Inside the facility, it's like a warzone.
As soon as Steve exits the decontamination chamber, the gas enshrouds him like coils of constantine wire, and his breath hitches when his first inhale is met with painful, burning resistance. His eyes stream, and he shuts them quickly as he suppresses a cough. For the first time in his life, he's grateful they included the gas chamber in basic training. This is far more intense than a little CS, of course, but he appreciates the additional experience all the same.
When Steve's able to force his eyes open with herculean effort, because he knows they will sting and weep, he's struck by what he finds through the blur of involuntary tears. The reception area immediately beyond the entry point is dark, lit only by the steady pulse of flashing, red emergency lights. Alarms blare in a deafening rhythm, low and ominous, and the burning vapor is a visible presence all around him, creating a thick, hazy aura.
God, why him?
Their initial plan of action was to send in the Hulk, but with the chemical make-up of the crawling vapor being largely unknown, this notion became an impossibility. Bruce was adamant that the Hulk's reaction to the extreme environment would be unpredictable. Hulk adapts physically to sustain himself when exposed to less than desirable dangers by utilizing untapped rage, therefore creating even more dangerous circumstances than what they already face. Protective equipment already proved a failure against this substance, and with Thor having left for Asgard literally minutes before the call, Stark's suit would have been invaluable in their rescue effort.
So Steve's reaction was expected and barely even registered on a thoughtful level. He ignored Fury's insistent protests and charged in with little reservations because the serum is the best thing they have, and he'd be damned if he lets innocent people die when he can do something to prevent it.
And now, looking around himself with swiftly growing anxiety, exposed flesh seemingly melting and lungs turning to ash in his chest, Steve wishes he had a damn Iron Man suit of his own.
The facility is deceptively large, with most of the architecture existing underground, and little is known about the locations of the six missing personnel trapped within. There's three hallways in front of him that disappear into suffocating, uninviting darkness, and he has not a clue which one to take, so he goes off a hunch, taking the one to his right and sprinting into what can only be hell on Earth.
Steve's quick, tactical mind memorizes his steps, and soon he reaches a flight of stairs, descending quickly into the gasping pit below. His heart is racing oddly just from that relatively tiny amount of physical activity, and Steve realizes then that he needs to evacuate the victims as soon as possible, because if Steve Rogers is being affected this badly by whatever this is, he'll be lucky to find living people in this nightmare.
And he can't stop thinking angrily about how much easier this could have been had Stark shown up with his scanners. He coughs raggedly and eventually finds that he's unable to stop.
Turning left into another hallway at the bottom of the stairwell, he's greeted with a series of doors which lead into what look like individual quarters. Gasping and coughing into his elbow, unable to draw in a full breath, Steve begins kicking in the doors, moving inside each room to make entirely sure that no one's there. And when he sweeps around the bed of the fifth one and spots a woman lying on her side, his shock causes him to hesitate in a momentary, wide-eyed, debilitating instance of wasted seconds.
No photographic documentation exists of the effects of the black plague, which nearly decimated the population of Europe, but if Steve should take a bet, he'd bet the physical aspects of it closely resembled this. Lesions cover most areas of exposed skin, surrounded by a deep, penetrating black, and the way her eyes are still open, staring lifelessly into nothing, leaves Steve's blood running icy through his veins. He'd have nightmares about this.
Shaking himself from his stupor, Steve bends down to feel for a pulse at her carotid, and after a moment, he finds it, weak but steady. God, it's a miracle.
He hefts the woman up onto his shoulder, careful to avoid brushing against the wounds, and stops for a moment of split second decision making. He has two options. He could either run and grab the other five victims, wasting more time and possibly killing them all, or he could evacuate this woman immediately and save at least one of them, maybe. Hopefully.
Damn you, Tony.
Steve leaves the way he came, bounding through hallways, and cycling over his memorized steps as he runs. All the while, he coughs and hacks and gags. When he exits the building, the dry desert heat is, ironically enough, akin to running into a soothing, misty cloud because the alternative inside is just so awful. Nose running and face burning, he sprints to the crowd of evacuated employees and deposits the woman with a medical team. Clint and Natasha are there and they eye him worriedly. Fury yells something, but Steve's hearing has fallen offline. Not that he would listen anyway.
He turns and runs back in. Because who's going to stop him? Really?
Assuming that SHIELD detected the gas relatively quickly and cordoned off the affected area nearly as fast, containing it at its initial origin, Steve returns to the living area. He finds another person five doors down, a man who looks like he'd been coming out of the bathroom when it hit, and Steve grabs him, flings him over his shoulder, and repeats his actions from before.
After relocating the man outside, Steve stumbles and vomits next to the medical vehicle. Fury doesn't say a word. He runs back in without a second glance.
The third person is further beyond the individual rooms, collapsed inside a sort of large common area, with a TV and a couch and kitchenette, and Steve is so short of breath he can barely stand by the time he reaches it. With squinted, watering eyes, he shuffles along the wall, holding himself upright against it, and as he nears the unconscious man and steps away to grab him, his legs buckle and he falls to the ground. "Dammit…" He rasps, looking toward the man. Deadened eyes stare back at him. Steve turns his face away with a guilty wince.
There's gas seeping into his open, sweating pores, a million little needles stabbing his throbbing face. He's beyond coughing now, reduced to tiny, quick, gravelly breaths, and he feels his strength draining from him, swirling away like water from a bathtub. His body is burning with effort and pain. Muscles spasm with the beginnings of nerve damage, an electric shock through each ending.
And, growling furiously, Steve grits his teeth and high crawls through it all anyway, focusing all his efforts on the man's outstretched hand, a limb unconsciously reaching for anyone willing to brave this to save him.
But the man's got to be thirteen feet away from Steve, and the small space between them is like a howling chasm.
Steve releases a desperate cry of frustration. C'mon, left knee up, left elbow up, push with foot, pull with elbow; right knee up, right elbow up, push with foot, pull with elbow. Dammit, somehow this was so much easier back when he was an eighty pound asthmatic.
Arms quiver beneath his weight, legs shake as they weakly push him forward, and there's something cynical in his mind, telling him to just give up and lie down, to stop torturing himself for the sake of a lost cause… to just accept that he'll die here. That damn near a century of cheating death will finally catch up with him. Perhaps he's been given too many chances already. Shadows glaze over paling blue eyes.
His elbow slips, but he catches it quickly with a snarl. And then the nerves in his legs bunch up like crumpled pieces of paper and he's unable to go any further. He rests his forehead on the cool ground beneath him. Takes in as deep a breath as he can muster, and weathers the cough it forces from his heaving chest
Well… at least he'll die warm this time.
He sees blinding blue light to his left, and turns his head slowly towards it, eyes squinted against its intensity. It's warm and comforting. And if Steve could use his legs, he'd gladly get up and walk to it. Instead, he lies there and allows it to come to him, bathing him in its otherworldly serenity and the strangest thought suddenly strikes him, a thought he would never consider appropriate immediately before an angel takes you;
'I wish I would have stopped being so angry, if just for a moment, to check and see if Tony was okay.'
And isn't that just like Steve Rogers? Considering others as he himself kisses death.
If Steve was to ever escape this by some miracle, he'd definitely strangle their resident eccentric genius with his own shoelaces.
A/N: Oh god, please don't kill me! Next chapter will be up soon as humanly possible.
I struggled with this one for a while, and even had the rest of the story written out, but it just didn't feel right because I am my own fucking worst critic, I swear. Not to mention how overwhelmed I am with the response to this story! It's almost nerve wracking how many people expect so much out of this and suddenly I have this crazy self-created standard I must uphold.
Anyway, don't fall off the edge of that cliff hanger, please! I truly do love you guys. Thank you for all the support!