“Prepare a list for what you need
Before you sign away the deed ’cause it’s not going to stop.
It’s not going to stop.
It’s not going to stop
Till you wise up.
No, it’s not going to stop
Till you wise up.
No, it’s not going to stop
So just give up.”
– Aimee Mann, “Wise Up”
The alarm goes off.
Steve’s not asleep. He hasn’t been for hours. Still, his arm is clumsy, his fingers numb and uncoordinated, as he reaches and fumbles to turn off the buzzing. It takes a couple tries, and not just because his body doesn’t follow his brain’s directions as well as it used to. He gets frustrated and eventually bangs the damn thing into submission.
Sighing, he rolls from his stomach to his back, looking up at the smooth, white ceiling of his bedroom. The last shadows of dawn are stretching there. He’s watched them get smaller and smaller, shrinking minute by minute, hour by hour, from the long, deep swatches of the middle of the night to these faint gray ghosts. He closes his eyes. They burn with exhaustion, and he aches all over with fatigue. Another sleepless night. Another one. They bleed together now, one after another after another, so many in an endless parade of insomnia. He can’t remember the last time he’s slept eight hours straight. A year. Maybe more. It’s long enough ago that he’s forgotten what the label of well-rested feels like. He grunts a little chuckle. His brain, making up for the months his body languished. God has a sense of humor apparently. A shitty one but one nonetheless.
He breathes a moment, focusing on that because doing much more seems too strenuous. Idly he thinks his sheets could stand a wash. He can’t smell the fabric softener anymore, and he feels… damp. Sweat from another nightmare he’s not going to think about. When he woke up at whatever time that was (2:36 am, his brain supplies), he was soaked through with it. The bed still feels unpleasant, his t-shirt sticking to his skin and the sheets sticking to it. Laundry. That seems like a decent plan for today. It’s Saturday, so no work. The alarm on the weekends is something his therapist suggested, something to help keep his body on a decent regimen. He has tons of things like that, little tools that are supposed to help him live a normal life. His life, a series of schedules and reminders and devices to help him recover.
He opens his eyes again at the sound of loping feet as they click and pat on the hardwoods of the hallway and bedroom. There’s no chance to roll over; the bed dips and suddenly there’s a warm, wet nose in his face followed by a rough tongue laving his cheeks. “Ugh,” he groans. Max is right there, practically pinning him down with his bulk. He’s a big dog, some sort of lab mix with white fur that’s thick and a tad longer than typical for this breed. Steve gives up on pushing him away, instead scooting over a bit so Max has room to lay right next to him. Those huge, brown eyes are watching him from where the dog’s laying his head on his shoulder. Max is always up first thing. At least he greets the day happy. But then he’s a dog; life is simple to him. Kibble and walks and smells and excitement over new people. Curling up to Steve all the time like the two of them are attached at the hip. Steve dismisses the bitter thoughts outright; being the way he is sucks, but it’s not Max’s fault. Max has been nothing but good to him, loyal and loving and simple, and that’s something he knows he sorely needs, something that, yet again, his therapist recommended. Sam was the one to get him the dog as a present last year. He’s been with Steve since he was a puppy.
Steve rubs Max’s ears and tries not to delve too much into it all. It’s been a weird thing, these last two years. Sometimes his brain seems to go on its own, bombarding him with things, some of which he can’t stand to think and remember and others just random and almost nonsensical. Other times he can’t make himself think, like it all just goes blank and his mind is disconnected from his body and from the world. No matter how he slices it, though, things are constantly betraying him. It makes for his sleepless nights and his difficult days. Sometimes… Just getting out of bed is such a chore he doesn’t want to try.
Having Max panting and licking and nosing him helps, though. It really does. So does the noise from the wall behind his bed. It’s a shared wall with the adjacent apartment, his bedroom butting up against what he’s always assumed is theirs. The guy who used to live there, Mr. Phillips, relocated to DC a couple weeks back, and whoever’s moving in is doing it today. It’s not a lot of racket, but these folks got a really early start, and he’s been listening to muffled voices and clanks and bumps and thuds maybe an hour now. The vent down to the left is where the noise is coming in the most, a direct conduit in a sense between the two rooms. He supposes he should be annoyed at all disturbance on a Saturday morning, but he can’t make himself care. As he picks up on a woman’s voice, his hand slows in in his petting. Max whines unhappily, looking at him with huge, pathetic dog eyes. “Alright,” he consoles, pushing him aside. “Alright.” Off go the sweaty, stale sheets and the comforter, and he levers himself out of bed. Things don’t work quite right after his injuries; the lady who does his physical therapy tells him he’s made tremendous progress, but he never quite feels it. He’s stiff and limping when he pushes himself up.
Down the hall in his apartment the noise is much quieter. He carries the dirty bedding to the washing machine and dumps it in. After adding detergent and turning it on, he goes back to his bedroom. Max follows him everywhere, his tail wagging, and he watches Steve expectantly as Steve stops and listens again. Definitely a woman’s voice. Something about moving the bed? There’s a loud whine of a big piece of furniture moving, and it thuds against the shared wall ominously. Phillips was always very quiet, an old, gruff, ornery guy who served in Vietnam and always wanted to talk military with Steve at a time in his life when military was the last thing he wanted to be open about. Truth be told, Steve’s kind of glad he’s gone.
He goes off to the bathroom. Runs through the routine on automatic pilot. It’s easier this way, helps him keep his mind clear and his goals obvious. He showers methodically, deciding it’s too much to waste away under the hot water today. He gets out. Dries off. Stands in front of the vanity and wipes the condensation away. He hates looking at his reflection, but there never seems any avoiding it. Sometimes the face that stares back scares him. He doesn’t recognize the pale skin, the blue eyes that seem lusterless and deadened, the beard he never feels like shaving. The dirty blond hair that’s always messy and has grown too long considering the neat, proper, officer’s haircut he used to sport. The scars. Those aren’t on his face (well, save for the one barely visible on his temple that goes far back under his hair along his skull). The obvious ones are lower, across his chest and his back. Thin ropes of corded flesh, silvery and textured, where his skin used to be smooth and unblemished. He never looks at them. His eyes see, he supposes, but the images never make it to his brain, never manifest as anything other than sensory input. No emotional connection. No memories and no deeper meaning. Detachment. His therapist talks to him about that too, about how distancing himself from his traumas is a self-defense mechanism that’s in the end doing nothing to help him. His therapists and doctors have a lot of opinions about everything, and Steve’s not sure he cares.
He brushes his teeth. Quickly considers shaving that day like he does most days before dismissing the idea just as quickly. Combs his hair. Today’s fairly decent already; he’s gotten this far without losing motivation, so that’s something. Back in his room, Max is waiting on his bare mattress, tail wagging and pink tongue flopping. Steve goes to his closet and finds a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Definitely laundry day. He’s made more of a concerted effort not to be such a slob. Again with the strategies; staying organized, sticking to schedules, regulating his life… It helps. He’s better than he used to be, he thinks, but today’s barely started.
Dressed and feeling fairly decent despite having gotten no sleep, he heads back out to the main area of his apartment. It’s a nice place. Sam helped him get set up here after the army discharged him. It has hardwoods throughout and tall ceilings, spacious with a decently sized kitchen, a big living room, a spare bedroom that he’s turned into an art studio, and another bathroom. Out here the walls are whitewashed cinderblocks, which gives it a bit of an industrial feel. As he appraises it, Steve thinks he still hasn’t really made it a home despite having been there for a couple years. He makes good enough money and he’s drawing a sizeable check from the government, so he’s able to live in a nice building not far from where he grew up in Brooklyn. But he hasn’t done much to fill the place with stuff. He’s got drawings on the walls here and there, but it’s all for work. The furniture is mundane and serviceable, but he got it all secondhand. There aren’t pictures or tchotchkes or accents. Nothing of him. Just white walls and wood floors and dull tans and taupe and beiges. A blank canvas, he supposes. No, that’s too optimistic. An empty canvas, and the artist is too worn and disenfranchised to fill it.
That’s disgustingly pessimistic and bleak, but it’s true.
Max is hungry. Steve heads over to the kitchen and fills his bowl with kibble. The dog goes to town, entirely satisfied, and Steve pours his own cereal. He doesn’t bother with coffee even though he feels like he needs it. Caffeine doesn’t always sit well with his meds, and he doesn’t want to deal with it today. So it’s Cheerios and milk and a glass of orange juice (he needs to get groceries too, milk and meat and juice and a load of other things, but then his fridge always looks this spartan, so that’s nothing new). He eats in silence at the kitchen table. Across the way on the counter, his phone buzzes. He doesn’t get up to get it. It buzzes again. And again. Someone’s texting him. Sam. Has to be. He doesn’t want to look. Sam’s going to want to do something, and Steve’s not feeling up to it. He loves Sam like his brother; the guy’s been nothing but wonderful to him since they met right after Steve woke up Stateside. But he doesn’t have the energy or interest to be dragged to this event or that get-together. Sam means well, but it’s too hard.
So he finishes his breakfast. Puts the bowl and the spoon in the sink. Then he refills his glass with water and lines up his meds. All of them. So damn many. He needs to pick up his refills, he realizes as he notes the nearly empty bottles. It would be nice not to, to just pretend this is the end of them, because he hates taking them. It’s not just the side effects like the tiredness (when he’s already so tired all the time) and the dizziness (which already assails him off and on from his head injury) and the upset stomach (eating some days? To hell with it). It’s the dependence on them. He went off to Afghanistan strong and standing, fighting, on his own two feet. Now he needs a dozen pills a day to keep functioning. Pain medications. Anticonvulsants. Antidepressants. Antibiotics. Anti, anti, anti. Again with his body betraying him. It’s almost constant, like the war he fought and lost overseas has somehow been internalized and now he’s battling his broken brain and his equally broken body.
At least he came back, though. He knows he shouldn’t be so damn ungrateful. Thus, with a grimace, he downs today’s round of medications and hopes they do their job without causing him too much grief.
His phone vibrates again. Steve puts his meds away in the kitchen cabinet and finally goes to answer it. Yep. A whole slew of texts from Sam. “Hey, man. You up?” Then: “I know you’re up, dude. Come with me to take Melly to the dog park.” Then: “We can stop by your office and drop off your stuff.” Then: “Meet you in front of my building in 30. You better show.” Steve sighs, smiling a little despite himself. “Wanna go for a walk?” he says to Max, and Max does, of course. Walking the dog is another of his scheduled tasks, so it seems like as good a plan as any.
He grabs Max’s leash and gets him situated. Then it’s a quick moment in his studio, where he gathers the ad copy he’s been working on for Mr. Fury. Fury’s ad firm picked up a bunch of clients of late who are into vintage drawings and sketches to sell their wares. They’re mostly local restaurants and boutiques, but it’s nice to do something other than digital logos and the like. What he does isn’t flashy but it’s a steady job and something he can manage without too much trouble. Back in high school, he thought once or twice about becoming an artist. He knows he has talent. But becoming a soldier was more of a passion, and he shelved his charcoals and paints in favor of a gun. A mistake, as it turns out.
Again, though, he doesn’t let himself dwell. He grabs a USB stick and copies the files from his computer. While that’s going, he gathers up the paper sketches and notes. All of it gets put into his backpack, and off he and Max go.
Sure enough, down the way the new neighbors are moving in. The door to apartment 4B is wide open, and there are boxes piled high outside it. He hears women’s voices, a couple in fact, one higher-pitched and talking a mile a minute about where to put things and the other more soft-spoken and timid. That’s the voice he heard before. He stands at his door, watching down the way, but he doesn’t catch a glimpse of either of them.
Steve turns to see Scott Lang behind him. Scott and his wife Hope live in 4D, right across the building’s open, airy, central staircase. He’s a nice guy, maybe a little flighty and a lot messy but always friendly and always smiling. They have a five year-old daughter, Cassie, who has big brown eyes and brown hair that’s always mussed. She makes a beeline for Steve the second she sees Max. Cassie loves Max. She wants a dog very badly herself, but her mom and dad aren’t very interested. Steve doesn’t mind too much; Max loves the attention, and Cassie is a sweet kid. “Morning, Max!” she enthusiastically declares, throwing herself at the dog. Max skitters excitedly, licking and wrapping his leash around Steve’s legs. Cassie laughs. “You’re all tangled!”
Scott is a bit oblivious to the fact that Max is nearly tripping his owner and smothering his daughter, rumpling Cassie’s ballet outfit. Something tells Steve Hope won’t be too pleased about that. “How’s it going?” Scott casually asks, taking a sip from a thermos.
Steve’s really grown to hate that question. How are you? How’s it going? You doing okay? No, no, no. But he stifles his irritation at the fake pleasantries – fake because he’s not sure anyone can actually understand his life now. He knows Scott and Sam and his friends do care, but there’s only so much caring one can do. Frankly, he’s at the point where he’d rather people just not ask and accept an unspoken description of surviving. That’s what he’s doing. Surviving. Regardless, he settles on something more normal for an answer. “Alright.” He gets himself untangled from Max, ignoring the pain in his right hip that almost makes his leg seize. “New neighbors?”
Scott looks down the hallway at the commotion. There’s a guy there too now, maybe in his late thirties with spikey brown hair and the beginnings of goatee framing his mouth. He’s carrying in boxes, but he stops to look around with a sharp eye. He seems wary, suspicious, and not at all comfortable with Steve and Scott watching from across the way. He says nothing, though, and hefts his box inside. “Yeah,” Scott slowly drawls. “Haven’t seen much yet. I think there’s just one, though. One of the girls. Hey, you wanna–” He stops himself as he punches Steve lightly in the bicep. Immediately he drops his arm with a wince. “Damn, man. You been working out again?”
Steve inwardly groans. Again? He’s never stopped. That’s another thing he’s been told to do by his physical therapist. Exercise. Hit the gym. Go a few rounds with the bag. He’s pretty sure she didn’t mean doing it as much as he does it, but whatever. It’s fine. It helps. Maybe it’s a little obsessive, and it damn well hurts sometimes and probably doesn’t do him any favors with his other problems, but it’s comforting and mind-numbing. His obsession with the burn and ache of exerting himself is what got him walking again last year, and he’s found it cathartic since. “Yeah.”
Scott tips his head and thankfully doesn’t press. “Anyway, you wanna stop by for dinner tonight? Hope’s making… Eh, I don’t remember what she said. Something good. There’s plenty.”
Grimacing, Steve shakes his head. “I don’t know. I have…” Nothing. “…work to do.”
“On a Saturday night?” Scott says incredulously. “C’mon.”
Truth be told, Scott doesn’t know everything about him, at least nothing beyond the basics. Steve thinks everyone who knows knows that much. But the specifics? No one outside his therapist knows that. There are parts of it he never talks about, can’t even remember (not that he tries). So even the threat of having to weasel his way out of a casual conversation that ventures too close to what happened to him is too much. “Nah. I think I’ll pass. Thanks, though.”
Scott looks genuinely disappointed, and Steve genuinely feels a little like a selfish asshole for turning him down. He’s gotten used to that guilt, so he’s able to shut it off before it even has a chance to fester and drive him into regretting his decision enough to change his mind. Scott sighs. “Alright. Offer stands, though, so you know.”
It’s hard to fake a smile when you’re drowning alone like he is and being so goddamn stupid as to throw the life preserver right back at the person trying to reach you, but Steve manages. He always manages. “Sure.”
“Come on, sweet pea. Dance is waiting.”
Cassie takes her father’s hand and waves as they head down the steps. “Bye, Max!”
It’s probably stupid and childish, but Steve waits until they’re gone before following. He casts a look at the open door of 4B once more, but the standoffish guy is gone and the two women must be deeper inside. He can’t hear them anymore. Sighing himself, he grips Max’s leash tighter, adjusts his bookbag, and heads down the steps.
It’s a beautiful summer day outside, early June so not too hot but warm enough that Steve regrets not wearing shorts. He fishes his sunglasses out of his bag immediately and slides them on before the brightness can bother him. It never takes much to trigger things, migraines or worse, so he’s careful to limit exposure. Just going outside is damn difficult somedays. Today seems to still be cooperating, so he chances a few deeper breaths of the humid air before gently tugging Max’s leash and heading down the sidewalk. Flatbush is busy with the fine morning, cars thick on the streets, vendors out and already selling, people everywhere as they go about the day’s activities. This is a good area, not too far from where he grew up. His old apartment building and high school are within walking distance in fact. It was comforting to come home after being away for so long, first at West Point and then deployed overseas. His first tour in Afghanistan lasted for two years, his second cut short, but then he was down in DC for quite some time recovering before returning to New York. All in all, he was away for almost eight years. Sometimes things still seem different to him, new but blunted around the edges and dull, and he knows part of that is because of the way his brain works now. It’s frustrating, that things don’t quite… fit together like they used to. He has both focal brain trauma (which was “repaired” by surgery, or at least treated) and diffuse brain damage (which is permanent and bordering on intractable, though his neurologist isn’t ready to surrender on that one). There are a bunch of long and complicated terms for his condition, post-traumatic epilepsy and temporal lobe damage and complex partial seizures and aphasia. It all boils down to things never being right anymore. Sometimes he can’t come up with words he needs, though this isn’t as much of a hindrance now as it was when first woke up. Sometimes his memories are screwy. Sometimes he can stare at a problem for hours and not be able to make heads or tails of it, and other times he’s as good at things as he used to be (and he used to be so good – he graduated top of his class from high school and West Point). His situation is serious enough to be considered disabled but not serious enough to have him stuck in a hospital the rest of his days. It’s a fucking struggle, is what it is, and he’s not always sure he’s winning it.
And it’s not just all that, though that’s bad enough. It’s that he’s different. He left this country young and bright and raring to do some good, to fight to protect people. To stop terrorists and help the innocents forced to be their victims find safety and justice. He left the perfect picture of a young, strong soldier with his best friend and his company at his side, and he came back alone and shattered. He doesn’t see things the way he used to. He knows he doesn’t, that the optimism he once had is long gone. It always feels like there’s this nightmare at bay, not just all his problems but all the damage. He can’t escape it, the darkness in his head. Seeing what he’s seen, doing what he’s done… He can’t just go back to this normal life and these normal places with their normal people and be normal. He was upset about that once, when the shock of reintegrating into civilian life was overwhelming, when it really sunk in that there’s no going back. Now he’s too tired to be bothered anymore.
It doesn’t take long to walk to Sam’s place. He lives just fifteen minutes away, closer to Prospect Park. Max has learned to keep to himself around strangers; he doesn’t approach people they don’t know on the sidewalk. He keys off of Steve, who walks silently and steadily without making eye contact. They get to Sam’s building without bother, and Sam’s right there waiting by the stoop. “Hey, man,” he greets, as sunny and cheery as always.
Max gets really excited seeing Melly. He should. He was part of Melly’s litter. They sniff each other and the puppy tendencies come stampeding to the surface. Steve holds the leash tighter and keeps Max from plowing Sam over. “Hi.”
Sam knows him too well. Sometimes Steve thinks he has ESP or something. They met at the VA here in Brooklyn right after Steve returned from DC two years ago. Sam’s a VA counselor, though not Steve’s, not strictly. He was part of the Air Force, but after serving two tours in Iraq and losing his wingman in a pararescue mission gone wrong, he retired and picked up his current job instead. He leads support groups and therapy sessions and does one on one with vets having trouble coming back in civilian life. He’s ridiculously good at what he does. Perceptive. Compassionate. Loyal and supportive but with a zero tolerance policy for bullshit. He’s a really good guy, a really good friend, and Steve knows he’s lucky they found each other.
But damn he sees everything. Hears everything. Can hear Steve’s sad state from one word and see it from his posture. “Shit, dude,” he says. “Did you sleep last night?”
Steve doesn’t bother lying. “No.”
Sam gets that look he gets. It’s a frown, a mixture of frustration and disapproval all tied up with concern. “You wanna talk about it?”
The furrow of worry gets even deeper. “When do you see Banner again?”
“Tuesday.” Tuesdays and Thursdays, five to six o’clock. Twice a week until he was “cured”. That was bitter bullshit he made up himself a while ago, that this is all working toward a cure. It’s a direct contradiction to what Doctor Banner himself said their first session at the VA. “You’ll never be cured, Captain Rogers, because there is no cure. And there doesn’t need to be. Accepting that goes a long way to accepting life as it is now. I’m here to help you learn to live that life in a different way.”
All he said to that was a terse, tight, “Call me Steve.”
Sam wants to press him, though Steve can’t imagine why. It’s the same sorry stuff over and over again. Every night. And he’s never interested in talking about it. It’s not perfunctory that Sam asks, and you’d think he’d get the picture by now. He can practically feel Sam’s concern like it’s a tangible force pushing. “You gotta wise up,” he finally says. “Bottling it up’s–”
“–not healthy,” Steve finishes. Yeah, same old song and dance. He pinches the bridge of his nose, unable to tell if his mounting headache is from the light or not sleeping or being irritated at Sam. Whatever the cause, he hopes it stops. Being laid up with another migraine isn’t his idea of a good day, and a good day is what he wants now that he’s tasted it. “Look, I know, alright? I’ll talk to Banner. Can we go?” That comes off harsher than he means for it to, but Sam doesn’t seem to take offense. Instead there’s that damn scrutinizing stare again, and Steve’s flesh crawls under like it always does. He feels like shit for not being strong enough to deal with his problems on his own. He feels exposed and inadequate and different. Like his issues are anchoring him back in the war. He knows he has difficulty (serious difficulty) talking about it, but for God’s sake, how the hell does rehashing it all make it better? It can’t change the past. Nothing can. Living a different way. He just wants to let it go. He sighs. “I’m fine. I’ll work it out.”
Sam concedes somewhat, sliding his own sunglasses on and tightening his grip on Melly’s leash. They start down the sidewalk toward Prospect Park, Max and Melly leading the way down well-trodden paths. They’re quiet for all of a second before Sam finally does press. “You don’t suppose this has to do with Phil Coulson?”
Steve closes his eyes. “What do you think?”
“You don’t have to do it.”
“I already told him no.”
“But it might make you feel better to talk–”
“Sam, Christ. Stop. Please?” His voice sounds hoarse and desperate. Sam regards him worriedly, apology bright in his eyes. No, he’s not Steve’s counselor. Or Steve’s therapist. He’s Steve’s friend, his closest now, and that means not preaching all the time about healthy approaches to handling his PTSD. There’s a time and place for that, but right now it feels like nagging.
Sam recognizes that, so he backs off. “Sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“It’s fine,” Steve says quickly. “Just… can we talk about something else? Anything?”
That turns out to be a mistake, an open invitation for Sam to do what Sam always does: try to hook Steve up. Sam’s not obnoxious about it by any means. It’s always phrased in such a way that’s noninvasive, simply that Steve should come out with him and a few of his friends (he’s met Sam’s friends – most of them are vets, too, and they’re all nice if not a little rough around the edges. Military life in a combat zone tends to do that). Sam always has an invitation. Steve should join them for drinks at this bar or for dinner at that restaurant or come see the Yankees or shoot some hoops or something. And then there’s always a girl attached, someone from the VA (the girl at the front desk is a popular choice, and Steve has to admit she’s a beauty. Long legs and dark skin and gorgeous eyes. Truth be told, he thinks Sam’s sweet on her) or someone from Sam’s building or someone from any number of shops and offices around Brooklyn. It’s hard to keep coming up with ways to say no. Steve knows he’s not ready for anything like that, not yet. Not now. Maybe not ever again.
So Sam goes on as they walk, this time about a woman named Lillian who’s an accountant for some small tech start-up and who’s related to one of his Air Force buddies. Steve somewhat tunes him out as he talks about her, though not just because going out with her is never happening. He’s thinking about Phil Coulson. The guy’s damn persistent, Steve has to give him that. Over a dozen emails, texts, and calls over the last two weeks. He’s over-eager and maybe a tactless because of it. However, he seems like genuinely good person. Mostly. He’s a journalist working on a documentary about Captain America, the ridiculous moniker with which Steve was branded by his company and the media during his first tour. Captain America. Hero of the troops, hero to the peoples of Afghanistan and the United States. Somehow all that doesn’t amount to much now. Steve’s not interested in talking about it, not about how he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan before he was wounded, not about the time he spent there. Coulson’s equally invested in exploring the bravery of the Afghan citizens who saved his life; truth be told, Steve thinks he’s almost more interested in that, and the thought he may use Steve’s story for some sort of political purpose isn’t helping him relax about contributing. It’s pretty obvious Coulson feels he doesn’t have a film without Steve’s participation. He’s not harassing, per se, but it’s enough that Steve is considering blocking his number.
Of course, it’d probably help in putting a stop to this if he actually said no. Like a real, hard and fast, firm refusal. He wasn’t being honest with Sam about it. He told Coulson a bunch of things, mostly noncommittal maybes and let me think about it. That was a few weeks ago, and he’s not actively considering Coulson’s project (or even thinking about it), but his therapist keeps telling him his brain will attempt to process his grief and trauma with or without his consent. He supposes it makes sense, that Coulson’s mere entrance into his life with all of his “your story should be told, Captain” and “you’re a hero who deserves so much recognition” and “there’s something the world needs to understand, and your words can help us understand it”… All of that probably did trigger this recent bout of nightmares and insomnia. He feels like a moron for not realizing it before.
“So she’s coming tonight, too. She’s just the kind of girl you’d like. Smart. Pretty. She’s got her shit together.”
Steve returns to the conversation, shoving his thoughts aside. His head throbs. “Thus implying she’s a good match for someone who doesn’t?” He means that to tease, but it doesn’t come out that way.
Sam doesn’t take the bait. “You’re in, right?”
“Tonight. Pizza at my place. Lillian’s coming. Are you in?” Steve doesn’t answer, and Sam smiles enthusiastically. “Come on, man. You need to get out more. It’s not smart, holing yourself up all the time. And we’re not even talking about a real date here. It’s just a bunch of us having some food and drinking.”
“Can’t drink.” He’s been told that by every doctor he’s ever seen since the coma.
Sam’s grin falls a bit, seeing the excuse for what it is. “I do have soda and water and whatever else you’d want.” Steve still doesn’t answer. Max licks his hand as they stop at a cross-walk. “Come on. You can hang out, talk with her, check her out… No commitments. No nothing.” Sam’s not above cajoling or begging. “It’d be really good for you.”
The ache gets worse. The park’s ahead, green and glowing with the bright sun, alive and flush with people. For a moment as they pause there at the street, he thinks about going home. Sam won’t stop him. The migraine he feels coming on is excuse enough.
But he doesn’t. There’s nothing at home, just an empty apartment and work and nightmares. Maybe Sam’s right. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe he shouldn’t try to get out of this one. Maybe… Wise up. “Alright.”
The dog park’s fine. It always is. Max and Melly run around off their leashes in the wide, open field with the other pooches out for some weekend fun. Sam and Steve watch, Sam throwing a pair of balls he has stashed in his bag, and they thankfully talk about other stuff. It’s nice hearing Sam chatter. And he’s something of a hypocrite, though that word is so much meaner than Steve likes. Sam has all the same problems Steve has. The same problems that a lot of vets do. Sam lost his best friend, Riley, in Iraq. He suffers from nightmares and hypervigilance and flashbacks and all that wonderful shit, too. He’s just better about handling it. Working with other vets isn’t just a good gig for him; it’s therapeutic in a sense (and Steve thinks it’s a good way to divert attention from his own issues. At least it’s a noble and helpful way rather than pounding punching bags to hell in an empty gym). There are things Sam doesn’t talk about either, not easily at any rate. And there are boundaries they silently and easily established a few weeks into their friendship, Sam losing Riley being one and what happened to Steve another. Not that Sam won’t talk to him if he wants to or that he won’t listen if Steve ever needs to talk. It’s just easier this way. Sam will push Steve to get out, to live more, to try and find new interests and a new love of things, but he never pushes Steve into processing the past any more than a gentle nudge or two.
So the conversation keeps to the baseball season, the Yankees and the Mets and the Dodgers (Steve’s a little old school about it – his grandfather was a big Dodgers fan when they still played at Ebbet’s Field, and he complained about the evil events in 1957 when the Dodgers moved to LA until his dying day, so Steve was well-versed in Yankees hate and Dodgers love). After that, they talk about the upcoming football season, but all the New York teams suck, so neither of them have much hope for it. Honestly, Steve’s not up on the recent trades and picks and maneuvering in either league (this is yet another thing he’s just not all that interested in anymore), but Sam simply fills him in as they go and so easily makes it seem like Steve’s an equal partner in their conversation. Sam’s great like that.
After the dogs have run themselves out, they head back to Sam’s place. It’s getting close enough to lunch time that they stop at a little deli not far from his apartment building and buy a couple of sandwiches. At Sam’s apartment, which is nice and very clean, they eat and water the dogs before leaving them behind to run some errands. Sam doesn’t need to do this, to keep him company, but Steve’s learned after two years that there’s no sense in trying to dissuade him sometimes. Besides, it’s not all bad. Sam’s keeping him distracted from the migraine he feels brewing and the little bit of queasiness he’s got going on (he’s not sure if it’s the antiepilectic drugs he takes, or AEDs as is the parlance of his flock of doctors, or the antidepressants that bother his stomach, but it’s not like figuring out matters. It’s not like he can stop taking the AEDs especially). Thus he doesn’t even bother with a protest as Sam tags along with him to the ad agency. That’s further away, so they take the subway to Avenue M. Fury’s not there, but Jasper Sitwell, his administrative assistant, is holding down the fort, so to speak. He’s been waiting for Steve to arrive with his work. Jasper’s alright, a bit of a stuck-up prick sometimes, but he’s glad Steve’s there on time so he’s in a good mood. It doesn’t take long for him to transfer the files over and gather the hard copy Steve’s made. He’s brusque and clipped and very eager to get done and go home, which is fine by Steve. Small talk is just a pain.
With that done, Sam and Steve head back north. They stop at the store right outside of Sam’s building, and Steve buys the few things he needs for himself. Sam’s talking more about Lillian, and Steve’s not paying attention. He should have made a list, because he can’t remember things like this for shit anymore. Does he need milk? He knows he had some when he poured his cereal, but he can’t recall for the life of him how much was left. Milk… yes? Butter? Eggs? He knows he started the laundry, but was there detergent left when he started the washer? Trying to think seems to make his head ache more, and he can feel himself getting frustrated as he stands in front of the dairy section. He’ll have to go home, go see what he needs, because he can’t remember a fucking simple list of things from a few hours ago…
“Steve,” Sam says. He grabs a half-gallon of a milk and a small carton of eggs and a half-pound of butter. “Easy. Don’t get worked up. Just buy a little. Chances are what you need is stuck up in your head somewhere, so your instincts are probably right. And if it ends up that you don’t need it, it’s fine. Don’t stress.”
His mother was austere. If there’s one thing Sarah Rogers hated, it was wasting food. He has the money now, though, so he bites the fleshy part of his cheek hard as Sam loads his basket. God, he feels like a fucking invalid sometimes. A failure. Permanent brain damage. “Thanks,” he manages.
Sam nods. They gather a few more things, some chips and soda for Sam’s get-together that night. Then it’s paying, which takes longer than it should because Steve stares at the bills in his wallet and the change in his pocket for more than a second or two before figuring out how to count it with the clerk watching him impatiently all the while. Then it’s over to the pharmacy, where Steve picks up his prescription refills (at Sam’s prompting – he would’ve forgotten otherwise). The pharmacist recognizes him but it’s always with detachment. And he asks again: “Do you have any questions?”
Steve has some. Oh, he has a lot. How? When? Why? But this guy doesn’t have the answers, and he’s just doing his job. He’s probably required by law to make sure Steve understands this massive bag of different pills coming his way. Steve understands enough. He’s stopped staying on top of the side effects, to be honest. He simply goes with it because there doesn’t seem to be much choice. His neurologist just switched his AEDs again in an attempt to get his seizure activity completely under control, but he’s learning more and more that it’s not so simple as taking a pill to overcome the damage that bullet did to his brain. Environment factors in, stress in particular, and with his raging case of PTSD and repressed memories and physical issues, he’s at a huge risk for never getting it managed to a point where everything is at a happy equilibrium. It’s a multi-pronged approach, his therapist keeps telling him. Treat the physical conditions and the psychological problems concomitantly, because at the moment, they are back-feeding on each other. The brain damage aggravates his mood issues and depression, and the PTSD flares up and compounds the brain damage. He’s become really well acquainted with the concept of a vicious cycle.
And he’s not sure there’s a way to stop it, no matter what his doctors think. So, yes, he has questions. No one can answer them.
That bitter thought plagues him when they go back to Sam’s place, where Max is waiting for him. Steve leashes him back up, loads his meds into his bookbag, and grabs his groceries. “So see you tonight?” Sam says expectantly, petting Melly’s head where she sits at his side. “Seven-ish?”
Then he heads home. It’s afternoon now, much warmer and muggier than it was earlier, and his jeans are uncomfortably hot and his shirt is clinging a little with sweat. Max is friendlier with people, but Steve doesn’t really notice. He’s not thinking, trying not to feel. The ache in his head is getting worse as he’s becoming more tired. The pressure of doing things gets to be too much sometimes; that’s another reason why his job is so good for him. He works from home a lot, doesn’t need to bother with noise and crowds and distractions. Too much stimulation. His skin feels wet and crawling with discomfort by the time he reaches his building. Breathing a sigh of relief, he climbs the stoop.
Max yanks hard, and Steve lets go of the leash in the lobby. The dog is running at full tilt toward Thor, and Thor laughs as he jumps on him. Max is a big dog, but Thor is a big guy, tall and muscular, so it’s all good. And Thor’s not his real name. He’s Donald Thorston Blake III. Using his middle name as a nickname (which he’s done since childhood, to Steve’s understanding) is more than appropriate considering Thor doesn’t get along with his father and namesake exactly. Or his brother. He’s from New South Wales, though he wasn’t born there (Norway, he claims, which maybe explains the odd accent he has). His father is a powerful man, a real estate mogul or something of the like. Their family owns properties the world over, from Oslo to Reykjavik to Rio to Sydney to Manhattan, and Thor’s father wanted Thor to take over their family business. To Steve’s understanding, there was some sort of massive falling out between Thor, who ended up not wanting anything to do with the wealth and the legacy, and his brother, who was jealous and vindictive and pretty much coveted said wealth and legacy. After years among the world’s posh elite, Thor washed his hands of it all and came here to the States for school, attending Columbia before settling in the city. He lives in 4C now, loud and gregarious and this weird mixture of regal importance and beach-bum, frat-bro laziness. He has this mane of thick, blond hair, for example, and he dresses one step above hobo, but he also has this deep voice and diction that is as far from blue-collar as imaginable.
And he’s been nothing but Steve’s friend since Steve moved in. The fact of the matter is, despite his impressive stature (and impressive birthright), Thor wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s got a huge heart, and he immediately realized Steve needs help and companionship without knowing hardly more than the basics of his story. So Steve smiles now despite how tired he is because the thought of burdening another person with his issues was decidedly unappealing. “Hey. Sorry.”
“No bother,” Thor proclaims, petting Max enthusiastically. “Quite a beautiful day.”
Thor spots the bags. “Errands?”
“Yeah, a few.”
“Ah. Oh, Jane wanted me to tell you that you are welcome to join us tonight if you want. We’re seeing a concert in Soho. One of her students is part of a jazz group, it seems. It’s outdoors, and it promises to be a lovely evening.”
His friends mean well. Scott and Sam and Thor. He knows they do. He winces for show. “Sam already invited me to his place.” He starts climbing the steps, picking up Max’s leash as he passes Thor. “Thanks, though.”
Thor doesn’t hide his disappointment well. Or his concern. Thankfully the latter seems appeased by the mention of Steve’s plans. “Well, you’re always welcome. Next time, yes?”
Thor continues down the steps as Steve goes up. The taller man stops on the landing in the lobby. “Oh, I meant to mention that Tony got the parts in for your bike. He told me yesterday.” Steve immediately feels his spirits lift. Thor smiles. “He said you’re welcome to come anytime, but he’s completely free tomorrow.”
Steve smiles, too. It’s the most genuine thing he feels he’s done all day. “Great.”
Now Thor beams like Steve’s little, excited grin was a prize hard won. Steve doesn’t like to think that it is, and it makes him self-conscious. Thor waves. “I’ll see you later. Jane’s waiting for me.”
Steve feels better climbing the steps the rest of the way to the fourth floor. Max walks beside him as they make their way around the wide open landing to the other side where his apartment is. Noticing the quiet, he glances down the way, but the door to 4B is securely shut. Fumbling for his keys, he gets his own door open and heads inside.
His apartment is hot, stuffy, and quiet. Max wags his tail happily while Steve gets him off the leash before going to his bowls for food and water. Steve’s on automatic pilot again as he puts his few groceries away, relieved that Sam was right: he did need milk and eggs and butter. Stored up in my brain somehow. Something this stupid and mundane shouldn’t make him so happy, but there he was, grinning sadly at his newly stocked fridge. Small victories. It probably goes without saying, but his therapist is big on that shit, too.
Laundry. He goes to do that, getting his wet sheets into the dryer with some dryer sheets and reloading the washer with a load of dirty clothes from his bedroom. Then he opens the windows in search of a breath of fresh air. He’s got a decent view of the street below from his bedroom, and the man from before is there. The one who was in the doorway of 4B, moving boxes and keeping watch like a hawk. Now he stands on the sidewalk, regarding their apartment building with a worried scowl. That seems weird, but before Steve can even really consider it, the guy is walking away.
Max is whining for dinner. It’s five o’clock. Two hours until he needs to head back to Sam’s. That’s all it takes for his anxiety to start ramping up. Anxiety and depression sometimes go hand in hand, he’s discovered, and the more uncomfortable he feels about going out, the less he cares about doing it. He does manage to shower again, and it’s there the first wave of dizziness bothers him. Usually that’s a sign he’s doing too much, taking things too far. A particularly rough day or hard workout sometimes leaves him with vertigo, but other times it just comes and goes of its own accord. The migraine that’s been threatening for hours thankfully stays away, although as he washes the sweat off he starts wondering if maybe it won’t be better for it to just attack already. It’ll give him a decent excuse not to go.
Drying off and feeling increasingly exhausted, he goes to his dresser to find some boxers. Bending down makes his side spasm, and he grimaces, grabbing the tender area. He feels the huge scar there at which he refuses to look, the one from when they cut him open in an Afghan hospital to try and deal with the damage (or so he was told – he can’t remember since his brain was hemorrhaging at the time). This injury is more minor in some ways, affecting his right hip a little. It did kill his spleen, so that kind of sucks. But, to him, it’s a wound he hates more than the head injury in some ways. This was the one that knocked him down, made him fall, caused everything that came after. Caused…
Don’t. He’s not going to think about it. There are memories there, but for whatever reason, subconscious or not, they’re seemingly behind a veil of shadows in his head. It’s a fucking relief. And he’s not going to look. Ever. If that makes him a coward, then so be it. He thinks the people he loves and who loved him would be pretty ashamed that he’s like this now when before he was nothing but unwavering determination and steely courage and steadfast desires to do the right thing. But he can’t help it. The young man they loved died in that Afghan hospital and someone else was shipped back to the US.
At any rate, he grabs his boxers and gets them on. Max is whining louder and louder. He starts barking impatiently. “Alright,” Steve grumbles, finding an A-shirt in his underwear drawer and pulling that on, too. “Alright. I’m coming. I’m…”
The dog’s not at the door to his bedroom but rather near the vent beside his bed. He’s very pointedly barking at the shared wall. Curious, Steve heads over there. “Okay, what? Back up. Back up.” He gets a fistful of Max’s collar and pulls him back so he can squeeze closer to the vent. Is there something in there? He crouches, Max slobbering into his ear, and peers inside the shadows. Doesn’t look like it.
He’s about to rise and tell Max to give it a rest when he hears something. A quiet, little mewl. A meow. “What the hell?” Looking again, he sees nothing but black for a while, despite the meowing coming now in a fairly constant stream. Then he glimpses a flash of yellow eyes.
There’s a cat in his vent.
Steve stares dumbly. Confusion leaves him rather frozen for a second. What’s a cat doing there? Max whines and whines more, excited about what they’ve found. “A friend, huh,” he comments, watching the cat through the grating. He thinks a moment before deciding he really should get it out. It can’t stay there. How did it even get inside…
And then it occurs to him. This cat must be from next door. New neighbors.
Sighing a little in irritation, he plods to the laundry room where he has a toolbox and fishes out a Phillips screwdriver. He returns, pushing Max out of the way again, and sets to loosening the vent cover. It comes off with a clank, and he puts it aside against the wall. The cat is right there, staring at him with eyes that aren’t just yellow but green too. It’s black and not very big. “Here, kitty,” he calls softly, reaching his hand out. “Here, kitty, kitty.” God, that’s lame. He’s never been a cat person; hell, he’s never even had a pet before Max. He really has no idea what he’s doing, and surely this animal will be intimidated by a strange place and strange people and the huge dog panting and prancing around in excitement. But he keeps trying to coax it closer to him. “Come on, kitty. C’mere.”
Surprisingly enough, the cat does come, slinking right to the end of the vent and sniffing his fingers before rubbing its cheek against them. Steve moves fast, gently snatching it about the neck and pulling it out. It squeals in unhappiness but doesn’t scratch him too bad as he stands and walks away with it in his arms. He holds it tightly so that it can’t escape (wow, this thing has sharp claws) and tries to calm it with a few pets, even with Max bouncing around like a wild thing in an attempt to see. “Stop, Max,” Steve chides, keeping his voice low so as not to upset the cat. “Stop. Sit. Sit.”
Max gets control of himself and obeys, and Steve looks down at the cat. It’s not too skinny and its fur is sleek and it looks well cared for. Steve sighs, petting it a few more times, and it calms against his chest, not purring but not fighting, either. The cat’s little enough that it practically fits on his forearm. “Alright,” he says on a long breath. “Let’s get you home.”
It takes some doing, but he fishes a pair of workout shorts from his drawer and gets them on. The cat is not pleased with the jostling, digging in deeper again. Steve briskly walks to the front of his apartment, stuffing his bare feet into a pair of sandals near the door, before going out and down the hall.
4B is still shut. He holds the cat tight; the poor thing is pretty scared now and he doesn’t want it to struggle and bolt as he knocks on the door. There’s no answer at first, so he tries again, impatient and trying to keep his catch from escaping again and irritated about the trouble (and the stinging spots on his arms). Finally, the door opens a bit.
There’s a young woman there. She’s beautiful. She’s petite, slender, shapely, dressed in tan capri pants, a black tank top over a white camisole beneath it, and plain black flip flops. Her hair is brown with hints of red, a scarlet hue when the light from the apartment behind her catches it, and it tumbles down her shoulders in thick, loose waves. Her face is striking but in a pleasant way; a pert nose, full, lush lips that are pink and inviting, strong, unique features that carry a hint of vintage glamor.
But it’s her eyes that Steve can’t stop looking at. They’re blue and green, a shimmering mixture of both that reminds him of the ocean. They’re deep, powerful, mysterious in a sense, drawing him in only to hide their secrets. She gazes back at him, lips parted slightly, confused or surprised but not looking away. They stare at each other.
Then the cat meows loudly, annoyed at his tight grip, and digs its claws in enough that it snaps him from his seeming trance. “I, um…” His brain seems to be failing him, though not for the normal reasons. This is the first time in forever – since Peggy – that a woman has made him feel… something. He can’t put a name to it, but his heart’s beating faster and his stomach feels tied up. He stumbles into talking. “I live in 4A. Next door. Is, uh… He snuck into my apartment. I assume he’s yours?” He offers up the cat.
The girl’s eyes widen, and her fair cheeks color instantly in a blush. She opens the door more, and he can see boxes and new furniture beyond. “Oh, God,” she moans. Her voice is deeper, sweet, lulling. There’s a bit of an accent to it that he can’t place. It’s very subtle, but it only adds to its richness. “I am so sorry. God, Liho.” She shakes her head in embarrassment and disgust as she takes the cat from Steve. She looks stunning with just that touch of rose on her face. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” he assures.
“I have no idea how she–”
It’s a girl cat apparently. Steve fidgets a little, jabbing his hands into the pockets of his shorts. “She was in the vent between the bedrooms. The guy who used to live here? He always complained that it was too cold, so you might want to check if he did something to the vent.”
She nods, clearly horrified at the inconvenience she’s caused. There’s something entrancing about the way she moves, shifting her weight and petting Liho in her arms. There’s something graceful to her voice. But there’s something more in her eyes that he can’t place, can’t understand. He’s never been terribly proficient at reading people, but there’s something about her that’s… “I’m Steve,” he says, holding out his hand. “Steve Rogers.”
She hesitates for a second, and that strikes him hard, as stupid as that is. But she breaks out of it, smiling a dazzling smile. “Natalie,” she says. She doesn’t say her last name, but she does take his hand. Her grip is firm, warm, though her fingers are small in his palm.
He feels self-conscious again as they shake. It’s odd, how it feels like it’s too much but not enough at the same time, and the air feels dense between them, thick with tension that’s almost electric. Suddenly he’s having a hard time breathing. He’s staring in her eyes again, and she’s staring back. Too much. Not enough.
She lets go first. Her smile isn’t quite comfortable, and he wonders if he’s coming on too strong. Or worse. Can she see in his face that he’s different? Damaged? Her eyes are so sharp, and she seems so bright. Maybe she’s picked up on it already, that he’s not right. He’s never made much of an attempt to hide it, but for the first time he feels exposed. And ashamed. It’s paranoid and goddamn stupid and he’s reading too much into it. The corner of her mouth curls into something more genuine. “Thanks. It was nice of you to bring her back.”
So that’s that. He can’t help but feel himself tumble, like he was high on something, an inexplicable rush of some sort, and he’s crashing now. He forces himself to keep smiling, forces himself to say, “Sure. It was no problem.”
She backs into her apartment. “Thanks again. Really.”
He nods uselessly. Just as the door’s about to shut, he says, “Hey, welcome to the building.”
The door pauses in its motion, and she peers at him. For a second, he can almost imagine it. “You want to go out sometime? You want to come inside for coffee? You want to talk? What are you doing tonight?” But she doesn’t say any of it, and why would she? He doesn’t say it, either, because he can’t.
She bobs her head and smiles sweetly. “Thanks.” That’s soft, genuine, but it’s all there is. The door closes, and this little moment is over.
He doesn’t know why it hurts so much. It doesn’t make any sense, but nothing does anymore. Before he even knows it, he’s back in his apartment, shaking, angry and not knowing why. Max greets him, clearly disappointed that he came back alone. He’s not the only one. “What the hell is wrong with me?” Steve hisses, shaking his head and leaning back into the door behind him. He feels a tingle in his head – dizziness, the migraine, what she made him feel, fucking sensory mayhem – and focuses on catching his breath. Depression and anxiety. PTSD. AEDs and PTE. His life, an alphabet soup of diagnoses and conditions and treatments. Permanent brain damage.
He’s so damn tired. Vicious cycle.
Why would anyone want that?
His heart stops pounding. He gets control of his breathing. He opens eyes he’s squeezed shut. Then he’s on automatic pilot once more, the last time for the day, locking everything up and killing the lights and shutting the windows. He grabs his phone from the kitchen counter and texts Sam without thinking. “Not feeling well. Can’t come. Sorry.” He doesn’t wait for what will surely be a worried, frustrated response, tossing the phone back to the counter and limping to his bedroom.
The vent’s still open, but the room is utterly silent now. He flops on the bed, wincing against the pain banging against his skull, and buries his face into the pillows. No sheets. No pillow cases. They’re in the dryer. He’s not getting them, not getting up. Laying there and hoping it all stays away is the only thing he’s capable of. Max jumps up and lays down close to him, snuggling and nosing at his cheek, but he can’t move, can’t hug back, can’t do anything.
Nothing other than breathe and close his eyes and let himself sink.