The Fool in the Mirror
Chapter Track: Slow Disco – St. Vincent
The first time that the idea occurred to him, Steve stood surrounded by a technicolor, flashing version of Times Square. He’d made one attempt already, an attempt he believed would wipe him off the face of the earth forever. It didn’t, and he emerged from death to a world far more strange than he thought possible.
Everyone was gone. They told him Peggy remembered him only sometimes, though he’d never worked up the courage to visit her. That she might not recognize him frightened Steve, that the one person left from his past might not know him as the panel of people in the present did not know him, cut him to the quick.
And they all still wanted him to fight.
The army didn’t own Steve anymore. Now, apparently, he belonged to something called SHIELD. He didn’t protest, but only because Peggy had a hand in founding the organization.
Steve did what they asked of him. He threw himself wholeheartedly – recklessly, Natasha told him – into every fight that found its way onto his doorstep. He imagined one of these fights might eventually finish him, but they never did. Against the odds, and due to the stubborn loyalty of his new team, Steve scraped through every battle, bruised and bloody, but painfully alive.
After Thanos and the promise of the end of the world, Steve thought it might at last end. Everything. Maybe, if he made it through the end, he could stop fighting. But he lived, almost everyone lived – by some miracle – and the fighting paused only for the space of a breath. The moment his wounds healed, the call to blood came again. And so it went, over and over.
He didn’t think I want to die until after Thanos. The thoughts before were passing fancies, comforting fantasies of saying goodbye and never taking up the shield again. The goodbye would be so final, so unambiguous, that no one would see him again. He could die. He wanted to die. Dying might be the only way he could escape.
Steve stayed awake in the night, senses on overdrive, waiting for the next call to Assemble, for the next fight to come.
Sleepless nights morphed into agonizing days, and exhaustion wracked his body. He carried on for the sake of the others, but the idea crept in whenever he stood still. I want to die. The Avengers didn’t need him. He could pass the Captain America mantle onto Sam. So many heroes now filled this world that Steve was redundant.
And being redundant? More palpable relief could not be felt. His redundancy meant that nobody needed him anymore. More people could fight the planet’s fight than ever before. Steve was window dressing.
The final idea occurred to him on a starless night. Rain like bullets battered the windows of Steve’s apartment at Avengers Tower. The sound vibrated against empty walls. The opulent luxury of minimalism drowned the space in a chokehold of monotony.
Steve could survive many things. Steve had survived many things.
But a plummet from the top of Avengers Tower to a pool of unforgiving concrete? Unlikely.
With singular determination, Steve set aside the book he hadn’t been reading, one of many on his list. He stood up, barefoot and in his sweatpants, and slipped out of his apartment. Steve opted the less-monitored stairs to take him to the top of the tower. The cold cement pressed against the naked soles of his feet as he climbed, a harbinger of what he was about to do. Time hardly passed at all as he walked, somehow slow like honey and faster than a heartbeat all at once.
When Steve emerged atop the tower, metal door swinging outward, the water soaked through his clothes. His feet slid against the slick ground. The storm rendered the city strangely silent, as above the din of clobbered buildings the blaring of traffic disappeared.
Steve sliced through the onslaught to the edge of the tower, a safety rail that connected to an asymmetrical tilt of wall. His fists tightened around the rail as he gazed below him, where light echoed from every wet surface in a swimming mass of color and glass.
This would surely end him.
Steve gripped the wall and hauled his body over the freezing metal rail. His skin slipped and he lurched forward. With a gasp of surprise, he caught himself with his left hand, clutching the wall so hard that it scraped his palm raw. Only supersoldier strength held him back from the plummet down.
In his chest, Steve’s heart beat like wild drums. He swallowed the lump in his throat, and inhaled a shaking breath.
An odd, peaceful sensation warmed his body. At the bottom of the jump, there would be no more fighting. Maybe he would be among his old friends again, or maybe a comforting blanket of nothingness awaited his sleeping corpse. Whatever came next, there would be nothing else for him to do.
Steve lifted one foot, let his eyes shutter closed, and -
Steve turned his head. “Goddamnit, JARVIS,” he muttered.
At the door to his roof in his Iron Man armor, Tony stood maskless, dark hair plastered to his forehead, one hand extended, palm flat. Through the rain and metal, Steve couldn’t scent the clean aroma he’d come to associate with Tony. Only petrichor and exhaust.
“You don’t want to do this,” Tony said, voice firm.
Steve shook his head, something melancholy stretching his face into a facsimile of a smile.
“You know,” Steve replied, “I can survive a lot of things – most things. But a fall from this height? To that ground? I’m like anyone else.” He made a bursting motion with his free hand. “Splat.”
“You – why –” stammered Tony, but he eventually settled upon, “Please don’t do this.”
“You don’t need me,” Steve reasoned, “The world is in good hands. I’m sure of it.” He tore his eyes from Tony and recentered them on the tangle of water and light below him.
“I don’t give a shit about that,” Tony said back, “I don’t care about what you do for the world or whatever. That’s not the point here. Is that what this is about? Some fucked up nineteen-forties concept of usefulness? You’re a person, Cap. That’s all the reason you need to be alive.”
“No, I’m not,” Steve said, “I’m a figurehead. I’m propaganda. I’m a concept. I’m a soldier. I’m not a person. Nobody thinks of me that way – not even you.”
Only then did the acrid scent of omega distress cut through the rain.
“Is this about what I said when we met? Because I didn’t – I didn’t mean any of that. I promise.”
“You did,” Steve disagreed mildly, “It’s okay, though. You were right.”
“I was? No! I wasn’t! I was very much not right and you know it physically pains me to admit when I bungled things. But I did, all right? I did. Listen to me. You get down from there, and we’ll help. You could talk to a therapist or something. I have one. She’s great. You don’t have – Jesus. Just, come on. What do I need to say to get you down from there?”
Steve reeled his attention to Tony again in time to see something of an idea cross his face with a crinkled brow and a thoughtful frown. “What if you didn’t have to be Cap anymore? What if you’re just Steve Rogers for a while? You can – I don’t know – go to Tahiti, or make a Tinder profile, or take up ultimate frisbee. Anything. The world is your oyster. All you need to do is step down from that rail and come back with me.”
Steve hesitated. The idea of being no one but himself wrapped around his heart in a seductive coil. Tony must have detected a hint of his uncertainty, because he latched onto his tangent like an excited leech. “You could do anything that you wanted. Pepper does zumba classes on Wednesdays. I bet she’d be thrilled to go with somebody that actually wants to be there, and you’re like, sincere and shit. You can put down the shield as long as you need. No more fighting.”
Those words shifted some nameless thing in Steve’s head. No more fighting. Was that really an option for him? He didn’t think so, but if Tony said it would happen, he’d make it happen. Tony seemed to always be able to get what he wanted.
Steve sighed. If Tony didn’t follow through, this railing still existed. The concrete below was sure as the rising sun. If he needed them, they would still exist.
Distress and desperation crowded his nose. At some point in Steve’s waffling, Tony edged closer. His armored hand hovered inches from Steve’s.
“No more fighting,” repeated Steve.
“Cross my heart, Cap – Steve. No more fighting.”
Steve spare a final look at the street beneath him, then met gaze for gaze.
He placed his hand in Tony’s grip.
No more fighting.
Contrary to popular belief, Steve did actually know how to google.
The morning following the roof incident, he googled harder than he ever had before. Previously, his searches amounted to the items on his list, or how to handle a machine he hadn’t yet learned how to work, or online shopping, so he didn’t have to face the outside of Avengers Tower to get something he needed. A beard, glasses, and a baseball cap only did so much – too many people recognized him anyway, asking for selfies or autographs, or a handshake, or a hug. Steve would return home reeking of the touch of a dozen strangers any time he tried to leave.
– So, online shopping.
With a cup of coffee beside his laptop, his fingers flew through the most honest searches he’d ever dared articulate.
Trouble breathing and sweating
Nothing feels real
I want to die
Thousands of search results bombarded him with paragraph after paragraph of potential diagnoses – post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety. The information suggested his symptoms could be many things, could be a hydra of a brain with too many heads to follow.
In the end, Steve pursued one likely result.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.
His eyes roamed over descriptions of familiar pain, of the nightmares and gasping panics, or the emptiness and yawning gap that sometimes opened between his mind and his physical form.
Steve scrolled past the medication section. Any medications available to help people like him would need to be reformulated to take his supersoldier metabolism into account, which would mean countless hours of work wasted on his broken brain.
Listed next was therapy, but he balked at the idea of somebody with a clipboard analyzing his life, pulling points from his pain to match it with the points on paper. Maybe therapy worked for Tony, but Steve didn’t want to talk to a stranger about the blackest parts of his mind, the terrifying events of the past and the gut-deep fear of the future. After the ice, SHIELD assigned a therapist to him. She was kind, but she wasn’t equipped to parse out the unique traumas inherent in his existence.
Support Groups/Group Therapy
Steve paused. SHIELD never presented this – whatever it was – as an option to him. With a fortifying sip of coffee, he scanned the detailed blurb that followed.
“A support A/B/O is reserved for the most severe manifestations of trauma and mental illness. A support A/B/O is an individual volunteer paid by the federal government for their service, and therefore this service requires an intensive application process.
“Should one meet the qualifications to cohabit with a support A/B/O, the next steps are demanding. A support is chosen through the use of a scent book, or a series of scent samples that determine a basic initial compatibility. Once a patient selects a scent, the next step will be a face to face interview in with the patient and the potential support may ask each other further questions to determine personal compatibility in addition to the established scent compatibility. This interview occurs in neutral territory such as a doctor’s office, hospital, or therapist’s office, so as to eliminate as many outside stressors as possible.
“Following a successful interview, the patient and support then decide, often with a medical professional’s recommendation, whose territory they will cohabit during their time together. In cases of A/O support pairings, the alpha’s territory is chosen at a staggering 87% rate. For individuals paired with a beta, the choice of territory falls into a far more even split, with 51% of patients choosing their territory, while 49% move into their beta support’s residence.
“The benefits of cohabiting with a support are numerous. With a constant comforting scent to turn to, a patient’s anxiety levels plummet. The pair may choose to sleep in the same bedroom – or even in the same bed – both of which curb the frequency of nightmares, insomnia, and oversleeping. Prior to cohabitation, the support and patient determine their strategy for handling heat/rut (if applicable). Those that opt to share their heat/rut with their support see a marked decrease in irritability and stress.
“If you have experienced such traumas as sexual assault, military combat, or sustained physical or emotional abuse, you are likely to quality for a support A/B/O. Patients experiencing suicidal ideation, hallucinations, or thoughts of harming themselves or others are also strong candidates.
“In the United Kingdom and Canada, a support A/B/O is covered at no cost to the patient. In the United States, a six-month support for a patient with health insurance costs an average of $1,058.62, and for an uninsured patient costs an average of $13,120.85. This treatment is the most costly due to liability issues, but ranks the most successful treatment for patients suffering from trauma and/or mental illness.
“If you think you qualify for a support A/B/O and want to pursue this treatment, contact a medical professional to begin the application process. If you are unsure if you qualify or not, you can take our informal questionnaire here to give you a better idea of where you stand.”
Steve leaned back in his chair. He doubted he could waltz into any old doctor’s office and follow the standard procedure a civilian did for getting a support. In all likelihood, just as SHIELD had doctors and therapists and data flunkies and janitors vetted to handle the classified nature of their work, it followed that any supports would need to be vetted as well.
Steve being who he was, he probably needed to go straight to the top.
With a click of his laptop snapping closed, he rose. Steve drained what remained in the coffee mug and set it atop his precariously arranged dish tower, vowing to clean them later – a likely empty promise.
With a breath to steel himself, Steve said to the empty room, “JARVIS, put me through to Fury, please.”
“Certainly, Captain Rogers.”
After a mere ring and a half, the digital visage of Nick Fury flitted to life from Steve’s phone.
“Rogers. This is unexpected.”
Steve didn’t fuck around.
“I want a support,” he said.
The expression on Nick’s face marked the most surprised that Steve had ever seen him, subdued as it was. For a long moment, he didn’t speak. When he did, the words were concise. “Excuse me?”
“I want a support,” repeated Steve, “Alpha, beta, omega – doesn’t matter. I want a support. I know you can get me one.”
Bemused, Fury replied, “Rogers, a support is for serious conditions. If you’re asking me for a support, you are telling me that you are not fit for duty.”
“I’m not,” Steve deadpanned, “I almost threw myself off a building last night. The only reason I didn’t is because Tony’s AI told him what I was doing. I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still. There are nightmares, this thing that – I think...they’re panic attacks. Flashbacks, maybe. I tried to kill myself in 1945, but you brought me back. I want a support.”
Silence stretched between them. Nick tilted his head back, considering, and said, “An agent will bring you a scent book tomorrow afternoon. As of today, you are officially on leave. Unless you’ve changed your mind? This is a serious decision, Rogers.”
“I’m not changing my mind,” Steve assured him.
“Then tomorrow at one o’clock, you can expect us.”
Nick hung up the phone.
For the promise that it contained, the scent book was an innocuous thing – a thick, black binder with dozens of trading card sleeves, each filled with a single vial containing half a cotton swab. The vials weren’t labeled with names or designations, but numbers.
The SHIELD agent that arrived with the book was not, in fact, a small-potatoes baby agent, but Natasha Romanov herself. She didn’t comment on the task at hand when Steve opened his apartment door to her, but rather passed him the binder and invited herself in. While Steve unscrewed the cap on vial after vial and gave each a cursory sniff, Natasha nursed a cup of his coffee and stared at him over her crossed legs.
“There are so many,” Steve eventually said for the sole purpose of breaking the silence after twenty-four vials of noiseless existence.
Natasha hummed. “Compared to what’s offered to a civilian, this is very few. The only reason it’s so thick is because you told Nick you didn’t care about designation. There are maybe a hundred and twenty or so scents in there. A civilian would be picking from a database of around seventy thousand, and that’s just here in the US.”
“Huh,” was all that Steve managed. He set aside some “maybe” vials on his coffee table, all scents that were full and inviting. Nothing struck him as perfect, but he doubted very much that he was going to find something perfect.
That was until he uncapped scent #73.
The scent was sweet, clearly omega, but smoky, somehow. It was caramel and spice, so homey it cast Steve into his mother’s kitchen in 1928. Instead of capping it like he had the others, he pressed the vial closer to his nose to smell again. Though the scent was stale, a sample given long ago, Steve could live in it. Kitchen spice and oven fire and thick sweet sent his head swimming.
When Steve managed to tear his face back up, Natasha was smirking.
“Well, then,” Natasha remarked, “It looks like we have a winner.”
In the omega’s locker room at his gym, Bucky Barnes splashed cold water on his sweating face. His arms already ached with the satisfaction of a good workout. The quick beat of his workout playlist pulsed from the headphones around his neck. He liked when he could fit a workout in at this time of day, before folks ducked out of their nine-to-five gigs and alphas started hogging all the strength equipment.
If they weren’t alpha-splaining how to use the equipment, they’d ask about the prosthesis. At least the elderly people walking along the upstairs track and other daytime stragglers like him knew that most gym-goers wanted their workout zen uninterrupted.
As he pulled the elastic from his hair and shook it out, tugging fingers through sweaty tangles, the workout playlist stopped, and a ringtone he seldom heard and never expected beeped through.
Bucky unhooked the headphones from his cell and slid his thumb across the screen to answer the call. Tersely, he said, “This is Barnes. I’m in a locker room right now, so you might want to hang on ‘til I can get outside.”
“I’ve got all day,” said the voice of Nick Fury.
Holy hell. If Nick Fury himself was on the phone for him, Bucky was in for something huge.
In lieu of his usual hot shower and fresh change of clothes, Bucky tossed his workout jacket over his damp t-shirt and shouldered his backpack. He hustled out of the locker room and past the front desk, managing a half-hearted wave at the staff.
Once outside in the safety of New York City, he said, “Okay, what’s going on? I just got out of the gym, but I can be ready to go in thirty if I need to.”
“While I appreciate the enthusiasm,” drawled Fury, “this mission involves your support scent.”
“My support scent?” Bucky echoed, “Then what the hell, Nick? Why are you calling me for that?”
“The agent that chose your scent is a high-ranked individual,” Nick replied, “He’s well-known to the public, and any involvement with him would be so classified it would make your head spin. I called you personally because I need to know if you’re prepared to take on a case of this magnitude. This is an important man, Barnes, and one in a lot of pain.”
Over the course of his involvement with SHIELD, Bucky’d stood as a support omega for a handful of agents. The relationships lasted their contracted time, none of the mating or love stories that plagued the Hallmark channel. Every one of them was SHIELD personnel with tragedies they couldn’t disclose to their loved ones – people that needed another human being to be there through the hardest work they had to do.
“What details can you give me?” he asked, at last.
“Male, alpha, thirty-three. Important. You’ll have to sign about fifty NDAs to even get to the face-to-face interview.”
Bucky walked in the direction of his apartment, brows drawn. Male alphas were the most challenging cases – the men’s men that were taught not to feel, to never cry, that their pain was an option and choosing to feel it meant that they were weak. The rhetoric fucked those guys up something hard. At last, he asked, “How bad is it?”
“Spectacularly,” Nick answered, “and he seems very intent on your scent specifically. Look, Barnes, this is one of my team. Without him – well, the world would be a shittier place than it already is. While I don’t want to pressure you into a situation you can’t handle, this seems like someplace SHIELD needs you. Badly.”
“Why in the hell couldn’t I handle this?” Bucky demanded. He was Bucky fucking Barnes. He could handle anything. Hell, he’d handled more than most people would ever have to, and he handled it like a champ. What was another alpha that needed a support omega?
“You’re saying he’s more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill agent?”
“Say I go to this interview,” Bucky said, “Say we don’t gel like he thought we would. Is my ma going to ever see me again or am I going to get whisked away in a black bag?”
Nick scoffed. “Cut the melodrama, Barnes. If the interview doesn’t go well, you’ll walk out like you’d do with any other support meeting that didn’t work out. You just won’t be able to talk about it. To anyone. Ever. Under any circumstances.”
“Understood,” Bucky said. He mulled the situation over for a moment. Whoever this man was, he needed help. Somebody that high up needing help meant he’d walked through hell just to get a scent book in his lap. Granted, somebody that important would have gotten a highly abridged scent book of vetted individuals with appropriate backgrounds (James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes: retired marine, prisoner of war, brief SHIELD agent, omega rights activist) that could be trusted with important people hurting something fierce, whether they were publicly important or privately important.
“I have a dog,” ventured Bucky.
“He likes dogs.”
“There are some logistical issues we’ll need to talk out,” he hedged.
“Aren’t there always?” asked Nick.
Yeah, okay, that was fair.
“Anything else I need to know is gonna come from him, isn’t it?” Bucky sighed.
“I suppose you’ll have to ask him.”
Bucky groaned, but he knew what he was doing. The decision was made, maybe even before he’d answered the phone. Bucky had done many things in his life, would do many more, but he would never leave behind somebody that needed his help. That wasn’t the man that his parents raised, and wasn’t the person he ever wanted to be. If he had to give up some family dinners and slow down a little on Pokemon GO, it wouldn’t kill him.
And he’d be doing the right thing.
“Barnes? Are you with me?”
“Yeah. I’m with you,” Bucky said, “Tell me what I need to do.”
“Be at the New York office tomorrow at ten o’clock sharp. Do not come armed, because we will take it from you. Do not be late, because you will disappoint me. Am I understood?”
“Understood, sir. One more thing: may I bring coffee?”
“By all means. My order is a salted caramel mocha, grande, with an extra shot of espresso and light foam. He takes his black. See you tomorrow, Barnes.”