Part Two: The Fumble
Bit by bit, Steve began to glue back the shattered pieces of his life. They didn’t fit the same and the end picture would never be what it once was – and he had no clue how he even wanted his future to take shape now – but he was starting to find some semblance of normalcy.
If a super soldier plucked out of the past and placed into the future could be considered normal, that is.
He struggled more than he’d care to admit. Second guessing had become second nature. On rare occasions he’d interact with people outside of S.H.I.E.L.D. he wondered if his word choice was too polite or his quips too out of date. The looks he’d receive always had him questioning what it was he’d done or said to inspire them. Was it truly that uncommon to say please or thank you now? To hold the door open for whomever was entering behind you as well? When had common courtesy disappeared?
Some things were so ingrained in him that he simply couldn’t change. Like the day he’d caught a group of school boys bullying a smaller kid, pushing him around and taunting him. Steve had stepped in without a thought and when the group took in his large arms folded across his broad chest and the sharp glare in his eyes, they’d scattered off like leaves to the wind.
“They meant no harm,” one of the other adults nearby had shrugged off the incident. “Boys will be boys.”
That concept was entirely foreign to him and one he intrinsically rejected. “Boys will be boys until someone stands up and shows them what it means to be a good man,’” Steve countered.
It troubled him how easily they had written him off when he’d said that.
He felt a bit like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, but if fitting in meant standing down and staying quiet when he saw something so clearly wrong happening by him… Well then, he’d just stay a square. He’d been called square often enough when he’d been bullied himself, anyways.
I hate to break it to ya, bud, but you’ll always just be a punk kid from Brooklyn, Bucky had once told him.
That was a good thing, Steve decided. He’d gone through hell and back, but he’d always try to keep the promise he’d made to Dr. Erskine on the eve of his transformation – the very same promise he’d made to himself – to make sure the strength of his heart would always outweigh the strength of the body science had gifted him. He may not know who he was in this new strange and uncertain time, but he knew what he stood for and would start re-building around that. He just wanted to help those who needed helping; help those it was within his power to help.
And something told him the waitress – his sort of almost friend Belle – needed helping.
After finding The Diner, Steve was quick to become a regular – just like the old couple he’d seen his first time there, Mr. and Mrs. Nowak. They were there every Tuesday and Thursday, sitting in Belle’s section to split a milkshake, usually vanilla, though sometimes Mrs. Nowak convinced her husband to get the strawberry. Belle always made a big deal when they ordered that, adding a small bowl of fresh strawberries for them at no charge and giggling when Mr. Nowak would playfully grumble at her for ‘encouraging’ his wife.
Whenever it seemed like it’d been awhile since the coveted strawberry shake had been ordered, Belle would bring out the vanilla with a strawberry stuck to the rim on the glass and set it between the older couple with an innocent owl-eyed look. Mrs. Nowak would fairly cackle when she saw it and without fail, their next visit Mr. Nowak would harrumph and order the strawberry milkshake.
“I tried to suggest a chocolate shake once,” Belle had told Steve. “But poor Mr. Nowak is allergic to it and accused me of trying to kill him,” she laughed fondly.
Steve came Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays. He worried he was becoming somewhat of a nuisance, but Belle always had a big smile for him when she came out and saw him sitting in what was now considered his booth.
They chatted quite a bit, mostly superficial things – did they see the news that morning? How about that weather?
One day, Belle asked, “Who’s your favorite author?” while setting down his lunch.
Steve smiled and took a moment to really consider the question while unfolding a napkin to set across his lap.
“I’d have to say Mark Twain,” Steve decided, glancing up to see her reaction.
Her smile widened.
“Oh I love Mark Twain,” she replied, her eyes bright.
“Huck Finn fan?” he guessed.
“Well, yes, but I mostly enjoy his essays. I love how he uses humor to balance serious points so that when the message hits, it hits hard but doesn’t leave you limping. It keeps readers receptive.”
His own smile grew. “I agree. I think his writings are timeless.”
“I’ve always been a fan of the classics. I was going to go to school for English, you know? I really love reading,” she sighed, staring off out the window.
His smile fell some. Belle sometimes spoke like this – let winsome phrases of was and should fall from her lips, clearly without thought. It saddened him even as it oddly reassured him. He, too, felt the sting of what might have been and in a strange way it made him feel less isolated when she openly displayed casual disappointments without dwelling on them.
But it seemed to Steve that for a young enough gal who often wore her heart on her sleeve, Belle was hiding something. There were times she’d stop mid-sentence, glance to the front and back of the restaurant – towards the entrance and exit, he couldn’t help but note – and then abruptly change the subject, or wander off saying something about missing an order.
Perhaps he was projecting, but his instincts said there was something more going on with the happy girl fast becoming his only friend. And Steve’s instincts had never really steered him wrong.
“I was going to go to school for art,” he said quietly. He hadn’t made the decision to say anything at all, but once he muttered it, he felt it was only fair. A confession deserved one in return.
The admission was worth it when Belle snapped out of whatever sad trail of thought had claimed her and focused back on him. “For art?” she asked.
His face twitched something between a smile and grimace. “Yes, art. I quite enjoy it, and I’m fairly decent at it – or so I’ve been told.”
“What happened, then?”
“It hadn’t been my first choice, really. As much as I loved it, I was sort of settling for it.”
She nodded. “Did you find what you were really meant for, then?”
It was Steve’s turn to look off in contemplation, the still too-fresh memories rising up. “I think so. Sometimes life has a way of pulling you to the right path, even if you don’t realize that’s what’s happening at the time.”
“I hope you’re right,” she said, then shook herself and gave him another smile. “So what did you end up going to school for, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I don’t mind,” he said, absolutely meaning it. “And I didn’t go to school at all, not technically.”
“Let me guess – military?”
He raised a brow. “That obvious?”
She shrugged. “Well, my dad is a cop and you have that same air of authority around you, but what really cinched it was my Pop Pop. He served in the Army back in WWII and after my folks split, mom and I moved back in with him and gran. You carry yourself a lot like him – formal, polite, but also direct and firm. Some of his old war buddies that used to visit were the same. Figured it’s a military thing.”
“Huh,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she jumped. “Here I am talking your ear off while your food is getting cold. Please, eat up and let me know if I can get you anything else, Steve.”
“It’s fine, Belle. I like talking with you,” he told her, fighting the urge to fidget with the napkin in his lap.
She’d already taken a step away, but stopped and turned back around. Her cheeks were tinted a tempting red that had Steve fighting back a smile. And he thought he embarrassed easily. “I like talking with you too, Steve,” she said, smiling before she hurriedly turned back around and shuffled away.
He was thankful for that because his own cheeks heated up in response.
Things continued on in that vein for several weeks. Steve’s life settled into a routine of classes S.H.I.E.L.D. organized on his behalf to get him up to date, and lunches at The Diner, where Belle unknowingly did more than anyone else to help settle him into modern times.
There was a truism claiming that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Steve never felt the weight of that truth more than in his growing, bumbling friendship with Belle.
He’d always been hopeless with the dames and Belle sure was no different.
You’re smitten, he told himself. There was no use denying it. As the weeks went by and Steve got to know her better, it was hard not to fall for the shy, but kind waitress. She was unlike any dame he’d ever met.
It was hard not to compare the two, especially at first, though he felt the lowest of low whenever he did. It’d felt like a betrayal of sorts, to one woman at first, and then the other as he grew closer to Belle. Peggy had been a force of nature in his life – strong, confident, and so very brave. Their relationship had been one of possibilities, more than true romance. That conclusion had come to him over time and he’d finally accepted that while he would always have a deep fondness for her, it was for that of a beloved friend and not a lover.
She was nothing more than a missed opportunity for something potentially big. Life, though, had other plans for them both. Now, there was a new opportunity before him. One he wanted to grasp with both hands, but he just couldn’t figure out how to go about it.
How he wished Bucky was there… Sure, he’d have a good laugh at Steve’s expense, but he’d also know what to do.
You just gotta believe in yourself, kid, he’d say and then he’d push him off to face Belle and watch him flounder.
Which was pretty much what he’d been doing the past couple weeks – floundering in his attempts to gauge her interest and express his own. It didn’t help that Belle seemed just as clueless as he was and was completely oblivious as he stepped over himself trying to ask her out.
Even the Nowaks had noticed his bumbling attempts, much to his mortification.
“You’re a bit clueless, aren’t you dear boy,” Mrs. Nowak had stopped by his table one day to say. “Well, at least you’re easy on the eyes,” she patted his hand.
“Has the good sense to see a good thing too,” Mr. Nowak eyed him sharply. “Maybe try asking if she wants to share a milkshake.”
How he wished the floor would open up and swallow him whole.
The next day was a Wednesday. Belle usually spent her Wednesdays at the library in NYC, finding new books for herself while also volunteering for the children’s story hour. She’d asked, smiling a little unsurely and looking so damn beautiful it damn near hurt his eyes, if he’d wanted to come with her, but the question hadn’t truly registered over the mortification still resonating from Mr. and Mrs. Nowak’s parting words. He’d declined, saying he had a meeting – which had been half true since Steve still had a few more S.H.I.E.L.D. approved history classes that he took several days a week, Wednesdays included.
“Oh,” her smile had dropped before she gamely tried to pull it back up. “Well, maybe next time then. Have a good weekend, Steve,” she said, laying his bill flat down on the table and walking away before he could process what had just happened.
You’re an idiot, the Bucky voice told him. A real putz.
He waited for Belle to come back out, but she must have decided to take a break or possibly even leave early. He’d embarrassed her, he realized, feeling ashamed of himself. She’d gone out on a limb and he’d left her hanging. It was very poor form on his part.
Eventually, he decided a retreat was in order. He’d come back Saturday like usual, and he’d fix things – he’d not only tell her how much he’d love to spend Wednesday afternoon with her, but he’d also finally tell her the truth about himself.
He’d tell her about Captain America and the ice, and maybe if he was lucky, she’d still want him around. Maybe she’d even tell him some of her own secrets.
It was a plan – a good one even – except, things rarely went according to plan. Not for Steve Rogers.
The next day had Steve taking his frustrations out on an unsuspecting punching bag at a boxing gym a couple blocks away. Fury had found him there, telling him about Loki and the tesseract… And Steve, well, he did what he always did – what he would always do when called upon to help. He found himself unceremoniously dumped right in the middle of a new battle no one could afford for him to lose.
He was strong enough to fight the wars others couldn’t, so it was his duty to take the stand.
When Saturday came and went, he found himself in Germany and could only hope Belle wouldn’t see his continued absence as another denial. After Saturday, however, things got a little too hectic for him to rightly notice the passage of time. Some distant corner of his mind, though, remained reserved for counting down the seconds until he saw her once more.
If it was the last thing he did, he’d pluck up the courage to finally ask her out the moment his eyes set on her again. He wouldn’t wait another minute.
No more wasting time.