Author's Note: Even though this fic's pseudo-working title was "Identity Crisis 101," it got really dark really quickly. Since I usually stick to fluffy angst, this is probably the darkest thing I've written in a while.
Credit where credit is due: the fic's title was inspired by City and Colour's "Sorrowing Man."
(This story can also be found on Archive of Our Own.)
of a barren sea.
After Loki, there are others. Thor had said, way back in the beginning, that the Earth had sent the universe a message that it was now prepared for a "higher form of war," and he hadn't been wrong. But after half a year, with a respectable twenty-three alien defeats under the Avengers' belt, the threat level gradually lessens. Soon, the team takes calls from Fury once every three weeks instead of every two, and each victory is won in record time.
Subsequently, they each begin to get more downtime, and things start to change.
Steve's in the TV room of Stark Towers, channel surfing, a stick of mozzarella cheese held between his lips like a cigar, when a grainy photo of a group of soldiers flashes onto the screen before being replaced by a commercial for some kind of juicer. Curious, Steve returns to the previous channel, and suddenly a deep voiceover is booming through the stereo system: "Unfortunately, the men's squadron never made it back to base," and the grainy photograph fades into black.
Steve's throat is constricting, and he can't breathe.
"Luckily for the rest of their company," the man continues off-screen as the shot lightens to a sepia still of an entire battalion, "Truman made the call the very next day, and the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima."
Steve can't breathe, and suddenly there are black and white photos of destruction that he's never seen before, and Steve Rogers can't breathe.
The TV goes black, and Tony is suddenly standing in front of him, looking both worried and amused. "You okay, Cap?"
"…Tell me about the end of the war, Tony." He hadn't meant to say it; that is the opposite of what he wants. Steve wants to forget; he's always said that he wants to forget about his life before the crash, but now that he's asked, he finds that he can't take it back. He needs to know.
Tony pauses, before: "Okay, um, which one?"
Steve knows Tony's stalling, and he glares up from the couch to tell him so, but Tony is shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, and it occurs to Steve that right, he's missed the end of more than one war.
"The war against the crazy guy named Hitler," Steve deadpans, looking back down at his hands. Tony chuckles quickly, and Steve realizes that Tony Stark is nervous.
"Well," Tony says, all business, "Hitler shot himself in the head with a gun, and all hell broke loose after that." His arms are crossed, his gaze somewhere to the left of Steve's head. "It was a pretty screwed up situation, Cap, not gonna lie. The Nazis were doing some insane shit over in Germany, and apparently everyone was just tired of fighting—" Tony glances at the black TV screen. "So the US decided to drop an atomic bomb on a city in Japan, and then three days later, we dropped another one." Tony's talking quickly now; Steve's fists ball in his lap. "And Japan surrendered soon after that. We even let 'em keep their emperor, and now we're official allies and we trade with each other and everything."
Steve's eyes slip closed, and he suddenly feels exhausted.
"So, um, that's World War Two in a nutshell for ya'."
Steve sighs, keeping his eyelids shut. "Thanks, Tony," he says, sounding more weary than he means to.
Pause. Then, "Anytime, Cap," and Tony's gone.
The next day, Steve asks JARVIS to explain the atomic bomb. At first, JARVIS pulls up a lot of technical stuff that Steve doesn't understand. Then, there are the descriptions of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Steve feels sick to his stomach.
But nothing compares to the pictures.
Steve hasn't thrown up since before the crash, and afterwards, even the toothpaste can't wash the bitter taste away. Skin peels off of children's bones; abandoned corpses lie in the streets— all of them had been innocent people whose only crime was being born in another country, and Steve feels like punching something.
He contents himself with wiping his hands on the bathroom towel a bit more viciously than usual.
Later, Steve reads about Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb—it was something about saving American lives by ending the war quickly—but it all sounds like callous cowardice to Steve. It's one thing to send seasoned troops into battle when they know what they've signed up for; it's another thing entirely to condemn two innocent cities to death, when they had done nothing wrong but live.
A few nights later, Steve pulls out the file S.H.I.E.L.D had given him the week he'd woken up. "The most important stuff you missed," Coulson had said in explanation. Steve remembers thinking that the file should have been fatter. At the time, he'd only skimmed the file's contents, because he'd never been one to focus on the past. But now he sits in his bedroom, his back against the wall, and he starts to read.
Each article is short, succinct, efficient. There's a concise summary of all the presidents Steve has missed, and he's briefly, unbearably sad when he reads of President Roosevelt's passing. The file mentions something called Hippies and a band called the Beatles and a singer with an odd name (Elvis Presley).
And then there are the Wars.
The Korean War: 1.5 million dead.
The Vietnam War: 3 million dead.
The Gulf War: 20 thousand dead.
September 11, 2001: 3 thousand dead.
The War on Terror: 2.4 million dead, but the number lacks consensus.
There were more wars than this, a small textbox says on a later page, but these were the important ones, and Steve can't fathom 1 thousand dead people, let alone 2.4 million, and all he can think is, Every war is important, and he's crying. Every war must be important.
He knows he shouldn't have expected World Peace, but with each new innovation he'd seen, he had hoped. And Steve's hope for humanity, curled in the pit of his stomach, shrinks in on itself and cries too.
"Sir, return her purse. I won't ask you again." Hands on his hips, a mugger backed against the wall, Steve's in his civvies, and this is what his life has become. The guy's terrified, Steve can see it in his eyes, but he's stubborn.
"She don't need it," he responds gruffly, and Steve realizes the guy's age; he's young. Too young. "She don't need it, and I do."
Steve sighs. "Sir, hand the purse over. You've nowhere to run."
Silence. The guy deflates. "Here," he says, sullen, and hands the bag to Steve. "I just needed a few bills, man. Not for drugs or nothin'—my mom, she's—"
Tony sticks his head into the alleyway from around the corner and cuts the guy off. "Let me guess. Sick? Cancer? Aids? A rare heart condition that can only be soothed by the sweet sound of two big bills rubbing together?" Tony smiles wryly. "I'm sure she'll be fine." Steve glances at the stranger standing with his back against the wall, and he wonders. "The police'll be here in five," Tony says to Steve.
"Okay," he says.
Steve had stopped reading the newspaper long ago, but Tony reads the headlines aloud every morning over breakfast.
…Well. He summarizes the ones he considers 'interesting,' anyway.
"The Pope's gone and molested some kid," Tony says conversationally over the top of his coffee mug. "Oh, no, wait, it was just some bishop guy. Never mind."
"School shooting in Queens," he says, a few minutes later. "Some idiot kid brought the family gun in for show-and-tell, and the next thing he knew, someone had stolen it and taken out a whole P.E. class."
"…Oh, and that rapist's out on bail," Tony yawns. "You know—the one caught hiding all those mental patients in his basement? His lawyer apparently pulled some bullshit about a mistrial, and now they have to start all over or something." Natasha says, "I don't think that's how the American court system works," but Tony just waves his hands and doesn't look up from the tablet. "Whatever, you know I don't pay attention to all that legal shit," Tony says, and Steve just stares at his eggs.
"Bomb scare—" Tony later begins, but Steve can't stand the headlines anymore, so he pushes his plate away and starts to leave. "—Cap? Hey, Cap, you okay—?" But Steve's already gone.
Steve starts spending a lot more time in the weight room.
The days start blurring together.
"Hey Cap," he says, he always says 'Cap,' and one day, Steve finds himself wondering if he'll only ever be worth anything as Captain America, because even Natasha calls him 'Captain' now, and he wonders if he'll ever just be 'Steve' again.
He searches 'America' in the dictionary, and is directed to 'United States of America,' then 'United States,' and all he finds is a brief synopsis of the country's founding and a few maps with and without Hawaii.
Then Steve ventures onto the Internet, and Google directs him everywhere. It's a lot to read, but he reads it all.
America has the greatest income inequality among developed nations—and Steve wants to ask what the exact definition of a 'developed' nation is and who decides which countries fit the bill.
The United States is ranked the fourth highest country in the United Nation's Human Development Index, but drops eight places after the index is adjusted for inequality.
The US accounts for 36% of worldwide greenhouse emissions.
"The United States has the world's highest rape rate of the countries that publish such statistics."
Hours later, dazed, he looks up 'captain' in the dictionary. 'The person in command of a ship,' Webster says, but Steve wonders if there's a word for a captain's resignation besides abandonment.
One day, Tony pokes his head into the weight room. "Hey Cap," he starts to say, but Steve can't take it anymore, he can't, he can't, so he whirls around to face Tony, his fists balling at his side.
"Don't call me Cap," he bites, and Tony takes a step back.
"Yeah, sure, okay." Tony shrugs it off like it doesn't matter, but Steve knows that it does. "Anyway, Thor's decided he wants to try real bowling instead of just Wii Bowling, so we've all decided to brave the paps and take him out for a night on the town. You're game, right, because I bet Romanoff twenty bucks that you'd come, and you know how much I hate losing money to women in leather, so you should definitely, totally come—"
"No thanks," Steve says quickly, as politely as he can, and turns back to the punching bag.
"You sure?" Tony asks, taking a few cautious steps forward. "I mean, if it helps, I can practically guarantee you second place. Not first, unfortunately, because your biggest competition is an actual god, but I'd be willing to concede my rightful spot as second place if you would just cheer up for one goddamn night—"
"Have fun, Tony," Steve interrupts, taking a particularly vicious swing at the battered punching bag.
Then: "Yeah, fine, whatever, Capsicle, brood mysteriously however the fuck long you want, see if anyone cares," and the door slams behind him.
They shouldn't have left him alone in an empty house filled with lethal weapons.
There's an old revolver sitting right in front of Steve when the door to the study bursts open. Out of every possible option, Steve had wanted something traditional—for nostalgia's sake, to protect his traditional reputation, most likely. He'd even gone for a gun with the words 'made in America' on the butt, because isn't that the most goddamn American thing to do.
"Holy shit," Tony breathes from the doorway, and then he's by Steve's side. "Steve, Steve, Steve what the hell—JARVIS pinged me on my—never mind, it doesn't matter, it's fine, but are you fine, tell me you're fine, you're fine, right? You're fine?"
Pause. Then: "Yeah, Tony, I'm fine." A guarded smile. A shrug. "I was just thinking. You don't need to—"
"Holy shit," Tony says, and his voice sounds tight, but Steve doesn't look up from his hands, folded in his lap. "Holy shit, man, don't you fucking ever do that again, Steve, okay, never do that again," and suddenly Tony pulls Steve's head towards him and there are hands on his back and arms around his shoulders.
"Look, if you ever— I've been there, and you can't— don't—" Tony sounds like he's struggling to breathe, and Steve can't remember the last time he heard Tony trip over his words like this. "Just." Tony pulls back, holding Steve at arms length. "Find me, next time," he says weakly, "and we'll have a beer and talk it through, that's an infinitely better plan, okay?"
Steve doesn't look Tony in the eye, but he nods, and Tony exhales shakily.
"Fuck, those were the scariest seven minutes of my life," Tony finally says, and Steve shuts his eyes, wondering if Captain America had been the one to stay his trigger finger, or if it had been Tony.