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Third Chances

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Steve quietly submits to medication (not that he has a choice), but he balks at therapy. He can’t help it. He simply does not want to talk about these things. In the 1930s when he grew up, you just didn’t air out your dirty laundry like that. And he does not think that talking will do anything anyway. He tries once again to pass everything off with an ‘I’m fine.’ Unsurprisingly, Dr. Welker doesn’t buy it. No one else does either.

Instead, she gives him a few days to ‘think about it,’ without actually specifying that ‘it’ is, and gives him a few books to read. The implication is clear that if he isn’t spending his time reading, he will be spending it talking. He decides to read.

It does not surprise him at all that one of the books is about psychology, and how the field has changed over the last 100 years. The other two are a bit unexpected. The second book is a biography of someone dealing with grief, and third is a biography of him. Steve had steadfastly avoided reading anything about himself, particularly things published by the so-called experts.

He is not excited about any of these books but he decides to give them a try because he always liked to read and anything is better than resurrecting the past only to try and pretend it didn’t happen.

Steve starts with the book he thinks will be the easiest and the least likely to actually force him to think about his circumstance. Ironically, it happens to be the one about psychology. However, it only takes him getting through the introduction for him to realize that what he ‘knows’ about psychology is almost hysterically out-of-date. By chapter three, he is willing to admit that maybe he should give counselling a try. And by chapter 8, he has to give Welker some grudging admiration that she found such an innocuous way of telling him to pull his head out of his ass without actually saying that to his face. He mulls over the contents of the book before deciding to call it a night (it only took him half a day to read it).

The next morning he decides to get started in on the book about grief. Not that he wants to read it, but he firmly believes that anything will be less cringe-worthy than reading about himself. While the first book was an amusing and occasionally humorous this book falls firmly into the category of ‘self-help’. The central ‘character’ as it were is a man who lost his entire extended family in an earthquake. Steve only makes it through the first two chapters before he has to put it down, and take a few minutes of deep breaths. The moment the book starts referring to his lost ‘loved ones’ Steve gets sucked into a quagmire of all the people he misses. This spirals into whirlpool of homesickness that pulls him into despair, and he wants to go back in time so much he can barely breathe.

Steve gets up and has to pace for almost an hour before he can bring himself to sit down and try again. He bulldozes his way through the book because he promised, but he is as superficial as he can possibly be. The book is filled with exercises he doesn’t do, and passages he only glances at. He justifies this by reminding himself that he had agreed to read the book, but he had not promised to not engage with it. It takes him until dinnertime before he is finally done, and when his meal comes he can’t eat it, the roiling of his mind being mirrored by his stomach. Instead, he curls up on his cot before the lights even go out, too emotionally numbed out to move. As far as he is concerned, the day is over. He ends up sending the next day in bed too, so numbed with grief he feels frozen again. When he could hide in the tower and do this unobserved, he would tell himself he was having a bad day. With witnesses, well, he starts to realize that maybe something is wrong with him.

Steve picks up the third book the morning after with a sense of dread.

He had already ‘slept in’, taken an extra-long shower, exercised, taken another shower, and he literally has nothing else to do. If he puts it off any more he is worried that Welker will call him out on it.

Mentally girding his loins and strapping on his shield, he retrieves the book from the floor and curls up on the bed. He glances at the back first. The book proudly displays the statement ‘most up-to-date account of the life and death of Captain Steven Grant Rogers’. He finds the title a bit melodramatic. He looks at the date. It was published just a month before he was defrosted.

 

We all like to think we know Captain America. That we grew up with him watching over us from posters on our walls. When we think of him, we conjure in our mind’s eye the handsome smile and the cheekbones flashed in the war propaganda films. We all know Captain America, but what about Captain Rogers? What drove a sickly asthmatic to defy boundaries of social norms and take on seemingly impossible missions?

This book is an account of Captain Steven Rogers, more commonly known as Captain America. However, it is not an account of his success in individual conflicts nor his influence as a figurehead during WWII. Instead, it is a book about the character, charisma and – some would argue – conceit of America’s favourite war-time hero. Captain Rogers was assuredly a man of determination, but he was also deeply flawed. His stubbornness was as legendary as his bravery, and his staunchly black and white views of right and wrong served to hinder as much as help him.

This book looks at the last year of Captain Roger’s life before his death in the Arctic. Using the most up-to-date psychology and recently unearthed sources from the Howling Commandos and others, we get to know the real Steve Rogers. We get to know what drives a man with a deep sense of humor to stop laughing, a devout Catholic to stop praying, and a hero to lose his hope. In the end we learn that Captain Rogers was just a man, like any other man on the front, one that was strong enough to be beat the Nazis and Hydra only to succumb to the invisible injuries of war.

 

Steve can’t even open the front cover, which displays a picture of him and Bucky in full uniform standing next to a jeep and laughing at some long-forgotten joke. He isn’t sure if his hands are shaking with anger or fear, but he does know why there are tears pouring out of his eyes.

It takes Steve most of the morning to pull himself together and he seriously considers refusing to read the book. But as it innocently sits on his bed, pretending to be harmless, he starts to feel like a fool. He is also grabbed by the absurd need to prove the book wrong. And the only way he can do that is to read it. And then maybe write a strongly worded letter.

He sits back down and reaches for the book the same way he would reach for a live snake. He knows that picking it up, and that reading it, is going to hurt.

And he is right. The quotes get to him the most. He can’t help but hear the voices of the people in his head as he reads them.

“I ain’t never seen a pair as thick as thieves as little Stevie Rogers and that Barnes boy. I remember one summer those two running all over hell and back when Stevie was well enough. They were such a mismatched pair. One light, one dark. One big and one small. But you could tell they cared about each other - and soon the whole neighborhood forgot they weren’t brothers, paying no mind to how different they looked.”
Siobahn O’Leary

Steve smiled. He remembered Mrs. O’Leary, a dour older widow who would always yell at them when they got too loud in the alley, but at the same time would occasionally stop by the Rogers’ house to drop off an extra plate or two of food that she had ‘accidentally’ cooked too much of. This usually happened when the work was thin and he and his mom struggled to put food on the table or when Steve has been particularly ill. He wondered what had happened to her.

“If Steve was the brains of the Howlies then Bucky was the heart. You just wanted to spend time with him, like he had a radius of warmth that no freezing- cold German winter could get through. With Bucky around there was always a little bit of summer, a little bit of home. After he fell, suddenly the cold could get in. Not only of the winter, and that year it was a doozy, but the creeping chill of hopelessness. And Steve, it hit him the worst.”
Dum Dum Dugan

Steve read the passage again and again. Dum Dum had nailed it. Bucky had been warmth and ever since he had lost him, Steve had been cold. Maybe it wasn’t the ice he was remembering at all.

“I knew as soon as I heard Steve on the radio that I wouldn’t see him again; that is would be the last time we would speak. I could hear it in his voice. He wasn’t scared, he just sounded determined. Determined and tired. He knew what had to be done and I think he found a bit of relief in knowing that the choice was taken away from him. Even if there was an alternative, I am not sure if he would have taken it.”
Director Margaret “Peggy” Carter. S.H.I.E.L.D.

While each of the other books had taken him less than a day, this book takes him almost a week. He gets more and more out of sorts as his sleep is increasingly disturbed by nightmares.

He can barely get through a single chapter without it feeling like he is being peeled out of his skin. He has to keep stopping. Either he gets sucked into the past only to jerk back to the present and realized that minutes or even hours have passed without his knowledge or his eyes simply refuse to focus as they flow over with tears.

He knows this story. He was there. But he only saw if from the inside. It is like a slap in the face each time he comes across another quote which highlights how he changed. Dernier talking about how he used to tell jokes, but that stopped at the border of Germany. General Phillips commenting on how his patriotism, while admirable and necessary for a figurehead, reached a level bordering on obsession. The worst was a letter that someone had found from Bucky to his sister Rebecca. In between his heavily edited stories about France he notes that Steve, always a devout Catholic, had stopped praying. That he had stuffed his mother’s rosary deep into his pack and never brought it out.

He finally finishes the book on the afternoon of the fifth day.

By all accounts Captain Rogers could have found a way to stop the Valkyrie without sacrificing his life. And by all accounts he didn’t even try. This is not to say that he was actively, or even consciously, attempting suicide.

With the successful destruction, or so he believed, of HYDRA, Captain Rogers would have known that the war was coming to an end. For a man defined by war, this would have meant a loss of purpose. He had already lost his family, his best friend, and his faith. It takes just a little empathy to understand how a man in that situation, particularly when offered such a heroic alternative, would have seen going down with the Valkyrie not as the ultimate sacrifice, but the possibility of peace.

Steve is trembling when he finishes the book. His mind is a mess and he doesn’t know what to do with his body or the electricity that has been building up in his veins. How could the author have known? It felt like someone had laid him out on a table, flayed him open, and then spread his insides all over those pages for anyone to see. It felt worse than being naked in front of a crowd.

Before he recognizes what was happening, Steve is on his knees gasping for breath. He chest clenching in what he would swear was an asthma attack, and all he can hear is static as his hands and feet go numb. He feels like he is literally choking on some unidentifiable emotion. His gaze is locked on the floor and black spots are appearing before his eyes when he senses, more than hears, someone kneel in front of him.

Fuck. He’s having a panic attack. Right in front of everyone.

Without looking up, he focuses on the feet in front of him. The feet, which are wearing SHIELD issues boots, quickly turn into knees as the person kneels. It is one of his babysitters, a mid-height guy with a broad chest and a baby face.

“Captain Rogers, can you hear me?” Steve looks up at the voice, which is muted by the static in his ears, and nods.

The agent meets Steve’s eyes and, seeing that Steve recognizes him, reaches out and pulls Steve’s hand to his own chest. “Breathe along with me,” he instructs, then starts taking a series of slow deep breaths. Steve can both hear them and well as feel the Agent’s chest through his hand. Steve struggles to follow along. It is only after several unsuccessful attempts that he makes it through 3 breaths in a row. Then five. Then ten.

As feeling starts to come back into his hands and feet, Steve starts to get embarrassed. But before he can give it too much thought, the agent stands up and gently presses Steve back against the platform that serves as his bed. Steve goes, and is surprised when the agent sits down next to him. Not too close to be in Steve’s space, but close enough that Steve could reach out and touch him if he wanted.

They just sit this way for what seems like ages. Steve, with his eyes closed, following along with the other man’s breathing. The other man doesn’t say anything. And for that, Steve is grateful.

 

Steve is unsurprised when Dr. Welker make an appearance later in the day.

“Steve,” she calls to get his attention. He is seated on his bed, staring off into space. He is shivering even though he does not get cold.

“I heard what happened this afternoon.” She starts without preamble. Steve just nods; he is sure it is all on video, too. He waits for an ‘I told you so’ from Welker.

“Panic attacks can be scary, are you alright?”

The question makes him uncomfortable, so he just nods and rubs a hand over his face. Even if he isn’t sure it’s the truth.

“Would you prefer more books? Or are you ready to start in on the counseling?” Welker makes it sound like a choice. It isn’t.

Steve rubs his face again, exhausted even though he has no reason to be. The books were so much harder to get through than he had imagined. He could only guess at what else she could find for him. He knew when he was outmatched, and he decided for a tactical retreat. Maybe he would have better luck with talking.

“I am done with the books,” he replies. Welker nods her head, playing along in his attempt to regain some control.

“Alright, I have assigned another psych evaluation, and I have one request. Are you willing to hear it?” Steve nods again.

“I need you to be honest. And I need you to be yourself. Do you understand what I am asking?”

He nods, more defeated than accepting. He doesn’t want to bleed all over these people and destroy their childhood idol.

“Steve,” her voice is pitched softly. “This is going to be much like anything else you have done. You get out of it what you put into it. But you cannot address a problem you refuse to recognize. You don’t strike me as a man who backs down and avoids the truth - I am asking you to do the same here.” She let her words hang in the air and Steve is a bit impressed at her ability to give an inspiring speech that simultaneously threatens to label him a coward.

He nods again.

When Dr. Webber returns for another evaluation, Steve is honest.