(Outside Abilene, Texas)
Tuesday nights were normally pretty slow at BJ's Roadside Grill. Sure, they got the occasional trucker or stranger passing through, but it was mostly a chance for Bee (she'd been born Bianca, but the only person who even remembered that was her mother) to catch up on inventory, and for John to do a little fiddling around with the menu and test out a few new recipes. She liked the hustle and bustle of the busier nights, but she always considered Tuesdays her nights, where she got to maybe kick back a little, tend to all the things she wouldn't have much chance to get to later in the week.
Tonight was no different. Place was empty, except for the lone young man in the back booth, and the only thing he'd even bothered to order had been a glass of water. Which, he hadn't even asked for a refill, just kept taking small sips from his glass like he was afraid to ask for more. Sure, she'd gone by a couple of times to make sure he was alright, but she recognized the type that just wanted to be left to their own devices. She'd given him the option to flag her down when he was ready to order and had stayed within eyesight and earshot. But as more time went on, she realized he wasn't going to.
She'd noticed the worn, weather-beaten backpack he'd set beside him right off, and the furtive, down-trodden look of him, the way he'd shuffled into the diner like he was trying to avoid notice. And he'd barely said a word or even looked in her direction, just sat there all quiet like and hunched in on himself. Which got her to thinking and speculating (she'd admit to having an overactive imagination) that maybe he didn't have any place to go.
She leaned against the prep counter in the kitchen and peered out through the expo window at the booth. "I think he's homeless, babe. We should at least offer him a decent meal."
John wiped his beefy hands on his towel and threw it over a wide shoulder. Big as a tree and about as strong, but as soft as melted butter on the inside, that was her John. They'd been together since high school, and she wouldn't change a single day. "Not like we're busy at the moment," he replied in his bassy rumble, hand sweeping to encompass the quiet diner. "You go on and do what you need to, but if he starts to get all agitated –"
She went to her tip-toes and gave his cheek a quick peck. "Well, now that's why I keep you around."
"So you keep tellin' me, mama, so you keep telling me."
She laughed as she pulled out her order pad and sauntered back out to the floor, a small-statured woman in her mid-40s with black hair that tended to frizz and skin the color of rich cocoa, and maybe she was a little thicker around the middle these days, but her John still looked at her like she hung the moon.
The two of them had run this place going on twenty years now and maybe it wasn't a glamorous life, but it was all hers and all of it earned. The diner had put a roof over her kids' heads and food on the table and she had her family and her friends and God – her life was filled to the brim with blessings both big and small.
This poor man, though, he didn't look much like he had anyone in his corner. It looked like he'd gone at least a week without a decent shave and much longer since he'd had a haircut. And his clothes, while still in decent shape, no holes or tears or stains that she could see, carried the air of someone who'd slept in them more than once. His trucker hat was pulled low on his forehead, but she could see the disoriented, empty look on his face and the gleam of a metal hand peeking just under the sleeve of his jacket when he picked up his water glass.
A war vet, maybe, served in Iraq or Afghanistan? That would explain the robotic limb and the vacant stare, and even the homeless vibe. It was sad and downright criminal the way society and the government treated the brave men and women who sacrificed life and limb to serve their country, the way they were left high and dry without any help or resources or a way to integrate back into the world. And maybe she couldn't change the system, but she could at least offer this man a hot meal.
She put on her friendliest smile and approached the booth. "Been nursing that water there a mighty long time, hon. You sure I can't offer you something to eat? On the house – my man's getting awfully bored back there in the kitchen and he'd be just as happy to have something to do." The man frowned, and she quickly continued before he could tell her no out of some misplaced sense of pride. "I promise, you'll be doin' both of us a favor. Just tell me what you'd like."
The frown flattened out and he gazed up at her, with these big liquid blue eyes that made him look about as lost as a wayward kitten, and the expression on his face was one she'd never seen before on anyone. Sad and confused and lonely and sort of scared.
"I...I don't know."
Without even thinking about it, she slid into the seat opposite his. She barely resisted the urge to cover his hands with hers. She didn't want to spook him. "What do you mean?"
He cocked his head quizzically at her. "I don't know what I like."
Something about the way he said it, so matter-of-fact, like maybe he was so used to not knowing that it didn't seem to bother him, tugged right at her heart. She'd read about that sort of thing – about vets coming home from war with holes in their memories and no idea how to piece their lives back together. Such a crying shame, especially for someone who looked so young. Why, he couldn't be more than a year or so older than her Caleb.
"Well, let's just work on finding that out, okay," she said, making her voice as cheerful as possible as she got back to her feet. "I'm gonna set you up with a Coke and then we'll just experiment, put my man to work and find out what your favorites are."
Maybe she'd start him out with meatloaf and mashed potatoes or chicken fried steak. Something homey, wholesome, and filling. He looked pretty fit under the clothes, but it was clear he was lacking in decent meals. And she'd yet to meet the man who didn't enjoy homemade meatloaf, and John's secret recipe, passed down from his grandma, was still the best she'd ever tasted.
He slowly blinked up at her, and paused like he was struggling to remember something, brows furrowing mightily under that mess of dark hair spilling from his hat. "Thank you."
"Sure thing." This time, she went with instinct and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, telegraphing the move all the way so he could ease back if he chose. Poor man looked touch-starved. "I'll be right back."
"So, what's the verdict?" John asked, once she came bustling into the kitchen, the door swinging shut behind her.
"Well, I'm not entirely sure, but I think he's a vet of some type. And I'd bet this diner that he hasn't got a place to stay."
"I think he's a little too old to adopt."
She smacked his arm. "Hush, I'm just tryin' to do the Christian thing here. I think maybe he hit his head somewhere or has some other sort of brain issues, he can't seem to remember much. Not even what he likes to eat, isn't that the saddest thing you've ever heard?"
John bussed a light kiss to her lips. "You've got a good heart, mama. I think I fell in love with that first."
"I'm pretty sure what you fell in love with first was the way my legs looked in a skirt."
"Alright, maybe second," John chuckled, then peered down at her. "What do you need me to do?"
"Well, as you said, it's not like we're bursting at the seams with customers. Think you could whip up a meatloaf special and maybe a side of chicken fried steak?"
"You got it."
She left him to his prep and returned to the booth with a full glass of Coke and set it on the table. "There you go," she said, and sat across from him again. Maybe if she kept him talking, he might remember a few more things. It couldn't hurt, right?
He picked up the glass, and held it up to the light. "That's a lot of bubbles."
"Well, yeah, it's Coke." She wondered if she was talking with the only person in the world who hadn't had one before. "Try it," she urged. "If you don't like it, we've got sweet tea and lemonade."
He took a small, thoughtful sip. "Fizzy," he remarked, like he was pleased, and closed his eyes. Then his face got a faraway look to it. "When we were kids, we used to share one up on the roof in the summer."
She wanted to ask who he meant, but was afraid she might ruin the moment if she did. "Sounds familiar. Me and my sisters usedta sneak out and share a Coke and cigarettes on the back stoop when we were younger."
"Couldn't smoke. Not with his asthma." He opened his eyes, but she could see the tears coursing, unnoticed, down his cheeks. "I couldn't take that chance."
"Well, of course you couldn't," she replied, going along with him, even though she had no idea what he was talking about. She touched the back of his wrist. His skin was warm, but not feverish, which was a blessing. Poor man seemed to have been through enough trials in his life without adding being sick on top of it.
"I remember him being smaller. Before."
"Okay." She didn't mind admitting she was as confused as all get out, but he was still talking, so she was gonna take it as a good thing. She gestured at his metal hand. "Did it hurt?"
He flexed silver fingers into a fist and she could hear gears whirring when he rotated his wrist. Sounded like something from a sci-fi movie. "I don't know," he told her. "I just...woke up with it."
"Guess it must be useful in opening jars," she joked, but didn't take any offense when he didn't smile or joke back. She got the feeling he hadn't been doing a lot of smiling lately. "Did you lose your arm in the war?"
He nodded, then shook his head, and frowned. She could practically see him trying to piece the memory together. "I fell. There...I was trying to save him, but I fell."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"I was a sergeant. At least, that's what I –" He stopped, picked the glass up again, and it was like a switch turned in him or something or maybe he was trying to change the subject, hard to tell. "I like this drink. It's...refreshing. Thank you."
She wondered what it was he'd been about to say. But now at least she knew he was definitely military. Someone who'd bled and sacrificed himself for her and hers, and here he was, fragile and adrift and alone and sitting in her small diner acting like she was the one doing him a favor by letting him have a damn Coke.
"Thank you for your service," she said, sincere and grateful, hoping he couldn't hear the tremor in her voice. "I'm gonna go check on your food, alright."
He didn't say anything, but she hadn't really expected him to. When she walked back into the kitchen, she went right into John's arms and held on tight. He wrapped her in a hug and didn't say a word, just rocked her back and forth, pressed a kiss to her hair. She took a minute to herself, to breathe him in, safety and security and a lifetime of love. And made a vow then and there to never, ever take that love and security for granted.
She scrubbed the back of her hand over her eyes when she pulled back. "Better?" John asked, swiping his thumbs across the moisture on her cheeks as he gave her a small smile.
"A little," she replied, and took a shaky breath. "How much longer?"
He pointed at the full plate sitting on the expo line. "I was just getting ready to call on you."
"Thanks, hon." After checking herself in the mirror to make sure her eyes weren't all red and puffy, she picked up the plate. "And we're definitely offering him a place to stay tonight, just so you know."
John, bless him, didn't look surprised in the slightest. "Guess I'll throw some clean sheets on the spare bed, then." They'd converted one of the storage rooms a few years back into a room of sorts for a friend who'd needed a place to stay, and sometimes they let a few of their truck-driving regulars use it to catch a few hours of shut-eye and get cleaned up. It wasn't much, but it was clean and private, and had a shower he could use.
The young man was still sitting there when she went back into the dining room, staring out the window at the dark highway and the night sky beyond, all lit up with way too many stars to name. She wondered exactly what it was he saw – did he even know he was in Texas, that he was safe, that he'd made it back from the front lines? She had so many questions. Where was he from, where was his family, his friends, was there anyone at all out there who cared if he had three square a day and a place to lay his head at night?
"Alright, so this is meatloaf and mashed potatoes and some steamed veggies," she said, setting the plate in front of him. "And a side order of chicken fried steak and gravy right there. And if none of that tickles your tastes buds, well, we've got plenty of things on the menu we can try until you find something you like."
"It looks very nice."
"Well, go on," she urged, when he just sat there, staring at the plate like he wasn't quite sure what came next. "I promise, no one'll be offended if you don't like it. We've got pretty thick skins around here."
He spent an inordinate amount of time unrolling his silverware and setting his napkin on his lap. Like maybe he was trying to remember how to eat in public, or what the exact order was he was supposed to do things. Then he cut off a piece of meatloaf and swallowed the first bite, and something that could have passed for a smile under all that scruff spread over his face.
"My mother used to put more pepper in hers." Then his eyes lit up with wonder. "I remember her. I have a mother. Or I did."
Her heart ached for him all over again. "Well, of course you do," she replied, proud of the evenness of her tone. "Everyone comes from somewhere. Do you remember anything else about your home? Anything at all?" Maybe if she had a hometown and a name or something, she could start trying to track down this young man's kin. Maybe his mother was still alive somewhere, and if she was, Bee would bet anything she was sick with worry about her boy and where he was, how he was doing.
His face creased in thought. "Steve," he murmured, then blinked, looked up at her like he was afraid she'd go off on him for saying the name. "I don't...I'm sorry, I don't know why I said that."
"It's okay. I promise." Steve...maybe a brother, or squad mate or friend or...? Well, whoever this Steve was, he meant something, since that was the first name he'd said since he sat down. "Do you remember your name?"
"Buc –" He stopped, gave her the same fearful look, like she was going to take him to task for speaking out of turn. "I think it's James. I remember hearing that. Or reading it somewhere."
"James it is, then." Once again, she wondered at what he'd been about to say before he stopped himself. Because he didn't really look too much like a James. (But then, she thought to herself, she didn't look too much like a Bianca.) "Do you mind if I call you that?"
"I don't...I'm not used to...He used to call me the asset."
Bee got the distinct impression they weren't talking about this Steve fella anymore. "Well, I think James sounds much better than the asset." She smiled, even though her anger was fair to boiling at the idea of anyone dehumanizing someone to the point where they forgot their own name. Had he been a prisoner of war somewhere? Tortured, maybe?
"Me too," he said, and that small smile appeared again. Made him look even younger, almost handsome. With those big, soulful eyes of his and that little boy smile, she bet he probably used to be quite the looker before...well, before whatever it was had happened to him.
She watched – hovered – as he ate, methodical and slow, like eating was simply something one did to fuel the body and not something to be savored or enjoyed. He must have gone through something terrible to have sucked all the joy out of his life to the point where he couldn't appreciate something as simple as a good home-cooked meal.
But she knew she could only do so much, especially in one night, so she just nodded at his empty glass. "Can I get you another?"
"I can have more?"
He looked poleaxed, poor thing, like such a notion never even occurred to him. She picked up the glass. "Well, sure, if you want. Unlimited refills. And after you've cleaned your plate, I'm thinking pie for dessert."
He paused with the fork halfway to his mouth. His eyes seemed so very large and filled with a fearful sort of hope. "There's pie?"
"Mmhmm. John does most of the cooking, but I make all the pies myself from scratch, homemade crust and everything. Got seven kinds right now, so you have plenty to choose from." Hell, the way she was feeling, she wanted to give him a slice from every one, just to watch his reaction. If anyone ever needed something sweet in their life, it was this man.
"Steve liked strawberry best." Once again, he said it so matter of fact, like he hadn't even needed to think about it.
She tried not to react too much. Wouldn't do for him to shut down now that he was opening up, remembering things all on his own. "Well, what about you? Do you remember what you liked?"
"Apple," came the prompt reply, then that same confusion passed over his face. "I don't know...why would I say that?"
"Well, it could be that you're starting to remember who you are. That's a good thing, isn't it?"
"You're...very kind," he said slowly, like he was pulling the words from somewhere deep inside him. "That hasn't been my usual experience."
"Maybe you just haven't met the right people yet. Although it sounds to me like this Steve person of yours is nice."
"I...I knew him. Once. At least, I think I..." He trailed off as the bell above the lobby door jingled.
Bee turned to see who it was and had to stop herself from doing a double take.
Because unless she was seriously mistaken, Captain America was standing right there in the foyer of her diner. Sure, he was wearing a baseball cap pulled low on his head and a pair of jeans and t-shirt and a nondescript jacket, but she watched the news every night before bed, and she'd studied him in history class in school just like everyone else. And, like everyone else, she'd harbored a harmless crush on the man, both for his All-American good looks and the heroic nature of his actions both during World War II and since he'd been back.
John was gonna be fit to be tied when he got a look at who it was. But, as much as she wanted to make a good impression on the Captain, she had another, far more important, customer to tend to.
"Welcome to Roadside, if you'll just gimme one sec..." She turned back to face James and her heart almost stopped at the ashen look on his face. "Honey, are you okay?"
He wasn't even looking at her. She looked back at the Captain, his hands shoved in his pockets, an apologetic smile on his face, but that look also wasn't directed her way. No, it was directed right at James.
Well, never let it be said that Bee Juniper was slow on the uptake. She might not have much idea about what was going on, but she was smart enough to put two and two together, and it seemed like the Steve that James had been talking earlier about was none other than Steve Rogers himself.
Obviously, they knew each other. Was James a friend of the Captain's? Maybe a vet he was counseling? She knew – or thought she remembered, anyway – that he'd been doing some sort of work with the VA once he'd been fished out of the ice.
The Captain rocked back on his heels. His voice was low, soft, like he was afraid of speaking too loud. "You're a hard man to find, Buck."
"That was the point," James said, from behind her.
"You, uh..." The Captain cleared his throat, and made an abortive gesture at the booth. "I didn't mean to... I just wanted to make sure you were..."
The concern in his voice seemed about as sincere as it got, which was...well, it seemed pretty odd, but she wasn't gonna speculate. But the Captain looked about as lost as poor James did when he'd first sat down, and it was looking like maybe the two of them had some talking to do.
"I was just getting ready to bring out a piece of pie to James here and a refill on his Coke," she said, and then went with sheer instinct. "Can I maybe get you a slice, Captain? I think he mentioned your favorite was strawberry."
"Uh yeah, it's..." He jerked to a halt and stared at James, those blue eyes of his widening in shock. "You remembered that?"
"Seems like," James shrugged, then nodded at the bench across from him. "Have a seat."
The Captain took a tentative step. "You sure you don't –"
It wasn't exactly an invitation – more like an order, really – but the Captain didn't even hesitate, just slid in as gingerly as a skittish cat. The two of them just looked at each other, not saying a word, but then, neither one seemed inclined to break the ice and Bee figured maybe they might not even have the slightest idea where to start. God knew her own boys didn't have the first clue on how to communicate using the English language. She went ahead and grabbed the Captain a glass of Coke and a refill for James, then got them each a nice thick slice of pie – strawberry for the Captain and apple for James – and walked back over to their booth.
She set both plates and the glasses on the table. "We close at 11," she said, when they looked up at her. "And if you still need more time after that, you just let me know. I don't mind staying late."
"Ma'am." The Captain's voice cracked on the word. He looked like he was ready to give her a hug (although, in her opinion, she wasn't the one that really needed it.)
"Thank you," James told her again, the words coming easier this time. Which told her just about everything she needed to know about the situation and what it meant. Whether James even remembered it or not, some part of him clearly recognized Steve, at the very least.
"You need anything, I'll be in the back, just holler."
The Captain nodded again, those movie star eyes of his bright and shining with gratitude and something else she couldn't even name. Across from him, James was just looking at him like he couldn't quite believe the Captain was real. She wondered if either of them even realized that their hands were inching towards each other across the table.
She shuffled back, but couldn't stop herself from pausing once she got to the counter. Curiosity was one her most egregious sins.
"I do know you." James didn't phrase as a question, but the Captain nodded anyway.
"Yeah, you do." He picked up his fork, fiddled with it for just a second before taking a small bite of his pie. "Pretty good. Not as good as Mom's, but, well."
James took a bite of his own pie. His brows scrunched, then his forehead smoothed out. "She used to use more cinnamon."
"That's right. She did." The Captain's lips curved, like he knew exactly what James was talking about. "You used to like extra cinnamon in your apple pie."
James made a noncommittal noise and took another bite. He swallowed before giving the Captain a hard, searching look. "Why are you here?"
"I think you already know why I'm here." The Captain didn't move, but Bee could feel the air around the two of them grow thicker. "I don't care what you did or what they turned you into. You're still you in there somewhere and if it takes me the rest of my life to help you find him again, then it's the least I can do."
"'To the end of the line," James said softly, like he was reciting something.
The Captain smiled again, this time triumphant. "You're damn right."
"It's all jumbled up." James tapped at his temple with a metal finger. "What's memory, what I read... I get mixed up sometimes."
"I can help." The Captain leaned forward, dropped his voice so low Bee had to strain to hear him. "Let me help you, Buck. Please."
It seemed like a lifetime that the Captain (and Bee) held their breath before James nodded.
"Okay." He swallowed a sip of his Coke. "I want to know everything."
"Hoo boy, that's...that's gonna take a while." Their fingers finally brushed, metal against flesh, but she noticed neither made a motion to move back. "Where do you want me to start?"
"The beginning," James said, and, for the first time that night, Bee saw that his smile finally reached his eyes.
Satisfied they were on the right path, she finally turned and headed for the kitchen without looking back. Whatever else needed to be said between those two, it wasn't for her ears. She was just glad they'd found each other. A body needed a place to call home at the end of the day.