as she pulled back, “I think I’d like to meet Captain America some day, if he has a man like you speaking so highly of him.”
Sam chuckled, smile pulling up into something more genuine, “Well I don’t know, he’d probably be a disappointment after me.”
“Hmm, I’m sure. You keep those dashing good looks of yours safe alright?”
“Yes ma’am,” Sam said with a mock salute, hefting Steve’s box to a more secure position in his arms.
With a final wave, he manoeuvred his way through the tables to the door, heart sinking further with every step knowing that he wouldn’t see Steve again for at least another night.
Sam lay down on his bed and rolled his head to look at where he’d put Steve- out of the box since he was at home- on the other pillow. Steve looked back, just sitting there, doing nothing, saying nothing, not giving any indication that he was even still in there.
“You’re really going to make me chat up every single person in Washington on your behalf aren’t you?” Sam said wearily, reaching out a hand to scratch the side of Steve’s head, and Steve leaned into his fingers. Sam sighed.
“I wish you could reply with some smartass comment. I bet you’ve got a whole year’s worth of them stored up just from this week.” He tapped Steve’s leathery head lightly with his index finger and got a small croak in response.
“Yeah, I know,” Sam continued, “It’s way worse for you right now. At least I got game though, I doubt you’d get anywhere near six people to go through with this dumb idea if it were me.”
Sam sighed again and looked up at the dark ceiling.
“But then, if it were you, you’d get all those Avenger scientists to do something about it. I can’t even get Stark to give me the time of day, and Natasha’s fallen of the grid somewhere. I’m probably not doing you any good at all.”
He closed his eyes and couldn’t help but think of the other people he couldn’t help, the people he didn’t reach in time as a paratrooper, veterans who self-destructed, Riley shot down in the air. Hot tears spilled down his cheeks as he felt Steve move away from his hand. He was losing yet another best friend, and there was nothing he could do.
He felt a small weight land on his chest, and looked up to find Steve perched on his ribcage, large dark eyes staring at him.
Sam huffed a laugh, wiping his damp face with his hand.
“Looking out for me even like this, huh?” Sam said, pushing up onto his elbows and moving his face closer to Steve’s, “I really care about you, you know that?”
Steve looked so strangely vulnerable in that moment, that Sam couldn’t help leaning over and kissing his head affectionately. He’d only meant it as an acknowledgement of the depth of their partnership, but he still felt a pang when Steve stayed as a toad. That answers that question, then. He reached over and turned out the bedside lamp, and laid his hand over Steve’s bumpy back.
“Goodnight Steve,” he said, and fell asleep.
“Sam, wake up,” said a voice above him, but it didn’t sound urgent so Sam waved a hand vaguely and pushed his head further back into the pillow.
The voice laughed, and Sam knew that laugh, he knew the fond expression that went along with it, and he also knew that it couldn’t possibly have come from a toad.
“Steve?” Sam said, opening his eyes and seeing the man himself in the early morning sunlight, wearing sweatpants and a slightly bashful grin as he stood by the bed and held out his arms to showcase his very human body.
Sam felt like he was being lit up from the inside, and his face must have suggested as much, as Steve’s smile got increasingly less shy and transferred into the thousand watt beam he’d had when Sam had dragged him away from the hunt for Bucky and they’d watched a baseball game together. Hopefully this one would last longer than the time from the stands to the ticket booths, when Steve’d had a call from Natasha with some new information.
“It’s good to see you from above table height again, Sam,” Steve said, sitting on the bed and looking warmly into Sam’s eyes.
“Yeah well, maybe if you hadn’t been so choosey you would have been turned back sooner.” Sam countered, shoving Steve playfully on the shoulder and leaving his hand there because his human skin felt so much better than the dry, bumpy texture of a toad.
“So, shall I give Kat a call now to set you two up on a date, or do you want to play it cool for a while? Not that I believe you have a cool bone in your body, Mr ‘Han Solo is overrated’.”
Steve’s eyebrows pulled down into a small frown, and his smile dimmed with his confusion.
“Did you not have ‘playing it cool’ in the 30s? It’s where-”
“I know what playing it cool is,” Steve interrupted, sounding more bewildered by the second, “Why would I want to go on a date with Kat? You’re the one I want to date.”
Sam froze, mouth hanging open like an unlocked door. “You. I. What?” he said, after a few long moments.
Steve blushed, rubbing the back of his neck and breaking eye contact to look at the bedspread.
“I would like to step out with you, if you’d like to. You’re the kindest, bravest person I’ve ever met and you make me happy even when I feel like nothing and, um yeah,” his eyes darted back to Sam’s, “date me?”
Sam felt like his face was going to fall off from smiling too hard. He leaned forward, supporting himself on Steve’s shoulder, and kissed him once on the lips.
“That answer enough for you?” he asked, and Steve looked so content that Sam could barely stand to look at him.
“I don’t know, I may have to hear it again,” Steve teased, leaning in for another kiss, which Sam gladly gave him, despite rolling his eyes at how cheesy that line was.
“What, didn’t get enough of that as a toad?” Sam cupped his hand around Steve’s jaw and felt all melty inside when Steve leaned into the touch.
“Hmm, I don’t know, I seem to recall someone getting me shot down twenty five separate times,” Steve said, raising his eyebrows challengingly.
Sam laughed, “Oh is that how it is?”
“That’s how it is,” Steve confirmed, fitting his hand over Sam’s and interlocking their fingers.
“Yeah, alright, you can turn back now, I preferred you as a toad,” Sam ribbed, and it was Steve’s turn to laugh.
“You love it,” he said warmly, and Sam could feel his smile when he turned his head to kiss his palm softly.
“Yeah,” Sam conceded, “Yeah, I do.”
They only stopped holding each other for the rest of the day to call Kat and tell her the good news, who claimed she knew all along that they would end up together and made Steve promise to come and speak to her class at some point. Then they went right back to snuggling and soft kisses and dumb jokes. Sam had never felt happier.