The title is taken from Paul Fussel's The Book of Modern War, in which Good Housekeeping is quoted on the topic of PTSD, or, what it was at the time, "shell shock."
"After two or three weeks, he should be finished with talking, with oppressive remembering. If he still goes over the same stories, reveals the same emotions, you had best consult a psychiatrist. This condition is neurotic."
While it's hard to condemn our ancestors for a lack of information, I thought the phrasing itself was very sad and very harsh and just begged to be turned into a title.
Trigger Warnings include: suicide ideation, depression, and PTSD.
This is not one of my happy stories. Story below, author's notes and some heads up underneath that.
part 1: absolute zero
When he first wakes up, Steve tells the bland man with glasses and neutral eyes that he doesn't remember being in the ice. He says that he remembers the plane going down, but he must have hit his head and slipped into unconsciousness for the next seventy years. He says he never felt the water rushing down his lungs, stealing all the air and choking him to death. He doesn't use those words because he knows exactly what that man will write down on the notepad if he does.
He didn't trust them very much then. He doesn't now, not at all. They had just tried to fool him into believing he was still in his own decade.
That betrayal still aches in his heart. It is tattooed on the forefront of his mind and following Nick Fury like a shadow every time he enters the same room as Steve.
Steve cannot comprehend how fooling him into thinking that everything turned out okay was a good idea. How for three blissful seconds he thought Peggy was going to walk through the door and tell him that they won the war. How he thought Peggy would hold out her hand and tell him that it was time to go home. He doesn't understand why they built a room centered around his only hope and then ripped it out from underneath his feet. Steve knows he will never get over that, at least not for a while. It was thoughtlessly cruel, and he isn't a traumatized child who needs to be eased into a new pair of shoes.
So he's not going to tell the therapist that he remembers all of it: the drowning, the pain, the freezing cold water peeling off his skin. Because he doesn't trust them, and he knows what psychiatrists do to people.
He isn't weak.
But he does remember what happened.
There is not a second between losing the connection with Peggy and finally passing out that isn't carefully etched into his brain. There is not a moment lost to delirium, panic, or unadulterated terror.
Steve remembers every single second.
He isn't going to go into detail about it. He isn't going to tell anyone anything.
Once a week, on Monday at ten in the morning, he walks into a room with muted brown walls and quiet music and looks into the bland man's eyes and saysno, he wouldn't like to talk about anything today. ("What are you feeling right now, Steve?" says the therapist. He looks drained of color. He looks like he doesn't exist. He looks like Steve. He looks like Steve when he looks at himself in the mirror. "Not much, sir," Steve whispers. Nothing nothing nothing nothing is what he wants to scream. He wants to explode into a spray of red blood while he screams nothing.)
He hates that building and that insignia and the way they do things, but he doesn't have many options so he stays. They own his apartment, shield, uniform, provide food and water, and supply a steady stream of punching bags so he doesn't lie down on a bomb and let it go off without vibranium covering it.
It's not that he wants to do something like…that.
He just feels like it sometimes, that he should swallow an IED like he swallows everything else and let it explode because that's exactly what he wants. Steve is on a constant inhale that gathers until they reach another breaking point and he breathes in the fire and chaos and death because he's so angry and he doesn't know why. ("What are you punching, Steve? When you hit things, what are you trying to break?" says the therapist, adjusting his tie that is so cinched it looks like he shouldn't be able to breathe, like he'll suffocate right there, in front of Steve. "Nothing," Steve whispers, because there is nothing to tell this man, nothing he should know in his stuffy tie and blank expression and Steve's rage is endless and burning.)
Words can't wrap themselves around what happened when the plane crashed, just like they can't define Bucky's expression when he slipped from Steve's grasp, or the break in Peggy's voice when she promised to teach him how to dance. Putting empty syllables and monochrome adjectives around his situation won't make anything feel better. The psychiatrist is all about feeling better. He needs to talk about what happened. He needs to explain why he can't even put ice cubes in his drinks anymore.
His fear—abstract and nameless, terrifying—is ridiculous, and he's ashamed of it. To be afraid of a temperature, of water, something that he needs to survive is crazy. He knows it is. He knows that in his own time he'd be looked down on, thought insane, put away. The burning embarrassment that covers his face when Iron Man has to physically drag him from the ocean because he's too frantic to do anything but flail is exactly what cannot happen.
Captain America is already the weakest link on the Avengers. Steve can't afford another pitfall. Steve can't afford to lose them. Even though he still argues with Stark, and Clint hasn't said more than a words to him; disregarding the fact that Natasha bristles whenever he slips and calls her ma'am, and Bruce looks pained and wistful whenever he looks at him; and Thor actually seeks him out and he's not sure why…
They talk to him.
And that is all he wants. They look at him like he exists, like he's more than a black and white photo cut out from a newspaper and pushed and crumpled into the bright neon lights of the new century. This team matters so much more to him than he does to them, but that's okay, really, because even though they're not a family it's close enough.
It's close enough.
So Steve can't leave the Avengers because anything derivative at least looks like the real thing and if he just peeks at it from the corner of his eye than maybe he can fool himself into thinking that he has something to keep. If Steve doesn't look closely than he has a family.
SHIELD doesn't know about his problem with ice, and the Avengers don't know about his problem with water until HYDRA figures it out first.
The battle starts poorly enough. HYDRA decides that storming a residential neighborhood for absolutely no reason is a sound plan of attack (and it is, because they get Steve, they take him). They evacuate all of the citizens, dressed in their business clothes and scrambling to grab their touch screen phones because for some reason those are essential. November had come in a whirlwind of erratic temperatures and too much precipitation, and Steve is dreading the plane's touchdown from the beginning.
His boots splash in three inches of slush, and he immediately thinks of France. He thinks of thick mud and snow clinging to his uniform and men shouting in German and the smell of burning villages. He hears children screaming and heavy, marching footsteps. Steve can remember the fear shooting up his spine, terror bleeding across his back; the deep, shuddering breath when he realized that he was one bullet from dying and one finger-twitch from killing.
The past never stays long, becomes harder to cling to as the present rears up and demands his attention. The weather is miserable, wet, and windy. Sleet pounds the concrete at a slant and drenches Steve's face. The cold immediately sinks into his bones, laughs and cackles as it races around his bloodstream. He allows himself one shiver, one slip into weakness before pulling Captain America from his depths, dusting him off, and putting him on. The Cap looks around and assesses the situation.
Steve peers from the outskirts, stares endlessly at the near-frozen water crashing on the white-dotted beach, pulling the snow from the sand and churning it to ice, dragging it down, down, down, while it kicks and screams and begs and please, God, I don't want to die.
"Winter in Manhattan, always a joy," Tony grouses, landing with a clunk next to Steve. His repulsors emit a brief flare of heat that makes Steve's toes curl in delight, soaking it up before it drains away and he's cold again. "What's the plan, Cap?" Tony asks, and the Iron Man suit looks like it's made of fire, of still-burning coals that glow red. Steve bets it is warm on the inside.
A flare of wind that brings rain slanting into his face makes him jerk, and he thinks of the water rushing through the plane when it connected with the ocean, popping gaskets with a hiss, shattering the glass, and rushing into his mouth.
("Do you dislike winter, Steve?" asks the therapist, very calm and prim as always. He acts as though what he's asking isn't terribly personal, like it's not something Steve guards tight against his chest, like this couldn't ruin his career. Steve swallows, watching the leaves on the tree outside shrivel and die because it's too cold for them to survive. "No, sir. Winter's just fine," he says.)
He pulls back from his death and looks up because it's so rare that people refer to him using his first name. He wipes his eyes free from water and refocuses on the matter at hand. "Yes?"
Tony gives him an odd look and gestures to the chaos blooming ahead of them. "You, me, a plan. That's usually what happens."
Things become distorted from here on. Steve knows he gave Tony a plan. He knows he told Clint to go on a roof but he doesn't remember Natasha and she was there. Bruce wasn't there. He knows that. Thor wasn't either. Or was he?
Steve remembers getting pulled into the water.
He sees the wet, cold sand beneath his feet as he runs along the beach, racing towards something. He doesn't know what. But he remembers the feeling of thick arms wrapped around his waist, inhumanely large and metal. They are not Hulk's or Tony's. They try to crush him. They wrap around his ribs, usually so sturdy, squeeze all the air out of his lungs, and they plunge into the water.
The sky blinks before his eyes for one moment, gray and empty, and snow falls on the surface above. It falls so slowly, like the world stopped turning, the wind stopped fighting, but it's black. It's black with ash, and Steve thinks of France. He thinks of snow falling in France. He thinks of snow falling in France and wondering whether those ashes were from explosions or whether those ashes were the remains of those poor French civilians crying in front of their crumbled church.
Freezing cold water engulfs his head, and the light of the outside world fades away as Steve is dragged down, down, down.
Like the snow falling in France.
Steve wakes up sputtering. His throat goes raw and aches as he spits up water. Salt burns his vocal chords. He hacks long after his lungs are empty. He can never get the ocean completely out. It swishes around his stomach, nauseating and burning. His bottom lip cracks and splits, blood dripping down his chin.
There's something not right here.
Every muscle protests as he tries to stretch out, and he halts when his legs catch.
He's chained to the wall.
As he sits up, pushing with his arms, he realizes his wrists are also fettered. The metal circlets are heavy and silver, and for a long moment he stares blankly at the white frost covering the floor. His heart starts to thunder because he knows exactly what's going to be there when he looks up. The shelving has been ripped out and the door has been welded shut, but his surroundings are familiar.
They locked him in a freezer.
Steve allows himself one rueful burst of laughter, one admittance of how excellent this plan is. If he were the type to play passive-aggressive psychological torture, this would be the perfect way to do it. It's exactly what he cannot handle, and they know it, and the ice is cracking and breaking his skin, the cold shattering his bones.
He tugs experimentally on the chains, but he has almost no give. The most he can do is lie flat. When he has to start conserving heat, curling into a ball would work, but that would be a definite sign of defeat. They want him reduced to that, a quivering mess of a traumatized past.
Calm. Steve has to stay calm.
He starts with a physical check, and ignores, completely disregards the temperature. Ignores the shivering. Ignores the fog of his breath as he tries to control his breathing. His uniform top is missing, only a torn and damp undershirt left over. Pants, socks, and boots are all there. He's still damp from the ocean water. Under normal circumstances he'd strip and let them dry, but he's not in a warm enough climate for that. His left cheek feels unusually warm compared to the rest of him, and when he gently touches the pads of his fingers to his face, he traces the sensitive bruise up the bridge of his nose and into his hairline. They got a few punches in. His ribs are tender, but pulling up his shirt reveals a thick braid of abused skin wrapping around his chest, nothing broken.
So his body's intact. And that's all that matters these days.
("How do you feel about yourself, Steve?" says the therapist. The indiscernible music hums in the corner and the lights are still too dark, how he's supposed to see anything, and the psychiatrist—he has a name, Steve just doesn't want to remember it—is wearing that hideous tie again, the one that sits crookedly and uneven. Steve hates that tie. It's ridiculous and he hates it, and he wants to burn it. "Fine, I guess," he answers.)
It's truly, undeniably cold.
The frigid air freezes his damp clothes and stings his skin. He twitches hard, an aborted shiver of this is not the ice.
He has not just flown into the ocean and opened his eyes underwater and stared at the top of the plane while it sinks and he desperately tries to swim up but everything's blurry and he keeps choking and he's dying because this is not 1942. This is not 1942, and Steve Rogers isn't going to wake up to Peggy Carter holding his hand and telling him that the war is over and he can go home.
This is 2012 and Steve Rogers cannot put ice cubes in his drinks and he spends all of Christmas Eve in a church surrounded by people he doesn't know because alcohol can't keep him company anymore.
(How have you mourned, Steve?" says the therapist, like it's over, like it is this stage he's going through and he'll grow out of it. They used to say that about his asthma. They said it was all in his head when his mom used to sit in the bathroom while hot water steamed in the tub and she'd grip his hand and beg him please, keep breathing over and over again. Steve's throat closes, and his shoulders feel dead under the invisible weight he's holding, but he still finds enough to shrug.)
Steve feels like that now, how he used to with asthma, muscles constricting to the width of a pinhole, trying to suck air through a stirring straw, not getting nearly enough but still trying because he needs it.
His throat closes here.
In a freezer while he dies for the second time, and not in a claustrophobic room with bad lighting and ugly ties; suddenly he misses the psychiatrist and his simple questions just like he misses how the snow falls in France, and no one will remember how those poor French people screamed while their church burned to the ground if he isn't around to see it.
Steve takes a deep, sharp breath of cold air. He needs to stay calm. He can stay calm.
("Do you remember crashing the plane?" the therapist asks. He says it very softly, his voice full of warmth of compassion. Steve looks at him and wonders how much they pay him to sound like that. How much does it cost to get someone to dig through a war relic's dead past? He wonders what the qualifications for the therapist's employment were. We need you to act like you care, he pictures the recruiters saying. He hates them and they don't exist. Nameless faces in a slew of trained killers. Though who is he to judge, he's killed many people. So many people. Steve doesn't answer his question.)
The buried secret is that he does remember crashing the plane.
Steve can't even retell it.
He has the strained choke of tears in Peggy's voice carefully mapped in his head. He can follow the exact pitch, the cadence of the way she cried Steve one last time over the radio. Don't you dare be late. He can hear it perfectly right here. He listens to her plan their very first date, and thinks that maybe, if he's really lucky, he can go to that date sometime. He can see Peggy Carter in that red dress.
Then he looks down and the frozen ocean spans before him, rapidly coming closer as the plane flies down. Panic rises and blossoms in his lungs because he doesn't want to die. He can't die, not when Peggy's just asked him on a date, not when the war is changing tides, not when he's going to drown to death. Suddenly time both slows and speeds up. Gravity holds Steve in his seat, his hands frozen on the controls, and it takes every fiber of his being to not tilt the nose back up. For one second he knows he's going to do it. He's going to pull up the handle and he's going to live.
"You always care too much, Steven," his mother whispers as she presses the wet cloth to his bruised eye. He stares at the blonde hair falling into her tired, tired, face. Ma always looks so tired because of him. She looks like the world sits on her shoulders and it's all his fault, and his throat constricts for it. Hot tears blur his vision, and his scrapped up fingers reach forward and push the strand behind her ear. "I'm sorry," he croaks. She dabs the rag on his purpled skin and then taps his chin up. "Don't apologize." There's a pause as she looks down. "All this caring, it's going to hurt," she sighs heavily. Water gathers on her lashes and she kisses his forehead.
The handle depresses down.
Chaos erupts around Steve in the form of screaming wind, wailing monitors, and the ice rushing towards the window; and in that moment, the only thing he feels is Sarah Rogers lean forward and kiss his forehead.
("It must have taken an…incredible amount of courage to put that plane into the ocean, Steve," the therapist says slowly. He's been different lately. Steve wonders if he's changing tactics, attacking from the other side of the ring. The therapist keeps staring at him, directly in the eyes, and he doesn't even flinch. Most people bounce a look at him in awe, SHIELD agents barely get past his chin, even the Avengers don't make it for very long. The therapist shuffles his papers, and the crinkling tumbles around the room. There's no music anymore. "It must have been very hard," he finishes. This time, Steve nods.)
And with that breath of air—oxygen, one of his last—Steve digs deep into his memories and clings to the ghost of mother and wonders what dying's like.
He was wrong.
He knows that now, that death isn't warm and slow, one last exhale and then home.
There is no white light, and his dad isn't standing there in military dress bathed in gold and telling him, "I'm proud of you, son."
His beautiful mother isn't smiling with tears in his eyes and hugging him and he isn't smelling bread and powder on her shoulder.
Bucky isn't saying, "It wasn't your fault."
Because that one was Steve's fault.
He knows now that when the plane crashes, and Steve tries to breathe in air, he's going to open his eyes to the burn of saltwater and the only thing he's going to see is the top of the plane sink.
He panics and claws at the metal, feels his fingernails tear off under the relentless pressure. The pain doesn't register, a mere sting in the background compared the total and complete terror that has him flailing in the water. He twists and seizes, but the plane doesn't move and the light keeps fading.
When he inhales, water rushes into his lungs and he tries to gag it back up but only more comes and he knows that if he could hear anything he'd hear himself screaming.
So he turns his face to where the sky should be, but now it's only the ceiling of the plane, the darkness impenetrable and thick, and he begs.
Please, God, help me.
He doesn't get an answer.
A different sort of black settles over his brain, and Steve fervently wishes he's dying.
He wants to die.
And that's all he remembers.
Here and now he's locked inside a freezer and chained to the floor.
(Steve misses his appointment with the therapist that week because Russia is such a close call that Bruce doesn't feel safe enough to turn back for two days, Tony throws chairs at walls, Thor makes the air crackle, and Clint buries his face in Natasha's red hair, and Steve looks at their embrace and thinks that her hair is the color of an ember that's warm enough to hold in the palm of his hand. Steve stays in the sterile corner of the room and watches. He wakes in America in Medical, cold and formless, next to his perpetually empty chair that he has affectionately named Ed.
It stands for Everybody's Dead. In his defense, he was on morphine at the time.)
His heart expands in his chest, pushing against his bones and filling in the cracks between organs and starts to pound. It's heavy and fast and all over. His heart is the size of a piano lying on his lungs. A man plays the instrument and strikes the keys with increasing intensity, making sure he hits the black keys because people always forget the black keys. His shoulders jerk, and his head bobs as the song gets louder and louder, and it's like the man is playing Steve, hitting each one of his ribs so hard they crack and bleed, but he keeps playing. Steve saw him play the piano in London, peering around the banister in a smoky bar that was clogged with war while Bucky loomed over his shoulder.
Steve breathes that moment. The air had been humid. The warmth clung to his clothing.
Bucky had pulled on the back of his shirt, warm knuckles pressing against his skin and pulling him back into the chaos of the Howling Commandoes. His men drank away the skulls they watched splatter over their uniforms, and that's something they all pretended helped Steve, too.
It had been so warm in that bar. Arms pulled him into headlocks, fists bumped his arms, fingers ruffled his hair, laughter swam in his ears, and everything had been so warm and crowded. He practically spun in circles because every one of the guys had a dirty joke to tell him and a demand to get another round. He heard twenty different versions of his first name, and he didn't think it was possible to slur Steve, but they manage just fine. They sit in that bar for hours and not once does he hear word captain.
Steve blinks and stares at the frosted ceiling and discovers that his entire body is shaking, and when did it get so hard to breathe?
He sucks in air around the heavy—God, why is it always so heavy—weight on his chest, and it's not working. His throat shuts down completely, and the piano and Bucky's mischievous smile and Dugan's raspy laugh fade away, and he lets out a burst of laughter and half a sob.
He's not in a bar in France; he's in a freezer about to die, and every single person on the planet who gives a damn is dead.
So he laughs harder.
He laughs because every exhale produces an icy fog of air that curls above his mouth and disappears until he makes another one.
It starts to sound like he's choking, and that's the challenge of laughing and crying at the same time. Panic spreads its wings and takes flight in his chest, and the rational part of his brain races to produce another memory that will provide temporary heat.
He remembers the different type of burning fighting induced: the fever of battle, the thrill of adrenalin pulsing up and down his veins, the small, primal instinct that told him that some part of him thrived on almost dying. Patriotic defiance. The Japs blew up Pearl Harbor and now poor Angela Garrett down the hall was a widow and has to answer the question, "When's dad comin' home?" every day for six months before her little boy quits lying to himself.
("So they just…" he slides his fingers against the thick folder. "They just bombed two cities." He uses they, not we. Not him. The therapist nods. Steve blinks and sees the pictures again. "They bombed them." An atomic bomb. "They bombed civilians." The therapist keeps not saying anything, and Steve waits for the platitudes, an explanation, a what we did ended the war faster. It's silent. Steve swallows and an entire minutes passes. "I watched a man burn alive during the war." The therapist shifts and looks up. He stares at Steve's face. He's not wearing a tie today. "And?" he asks. Steve grimaces, eyeing the trash can in the corner. "It smelled." Bloods drains from his face, and a cold sweat breaks out on his forehead. The therapist points to the bin. "If you need to-."
Steve spends the rest of the hour on the floor throwing up until he just shakes and dry heaves.
The therapist crouches in front of him, and the hand on Steve's shoulder is so warm that it makes his skin crawl.
"What's your name?" Steve asks. His voice is wrecked.
The therapist's face creases. "Steve," he says. He sounds distressed and tired.
Steve stares at the black rim of the trash can. Something slides and cracks in his chest. "I don't know your name. I don't remember it. I don't know your name because I don't remember it."
"Aaron. Aaron Wells. Ste-"
"I don't want to talk anymore today.")
Steve's visions shifts back into place, like a tug of war between two people over shutters. The office gets sucked into the recesses of the ceiling. He breathes out. The cold is bone-deep and frigid. It's brutal and encompassing. Steel rattles on the frozen floor as all four of his limbs clench and twitch in an effort to stay alive. In the plane, he froze and felt the ice stick to his skin, harden and trap him into place and keep him there until everyone died, and stay with him even when he was pulled out of it. During the crash, everything hurt so badly that he asked to go to hell if it made the pain go away.
He would die to be warm again.
There was a heat wave in New York one year. Steve remembers laying on his floor, sweaty and languid from working all day. For once, he's not sick. His hair sticks to his forehead, and the door creaks open, and Bucky clunks in. He immediately strips off his shirt and falls on the floor next to Steve, and Steve can hear himself tell Bucky to back off, he's too dang hot, and the memory is so insignificant that it shouldn't even matter. They don't even move that night, and Steve wakes up to find his wrist numb and trapped under Bucky's shoulder and he's overheating, and this shouldn't even matter.
Steve hasn't been touched another human being in seventy years, so maybe that's why it matters.
He remembers the bubbling of warmth that burst in his chest whenever Peggy smiled at him. He remembers wondering what her lipstick tasted like. At the time, he thought it would be bitter. He lives long enough to discover that it's not.
Steve shivers again and finds that he can't remember what her lips tasted like.
He can remember the temperature of the air-conditioned plane he flew to Britain and the cutting breeze abusing his cheek as Peggy's lowered into the ground.
Just not her lips.
He goes crazy for a while.
He just loses it.
The high, wailing note his scream reaches lasts for long minutes. He just screams and screams and screams. He starts pulling and jerking on the chains so hard that his skin tears. Everything clouds over in a haze of cold and terror and fear and anger. Echoes of his anguish reverberate throughout the freezer. They bounce off the walls and assault his ears, so he seizes again. He screams and yells and the hot seep of blood falls down his arms, and it's so warm and Peggy's fingertips were warm when they landed on his neck, and her voice was aching and wet when she asked him out on his very first date, and he shivers hard and breaks something, and the seizure starts all over again.
Things shut down.
("I'm going to miss our next appointment," Steve says. The therapist runs his thumb across the notepad in his lap. He isn't wearing a tie this time.
"Why is that?" he asks. Steve swallows and watches the sleet drip-drop on the window.
The therapist blinks. Steve's chest burns, right where he's sure his heart is. Right in that spot. He worries that if he puts his hand over the afflicted area, the fragile skin will break apart and bleed all over the floor. His throat works up and down, and then again. A flare of desperate self-preservation spurs his vocal chords.
"Can I come here when I get back?
Dr. Wells's expression is a layered one; currently, faint surprise colors over outright borrowed devastation.
"I'll be here.")
(Steve's flight gets back at two in the morning, and Steve walks into Dr. Wells's office still in his suit and sits on the chair in front of the therapist and listens to his breaths rattle in his throat at a pace that sounds like he should crying. He's not.
Then he drives back to the shiny, remodeled Stark Tower and lays on his bed for the rest the night, unmoving in his damp suit. It's cold.)
(Steve isn't an idiot. He knows how fucking pathetic it is that the only person who calls him by his damn first name is his therapist.)
(This isn't about his first name, and Steve knows that.)
Some innate part of Steve has never learned to give up.
Not while he was spitting up blood in an alley, or pulling bullets out of his stomach in a ditch in France, not even after staring at the clock—11:53—as the last member of the Howling Commandoes finally laid down his gun and took a rest he'd earned a long time ago.
Steve's eyes flutter open.
What is left of his suit is frozen to his skin. Adrenalin gets him sitting up without registering the pain. It hits after. The fabric has dried while he was sleeping, and with his sudden movement, his skin rips. A full-body ripple of pain rolls from his toes to his head, and he shudders and endures it with his forehead pressed against the wall. He groans long and deep, but righteous instinct doesn't go down easily. He gathers himself for three seconds, and then lurches to the left, pulling on the chains with everything he has left. Splinters spike up his arm, and Steve knows that if he looks down his wrists will be shredded, so he doesn't.
He just pulls.
The metal creaks.
Metal doesn't do well in extreme temperatures, and the water that froze over the bolts hasn't fared any better. Then again, they didn't need to splurge on the restraints; Steve's probably locked in. He knows that he's locked in.
He can't freeze to death again. He can't. He can't do it.
Steve takes a deep breath, closes his fist, and strains against the chains. With his first yell, the right one breaks, and then the left one goes. Aftershocks of pain leave his body loose and dizzy, and he swoons and curls into the floor. His stomach clenches and rebels against him. Steve slams his lips together and swallows. Then he rolls to his back and pulls each of his feet free.
Triumph, ugly and veiled, dawns in the distance.
Steve coughs dryly and gets to his hands and knees. The outside world is six feet away. It's not his world anymore, but he can't leave it yet. He crawls.
He clamps his hand over one of the bars that sits across the door and hauls himself to his feet.
Steve's hands are blue, and they can't grip anything, but he smears his blood on the handle and starts pulling anyway. Every muscle from his waist up aches like nothing before it, but he refuses to be put down like a dog, and he had his time to panic. His muscles strain and burn, but the door cracks open a little, the ice lining the sides creaking like the old stairs in his apartment. New resolve sprints through the cold, sluggish blood pumping through his veins, and he screams and tugs again. He should have realized it then, at that moment, that something was wrong, because the door hisses.
Gaskets start popping.
Steve recognizes that sound.
Dread races up his spine and bleeds across his shoulders. He stumbles backwards. Several bolts pop free from the steel door and roll to a stop at his feet.
Water spurts through the outline of the door.
Steve gets it.
He understands why the chains were so loose and the door was so easy to break.
The freezer is underwater.
He keeps going backwards until he hits the wall. Salt water sinks into his boots. He can smell it. His ears pop. Knees hit the floor. He shivers.
Unadulterated horror throbs in his chest. He slides down the wall in the corner. The water is an inch deep already. The temperature plunges.
Steve stares at the water.
He stares for a long while before he screams into his knees.
His head sinks below the water, and he splutters and spits and starts swimming again. His arms and legs jerk out of rhythm, too frozen to operate normally.
Steve's in the plane.
Steve's in the freezer.
His head hits the ceiling.
There is no air left.
Steve opens his mouth, and the salt water rushes in.
He just wants to die. Jesus, why can't he just die? He wants it to end. It hurts and he seizes and nothing ever ends because he just won't die.
Please, God, kill me.
He's freezing. He's frozen.
He just wants to die.
Steve's eyes roll back in his head.
Everything goes black.
Steve has never been colder.
("Steve, how's your relationship with your teammates?" says the therapist. Steve clenches his hands together and rubs the hollow between his thumb and pointer finger. Steve shrugs. He's not sure how to answer his question. The therapist tries again. Dr. Wells is relentless, Steve has recently discovered. "Do you like them?" he asks. Steve nods slowly. He watches Dr. Wells tap his finger against the spine of the notepad. "Do they like you?" Steve shrugs again. Now, when Steve's tight-lipped, the therapist just waits.
"They call me Steve sometimes. Or, they all have. Once, at least," he finally says.
The world explodes in ice fire.
Water isn't red.
Nameless, shapeless, formless, empty.
He doesn't move.
Steve isn't in the ice. He is the ice. He's frozen. He's not there. He is there.
He can't move.
Steve's touched by something.
Steve's dead. He doesn't know what else this could be.
Steve shakes and twitches. He blinks. Blurred outlines hover above him. He hears a rattling noise and realizes that he's shaking whatever he's on.
If this is death, he doesn't like it very much.
His stomach clenches, and water gushes up his throat and spills from his mouth. He's rolled to his side. Something shifts and cracks, and a burning flare shoots up his lungs. A different type of salt spits out of his lips, and he can feel the blood just keep coming. People yell much louder then, and too many hands are on his body and he wants them off. He wants to be alone. He wants to die. They won't let him go, and he tries to hide and protect himself, but the cold is relentless and he can't.
"Too strong—can't—punctured—ribs—we have to get—Captain, can you—."
No no no no no no no no.
More hands touch him, and this wasn't what he wanted when he asked to die.
"Steve, buddy, it's Tony, okay. We got you. We got you out. I swear to God, you're out. Now all these damn agents are going to back off, and Bruce is gonna take of you, all right? You're out, Steve. I promise."
Air leaves his lungs in a whoosh, and Steve relaxes and allows someone to roll him to his back. Scattered colors that Steve thinks could be dark brown eyes swim above him, but this only registers once before someone cuts his consciousness like a string.
He's not sure which memories are real because the bone-shattering chill that overcomes him is all he thinks about. It's all he knows and all he breathes and all he is.
Flashes of needles and grunts of frustration slide in and out of focus. Voices swim through his ears. Rubber hands push and pull on his flesh. He doesn't like them. They don't have a temperature. He wants them to be warm, but they aren't. They don't have a temperature. He wonders if they'll freeze to his skin, be stuck there forever. Numb and empty. Stuck.
Steve thinks that he wakes on his side for a minute. His shivering shakes the entire bed, and a tone he recognizes says something like, "He looks like he's having a damn seizure. Can't you people hurry this up?" They sound commanding and gruff. A part of Steve that isn't waiting to crumble into a million pieces wonders if he sounds like that when he gives orders. Gloved fingers—blue ones, everything is blue—grab his hand and start wrapping bandages around his wrist.
He wonders why everything is always white when you die.
Blink. The fingers are gone.
Steve is alone the next time he wakes up. Ed, his poor, lonely chair, is sitting next to him. A pale blue blanket with a cord dangling off the side is on top of him, and when he looks up, the ceiling is white. He stares for a long moment.
He's back in the freezer.
He has to be.
The beeping in the room increases in tempo until it starts to wail, and Steve shakes even harder. People are running through the doorway, their steps slapping against the tile, and they tell him to calm down. Calm down, calm down, calm down. You're okay. Calm down, Captain. Steve doesn't recognize any of their faces. He twists away from them as fast as he can. His ribs grind in his chest, and his lung feels all wrong, like he can't get enough air. He couldn't get enough air in the freezer because he was drowning to death. The water rushed into his mouth and he's back in the plane and he's clawing at the roof of it, at the white white ceiling and nothing is happening, and he coughs and a sharp pain jabs into his arm and everyth—.
It looks like someone took their thumb and blurred the lines of reality the next time he pulls his eyes open. The sudden absence of pain echoes throughout his body, like the ghost of it is still clinging to his bones. Without his heavy limbs dragging him down, he feels lighter than air. He's tired. He's really, really, tired, and the exhaustion isn't the kind that sleep can take away. It's strange, floating and wanting to rest at the same time.
The cold ball still sits in his chest, and when he remembers that it's there, the ice flicks out its tendrils and crawls down his veins.
He's not anchored enough to shiver.
So Steve is there, cold and baseless.
When he reminds himself to think again, Tony Stark is standing next to him.
"You," he starts. His finger slides across the phone in his hand before he tucks it in his jacket pocket. "Aren't allowed to do that."
Tony seems vividly saturated compared to his surroundings, all tans and browns compared to the chalk background he doesn't belong in. Tony Stark burns very hot, Steve has learned. His eyes are almost black when they land, heavy and shaded, on Steve.
"You simply cannot do that again," he repeats, his hip bumping the rail of Steve's bed as he twitches aimlessly. Steve's pretty sure Tony wants to make a joke but his hands are wrapping around smoke. It should almost be amusing that Tony Stark is flustered. It is very amusing, Steve decides. A kernel of humor pops in Steve's throat.
Then Tony sits down.
"Hey," Steve croaks. "You're sitting on Ed."
His voice sounds strangely offended, and he doesn't know why, and that's pretty damn funny, too.
Tony's left eyebrow goes up, and he says, "If you weren't high, I wouldn't be humoring you. Who's Ed?"
"Ed," Steve tries to gesture towards the chair. Laughter bubbles up and spills out of his mouth. "You're sitting on Ed. Everybody's dead."
"That's not funny," Tony snaps, and Steve blinks, and the laughter dies in his throat. He sobers quickly.
"No," he agrees. "It's not."
Steve lifts up his hand, which isn't very far with how weak he is, and notices that he's shivering again. The world drops down on his shoulders. The drugs aren't working very well anymore.
Everything is real.
He shakes and stares upwards.
"The ceiling was white in the freezer," he says. He doesn't know why. "I hate white," he shudders. He rolls onto his back away from Tony, and he can hear his mom hum about how rude he's being, and Tony Stark just came to visit him and they're not even related, and he should feel real sorry for it, but Steve closes his eyes and wishes she'd be quiet.
Something feels…off in Steve's chest. He's been in this new body for a few years now, and he knows when things are functioning and they aren't. Something doesn't feel right. He should be healing faster than this. He always heals faster than this.
"Captain, I'm Dr. Soh, and I'm your attending physician. Could you please roll over?"
Steve's entire body is wracked with shakes, and he doesn't know how to stop it. It takes maneuvering, but he flops to his back and manages to shudder and focus on the doctor's face at the same time. The doctor's features seem to vibrate, as even Steve's eyes think they have to generate more heat. He keeps saying things that Steve keeps missing, but he nods and tries to look understanding.
"Captain, your temperature is currently 99.7 degrees." His slim fingers tap the clipboard he's holding. He sighs, and then lays his hand on Steve's arm. "The four broken ribs you have… They, they aren't healing as well as we'd like. Because of," his features crease momentarily, "you heal very fast, but the constant clenching of your muscles grinds the ribs and prevents them from knitting back together."
Because he keeps shivering even though he's not physically cold anymore.
"Now, your file says that a-a Dr. Wells…" The doctor clears his throat. "Would you like him to come?"
Steve says, "No."
"Perhaps we'll give it more time, yes?"
"Yeah," Steve breathes. A trickling, wet sensation coats his arm, and Steve falls asleep.
He falls asleep.
He wakes up in the freezer.
Through the increasing dizziness of medication, he hears the doctor say that he broke Rib 7 for the second time, and Mr. Stark, what are you doing here?
This time, his sleep is black.
Again, it was decided that this should be turned into a 2 part story when I hit 10,000 words and realized that, for such a concentrated plot, 10,000 plus was just way too many to read at one time. I'm still quite iffy on the characterization, but this baby has been lurking on the dusty shelf of my muse for a long time, and I don't think I can let it go.
A lot of this was the artistic hipster in me playing around with formatting and spacing (the parenthesis, yeah). Maybe you guys will like it, maybe you won't. Maybe you should let a woman know? ;)
In case you didn't like it, a fairly short one-shot that involves ghosts, fires, and that ever elusive Bucky Barnes, is coming up next.
Nope, nothing happy on the horizon. I am irrationally addicted to interminable angst for boy-wonder Steve Rogers at the moment.
Check the Author's Page or the Tumblr for future updates!
UPDATE: 5/20 Due to various inconveniences, those including finals and routers going out, I've been stalled in finishing Part 2. But it will be finished. This story is my baby, (and the one I consider my best, but shhhh, hubris!) so it WILL BE DONE. Just bear with me.