NOTE: The first two chapters of this fic are mostly character studies, so if you want some action, skip to chapter three. They're unrelated one-shots; you won't miss anything. :) Now, on with the show.
Cold. It is utter and absolute. It haunts his dreams, ghosting across his mind in the almost quiet moments. Ice stitches together his nightmares. The Captain closes his eyes-
-and inky water rushes in, swirling darkly, drowning the light of a sun that set seventy years ago, leaving the winter hills in deep darkness. And it is so cold. Frozen, he is still slipping down, down into the fathomless abyss. There is light, yes, but only for a moment - the warm, sorrowfully golden sun, shining bravely against the earth's curve... draining away in the few seconds before the Valkyrie drowns completely. And he is trapped beneath the apathetic metal, watching helplessly, and trying to capture some of that light against the Tesseract's frigid glow. And the dark oblivion that must come after. Light, golden light, burning, shining, setting the ice on fire, and almost, in a moment, warming his face. But then it is gone, and he is falling, falling-
Seventy years ago.
His eyes fly open. And closes them again, because the strange new world is even worse, sometimes, than the ice. He may be part of a team now, part of the Avengers, but sometimes, in this moment, he cannot be anything other than alone - a man out of time.
-down into the endlessness. The blue light surrounds him, negates the sun, as icy water fills the hull. He should be dead, but as it closes gently over him, blue filters through his eyelids. Then darkness bleeds around the edges, and he cannot breathe, and - and-
He still remembers every second of their last conversation and the scratching static between words. He remembers promising not to step on her toes, wonders if she would have cared. He wonders if she was crying then. Her voice sounded like it, but then dead winter rushed up to meet him, and he couldn't hear. Not anymore. The tears that trace softly down his face, as if in answer, are as cold as the ice. Ice for an endless winter.
And it is winter now, and Steve thinks he can hear every snowflake falling and dancing around Stark Tower. Of course he cannot, for even his enhanced hearing has its limits, but the sound is still there, ghosting across the silence. And he cannot sleep. For sleep is dreams, and dreams are ice, and ice is death.
So he sits, curled into a ball, on a couch in Stark Tower, trying to keep the cold at bay. He tries to sleep, most nights, he really does, but there is always a shadow that stains his dreams. Sometimes it wins. Like tonight. And tonight, not even the destroyed punching bags will shatter it. It is ice, and fire and blood and pain and death. Steve thinks it will never go away. Ice and fear, guilt and falling ashes, singing a harsh song in his mind. It is worse now, after the Chitauri almost destroyed New York, worse than when he first woke up. That fight dredged up memories that Steve would much rather left resting quietly in their graves, locked forever in the back of his mind. But the images well up now, like blood from a deep wound. He remembers, now, the exact way that the Red Skull died, lost and broken in the darkness between stars. He remembers, perfectly, the look on Bucky's face when he fell, when winter shadows claimed his friend.
It is always winter, always ice, always the Tessaract's glow, cold and fathomless beneath deep water-
And he is falling...
All the shadows dissolve, and the white endlessness of snow swirls around him. He is standing beneath tall trees, all bare and empty. Hollow.
His shield lies in the white before him, hues oddly vivid in a world without color. Safe.
He reaches for it, but even as his fingers graze the icy metal, the ice takes him.
Dead winter reigns, hollow and absolute.
And he is
-And Tony is standing next to him, looking down with a mixture of confusion and concern written all over his face.
Steve realizes that his own face is soaked in tears. He's shivering.
"Yeah..." I think...
Tony flopped down beside him, and the couch shudders just a bit. A small part of Steve's mind wonders why Tony is up in the middle of the night, but he doesn't ask. They all have their demons. Steve's just happens to be colder than most. And stranger, he thinks. But he wouldn't know. Stark's hand is on his shoulder, and Steve is vaguely surprised that he should care.
But he doesn't mind, really. A quietness falls between them, and it is not unpleasant. Tony doesn't ask, and Steve says nothing, because no words are needed. Both of them know the meaning of nightmare, and the silence that stretches afterward, filled with frantic thoughts, but so alone. It is, perhaps, the unspoken agreement of the haunted. But Tony's hand is warm on his shoulder, and that is enough.
Winter's crown is breaking. The ice melts.