“Why don’t you tell me about him?”
The canteen was bright and open. It had an airy feeling that didn’t make it seem like a cafeteria at all. Steve was used to the remembered walls of painted beige and the line against a far wall where the food was. Rows of tables and benches lined up in neat straights all the way across; that was what he knew of cafeterias. He never ate here before; it was too alien and it still was.
The windows were wide and large and showed out to the streets and neighboring buildings. In the distance you could see Central Park just a bit between the edges of the other tall business buildings. The canteen itself had a central circular food distribution area, this area had drinks and salads and soups and cold sandwiches.
The far wall had different stations that served grilled and roasted foods. The tables were smaller and square-shaped turned diagonally against the walls, and each had several chairs; the whole setup of the room seemed to be arranged in a random way.
He didn’t really feel comfortable here. But focusing on Rachel, still watching him expectant, made it easier to block out the rest. At least they chose a spot near the corner which was relatively closed off from the rest of the area, others preferred to sit by the massive windows.
“Who?” he asked, trying to remember the thread of the conversation.
“Dr. Erskine, you said he was a friend,” she prompted curious, “I know from the files you worked closely with him. I don’t know much, other than from his publicized work and his genius. What was he like?”
“Well he was the scientist, I was just a kid from Brooklyn,” Steve shrugged. Erskine wasn’t so difficult to talk about. He’d lost him a long time ago; the wound was old and mostly healed before all this. The man was almost a second father to him. “I really only saw him when he came to check-in during basic training. He was a good man though, and he took the time to talk to us. I probably wasn’t the only one he talked to when he came to visit; we were all there because of the program. He was a friend when you needed one, sometimes forgetful, and sometimes knew exactly what you needed to hear to make things work.”
“Sounds like you miss him.” She noted. Steve only smiled, offering a half-shrug. The pain of that loss had dulled with the years; it was one he had accepted since then. “You had other friends then, too. It must have been something to have worked with the father of Stark Industries and so much of our modern technology.”
Howard. Peggy… again Steve just offered a noncommittal shrug. “They were all great people. I’m sure they’re missed by more than me.” He didn’t offer anything more on that subject. He preferred not to think about any of that at all. He took a drink of the coffee, more for something to do. It was strong and slightly bitter. To his credit, he didn’t gag on it like the first time he’d had the stuff.
“You want to talk about them?”
He wasn’t sure he liked the gentle tug of her suggestion. But when he looked up at least her eyes didn’t seem to radiate pity. She honestly seemed interested. Curiosity was just as bad though. He didn’t want to talk about it.
“No, not really.” He admitted.
“It might help?” she suggested. He didn’t respond, just shaking his head. He took another drink of the coffee. The bitter taste seemed to match his thoughts on this subject. She shrugged, seeming to relent, taking up her own cup. “Have you looked at any of the old files? Some of them may still be around?”
“Not yet.” He hedged. “I haven’t had the time.”
She arched an eyebrow at that. “Busy catching up on current events?”
“Some.” He said, noncommittal. To be honest he hadn’t spent too much time at all reading on current events of history, his friend from the past, or much of anything. Everything still felt gray and empty and he wondered if there was a point. He didn’t belong here, he doubted he ever would.
“You don’t really like coffee do you?”
He looked up at her startled, she smiled sheepishly as she glanced at his cup and back to him. “You’ve been making a sour face every time you take a drink,” she told him. Steve sighed and set the cup down, away from his hand. “Don’t force yourself. If you prefer tea or hot chocolate they have that here too.”
“It’s fine, really,” he told her, rather embarrassed that his dour thoughts must have shown so openly on his face, “I was never a big coffee drinker, but it’s not bad, really.” He was lying. He didn’t really like the taste.
“Let me get you something else,” she said swiftly getting to her feet, taking his cup with her. He tried to stop her, he meant to say ‘no, you really don’t need to,’ or ‘it’s not necessary, it’s fine’. But she was already sweeping across the short distance to the central bar and drink area to order something else.
The canteen wasn’t terribly populated yet and she was already talking to the girl at the coffee bar. He slumped in his seat and gave up. It would probably have been rude if he’d just gotten up and left. He thought about a potential excuse to get away; but before he could find something suitable she had returned with another cup of hot liquid.
“Try this,” she suggested setting it before him. She hadn’t taken her seat yet, apparently waiting for him to try it. Steve suspected suddenly that if he made a sour face again she’d just go back and try to get another one for him. He resolved to tell her ‘it’s good’ no matter how bad the taste.
As it turned out he didn’t have to force himself. It wasn’t coffee, not quite. If it was, there was something decidedly different about it. It wasn’t bitter but not terribly sweet either. There was something vaguely minty in the aftertaste that reminded him of the street cafes and after-dinner parlors back when he and Bucky used to go out on the town.
“What is it?” he asked her, surprised. It was strangely familiar, although he was sure he’d never had something like it.
She just grinned brightly, “It’s chicory,” she told him taking a seat, “I had them add a bit of chocolate to taste.” So that was why it was familiar, he recognized the scent at least and the name. He’d never tried it before, no wonder Erskine liked it.
“How’d you know?”
“It’s the way my grandfather liked it.” She shrugged looking a bit sheepish as she retook her seat across from him. “So what do you do during the day?”
Another loaded question. He’d almost hoped they’d moved away from this kind of topic. “Why don’t you tell me about your grandfather? He apparently had excellent taste.”
She looked surprised that he’d asked a question of his own but smiled and shrugged it off. “He did. He had great taste in cars, alcohol, the stock market… part of the reason my dad was able to go to college. My grandfather never did, but he was a clever guy,” she smiled as she spoke. She was very pretty when she smiled, her eyes brightened and her features became more animated. “He never lost that edge, not until the end anyway.”
It must have been some time ago. The pain was there, but dulled by time. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She told him. “It’s what happens. It was a long time ago.”
‘A long time ago,’ and that was the crux of the matter. Most people got to deal with sudden loss over some period of time. For everyone besides Steve, time had passed. For him it may as well have been yesterday that everything was different, he never got a chance to deal with that loss.
Rachel knew he’d been avoiding her questions since the start, deflecting, evading, and eventually trying to turn the question around. It was true about her grandfather but so far her evaluation had yielded nothing other than a bunch of sore subjects.
These same subjects she expected would be sore, which was part of the reason she’s started him talking about Erskine. He seemed capable enough about talking about that, but when she’d asked about the others he’d closed up again.
“You know, I’m actually around quite a bit, but I never see you in here during lunch of anything.” She brought up casually. “Where do you eat lunch?”
Fury had already told her he tended to skip meals.
“I just generally eat alone is all,” he said, shying away from the subject.
“Is it the food?” she asked leaning forward, her tone almost conspiratorial. “They can cook meals to order, it’s not all toxic waste.”
He gave her an odd look and she remembered he wouldn’t understand the reference. She shook her head. “I’m just saying, they do have pretty good food for a work cafeteria,” she told him. “I doubt you’ve ever been introduced to teriyaki chicken, the chef makes it very good here.”
He frowned and nodded slightly, although he hadn’t said anything to confirm. He took another drink; although she’d figured out by now, he did that only when he didn’t want to respond. She hadn’t really had high expectations for this initial encounter. She could already assess from his responses and behavioral information supplied by Fury that he was closing himself off.
It was obvious from the moment they entered the canteen that he was uncomfortable with everything from the layout to the food. He was withdrawing from what was unfamiliar and strange, it wasn’t unusual. He had displayed no other signs of coping, so his method to protect himself was to shut himself off from it as much as possible.
He had actually visibly relaxed a little when she’d returned with the cup of chicory. Really, SHIELD was amazing in its supply of different foods, but then with such a diverse array of personnel of race, geography, and age, it was a real blessing to have that kind of selection.
When she had returned to the previous question Steve deflected again by asking his own question. She didn’t deny him an answer, but that question was the one she was most interested in his response to. “So what do you do during the day?” she rephrased the previous inquiry, “I spend most of my day in an office. Does Fury have you working on anything?”
She had only meant to elaborate on herself and offer him a reasonable out if he wanted to avoid answering truthfully. The brief shock, and the lost look that crossed his face, was unexpected. Then he steeled himself, shuttering his expression again. But at least he responded this time. “Not really, I’m uh… still catching up on things.” He gave a half-truth.
He didn’t lie; and after a moment she realized he wouldn’t, it didn’t fit with his character. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth, either. He knew isolating himself was a bad thing, but he was doing it anyway. It was interesting, more so than the verbal response was what she’d seen in his face. It was a look she recognized in war victims, most often amputees; but she wasn’t about to leap to conclusions.
“Understandable, it’s a lot to take in, I guess,” she said with sympathy. He finished the chicory and sat back, she saw the shift in his legs as he prepared to stand.
“It is,” he agreed simply as he rose to his feet, taking the empty cup with him. “Thanks for the drink; it was nice talking with you, Rachel.”
For some reason she was surprised when he said her name. But then he wouldn’t call her ‘doctor,’ since she had approached him informally. She stood hastily before he got too far away. “Steve!” she called out; he paused and looked back. She took her own cup as she went after him, “I’m sorry, about the coffee, and if I upset you again. I was just… making conversation, or trying I guess.”
He smiled with a short laugh, dismissing it, “It’s fine, it’s not you, and you didn’t upset me,” He told her calmly.
“I just want you to know if you have… questions or if you want to talk about anything, whether it’s about the gym or places to eat, or whatever, I’d be happy to talk.” She offered.
“It’s not necessary-”
“I want to,” Rachel insisted, cutting him off. He had to know she wasn’t saying this out of obligation, even if he’d only talk to her because of that she wanted him to know she honestly wanted his friendship. He looked skeptical and she smiled again. “You haven’t talked to many people yet, I don’t know if you’re just shy or,” she didn’t finish that thought.
“I know things are different. It is a lot to take in. But don’t shut it out. Like it or not, you’re here and now; you need to get used to it.” The words were cold, she was trying to be kind. His jaw tightened but at least he seemed to be listening to her. “One of the best ways to do that is to get out and talk with people.”
When he pulled away again, she let him go. He was probably headed down to the old abandoned basement area. There was an old boxing ring and equipment down there. Fury said he spent most of his time down there; like he was hiding from the world. His assessment wasn’t wrong, she got a similar impression.
He was uncomfortable and apparently trying to ignore or not think about his loss and the changes in the world. He wasn’t coping, he was just blocking it out. There was the reaction he had before to consider too. He may be denying the world to himself, but there was nothing to force him out into it either. She wasn’t sure ‘a friend’ was the strongest motivation for that, Fury seemed to think so, but she disagreed.
His fists struck hard and solid against the sandbag. Each strike a practiced series of strokes, controlled strength and movement, fluid and familiar. He tried to think about his breathing, about the next series of hits, anything but what his thoughts had been straying towards.
It wasn’t her fault; anyone could have asked those questions. He doubted she knew how prying and prickling they had been; like a knife jammed into fresh wounds. Rachel couldn’t know how raw those wounds were and how she twisted the knife and tore at him.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. He had no one to blame. But inevitably his thoughts always turned back toward ‘the past’. It wasn’t just Howard and Peggy and the promise of a natural life; there he had purpose and meaning, there was a reason he was there, he was grounded, he stood on solid ground and he had friends who were there to stand by him. He wasn’t alone, he wasn’t obsolete and now…
The sandbag burst apart at the seams as he struck outward, a little too hard, his movements increasingly uncontrolled as his thoughts grew darker and more erratic. He sighed and reigned himself in, taking deeper breaths to calm himself as he disconnected the sandbag and went to replace it with a new one.
He’d already burst several of them. Fury had the foresight to supply the previously abandoned room with plenty of replacement equipment for the ones Steve had been periodically breaking in the past few weeks. He hung up the new bag and stepped back a moment, still trying to reign back his thoughts.
He was unsuccessful. He should have died in the ice. But they brought him back, and for what? He had no friends. He had no purpose; he shouldn’t even be here. He was obsolete and he didn’t belong. There was nothing for him anymore. Everything was strange and probably always would be. He didn’t believe in suicide, despite past actions he’d only done what he thought was right. What was best for everyone, what protected the people he loved. Now there was nothing.
The metal creaking squeal of the basement doorway startled him from his reverie. Fury rarely visited him down here, but when he looked up to the intruder he was surprised to find Rachel peering around the metal door, squinting in the dim old lights until she saw him.
She actually looked vaguely surprised when she saw him but smiled and stepped inside, the heavy door clanging shut behind her. “Hey, you’re a difficult guy to find,” she was saying, friendly smile in place as she stepped forward.
His shoulders slumped as he prepared for another verbal assault. He’d actually changed his jogging times in the morning so that he wouldn’t run into her like last time. It seemed like he’d succeeded for a while and hadn’t seen her in at least a week.
She looked around the room and at the boxing ring, she stopped on the outside of the ring and looked back at him, still smiling. “I never would have guessed they had all this down here, kind of amazing, isn’t it?”
“You were looking for me?” he asked, trying not to let any of his dismay seep into his voice.
“I hadn’t seen you around, I thought we were going to do lunch one of these days,” she admitted, although some of his chagrin must have shown through as she shied away a little, “Um… unless you really didn’t want to?”
He glanced at the clock, it was around the usual lunch hour. He didn’t want to go with her. “I was going to eat later,” he hedged, “Maybe a couple more hours.”
He turned back toward the sandbag, shifting it a little as though adjusting its placement. He meant to dismiss her, but she hadn’t left yet. “Have you been avoiding me?”
Steve started at the question and turned back to Rachel slowly. He’d heard hurt in her voice and looking back, her expression seemed genuinely distressed. “I didn’t mean to ask you weird things last time, or say something that made you uncomfortable,” she offered.
He raised his hand to stop her, “You didn’t.” he told her, “It wasn’t you.” He said, not having the will to lie outright and tell her he hadn’t been avoiding her when he had actually taken some pains to change his morning routine just so he would avoid her.
“You don’t normally eat lunch, do you?”
Once again, she hit the nail on the head. Steve frowned and her troubled look intensified; he didn’t contradict her and he could guess her next request. He also knew, with just as much chagrin, that he couldn’t refuse her when he’d so obviously slighted her already.
“Look, come eat something, it’s not good to stay down here.”
He already knew that, but he preferred it to the alien reality outside this room.
He sighed and started removing the bandage wraps from his hands. She looked vaguely relieved as his actions showed his acceptance. He didn’t look at her, focusing on his task as he tried to steel himself for the next assault of questions she was sure to have.
To his surprise after they went through the line to get their food, she walked them out of the canteen and down toward the south end of the building. In this area there were several conference rooms and a central area with grass and shrubs and a few flower beds. It wasn’t very large and there was another group of office workers who were finishing up their lunches and vacating the patio seating area.
Oddly enough, as they took their seats, it was strangely more comfortable than the open area at the canteen. “Is this okay?” she asked when they sat down. It wasn’t a cafeteria, but a garden was a garden, it was actually kind of nice in a way.
“Yeah, it’s good.” He agreed as they sat to eat their food. The food she’d forced off on him was unfamiliar but it wasn’t bad, he knew chicken and the sauce and manner of cooking was a little different, but palatable.
“How’s the food?” she asked after a while, she was smiling though, and Steve had eaten more than half already. He just nodded, chewing first before speaking.
“It’s different,” he told her, and when her expression nearly fell, he added, “but good.”
She seemed relieved when she smiled again, “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s always bad then.”
Steve had to think about that. He looked back at her wondering if she’d meant it the way he thought she did. She’d told him the last time that he needed to get out and talk to people; was this ‘try new things’ and ‘just because it’s different’ business her attempt to get him to open up more. Probably.
He didn’t really understand why she was trying so hard. Did she feel that bad about their first meeting? Like his inability to accept the current state of things was her fault? He hoped that wasn’t the case but he couldn’t think of another reason for her actions.
“You’re right about that.” He offered, and her smile brightened a little. This time their meeting didn’t end with his thoughts turning back towards what he’d rather ignore. He even agreed to see her for lunch tomorrow. It wasn’t exactly an odd thing in this era apparently, the way men and women interacted, eating together and talking wasn’t necessarily an indication of interest.
She was always friendly when they met, and she was ecstatic the one time that Steve came to meet her instead of her having to collect him from the basement. Rachel was actually kind of nice, and something about her was calming when she wasn’t asking prying questions; and to be fair she probably hadn’t known quite how much that had dug a sharp edge into him. She still apologized about the time before.
“You don’t need to apologize,” he told her eventually, “It’s because the answers aren’t there. I have been avoiding people, you, the world. It’s not easy to accept and sometimes I wonder if I have a place in it.” he didn’t even think about it when he gave her his reasons. He felt he could trust her with it, and the way she nodded and accepted it told him he’d been right. Even if she couldn’t empathize, she understood and she’d never asked him about it after that.
“You do, you know,” she told him as they parted. “You do have a place here. Or by that logic, everyone who’s displaced for any reason has nothing; and that’s not true.”
“How do you figure?”
“Dr. Erskine,” she said, startling him for a moment, “When he came to the U.S. he also had no friends, no support, the whole government and way we did things was different. He really was in a completely different place among completely different people, friendless and alone.”
He never thought about that. “But he had the scientists he was working with, and the soldier project,” she allowed, “and you have SHIELD, and Fury, and me.”
He saw her point.
“So you have ‘a’ friend, at the very least,” she added, a little sheepish, almost as if she expected him to deny her and walk away. He wasn’t sure what to make of her, so he just nodded, acknowledging her and then they parted ways.
“So, do we have a working assessment yet?”
Fury asked, cutting to the chase the moment Rachel met him in his office. She took a moment to seat herself comfortably before she answered him.
“I do, and it’s not so different from your initial estimates I imagine,” she told him.
“Enlighten me?” he suggested.
“You’ve received the report I filed already, with my recommendations?” she asked noting the file she’d updated already on his desk.
He nodded to the file as well, “I do, but I’d like to hear it from you directly,” he admitted, “Makes it easier, a little less time-consuming. Give me the highlights.”
She suspected if he had things his way, Fury wouldn’t even bother with the paper-work aspect of things, although it seemed most of it he left to his lieutenant Maria Hill regardless.
“He is obviously experiencing shock and a degree of depression from his circumstances,” she reported the main points as simply as she could for the complex mechanism of an individual’s psyche, “His coping mechanism has largely been to bury his head in the sand, he’d rather ignore and avoid it. Because of that his issues will likely compound, it’s all he thinks about, he has nothing but those memories.”
“So what’s your suggestion?” Fury cut in abruptly as she neared the end of her brief explanation. “Should we consider medication or do you think he can work through this?”
Rachel sighed thinking back, she hadn’t wanted to leap to conclusions but by the time Steve started talking to her about it she realized that first impression had been right on the mark. He felt useless and he had no purpose; he needed something to give him purpose, something to do and preferably something meaningful.
“I suggest that, to keep him ‘grounded’ as you said, he needs something to do,” she said simply, “He needs a ‘job’ of some kind. He can’t, and shouldn’t, feel irrelevant if he’s going to get better.”
Fury fixed her with a hard look. “So you’re clearing him for active duty?”
“I’m saying, he needs something to do,” she repeated, “Not that SHIELD has any ‘easy’ missions, but he needs to be involved with something to continue to have relevance in a world that, by all accounts, has moved on without him.”
He leaned back in his seat, considering her words. Rachel waited as the calculating look in Fury’s eyes turned and eventually sparked with some kind of decision. “Thank you for your assessment, Doc,” he said, friendly and apparently satisfied with whatever thought had occurred to him. “I hope you’ll continue to monitor his situation as we progress.”
She recognized a dismissal when she heard it. “Yes, sir.”