The fish tank had one of those ceramic divers that pumped air bubbles out in a steady stream, causing the glittery-scaled fish to dart this way and that to avoid them.
Steve thought it was supposed to be soothing.
Everything in here was supposed to be soothing. The walls were painted a warm, calming tan. The sofa was overstuffed, with two pillows plumped in each corner. The table was wood, homey, with an array of magazines spread out on top promising recipes and weight loss and summer tans, even though it was winter now, not that California was showing signs of acknowledging that occasion. A metal-leaved tree hung on one wall, next to black-framed degrees. The doctor’s chair---no, therapist, that’s what they called them now. The therapist’s chair was more streamlined than the sofa, but still a cozy, muted green.
The fish tank was the only bright thing in the room. Everything else was shadowed in a soft, dim glow. He wondered if Coulson had said something. Steve didn’t look at it. The tank. He could hear it, of course, the gurgling susurration as the water processed through the filter, soft and churning.
It was supposed to be soothing.
Water’s not like that, Steve thought sometimes, when the therapist sat quietly with her legs crossed and her heel swaying slightly as she waited. He thought she knew most people didn’t like silence, wanted to fill it, ride it out on nerves and pressure, but he had kept quiet, kept still, kept low and hunched, for far longer than the SHIELD-mandated hour he had each week with her.
The diver was in an old-fashioned dive suit. Not old-fashioned to him, of course. Just to everyone else. It was quaint. Humorous, even.
“Are we done?” Steve asked, though he knew they were. Another benefit of the serum. Internal clock worked like Greenwich.
“I do believe our time is up,” she responded. She tapped her pen on her notepad. It was blank, except for today’s date.
“You’ll let Fury know,” Steve said. It wasn’t a question. She would. A box would be checked somewhere. The next mission would be waiting in his electronic mail box. It looked like a mail box on the phone Coulson had given him. He’d thought it was neat, until he saw Rumlow’s phone and realized the tiny red and blue post box was only on his, something Coulson had done in an effort to make it easier, Steve supposed.
“I already have this week’s assessment form ready to submit,” she assured him, swiping nonexistent stray hairs out of her face as she shook her head back. “You know, Captain, I’ve never approved of this. This arrangement with the Director. It’s only been six months since you returned from your tour of duty. I don’t know all the details, but I know enough. The loss of your unit has to weigh incredibly heavily on you, Captain. It would affect anyone. It isn’t a weakness to need help. I don’t care how valuable you are to SHIELD, it isn’t helping you or anyone else to put you there if you’re a risk.”
“I’m not a risk,” Steve said, voice going hard.
“I didn’t mean just a risk to others, Captain,” she said, though she lowered her eyes from Steve’s unflinching gaze. “All I’m saying is that…if there ever is anything you actually do want to talk about, I’m always willing to listen. I know you’ve been through a lot. We all just want to help you get better.”
“I’m fine,” Steve replied.
She would tell him she understood how hard this was for him. That was the next line. He would say that being back in the field was helping. She would nod, tell him that was good, that he was getting back into the world. She would send the form to Fury. He would get his next mission. Maybe next week, some of that would even be true.
“My clinical assessment is that you are experiencing severe post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with moderate to severe major depressive disorder, which is not improving, but rather becoming more pronounced, likely leading to what I suspect is suicidal ideation masquerading as the kind of heroic risk-taking that is currently being rewarded and encouraged by the system that is enabling what they say they want to prevent,” she said. “And, that’s our hour,” she said with a sigh, closing the blank notebook in her lap.
Steve stared at her for a long moment, swallowed, then looked away. He felt his hands curl into fists on the top of his thighs, the knuckles digging in there, and had the fleeting thought that it was dark in the cold, but it was gone before he could grab onto it. The bubble burst, he thought, the words sounding odd and wrong in his head, and for a moment the world seeming to tip crazily on its side before everything righted itself.
“I really would like to help,” she offered in a soft, careful voice.
“I know,” Steve replied, mouth twisting into a grimace. He did, he supposed. “Thank you for your time,” Steve said and started to rise.
“Just a moment, Captain, if you don’t mind,” she said quickly. Steve held himself mid-motion, then sat back on the sofa and waited. “I wanted to talk with you about a matter that I spoke with Director Fury about after our session last week. A suggestion I had that I thought might help. Hear me out, if you would. It’s…somewhat unusual, I’ll admit, but not unheard of, by any means. And in your situation, I think it’s something to consider.”
In the tank, over his shoulder, the little diver pumped air, and the fish avoided it, and the water ran, swishing and burbling and soothing. He shifted slightly on the sofa.
“I’d appreciate your expertise,” Steve said. She smiled. Liked hearing that. Wanted the validation, wanted to help, probably thought they were the same thing.
“I heard you’ve been thinking about buying a home?” she asked, though he could tell she knew the answer already. She stood up and walked to her desk, flicking on the lamp as she sat down in the chair behind it. Steve blinked at the sudden light, but nodded in response to her question.
“I’ve been looking,” Steve replied, surprised by her question.
“That’s good. There is a sense of permanence about a home, I find. It’s a big step in an Alpha’s life, that first home. It’s a good sign that you’re thinking in that direction, Captain,” she offered with an approving smile. Steve looked over at the fish tank for a second, then at the degrees framed on the wall behind the therapist’s head. He knew it was a good sign. He knew why he needed to do things that were good signs. This was what they all wanted from him. Needed. So, he would do it, and then there would be another mission, and maybe somewhere in there, it could be dark again for a while, and he could breathe. He looked at the diver again, spouting his long thread of bubbles. There’s no air down there, he thought, and closed his eyes for a moment, before turning back to where the therapist sat in the halo of lamplight, a faint, high-pitched squeal coming from the bulb. It would need to be changed soon.
“You are, after all, an Alpha in his prime. Young, strong, a natural leader. Exactly what an Alpha should be,” she continued, smooth, the words intended as a compliment, an opening salvo to pave the way for whatever hoop it was she wanted him to jump through. You made me this way, Steve wanted to say, but it sounded like an accusation, and maybe it was, so he said nothing. “Your file says you never Bonded. That’s certainly understandable, what with your service record. Iraq and then two tours in Afghanistan, was it? Hardly time to find a mate in all that, I can imagine. But, you must have thought about it. You’re of an age when settling down might…well, look a bit more appealing than it once did. A mate could be good for you. Help settle you, perhaps? We know Omegas are stabilizing influences on their Alphas, and offer Alphas an outlet for those baser urges that can cause such a problem—“
“No,” Steve cut in. “I’m not…Bonding. No.” His jaw clicked shut, hard. He could feel his teeth grate together. That was…that was insane. Obviously. She didn’t understand. For a moment, his memory pulled up a stack of photos, black and white, bent at the edges from being passed around, grime-covered prints on them, and he quickly shoved that thought away, where it belonged. Bonding was for…people who weren’t him.
“Captain, if I may speak candidly? You come here each week and we sit, quietly, and I send a form to Fury that says you are mission ready, because that’s what Fury needs it to say. Maybe that’s what we all need it to say, and maybe it’s worth it, in the end, but you are not adjusting. I’ve seen returning soldiers struggle with being out of a warzone more times than I can count. You are not getting better. You are barely getting by,” she said, voice clipped and firm, because she had rehearsed this, but hadn’t given Steve his lines.
“I’m fine,” Steve countered through gritted teeth. He had to resist the urge to shift in his seat, use his bulk, throw her off this nonsense. He could do it. A sharp word. The right tone. It would stop. She would stop.
“I’ve read the mission reports, Captain,” she continued, her tone going low and conspiratorial, as if she was sharing a secret. She wasn’t, but she liked the power it gave her to think she was. “The ones that don’t get filed. I know about the incident in Algeria. I know about the bloody punching bags. I know you rub your leg when you’re feeling anxious, the way you’re doing now, though I don’t know why. Those things I know. I can guess a lot more. I think you don’t sleep very much at all. I think when you do, it’s either exhaustion or nightmares. I think you take unnecessary risks that no one questions because you get the job done. I think you know that you do this, but you can’t stop yourself. To put it bluntly, you’re nosediving, Captain. You’re a danger to yourself and everyone else on the mission. Something is going to happen that you can’t take back. Maybe not next week or next month or next year, but it will. I think you know that, too.”
She stared at him over the rim of her glasses. He could see his reflection in them, dim and distorted, with the soft blue of the fish tank illuminated behind him.
“Am I wrong about any of that?” she asked softly after a long moment.
“All the more reason not to Bond,” Steve pointed out. His voice sounded weary to his own ears, and her face visibly softened. An affectation. Her heart-rate was up. Nerves. She didn’t like arguing with him. Good. She would stop soon, and he could leave and go back to his room, where no one asked questions, and he could turn the thermostat up to eighty and no one would care.
“You haven’t formed a single, meaningful connection to anyone since you returned. In fact, the only person you have expressed any personal interest in is in a home for dementia patients in Bethesda,” she continued, seemingly oblivious to the way Steve’s hands tightened on the arms of the chair at her words. “As you may know, Bonding has both physical and psychological components, most of which are highly beneficial to the Alpha. You need a link to this world, Captain. An Omega could be that for you. Someone to come home to, someone who will help you find your way, ease your burdens. Take care of you. To say that you would be a catch is an understatement. You would have your pick of the finest Omegas out there. And if I’m wrong, you break the Bond. No harm done.”
“I’ll think about it,” Steve said, which seemed the most expedient way to end the conversation and get out that didn’t involve breaking the damn door.
“Good! That’s wonderful to hear. I know it is a big step, and I’m not suggesting jumping in right away, of course,” she rushed out. “Just think about it, is all I’m asking. I’ve taken the liberty of having a few files put together for you to consider. Agent Coulson was kind enough to help,” she demurred. Steve wondered briefly, almost hysterically, what kind of form Coulson had for that, though he said nothing, just stared at the stack of folders on the doctor’s desk when her eyes fell on it. “When you have time, look them over. Perhaps a few will catch your eye? They are all very beautiful, of course. Well educated by the finest finishing schools or private tutors. I think you’ll find several who share your passion for the arts, even. Omegas are so accomplished these days. They paint, they play music, cook these fantastic meals, know all the latest trends. Why, a friend of mine’s son can throw a party together in no ti—“
“I have to go,” Steve said, standing up. “Thank you for your time.”
“Of course,” the doctor said, clearly flustered for a moment before she regained her composure and smiled up at him. “If I can do anything to help, just ask.”
Steve nodded and scooped up the file folders. They were a strange, pale mint green, with typed-out tabs noting the names and ages of the Omegas whose profiles were inside. Done specifically for him, he assumed, instead of sent electronically because they apparently still thought the thing he missed most was the feel of paper in his hands. His mission orders were always typed, printed out on a ream of paper with a line of holes at the edges that you could tear off in one, long pull if you were careful. He used to do that, until he saw Coulson notice the detritus in the wastebasket one day and give it a long look before smiling his thin, wan smile up at Steve. He shuffled the folders together and picked up the stack, turning for the door without a backwards glance.
“Oh, Captain! One of those, Fury added himself, though, personally, I don’t think it would be a good fit. I had to include it, though, you understand. I thought you would want to know,” she called out.
“Which one?” Steve asked as he gripped a hand on the doorframe. He could feel the wood under his fingers. A slight heave of pressure and it would splinter. That was true of a lot of things, he thought, though he held his tongue.
“Anthony Stark. Son of Howard and Maria Stark. Bit of a troubled youth, if you listen to gossip. He has quite the reputation, not that I put much stock in gossip, of course. I don’t know why the Director wanted him included, other than the father, Howard, does some work for SHIELD. A favor, I suppose,” she added in a dismissive tone that clung to the gossip in a way that reminded Steve of nails on a chalkboard.
“What’s wrong with him?” Steve asked. He could feel a slight frown pulling at the center of his forehead. The doctor took a deep, bracing breath, as if the trials and tribulations of this Omega weighed heavily on her.
“By all accounts—well, except for that nonsense his parents hired some consultant to put together in that folder—he’s quite the problem child. It’s well known in some circles why he hasn’t Bonded yet, even though he’s the only child of a fairly well-to-do family,” she said. “Parents are likely rather desperate. Disobedient to something of a fault, I hear. A bit of a troublemaker, really—there have been several rather unfortunate public incidents--brash to the point of rudeness and astoundingly arrogant. No, no, now, what you need is someone calm, gentle, good-natured. Disciplined, I think,” she suggested with a soft, certain smile and slight nod of her head.
“That…sounds about right,” Steve replied in a low murmur, looking down at the folders in his lap with a frown. He opened the first one. A blonde woman with long hair and pale skin smattered with freckles dressed in a soft, blue skirt and smocked top that bared her shoulders smiled back at him. She was standing next to a dining table set with fine china, seemingly caught in the act of arranging a vase of flowers. Emma, her file said. Loves to garden, cook, knit and sing, and looks forward to being able to care for a mate of her own. She volunteers in her church’s nursery on the weekends, under appropriate supervision, of course. Steve closed the file, and looked back up at the therapist.
“Well, it is my job to understand my patients, Captain,” the therapist said with a knowing, pleased smile, and for a second, Steve could see her sitting in a darkened theater, watching the news reels, tapping her foot impatiently for the picture to start for real so she could see Ginger Rogers, maybe, part of the sea of quiet disapproval aimed at the man shouting at the woman sniffling when the GIs waved from the screen. Boorish, she would have said to herself. Probably Irish. They were always so loud. But, really, must she cry in public like that, when we’re all just here trying to enjoy the movie and forget for a bit? She was one of the ones who hurried past the alley way, pretended not to see, maybe talked a bit louder to her friend to cover the noise, and told herself later that it was a shame, really, that people couldn’t just be good-natured. It wasn’t hard, after all, was it?
Steve looked down at the stack of folders and flipped a thumb through the tabs until he saw one labeled ‘Stark, Anthony Edward, Age 17.’ He opened the folder. A large picture was on top, showing a handsome young man in a terrible suit, standing in some sort of living room. He was smiling, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Wide eyes, a dark, rich brown, and a mop of hair that someone had tried to flatten without the benefit of the Brylcreem Steve remembered. Steve’s eyes stopped, caught on something. Narrowed. He frowned. Looked again. A huff of a laugh escaped him.
He wasn’t going to Bond, though. Obviously. The last thing he needed was an Omega, and the last thing any Omega would want was someone like him. The whole idea was crazy.
“Someone in your position certainly has no need to take someone like that on. The last thing you need is more drama, and from everything I’ve heard, the Stark boy clearly needs someone with a firm hand to bring him to heel,” the doctor commented idly, pushing her glasses up from where they had slipped down her nose. “I only took a cursory look through the files, but the Stafford boy is lovely, and that Taft girl? I can’t believe she hasn’t Bonded yet. Anyway, something to think about, Captain. At least…perhaps consent to meeting with a few of them. Who knows what might happen? Maybe you’ll hit it off!”
Steve looked down the picture again. Anthony Stark. Steve rubbed his thumb lightly over the edge of the photo, then traced the curve of the young man’s face, a small smile tugging at his lips as he looked at the picture. Anthony. I hope you find someone who will take care of you, Steve thought, feeling his throat click as he tried to swallow.
Calm. Gentle. Good-natured.
This one isn’t quiet, Steve thought to himself, and felt his chest tighten with warmth. Troublemaker, Steve mentally repeated, the thought almost seeming to float in his head on a bubble of a laugh.
“What will happen to them?” Steve asked, standing up and shuffling the folders into a neat stack in his hands as he headed for the door.
“Omegas like that? Oh, they’ll all make good matches, I’m sure,” she assured him.
“Even An---this one? Stark?” Steve pressed, slowing as he pulled open the door. Light flooded in almost like a physical force. Bright, Steve thought, trying not to wince, not here, in front of her, but the word cut, still. It was always bright. From the moment he opened his eyes here. Bright. That was the first thought. It’s so bright. He looked down at the folders in his hand, bracing one arm on the door and turning back to the therapist, question still hanging in the air.
“Well,” she began, somewhat uncomfortably, shifting on her chair and casting a shadow against the wall behind her. “Some Alphas prefer that kind of Omega, you know. Bit of a challenge to it, I suppose. I’m sure there will be some Alpha out there who will want to be the one to break him in. There always is,” she said with a shrug.
A loud, sharp crack rent the air and the room seemed to go still. Steve looked at his hand, which held pieces of the doorframe, then back over at the doctor.
“Sorry, I—sorry,” Steve rushed out, almost automatically as he stared with a sort of numb fascination at the splintered wood in his hand.
“Oh! My gosh, are you alright?” she asked with a shocked look.
“Fine,” Steve said. “Sorry. It just buckled.”
“Don’t worry, I’m just glad you’re okay,” she said with a shaky, tittering laugh, like she wasn’t quite sure how to process the wrongness of what she was seeing, the way the needle on a record player skips a groove and then finds the track again. “These buildings have been spackled and patched more than my mother-in-law. I’m sure maintenance can fix it in no time. Just toss those in the trash, would you?”
Steve nodded, and somewhat awkwardly dropped the pieces into the nearby wastebasket, then turned and walked out of the office and down the hall towards the barracks where SHIELD had given him a small apartment that he both loathed and sometimes could barely stand to leave. At least it was quiet there. Softer, somehow. Less…bright. Everything here was so bright. No one noticed, except him, of course. No one had reason to notice. He’d asked Coulson one day, and the man had just looked at him strangely, then found him later in the mess hall and explained something about the lightbulbs. More wattage, he said. Everything really was brighter.
Anthony, Steve’s mind hummed. It was a nice name. Some of the names now were so different, but Anthony…he liked how it sounded. Someone would Bond with Anthony, and soon, most likely, given his age. Hopefully, someone who would make him happy. Alphas wanted their Omegas to be happy, right? Someone like that probably had a line of suitors. His parents would undoubtedly make sure they found an Alpha who would take care of him. Someone who would appreciate that spark of spirit Steve could see so clearly in the picture.
It happened. More than it should. Steve wasn’t unaware of how some Alphas treated their Omegas. He didn’t like it, of course, but he knew it happened. The world may be a brighter place, but people hadn’t changed all that much since the forties, as it turned out.
It didn’t matter. It wasn’t his problem. There wasn’t really anything for him to do, anyway. It was up to Anthony’s parents to find a suitable mate, not that it particularly boded well that they were willing to offer him up to…whoever it was Fury told these people Steve was.
He didn’t want a mate. For a lot of reasons, it wouldn’t be fair, bringing an Omega into this--whatever this was that Steve was doing now. Life. Was that what it was? Two SHIELD officers skirted past him, one giving him a furtive look before quickly looking away when she caught Steve’s eye. Life. No war to fight. Just the next mission. And then the one after that and the one after that. Steve closed his eyes. It was so bright out here. The folders in his hands felt heavy all of a sudden. He should throw them away. There was a garbage can just down the hall. One for shredding next to it. A blue one for recycling. That was important now. SHIELD was committed to good environmental standards. There had been a memo. Steve thought about it sometimes after the charges went off, when the parts of the buildings were still drifting through the air like confetti against a backdrop of black smoke, and sometimes, he thought at least it isn’t ash. Sometimes he just stopped thinking.
He didn’t do anything with the folders.
“Headed to the briefing?” Coulson asked, holding one of those electronic tablets to his chest where he stopped across the hall from Steve. He could give the folders to Coulson. Tell Coulson exactly what Fury could do with his little scheme.
He hefted the folders closer to his chest.
“Gym,” Steve replied, striding past Coulson without looking at him again. He could feel his muscles tensing and bunching as adrenaline coursed through him. It was a good feeling. It was a feeling. Something. Hitting things, that he could do. He could do it with his eyes closed (dark). Fists pounding, body moving before he even thought about it, and so he wouldn’t need to think about it. Wouldn’t need to think about anything. He could just feel. The way his knuckles scraped on the punching bag. The way his shoulder lowered. The impact down his arm. The way his feet fluttered over the mat. How his stomach would go rigid right as his fist arced up towards the bag. He would feel, for a little while, and then…then he wouldn’t need to later in the bright light of day. He wouldn’t need to feel then, and it would be okay for one more day.
“Ah,” Coulson said. “I’ll send you my notes, then.”
“Thanks,” Steve called out, not looking back, just forward. Head down, shoulders back, soldier, we go forward. The mantra’s voice in his head sounded like Phillips, but Phillips was dead, barking orders at God now, and Steve was here, head down, shoulders back, going forward.
It wasn’t Steve’s problem, what happened to some Omega he’d never even met. Life was far from fair, and nothing Steve did could change that. Besides, Anthony was young, beautiful, from a good family and, clearly, well-connected. He would find a good match, with someone who wasn’t…with someone who could give him what he deserved. Someone who could take care of him, the way he needed. Not someone like Steve. That was a terrible idea. Wasn’t that the whole point of these ridiculous therapy sessions? That SHIELD thought Steve wasn’t adjusting. Shellshock, they had called it, once. It had a fancier name now, the one the therapist used, but Steve thought shellshock captured it better, the word seeming to explode in his head when he thought it, all bright and loud. He wasn’t fit to be anyone’s Alpha. He didn’t know what Fury had been thinking, humoring the therapist on this.
I’m sure there will be some Alpha out there who will want to be the one to break him in.
He needed to hit something.