A Time For Heroes – Chapter 6

Breakdown1The next morning dawned bright and warm. And it matched Ginny’s mood perfectly! She had had a lovely steak dinner with her dad the night before, and they had talked at length about the new tech he had mentioned to Steve. She usually wasn’t interested in the technical side of their business. It was her job to work on the body and the mind…that’s why she had a psychology minor with her kinesiology Masters. If nothing else, it made her aware of what not to say and when to bring in the shrink.

But this was fascinating. It was Hydra technology, so it was probably alien. They had brought Thor in to see if it was similar to anything they had on Asgard, but he’d never seen anything like it either.

Claude had never seen his daughter this interested in his side of the business before, and was enjoying her insights. And so the evening went.

She received a text from Tony at around 10:30 pm asking if he should send a car for her in the morning.

She looked at the two bottles of wine she had brought, one still half full, and knew that she wasn’t driving home tonight. So she texted him back:

 Yes. Thank you.

 and poured herself and Claude each another glass of wine. He was busily drawing diagrams of his design ideas for Steve and they passed another pleasant hour pouring over those before she called a cab and went home.

The car arrived promptly at 8 am and she chatted amiably with the driver on the way to Stark Tower. The security guys seemed to be getting use to her and weren’t as stoic as they were in the beginning. Had it really only been three days since the breakfast debacle?

Jarvis greeted her as usual at the elevator and she even found him pleasant to chat with. He told her that there were croissants and fruit in the kitchen, if she was hungry. Captain Rogers was already in the gym and Mr. Stark was on the track. Her father was expected at 10 o’clock, which she already knew, and Mr. Barnes would be arriving shortly after that so that his prosthetic arm could be examined further. It was like listening to the news, but delivered in a pleasant British accent.

She wished him a good day as she left the elevator and wondered what Jarvis would consider a good day.

So she wasn’t surprised to see Steve at the punching bag when she entered the gym. What hit her immediately, though, was the pain and fatigue radiating from him. He didn’t stop when she came in.

“You’re here early.” she said, as she made her way to the desk. “Rough night?”

“Yeah.” he said, after a few more punches. “Nightmares. Didn’t sleep much.” and he continued to hit the bag.

As she was unpacking her computer, though, the punches stopped.

She looked up then and truly saw him for the first time. He was standing with his head against the bag and his hands on either side. His hair was matted to his head with sweat and his hands were swollen and bleeding.

She had to fight to keep her composure, but she managed to grab the first aid kit from the wall with shaking hands and head towards him.

“You shouldn’t punch without taping your hands. How long have you been here?” He looked at one hand as if he’d never seen it before.

“I think it was about 4 when I came down.” he said.

Yikes! That was almost 5 hours ago, she thought!

“Come over to the couch and let me clean those cuts.” She wanted to take his arm or hand to comfort him a little bit, but he had the walls up and they were almost a physical barrier. So she beckoned him and walked over herself, hoping he would follow.

He did and he sat down beside her on the edge of the couch. But when she reached for one of his hands to deal with the cuts and splits, he pulled away and turned his back to her.

She sat in stunned silence for a second, thinking again: What the hell happened yesterday?

She put the first aid kit aside and laid her hand gently on his shoulder and said softly in French, “Dit à moi, Steve.” Talk to me.

Steve felt her hand on his shoulder and heard her quiet plea.

She’s being soft on me, he thought and that thought filled him with fear. She’s never been soft on me; she’s always hard on me, never letting me get away with less than I can do.

If she’s being soft on me, he thought, I must be more of a mess than I thought.

And with that thought, the pain and fear and fatigue overwhelmed him. He put his face into his ruined hands and fell to pieces.

Ginny felt the shaking start. Ohshitohshitohshit! she thought. She reached behind her and moved a box of tissues to the couch in front of Steve and pulled the waste basket closer, too.

Then she did the only thing should could do. She put her arms around him, placing her hand over his heart and her cheek to the back of his shoulder and tried to hold him together.

WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED YESTERDAY!? she screamed in her head.

She had no idea how long they sat like that, the wracking sobs shaking his body. But finally the sobs started to subside and he reached for the tissues to stem the streaming tears and mucous on his face. But she didn’t let go. She knew this wasn’t finished.

Eventually, he covered the hand over his heart with his and squeezed. They sat like that in silence for a long time.

Steve didn’t know what to do. The images in his head were like poison and he didn’t know if he could go on living with them there, but he couldn’t put them on her. He was a soldier and he knew that part of the code was that the ones he fought for never had to know about the horrors he had seen; had lived through.

She opened her hand so that her fingers could entwine with his and he squeezed his hand closed over hers. He looked back over his shoulder, trying to see her, but was glad he couldn’t.

She said again, “Steve, dit à moi.” and he started talking.

“Yesterday…” he started, and his voice cracked. So he cleared his throat and started again.

“Yesterday, I walked by Claude’s workbench to the bathroom and I saw Annalisa’s old leg on the floor behind him.” He paused, trying to find the words and to hold back more tears.

“It was just lying there with the knee at an odd angle and it must have triggered something. I barely made it to the toilet before throwing up and then I just sat on the floor heaving while being hit with…horrible flashbacks.”

“When Sean came in, I was lying on the floor in the fetal position whimpering…at least I think I was whimpering; I was alone and someone was whimpering.” He was squeezing her hand so tightly that it hurt, so she stretched her fingers out but wouldn’t let him let go.

“I managed to sit up somehow and tell him I was okay, it was just a flashback and not to tell you.”

He looked back over his shoulder again and could just see the top of her head.

“He told me you’d eaten something that didn’t agree with you.” she said with a voice hoarse with unshed tears.

Steve smiled. “He’s a good kid.” he said.

“I managed to pull myself together enough to come out and finish the day, but when I tried to sleep last night, it all came slamming back down on me.”

He stopped, but it was like trying to stop throwing up. The words just kept coming.

“We were on a mission against Hydra back in ’44.” he said, slowly. “We had come across a town that they had bombed…destroyed; and at the edge of town was an orphanage.” He stopped and swallowed.

“There was nothing left of the building and everywhere were body parts.” His voice was flat and emotionless. “Little arms and legs, crushed heads and bodies.” His voice had fallen to a whisper. “They were everywhere.”

“I was at the head of our column, so I was the first to see, but when I stopped, the others came forward to look. All I could hear behind me was the sounds of retching and after a minute spent searching desperately for any movement or sign of life, I turned aside and emptied my stomach, too.”

He felt Ginny turn her head and press her lips to his shoulder. He squeezed her hand lightly and continued.

“They had done it on purpose; killed all those kids, all those people, just to slow us down, hoping we’d stay to try to find survivors or to bury the dead.”

“So we torched it, all of it. The orphanage, the town, everything. We’d gotten there days after the attack. Anyone left alive would have either ran or died before we got there. Then we left before the smell could make us sick again.” He brought his free hand up and wiped his eyes to stop the tears from spilling down his face again.

Ginny was still silent behind him but he could feel her tears soaking through his shirt.

“In Manhattan…” he said, and hesitated.

Then he sighed. He knew he couldn’t stop.

“In Manhattan last year,” he started again, “the cops were supposed to get everyone off the streets. The Chitari were picking off civilians for fun! But at one point I turned to see a woman with 3 little kids running down the street. I ran towards them, thinking to get them inside, but…” He stopped and swallowed hard to get control of himself.

He took a deep breath. “…but a Chitari landed between us. I think I yelled at them to run, but they didn’t move. I threw my shield and it propelled the Chitari back towards them but not into them.” He stopped and ran his hand through his hair.

“He must have already set the bomb or grenade to go off because when he hit the ground, he exploded.”

He put his hand over his face and started shaking again. Ginny held him tightly and started speaking to him in French, saying little comforting things you’d say to a child with a nightmare. She would have felt overwhelmingly silly to be saying any of this to him in English after the enormity of what he’d just revealed, but in French it seemed right and seemed to sooth him. She didn’t know how much, if any, of what she said he understood…she hoped none!

He had stopped shaking but the tears were still flowing when he whispered, “Their gore was on my shield. There was a leg…” He stopped and took a deep, shuddering breath. “The leg had butterflies on it.”

He wiped one eye with the back of his hand, then reached for the waste basket and threw up. They sat silently for a while.

“That’s how Thor found me, holding onto a car and retching, but we didn’t have much time to stop and deal. He led me away to another battle and I pushed it all down…until yesterday and Annalisa’s leg.”

The silence stretched between them, then he asked, in a small voice, “Ginny, this is bad, isn’t it?”

She reached around him for a tissue again and blew her nose before answering.

“What you’ve been through and what you’ve seen is bad.” she said, finally. “Did you have these memories, or did they just come clear to you yesterday?” she asked.

“Yesterday.” he whispered. “I didn’t remember any of this until yesterday.”

She squeezed his hand tightly, then let go. She put her hand on his shoulder to get him to turn towards her. He resisted at first, but finally relented, but he still couldn’t look at her.

She pulled out a pair of nitrile gloves and a couple of BZK wipes, and putting on the gloves, started to clean the blood off of his hands.

“Repressed memories can surface at any time with the right trigger.” she said. “It’s good that it happened now and not in the heat of some battle.”

She was bandaging the worst of the split knuckles. She was glad that she had something to keep her attention because she didn’t think she could look at him right now without breaking into tears.

“But I don’t think I’m qualified to help you through this.” she said. “I know you’ve been resistant to seeing a psychiatrist, but this is deeper than dealing with the trauma and grief of losing your leg. Do you have a lot of nightmares?” She was done with his hands and now she held them in both of hers and finally looked up into his eyes. They were red-rimmed and swollen, but they were dry.

“It was bad after New York, obviously.” He gave her a sad half-smile. “But they come and go. I’ve never had this kind of waking nightmare before, though.”

“But I’ve seen so much.” he said. “There have been things more horrible than this and I remember them and they don’t haunt me. Why?”

“Children are a hard line for most people.” she said. “We can endure a lot, but children are supposed to be safe and happy. Isn’t that what you fight for?” He nodded. “When something happens to them that you can’t prevent, it’s much more traumatic than it if had been adults.”

He looked up and met her eyes. “So now what?” he asked.

“Right now, I think you need sleep.” she said, pushing his matted hair off of his forehead. “You can lie down here and I’ll grab you a blanket.” The couch was long, but not long enough for him to stretch out, but she wanted to keep an eye on him while she set up next steps.

He grabbed a pillow from the back of the couch and lay down. She went to find a blanket. By the time she returned, he was curled up towards the back of the couch, softly snoring. It was warm enough in the gym, but she put the blanket over him anyways.

She had just finished cancelling her afternoon appointments when she saw Tony at the door. He opened it and peeked in, and when he saw Steve asleep on the couch,beckoned her to come out into the hall.

“How is he?” Tony asked. She looked surprised at his question but answered him anyways.

“Hard to tell, but he’s sleeping now; something he didn’t do last night. How did you…?”

He waved his hand at her question. “I could tell he was on the edge last night…he went to bed at 8!” he exclaimed. “Then he was down here at 4. I came down about an hour ago to check and saw you two on the couch and it didn’t look good.”

“I’ve called my shrink and he’s ready to come at a moment’s notice.” Tony said. “He’s good. He helped me with my PTSD after Manhattan.”

“Let’s let him sleep himself out, then we can get him with your shrink, if that’s what he wants to do.” Ginny answered.

Tony looked through the window. “He’s not going to need to be hospitalized, is he?”

She looked through at the slumbering hero, too, and said, “I don’t think so, but we can leave that decision to your shrink…what’s his name?”

“Dr. Coulter, Jim Coulter.” Tony replied.

“I’ve heard of him. He is good.” she said. “I’ve cancelled my afternoon at the hospital and I can stay with him and let you know when he wakes up.”

“Sounds like a plan. Claude and Bucky and I will be in the lab if you need to find me…or ask Jarvis.” He was already walking away so she went back to her desk. Not one to waste time, she started working on her proposal for the child amp program for the Stark Foundation.

It was 1 pm when Bucky came through the doors bearing food. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until he showed up.

“Ms. St. Pierre, any change?” he nodded towards the couch.

“He hasn’t woken up, Mr. Barnes.” she said, formally.

He smiled and said, “Mr. Barnes is…was my dad…call me Bucky.”

“Then drop the Ms. St. Pierre and call me Ginny.” she said with a smile.

Bucky stood for a moment watching his friend sleep.

“He’s still alive?” he asked.

“He does move every once in a while.” she assured him.

“But no nightmares?”

“Nothing like that today. Sounds like he had enough to last him a while last night.” she said.

They had been talking quietly, but Steve rolled in his sleep and then settled again.

“I should go.” Bucky whispered. She nodded and thanked him for the sandwich.

“I’ll probably see you later.” she whispered. “We can talk more then.”

He sketched her a little salute, looked over at his sleeping buddy again and left.

She enjoyed her sandwich with a delicious Italian lemon soda.

The hours passed. Tony popped in again to tell her that his shrink could come by after supper. Claude came in to tell her he was going home around 3. He had another engagement that evening. In between, she worked on her proposal. She might have the draft done today!

It was 4 o’clock when she came back from the washroom to see Steve lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

She walked over and crouched beside the couch.

“Hey.” she said. “Welcome back.”

“Hi.” he answered, looking at her. “How long did I sleep?”

She looked up at the clock, trying to remember when he had fallen asleep.

“About 5 or 6 hours.” she said. “How do you feel?”

He sat up, rubbed his hand over his face and said, “Like I’ve been hit by a truck.” She came up and sat down beside him on the couch.

“Well, that’s not too far from the truth.” she said, with a smile.

He was quiet for a long time. Then he asked, “So is it back to the hospital for me?” Ginny could sense his tension.

“Tony’s shrink, Dr. Coulter, can come and see you after supper, if you want to see him.” she said. “He’s very good at dealing with PTSD cases…” Her voice faded out under his scrutiny.

“I hate shrinks.” he said, quietly.

“When did you see a shrink?” she asked.

“When I got here. They wanted to make sure the 21st century wasn’t freaking me out too much.” he said with disdain. “High-priced quack.”

“This is up to you, Steve.” she said, quietly. “You have to find a way to live with what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced, and pushing those memories down so far that you can’t see them is not healthy…as you can see.”

“If Dr. Coulter isn’t a good fit, we can find you someone else, but this isn’t a do-it-yourself kind of fix. You’ll need help.” She sounded very earnest. She knew that going to a shrink wasn’t a cure all and not for everyone, but in his case, it’s what was needed.

In the end, he agreed to see Dr. Coulter and she called Tony and made the arrangements. Dr. Coulter would be there around 7:30 pm and would spend 2 hours with Steve for this first session and then set up a schedule based on what he learned.

Steve headed back to his room to shower and change before dinner. Ginny sat down to her proposal but found that she couldn’t focus on it. So she went down to the dining room, where she found Tony and Bucky, deep in conversation about whether or not Steve needed to see a shrink. Bucky was strongly opposed.

“They just put you on drugs and turn you into a zombie.” he said. “Steve doesn’t need a shrink.”

Ginny was emotionally drained, but Bucky had a lot of influence over Steve, so she had to try and sway his opinion.

“For those with psychotic disorders, like schizophrenia, drugs are sometimes necessary.” she said. “But not usually for PTSD. The treatment is usually just talking, getting the poison out in the open so that person can find a way to deal with it in a non-self-destructive way. Do you know that a great many soldiers with untreated PTSD end up committing suicide?”

“I’m not going to kill myself,” Steve said firmly from the door. “but I might starve to death soon if there’s no food.” He was clean, shaved and looking and feeling much better.

She smiled at him and he returned her smile.

“Just waiting on you, Cap.” Tony said and called in the first course.

They talked about the day at the hospital the day before, and other safe and inconsequential things through the meal.

At 7 pm, Jarvis announced Dr. Coulter and he came in and joined them for dessert.

He was much younger than Ginny had expected, not very much older than she was, she thought. He was very social and it was clear that he knew Tony very well, and he put everyone else at their ease with his funny stories and anecdotes.

At 7:30, Dr. Coulter said, “Well, Steve, let’s go have a private chat, shall we?” and they were gone.

Bucky and Tony pulled out the chess board, and since there’s nothing quite as boring as watching chess, Ginny found her way into the music room.

The tablet was still there, so she scanned the music restlessly for something new to play. Nothing. So she looked at some of the sheet music sites and found the perfect song for her mood. Blue Rodeo had been a band she followed in Toronto and she hadn’t heard ‘Falling Down Blue’ in years. But it was soft and sad and complex enough to keep her mind occupied for the next couple of hours.

She was finally able to play the whole song at a decent tempo and it sounded so sweet issuing forth from the body of this beautiful instrument! She played it through again and had just lifted her hands off of the keys when she heard Steve say, “That’s beautiful. What song is that?”

She turned to see him leaning against the doorframe behind her.

“Just how long have you been standing there?” she asked.

He shrugged and said, “I came in part way through the song, but then you started to play it again and I didn’t want to interrupt.”

He came over and sat on the bench beside her. He ran his fingers over the keys and played a few just to hear their sound. They were deep bass notes and the sound rang out deep and penetrating. He noticed the box of tissues on the piano and saw that her face was tearstained.

“You’re not crying for me, are you?” he asked.

She didn’t answer right away. She even picked out the first few notes of the song to delay answering.

“I was crying for all of the shit you’ve had to see and experience that’s hurting you right now.” She felt another tear escape down her cheek and wiped it away with her hand.

“It’s not all bad, you know.” he said, quietly. “For every town we got there too late to save, there were 5 more we did save. There are generations of people alive today because of what we did in the forties.”

“And if we hadn’t stopped Loki and the Chitari, would we even be sitting here today? Would anyone?” he asked, simply.

“I love being a soldier and I don’t think I could ever be anything else.” He touched a couple more keys, then they sat in silence for a minute or two.

“How did it go with Dr. Coulter?” she asked, finally.

He smiled and said, “I like him. He’s really down-to-earth and to-the-point. I think we’ll work well together. He wants to see me every day for the next few days anyways. Then we’ll knock it down to a couple of times a week.”

So, pretty serious then, Ginny thought. She was happy that this was going to work out.

“Is this going to delay things with the physio?” he asked. “I know that today was a wash-out.”

“It shouldn’t.” she said. “You should have your new prosthetic tomorrow or Sunday and we can work through the weekend.”

“What, no hot dates this weekend?” Steve teased.

“Well, I really should dust my apartment and pick up some groceries, but other than that, I’m wide open.” You’re the closest thing I’ve had to a hot date in a while, she thought.

He put his arm around behind her and she rested her head on his shoulder. They’d faced a lot together that day.

“Play me something happier.” he said. “I’ve had enough tears today to last me a lifetime.”

She had learned a few old swing standards from the WWII era since the last time he had heard her play, so she played one of those…’Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me’. Steve laughed out loud at her choice. Then she broke into ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company Three’, one of her favourites. Then he started to ask for his favourites: ‘Bill Bailey’, ‘I’ll be seeing you’ (“Not exactly happy”, Steve said, “but I still love it.”). He even sang ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’.

Some of the songs that she didn’t know, she looked up on the tablet and that led to finding other songs that he remembered from the thirties and forties.

Tony and Bucky came in an hour or so later to find them laughing so hard at Steve’s rendition of one of the sillier songs of the war, that tears were running down both of their faces.

Bucky laughed and said, “I remember you singing that one for us back in the day.”

“Had to keep morale up.” Steve smiled.

“Not with that voice.” Bucky countered.

“Here, play this one again,” Steve said, flipping back to ‘Tipperary’.

Bucky stood beside Steve with his hand on his shoulder and they both sang. Tony joined in about half way through. They both gave him an odd look when they had finished.

“What? My dad loved this stuff.” he said, defensively.

There were several more requests, but it didn’t seem to matter how well Ginny played, the boys were drowning her out anyways. But she was having so much fun! She even joined in the singing on some of the songs. Steve and Bucky were in their element, sharing stories around some of the songs and laughing like buffoons.

No one seemed to want the evening to end, but Ginny could feel herself fading fast and when she checked her watch, you saw why…2:30 am! But another song was requested and it was one she knew so she kept playing.

But her playing was deteriorating and after that one more request, she couldn’t find keys anymore.

“Sorry, guys. I hate to break up the party, but your piano player is done and it’s 3 am.” She closed the piano gently and put her head down on her arms on the cover.

“Yeah, Rogers,” Bucky pushed his friend, playfully, “some of us didn’t sleep all day.”

Tony said. “You shouldn’t be driving if you’re this tired. You can stay here.”

She sighed and said, “You’re probably right.” She did have a lot to do tomorrow but she needed sleep now!

Tony showed her to one of the guest rooms and Bucky to another and she was alone. She laid down on the bed in her clothes and closed her eyes.

Her phone buzzed.

 Thanks for today…all of it. You save my life. Sleep well.

 She looked at the cheesy Captain America picture of his face for a long moment.

Seemed like the thing to do. You’re welcome. Had fun. Bonne nuit.

 The response was quick.

Bonne nuit, ma chere.

 She smiled and laid her phone on the side table. She curled up on top of the covers, cuddling a pillow and fell asleep with ‘We’ll Meet Again’ playing in her head.

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