There are inconsistencies with the first part as in Steve mentions that he lives in Shield's apartment that was given to him, but when it flashbacks to Peggy's death, he goes to his room at Stark Tower. So, because I don't believe in changing the first chapter after this long, please assume that somewhere along the line, Steve moved in with the Avengers at Stark tower and he just doesn't mention it.
My intention during the first chapter was to make the reader warm up to Dr. Wells with each consecutive flashback (because they are, indeed, consecutive) and it seems I've failed. My original goal was to inform you guys that Steve was an unreliable character in his characterization of Dr. Wells because he has previous bias against therapists, mental health, and his own sense of weakness. Of course, you can interpret the character however you'd like, but he's intended to be a good guy.
That would conclude the PSAs of this section.
part two: critical pressure
Steve got in his very first fight when he was seven years old. He's still waif thin and knee-high, but his surroundings, tall men in dark alleys, glints of silver and gunfire ("They're just firecrackers, baby," Ma whispers, and her powdery fingers clamp over his ears. "They're just firecrackers," she repeats. She says it like a prayer as she rocks him.) have instilled a reckless fire in the pit of his stomach.
He doesn't remember who he was defending, but even ten year-old feet have weight behind them, and Steve remembers gasping and shuddering in puddle.
He's cold and wet, and he hurts too much to move.
And he's scared.
Eventually he gathers up the wherewithal to lurch up, and he spends five minutes gagging up saliva from the pain in his stomach. Everything hurts, down to his bones, and the lump in his throat expands until tears wobble on his eyelids, but he doesn't cry because men don't cry. Babies cry and girls cry, but Steve's not either of those.
He's hyperventilating by the time his mother flings open the door.
Panic floods the perpetual exhaustion shadowing her face, and her hands flutter all over him. He goes tripping into the bathroom. Water and rags attack him at the same time, and his shirt gets jerked over his head and he's not going to cry, he's not, because he's a big boy now and—. A towel wrapped around ice lands on his forehead, and he still can't breathe right; it's all congested and clogged in his throat and they just kept kicking him.
Then his mom reappears, and she drapes several blankets around his shoulders. They were the ones sitting over the heater, so they drench him in warmth and then he isn't sobbing, he isn't, and Mom's on her knees and she's enveloping him like he's four years old and the sounds coming through the window are firecrackers. Steve can feel her body shaking, and guilt worms up his spine.
She pulls back, holding him by the arms, and her blue eyes are wet and she asks, "Are you okay?"
Steve swallows and nods furiously.
"I'm fine, I promise I'm fine, I swear I'm fine."
Ma shudders against him and buries her head against his neck, and the hot pricks that sink through the blankets aren't coming from him.
Over her shoulder, Steve spits his left molar on his palm and wraps his fingers around it.
So maybe there's a moment.
Maybe every morning, somewhere between the cobwebs of asleep and awake, Steve thinks he's going to hear his mother hum as she cooks breakfast; Steve thinks he's going to hear Bucky's bed squeak as he curses the alarm clock; Steve thinks he's going to hear trees whisper and the fire crackle as Dernier always gets up earlier than the birds.
And maybe there's a moment when he hopes to God that he can stay there.
But every morning, he blinks, and he's alone.
The smooth, brown ceiling of Stark Tower stretches out before him.
He was in the freezer.
Maybe if his eyelids didn't physically ache with drugged exhaustion and frigid pain, he would spend more time wondering how the hell he got here. A twitch of a shiver jerks through him, but he's too tired to move.
"Evening, Captain Rogers. I am JARVIS, the operating system in control of Stark Tower. You were recently transferred here from SHIELD's medical center under the approval of Nicholas Fury and your attending physicians. As you were incapacitated at the time, Agent Coulson, your listed next of kin, signed the request after Mr. Stark and Dr. Wells agreed that a different environment would be beneficial to your physical and psychological health."
Steve's eyebrows pull in when he hears Tony's name, and his pride stings at the word psychological. In his day, his time, Steve would have been considered crazy and locked away in a brick building with his meals received through a mail slot.
He takes a sharp breath and freezes in paralyzed agony when his entire ribcage starts on fire. It feels like someone is digging into his chest and splintering off his bones sliver by sliver.
"My apologies, Captain. The intravenous medication has run out while you were resting. While Dr. Banner went to lunch with Agent Romanov, Mr. Stark can readily be summoned, so you can achieve rest once more."
Steve thinks on the breathless ache in his ribs, the hot slice of pain cutting down his body, the goose bumps rising on his arms. He's miserable and hurting, but if this is what warmth is to him now, then he'll take it.
"There's—," he says before he has to clear his throat, "there's no need to get Mr. Stark. I'll just… I'm fine."
He shudders because he's cold, and he's confused and he doesn't know what he's doing in Tony's tower. Nothing makes sense and everyone's dead, and when he's been brought this low, the lump in his throat and the watering underneath his eyelids isn't hard to reach. Maybe he's just tired. Too damn tired.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS says, and he does so very slowly and very quietly. "Stark Tower has the best security system in the world, and all the Avengers are safe and accounted for. I suggest you continue to rest."
Steve's awareness, dipping during the computer's speech, flutters weakly at the mention of the other Avengers. He has no idea how the battle ended. Not that it matters. He's more of a symbol than a weapon. He wants to know if they are all okay, but his brain hears safe, and starts shutting him down.
"It is perfectly safe for you to sleep, Captain."
And the bitter part of Steve laughs coldly because it had never been safe for Captain America to sleep during the war, and it definitely wasn't safe for Steve Rogers to sleep seventy years in the ice.
Just look, it almost killed him. It's still killing him, really.
("I had to put Agent Coulson as my next of kin yesterday," Steve says to the therapist. A smile that could sharpen a knife flits across his face. "My boss is my next of kin. It's damn pathetic, isn't it?" He's unusually angry today. He can't keep a hold of it. The vitriol spills out of his mouth like acid. He glares at the floor and Dr. Wells sits back in his chair and sets his pad and pen down on the table between them. "What are you really angry about, Steve?" his therapist replies, expectant. Steve swallows a wild urge to throw something and says, "Before my ma died I asked her what she wanted me to be when I grew up. She said happy. She smiled at me and kissed my forehead and told me she wanted me to be happy, and then she died a few weeks later."
His words lose fervor as he says them, like a car running out of gas on a lonely highway.
Steve shakes his head as a great wave of regret strangles his ability to breath. "I failed her. I just…" He tries to swallow around the heavy weight on his chest. "I just failed her so miserably."
Captain America is nowhere to be found because Steve Rogers hurts so thoroughly that he cannot move. The world could explode around him, and he'd still be sitting in that chair. He feels the great maelstrom of emotions inside his throat gather again, except this time he isn't inclined to respond with anger. He doesn't want to curl his fists or crush anything fragile in his hands. He doesn't want to bleed poison so everyone will back away. For the first time in this new hell he's in, Steve wants to cry. He waits for several minutes, but his tear ducts are dry ice.)
When he surfaces from the heavy shroud of unconsciousness again, he's looking at the framed photograph of Peggy that sits on his nightstand next to his bed. The ceiling is a muted brown color, and caramel curtains hang over the wall-length windows to his left. Peaks of a yellow sunset filter through the bottom. It looks warm.
This is his room.
Soft sheets lay in a tangled heap around his waist, and the bruises on his chest stand out in sharp contrast, even in the minimal lighting. His limbs are the kind of deadened-tired that proves he's been sleeping for a long time. The fuzziness over his brain and the cracks in his lips are also sufficient evidence. The pain radiating from his chest isn't nearly as encompassing as it had been before, so he assumes that they drugged him thoroughly enough that his ribs had some time to heal.
There is a tapping on the door, and Bruce slides in, quietly shutting it behind him.
Bruce always looks stretched thin, like someone put him through a washboard too many times and let him dry in the hot sun without a reprieve. Now, though, he's an unassuming doctor with a gentle smile and glasses that sometimes fall down his nose. A misplaced flare of affection bursts in Steve's heart, and he holds it there. It is rare that moments like that well up in his chest.
"Hey, Steve," he says softly. He walks up to Steve's bed and taps the IV bag that Steve hadn't noticed until now. "Do you know where you are?"
Bruce called him Steve.
Steve's eyes are drawn like magnets to the picture of Peggy. He takes a breath and notices a big improvement. "My room, in the Tower."
Bruce nods. His fingers, lighter than air, put pressure on Steve's ribs. "Do you remember what happened?"
Ice water drenches Steve down to his toes. A shiver jerks up his hand, and he makes a fist under the blanket. "We were… by the beach. Fighting HYDRA. Something grabbed me." He pauses. "I was in a freezer."
He can taste the rest of the story, and Bruce can probably see it, too. Steve stops there.
Bruce tugs the sheet up to Steve's sternum.
"HYDRA captured you from the beach. I'm sure Fury will go over the security details with you later, but they found a way to neutralize the GPS that's knitted into your uniform, and that's why no one could find you. Tony searched the ocean for hours." His face creases oddly after he says that, and he pauses. Steve's fingertips ache in the wait. He wonders what Tony Stark thought as he scanned the water, looking for a guy who should stay right where he is, who started out frozen and should end that way.
Bruce's fingers absently tap on Steve's mattress. He continues, "Obviously you know what happened after that. We found the freezer off the coast of Sweden thirty-four hours later. You were at the SHIELD facility for three days before you were moved here. As I said, Fury probably has a much more detailed report."
"Here," Steve blurts, voice cracking. "Why am I here?"
When he talks, a strangely constricted feeling erupts in his throat. He sounds utterly breathless. He sounds weak.
Bruce adjusts his glasses complacently, and if anyone could look like they were in pain and very confused about it, Bruce had it down. The man lifts his head again, and says, "According to Tony, the doctors at SHIELD are primates and no one who wants to heal plans on staying there anyway. But what I gathered from the situation was that your doctor and Coulson both agreed that the medical center wasn't the right environment for you to get better in after Tony kicked up a fuss. So you were transported here."
It stings his pride that they moved him without even telling him, but he was rather indisposed at the time, and he'd really hated that hospital.
"Am I healed yet?" he asks. What he really wants to say is can you leave yet, but he isn't sure how that would come across. He doesn't feel like his ribs are still broken. They ache collectively with each breath, but he can deal with that. It's the room that is too close. Too many walls. He's confused and he needs to walk.
Bruce reaches forward and picks up a white notepad from Steve's nightstand. He scans it a few times, flipping through the first few pages. Bruce has never exactly been the type of guy who radiates ease, mostly considering the beast he has inside his mind, but right now he seems incredibly uncomfortable. Steve can't pick out why. Several things about the situation are different, raw and new. Steve doesn't go to his room in the Tower to heal. He crawls to SHIELD's Medical wing when he has to and grits his teeth through the pain when he doesn't. He has never been treated by Bruce before. He has never been frozen to near-death in a freezer. Most of all, his problems have never been broadcasted so loudly that his entire team knows exactly how screwed up he is.
"Well, because you slept for so long," and Bruce says this very gingerly. He skirts around the shivering. "Your ribs should be completely healed, save for the customary aches and pains that come with the healing process."
Steve swallows and nods. He levers himself up with a muted groan, and he bumps into Bruce's hand with his arm. He looks at Bruce's equally confused and unsure expression as he flutters like he wants to do something. Steve takes a shallow breath, and digs the Captain out of his box, wraps himself in composure and competence. He eats himself.
Bruce takes this as his leave and stands, stepping back and allowing Steve three feet of polite distance. Searching for something to say, Steve brushes a hand through his hair. It's greasy, and he can feel an extra layer of salt clinging to his skin. "I think I'm going to shower," he smiles plainly at Bruce. "Thank you, though. For checking on me. It wasn't necessary."
Dr. Banner shrugs, and he exudes an awkward air that makes Steve want to scratch himself to death. "No problem."
He pushes himself to his feet, and a full-body shudder quakes over him. It's a consuming amalgamation of pain, exhaustion, and the sharp cracking of ice in his spine. He doesn't want to see Bruce's expression after that happens, so Steve looks at his bathroom door, face turned away from the doctor. "I suppose I'll see you around then." He limps forward, and just as his fingers wrap around the handle, he hears Bruce.
"Doctor Wells called me while you asleep. He said he'd like to see you as soon as possible."
Bitter shame burns through Steve. There's always that.
("Pepper Potts," Steve starts slowly, "do you know about her?" Dr. Wells nods and says, "Mr. Stark's girlfriend, yes." Steve clenches his teeth together twice, tests the level of control in his voice. He wants to make sure he doesn't sound overly hoarse, too bitter. He doesn't want to sound jealous, either. "Well, she—they're real close, you know. And Tony, he got himself hurt pretty bad on our last mission. Ms. Potts flew out to Arizona right away. But I was—I went to make sure he was alright and..." his voice dies out. He feels his feature screw up in pain and struggles to swallow it. He had swung into Tony's room, but stopped short at the doorway. Pepper was curled over the bed, small and still. One of her hands was running up and down Tony's forearm, and the other was tugging through his hair.
For some reason, Steve was paralyzed there, unnoticed and silent.
Pepper's voice was thick with tears and wobbly. "You're an idiot. You're a complete idiot. Some days, some days, the worst thing I've ever done was fall in love with you." She didn't look like she meant it very much. Her fingertips tenderly sorted through Tony's sleep-mussed hair. "But I guess that doesn't matter."
She sighed heavily. "At least you're sleeping for once. You should sleep more. You can sleep all day. I don't care. I'll be right here." Pepper kissed Tony's knuckles and whispered, "I'll be right here when you wake up."
He thought that Tony Stark was very lucky man.
Steve can remember the way the pain had rumbled up his throat like a thunderstorm, a sudden, roaring ache. He'd backed out of the room as quickly and quietly as he could.
That night he dreamt, over and over, that Peggy and Bucky shook him awake in the room SHIELD had set up, that they grinned like sunrises and told him he was an idiot, that he was home. Over and over.
"Steve," Dr. Wells says, "what happened?"
He tries to say something, anything, for several minutes, but he can't. His eyes throb in time with the lump in his throat. A heavy weight builds over his shoulders and pushes down on his chest, and Steve just shakes his head.)
The first thing he does after showering is hear the voice in his head tell him he owes Tony Stark a gracious thank you. The man pulled him out of the freezer in the first place, and Steve remembers that now. It wasn't cold fire he had seen. It had been the dark red of the Iron Man suit. Stark got him out of the SHIELD hospital. Stark owned his apartment in the Tower. Although, that had been less of a personal decision and more of a majority ruling that the Avengers had to be closer together to respond to calls. Still.
He dresses in layers: undershirt, long-sleeved cotton shirt, and finally a thick sweater that clings uncomfortably to his person. He isn't the one who bought it. He and Natasha have a very quiet relationship, a soft and silent morning coffee kind of thing. She had developed a strange desire to dress him up like a mannequin after a while of knowing each other. Clothes appear folded neatly on his bed, and she winks when he wears them. It doesn't happen very often, really. Just sometimes. Remembering this makes him pause as he slides his socks on.
The floor-to-ceiling windows broadcast a crystal clear view of the sky, a silent movie of the thick snowflakes drifting to the pavement below. In another person's head, this is peaceful. Steve sees the frost choking the metal bracers in the freezer.
He pushes that away, wraps his will around its clawing fingers and buries it deep. If he thinks about it, then it'll hurt more. If he doesn't think about it, maybe he can walk right by it. Maybe it'll just go away.
Jarvis tells him that Tony is buried in some project in his lab, knee-deep in mathematics and engineering. Tony's a genius, Steve knows. He's the kind of smart that Steve had never been. Tony lives and breathes in numbers and creation. He went to college when he was fourteen. Steve had barely been able to attend school half the time when he was young. At first, he was too sick to go, then later, he was too poor.
But Tony, he's invariably, irreplaceable smart. There will never be another man like him.
Steve stands in the elevator and looks at his hand. He turns his palm up, flexes his strong fingers. His reflection is distorted in the metal glint of the doors, but Steve can see his silhouette. Broad shoulders, sturdy legs, a nearly bullet proof chest.
He pushes his able fingers against his biologically perfect heart and thinks that Tony Stark could make this. Steve could be replaced in a moment. Steve could be leading the Avengers one day (because they need a symbol, a flag, he's the relic that people want to keep on their way, nostalgia, the good-old days) and gone the next.
Part of Steve wants them to wipe him off the map. He heard spies got burned. Identities lost, location unknown, no money, no home, no life.
It would be better than playing this game. It would be better than being a walking antique. Captain America leads the Avengers because Captain America promotes America. He's the civilians' touchstone. There's a star emblazoned across his chest, for God's sake. He represents togetherness. SHIELD likes to tell him otherwise, spins it around like he's done America a great service once, and that he's been given the opportunity of a lifetime to protect the citizens he loves again, that his leadership skills are above and beyond what anyone else these days has to offer.
That's bullshit, and he knows it.
He should not be the captain. It is logically, rationally, and objectively unacceptable. He isn't from 2012. He isn't the strongest. He isn't the smartest. He isn't the quietest. He has nothing to offer them other than war stories and a bleeding heart that's been etched onto his sleeve.
("What's your place on the team, Steve? What do you consider your role?" Dr. Wells asks. Steve categorizes the day he's having as one of the worst ones. He gets this lump in his throat, and it stays there for hours. He can't get rid of it. He can't swallow it down. It just sits there, aching. He can barely talk around it, so he avoids people as much as he can and keeps his responses short. "I'm the captain," Steve whispers. Dr. Wells shakes his head. "That's your title, Steve. What do you consider your role?"
Steve rubs the back of his neck, quietly and desperately wishing that the constant pain in his throat would just go away. He's exhausted, and the therapist asks him questions that make him want to punch things or go to sleep for a week.
Useless. That's his answer. Useless. Steve is useless. Tony Stark had nailed him to his cross when he said so. Steve is useless to the Avengers.
"The, um. The leader, I suppose," he says instead.
Dr. Wells clenches his jaw. "I think you're lying, Steve."
Steve skirts his eyes over the therapist's loosened tie and disheveled hair. He thinks about how the man has sat next to him while he was hyperventilating and watched him throw up while he was on his knees. He thinks about how SHIELD tells lies like they were born to do so. "I think you are, too," he replies.)
The elevator opens up, and Steve steps into Tony's lab. Jarvis must have announced his arrival to Tony because the man pokes his head out from under the Iron Man suit that's hanging above him. He climbs to his feet and starts tapping on his holographic computer screen as Steve approaches.
"So Sleeping Beauty lives to freeze another day," he quips dryly.
He used to react to those kinds of jokes, but Natasha had informed him awhile ago that maybe that was how Stark coped. Tony takes the darkest things that happen to everyone and twists their arms until they're funny, as if by talking about them more, they lose their potency. He forces things out into the open and undresses them.
"I hope that won't be the case," Steve replies. He stands there uncertainly, shifting from foot to the other. He feels off kilter. He's not healed enough for this. He can feel his ribs ache, and he knows that there's still the faintest yellow discoloration spread over his left eye. His feet aren't settled.
Tony turns towards his suit. "So how are the parts doing?"
"They're healing," Steve starts slowly, "thanks to you." He shoves his hands in his pockets. "That's what I came down here for. I owe you one for the rescue down there."
Tony's shoulder stiffen from where Steve's watching him crouch by the suit. He spins on his heels, and his eyes are dark and narrow and rimmed with puzzlement when he looks at Steve. "I think we can call it even. In fact, I can confidently say that the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that you would've done the same thing. It's that team thing, you know, Cap."
Steve nods. "Of course." He restlessly pinches his fingers together in his pockets and struggles to untangle the knot in his stomach. He came down here for a reason.
He injects as much gratitude into his voice as he can and says, "Just. Thank you, Tony. The ice—. It's," he fumbles for a word and internally flinches at the task. "It's what it is. For me."
"Yeah, Cap. I know where you're at. If I'm ever thrown into a desert cave, you'll return the favor. Now, shoo. There are no emotions in my lab."
Steve rolls his eyes and makes his way towards the elevator.
"I would've come up there, you know," Tony's voice echoes. Steve pauses, his hand sliding a few inches down the wall. "Jarvis told me that you played stoic when you ran out of the good stuff, and that you said I didn't have to come help you out. Considering you had what, seven, eight broken ribs at the time, it makes a guy think you don't want his company."
"That...wasn't my intention," Steve says.
There's a clanging noise as Tony tosses something to the ground. "Weakness isn't a personal failure, Cap."
"I guess that would be a matter of opinion," Steve replies evenly.
Sleeping is brutal.
This is the first thing Steve realizes after he has healed from the incident. It was hard before the freezer, and even during the war. He finds the latter almost reassuring, as if all his problems weren't born from the ice. Most days he was too exhausted to dream, his brain thoroughly entrenched in rest. The others were random events when the afternoon had been quiet, lacking action. All they had done the entire day was walk, or they watched. This seemed to flick a switch in Steve's head, some sort of knee-jerk this is war reaction.
He used to wake up with one short gasp (anything louder and they would be found; Steve learned to gag himself from the beginning) and feel a cold sweat coat his skin. His heart would pound in his ears. Then he would sit up, surrounded by night, and whoever was on watch coughed. They all had nightmares. Steve would face the sentry, practically hear their nod of acknowledgment, and do a headcount. Sometimes this would make it better, others it wouldn't.
If Bucky was the one who caught him in the aftermath, then he would hear a grumbled go back to sleep, chump. When they were particularly bad, when Steve bit his knuckles until they bled rivulets down his fingers, Bucky would tear his hand from his mouth and quietly pronounce it was just a dream, Steve. Either time, a hard boot always ended up wedged against his back.
It was just a dream, Steve.
Steve had taken those nightmares for granted. Not the dreams themselves, but what it was like in the aftermath. He had completely undervalued what it was like to have someone tell him that it was going to be okay. It was never said, at least not by the rest of them. Steve had said it, but he was younger. He cared too much. The others, the same guys who shot enemies point-blank and tried to drink each other under the table, were the ones who echoed it'll be okay without ever saying a word. He thinks that this is a quality lost in time. Perhaps it only exists during war, in groups of men skirting around death and cutting open their morals with a rusty knife for a country very far away.
What it is, and Steve cannot define it, is this: blinking awake under a canopy of leaves, a fire crackling in his ears, the synchronized breath of six other human beings, the intake of air, the shifting of canvas and wool, the way Bucky smirks with the entirety of his left face, how Gabe tilts his head up towards the sun every thirty seconds, sporadic coughs and smacking lips, spines popping as stiff bodies stretch, Falsworth's disdainful grumble in the wake of every American joke they tell, Morita's palm on the small of his back because he was their compass underneath the layer of deadpan humor, sharp elbows jabbing his ribs, the warm aftertaste of laughter, the depthless understanding in Dugan's eyes when he pulled a man from his knees and bullied him into moving again, the silent reverberation of another heart beating as they stared into the unforgiving cold of another night.
Steve tastes this every time he lays down. The flavor is equally sour and bitter as it rolls around his tongue and burns on its way down. Something once perfect and now spoiled. When it returns as Steve shivers in the wake of another dream, he wonders, for only a brutal moment, if what he tastes are the ashy remains of hope. In the aftermath of the freezer, Steve woke up and realized hope had curled up like a defenseless animal and burned alive inside him, and what endures is the sad skeleton in his mouth.
This thought makes him so nauseated that he paces past the bathroom for twenty minutes, waiting to dry heave.
Thankfully, it never comes, but the exhaustion makes his head pound.
Dr. Wells calls Steve two days after he's taken to Stark Tower. Their conversation is short, and he firmly asks Steve to come down to SHIELD so they can talk about this latest occurrence. He doesn't leave any room for Steve to wiggle out of it.
Steve sits down across from Dr. Wells and watches. The doctor has changed immensely since they started their visits. Steve remembers the way he looked at the beginning: ironed shirt, pressed tie, neat pepper-gray hair. He remembers the infuriatingly gentle voice and piano music in the background, how the lighting had been a soft yellow and Dr. Wells tilted his head at everything Steve had said.
Now, Dr. Wells is different. He never wears a tie anymore. His long-sleeve shirt has the first two buttons undone and the cuffs are loose and rolled up. There's no pretentious piano music humming above his head. Dr. Wells looks irritated at Steve half the time, blatantly and impulsively mad that Steve won't cough up all the thoughts spinning in his head.
He calls Steve Steve.
Steve isn't Captain America in this room, and it is terrifying and raw.
Dr. Wells looks up at Steve where he's sitting at his desk, and his expression morphs into concern when Steve walks in. He stands up hastily, gesturing towards Steve's customary seat, and sorts through the pile of folders thrown over the tabletop and meets Steve where they sit and have their talks.
"Steve," Wells says. He sounds out of breath and rather uncertain. His eyes are pulled together, wrinkles caught in worry on his forehead. Steve can practically smell the questions brimming in his chest.
Steve sighs heavily and flicks his forefinger into his armrest.
Dr. Wells leans forward, his elbows propped on his knees. Steve watches his hands clasp together, fingers methodically pressing into his flesh. For several seconds, the air hangs over their heads, loaded and heavy.
"We're gonna be here for awhile, aren't we?" Steve says plainly. Dreads the response.
Dr. Wells presses his lips together. "It looks like it."
Steve inhales," I need to know something. Two things."
"How much of what I tell you makes it to SHIELD?"
Dr. Wells narrows his eyes. "I've told you this, Steve. Everything said inside this room is kept between us. Unless you suddenly become a threat to someone else or yourself, I can't, and won't, tell them anything. And I doubt either of those happening; both completely violate your sense of character. And I know you think I'm lying, but SHIELD provides therapy, first and foremost, to keep their agents. I am not here to get you put on administrative leave."
A threat to someone else or yourself. A threat. Leave. Steve can't be a threat to anyone.
Steve shifts in his chair and asks, "Why have you changed so much in the past six months, since I started coming here?"
Dr. Wells sits back. "Steve, you think therapy is bullshit. I know that. I learned that. You don't want a psychologist. You didn't respond well when I acted like one. You want someone you can confide in, and I'm trying to help. Although you make it very difficult."
They sit there in silence for awhile. Steve keeps his fingers busy by drumming them on the armrest.
"Where would you like to begin?" Dr. Wells asks.
Steve thinks about the way Bruce had looked concerned, the worried cinch in the other man's eyebrows, Tony's voice when he'd given Steve advice. He thinks about what it was like living alone.
"Nowhere," Steve says.
Dr. Wells' jaw visibly clenches, a muscle clenching in his cheek.
Steve doesn't say a word for the entire hour and a half.
He can't be kicked off the team. It can't happen.
Steve can't stop shivering.
Minute tremors constantly wrack his spine. It's been four days since he was rescued, and he hasn't stopped shivering. He just can't get warm. It's like the ice curled up like a live beast in his chest, and it prowls around Steve's veins, influencing his skin to be as oversensitive as it can be.
He starts wearing as many layers as he can without being suspicious. Undershirt, T-shirt, long-sleeve, and a sweatshirt. He wears his boots wherever he goes. Because his fingers are extremities, they feel like ice cubes shoved onto his wrists, and they shake. They shake like he's an old man with Parkinson's. It looks like he's on drugs.
Steve keeps his hands shoved in his pockets as often as he can, and if he can't, he locks them over each other, kneading his knuckles.
At first, Steve is handling it. Full-body shivers. His ribs aching with pent-up cold. The lack of sleep.
He's handling it.
It's been three days since Steve's last slept.
It's been three minutes since Steve's last dream.
("Steve. Steve. Steve, buddy, wake up. You gotta wake up, kid." The voice is gentle and Steve screams when he sits up. It's a loud, ravaged yell, and when he looks his down his shirt is drenched with sweat and there are tears coating his cheeks. He whips his head around and Bucky is leaning over him, his hands on either side of Steve's face. A bubble rises up Steve's throat and he groans and shoves Bucky to the side.
He throws up twice, his hands clenching cold dirt. He can't get the smell out of his nose. When he's done, he crawls back to his bedroll and stares at the darkness of the woods, his elbows on his bent-up knees.
"I can't get that smell outta my nose, Buck," he whispers. For some reason, the recognition of this makes Steve's eyes burn. The vibrant flames that had engulfed the soldier three feet from Steve sear through his inner eye. He can't get rid of the smell.
It feels like he's going to sit there forever in that damn war, sit there and smell someone's flesh burning, sit there and listen to him scream in terror.
Bucky's subtly rubbing Steve's back, and Steve hates him for it.)
Steve wakes up and he's freezing to death.
He's locked straight-backed on his bed. His entire body shakes. When he looks down at his arms, they are covered in frost. His skin is spider webbed with white clouds of ice. It crawls up his forearms and wraps around his neck. Steve gasps and claws at his throat. He starts to roll to his side, but his feet are shackled to the bedposts. He yanks and pulls, but they won't come free.
The windows shatter and water comes rushing through.
Steve chokes on the scream that he swallows and starts writhing on mattress. The water laps at his body, and he watches chunks of ice float over his legs.
He splutters at the water splashing over his lips.
Steve closes his eyes as he's submerged and his lungs fill with water.
Steve hasn't slept in five days.
It's starting to wear on him.
When he makes his way down to the communal kitchen, he's surprised to see Clint and Natasha sitting at the counter. Bruce had told him that they were sent to investigate the aftermath of the freezer and gather any leftover intel that HYDRA may have left behind. He hasn't seen them in a week.
"You look a lot better than the last time I saw you, Cap," Clint tells him. He's carefully layering a copious amount of peanut butter on an English muffin. Next to him, Natasha is popping grapes into her mouth and reading a newspaper.
She looks up at his arrival, and her head tilts when she sees him.
"Hello, Captain," she says.
Steve nods and smiles at them. He's glad they're back okay. No sense in other people getting hurt for him.
"You guys are back awfully soon," he says, leaving it open-ended for a response.
Natasha folds up her newspaper and blinks calmly at him. Sometimes he worries that she's a mind reader. It wouldn't surprise him in the least. "There wasn't much to find. They were fast. Until SHIELD gathers more information that we can use, it makes little sense for us to waste our time where we aren't useful."
"Right," Steve agrees. It occurs to him that he doesn't care in the slightest if they catch HYDRA. He just doesn't care. It barely registers. If their mission was to kill Steve, they failed. If their mission was to wound him, they succeeded. On that thought, his stomach growls and he starts rummaging through the fridge. "Have you guys had a real breakfast yet?" he asks.
Clint contemplatively holds his muffin up to his eye line. "This doesn't look metaphysical," he ponders. "But are you offering?"
"Uh, yes," Steve says. "Yes, I am."
Natasha quirks one side of her lip up, which Steve considers her smile, and says, "I prefer my eggs over hard."
"I can do that," Steve replies.
Steve makes a ham and cheese omelet for Clint and one pancake with two eggs for Natasha. He remembers to keep his back turned towards the stove as he cooks, because this requires the use of his hands, and the shivers might start up again. As Steve starts making his own breakfast, he listens to them talk about the weather and other SHIELD agents. Apparently they have a small wager on Mayweather and Valdez getting together within the next two weeks. Clint already misses sunshine, and Natasha is delighting in the brisk coldness of the air. Neither of them want it to snow.
It feels warm to listen to them.
Clint leaves as soon as he's finished. He mentions something about having to write up a lame report, pats Steve on the arm, and thanks him for breakfast.
Steve collects all the dishes when he's done and puts them in the sink. Natasha isn't speaking anymore, and Steve doesn't know how to fill in the silence with small talk, so he stays quiet. After the sink is full, Steve submerges his hands in the steaming water and desperately wishes that he could soak in the warmth. Natasha's reverted back to reading the newspaper, and the air is companionable with the sounds of water sluicing over the dishes and pages turning.
After Steve finishes drying and putting the plates away, he turns around and Natasha is standing right in front of him. He startles back, and her finger comes up and pads below his eye. "What are these, Captain?" she asks quietly.
His gut reaction would be to grab her wrist and make her step back, but that sounds exhausting, and his reflexes are dulled. Instead, he shakes her off with a nod of his head. "I've just had some trouble sleeping. It's nothing major," he reassures her.
"It's not?" she asks, one elegant eyebrow arching.
Steve offers up a weak smiles and hooks the towel over a drawer handle. "Sleep can get elusive sometimes. Especially in this job. You know what I'm talking about."
"Of course," she says. Her words sound dry and vaguely disappointed.
"You have to get this off your chest, Steve," Dr. Wells says. "We both know that it helps you."
Steve has discovered that if he focuses enough, that if he wants it enough and fears it enough, he can stop shivering when he has to see the therapist. He wills it.
"I don't want to," he replies.
I cannot be kicked off the team.
"Some things are just too close to home, Doc."
Dr. Wells narrows his eyes. "I thought that you didn't have a home," he says. He's quoting Steve verbatim.
Steve shrugs and something wounded in his chest wants to die. "Maybe I don't."
"Steve. Steve, are you awake?"
Steve blinks once, twice, and Bruce is standing across from him. The man is standing awkwardly with his hands in his pockets. He's giving Steve his classically self-defeated smile, an amalgamation of uncertainty, faint fondness, and hidden anger locked deep in his features. It's a confusing expression for a face to have, but it's recognizable.
"I'm sorry, Bruce. I was thinking," he says. Steve supposes it was strange sight, a book loose in his fingers as he stared out of the window at four in the morning. He'd moved down to the main living room because he couldn't sleep for the sixth night in a row, and he was secretly wishing that something like this would happen. Other people would wander by. He just wanted to hear and see and listen to them.
"I've been standing in front of you for well over five minutes. That's a lot of thinking," Bruce ponders.
Steve dismisses that and asks, "What brings you down here?"
Bruce shifts back and forth, a constant, slow wave of motion. He reminds Steve of the ocean, rocking to and fro like that. He turns to gaze at the same view that Steve hadn't been admiring for five minutes, and then he sits down on the couch. His arm is warm and solid next to Steve's, and something deep in Steve's chest yawns open like a desert that cries out for water. He's cracked all along his grooves. The thought rips something injured and small inside Steve's eyes.
"How have you been, Steve?"
Worry sloshes against the walls of his stomach. Steve slides his right hand under his thigh and grips his book. "I've healed up pretty fast, thanks to you guys."
Bruce nods. "That's good. That's really good."
They sit there in silence for awhile, Steve rubbing his suddenly sweat-coated fingers against his pant leg.
"I have to admit, Cap. You don't look so hot."
Steve feels a shiver rattle his ribcage. Ants crawl up his spine. He waves a hand in the air to represent his levity. "I've just had some trouble sleeping. It's all normal. I was actually about to head up to bed when you came down."
Skepticism marring his features, Bruce agrees, "Of course. I'll let you do that."
He stands up and says goodbye, and he can feel Bruce's eyes on his back like hot knives digging into his shoulders.
Steve lurches over the toilet and heaves again. His stomach is trying to lurch into his throat. He gags twice, but a swaying string of bile and saliva is all that he gets.
He can't get the taste of salt out of his mouth. He tastes it like a physical presence, like he can feel the grains scratch his mouth and dry out his gums.
Gasping for air, he grabs the sink and pulls himself up. The arm locked around his chest does nothing to alleviate the violent shakes that are overtaking his entire body. Desperate to get rid of the taste, God, so much salt, he breaks the handle when he turns the water on and barely stays steady enough to fill the cup in his hand. He gulps one mouthful down before the glass slips out of his hand and shatters on the ground.
"Shit." The sink won't stop running. Nausea builds in his stomach. "Shit."
He crumples to his knees. Throws up again.
"When is the last time you slept, Steve?" Dr. Wells ask. He left his piano music on after his previous patient, and the music lulls the atmosphere.
Steve blinks slowly. "Last night."
"For how long?"
Steve squints as he stares out the window. "An hour?"
There's a knock at the door, and an agent barges in. They explain something about needing Dr. Wells' approval on an action. He gives Steve an apologetic look, and Steve waves him off. A few minutes later, Dr. Wells returns to the room. "I'm sorry about that. I don't leave unless it's dire, and I must admit, that was fairly dire. Now back to what we were—," Dr. Wells stops, "You're asleep."
Steve's slumped over the armrest, his arm precariously supporting his head. Dr. Wells cringes and taps his pencil against his desk. He reaches out to shake Steve awake, but the moment he does, Steve flinches unconsciously and a shiver rocks his upper body.
Steve blinks up at him, maddeningly awake.
Jarvis has his room at 85 degrees, but it doesn't work.
Steve has seven blankets wrapped around his body, and they don't work.
The bed's too damn soft, so he's on the floor, and he's freezing and nothing fucking works.
He shakes and shakes and shakes and blows cold breath on his cold fingers and curls into ball, and he's fucking pathetic, that's what he is.
The worst part is the way his clothes cling to his skin because he's covered in sweat.
"What the hell happened to you?"
Tony's voice is loud and grating. Steve's stomach drops.
They had been called in to deal with the Wrecking Crew. The haphazard collection of super-powered people were trying to take over Baltimore. Steve had never been to Baltimore, but he didn't think that the people were that bad. He wouldn't know. He's never been there. He also didn't understand why he had to be there, why the Avengers had to be there. The problem with the public was that they believed that if the villain was super, its opponents had to be super, too. The Wrecking Crew was a nuisance, not an adversary.
Steve wipes away the sheen of sweat gathered on his forehead.
"What are you asking, Iron Man?" He says tiredly.
He hasn't slept in twelve days.
Tony waves a hand over in Steve's direction. "This. You. Do you sleep? Sleep is a thing you need, I'm positive that I'm right. I'm always right, but I'm incredibly right this time."
"I've just had a little trouble lately. It's fine. Didn't I tell you to fly ten blocks from me?"
Iron Man's faceplate slides over Tony's.
"How much trouble does it take to make Captain America look like an abused puppy?" he poses. Tony shoots into the air.
Steve looks to Natasha, and she tips her head in sympathy. "Try concealer next time, Cap."
Steve's head pounds in time with every motion around him. When he turns his head too fast, objects blur away from each other, distorted doubles vibrating in his line of vision, before they snap back together. He worries about that, but he's researched sleep deprivation and he knows about microsleep and hallucinations, and he knows that he's a super-soldier and eventually he'll sleep.
Clint is out for this mission, gone to retrieve a scientist from Iran. It would only take a couple days, he'd told Steve. Bruce is at the Tower. Steve doesn't like the Hulk coming out more than necessary. It exhausts Bruce, and Steve desperately doesn't want him to feel like he's some sort of dispensable weapon to be thrown at every opponent that walks on two legs. Bruce is a person first.
Tony's with Natasha, working on the Bulldozer. Tony's frustrated voice buzzes in and out of Steve's ear as he complains about getting headbutted.
Thor had taken out Thunderball five minutes ago, primarily because the Asgardian was impervious to the lightning that the Thunderball fought with, and Steve didn't want to risk throwing Tony at him, no matter how emphatically Tony argued that nothing would probably happen.
Steve's fighting Piledriver, who is basically an oversized Thor with half the IQ. He's strong, but he lumbers. The problem is that, while his shield causes damage, the guy's too dense to get hurt enough by it. Steve picks out weak spots at the neck, head, and groin. Except he keeps missing. Not by much, inches maybe, but enough. Calculating where to throw the shield takes him longer than it should, tires his arm out faster than ever before. Steve settles on waiting him out. He's always been patient when it mattered. He'll wait until the Thor is done with the Wrecker and then hand him over for the big guy to finish.
"Captain, this man's crowbar has thrown me far. He heads to you. I believe he threw Mjolnir deep into the ocean, and I wait for it to return to me."
Steve asks, "Iron Man?"
"The headbutting thing is seriously old. I'll be with you in a sec, Cap. He bites."
"I'll start heading towards you, Thor. That'll lead both of them towards you. You're by the water, you said?"
Thor uses verily to say yes. Verily.
He meets the Wrecker four miles towards the water, just barely staying ahead of Piledriver, who's roughly three hundred feet behind him. The buildings blur past in waves of silver and gray, and Steve's heart rate cranks up with every step. He's too slow. He's tired. No matter how creative he gets with the street lights, his opponent gains on him.
The moment Steve meets Thor, he's hooked around the waist and thrown into the air. He twist and tumbles and turns in the air, weightless and airborne. Fear rears up loud and thunderous and his mind trembles with this will hurt this will hurt this will hurt.
He hits the water.
Steve pulls and pulls and pulls at the door but it won't come free. His skin splits right down the palm. Blood splatters at his feet and his breath curls into the air in front of him, a live shadow.
Water plunges into the freezer and because Steve tried to save himself. The plane goes down and he claws at the ceiling so hard his fingernails tear off.
He's dying dying dying, why won't he just drown. He never dies.
"Cap! Rogers! Steve! Steven Rogers!"
Natasha slams both his wrists into the ground again, and Steve shudders into active consciousness. He blinks and tares emptily into the blue, blue sky. Tony's face is a tanned blur above him.
"Are you with me?"
Salt water scratches up his throat, and he heaves himself on his side. He wants to get it out. He has to get it out, but his team is standing right there, and he's already screwed up horribly. Weak. Weak. Weak. A gust of wind rolls up his body and pure cold cracks his back in half. Steve spends three seconds trying to pull himself together, and then he climbs to his feet.
"What the hell was that?" Tony asks. His faceplate is down, and he's holding one of his arms with the other.
Thor's standing next to his Tony, and his hammer sways on his fingertips. A violently purple bruise has erupted over his left eye, and blood is falling steadily from a deep gash on his forehead. He looks at Steve and his expression is injured and worried and confused.
"You were down there for five minutes, Cap," Natasha says slowly.
Steve's heart thuds against his chest. His blood rushes in his ears. His realization is cold and quiet and growing. "What's-what happened to your arm?" he asks Tony. Terror builds in the pit of Steve's stomach, climbs up his esophagus, starts bleeding in his mouth.
"You happened," Tony says.
Natasha steps forward next to Steve. "You dislocated it when Tony pulled you from the water. He left you with me, and went to go help Thor with the Wrecker and Piledriver. They've since been incapacitated, obviously."
Steve stares into the ground. "I broke your arm," he whispers. He has to work to get the words past his numb lips. They won't cooperate. "I broke your arm," he repeats. "I hurt you," he says, and something unravels just behind his skull. The truth, the desperate truth of it, breaks through the ice that had clouded his mind and dives into his irises. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm—," and his reedy voice gets swallowed by the air.
Steve reaches up and pulls his cowl off. He drops it. For an entire second, he wonders if he's even strong enough to walk away, if he even has the energy to keep breathing, wonders why his heart can't just stop beating right there.
But he turns around anyway because there's something he has to do.
"What the hell are you doing, Rogers?"
Steve slams the door to Dr. Wells' office shut and lets go of Fury's arm. Dr. Wells has stood up behind his desk, looking wide-eyed and shocked.
"You said, you said, said that if I was a danger to the team, then I had to be taken off. So take me off."
Dr. Wells asks, "Steve, what are you talking about? What do you mean danger?"
"I broke Tony's arm—"
"Dislocated it, Captain. Hell of a big difference there. Stark'll be fine in a month, tops."
Steve grits his teeth. "I hurt my teammate because I'm a liability, now take me off."
"It wasn't like you bent his arm behind his back, Rogers."
It's practically the same thing. Steve shakes his head. "Take me off the team, or I'm done with SHIELD altogether. You guys can find another Captain America."
"I'm not taking you off that team, Captain."
Steve doesn't know how it happens, but Fury's jacket is clenched in his fist, and he has the man pushed against the wall. "I shouldn't be on that team in the first place," Steve seethes. "Now take me off."
Fury's eyes flick over to the therapist.
"Fine. Six weeks leave. No active duty. If you don't have your shit together by then, we'll talk."
Steve lets him go and leaves. Dr. Wells yells at him down the hallway, but maybe Steve's too fast and maybe Steve's too much.
Steve had flown with the Avengers on Tony's airplane to Baltimore. All of his clothes and his cellphone are still sitting in his seat. Immediately after discovering he'd dislocated Tony's arm, he'd found himself a ride to New York with Agent Hill and told Sitwell to inform the Avengers that he was taking an alternate route back. SHIELD headquarters were four miles from Stark Tower. Steve, beyond exhausted, walks all of them. The air temperature is forty degrees, and it's three in the morning, and he's soaking wet, and he finds that he doesn't care.
Nobody bothers him when he takes the elevator to his floor. His fingers are so numb and uncoordinated that he spends ten minutes peeling his suit off. It has been twelve days. Thirteen days, it's after midnight. He struggles into four layers. When he looks down at his hand, his skin is an alarming shade of white and his digits are wooden and waxy.
He thinks that maybe, in that moment, he wants to die. He doesn't. He wants to sleep. He looks between the nest of blankets on the floor and his bed, and then he walks into his bathroom. He turns the shower on the hottest possible temperature and stands under the spray entirely clothed. Steve leans his head against the tile wall, and he thinks about how much he wants to cry, but he can't. He's too cold.
("You looked beautiful in your wedding dress," Steve says. He puts the frame back on the glass shelf above the bed.
"Do I know you?" Peggy asks. Her voice is frail and thin. Her skin is lined with age and her lips are always chapped. She forgets him.
"Yeah," Steve replies. "You did."
Peggy's tired eyes flash with something new, and then her eyes start to water. "George? Is that you? I missed you so much, George. I've missed you so much."
"I know you have," Steve reassures her. "I missed you, too."
She settles her shaking hand on his. "I love you. I love you so much."
Steve looks at the picture of Peggy and George on the couch, smiling at the camera with two little girls between them.
"I know you loved him," he says.
He's good at this game.)
("Steve. Wake up. Wake up, buddy." The insistent prodding pulls Steve from sleep, and he blinks blearily at Bucky. Steve closes his eyes again and asks, "What'd ya want."
"I can't sleep," Bucky says.
Steve hums from the back of his throat, grabs Bucky's bedroll, and pulls the entire thing closer to him. He goes for patting Bucky's head, but he thinks that he accidentally whacks his throat. Steve can feel the heat of Bucky's glare. "You're a shit best friend," Bucky grumbles, subtly scooting closer to Steve.
"Shouldna' helped me outta that fight when we were ten then," Steve slurs. "'S your fault. Stuck with me."
"You are the worst damn brother that I coulda picked outta the lot," Bucky grouses.
"No refunds on family," Steve yawns. "Still stuck with me."
"I know," Bucky says, and he sounds much too affectionate than the conversation warrants, but Steve falls asleep too fast to think about that.)
Steve hasn't slept in fifteen days. He hasn't left his floor since he came back from his conversation from Fury. He asks Jarvis how Tony's doing, and the computer informs him that Tony has to wear a sling, but he'll be fine in a few weeks. It doesn't fix anything.
He paces in his bedroom for hours, shoves his hands into his hair and realizes on the way up that all of his knuckles are scabbed and bleeding because he's been biting them. He doesn't remember doing it. He desperately tries to remember dislocating Tony's arm, but he can't. He only remembers hitting the water and panicking and being back in the freezer and being so cold and wanting to die.
It's been fifteen days since Steve's slept.
"Captain Rogers, Dr. Banner and Mr. Stark would like to speak with you. Shall I direct you to the elevator?"
Steve twitches at the sound of Jarvis's voice. He can't see them yet. It's only been hours since he hurt Tony, and Bruce would be mad.
"Could you tell them I'm asleep?" Steve asks.
"If you insist, Captain Rogers."
He thinks he sees Peggy.
She looks completely alive and young, standing in the corner of the room.
Steve falls to his knees in front of her, and she smiles and reaches her hand out, but then she disappears. The moment that he realizes that he just hallucinated her, Steve pulls his duffel bag out from the under the bed and starts packing. He doesn't remember the process of actually putting his clothing in the bag, but he blinks and the zipper's closed.
Jarvis gently prompts him into the elevator like Steve's a child, and Steve watches the city grow taller as he descents down. Everything is blurry and bright.
When the doors open again, Steve is standing in front of Tony and Bruce. Behind them, he can see Natasha, Clint, and Thor.
"Jesus, we thought we'd give you a few days to regroup. Have you slept at all? Your shirt's not even buttoned correctly, what happ—." Tony's uninjured arm is extending towards Steve, and he jerks back; he has to jerk back, he hurts people.
Bruce's voice rises warm and soft into Steve's ears. "You'd never hurt anyone on purpose, Steve."
"I did, though," Steve mutters, staring at the floor. He tightens his grip on his duffle bag and makes his way towards the door.
His wrist is caught just before he reaches for the handle, and he's forced to turn around.
"Where are you going?" Natasha asks.
"SHIELD," he says. The lights above his head flare and grow dim every time he blinks. Everything is white. He hears muttering and Bruce going shhh.
"Why?" Natasha pushes, perfectly even-keeled. When his eyes go out of focus, her hair is Peggy's hair.
Steve feels completely exposed, like a nerve. He settles on telling them the truth. They deserve it, probably already know it. But he should tell them for himself. "I'm not on the team anymore—shouldn't be. I'm a liability."
The grip grip on his wrist is firm. "How are you a liability?"
"I hurt Tony," Steve says. He pulls his hand away from her, because he's still strong enough to do that, and rubs at his face. "I shouldn't be here. I should-I shoulda—you should've left me in the ice."
Nails dig into bicep. "When's the last time you slept, Steve?"
"Fifteen days." He frowns when he discovers that her hand is latched onto his dufflebag. "I need to go."
"Why SHIELD," she grates. "Why there?"
Steve debates that for several seconds. His breaths start to come and go faster in his chest. The lump in his throat builds until it physically throbs. His eyes burn because everything is bright and everything hurts. "Because you're dead, Peggy," he whispers. "You're dead, and so is Bucky. Everyone's dead. And this-this team doesn't. I'm useless to them."
Peggy looks shocked and sick, and he doesn't want to see that. "You're not useless."
"I should be dead," Steve says, squinting into the ground. "When that plane crashed, I should've died."
A rough, strangled down sound echoes from Peggy's throat, and she looks up at him. "Please stay here, Steve."
"No," he argues. "No. I might still be in love with you, but you're dead, so that doesn't matter."
"I'm not Peggy, Steve." Her hand tugs at the dufflebag. "I'm Natasha. I'm asking you to let it go and stay here."
She matches the strength of his grip and looks him in the eye.
"Please let go and stay here," she says, slowly and carefully and desperately.
"Why?" Steve asks, utterly lost.
Howard-Howard-Howard Tony Stark puts his hand over Steve's clenched fingers, and the moment he does, Steve's fist opens like a limp flower, and the bag drops to the floor. "Because you're Steve Rogers; you like to be a pain in my ass, and whether you think so or not, you're a part of this goddamn team, and we're going to keep you."
Thank you very much for waiting. If this part was a complete letdown compared to the first, please be gentle when you inform me of that. That fear is 99% of why it took me so long to write this.
Reviews would be delightful; rant for hours about how much you hated it. The reviews for the first chapter were truly spectacular and I love each and every one of them, even if I'm a lazy, overworked college student who doesn't prove it by answer all of the reviews! They were great!
In other news:
My muse has determined that part three will be the conclusion to this story. It will be entitled cohesion.