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Healing Process

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The confession that forced its way out of Steve's chest during his fourth therapy session was, “I don't feel like myself.”

Burke raised one eyebrow in an expression that Steve had learned meant I know that made sense to you, but you're going to have to explain it for those of us who aren't inside your head. But all Burke said was, “What do you mean?”

Steve, who had been pacing by the window, crossed to Burke's desk and picked up the file that Sitwell had brought the doctor before Steve's first visit. He flipped it open, eventually finding and pulling out an old black-and-white photograph. He handed it to Burke. “That's me,” he said.

“Before Dr. Erskine's serum,” Burke replied. “Yes.”

“My whole life.” Steve shook his head, running a hand through his hair. “That was me my whole life.” He was silent for a moment. “June the twenty-second, 1943,” he murmured. “Twenty-four years, eleven months, eighteen days - if I've done the math right.” He gave a soft, humorless laugh. “Two years and twelve days later, I went into the ice. They woke me up on April the seventeenth, 2012, and I've been awake for a year and...” He paused, then waved a hand. “I dunno. Something.”

He stopped rambling for a minute, leaned against the windowsill, and caught another look on Burke's face. It was the one that said you've just said something very interesting that I'm going to make you explore in a moment, and you aren't going to like it very much. “The point is,” he said desperately, hoping to distract Burke from whatever it was, “I was that guy, that little skinny kid, for damn near twenty-five years. And I've only been this guy,” he waved at his physique, “for... I dunno, maybe three years? And some change? I don't feel like myself.” He plastered his hands against his chest, trying to explain himself. “When I get up in the morning and I don't wheeze, when I can run for hours, when I can arm-wrestle friggen' Thor. I don't feel like me.”

“The body you have is not the body you are accustomed to having,” Burke said.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, waving a hand expressively.

“Tell me about the process of getting a new body.”

Steve took a deep breath. “They strapped me down to a table in a room with a bunch of equipment,” he began. “It was... with all these parts. Metal arms and things.” He demonstrated the way that the equipment had gone around him. “Then there were shots, I don't know what. Some kind of serum. And it hurt. Kind of a lot, actually.” He made a sour face. “Then the whole table closed up around me, like a big metal coffin with a little window in the front so they could see me, and they shot me up with something they called 'Vita-Rays.' Nobody knows what those were. And that.” He paused, swallowing hard, and the next words came out very softly. “I've never felt pain like that in my life before or since. I'm surprised it didn't kill me.”

“But it didn't.”

“No. And when they opened it back up...” He gestured at his torso. “And then a German spy killed Dr. Erskine and blew the place up, and I ran after him, and I've been running ever since.”

Burke tilted his head slightly. “How do you feel about your body now? Apart from the lack of familiarity, I mean. Do you like the body you have?”

“Well, sure,” Steve replied automatically. “Who wouldn't?”

Burke smiled slightly. “I can think of a number of people who wouldn't want to have your body. Off the top of my head, I'm fairly certain my wife wouldn't.”

Steve paused, considering that, and then laughed as he dropped into the chair. “Yeah, okay. You got a point,” he admitted. “Still. Yeah. It's a good body. It's better'n the one I had before, for sure. I don't wheeze, I can run up a flight of stairs without feelin' like my heart's gonna come bursting outta my chest.” He sighed. “It just doesn't feel like me.”

“You've been more or less constantly on the move since your... transformation,” Burke observed. “You spent time on a USO tour, then you jumped immediately into combat in Europe, and from there, your personal issues were shelved while you came to terms with your current century.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah, that... sounds about right.”

“Have you taken the time to actually get to know it?”

Steve cocked an eyebrow. “Are you asking me if I've handled the merchandise, doc? Because man to man, that's pretty much the first thing I did when I had fifteen minutes by myself.”

Burke chuckled softly. “No. I'm asking you if you've taken the time to get to know your body, to inhabit it as a home, rather than as a temporary squat.”

Steve shrugged. “I dunno. Whatever it is you're thinking I oughta do, probably I haven't done it.”

“Well, there are a variety of therapy techniques that we can try together. But those are really designed more for people who are suffering from dysmorphia or disconnection from the bodies they've had since birth. Your issue is different, and so I'm inclined to try a different approach.” The doctor gave Steve another look - one that asked him if he was willing.

“Hey, you're the doc,” Steve replied. “I'm game to try just about anything once.”

***

It turned out that what Burke had in mind for him to try was yoga. He gave Steve a particular set of exercises to combine with a meditation technique that was originally designed for people who'd had limbs amputated. Burke thought it might help him “get in touch with his body” and redevelop his sense of proprioception, which was probably a little out of whack. Steve thought it seemed a little weird, but who was he to argue methods if it would work? So the morning after that session, he wandered down to the gym, because Darcy had told him there were yoga mats there and had even suggested that early in the morning, as in around sixish, was the best time to hit the gym if he didn't want Tony and Clint making fun of him.

He wasn't expecting to walk in and find Jane, Natasha, and Pepper all already lined up stretching out against the far wall. The sight stopped him in his tracks. “Uh.”

Pepper looked up. “Oh, Steve. Darcy said you might be joining us today.” She gave him a smile. “There's an extra yoga mat in the cabinet if you want to grab it.”

“Uh,” he managed to say, not moving. Natasha gave him an impatient look. He wondered if there was any way he could gracefully extricate himself from this situation.

As it turned out, there was not; just as he had decided to take a step backward, an arm wound around his waist from behind. He looked down to see Darcy squinting up at him, her usual grumpy early-morning-face nowhere to be seen. She gave him a smile. “Hi.”

“Hi,” he said back, wondering when the hell this became his life.

“Come on.” She tugged on him, and he let her lead him over to the closet where the yoga mats were kept. She pulled out two of them, tossing one to him, and then guided him down to the end of the line, where she rolled out her mat and he copied her.

“Steve's got a routine he's supposed to follow,” Darcy said, and Jane asked if there was a video or what.

“Uh,” Steve managed.

Natasha rolled her eyes. “If you can't manage a complete sentence in the next thirty seconds, I'm going to punch you in the face,” she told him.

“That wouldn't be very relaxing,” said a new, masculine voice. Steve looked over at the door in surprise and found that Bruce Banner had entered the room. He was giving Steve an understanding smile. “I heard Darcy say that you have a routine?”

“It's um.” Steve ran a hand through his hair, more uncomfortable than he'd ever been before in his life and not even sure why. “Someone gave it to me.”

Bruce crossed the room and herded Steve away from the women, who were mostly finished stretching and were now just watching with interest. “Is there a physical set of instructions?” the physicist asked as he retrieved a yoga mat from the closet.

Steve dug into the pocket of his sweats and handed Bruce a folded piece of paper. Bruce looked it over and nodded. “I'm actually familiar with this routine,” he said. “It was developed for people who'd lost limbs.”

“Yeah, the, um.” Steve swallowed, his throat strangely dry. “I've been... this guy... said it might... help.”

Bruce paused, clearly working to put those disparate phrases together. Steve saw when it clicked; Bruce's eyes raked down his form and back up again once, briefly. “To reattach the changed physical form with the core of being,” Banner said, a slight smile quirking at the corner of his lips. “I understand.” He handed the paper back to Steve. “Like I said, I'm familiar. You hang onto this. And try to relax. That's the whole point of doing yoga, after all.”

He had to follow the others' lead; he understood words like headstand or supported shoulder-stand, but then there were words like cat pose and cow pose and reclining hero pose. And how exactly he was supposed to relax while watching Darcy Lewis stretch herself into an extended puppy pose was something that was completely beyond him. Really, it was just sort of evil.

But he found, at the end of the hour, that not only was he actually feeling like he'd had a bit of a workout, but he was also feeling like he might know where his elbows were in relation to the rest of his body. Performing the contortions required to get into and out of some of those poses was an exercise in flexibility that Steve wasn't accustomed to, and it had, as Burke had probably expected, required him to work out for himself exactly where his fingers and toes were at any given moment. As they all put their yoga mats away in the closet, Steve found himself feeling really good about himself for the first time in awhile.

Darcy gave him a shoulder bump as they all filed out of the gym, Pepper and Natasha idly discussing lunch plans in front of them and Jane and Bruce talking science behind them. “Okay?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yeah. I wasn't sure at first, but... yeah.”

She smiled slightly. “I could tell. You looked a little knocked off your game when I came in.”

“I just... wasn't expecting anyone else to be there,” he admitted. “I was all wound up to do it by myself with the directions, and it kinda threw me.”

“That's okay,” Darcy said. “I thought I'd told you, but I guess I didn't. So that one's on me.”

He slung an arm around her shoulders. “Don't worry about it,” he assured her. “Hey, you wanna go get some lunch with me today?”

“Sure. Come get me in the lab when you're ready to go.”

***

Steve had never asked Darcy what exactly it was that she did in the labs. In retrospect, he thought as the alarms went off, that might have been a mistake. Probably he should have asked, just so that he would have some idea of whether she was the sensible kind of person who ran away when the sirens wailed, or if she was an idiot like him who ran towards the danger.

It turned out that in this case, she was neither. In this case, she was the innocent bystander who happened to be bringing Tony a sandwich when the Science Thing blew up.

Steve knew, intellectually, that it had a name other than Science Thing. But that name was at least four words long, two of which he wasn't sure he could pronounce, and it was entirely immaterial anyway because the really important part of whatever Stark was saying was that they didn't actually know where Darcy was.

“What do you mean you don't know where she is?” Steve shouted. “She was right here.

“I know she was right here,” Tony tried to explain. “But then there was an explosion, and then she wasn't any more.”

Steve felt his breath come short with the beginnings of panic. “Tony,” he said, his voice very low and very dangerous, “did you blow her up?”

“No!” Tony exclaimed. “No, no, no. Absolutely not. She is not blown up. She's not even blown into another dimension. JARVIS! Darcy Lewis is still in the building, right?”

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS replied, and Steve felt himself relax. “However,” the AI continued, “she is not within range of any security cameras; therefore I am unable to pinpoint her precise location.”

Steve took a deep breath. This, he could deal with. “JARVIS,” he said, “where was she the last time you saw her?”

“Miss Lewis was last in visual range before entering the west stairwell,” JARVIS replied.

That was both bad and good; the west stairwell ran all the way from the roof to the ground level, and though it had no exits on the uppermost floors, it did have a few exits to an external fire escape. All of those doors were monitored, though. “Has she left the stairwell?” Steve asked. “At the roof, or to the outside?”

“No, sir,” JARVIS said. “I can state with a 99 percent certainty that Miss Lewis is still in the stairwell.”

“The other one percent is a built-in failsafe in case of random portal openings,” Tony added. That idea did not fill Steve with a great deal of confidence.

“Fine. I'm going to get Darcy. You...” Steve paused, waving a hand at the smoldering wreckage. “Fix that.” He turned and left the lab, heading down the hall at a jog. The door to the stairwell banged open, echoing up and down the shaft, but swung shut again more quietly on its hydraulic arm. “Darcy?” he called out, his voice echoing just like the sound of the door.

There was no reply, and Steve got a very, very bad feeling. He looked up and down, wondering which direction she might have run. There was no blood, so he didn't think she was injured, but she might be disoriented, and on a stairwell, disorientation could lead to falls and broken necks. He moved to the edge of the landing and looked down - and down - and down. And he spotted something. He darted down two floors and swallowed hard.

It looked like a pile of rags lying there, but he knew what it was. Cotton, lace, denim, and bright blue Converse: Darcy's pants, panties, bra, and shoes. “What the hell?” he murmured softly to himself. He gathered everything in his hands, bundling it all up tightly, and moved forward. She'd obviously come down before stripping off, but why the hell had she stripped off? He thought about that stupid Science Thing and wondered just exactly what Tony had been up to. “Darcy?” he called out again, heading down another flight of stairs. “Darcy!”

There silence but for his own echo, and he made it down another flight, and then another, passing doors in and doors out and he'd gone down almost ten floors when a sound stopped him in his tracks. It was barely anything, and if he'd been an ordinary person with ordinary senses, he never would have heard it. But to his serum-enhanced ears, it was clearly audible.

It was a sniffle.

He turned, looking back up toward the sixtieth floor landing he'd just passed. That landing, in addition to a door in, also had a door out, and on the other side of the external door, there was a tiny alcove bathed in shadow. It wasn't nearly large enough to hold an adult human - he couldn't have even hidden in it back when he was little and skinny. But that was definitely where the sound had come from. He went back up, his eyes trained on that shadowed alcove.

Sure enough, there was Darcy. She was huddled on the floor, drawn up inside her tee shirt like a turtle in its shell. Her arms were wrapped around her legs and her forehead rested on her knees, and her hair was spilling down around her in a tangle. Judging by her size, he guessed that she was about five or six.

He seated himself on the concrete just outside the alcove to make himself smaller and less threatening - and wasn't that a laugh? He waited for her to look up at him with those huge blue-gray eyes and he smiled at her. “Hi, Darcy.”

“Hi,” she mumbled.

“Do you remember me?”

She studied him for a long moment, then shrugged, looking down at her knees.

“It's okay if you don't,” he assured her. “Nobody will be mad at you.” He paused, then added, “My name's Steve.”

She looked back up at him at least, though her face was wet and sticky with tears, and she said, “Where am I?”

“Um.” He rubbed at the back of his neck with one hand. “Well, this is Stark Tower. In New York.” He paused. “Do you know where New York is?”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “I'm not stupid. I'm almost seven.”

“I didn't think you were,” he said quickly. “I just wasn't sure if they'd started doing geography in your class at school yet.”

She looked like she didn't quite believe him, but she scooted forward out of the alcove to get a better look at him. “How did I get here?” she asked. “I went to sleep in my room at Granny's house and then something went BOOM and then I was in that room and there was fire and smoke and that man was yelling. But I didn't do it, I didn't break the thing.” There were tears in her eyes again, sliding down her cheeks.

“No, I know you didn't, sweetheart,” Steve assured her, reaching forward automatically to wipe the tears away with his thumb. “It's okay. Tony broke his own stupid machine. He does that a lot.”

“Oh.” She scooted forward again, leaning toward him, and he suddenly realized what she wanted. He reached out and scooped her up, settling her into his lap. She burrowed against him. “You smell nice,” she murmured. “Like my daddy used to.”

His heart clenched, and he reached up, cupping her head where she was resting against him. “Don't worry, sweetie,” he murmured. “I'm gonna take care of you.”

He wasn't sure how long he sat there with her in his lap, but it couldn't have been too long before his phone beeped. She sat up when he pulled it out of his pocket, her eyes tracking it as he lifted it to his ear. “Rogers.”

It was Bruce. “Did you find her?”

“I found her,” Steve replied. “I'm going to bring her up to your lab to check her out, if you don't mind. She was pretty freaked out by all the explosions in Tony's.”

Bruce was silent for a long moment. “What aren't you telling me?” he asked.

“Nothing you won't know in just a couple of minutes,” Steve replied. “I'm on my way now.” He hung up. “Darcy,” he said, “I'm going to bring you back upstairs, okay? I want my friend Dr. Bruce to look at you and make sure you didn't get hurt in the explosion. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said, clambering out of his lap (and nearly kicking him in the balls in the process).

He stood, gathering the bundle of her clothes again, and then he said, “Is it all right if I carry you? Since you don't have any shoes.”

“Okay,” she said again, holding her arms up. He caught her around the waist and lifted her to his hip; she wrapped her arms around his torso and proceeded to climb him with her toes until she was settled on his back like a koala.

He grinned. “Hang on tight,” he told her, waiting only until her grip on him tightened before starting up the stairs at a quick jog. She squealed in delight, hanging on even tighter, her skinny arms wrapping around his head, and he made very quick work of the eighteen floors between them and their destination. Once they came through the stairwell door, the hall floor was carpeted, so he swung her down onto her feet and took her by the hand. “This way,” he said. “And try not to be worried. I know it's kind of scary looking, but I'll be right here.”

“Okay.” She trotted along beside him, her eyes darting this way and that, and he wondered at her remarkable agreeableness. He wouldn't have been surprised, knowing the adult Darcy as he did, to see her pitch a huge tantrum and demand to be taken home. Instead, she seemed to be taking everything with remarkable equanimity.

Steve knocked before pushing open the door of Banner's lab. “Bruce?”

“Right here,” Banner replied, coming around a corner. “Is Darcy hurt, Steve?”

“Not - well, I don't think so,” Steve replied. He stepped to the side, letting Banner get a good look at the child who stood behind him. Her shoulder was at about the level of Steve's knee, her head hovering near his hip. Her tee shirt hung off one skinny shoulder, its hem hanging around her knees, and her bare toes twitched against the linoleum floor.

Bruce Banner stared in shock. “Well,” he said, taking off his glasses to wipe them with the hem of his shirt. “I think we can safely say that this one's a new one, even for us.”