ECHOES AND QUESTIONS
A Captain America (Marvel Cinematic Universe) story
by Rachel Smith Cobleigh
When she passed him on the stairs, laundry basket under her arm, she didn't meet his eyes. They hadn't crossed paths since he'd hurled an angry, accusatory reply of "Neighbor." at her outside Pierce's office. He and Sam had since been off to Moscow for a frustrating search that had only led to a dead end and a near-miss encounter with the FSB. Steve wasn't sure what to do next; he'd reduced his former day job to rubble and the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. had scattered to the four winds. He wasn't eager to reenlist and he suspected that no one on Capitol Hill was all that eager to have him back on board, now that he had demonstrated a marked unwillingness to merely follow orders without question, and at enormous cost to them. Public opinion was on his side, but in political circles, he was an uncomfortable reminder of an embarrassing, widespread failure to govern properly. Fury had advised him to lay low for a while. They knew where to find him if they needed him, but he had no way of contacting Natasha or Fury or most of the others. With his one lead for finding Bucky now dried up, he was faced with the daunting prospect of being untethered in a world that was still alien to him. Thank God for Sam, but even his friendship was too new to feel truly settled yet.
Steve twisted as he continued up the stairs, watching Kate's—no, Sharon's—blonde head bobbing down the stairs before she disappeared around the corner. He frowned and straightened, hefting his duffle bag over his shoulder.
"Do me a favor," Natasha said. "Call that nurse."
"She's not a nurse."
"And you're not a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent."
"What was her name again?"
"Sharon. She's nice."
He made his way to his apartment door, fit his key into the lock, and went inside, pushing the door closed behind him. He shrugged off his jacket and hung it up, then dumped the contents of the duffle bag on the floor, separated the lights and darks, and started the darks in the washing machine before picking up his toiletries bag and his Kindle and heading into the bedroom. The noise of the washing machine filling up was the only sound in his apartment.
He glanced at the light on his answering machine, but there were no messages. He'd been gone for nearly a month, and no one had called. No one.
He frowned and walked into the bathroom, where he opened the toiletries bag and set it up in its usual place near the sink. He looked at himself in the mirror for a long moment.
Sam's question still lingered: What makes you happy?
Reading. Sketching. Both were solitary pursuits.
They used to make him happy, because they were an escape from people. People who bullied him or mocked him or purposely ignored him. But now escaping from people was not his problem. There weren't enough people in his life to make him want to escape from any of them. No one bullied or mocked or ignored him now. He much preferred the respect and deference, but he had found that his obvious strength was just as off-putting as his obvious weakness had been. And it wasn't just his physical attributes that gave him this sense of dissociation: his most cherished values were out of place in this world. He could read as much of Wikipedia as he wished, but he would never feel at home in this culture, with its easy acceptance of attitudes that he found deeply disturbing. He had accepted Natasha's teasing "fossil" jokes with equanimity, knowing the spirit in which they were intended, but they still stung. He would never fit in, would never really be able to relax and just feel comfortable around people, and know that they felt comfortable around him.
The Howling Commandos had been the closest he'd ever come to having a family, but they were all dead. Well, all except Bucky, and Steve didn't know who his former best friend was now.
His reflection stared back at him, frowning.
Who am I now?
Shaking off this thought, he turned on the shower, made sure the water was nice and hot and then peeled off his shirt.
His doorbell rang. He wasn't sure he'd heard the faint chime over the sounds of the shower and the washing machine, but he poked his head out into the hall just to make sure.
There it was again. He frowned. Who could it be? Someone to offer him a place to find some purpose again? He shook his head. If Natasha walked in here now with merely an annoying clean-up mission for Fury, Steve thought he'd follow her into it just to put off the job of figuring his future out for himself.
Now where is the courage in that? he asked himself as he walked down the hall. Natasha was building a deep cover for herself; she was nowhere near here. He had no similar goal: there was no point in him building a cover of any kind. It wasn't in his nature to maintain a long-term deception and his face had been plastered on so many posters, magazine covers, and whatnot that actually going into hiding was a non-starter. He sighed. No. He had to sort this out for himself.
He pulled open the door.
Sharon the not-nurse was standing there, clearly about to say something, but her words seemed stuck in her throat. He frowned. She dragged her eyes up to his and swallowed, then pressed her lips together in a straight line.
"Yes?" he asked, his tone short.
She seemed to sag just a little before straightening again. Her eyes grew distant, and there was none of the surprised openness in her expression any longer.
"I…just wanted to apologize," she said. When he frowned, she continued quickly, "For lying to you. I'm sorry."
After a moment of silence, she nodded, turned on her heel, and drew a key out of her pocket. He liked her relaxed clothing and her lack of pretense.
"Why didn't you take me up on my offer?" he asked suddenly, half-surprising himself.
She paused and turned slowly, her hand dropping back to her side. She was frowning.
He made a lame gesture with his hand. "You know. Laundry. Using my machines."
Her face cleared. "Oh. I—" she looked away, frowned. "I thought you were…interested in me."
He put his hand awkwardly on his hip, his elbow bumping against the doorframe. He frowned at her, annoyed. "I was."
She swallowed and nodded, then started to fit the key in her lock, clearly eager to be out of his presence.
"Am I really that out of touch?" he asked. He regretted revealing his frustration as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but it was too late to take them back.
She looked at him. "No."
He looked down, nodding. She wasn't interested in him. And he wasn't even sure why he cared. Except that he knew exactly why, and he didn't want to admit it.
He thought of Peggy lying in her bed at the assisted living facility, of the pictures of her children, of the way that the light went in and out of her eyes, and of how even she didn't know him any longer. No one did, not really. He just wanted to be known, and to be allowed to know someone else just as fully. But everyone was shuttered to him. It didn't matter how hard he tried. He just didn't belong here.
He thought he might have a good cry in the shower and then start looking online at the employment postings. Hill had gone to Stark Industries. Maybe he could check around their website. They probably needed security, people willing to travel. He was unattached; he could do that. He didn't like cronyism, but maybe Stark would help him get on his feet in the civilian world, get a little experience for his resume so that he could branch out into other things. He smirked and started to push his door closed. At least Stark wouldn't be star-struck when Captain America walked into the job interview.
"I couldn't say yes," Sharon said, her voice so quiet that he wasn't immediately certain he'd heard her correctly. The washing machine was still running behind him and the shower was still on. He needed to go make use of that, stop wasting all the water, but he paused and looked across at her.
She had turned to face him. "I couldn't say yes."
He frowned. "Why not? S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't have an anti-fraternization policy. As I understand it, they actually encouraged that sort of thing, to a certain extent."
"It wasn't that." She looked at the floor, then met his eyes. "I couldn't say yes. Not while I was lying to you."
He tilted his head and looked at her for a long moment. "Natasha likes you," he finally said.
Sharon raised her chin, giving him a small smile. "She does?"
"She doesn't like most people," he said.
"She likes you," Sharon pointed out.
"I don't count."
"Because she knows she has nothing to fear from me."
Sharon smiled at this. "Did she say why she likes me?"
"No," he admitted.
They stared at one another for a moment, and then Sharon nodded at his—bare, he now remembered with some chagrin—torso. "You should go take that shower," she said, "and stop using up all the hot water. I was hoping to take one, too."
That mental image put a lump in his throat and left him feeling too warm and uncomfortably conscious of the snug fit of his khakis.
"Oh—I'm sorry—I hadn't—"
Sharon laughed, a gentle, calming sound. "I was just teasing. I'm sure there'll be plenty for me. Have a good evening."
She twisted her doorknob and pushed open her door.
"Sharon, wait," he said, gathering his courage and pulling his door all the way open again. He stepped out into the hall and put out a hand. "Can we start over?"
A mix of emotions crossed her features and he had just begun to feel like a fool when she smiled and gave him a brief nod.
"I'd like that," she said.
"I haven't had supper yet…" he began.
Her face fell. "Oh. I have."
"Oh." He looked at the floor.
"Do you want me to make you an omelet?" she asked.
He looked up in surprise. "Sure." Then he gave a self-deprecating chuckle. "You'd probably better make it five of them," he said. He gestured at himself. "Faster metabolism."
"Oh, right," she said, her eyes taking him in. "I'm not sure I have enough eggs for that."
He felt briefly like a lab specimen and shrugged awkwardly. "Well, that's okay. I can just—"
"No, it's fine," she said at the same time. They both stopped, looked at each other, laughed awkwardly, and then she said, "I'll just run down to the corner and buy another couple dozen."
"I could do that," he said.
"You need a shower," she said. "You smell."
He frowned, then lifted one arm to take a sniff. "I do?"
She giggled. "Go. I'll have them whipped up in twenty minutes. Do you like peppers and onions?"
He grinned, lowering his arm. "Love 'em."
"Great," she smiled back. "Anything you don't like?"
He squinted to the side and frowned. "Eggplant?"
"I love eggplant," she said. "How can you not love eggplant?"
He shrugged. "It tastes off. And I don't want to be reminded of eggs while I'm supposed to be eating a vegetable."
"Oh…maybe an omelet isn't such a good idea," she said, frowning.
He laughed. "No, that's fine. I expect to taste the eggs and to taste the vegetables. There's no problem there."
She eyed him skeptically.
He shrugged. "It makes sense in my head."
She chuckled and reached into her apartment for her coat and her wallet. "All right."
"Are you sure you want to do this? I'm not putting you to any trouble?"
"Of course you're putting me to trouble," she said. "But I don't mind."
He gave her a small smile, and she returned it. She shrugged her coat on and pulled her door closed as he turned to go back into his apartment. When he reached the door he looked back at her. She was starting down the first step.
"Do I really smell?" he asked.
He heard her laughter as she disappeared down the stairs.
"Yes," she called back. "Very good."
He chuckled and marveled at how light he felt. As he went back into his apartment, still smiling, he realized that he had found something—or rather, someone—who made him happy. Who knew if anything would come of it?
As he strode back into the bathroom and into the clouds of steam that were billowing out of the shower, he smiled to himself. Either way, he was very much looking forward to finding out.