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Healing Process

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Another week passed in relative quiet before Darcy presented herself at Steve's front door one evening after dinner. When he let her into his apartment, she presented him with a printed list of names and phone numbers and a photograph of a dress.

“What's this?” he asked, looking between the list and the photograph.

She took a deep breath. “Item number one is a list of all the therapists with offices within the five boroughs who have experience in dealing with PTSD and related issues and who also have clearance to hear about the kind of stuff you might need to talk about,” she said.

He sighed. “Darce,” he began, but she held up a hand to stop him.

“No,” she said firmly. “I told you in Texas that I was going to put my stompy foot down about this once we got back. I've given you two weeks to get used to the idea. JARVIS,” she said, pitching her voice toward the ceiling the way everyone but Tony tended to do, “since we came back from Texas, how many episodes fitting the criteria of PTSD-related has Captain Rogers experienced?”

“Six,” JARVIS replied promptly. “Two episodes of flashback-related hypervigilance and four nightmares that resulted in insomnia.”

“Traitor,” Steve muttered without heat.

“I am sorry, sir,” JARVIS replied, and he actually sounded apologetic. “But one of my primary directives is to ensure that everyone residing within my purview remains healthy and sound. In this situation, unfortunately, that directive must override any privacy concerns.”

Steve waved a hand. “No, it's fine, JARVIS. I get it.” He looked down at the list, then at the photograph. “What's this, then?”

“That,” Darcy replied, a smug little smile tugging at the corners of her lips, “is the dress I bought yesterday when I went shopping with Natasha and Pepper.”

Steve looked back down at the photo, then up at Darcy. His eyes narrowed at her slightly as he visualized her in the dress. He swallowed hard. “And I have a picture of it because...?”

“Because,” she said, reaching out to tap the list, “that is the dress I'm going to wear when you finally get off your ass and ask me out like you said you were going to. Which you are not allowed to do until after you have an appointment with one of the people on this list. And by have , I mean attend and actively participate in.”

He frowned at her. “Isn't that blackmail or something?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “It's incentive.”

He looked down at the list and felt an uncomfortable twist in his gut. Then he looked at the photo and felt an entirely different twist. He sighed. “So if I have the appointment, and show up, and actually talk to whoever it is... you'll go out with me? Dinner and a movie?”

She nodded firmly. “Do we have a deal?”

He tilted his head at her, considering her carefully for a long moment. He wasn't sure he liked the idea of letting her twist his arm like this, but at the same time, he knew that she had only his best interests at heart. And it wasn't like he enjoyed having nightmares and flashbacks. If she really thought one of these doctors could help... would it hurt to at least try?

He sighed, then nodded back. “Deal,” he said softly.

“Good.” She took a step forward, and then another, and suddenly she was in his space, tiptoeing and pressing her warm lips briefly against his. She pulled back and smiled into his eyes. “Don't keep me waiting too long, soldier.”

And then she was gone, the door closing softly behind her. He walked over to the window, the list and the photograph still in his hands, and he looked out at the city lights. “What am I getting myself into?” he wondered.

***

He ended up choosing a number off the list at random, and got an appointment for three days after Darcy brought him the list and the photograph. Dr. Burke turned out to be a soft-spoken African-American man in his late fifties, one of the few people Steve had met in recent days who was actually taller than himself. Something about being shorter put Steve at ease almost immediately. Maybe because the feeling was so much more familiar.

Aside from the fairly comfortable-looking chair across from Burke's desk, there was a couch in the office and a set of wing chairs, and Burke gave Steve the choice of where to sit. He chose the chairs in front of the window, where the afternoon sun shone in, and the two men engaged in idle small talk for the first couple of minutes. Then Burke folded his hands. “So, Steve, why don't you tell me why you're here.”

Steve took a deep breath. “Because I talked to some doctors before. Um. A few months ago, I guess? And they were pretty sure that I've got this PTSD thing.” He paused, and then added, “And I've got this friend that's kind of... well, she's pushing me to get better, I guess. Which is fair because I've kinda been making her miserable. So I said I'd come.”

Burke tilted his head. “So you're here for her?”

“No. Well, not entirely.” Steve grinned slightly. “She did say that if I had the appointment - and she specified actually showing up and talking - that she'd go out with me. But...” He paused, the grin fading. “I know I got problems, Doc. I got nightmares all the time, and I have these... these episodes. Something ain't right inside my head, and it needs fixing. And she was pretty sure you or somebody like you could fix me. And I trust her, so...” He trailed off, shrugging.

“When you say episodes,” Burke said, “what exactly do you mean?”

Steve took a deep breath, considered where to start, and settled on what had happened in Darcy's bedroom in Texas. He explained about the sensation of falling, the absolute certainty that he had been surrounded by enemies, and the way Darcy had been able to talk him down and get the knife away from him. When he finished, he added, “I wouldn't worry so much if it was just me. But it's not. I could've hurt Darcy or her family, or one of the kids. And if that happened...” He shook his head.

“That would be a very tough thing to deal with,” Burke agreed. “Fortunately, that didn't happen, so there's no need to dwell on it.” Burke steepled his fingers, studying Steve. “You said that these episodes are usually triggered by very strong memories - powerful enough that you sometimes forget it's a memory.” When Steve nodded, Burke continued, “We call those kinds of memories flashbacks. They are often associated with traumatic experiences, many times with combat and similar high-stress situations.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah. It's... I was in combat.”

“Where?” Burke asked.

Steve took a deep breath. “I served with the 107 th Army Infantry Regiment in Italy in 1943, and following that, with a specialist group called the Howling Commandos in various locations across Europe between 1943 and 1945.”

Burke nodded, making a note on his notepad. “And between 1945 and now?”

“In July 1945, I was forced to attempt a water landing in an advanced German bomber to prevent it decimating the East Coast of the United States,” Steve replied. “The plane went down into the sea ice off Greenland. In April 2012, the plane was discovered with me still inside. They thought I was dead until they thawed me out.”

Burke nodded. “Do you have flashbacks about the plane crashing?”

“Sometimes.”

“And other times?”

Steve chewed on his lower lip for a moment, studying Burke's face and trying to decide how much he should say. For Burke to have accepted his story without even a blink told Steve that someone - probably someone from SHIELD - had already talked to the doctor. That meant that there was a possibility that anything he said might go back to SHIELD. He didn't think Nick Fury needed any more leverage over him than he already had. The words fell out of his mouth before he even realized he was going to ask them. “Who do you report to, Doc?”

Obviously taken aback, the doctor said, “What do you mean?”

“Come on. A story like that, fighting in Europe in 1943, and you didn't even blink. You already knew who I was before I came in. Somebody's been here talking to you, and I want to know who before I tell you anything else.”

“I see.” Burke nodded. He rose, crossing the room to his desk, and returned with a manila folder in his hand. It had a SHIELD logo on the front, and Steve's name written across the tab in black marker. “If you'd like to know what I knew before you came in, it's in this folder. It was brought to me yesterday by an agent called Jasper Sitwell. I believe you know him.”

“We've met,” Steve said shortly.

“He wanted me to know who I was dealing with before we spoke,” Burke explained. “Because you're exactly right: on an ordinary day, with an ordinary patient, a story like the one you told me would have probably ended with an involuntary psychiatric hold. But as you well know, today is not an ordinary day, and your story is not a delusion. Agent Sitwell felt that I needed to be aware of those special circumstances before we met.”

“And after? You report back to him?”

“No.” The word was solid, swift, and decisive, and its readiness was probably the thing that convinced Steve that Burke was telling the truth. “Whatever we discuss inside this room, Steve, is covered under doctor-patient confidentiality laws. If Agent Sitwell or anyone else wants to know what you and I talk about, they're going to have to come and ask you.”

Steve nodded. “All right, then,” he said softly. He took a deep breath and began. “The first thing you have to know about me is that I used to be short, skinny, and sickly.”

***

When he left Burke's office, the sun was still high in the sky, and though he was emotionally wrung out, Steve also felt strangely energized. He wasn't sure he could've run around the block if he needed to, but he wasn't sure he could handle sitting still for any length of time, either. He considered his options and smirked to himself, pulling his cell phone out and dialing.

“Oh Captain, my Captain!” Darcy's voice greeted him when she picked up.

“Yeah, don't quote that poem at me, Darce,” Steve replied. “It's a lament. The captain in the poem is dead.”

There was a long pause. “Uh,” Darcy finally managed. “I actually have no idea what to say to that.”

Steve laughed. “Tell me what you're wearing.”

The silence this time had an entirely different quality to it. “Um,” she finally replied, “I'm... not really in an appropriate environment for that kind of phone call.”

He slapped his forehead with his hand. “Jesus Christ, Darcy, could you just, for once, stop being difficult? Are you wearing pants or a skirt?”

She swallowed audibly, and when she spoke again, her voice was subdued. “Jeans,” she murmured.

He let out a slow breath. “Good. Can you meet me downstairs in...” He took a second to eyeball the traffic. “Forty-five minutes? Bring a jacket.”

“O...kay.” she agreed.

“Good. See you in a little while,” he said, and hung up.

Forty-five minutes later, when Darcy exited through the revolving glass doors at the foot of Stark Tower, Steve was waiting for her. He was sitting astride his motorcycle, which he had pulled up onto the edge of the concrete plaza in front of the building in order to avoid blocking the street. He waved when she came out, and she waved back, shrugging into her jacket and trotting in his direction. “Hi!” she said, giving him a tentative smile.

“Hi, back,” he replied. He reached up and smoothed her hair back, tucking a stray lock behind her ear. “Sorry I snapped at you on the phone.”

“It's okay,” she demurred, her cheeks going a little pink.

But he shook his head. “It's not okay, actually. Me snapping at you all the time is what got us all turned around to begin with, remember?” He smiled slightly. “I was actually asking about your clothes because I thought maybe you'd go for a ride with me, and I didn't think you'd want to go in a skirt.”

“Oh.” She looked down at the bike, then up at him. “I was wondering. Because I was in the lab when you called, and it sort of... surprised me. For you to ask that.”

“I get that now,” he said, nodding. Then he chucked her gently under the chin. “So, what do you say? Wanna go for a ride?”

She canted her head to the side. “Hmm. You had an appointment today, didn't you?”

“Yes, I did. And it went well, and I have another appointment on Friday.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Twice in one week?”

Steve nodded. “He wants to see me twice a week for the next few weeks. Something about starting off intensive to sort of... get the really bad stuff out of the way, and then settling into a routine from there.”

“Good,” she said firmly. “I'm glad you went, and I'm glad it went well. I'd hate to think I was rewarding bad behavior.” She winked at him.

He grinned at her, slow and dirty, loving the way her cheeks went even pinker. He leaned in toward her ear. “Oh, I have a feeling you'll be doing plenty of that,” he assured her, pitching his voice low. “But not just yet.” He reached into the bike's saddle bag and pulled out his spare helmet, offering it to her. “Put this on. Strap it tight under your chin.”

Darcy obeyed, climbing onto the bike behind Steve once the helmet was secure. He half-stood in his seat to get the leverage he needed for the kick starter, and when he sank down again, she wrapped her arms around his waist, snuggling in close. He grinned at her over his shoulder. “Ready?”

“So ready.”

He got them through Manhattan's midafternoon traffic with little trouble, loving the way Darcy would shout or laugh when he pulled off a particularly daring move with the bike, and the way she settled against him with a soft sigh as they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. He drove her down quiet streets that still looked familiar enough for him to point out a house where he'd once rented a room with Bucky, and another where he and his Ma had lived in the attic for a year. The orphanage was gone, replaced by a nice park, but the church where he'd been baptized, had his First Communion, served as an altar boy, and been confirmed was still there.

He took her along the route he'd used when selling newspapers, pointing out the most and least profitable spots; he showed her the location of the first Army Recruitment office where he'd been rejected 4F (now a Chase Bank location); he took her out past Prospect Park and showed her where Ebbetts Field had once been, mourning the Dodgers' move to California. Then he took her down a quiet back street and parked the bike just up from a very traditional-looking red awning. “This place,” he said as he helped her off the bike, “I found it by accident a couple weeks after the thing with Loki. I was down here riding around, looking at everything that's changed, and when I saw this place, I was so surprised I damn near laid the bike down in the street.”

Darcy shook her hair out, handing him the helmet to replace in the saddle bag, and studied the façade. “It's just an Italian restaurant,” she commented. “What's special about it?”

Steve grinned. “It's been here since I was a kid,” he said. “The guy that owned the place when I was growing up, he left it to his son, and he left it to his son, and he left it to his daughter, and she's running the place now, and it's all the same food as it was back then - she swears the recipes haven't changed and they still make everything from scratch.”

“Oh!” Darcy breathed. “Oh, that's fantastic!”

“Yep,” Steve replied, popping the p cheerfully. He offered her his arm. “Miss Lewis, I believe you promised me a date if I had that appointment. I held up my end of the bargain, what about you?”

She raised an eyebrow at him, taking his arm. “I'm pretty sure I promised you a date in that dress,” she pointed out.

“Oh, how about that,” he said, trying and totally failing to look innocent. “I forgot. Guess that means we'll have to do this again in a couple of days.”

Her laughter echoed up the street as he opened the door for her. “You're so bad , Steve,” she admonished him. All he could do in reply was smirk - but from the sparkle in her eye, it looked like that was enough.

***

He saw her to her door, kissing her hand with an exaggerated gesture and laughing when she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him properly, warm and sweet and full of promise. She nibbled on his lower lip before she let him go, but she didn't use her tongue. He guessed he hadn't earned that yet. That was okay. He could wait.

She closed the door and left him alone in the hallway, but when he turned toward the staircase, he discovered that he wasn't quite so alone as he thought he was. Thor was leaning against the library doorway, dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt, and a blue-striped button-down. He didn't look like the God of Thunder; he just looked like an ordinary, if exceptionally well-built, guy. And apparently this was deliberate.

As Steve reached his teammate, Thor offered a hand, and they shared the friendly arm-clasp that Thor was accustomed to. Then Thor reached up and clapped Steve on the shoulder. “Come, friend Steven,” he said, and there was an undercurrent there that told Steve the friendliness was just a veneer over something much deeper. “Let us share a drink and talk, you and I, as men do.”

They left the tower on foot, walking several blocks south and then east to a little bar on East 32 nd that they both knew and liked. The Old Haunt was even older than the restaurant where he took Darcy earlier, and despite its location, it seemed to be slowly becoming a cop bar. Steve was okay with that; he'd rather drink in the company of New York's finest than just about anyone else. He and Thor took a small table in the back of the place and the waitress, who recognized them as regulars, gave them a wave. “The usual, boys?” she called out.

“Yeah, whatever's on tap,” Steve replied. “Thanks.”

“You bet.”

They waited in silence while she fetched them two mugs and a pitcher, and after she left, Thor poured them both a drink. “A toast,” he said, “to the ones we love. May we always be worthy of them.”

“I'll drink to that,” Steve replied. Their mugs clinked and they both drank deeply of the fresh-tasting brew. They sat quietly together for a few minutes, drinking and watching people socialize, before Steve spoke again. “So, is this the part where you warn me that Darcy's like your sister, and if I hurt her, you'll make sure nobody ever finds my body?”

Thor laughed. “Having felt the wrath of the lightning she carries in her taser-box, I think there is no need for me to make such threats.” He shook his head. “No, my friend. I know you for a man of honor, and I know that you will always strive to treat her well. But I confess that I have... concerns.” The gaze that he turned on Steve was piercing. “You are heartsick,” Thor said, his voice low. “The things you have experienced, they have caused you great pain deep inside you, and there is a wound there which has yet to heal. Sometimes this is good - as all know, a wound must bleed clear before it can be bound. But wounds like this, deep inside... sometimes they fester.”

Steve nodded. “You're right,” he said softly. “And I think this one maybe has. But I made a promise to Darcy that I would get better. That I would...” He paused for a moment, considering his words, and then continued, “...be worthy of her.”

Thor smiled slightly, nodding. “Indeed.”

“So. I can't promise to never hurt her, but I can promise to do my best.” He tipped the last of his beer down his throat. “All I can do is all I can do.”

“And that is all anyone can ask of you,” Thor replied, squeezing his shoulder. “I do not know if it will help you to know this, but I feel that you should be aware. Our compatriots are all in support of this new venture.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Run that one by me again?”

Thor grinned. “When it became known that you had accompanied Darcy to her ancestral home, our teammates and friends became quite agitated. There was much discussion about the fact that everyone thought that you disliked Darcy.”

Steve put his head in his hands. “Yeah. She thought that too.”

“I knew that you did not. I told my Jane this.” He shook his head. “You are a warrior, Steven, as I am. Even when your body was small, I am told, you had the courage and proud heart of a warrior. But the warrior's heart does not always understand the softer and gentler ways. And being a great warrior, a superior tactician, and an excellent leader does not always qualify one to be also an excellent lover. Such skills often require practice and guidance.”

Steve smirked slightly. “Boy, if that ain't a fact.”

“Fear not,” Thor replied, picking up the pitcher and refilling both of their mugs. “I believe that in Darcy you have found a most willing and able teacher.”

“Buddy,” Steve replied, “I do think you're right about that.” He raised his mug, reached deep into his memory, and dressed his tongue up in his mother's Irish brogue. “May yer glass be ever full, the roof o'er yer head be always strong, and may ye be in Heaven an hour 'fore the Devil kens ye're dead!”

Roaring with laughter, Thor clanked his mug against Steve's, and they drank to one another again more than once before the night was over.