The Sun Hasn't Died
Welcome to the New Age
Enough to make my systems blow.
Welcome to the new age, to the new age.”
Captain America quickly became a regular at St. Francis. I had had some inkling of what it would mean to him, to have a place from his own time to slip off to, where it was peaceful and meditative. But, I didn’t quite realize how much my simple gesture would affect his entire demeanor.
I don’t know what Steve Rogers was like outside of St. Francis’ four walls, but within the church he was in turns contemplative and boyish. He was always polite and always, always willing to lend a hand.Turns out, he was quite the excellent handyman to have around; a historical monument St. Francis’ might have been, but the congregation had to pay a small fortune alone just to keep the historical bits functional. Steve, however, got the old building’s quirks on a level that was almost intuitive, and seemed quite happy to squirm around in tight crawl spaces and stick his head under leaky pipes on the church’s behalf.
I protested at first, especially when my first introduction to Steve’s desire to help out was the sight of him sprawled out underneath the sacristy sink. He was wearing a tight white t-shirt that left nothing to the imagination; upon further reflection, I decided that was probably not his fault as I doubted any cotton undershirt shirt wouldn’t mold itself to his muscles. Sturdy combat boots and worn blue jeans completed the look and I had to take a moment in the sacristy doorway to roll my eyes toward heaven. Most of my congregation was comprised of Baby Boomers; good-looking adult men of my own age were not in an abundance in my church or any church in Brooklyn. I didn’t think St. Francis had seen so much unadulterated masculine prime in several decades and it was a little startling to walk in on, displayed with such casual indifference on the church’s cold stone floor.
It also didn’t help that Steve favored a style of dress that was almost a perfect copy of my late husband’s preferred look. In some ways, my heart stuttered to life at the sight of blue jeans and white t-shirts, only to fall back into a disappointed slumber when reality caught up with my eyes. It had been five years since Tim’s untimely death - it was still entirely too soon for me to erase the memory of him from my mind whenever I saw something that reminded me of him.
“Really, Steve, you don’t have to do that,” became my perpetual refrain for about three weeks, until the Captain came out in him.
“I’m well aware that I don’t have to do anything, Mother Eli,” he grabbed my forearms quite forcefully and steered me away from the patch of wall in the narthex that he was trying to replaster.
He backed me up into a chair by the church’s front door and used both his size and strength to push me down. I sat down with a soft plop and stared up at him in surprise. It was the first time he had ever touched me and I instinctively shied away from his face, which was inches from mine.
He was so big.
“Just let me help, okay?” the look in his blue eyes was surprisingly vulnerable.
“You know I can call a contractor, right?” I countered back feebly.
“That’s money your church doesn’t have.”
I rankled a little bit at his perception. We were not the “rich” or “fashionable” church, like St. John’s on the other side of Brooklyn. It cost my parishioners dearly, at times, to keep our building up to code and all too often that money came out of my own paycheck, or even worse, out of our community outreach programs.
Steve was more perceptive than I gave him credit for; most of my congregation lived on their Social Security pension. We could, indeed, benefit from a handyman who didn’t seem to want compensation in return.
“It isn’t right for you to be fixing all of our problems, without some sort of payment,” I argued, stubborn to the end.
“I don’t need money,” Steve shook his head, his jaw set in what I could tell was an iron-clad determination. “And I don’t want it.”
He let go of me and stepped away; cool air from the open door washed over me and I suddenly felt very, very fragile. We considered each other for a moment - I from my reluctant seat and he from his towering height above me. I finally sighed and closed my eyes in a concession of defeat; I pinched the bridge of my nose and fought off the start of a headache.
“Why?” I asked the darkness on the inside of my eyelids.
“‘Why’ what?” I felt his presence recede as he stepped back over to the wall.
“Why are you doing this for us?” there was a part of me that knew the answer, even as I asked the question.
There was a brief silence and I peeked through my lashes to watch him work. His back was turned toward me and the muscles of his shoulder played smoothly through the stretched white fabric of his shirt.
“I’m not a superhero here,” he finally said, simply, after a long, contemplative pause.
He didn’t elaborate and a surprisingly comfortable silence stretched out between us. I took a few minutes to indulge in the unexpected luxury of having no where in particular to go and I tucked my left foot up underneath my opposite thigh. I thought I knew what he was trying to say, though, and I lost myself in reverie.
I had been underneath the microscope - both literally and figuratively - since I was 10 years old, when puberty hit. That’s when I came into possession of powers that had lain dormant inside of me until then; that’s when the whole medical community descended upon me in clinical interest. They never found a name for what boiled within me, so in absence of anything else, they fell back on the medieval standby - “magic”, they called it. Specifically, “blood magic.”
I discovered, to my initial horror, that I could coerce the very essence of a person’s life force - their heart, their blood - and either heal or destroy. In the beginning, it seemed like magic to me, too. A horrendous, unspeakable magic that I had tried to cut out of my own veins. I’d spent a few months in a psych ward after those attempts. And then...they found me and the fight for my very soul began.
Yes, I mused. I could empathize, perhaps, with Captain America’s private plight. Everyone wanted you on your side when you possessed qualities that surpassed ordinary human expectation. Everyone wanted to make a hero or a villain out of you - usually without consideration to your own personal desires. I had seen Steve on the TV more than one night in a row; I had seen how he hid his face behind his mask and tried to use it as a shield between himself and the news crews. And because he was a hero - a paragon of old-fashioned, innate goodness - everyone expected him to save them.
We had no expectations of him here at St. Francis. At least, I didn’t and I was reasonably sure my congregation felt the same. We were just flattered that he graced us with his presence and I had been mildly impressed to find that there was a sort of unspoken pact among my parishioners. The news cameras had not descended upon our tiny Brooklyn oasis and I rather suspected that even S.H.I.E.L.D didn’t know where he disappeared to for several afternoon hours two or three times a week. No one at St. Francis was talking, it would seem, and I was proud of the confidence we offered him.
Although, I mulled, it was not unusual, perhaps, that he had found more than just a personal solace here. There were at least ten or so members of the congregation who were old enough to remember him from his own time. Several of our oldest male members had served in the War; one of our women was a veteran bomber pilot, who had ferried over twenty B-52’s across the Atlantic to Great Britain. As soon as Steve’s schedule became apparent - every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoon from 1 to 5, every last one of them found some reason to show up unannounced while he was puttering around the premises.
Although he often seemed sad after talking to them, Steve also seemed to find comfort in their companionship. He even struck up what appeared to be a very lively friendship with Betty, the bomber pilot, to the point where, when she didn’t show up one Thursday as was her custom now, he enlisted my help and went in search of her. Turns out, she had thrown out her hip and had to be hospitalized; Steve now included a round at the hospital on Thursday afternoons, usually accompanied by flowers and books.
No, the WWII veterans weren’t talking to outside forces - nor were any of the veterans, of which there were a large number at St. Francis. Those who weren’t old enough to remember Steve before he disappeared at the end of the War, were old enough to have been raised by fathers and mothers who had idolized him. I was not the only one who seemed to realize that Steve needed a place to hide from the world; I was proud of my congregation for being intuitive to his needs.
“Well…” I pulled myself out of my own thoughts and couldn’t resist the urge to try and offer him something. “Please don’t hesitate to ask if there’s something we could do for you in return.”
He glanced over his shoulder, his gaze almost shy beneath his long lashes. His boyish smile crept slowly across his face and his words were earnest.
“You’ve all already paid me back. Trust me,” he seemed to realize the depth of his confession and turned abruptly back toward the wall, directing the last of his words to the drying plaster. “I can remember who I am, here.”
“Just don’t hold too hard onto the past, Steve,” I felt compelled to speak those words softly; as glad as I was to provide him a place of solace, I also feared that St. Francis might hold him back from adapting to the modern world.
“Right now, it’s all I’ve got to keep me sane,” he thankfully didn’t take offense to my words, though he continued to grimly address the wall. “I feel like I’m two people at once,” I knew, intuitively, that his words cost him a large part of his pride. “I can’t escape the present when I’m Captain America - it’s all around me. I wear it. I use it. I fight it.”
He slapped the last layer of plaster onto the wall with something like anger. It as the closest glimpse of his hidden frustration that I had seen yet. I felt my eyebrows raise in silent admiration and surprise.
“And then here...when I’m just Steve...I feel like I’m in a time machine. Stuck in the past. Stuck somewhere between normal and…” he paused before biting out the word. “Freak.”
He attacked the poor wall with such vigor that I was almost afraid he’d undo all the meticulous work he had done up to that point. I shifted in my seat and put both of my feet on the floor, preparing myself to get up and go over to him to try and calm him down. His words froze me in place, however.
“You know, I just wanted normal things out of life. A wife, kids, a home I could grow old in,” he stopped abusing the poor plaster and let his hands fall to his side in something like defeat; his great shoulders sagged and still he kept his back to me, as if it was easier to confess without seeing my face. “I feel almost normal here, you know. I can do just normal things - fix a leaky faucet, fix the wall, talk about things I know. But even here, I’m constantly reminded about how abnormal I am. I should be Betty’s age,” his words hardened in anger, in hurt, in something almost like contempt. “But instead, I can’t age. I can’t die. I can’t even get drunk.”
“Well, I wouldn’t recommend pining away for a drunken oblivion,” I checked myself, realizing that I might sound unintentionally flippant. “There are better ways to cope, you know.”
“No, I don’t know,” Steve lifted his head and contemplated the high-vaulted ceiling above us. “My...side effects...aren’t exactly something they covered in boot camp.”
“You’ll figure it out,” I tried to encourage him as best I could and in the process, lost track of what exactly I was saying. “You’re not the only one to face this quandary.”
“What?” he suddenly turned and looked at me; I froze, as I finally realized what exactly I had let slip. “Who? There’s others like me? How?”
His questions were rapid fire and I had to lift a hand in feeble surrender in order to staunch the flow. I also had to do some quick thinking - that was not something I ever meant to let slip.
“Pastoral confidence,” I protested and it was only half a lie; I knew many things that I wouldn’t have known without having taken my oaths.
Steve didn’t know that those oaths of silent confidence were not the ones involved in my actual ordination or in my pastoral training. He also didn’t need to know about the unspoken oaths I had vowed, to protect the identities of others I had come to know long before taking up the minister’s mantle or my warrior’s stole.
“I can tell you, though,” I added, when I saw suspicion creep into his narrowed eyes. “That you’re not the only person I’ve come across with regenerative powers.”
I thought of Victor, who had hunted me down and of Logan, who had saved me. I thought of Fury, who also never seemed to age, despite the fact that my organization had records of him from WWII.
“And how do they cope?” Steve’s brows knit together in frustration, although something like wonder light up his face for just a moment or two.
I was surprised by how easily he capitulated to my rather weak defense of “pastoral confidence.’ I supposed it was his Roman Catholic upbringing; doubtless, he had sat in the Confessional more than once and the confidence of a priest in that context was taken as seriously (and as for granted) as the Hippocratic Oath.
“With anger and violence, mostly,” I admitted wryly, before meeting his eyes across the narrow width of the narthex. “But, I think you’re better than that.”
The skin high in Steve’s cheeks flushed as he took in my words and also as he seemed to realize that we were now looking at one another. He dropped his gaze almost shyly, knelt hastily, and started fiddling with the tools and drop cloth he had on the floor next to him.
“I think I’m a little archaic to be of much use nowadays,” he admitted softly after several minutes of concentrated silence.
“Maybe instead of forcing yourself to get to the world’s level, you should try and make the world meet you at your level,” I leaned forward in my seat, intent on the conversation and Steve’s reactions to it.
“What do you mean?” he frowned at the drop cloth as he began to fold it up.
“I mean, it’s not a bad thing that you’re a little ‘archaic’,” I gently urged him to take my words seriously. “This world just gets crazier every day. Sure, for your own sanity, you might want to adapt to modern life. But, that doesn’t mean you have to change who you are - it doesn’t mean you have to stop being chivalrous, it doesn’t mean you have to stop being kind, it doesn’t mean you have to stop having hope, it doesn’t mean you have to stop pursuing the simple things in life.
“We’re so connected technologically, most of our younger generations are beginning to grow up without basic social graces. Men and women are constantly at war with one another for dominance and equality. We’ve all but forgotten the horrors of world war and holocaust. We barely know how to set aside our differences to unite behind a common cause,” I silently willed him to look at me - I needed to know he heard me. “We could use your example, your perspective.”
“And you think I can fit into the modern world and not change?” he did look at me and his gaze was piercing.
“No, I think that you can fit into the modern world and still be true to the values that defined that scrawny boy from Brooklyn,” I corrected him, my voice barely above a whisper; the air was strangely charged between us and I was suddenly very aware of the steady beat of his heart and the strong flow of blood beneath his skin.
I was connecting to him, as I did with anyone in whom I believed. I wondered if he could feel what I could feel, if he too, felt the force of my conviction. His expression didn’t change, but the lines between his eyes tightened just slightly, as if he was concentrating on some inexplicable part of me that couldn’t be seen.
“You can stay true to who you are and still keep yourself open to new ways of thinking, new possibilities,” I hoped he heard the genuine earnestness in my voice.
I had once had to learn to do the same. After being shunned by my family, after being pressured to join a cause I didn’t believe in, after paying the price for resistance, after having my total sense of self deconstructed...after all of that, I had learned to put myself back together again. I had learned who I really was, underneath all of the bullshit of my past. I had learned to accept my fate, accept my powers. And from that, a Priest had been born.
I could of course, say none of that to Steve. But, I willed him to understand that there was more to my words than I was telling him. That my words, my beliefs, were backed up by hard realities.
I couldn’t tell if he heard between the lines or not.
“I don’t know how to do that,” I could tell he wanted to look away, but he kept his gaze steady, only glancing away, just as he started to speak.
“I think you’ll figure it out,” I offered him what I hoped was an encouraging smile.
He remained stoic, almost uncomfortable in his intensity. Finally, he broke eye contact with me and gathered up his tools.
“I’m not used to speaking to people like this, you know,” he spoke as if it cost him dearly to put his thoughts into words.
“I can tell,” I stood up with him and we considered each other somberly from across the narrow room. “What made you talk?”
“Desperation,” he admitted awkwardly to his feet, unable to look at me in the moment of his confession.
I knew we had only scratched the surface, but some of Steve’s pent up frustration had vented. He seemed a little calmer; earlier and in the days before, he seemed wound up tight, a sure sign that there was a lot on his mind. He still stood with his shoulders tensed defensively, but he seemed to breathe a little easier.
“And the collar helps,” he added and glanced over at me as if to see if I would take offense that.
I didn’t, but I was a little surprised.
“The one person who ever knew the most about me - besides my best friend, that is - used to call this church his home,” Steve continued, as if to clarify the source of his trust. “I would have lived on the streets, if it hadn’t been for him.”
He blinked, clearly surprised that I would know his former priest’s name.
“Yeah. He was a good man.”
We left the conversation there and Steve continued to come back to St. Francis like clockwork, every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoon. He didn’t open up to me again, but in the moments when I would come across him sitting in the nave, staring contemplatively toward the altar, I knew he was turning our conversation over in his mind. And, meanwhile, my Order - who kept a close eye on the personal lives of all its members - had sent me a missive, a single note -
“S.H.I.E.L.D is watching.”
I did not, however, expect S.H.I.E.L.D to come calling three days later.
+ + +
“It’s been a long time, Elinor.”
I bolted instantaneously from the chair behind my desk and practically propelled myself toward the old, faded book I kept on the other side of my printer, tucked discreetly beneath a Book of Common Prayer. Only until I had that comforting leather tome in my hand, did I look up toward my unexpected and equally unwelcome guest.
Nick Fury hovered on the threshold, like a looming bird of prey. It took every ounce of self control that I possessed, to keep from using my power and forcing his body out of the doorway and into the dark hallway beyond.
I was usually home at such an hour, but I had lingered behind to answer some emails and finish up some business. The church doors were locked and until now, there had been no one else on the premise except for myself. My little lamp desk was the only light to be seen in the whole building and I felt the sudden urge to turn on every single light and search every single corner.
Fury, in my experience, didn’t usually come unaccompanied.
“What do you want?” I cut straight through the niceties; I didn’t figure Fury would mind.
“I’ve come to offer you another job with S.H.I.E.L.D,” he stepped into the wan light and I practically growled at his insolence.
“Get lost. I told you ‘no’ once and I still mean it,” I gripped my book harder.
Fury’s one good eye fell on the ancient bound leather and paper in my hand and his expression tightened, however slightly. We stood and considered each other for a moment and I debated silently whether or not to forcibly remove him from the property.
“Even if it was a non-combative position?” he met my gaze and raised an eyebrow.
“Not even,” I stuck out my chin stubbornly.
“I’m impressed with the effect you’ve had on Rogers,” Fury suddenly changed the topic - or seemed to, anyway.
Fury had a bad habit of manipulating conversations to go his way.
“And what effect is that?” I demanded warily, curious in spite of myself.
“He seems to have accepted his place in the world, in S.H.I.E.L.D,” Fury’s shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, as if he was actually pleased to recount the changes he had observed in the First Avenger. “At the very least, he’s reading everything he can get his hands on and taking an active interest in things he doesn’t understand. I guess you could say he’s showing a willingness to learn,” Fury paused and his mouth twitched as if he was fighting a smile. “He’s not picking fights with Stark, which is also an improvement.”
“Is Stark behaving?” I knew enough of Iron Man’s reputation to hazard that getting along with a man who was his polar opposite would not be his strong suit.
“Not really,” Fury shrugged, his demeanor almost bemused. “But, that’s to be expected. Stark doesn’t play well with others.”
“It’s because he wants to be the leader,” I couldn’t stop myself from voicing my private psychoanalyzation of the dynamic that news cameras had captured during the Battle of New York and afterwards. “But that’s never going to happen.”
“No?” Fury titled his head, interested.
“No,” I gathered my book to my chest and crossed my hands protectively over its flaking cover.
“And why’s that?”
I was sure Fury knew the answer, but for some reason, he wanted me to say it.
“Because Steve is the leader. He’s supposed to be the leader. It’s that singular quality that makes him Captain America. You wouldn’t have him in the Avengers for any other reason - he’s what brings everyone together.”
“Astute, as always,” Fury folded his arms across his chest, in mimic of my own, and rocked back on his heels. “We could really use that keen insight -”
“Forget it,” I cut him off before he could build steam behind his argument.
“Not so fast, Elinor,” Fury always insisted on using my full name and it made me grind my teeth in frustration; I hated being called “Elinor”. “What you done to Rogers is remarkable. I would be interested in offering you a position with the Avengers as,” his dark eye fell thoughtfully toward the collar around my throat. “A chaplain of sorts.”
“A...chaplain?” I repeated stupidly; whatever I had expected him to say, this was not it.
“There’s a lot of...baggage…among the Avengers,” Fury picked his words carefully, his tone wry. “Baggage that keeps them from working together to the best of their potential. I was hoping maybe you could help.”
“Manipulate them?” my eyes narrowed.
“Heal them,” for once, Fury seemed absolutely genuine in his desire for an altruistic goal.
I wanted so much to believe in Fury’s goodness - or at least, in his good intentions. And the offer was actually appealing - but I knew that it came with a price. I didn’t know what that price was, but I had no desire in paying it.
“Don’t you have psychologists? Psychiatrists? Therapists? You’re the director of S.H.I.E.L.D - surely you can hire anyone you want,” I refused to buy into his plea.
“I want you,” Fury insisted and I could tell he was getting frustrated, by the way he clipped his words.
“Because of my powers?” I thought I finally saw his end game and my voice was bitter.
Fury’s silence confirmed my suspicions. I could feel my anger begin to rise.
“You have always misunderstood my abilities, Fury,” I practically hissed at him and I could feel my carefully constructed control begin to strain. “I can heal physical wounds - knit up bones, stop blood, cure diseases. But I can’t and never will be able to heal a person’s mind.
“No,” I thought I finally saw his ruse and I straightened my back in righteous indignation. “This is all a lure, to get me on the team, get me working for S.H.I.E.L.D. Then you’d devise some scenario, get me caught up in some sort of trap, so I am forced to use my powers. So you can use my powers.”
“I have told you a thousand times before, S.H.I.E.L.D is nothing like the Brotherhood. I have no desire to use your abilities to hurt -”
“You are a thousand times worse than the Brotherhood!” I lashed out, my temper finally getting the better of me. “At least the Brotherhood were honest, at least their intentions were clear from the beginning. You?” I practically spit the word in Fury’s direction. “You’re all cloaks and daggers, Fury, and I don’t think you fight for any side but your own.”
“Oh, really?” Fury let his hands fall to his side and I watched his body went strangely limp; I knew the sign of a true fighter preparing for a strike and I gripped my book that much tighter to my chest. “And the men you work for, Priest,” it was his turn to hiss at me. “They’re not in it for their own agenda either, is that it? I would like to remind you that it was S.H.I.E.L.D’s Avenger’s agenda that saved the world, while your masters stood to the side and did nothing.”
I felt my blood freeze. How could Fury possibly know who I was, who I had become.
“Thought I wouldn’t figure it out?” he interpreted my shocked silence correctly and the arrogance returned to his dark face. “It’s S.H.I.E.L.D’s job to keep its allies close and its enemies closer.”
“We’re not your enemy,” I saw no reason to deny what he was saying - we both knew that somehow, impossibly, Fury knew the truth.
“But you’re not our ally, either,” the director was quick to point out; his eye narrowed again. “And in case you’re curious, I traced you back from your Priest persona. When you know what to look for, you’re really quite obvious, Elinor. ‘Blood magic’ - as your people call it - is a rare mutation. I just looked for a do-gooder who healed cuts and bleeding wounds without any reasonable explanation, and worked my way back from there. Although, I have to say,” he waved a hand almost dismissively toward my somber clothes. “The actual priest gig is rather convincing.”
“It’s not an act,” I corrected his assumptions through clenched teeth.
“I believe you,” Fury said after a slight pause. “Like I said, I’m impressed by the impression you’ve left on Rogers. You could be a great asset.”
“All I’ve ever wanted, was to be left alone,” I hoped my words didn’t sound as pathetic to him as they did to my own ears. “I want to live my life my own way. Who I ally myself with is my own choice; what I do with my powers is my own choice; who I help is my own choice. Now, leave.”
“I’ll leave you my card,” Fury pulled a slim, black card out of some secret pocket and stepped forward just far enough to lay it on the edge of my desk. “Just in case you change your mind.”
“Get lost,” I resisted the urge to far more colorful language - I had always solemnly sworn to myself not to swear like a sailor on holy ground.
“Be careful out there, Elinor,” Fury turned to go, but hesitated just as he reached the door.
He glanced over his shoulder at me, his dark eye hooded and mysterious.“Your people want me to keep my nose out of it, but there something strange bumping around in the night lately,” without another word of helpful explanation, Fury slipped into the shadows with a faint rustle of cloth and a lingering admonition - “Watch your back.”