Steve could feel the pressure of something soft pressing gently against his back. From some unknown point between his should blades he slowly became aware of his back, then his hips and legs. He was lying down. Next came his arms, which felt weightless; his hands further away from him then they really could be. Next came his head. Which felt like it was stuffed with cotton. In fact, the only part he could really feel was his jaw, which felt like lead, weighed down and threatening to cut into his neck.
He tried to open his eyes but they were not listening to him. Tried to move his arms, but they remained unresponsive and too far away to call to attention. At least he could hear. Gentle swishing noises, like something breathing, a steady beep…beep…beep. Muttered voices. He tried to talk, but his lead jaw refused to move. So he waited. And while he waited he was dragged back under.
The second time Steve woke up, his arms were closer, and he could feel bedsheets beneath his hands. He could also smell disinfectant and knew immediately that he was on a bed, and likely in a hospital. What had happened? Where was he?
He searched his mind, but only came up with a few scattered facts. He knew who he was. And that it was the 21st Century. He knew he was an Avenger. But that was it. Who they were fighting, or how he had ended up here was a blank. They had beaten Loki, he remembered that. And a host of other B-list villains. They were dismantling Hydra, and he was looking for Bucky. And then…nothing.
Steve tried to open his eyes, only to immediately blink them closed gain when they were skewered with harsh fluorescent lights. He tried again, slowly this time. And managed to get his left eye open. The right one remained stubbornly closed, though Steve didn’t know why.
It took a moment for his eye to focus, and he caught sight of a shoulder off to his right. Because his nose was in the way, he couldn’t see who the shoulder belonged to. He tried to turn his head, but was prevented by what appeared to be a stiff pillow in his way.
He wasn’t successful in moving, but his shifting managed to get the shoulder’s attention. The shoulder turned, and a head came into view. It was Sam.
Steve felt relief. At least Sam was okay. If they were in a fight bad enough to take him out then it must have been a pretty nasty fight. He tried to ask Sam how everyone else was, but couldn’t. There was something in his mouth, and he couldn’t feel his tongue. In fact, he couldn’t feel the lower part of his face at all. He blinked in alarm, and looked around as best he could from his stationary position. If he looked towards his nose he could see a variety of tubes going into where he figured his mouth would be.
He reached up to pull at the tubes; to ask someone to take them out. But he couldn’t. His arm wouldn’t budge. He tried the other arm and that wouldn’t budge either.
Steve turned his eyes to Sam. He couldn’t see Sam’s due to the shadows, but his shoulders were tense. He looked…upset…no, angry. Something was wrong. Steve shifted and raised his eyebrows at Sam in what he hoped was a ‘What happened?’ gesture.
“You were unsuccessful,” Sam stated in a voice totally devoid of emotion, strangely disembodied from the shadows of the room. “But it wasn’t for lack of trying.” Sam turned his head away like he was trying to pull himself together. Or like he couldn’t stand to look at Steve.
Steve was confused. He was unsuccessful in doing what? Had they lost? Was Sam angry because they had lost? Steve couldn’t even remember who they were fighting. Was his team okay?
When Sam looked back at Steve he must have caught sight of his expression. He clearly interpreted it as a question about Steve’s condition. “You’ll live. The bullet travelled through the roof of your mouth, blew out your right eye, and took out a good chunk of your frontal lobe. If you were anybody but you, it would have worked, you would be dead.” Sam’s voice got flatter and flatter the more he said, like he was giving a status report and not talking to his best friend.
“Miracle of all miracles, your brain and eye are actually growing back. You have been in a coma for almost three weeks. If you keep healing, it looks like you will make a full recovery.” Sam let out a sigh and looked down at his hands.
Steve’s mind raced. Someone had shot him? He didn’t remember. Steve didn’t have time to follow that thought to the end. Sam finally turned toward Steve and moved into the light cast by the lamp over his bed. For the first time Steve could see that his eyes were red. He had been crying.
“Why didn’t you tell us Steve?” He asked. His voice a confusing mixture of furious and heartbroken. “We could have helped you. How could you try and kill yourself?”
Steve did not get a chance to ask his questions. Too muddled by drugs and (apparently) a brain injury. Instead, he floated in and out of consciousness for what seemed like years. Flashes of nurses changing IVs, lights flashing in his eyes, choking on tubes, and warm wet rags moving over his body were interspersed with long spaces of fuzzy emptiness.
By the time he was able to drag consciousness around him like a tattered cloak, he was somewhere else. The beep…beep was gone. And so was Sam. He was still only able to see out of one eye, but he could feel the other eye moving listlessly in its socket, and the fabric of a gauze wrap that seemed to keep it covered.
He could feel the lower part of his face and he took a moment to enjoy feeling his tongue as it flopped in his mouth. Once he felt he had adequate control over it, he did a thorough investigation of his mouth. No more tubes it seemed. And all of his teeth seemed to be there. But the roof of his mouth still had the taste of a fresh wound. Tangy and right on the edge of blood. It was a mass of alternately very sensitive and completely numb scar tissue. Steve licked his lips, while lazily blinking up at the ceiling. He was trying to figure out how much of the least few days (weeks?) had been real.
“You’re an asshole,” said a gruff voice from off to his right.
This time Steve was able to turn his head, and found himself eye-to-eye with none other than Tony Stark.
Steve didn’t know what to say. So he tried to say the first thing that came to his mind.
“Is everyone okay?” At least, that is what he tried to say. It came out more like “Ish effreyon ‘kay?”
Stark transformed from indifferent to raging in the blink of an eye, “No, you dick! Everyone is not okay! How are we supposed to be okay when Captain fucking Perfect loses his mind and tries to blow his head off and none of us had ANY idea!” Tony got up and started to pace.
“God dammit, Steve!” he snarled, “What the hell were you thinking!?”
Steve blinked, and tried to sit up; he was uncomfortable being on his back and vulnerable around someone who was so clearly furious with him. But he couldn’t sit up. He couldn’t move his arms and legs at all. Steve looked down. His wrists and ankles were clamped to the bed with heavy-duty magnetic cuffs. His forearms, chest, waist and knees were strapped down with formidable looking leather straps.
Steve could suddenly feel the straps tightening around his chest and struggled for breath, trying not to freak out. At his distress, Tony stalked over, but settled for glaring and for once didn’t have anything to say.
Steve had to make them understand, “I don’t remember” he gasped at Tony.
He wasn’t sure if it was his clear desperation or not, but for some reason Tony listened to him. ‘You what?’ He asked, clearly still angry but at least waiting.
‘ ‘don r’member, wha hap’nd’ Steve slurred. Damn, his mouth was dry.
That gave Tony pause. “You don’t remember the call to Maine? Or getting whammied by that spell? You don’t remember putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger?” Tony’s eyes were narrowed, like he wasn’t sure if Steve was tricking him or not.
Steve felt his brows pull together. He did remember something. He did remember getting sent to Maine on some sort of disturbance. And then…nothing. He shook his head to answer Tony’s question.
He pulled his gaze back to Tony and tried to work up some moisture in his mouth before he responded. Tony evidently realized what he was trying to do and, from somewhere he couldn’t see, produced a cup of ice. A few ice chips later, Steve felt he could peel his parched tongue off the roof of his mouth long enough to communicate.
“E’fy one ‘okay?” He asked.
Steve’s question took all of the wind out of Tony’s sails. Once the anger had left his face Tony just looked, suddenly, every day of his 51 years. Steve had never realized it before, but Tony looked old.
“Yeah, Steve” He said. “Everyone is okay. We all got hit, but no one else reacted like you. Everyone has been back on their feet for a few weeks” He paused and shifted, his gaze skating to the side. “Now we are just worried about you.”
Steve didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to ask what had happened to him, afraid that what Sam had said was true. Tony seemed to be waiting for him to speak, and when he didn’t he ran his scarred hand over his face. His goatee was looking a bit ragged.
“You are still an asshole,” he growled, but his heart wasn’t into it. Steve just nodded. He could still feel a cannula pulling at his nose, and something taped to his face.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Steve still trying to piece together his fragmented thoughts. It was uncharacteristic for Tony to be silent for more than a few second, but this time he didn’t appear to have anything to say. Steve knew he should be worried. Or that he should feel something at all. But he doesn’t. Physically he is stiff and he must be on some impressive pain killers because he feels pleasantly numb. Emotionally, he is strapped down as tightly as he was to the gurney. He just felt a sense of disconnected disbelief.
“What now?” Steve asked, more out of habit then anything else.
Tony looked at Steve before pointedly looking around the room. For the first time since he woke up, Steve used his one good eye to scan his surrounding. He recognized immediately where he was. It was one of the hulk containment cells that had been constructed by SHIELD before Bruce has become a tenuous ally. It was specifically designed to keep something like the Hulk from getting out. It would be more then adequate to keep Steve where he was.
“Now,” Tony said softly, after Steve had looked his fill, “you focus on getting better.”
And Steve did get better, at least physically. He faded in and out of consciousness, under what he assumed was partially due to his body focusing all of his energy toward healing and partially at what he suspected were some pretty powerful sedatives in one of the two IVs snaking into his arms.
He only vaguely recalled nurses and doctors coming and going. There were several instances of someone coming into the room and talking to him. He doesn’t remember what they asked, but that he did try to answer. Sometimes he struggled to the surface fighting horrible nightmares of icy water filling is lungs, of being frozen, and of watching the rest of the world die around him.
The next time he woke up fully, it felt like both a moment and a week, his mouth felt fine and the low-grade headache he had sported was fading into the background. There was still a piece of gauze over his eye, be he could now see grey instead of an absence of color entirely.
Steve checked his arms and legs and was unsurprised to find himself still restrained. His legs were still strapped down to what looked like an actual bed as opposed to a hospital bed with magnetic cuffs adhering directly to something in the bed frame. His wrists were similarly secured, but the cuffs looked different than before. These ones were more like gauntlets than handcuffs, extending from his wrists to half-way up his forearms. They were thicker than the other cuffs and also appeared to have some sort of computerized component. He gave them a half-hearted tug, but aside from one of the lights flashing from green to yellow and back, nothing gave.
He blinked his one good eye and then rolled it around in the socket to get himself oriented. He then craned his neck. From what he could tell, he was still in one of the hulk-proof rooms but the monitors that had been there previously were gone. Instead the room was now equipped with a table, two uncomfortable looking plastic chairs, and the bed he was lying on. If there was anything else in the room he couldn’t make it out. The only light he could see was coming from an exit sign on the other side of the glass viewing wall and what looked to be the glow of buttons and dials in the surrounding observation room that he could not see from his vantage point.
Steve lay his head back down and stared at the ceiling. His mind was tumbling, but getting no traction: apathy, anger, anxiety and back again. Fatigued morphed into anger that his supposed allies had left him strapped down in a cell. Then he could feel rage burn its way up his throat, only to be washed away by anxiety. Oh God. What had he done??
Mostly, he felt nothing. His rampant thoughts burdened by a nameless and seemingly inexhaustible fatigue. He was vaguely aware that he was thirsty. And that at some point his hospital gown had been exchanged for white scrubs. But those were the only thoughts that swam through his head as he lay there for what felt like hours.
His first indication that something was changing was the gradual change in light from an almost impenetrable darkness to hint at vibrance. Almost imperceptibly the illumination in both his cell and the observation room began to get brighter, as though the sun were rising. It took Steve a while to locate the sources of the light. All around the ceiling, tucked back into the walls, were nearly invisible light panels which were mimicking the rising of the sun. Steve was willing to bet that these were not part of the original design and he wondered idly why they had been installed. From the way he could sense the room starting to warm and the tone of the light he could tell that they were UV.
After almost thirty minutes of increasing brightness the next change was the audible click with which both his wrist and ankle restraints released from the bed frame. From one moment to the next whatever had been powering the magnets released and for the first time since he woke up, Steve was free.
He almost wished he weren’t. The burden of making a decision, any decision at all, quickly siphoned away what little energy he had. I wondered what would happen if he just continued to lay here.
But now that he had choices Steve felt a compulsion to so something. He took a deep breath, and then another, before slowly reaching up his right hand and rubbing it over his jaw. It felt…fine, which was a surprise. He gently traced his finger tips across his chin and neck. Nothing. No scars, no tenderness, no evidence that he had done what they claimed he had. He didn’t even have a beard but instead appeared to be freshly shaven.
He next traced his fingers over his face towards his eye. He hesitated over the gauze and opted to leave it in place. He settled instead for rolling his eye back and forth in the socket. He could feel it move and it felt…normal, at least as normal as he could remember his eyes feeling. He tried to blink, but could only feel the eyelid twitching.
“Captain Rogers.” The voice had the tinny quality of being heard through a speaker, and Steve located the speaker in the corner of the room before he noticed the woman in a white jacket standing before the main wall of his cell. And that is what it was. A cell. Steve was under no illusions he was free to go.
Steve turned his head to look at the woman before sitting up. He briefly considered standing but the sudden swimming of his head at his first movement made him reconsider. He settled for placing his bare feet on the cold concrete of the floor. He braced his hands on either side of the bed to keep his surprisingly weak body upright before raising his head to look at the woman.
Seeing through only one eye, she was oddly two-dimensional. She did not have classically feminine features but would rather be considered ‘handsome’ by the terms of the 1940s. Strong features led to clearly intelligent eyes. She stood with confidence and Steve’s eyes were draw to her eye-wateringly yellow scarf before they made their way to her warm brown eyes.
“Captain Rogers,” she said again, the tinny voice coming from the side, ‘Can you year me?”
Steve broke the eye contact to nod before looking at her again. For some reasons, he didn’t feel comfortable looking her in the eye.
“Do you know where you are?”
Steve nodded again, before answering “SHIELD. In one of the Hulk containment rooms.” He had to clear this throat afterwards. Clearly, he had not spoken in a while.
“And do you know why you are here?” She asked.
The question did not have any different intonation than the other two, but Steve tensed. From the corner of his eye he could see the woman look down at a Starkpad in her hand.
He nodded, but did not answer, instead choosing to look at the floor. He suddenly felt tired.
“Can you tell me why that is?” She pressed.
He wasn’t sure why, but her question made him angry.
Steve forced his head up and met her gaze. Her face remained impassive. “My guess is because Tony says I tried to kill myself.” He attempted to keep his voice as neutral as she did.
“And did you?” She asks.
Steve wasn’t expecting that question. Not at all, and his anger flowed into confusion. Did he? He briefly considered lying but given the evidence, he didn’t think he would fool anyone. He opted for honesty instead.
“I don’t remember,” Steve mumbled, more to himself than to her. He rubbed his face with one hand before pressing on the bridge of his nose. It was weird, but he had a headache.
She nodded, seemingly un-phased by his admission. “Given the trauma you suffered to your brain, I am not surprised you don’t recall. The area damaged is the same one responsible for short term memory.” She paused for a moment and again looked at the Starkpad in her hand.
“Maybe you can answer this question instead,” her voice got softer and Steve found himself leaning toward her. “Were you surprised when Tony said that’s what you did?”
“Of course I was,” he responded automatically, “But I guess that’s the spell.”
She pursed her lips. “No, Captain Rogers,” her contradiction surprised him. “The spell simply removed the inhibitions of anyone it struck.”
What? Steve thought. What a weird spell. He didn’t have the opportunity to follow that thought any further.
“Do you know how it affected your other team members?”
Steve shook his head, but immediately became worried again. He stood, and was surprised to find himself staggering until he could find his balance. It only took him four steps to make his way from the raised platform that was serving as a bed and the clear partition. “Tony said everyone was okay.” He had to place his hand on the partition to keep his balance.
“They are,” She assured. “You were the only member of the Avengers who was hurt.”
Steve swayed on his feet. The world looking oddly flat, and he was forced to turn his head at a weird angle to see her clearly.
“Many of the affects were quite banal,” she continued. “One of our SHIELD agents went up to their supervisor and cussed him out, Agent’s Romanoff and Barton started to get...well…amorous. And Mr. Stark reportedly left the battle with the intention of heading to the nearest bar to acquire their strongest whiskey. It caused Dr. Banner to transform into the Hulk, who then neutralized the spell-caster relatively quickly. The spell was only in effect for approximately two minutes. But, according to eye-witness accounts, two minutes was long enough for you to disarm the nearest field agent, put their gun in your mouth, and pull the trigger.”
She was watching Steve for his reaction, so he didn’t try to react at all. “Why do you think that’s what you did?” She asked. She even managed to sound curious, instead of accusing.
Steve considered her for a moment. “I don’t know.” It was a lie. But it was a necessary one. He knew very well that he was having trouble adjusting to the 21st Century and was well aware that most of his coping skills were, if not merely unhealthy, downright dangerous.
She looked…disappointed at his response. Steve met her gaze as best he could but he was also feeling faint. He pushed off the wall with a wobbly arm and made his way back to the bed where he sat down more heavily than he had intended.
“How long until I will be released?” He asked, nodding to the door-shaped outline in the lone solid wall of the cell. There was no doorknob on his side. The longest medical had ever held him had been for 72 hours, and that was after he had been shot four times. He figured that was as long as they would hold him before they let him go.
“You will remain under SHIELD’s care until it is deemed safe for you to be released.” She responded.
“And when will that be?” He pushed.
“When it is safe and you are better.”
Though he didn’t intend to, Steve fell back asleep and was woken by a nurse entering his ‘room’ with a tray of supplies. She very quickly changed the dressing on his eye, checked his mouth and under his tongue, and then informed him the ophthalmologist would be in in a day to see if they could take off the patch. Steve thanked her politely. Despite his current situation, his mother (who had also been a nurse) had raised him to be respectful and the habit was ingrained.
When she was ready to go the door opened soundlessly and a man with an expensive tie and suit wielding a clipboard took her place. As the man slipped in, Steve absently noted that the hallway was guarded by two men that he could see, they were armed with what looked like less-lethal ammunition.
Steve had been sitting on the bed while the nurse had looked at his eye and he remained there while the man, who introduced himself as Dr. Webber, gave him the long form Psych evaluation. Steve gave the answers he knew they wanted to hear, even though he was assured before he started that there were no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.
Dr. Webber then asked him a series of increasingly personal questions, which resulted in Steve answering with increasingly vague responses. Steve finally ended up fibbing about what he did for hobbies and who he spoke to. He didn’t think it would reflect well on him that he didn’t really have friends and that his hobbies included going on missions, lying in bed crippled by grief, and destroying gym equipment.
After a plain, but enormous meal, which conspicuously came on a plastic tray with no silverware, Steve ended up taking another nap before spending most of the afternoon watching the people in what he called the ‘control room’ watch him.
He idly wondered if this is what it felt like to be a zoo animal. At least when he was out in the public he had something to do, and a persona to keep, but right now it felt like there were half-a–dozen people standing around the various control panels waiting for him to do something interesting. He hated it.
He got up a few times, just to wander around this cube. And once to use the toilet, only to seriously reconsider when he realized that there was no separate bathroom but that the toilet, sink and shower were behind a waist high wall in one corner of the cube. The army and war had cured Steve of his modesty, but still. For a brief moment, he wondered if he would even be able to go with an audience.
By the time late afternoon rolled around, Steve was thoroughly bored and irritated. Aside from the doctor and the nurse, he had spoken to no one all day, and he had nothing to do. He wondered, with no little irony, if they left him here any longer if he would go crazy. He watched with interest as the day shift switched with the night shift and was trying to place all the faces to agents at SHIELD when Dr. Welker came back in.
She walked right up to glass and…well…Steve couldn’t think of another way to put it. She was staring him down. He once had a teacher who would give him a look like that right before she sent him to the principal’s office. She stood and Steve obediently got to his feet and walked up to the glass to meet her.
“I got your psych eval.” She gestured to a stack of papers in her hand, but didn’t look at them.
“And,” Steve tried for a bit of a smile, hoping it would help his chances, “did I pass?”
“Mmmm…” Welker said, “Well, I can say from this evaluation that Captain America is perfectly fit for duty.” She only gave Steve a short moment to get his hopes up, “Unfortunately for you, I am not interested in Captain America. I am interested in Steve Rogers. And this piece of fiction,” she held up the evaluation with something that could only be described as scorn, “does not convince me that Steve Rogers is fine.”
Steve scowled at her, he didn’t really have any sort of comeback.
“I know what you are trying to do and I am going to tell you right now that I, and your entire care team, are too smart to fall for it.” She met his eyes briefly to demonstrate her seriousness. Steve was slightly taken aback by her vehemence, and the fact that he apparently had a ‘care team’. Welker flicked through more of the forms.
“In consultation with the team, we have decided to wait a few days before another evaluation. This will give your body the chance to fully heal and hopefully your medications to reach a therapeutic level.”
“Medications don’t work on me,” Steve responded, more out of habit than anything else.
Welker nodded, “They wouldn’t usually, but the gauntlets are able to administer them continuously.” She nodded toward the metal on Steve’s arms and he looked at them in surprise. “Thus far they have been very successful in monitoring your vitals and metabolism when administering pain relief. We are also currently trialing you on a few medications. But, it would help if we clearly understood your symptoms.” The final statement was pointed.
Steve was trying to catch up. Wait…the restraints were drugging him too? He didn’t like this, at all. Without thinking he reached underneath the rim of one of the cuffs and tried to pull it off. He hissed with effort but the metal didn’t give. He switched arms and tried to pull the other one off from the side nearest his elbow. That didn’t work either.
He glared at Welker. “You’re drugging me?”
“I am medicating you, yes. And if you would like to discuss it, I am more than happy to sit down and we can talk about it.” Her voice was calm, in contrast to Steve’s increasing anxiety.
“Take these things off.” He demanded. Brandishing his forearms at her.
“Captain Rogers, we are here to help you, not hurt you.” she said “The medication is for your benefit. Once you are stabilized we can give you more control over your medications.”
She sounded so fucking reasonable. Steve's anger, which was driven in no small part by fear, flared at this opportunity.
“You can’t just keep me here.” They could, and he knew it. He started to pace back and forth along the glass. Now he really did feel like he was in the zoo. Where you could see the animals pacing, looking at freedom.
“Captain Rogers, we have a court order stating that we can keep you in custody as long as you pose a threat to yourself or others. The length of your stay depends largely upon you and how willing you are to work with us.”
He paced a few more times, as the enormity of his situation began to sink in, his stride and breath getting faster. He had to get out of here. One of the control panels started to beep and Welker glanced over.
“Captain Rogers,” her voice was forceful but not unkind, “I need you to take a few deep breaths for me.”
Steve stopped right in front of her. “Let me out.” He demanded, his voice getting quieter rather than louder.
“That is not an option right now. Now take few deep breaths and we can talk about this.”
Steve knew that talking wouldn’t get him what he wanted. “Now!” He yelled at the same time he punched the partition with all of his might. The sound was thunderous in the small room and he could see all the heads behind the consoles snap up.
“Captain Rogers! Calm yourself!” Welker didn’t back away but she was starting to look worried.
Steve had no response. Instead he did what he usually did and turned his frustration into actions. He punched the partition half a dozen more times, putting as much force as he could behind each one. On the third punch he felt a crunch in his hand and a flare of pain that indicated broken bones. The pain was quickly washed away by adrenaline. On the last punch, which was the hardest (and broke another bone) the partition cracked. It was small, no more than a chip, but it was enough to get Steve’s attention. He stopped, holding his injured hand away from his side. He could feel blood dripping down to his fingertips. He was a little shocked at his own actions.
“Captain Rogers,” Welker pressed, she was so damn calm! “I insist you calm down.”
“Or what?” Steve hissed. It has been a long time since he had lost his temper, and the bitter taste in him mouth just egged him on.
Welker regarded Steve for a long moment before a look of resignation crossed her features, “I am very sorry Captain, I do not want to do this but I am worried you will only continue to injure yourself.”
Steve growled at her, actually growled, beyond words with his frustration and fear. She regarded him calmly but did not respond, instead she raised her chin and indicated the platform bed in the back of the room.
“It would be best if you lay down, Captain.”
He raised his eyebrows at her. “Lay down? I am not going to just….to just…” Steve’s speech stuttered as the world started to tip sideways. He chased his train of thought for a moment before abandoning it to try and catch his balance instead. He blinked and shook his head. He felt his breathing slow, and he swayed heavily to one side before putting his left hand out to brace himself against the glass.
He glared at the gauntlets in realization – they were blinking red - and his knees crumpled beneath him. He caught himself on his hands and knees, but only well enough to keep from face-planting into the cell floor. Instead of narrowing down to a point or fading out, his vision just went black, and the last thing he hears is “I’m sorry Captain.”
Steve could hear someone calling him, but he had no idea where he was or who they were. He blearily opened his eyes, only to shut them against the searing light in the room. He blinked rapidly as his eyes watered. His head felt like it was packed with cotton-wool.
“Steve, can you look over here for me?” The voice said again.
He turned his head sluggishly towards the voice and saw a nurse in a pair of shockingly-loud cartoon-character scrubs sitting in a plastic chair next to him. She was leaning over and had a large, welcoming smile on her face.
“There you are.” She had a great smile he thought. She was older, at least in her 50s, and he thought that she would make a great grandma.
She grinned wider at him, “I am, in fact, an amazing grandma. At least that is what my grand-babies tell me.” Her skin crinkled pleasantly around her eyes.
Oh. He must have said that out loud. Steve frowned and looked around. It took him a moment to orient himself, and when he remembered where he was, he tried to sit up, only to be brought up short by restraints on his wrists and ankles.
He flopped back against the bed, and then took a moment to blow a stray piece of hair off of his forehead. He realized, apropos of nothing, that he needed a haircut.
“We can arrange a haircut for you if you like.” Grandma-nurse told him kindly.
Shit. He must have said that out loud, too. He couldn’t think straight. And this realization led him to the next realization as to why he couldn’t think straight.
He let out a big, and very audible sight.
Grandma-nurse nodded it what he hoped was sympathy. “That’s right sweetie. You have had a difficult few days. We didn’t know how you would react to the sedatives so I have been sittin’ here keepin’ an eye on you. Looks like you are still feeling a bit fuzzy, but no worries. Can’t be worse than my youngest after she had her wisdom teeth out. Lord, that girl was loud when she spoke nonsense.”
She settled her formidable girth back into the chair and looked at him with sharp eyes.
“How is your hand, honey?”
Steve lifted up his head momentarily to look at his hands, and saw that the right one was in a metal cast and that his pinkie and ring fingers were splinted out. He focused on it, but could only feel a very dull throb of pain.
“Not too bad,” he mumbled.
“Good to hear,” she replied, “now what about the rest of you?” Steve blew out another heavy breath, but didn’t answer. The truth was, he didn’t know.
She nodded as though he had said something, “Yeah, it sounds like you got a lot of thinkin’ to do. You take your time sweetie, we will be here when you are ready.”
It took almost two weeks, but Steve was finally ready. Just not to spill shameful secrets to strangers. He remained polite, and kept lying through his teeth to give them all the answers they wanted to hear, and waited. In the right circumstances stubbornness was the equivalence of patience. He had gradually come to the realization that things were never going to go back to where they were. He could never go back. To the 1940 or even to the Avengers. He had found an odd sense of peace realizing that this is what the end of the line looked like for him.
Welker, and the tiny army of doctors on his ‘team’ were entirely unconvinced with his suddenly perfect mental health and told him as much. He didn’t care, he just kept waiting.
He spent the days pacing the cell, doing exercise routines to keep himself fit (even if it wasn’t necessary) and watching the watchers in the observation room. They watched him back, each waiting for the other shoe to fall.
And tonight it looked like all of his patience was about to pay off. He was lying on his bed, taking deep breaths and pretending to be asleep. He had been a model patient, but they still hadn’t given him a blanket or anything he could use as a weapon. Instead of sleeping, he watched the two agents who were ostensibly guarding him. There were always two, and one was always seated at the console that he had figured out controlled the gauntlets.
But as luck would have it, one of the agents had just left for a bathroom break when the second Agent’s cell phone rang. It was on vibrate and without his enhanced hearing, Steve wouldn’t have been able to hear it. But he could hear it, and he realized before the agent did that the cell phone was in the pocket of his jacket, which was hanging on the wall by the door.
Through slit eyes, Steve watched the Agent quickly glace towards the ‘Cube’ as he had taken to calling his cell. Upon seeing Steve’s apparently sleeping form, the Agent quickly stood and started walking the ten paces to the door.
It was all the time Steve needed. He was up and taking a running start at the wall just at the Agent was reaching into his coat pocket. Steve hit the partition right on the tiny crack he had created when he had punched it. He had spent the last two weeks very subtly scratching lines out from the crack with the cast on his hand. The cast was vibranium, and probably the only material in the world strong enough to scratch the hulk-proof barrier. Steve had so very carefully scored a line along the glass where he was sure he could get it to break, if he could hit it with enough force.
Steve struck the crack with his heel and he could feel the partition bend and for one moment thought it wasn’t going to work until it snapped outward with an ear-splitting crack. It didn’t even shatter like regular glass but instead cracked outwards in large pieces, one drawing a long slice up Steve’s leg as he went through the wall. Steve didn’t care as he landed lightly on his bare feet before sprinting across the room towards the Agent who was just now turning back from his jacket with his phone in his hand. The Agent, instead of going for the console, made a run for the door. He didn’t make it and Steve quickly got him into a sleeper hold from behind. The agent, he didn’t know their name, was good and tried to break the hold or throw Steve, but he was outmatched and slowly slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Steve took a few quick breaths and listened. There were no alarms. In fact, the only thing he could hear was the beat of his heart and the approaching footsteps of the other agent returning from the bathroom. It only took Steve a few additional moments to overpower that agent as well before he left them handcuffed together around a support pillar on the opposite side of the room. Steve took a few minutes to rip apart sheets on a nearby shelf to strap up his leg, which was enthusiastically bleeding from the gash he had received. He would need to find the supplies to stitch it later.
He quickly slipped into the hall. It was the middle of the night and they were in one of the more rarely used levels of SHIELD. He needed clothes. And transportation, and he headed in the one place where he knew he could get both.
SHIELD had several locker rooms, with the one for the senior agents being near the armory. He took the back stairways and managed to avoid everyone before entering the locker room from one of the lesser-used entrances. It was weird being someone ‘normal’ after so long out of commission. He struggled with a sudden sense something like homesickness as he opened the lock on his locker. For some reason, he was surprised to find that the clothing he was wearing before he went on the ill-fated Maine mission was waiting for him. The keys to his motorcycle were still in the pocket.
He had to stop and re-wrap his leg, but fortunately he kept a small medical supply kit as he often patched up his own wounds since usually healed before he even got to medical. He had just finished pulling on his socks when he heard the locker room door open.
Steve froze for just a moment, and hoped that the footsteps would make their way along the wall and into the bathroom area but it sounded like his luck for the night has run out. The footsteps headed in his direction and Steve decided that he would just act like he was supposed to be here. He assumed that Fury had wanted to keep his ‘condition’ quiet, so he was willing to bet that most people didn’t realize that anything was wrong.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just most people who had entered the locker room. Steve was working on the laces of his shoe when he heard the footsteps stop suddenly behind him.
Shit. It was Clint.
Steve froze for just a second before glancing up from his laces and trying to nonchalantly nod his head a Clint. “Clint,” he greeted, “you just get back from a mission?”
Steve raised a quick eyebrow at Clint before turning back to his shoe. If he could stall Clint long enough to get away, he still might make it out of SHIELD.
“What are you doing here?” Clint was standing at the end of the row of lockers, still in full tactical gear, with his vest partially unzipped.
Steve didn’t know how much Clint knew, but given that he was a spy, Steve figured that lying wouldn’t work. And Clint’s tone implied that he knew most of it. Steve decided to go with honesty…mostly. “I am getting my things and then I am leaving, Clint. There is no reason for you to stop me.” Steve gave Clint the most guileless look he could come up with as he tried to make this a seemingly reasonable suggestion.
“The doctors didn’t let you go.” It wasn’t a question; Clint was looking at the blood already seeping through Steve’s slacks.
“No.” Steve swiftly finished tying his shoes and shrugged into his jacket.
Clint took a few steps closer, his hands slightly raised. He didn’t get close enough for Steve to reach him. Smart man. Clint was trying to keep him calm. But Steve was already calm. It is what had carried him through waiting, and what was going to get him out of this building so that he could finish his last mission. It was easy to make a choice when there is only one choice to make.
“Cap,” Clint took another step closer, “why don’t we talk about this? Fury is here, we can give him a call.”
“Clint,” Steve almost smiled, “if Fury wanted to talk to me, he could easily have found me in the cage in the basement where I have been for the last few weeks.”
Clint either couldn’t or didn’t want to hide his grimace. He changed tact. “What are you planning?”
Steve knew what Clint was asking, and he also knew Clint was stalling. If he had just gotten back from a mission it was likely that the other Avengers were close.
“I am going to finish what I started in 1945.” Steve would let Clint interpret that statement however he wanted. Steve shut the locker door, there was no reason to stay here longer.
“We need you.” Clint stated.
The seeming non-sequitur caused Steve to pause for a moment. He looked Clint straight in the eye. “You need Captain America, and you can have him.” Steve was surprised by the bitterness in his voice. “There are a hundred idiots out there who would be happy put on that uniform and carry that shield. Go find one of them.”
Clint paused, and most people would have missed it; would have thought he was thinking of something to say. But he wasn’t. Clint was listening.
That is when Steve noticed that Clint still had his communication device in his ear. He must have turned is on as soon as he saw Steve. That meant that the other Avengers were coming. Steve turned heel and sprinted for the back stairwell. He could hear Clint curse behind him.
Injured leg or not, Steve was fast, but he still didn’t get very far. A slender steel-like arm materialized out of nowhere and caught him across the chest, sending him crashing onto his back. His head cracked onto the tile floor and Steve saw stars. Clint was on him a second later, grabbing his right wrist while the owner of the arm, Natasha, struggled with his left.
They were both good, but neither of them were super soldiers and Steve quickly grasped Clint by his vest and threw him into a row of lockers, crumpling them into the wall. Natasha was slippery and she managed to eel her way behind him and half way into a sleeper hold until he was able to get a grasp her leg and throw her into the shower stalls.
The back stairwell no longer an option, Steve headed from the main entrance but only made it a few steps before Tony stepped in front of him. Tony wasn’t in the Iron Man armor, in fact it looked like he was on his way to a meeting, but he was wearing a gauntlet, and the repulsor was glowing and aimed directly at Steve.
Steve stopped a few yards away from Tony, and he could hear both Clint and Natasha regain their feet, watched in his peripheral vision as they surrounded him. Steve looked around him, his gaze scanning his former team; he mentally calculated his odds. They were missing the heavy hitters. Bruce and Thor were absent. Three wasn’t enough to stop him, even with his bad leg. Not when they didn’t want to hurt him; he just hoped he wouldn’t have to hurt them either.
“Steve,” Tony’s voice drew his attention. “Thor and Rhodey are already in the air. The building has been locked down and even if you make it outside you won’t get far.”
Damn. That meant Steve couldn’t get to his bike. Maybe he could get to one of the bays and get his hands on an aircraft. Regardless, he would figure something out. He clenched his fists and ground the balls of his feet into the floor.
“Cap, come back downstairs with us. We can help you.” It was odd, Tony being the voice of reason. His voice still held bravado, but Steve could also hear it shaking.
“No,” Steve replied, suddenly exhausted. Even to his own ears he sounded hopeless. He paused long enough to look Tony in the eyes. Steve thought of all the people he had lost, all the places he so desperately missed, how much he wanted to go home. But he couldn’t because home was gone. Some of that must have come through in his gaze as Tony’s eyebrows pulled together and his lips turned down. Steve continued, “Not even you can help me, Tony. Not unless you can change the past.”
With these words Steve launched himself at Tony, hoping to use his speed to his advantage. He was able to dodge the first repulsor blast and was about to land an open-handed blow to Tony’s arm when someone caught him from the side and sent him crashing into a row of lockers. The lockers gave like foil under his weight and the entire row fell backwards with an impressive crash. Whoever tacked him (he suspected Clint) knew better than to engage in hand to hand, and had rolled out of the way as soon as they could.
Steve quickly rolled from the wreckage and onto his feet, his eyes scanning. He saw movement to his left and turned enough to see Natasha pulling out her Widow’s bites. But something was wrong. If Natasha didn’t want to be seen, he wouldn’t have seen her. Too late, Steve turned to his right, just in time to take the full force of the repulsor blast to his chest. The blow sent him into the wall and he could feel the concrete around him crumple with the impact. He saw stars again and could feel searing pain flashing out across his chest. He looked down. The blast has shredded his jacket and shirt and he could see angry reddened skin. It was going to hurt like a bitch, but otherwise it was a minor injury.
“JARVIS! Any time now!” Tony snapped, and Steve could suddenly feel a familiar cold burn snaking from his arms and robbing the strength from the rest of his body.
“No!” Steve gasped, and clumsily scrambled to his feet while pawing uselessly at the gauntlets. The swelling grogginess sent him stumbling back into the damaged wall pulling at his wrists.
‘No,’ it was more of a plea this time as Steve slid slowly to the floor, eyes turned to take in Tony, Natasha, and Clint as they slowly approached him. He struggled to move. He felt like he was back in the Valkyrie all over again, the water rushing up his neck. He couldn’t breathe.
Steve spends the next several days drugged out of his mind. Or at least, he thinks it is only a few days. He isn’t sure how long he is kept bobbing to the surface of consciousness, but each time he surfaces he is somewhere else, with someone else, doing something different.
“Hold his knee, if you can. I need to get these stitches in before we can splint it” The hands grabbing his leg were icy in comparison to the searing whip of pain running from his hip to his calf. He tries to pull away; he can hear himself snarling. Voices are everywhere, he is surrounded.
It was quiet now, just a smooth voice encouraging him to open up. To eat. He does, because the voice is nice and he does not see any reason not to. The food tastes like nothing but he eats it anyway.
“Steve. Can you open your eyes?”
Someone pulls open his eye and searing white light feels like it strikes the back of his head. He jerks away like someone has smacked him. He knows that voice. He blinks his watering eyes and flops his head back toward the noise. Squinting against other potential ocular assaults.
“Hey buddy, how are you feeling?” Bruce is in a white lab coat, and Steve is back in another hospital bed. There is a long lag between when Bruce speaks and when Steve actually understands the words.
“Bruce…” Steve rolls his head around, which causes the world to roll with him…and keep rolling. “Ugh…dizzy.”
Bruce is gone and Steve is back in the cube. He has just enough time to realize where he is before he is sent scrambling towards the toilet to empty the minimal contents of his stomach into the porcelain bowl. He almost doesn’t make it. His balance is off and he feels as weak as the spring thaw.
He spends a few minutes dry heaving over the toilet before slumping against the cold concrete wall, nausea roiling through him. The stall is small enough that his feet are actually in the shower. He runs an alarmingly shaky hand through his equally alarmingly sweaty hair and takes a moment to take stock.
He is back in white scrubs, but the cast on his right hand is gone. A quick pat down reveals that whatever injuries he sustained in the locker room are also gone, with just a slight ache in his leg left as a reminder. So he has been out for a couple of days, at least.
He leans his back against the partition and takes shallow breaths in an attempt to fight back the nausea still clawing at the back of his throat.
“Captain Rogers?” A voice asks over the intercom. Steve doesn’t look up or respond.
“Are you alright?” The Voice asks.
“No.” Steve rasps, cradling his head on his forearms, which he crosses over his knees.
“Alright.” The Voice responds. “We will give you something to address the nausea. Are you having any other symptoms?”
Steve shakes his head without really thinking about it. He assumes they can see him. Even here.
“Okay. Let me know if you start feeling worse, or you begin to experience any other side effects.” At least the Voice sounds sympathetic.
Steve again doesn’t respond, distracted by his physical misery, but the Voice speaks truthfully, and his stomach soon starts to settle.
With the lack of distraction, Steve’s physical discomfort is soon overshadowed by other types of pain. He attacked his team. If nothing before proved that the Avenger’s were better off without him, his most recent actions certainly did. And he is trapped here. Helpless.
Steve’s shallow breaths soon transform into shallow sobs that ultimately leave him curled into a ball against the wall and crying for the first time since waking up in the 21st Century. Steve cries until his eyes throb and his breath hiccups. He cries until he makes himself sick again and is left shaking on the bathroom floor against the tile. After Bucky had fallen, Steve had wondered if it was possible to die from despair. He wonders the same thing again. His whole body feels like one giant raw wound.
Steve eventually rests against the tile of the bathroom floor, spent and numb. The cool feels good, even though his skin is clammy. He doesn’t realize he has fallen into a partial doze until he is startled into full wakefulness by the opening of the Cube door. Several pairs of footsteps approach him but he doesn’t move, or even open his eyes. He can hear someone stepping softly into the shower stall and kneeling by his toes.
“Captain Rogers?” A soft voice calls. He feels a warm and gentle hand on his calf. It is the only part of him that seems to feel anything at all.
“Steve, are you alright?” He recognizes Dr Welker’s voice. A week ago he had wanted to lash out at her. Not because she was wrong in her assessment of him, but because she was right. He finally opens his eyes and glances up toward her face. She really does look concerned.
“No,” he responds, his voice barely audible, “I wouldn’t be here if I were.” His voice shakes and tremors flash over his body. He isn’t sure if they are from fear, cold, exhaustion, or whatever the gauntlets are pumping through his system.
She manages a smile at him, “Will you let us help you?”
Steve sighs, “I don’t believe you can.”
“Will you let us try?” She counters. He pauses just a moment and then nods.
“Okay,” is all Welker says before asking if he is able to get up by himself. He isn’t, and he is too numb to even be embarrassed when two agents gently pull him to his bare feet before manhandling him back to his cot. Welker has a nurse come in a fit an IV into one of his arms since he certainly isn’t up to eating or drinking anything.
He still hasn’t been given a blanket and he realized that as convincing as he had thought himself for all those weeks, he wasn’t fooling anybody.
Welker brings a chair over and sits down next to him.
“Alright then,” she says, “Let’s get started.”
Steve spends the next week relearning what it is like to be horribly, violently ill. Clearly the dose of antidepressants he had been receiving didn’t work, and it turns out they had recruited Bruce and his knowledge of the serum to develop something else.
He spends the first two days puking his guts out until they decide to try another medication. This new one doesn’t make him as sick, but gives him tremors and migraines so badly he ends up only able to lie in bed. The third try appears to work. And ‘work,’ as far as Steve can tell, only means that whatever it is, it does not make him want to die. Har har har. But he certainly doesn’t feel any better.
Welker, as well as the pharmacists that flutter in and out, assure him that this is normal, and that it will take a while for the medication to work and for him to start feeling an impact, even with his increased metabolism.
While they are working on his medications, Welker takes advantage of his seemingly compliant mood by going over his treatment protocols and plan. Damningly, they managed to get footage from JARVIS concerning Steve’s behavior. He hasn’t asked, but Welker has hinted, and he knows anyone tracing his movements would see that he isn’t coping well.
Steve doesn’t want any counseling, and is internally dismayed to find out that he gets not one, but three counselors. Welker is the primary, but her expertise is only in post-traumatic stress disorder. The other two are unexpected and Steve is able to muster up just enough energy to be vaguely interested.
The first, a large dark-skinned man with a jovial laugh and easy demeanor, is a grief counselor. He could be a Nigerian-American Santa Clause. If kindness were a house, this man radiates an open door. It is only near the end of their first conversation that he tells Steve that he specializes in counseling refugees and genocide victims. Steve is both humbled and troubled that someone can do such work and not seem jaded at the world. He has no idea how this man might be able to help him.
The second counselor, a woman with a practical nature and haircut, reminds him so much of his mother he is initially taken aback. She is a licensed social worker and hell-bent on helping him figure out how to cope with living 70 years in the future. She seems to take it as a personal affront that the future had the gall to happen without him and determined to personally bring order to the disparity between Steve’s memories of the 1940s and the present. He likes her immediately. She is a veteran and after two tours in Afghanistan she now spends her free time counseling inner city youth.
Aside from the counselors, physicians, and pharmacists, there is one additional person on his immediate care ‘team’. She is, weirdly enough, a physical therapist. This makes no sense to Steve. At all. The serum essentially fixed him of any physical ailments. Any injuries he does get, quickly heal. Also, she is tiny and he just doesn’t believe that anyone of such diminutive stature can do anything for a super soldier. When he expresses his skepticism (politely, of course), she just tilts her head in acknowledgement, gives him a grin that wouldn’t look out of place on a shark, and says ‘We’ll see.’
Warning for panic attacks.
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.”
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.
It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one that Steve fits the clinical requirements for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and an adjustment disorder (they have to explain that one to him).
Steve hates therapy. Absolutely hates it. Because it manages to drag all the bad feelings, self-loathing, insecurities, and other crap in his life that he has so carefully kept shielded (haha) out into the open. And when you grew up poor, Irish, and Catholic in the 1930s, then served in WWII, before being frozen in ice for 70 years, it turns out you have a lot of crap. And it doesn’t even start to cover what happened after he was defrosted. He cringes under the light of so much scrutiny.
And Dr. Welker is good. A fact that he is sure he would appreciate much more if her formidable skill-set wasn’t being used to pick apart his fractured psyche.
She can smell a lie from a mile away, can counter deflections like the most skilled of negotiators, and manages to get Steve to reveal things about himself that even he didn’t realize he was hiding. And she does it all while still maintaining an air of objectivity that has Steve feeling slightly envious and very-much outmatched.
And she does not give a damn about Captain America. At all. But she is wholly invested in getting to know Steve Rogers, which actually make Steve much more uncomfortable than he thought it would. He had not realized that he had been hiding behind Captain America almost as much as Captain America had been overshadowing him.
Instead of treading carefully she approaches him tactically. A strategy he can appreciate, but certainly doesn’t enjoy. She starts with the parts that upset him the most – and gets him to identify why. Which is a task much more complicated that he had thought it would be.
He also appreciates her candor, even when her most even questions land like a repulsor blast to his heart. Their first session starts unexpectedly when she simply asks “So, was the author right?”
Steve blinks at her. “You are going to have to be more specific, she was right about a lot.”
She gives him a side-eye which tells him she knows he knows what she is talking about.
He sighs, “Yeah, she was.” He can’t look at her.
“And did you know you were suicidal?” She asks curiously.
For the first time Steve actually gives it some thought. “I don’t know,” he says, “I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t really want to live either.”
Welker is surprisingly satisfied with that answer, “Good,” she nodded her head as she makes notes, “I can work with that.”
Steve is also surprised to find that he feels better for having finally put that out there. It can’t get any worse than this, he thinks. He is wrong.
According to each one of his counselors, therapy is supposed to suck. Or at least it is if you are doing it right. And it does. Suck, that is.
Steve is in no way prepared for his meeting with Dr. Okoye, the grief counselor.
The first thing the doctor does is give Steve back the hated grief book and informs him that after they are done for the day he is to work through all of the exercises in the first chapter.
Crap. That is like, 5 pages of soul numbing introspection. He would rather fight the Chitauri again than do this, it would be easier, and less scary.
Then, instead of asking Steve to talk, he simply hands him several sheets of thick drawing paper, and some short pieces of charcoal. Steve notes absently that none of these items would make a good weapon.
“I won’t ask you how you are feeling, Steven.” The doc says in his delightful accent. “Instead, I just want you to draw whatever is on your mind.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say, or really, what to do. He hasn’t drawn since he woke up. He just didn’t feel like it. It felt like the artist part of him had died along with all of his friends. He also doesn’t want to remember. Remembering will make it real.
“Ummm…” He starts ineloquently. Still looking at the piece of coal in his hands. He is sitting on his bed with the paper on his knees. He has let Dr. Okoye have the one flimsy plastic chair in the room. He doesn’t know why, but holding the charcoal and having the paper in his hands hurts somewhere deep in his chest.
“I read that you were an artist before the war, is that true?” Okoye prods. Steve nods without looking up.
“I found photos of some of your drawings, you are very talented.” Steve does look up now, but mostly in confusion. What is the doc trying to get at?
“I know that talking is difficult for you,” the doc’s compassion-filled eyes meet Steve’s, “I thought maybe drawing would be easier.”
Steve nods again, not sure what he is nodding to. He still doesn’t draw.
“Why don’t you just start doodling and see what happens?”
Steve does, already dismissing this as a stupid exercise. He doesn’t even know what he is drawing at first, just a series of thick and thin lines that suddenly transform into Peggy’s face. How she looked when she met him and Bucky at that bar in France. She was wearing that red dress and Steve had almost swallowed his tongue. Her mouth was curved up in amusement and she was looking directly at him, the corner of her eyes crinkling up. It doesn’t take him long to finish the portrait and when he is done he doesn’t want to let it go. Drawing her makes it almost feel like she is here. He can’t bear to let her go again. God, seeing her face is like having his heart cut out with a spoon. He absently rubs the center of his chest with his palm, trying to banish the ache.
Reluctantly, he hands the sheet over to Dr Okoyo, who has been unobtrusively sitting and waiting for Steve to finish. “Tell me about this moment,” the doc asks. Steve can’t help but smile as he relays what happened that evening.
Instead of asking more questions, Dr. Okoyo instead hands Steve another piece of paper “Draw me another one.” Steve sighs in resignation. He does not want to. It was easier to say he had lost everyone, than to list out the names. That made it even more real. He puts the charcoal on the paper.
When his portrait of Bucky laughing by a fire is finished, Dr Okoyo asks the same question and then simply hands him another piece, and then another, and another. Steve loses himself in the memories of the USO girls, and the Howlies, and his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. He goes from not wanting to think about it to getting sucked back into the past. At least for a moment he could draw it all back into being. It is only when his hand is cramping and his eyes are blurring that Dr. Okoyo gently draws his attention back to reality. “Steve,” he calls gently.
Steve pauses and looks around him. He is exhausted, still sitting on his bed. He has no idea how long he has been doing this but it must have been a while. The shift has changed. However, Dr. Okoyo looks like he has nowhere else to be.
“Tell me what you see, Steve.” He says.
Steve looks around again, not quite understanding the question. “I…I see Peggy, and Bucky, and…” He coughs to clear his throat.
Dr. Okoyo stops him with a shake of his head. “That is who you see,” he says. “I want you to tell me what you see.”
Steve tilts his head as he thinks about it. “I see everyone I have lost.” Dr Okoyo nods in agreement, “what else do you see?” His gaze is intent but patient.
Steve has no idea what the doc wants him to say and he gives the man a helpless look. He is tired, both physically and emotionally, and he suddenly desperately wants the doc to leave so he can cry. This sense of homesickness is worse than any other illness he has ever had.
The doc hums in the back of his throat, “How about this,” he says, “why don’t you tell me what these people meant to you?”
Steve thought about what Dum Dum had said about Bucky. “Warmth,” he replies. The doc nods again. He looks at his mother, “family,” Peggy, “a future,” the list goes on. “I see home,” he lamely concludes.
By the time he is done his eyes have filled with tears. Dr Okoyo reaches into his pocket and pulls out an honest-to-god handkerchief, which he hands to Steve. Steve takes it gratefully.
The doc looks around, “You never get over grief, Steven And until you acknowledge it you will never be able to get past it. Grief, like anger, cannot be ignored.” he says. “Grief is a reminder to remember, and that is not a bad thing. When you think of these people,” he gestures to the portraits smiling up at Steve, “I want you to remember them for all the good that they meant to you. For how they made you feel when they looked at you like this.” With that he lets Steve look for a few more moments and then gathers up the portraits and bids Steve a good night.
Steve is left on his bed, torn between the memory of warmth and the cold of loneliness, and he finally lets himself cry.
Welker sees him everyday and Steve learns very quickly that they talk until she decides they are done. Sometimes this is only 15 minutes, other times it takes most of the morning. They always end with Steve feeling vulnerable and edgy. His session with Okoyo usually leave him a tear-streaked mess, and his meetings with Claire, the social worker teaching him about the future, just leave him overwhelmed and frustrated. He is always exhausted, no matter how much rest he gets. When he isn't actively engaged with one of them he is making his way through the grief workbook or reading/watching things assigned to catch him up on the 21st century.
And Welker won’t leave the suicide thing alone. In fact, she has started asking if Steve wasn’t suicidal before he joined the army. After all, who tries so hard to be part of a conflict that thousands had to be drafted into? And then signed up for a likely fatal experimental procedure? Steve has to admit she has a point.
Steve doesn’t know what to say or how to answer her questions but she refuses to take ‘I don’t know’ as a valid response. She pushes and pushes until she gets Steve to admit that he was not only willing to die when he flew the Valkyrie into the ice, but that he has been wanting to die almost since he woke up. It almost sounds like Steve has been passively suicidal his entire life.
He is ashamed and only resentfully admits his feelings, he wants to crawl into the ground and die when she has him detail his thought process and how he would have managed to kill himself. It is so different saying it out loud, and what didn’t seem so bad sounds so incredibly selfish that he gets all tied up in ropes of never- ending Catholic guilt. He actually starts to feel sick to his stomach.
“What were you planning on doing when you broke out of here?” Welker asks.
Damn. Steve knows he will have to answer. But he doesn’t want to.
After the pause drags on a little longer, Welker tries a different tact. “Were you planning on hurting yourself?”
Steve just nods. Staring hard at the floor.
“So you are still suicidal?” Steve nods again. Welker does not say anything else and she sits in front of the glass for almost a full five minutes.
“Why do you think that suicide is the only option?” She asks unexpectedly. Steve actually looks up at her, the question surprising him. But he does not have to think too long on the answer.
“What other options do I have?” He says. “The war is over. Everyone I love is dead. Even the country I died for has changed to the point where I don’t recognize it. I don’t even know what I am fighting for. I should have died in 1945 and,” he gestures vaguely to himself as well as all around himself, “this is just a mistake that I have to fix.”
“Why do you think you should have died in 1945,” she asks.
“I don’t belong here,” Steve reiterates stubbornly.
“Have you tried?” Welker responds. She doesn’t give him a chance to reply, since she already knows the answer. “By your own admission you have avoided engaging in the 21st Century. You have done the bare minimum to survive and, aside from learning skills significant to your job, you have not tried anything else. Have you even considered doing something other than the military?”
Steve studiously looks at his feet. She’s right. He has done none of those things. Hasn’t even considered it.
“I wish they had never found me in the ice. I hate it here,” he confesses, “The 21st Century. I hate everything about it.”
“How do you know that, Steve? If integrating to the 21st Century were a mission, would you believe you had enough information? Of that you had completed this mission?”
Damn, she had him again. And she knew it. She is polite enough not to smirk.
“You told me you would try, Steve. And I am holding you that promise. You may still not like the 21st Century, but you can’t know that for sure. Not yet. Your mission is to integrate into the 21st Century, and if you still hate it that’s fine, but you have to give it a fair chance first.”
Steve scowls at her, but he doesn’t argue.
Steve is in a downright bitchy mood the first time Ruth, his physical therapist, comes in and sets up something that vaguely looks like a chair. Steve watches her from where he is curled up in the corner of his bed between the back wall and the half-wall of the ‘bathroom’. He doesn’t want to talk to her, Dr. Welker, but his mother ingrained him with mindless manners and he cannot help but at least offer her a nod of acknowledgement.
He watches with growing suspicion as she pulls out something that looks like oil and then goes through a series of stretches. She then pushes the chair-like thing to the side and walks to the far end of the cube.
“Okay, Steve” she starts, “get up, roll your pants up to your knees, and then walk towards me.” She then kneels down while looking at him expectantly.
Steve blinks at her, “What?”
“I am going to check your gait today, then your flexibility, and then lastly your back, shoulders, and neck. With that information we can set up a therapy plan. And from how tense you are and how many headaches you have been getting, I am guessing you are going to be a great candidate for some deep tissue massage and pressure-point work.” She then claps her hands together like a football coach getting a little league team psyched up and settled into her stance. “Common, don’t keep me waiting. They introduce us and then won’t let me work with you for two weeks!”
Steve is disarmed by her enthusiasm and because he hadn’t actually told anyone he was suffering from headaches. He rolls his scrubs up to his knees before standing across the cube from her. He then walks towards he and stops a few feet away. She has been looking intently at his ankles and knees and she keeps her gaze on his knees while she asks him to turn around and walk back. She has him do this half a dozen times until it starts making him uncomfortable.
Suddenly deciding something she stands up and has him perform all sorts stretches. Some he is familiar with, others: not so much. He hasn’t been active in months and he is unsurprised to find that he is stiff. He also starts having flashbacks to Erskine’s lab and all the testing they did during Project Rebirth.
She is checking his arms for range of motion when she, out of nowhere, presses firmly on a point somewhere between his right shoulder blade and spine. Steve can’t help it, he yelps as pain lances up his spine to the back of his head and down him back and into his right leg. His headache intensifies.
Instead of stopping, Ruth just grabs his left shoulder (she has to reach up quite a bit to do so) and digs her thumb into the same spot. This produces a similar reaction and Steve tries to aubtly take a step forward to get away from her.
“Hold still, Captain.” She orders absentmindedly as her fingers seek out another equally painful spot. Steve holds still, but chokes out, “What are you doing?!?!” He is proud that his voice is only slightly strangled.
“I am finding all of the resting tension in your back. We will move on to your neck in a moment. Just try and relax for me.” She sounds totally absorbed in her mission as her fingers seem to find sore muscles Steve didn’t know he had.
Steve just stares out the window and manages to keep from yelping by hissing out his breath instead. He distracts himself by watching the watchers on the outside of the cube. There are only a few of them. The nurse that watches his vitals, a tech of some kind, and two security guys. Steve recognizes them all from SHIELD. He also notices that one of the security guys is grimacing each time that Steve does.
Steve locks eyes with him and the man blushes when he realizes he has been caught staring. Without thinking Steve seizes him as a distraction. “What are you looking at, Elliot?” He makes it clear by his voice that he is teasing. Or at least trying to tease. Steve doesn’t even know if anyone outside the cube can hear him.
Elliot walks over to one of the stations and presses a button Steve can’t see. The intercom clicks on. “Sorry Captain, I am just wincing in sympathy because I have been where you are and I remember how much it hurts.” He is grinning just a bit at Steve, and looking at him with sympathy.
“Should I be worried?” Steve asks him, only half joking. Elliot pauses with a grimace on his face, “well, let’s just say it is a good thing she is on our side.”
Steve gives Elliot a worried look and is about to reply when Ruth interrupts him, “Quit your bitchin’ Elliot, I figure Captain Rogers here is tougher than you. He might make it through the first session without crying.”
Elliot doesn’t deny the statement, which really worries Steve. Ruth stops her ministrations and pats his back gently before gesturing towards the chair. “Take off your shirt and then straddle the chair.”
Steve feels a pang of insecurity when he removes the top of his scrubs. It is entirely ridiculous. These people have been watching him shower for the past two months but he still feels himself flush red. He moves slowly towards the chair and awkwardly straddles it.
“Go ahead and relax your head into the head rest.” Ruth says.
It looks more like a donut than a head rest but Steve gets the idea and rests his face in the hole. Though he is hardly able to relax like this.
“Have you ever gotten a massage before?” She asks. Steve shakes his head. She humms in the back of her throat, “Well, you are in for an experience.”
And he is. First, outside of kissing Peggy and a few of the USO girls, or throwing Natasha at aliens, Steve has almost never been touched a woman. And he most certainly has not had one rubbing him down with oil while his shirt is off. For an instant he is worried he will embarrass himself.
However, these concerns are quickly swept away by the amount of pain Ruth is able to extract from his muscles with just the lightest of touches. She pushes in one place and pain lances down his back. She then proceeds to torture him until he squirms in agony before she moves on to the next place. He deeply regrets underestimating her and wonders if this is some sort of payback.
Steve considers more than once asking her to stop. She seems to sense these moments and ‘takes breaks’ in the form of working on the already loosened muscles for a while (which actually feels kinda good) before going back to the knots that go all the way up his spine. When she gets to his neck, he can actually hear things crunch.
He doesn’t know how long she works on him but by the time she is finished he is limply slumped in the weirdly shaped chair, sweating and panting. Thankfully she doesn’t ask him to get up right away, and he honestly doesn’t think he could, she instead starts a much gentler version of what she had done before.
And this…this feels good. It actually feels very good and Steve starts to space out as the throbbing in his back and shoulders calms into a bone-deep tiredness. It is also the first time he has been touched with anything other than clinical professionalism or punches since he woke up. He is half dozing when Ruth stops with a gentle hand on the back of his neck.
“Steve,” she asks, “can you hear me?”
He has super hearing, of course he can. At least, that is what he thinks, what he says is something more akin to “Mmmm Hmmmm.”
He doesn’t see it, but he can hear a smile in her voice. “Good, I want you to take your time but when you are ready you can go ahead and stand up and we will test your flexibility again.”
It wasn’t a question, but Steve responds with an artificially theatrical “Ugh.” Her scoff tells him she doesn’t mean it when she swats him lightly on the arm with the admonishment to ‘Move it, soldier!”
He isn’t surprised to find that not only is he more flexible after being treated like taffy all afternoon. His headache is gone and he is incredibly tired. So tired he is wavering on his feet.
Ruth give him a sympathetic look, tells him to take a warm shower, and drink lots of water. Steve manages the shower, and makes it to the bed in time to inhale the giant plate of food that had been delivered and then guzzle the bottle of water at his bedside before he falling into the deepest sleep he has had since he woke up.
For the first time since he became a super soldier, Steve is sore. He actually feels all of his 95 years when he attempts to get out of bed in the morning. For a moment, he actually can’t. And he would have stayed in bed since it isn’t like he has anywhere to be except for the fact that Dr. Welker is here. Usually he has been up for hours when she stops by and he is startled to see that it is past eight.
He levers himself upright with a groan and then gets up to walk to the glass. Thankfully, Ruth had not worked on his legs because otherwise Steve wouldn’t have been able to do even that. Currently, it hurts to breathe.
From her manner, it seems that Dr. Welker isn’t there for a conversation. And Steve is already quirking an eyebrow as he makes his way to the glass. One hand bracing part of his lower back where a particularly resilient knot has been vanquished the night before.
“Steve,” they had moved on to first names after the first time she has made him cry, “how do you feel about having some visitors?”
Steve didn’t realize he had stepped back until Welker put her hands up in an appeasing motion. “Your team has been rather…insistent….on seeing you.” Steve almost smiles at her phrasing. Dr Welker is the most steadfast human being he had ever met, and she sounds truely annoyed. She must be dealing with Tony. Then the meaning of what she said sinks in.
“My team wants to see me?” He had attacked them. The only reason they would want to see him would be to tell him good riddance.
“Oh, yes,” she says, “They have been pushing to visit ever since you were transferred from the medical wing to here.”
Steve shakes his head, “They can’t, not after I attacked them.”
“Really??? Because I just got off the phone with Tony Stark who is demanding the Avengers get to see you. And not my work phone, my personal only-my-family-has-the-number phone.” Welker really does sound annoyed, and a bit impressed.
“Oh…uh, yeah. Yeah, I guess that would be okay.” Somewhere in the back of him mind Steve had figured that his place with the Avengers was gone.
“I am going to ask that they visit one at a time. And next time you talk to Mr. Stark, let him know that he needs to lose my number.”
Steve nods absently. “Yeah, okay.” He is suddenly nervous, like it is the first time he would meet these people instead of them having been friends for years.
And Steve doesn’t have to wait long. When his social worker, Claire, comes in, Sam is with her. Steve stands and walks over to the glass, but then he doesn’t know what to do so he just stands there awkwardly as they walk across the control room. He sees Sam take in the layout of the room, and then see Steve in the cube. He looks at Steve and gives him a small smile.
Instead of walking up to the glass, Sam and Claire walk past the Cube and into hallway behind it. Steve has no idea what is back there but it is only a few moments until the door to the Cube opens and they walk in. Other people have been in the Cube with him, but still for some reason Steve is surprised that they come in. he is even more surprised when Sam walks right up to him and pulls him into a great big hug. A hug that Steve quickly realizes he desperately needs and returns, even if his sore muscles protest.
Sam pulls back, but only a little, before he puts one hand on either side of Steve’s head and looks him straight in the eye. “Are you letting these people help you?” he asks. Steve is taken aback, but he answers.
“Yeah, I am trying.”
Sam releases the intense eye contact, “Good,” he says, “That’s good.” He then turns back to Claire, who has been waiting off to the side. Steve actually has not had a lot of interaction with Claire. She had sat him down and asked him how much he had caught up since he was defrosted. They had chatted about his likes and dislikes and what he missed about ‘home’. She had been supplying him with books to read in his ample spare time and she had managed to do a pretty good job of finding things he likes.
It is Sam that speaks, “Let’s get this show on the road.” And he then walks over to Steve’s bed and sits on it with his back to the wall. Claire sits next to him and then plops a large laptop onto his lap. Sam raises his eyebrows at Steve, and pats the space to his other side.
They end up watching the first three Indian Jones moves and, with a break for lunch and short discussions after each one to catch Steve up on the references he doesn’t get. Steve likes all of the moves, even if he finds the face-melting Nazis a bit much.
By the end of the last movie Steve has been able to forget about his current predicament, at least for a while. And he knows he has at least one friend left.
To his surprise, every single day one of the Avengers shows up. Natasha, Clint and Tony accept his apology with grace and then carry on like this is just another bump in the road. All of them express in one way or another that they are committed to getting him back as their captain.
They don’t always watch movies. Sometimes they give Steve a book or recommend a TV series and then discuss it with him the next time they are there. Sometimes, they talk. Sometimes, especially if Steve is having a bad day, they just sit and keep him company. Steve is alternately embarrassed and unspeakably grateful.
It is Natasha that gets him hooked up with Harry Potter. He certainly feels less alone and…strangely…he starts to feel something like hope.
Both Welker and Okoyo are digging up pieces of his past and discussing his future and he just doesn’t feel prepared to deal with it. He starts to feel anxious all the time and wishes he could avoid talking to anyone. He doesn’t want to think about these things. And he is embarrassed to admit that he is deeply resentful of efforts to ‘brief’ him on the 21st century. More often than not, he finds himself shutting down when topics start to get too personal (which is always). He is desperate to do anything to avoid the pain.
His anxiety must be obvious because both Welker and Okoyo make a point of telling him that things ‘might get worse before they get better’ but he isn’t sure what that means.
Ruth gets him every other day. The next session has her digging her elbows into his butt cheek until he feels compelled to remind her that 'Ruth' is supposed to mean ‘mercy.’ Her only response is to run her forearm up the back of hamstring until he yelps. He is moving so stiffly the next day that as soon as Elliot comes on duty he gives Steve a sympathy nod with the one-word inquiry, ‘Ruth?’
But Ruth isn’t just there to give him massages and manage his physical stress. She is there as part of his treatment plan. Which apparently involves an exercise routine. However, this is complicated by the fact that they are not yet willing to let Steve out of the Cube, and he can’t exactly have a super-soldier level workout in such a small space. Or, at least, the thinks he can’t until Ruth shows up one morning with one of the treadmills from the tower. There has been specially designed by Tony to be a challenge even for Steve and Ruth puts him to work making up the stamina he has lost over the last few months.
Steve always feels better after a good run and he didn’t realize how much he had missed it. He suspects this is all part of the overall plan. On the days he is especially wound-up, he ends up with a workout requiring all of his focus and using up all of his excess energy. She is also in cahoots with the nutritionist, and his meals change depending on what kind of physical activity he has done that day.
This is in addition to the already drastic change from what he used to eat at the tower. Apparently 3000 calories worth of carbs was not acceptabe, even for him. Now he is eating a ludicrous amount of vegetables and protein. Not that he is complaining. He even really likes the shakes they have him slurp down twice a day. They taste like chocolate, the kind they would get in their C-rations and save for special occasions.
The activity also helps him sleep. Which is only of limited usefulness because he has started waking up with nightmares. Steve is surprised by this. While he has suffered from the occasional bad dream, he has been able to compartmentalize most things and doesn't usually worry about nightmares. This drastically changes with the army of people cracking open Steve’s past and resurrecting all of his ghosts.
At first he just wakes up and goes back to sleep, but as the days progress and Steve’s carefully constructed compartmentalization is broken apart he soon starts waking up reaching for Bucky, or snarling at Red Skull, or on one particularly humiliating night crying for his mother. He eventually does the stubborn thing and instead of asking for help, he just tries to stop sleeping.
After over a week of near sleepless nights Dr. Welker stops by the Cube right before the usual time of lights out. Steve has not prepared for bed, and actually intends to pace most of the night in order to stay awake. Same as he has done the two previous nights.
She comes to a stop in front of the glass, and waits, but he does not stop pacing. “Steve,’ she tries to draw his attention.
“What?” is his curt reply; he does not stop.
He can hear her sigh through the microphone. “I am going to give you something to help you sleep.”
“I don’t want anything,” he responds, and tugs at the gauntlets. He had let Joyce refill the gauntlets with his medications. He was actually regretting it a bit now. If anything, he felt more unstable than ever. At least when he was numb he could still function, but now…now he actually felt crazy.
He also feels angry. Furious. At Dr. Welker, at SHIELD, and this whole miserable situation. He is even angry with himself, for getting into this mess in the first place. He couldn’t even die right!
Steve realizes he is muttering to himself and paying no attention to Welker. He turns towards her again and walks up to the glass. He doesn’t even know what to say so he just glares.
“I’m not asking, Steve.” She looks him right in the eyes. “I would suggest you go lie down. The Trazadone will help you fall and stay asleep. It will also prevent some of the nightmares. Avoiding this issue won’t make it go away.” "I don't want..." he starts to snarl but she interrupts him, "It isn't about what you want Steve, at this point it is about what you need. Currently, you need to get some sleep." He blinks at her, taken aback. This is the first time she has ever interrupted him, but he recognized a scold when he gets one. She then reaches over and pulls up a chair before sitting down and whipping out a paper-backed book from her purse.
Steve wants to snarl at her, but he is more distracted by her actions. “What are you doing?” He asks…okay, he accuses.
“For as long as necessary, one of your team will be here 24/7. If you wake from a nightmare and can’t get back to sleep we will be able to talk you down or help you process it.” Steve blinks at her. She was going to just sit there all night? He feels his cheeks heat. He feels like he is being outmaneuvered. Again.
“That isn’t necessary,” he objects. He doesn’t want a babysitter. And he can't stand the thought of someone spending the night awake and away from their families just for him.
“Will you try to sleep if I leave?” She asks. She doesn’t put her book away and he doesn’t answer. The corner of Welker’s lip twitches up, “I didn’t think so.” She goes back to her book and finds her page before looking up at him again, “you really should lie down,” she advises. She then nods towards the technician at the panel.
Steve looks over at the tech, who he recognizes as the usual night shift guy. The man looks at Steve and raises an eyebrow in query, he looks sad. Steve grinds his teeth. Damn it. Damn them!
“Fine.” He snarls out as he raises his hands in a sign of surrender. He holds eye contact with the tech, “give me five minutes to get ready.” The tech nods, looking relieved, and Steve prowls away from Welker’s reading form to brush his teeth, quickly rinse off, and put on a clean pair of scrubs.
Steve glances at Dr. Welker as he pads over to the platform bed and lies down. Still without a blanket, not that he needs one. Despite his anger and anxiety it only takes a few minutes for him to begin to feel sluggish and sleepy. He doesn’t know if he is drugged or not, but it doesn’t matter. Either way he falls asleep.
He wakes twice that night. The first time he shrugs off Dr. Welker’s request that he talk and forces himself back to sleep more out of spite than anything else.
The second time is worse. When he finally shakes off the nightmare his back is pressed between the back wall and the partition for the bathroom. His scrubs are clammy with sweat and his heart and breath are competing with each other for speed records.
He looks around to orient himself. One hand is clawing at his neck and the other is braced like he is trying to fight someone off. Dr. Welker is no longer outside the Cube but in it, along with one of the security guards.
He stares at her in confusion. She is halfway across the room with her hands held up in a placating fashion. Her lips are moving. She is calling his name.
“Steve?” She asks, catching his eye, “are you back with us?”
He rubs a hand over his face, and nods as his embarrassedly lowers his arm. She wasn’t going to hurt him…in fact…
“What are you doing in here?!” He asks, worried. “I could hurt you!”
She actually rolls her eyes at him before asking: “do you want to hurt me?”
“Then you won’t”
Steve thinks this is terribly naïve, but he doesn’t correct her. He does, however, cringe back when she moves towards him and sits next to him. She is far enough away that she isn’t crowding him, but is close enough to touch.
She gives a friendly scoff at his actions, “its alright tough guy, you don’t need to worry. I won’t hurt you either.” She then makes a show of settling in and directing the guard to stand by the door. He is still be able to hear them but at least he isn’t in Steve’s direct line of sight.
“Now,” she says, “This is the part where we talk.”
“I’m not getting better,” he accuses.
“No,” she agrees, “not yet. But you will.”
Several weeks after therapy starts, after what feels like some major breakthroughs, Steve hits a wall.
He feels worn thin. He feels, with no small amount of irony, like the tattered American Flag he had seen outside of one of the buildings in Washington D.C. It had been out into the sun and the elements so long that its colors had faded and the seams were brittle; one good snap of wind and the whole thing would fall to pieces.
Steve feels that if he remembers one more loss, if he says one more thing or feels one more emotion, that all of his seams will unravel and he will fall to pieces. The only thing he has left is that flag. As tattered as it is, it is familiar and his. If he doesn’t have that, he has nothing.
He doesn’t want to engage with Welker at all, being fully aware that she can easily outmanuver him. Instead of getting angry, she just tells him she is willing to wait, but that he will feel better if he talks. Steve wants to explain to her that talking hurt, but he doesn’t even feel stable enough to say as much.
Dr Okoyo asks him to draw what he wants in the future but Steve can’t. Try as he might, he simply can’t come up with something. He doesn't see a future.
Not even Sam helps. He brings Steve books and watches movies with him. And by watch, Steve stares into space while Sam tries to engage him in conversation. Eventually, Sam gives up on the movies and just sits with Steve. Sometimes he tells Steve the most recent tower gossip, other times he sits quietly next to him and reads. Steve figures Sam will get fed up and stop coming, but he doesn’t – he just shows up more often.
Dr. Welker informs him that they are altering his medications, adding another antidepressant and something for his anxiousness. Steve just nods. She administers another evaluation which Steve tonelessly answers. When she asks him what he thinks about it, he just shrugs.
The next morning Steve wakes up restrained to the bed. Again. His gauntlets activated and attached to the bed frame. There are equally intimidating straps around his feet, knees, and shoulders. He doesn’t remember how this happened.
Steve should freak out. He really should. But he doesn’t care. He has seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and detachedly wonders if there is a lobotomy in his future.
There isn’t, just Joyce, who walks into the room pushing a little cart with some vials on it.
“Good morning, Steve” She greets, like she does every time she sees him. Not acknowledging the change of situation. Steve turns his head toward her and makes eye contact, but can’t muster up enough energy to tell her he is glad to see her. She is wearing a set of eye-watering pink scrubs today, with ice-cream cones on them.
She pulls up the plastic chair and sits next to him as the two guards make themselves as inconspicuous as possible next to the door.
She starts pulling on plastic gloves, “I would ask you how you are doing today, honey, but I think I already know. And that’s okay, we will figure this out, you just gotta be patient and help us out as best you can.” She turns and nods to the tech at one of the consoles. She then turns to where Steve’s left arm is secured against the bed platform as the gauntlet opens. She starts pulling out half-full vials.
“We have been working with Dr. Banner,” she explains, “and we’re thinkin’ we might have something that will help. The rest of your team has been helping too, and we are gonna try something different.” She has finished removing the vials in the left gauntlet and leans over him to remove the ones in the right one. Steve follows her with his eyes. He thinks he should have an opinion about this, but he doesn’t.
Joyce pats him affectionately on the chest as she leans back and starts selecting vials off of the tray before securing them in the gauntlet. She repeats the process for the other side and then fastens them up. She then pulls out a few vials and takes some blood samples from Steve. She also checks his vitals, eyes, looks in his ears, and listens to his heart and lungs. She explains everything she is doing (‘just taking a look, sweetie’) and why (“getting a baseline for the new medication.”)
She then grabs a few bags of what looks like saline off of the cart. “You are a bit dehydrated, Sweetie, so I am just going to give you something to make you feel better until you feel up to eating.”
Steve almost scoffs. He hasn’t been hungry in a long time. And the only reason he is forcing down food is because Dr. Welker had threatened him with a feeding tube if he didn’t take in a minimum of calories. He doesn’t think it is a hollow threat, so he makes sure to eat enough to keep her at bay.
Joyce hooks up the IVs, one to each gauntlet and sits with him until they finish. She then removes them and release the straps on his feet, knees, and shoulders. As soon as she walks out the room with the cart, the gauntlets release with a click. Steve doesn’t move. Its not like he has anywhere to go.
The difference takes a few weeks, but with the combined forces of the new medications, the die-hard persistence of his therapy team, Ruth and the other Avengers, Steve actually starts to feel better.
The first sign of improvement is that he is bored. He was a man of action and there is literally nothing to do in his cell. It actually takes him a while to figure out what he is feeling and he only really pins it down when Sam shows up for a visit and Steve is, well, happy to have someone to talk to. Sam is only too happy oblige, even if the conversation is stilted.
He is also hungry, and actually able to eat without the uncomfortable swell of anxiety-induced nausea robbing him of his appetite.
And angry. Steve doesn’t like to admit it, and he knows it is wrong. But he has so much anger and he is frankly floored when both Welker and Okoye are not only delighted to hear this but tell him it is normal. Unfortunately, they then make him talk about it which leads to more than one angry outburst which Steve deeply regrets later. One of which is bad enough he ends up sedated on the floor. Again, Welker is surprisingly understanding, and even the guards didn’t seem as alarmed by his actions as he is.
But along with his return to the world of the feeling, he gets both the good and the bad. It’s Joyce who is on duty a few nights later when Steve has his worst nightmare so far. Steve wakes up yelling for Bucky and in his confusion manages to lunge towards his dream-Bucky and crack his forehead open on the wall.
He comes back to reality flailing with blood flowing down his face. He doesn’t know what to do when Joyce and two guards come rushing in so he stays still, propped up on one hand, blinking blood out of his eyes.
Joyce comes right up to him ‘Oh, honey, there is no reason to be scared. The nightmare is over. But it looks like you did a number on your head.” She gently nudges him back to lean against one of the walls and then pulls his hand away from his forehead. Damn, head wound always bleed like crazy.
She quickly directs one of the security personnel to get a first aid kit as she checks the cut. She then glances into his eyes and takes in his stunned expression. She pauses and her eyes narrow.
“Steve, honey, do you know where you are?”
Steve blinks at her, and then realizes that he doesn’t. He was just with Bucky and now he is here. Did he fall off the train? He shakes his head and then looks around at the guard and the cell he is in. What is going on?? Has he been captured?? He cringes away from her and presses further into the wall. Where is Bucky?
“It’s okay Steve,” she soothes, “do you know what year it is?” For some reason the question makes him anxious and his chest starts to tighten. Why would she ask him that? He wants to answer 1945 but he knows that’s wrong. He shakes his head again.
“Oh, honey,” She says, pressing a wad of gauze to his forehead before pulling him into a quick hug, “don’t you worry, you are safe.”
It only takes Steve a few minutes to orient himself, the fog of the nightmare and sleep quickly disappearing into the general horror of realizing he was losing his ability to determine reality from dream.
He is completely pliant as Joyce cleans him up and closes the cut with a few butterfly bandages (anyone else would require stitches). As she works her gentle explanations and kind touches reach something in him that he hasn’t felt for a long time. She reminds him of his mother, when she took care of him each winter when he got ill. And Bucky, who would tease him but still patch him up after yet another fight. Steve is scared. “I hate feeling like this,” he whispers to no one in particular.
Steve doesn’t realize tears are dripping out of his eyes and down the sides of his face until Joyce sits on the floor next to him, reaches over, and pulls him into her arms.
“It’s okay to cry, sweetie. I know you are hurting right now, and crying will make you feel better.”
Steve goes, learning into her shoulder and taking the comfort he can. She certainly is a great Grandma. Or at least she gives great hugs as she whispers reassurances to him as he weeps like a broken-hearted child.
With his return to the land of emotions, his care team focus their efforts. He still has daily session with most of them. Dr. Welker has been challenging him on his rigid world view and he is troubled that under her razor-sharp questions he is realizing that things he knew to be true with a capital ‘T’ aren’t.
This includes not only things such as he immutable belief that the 21st Century is worse than the one he grew up in, or that he hates the 21st Century but also things he thought to be true about himself.
For instance, Welker very easily turned he belief that he didn’t belong in the 21st Century around but asking him where he thought refugees belonged? They are displaced from a location, but that isn't so different from being displaced in time. Or if it were Bucky and not him, would Bucky also not belong? He squirms at this and tries to argue.
“Do you think Natasha should have just been killed instead of offered a chance to start over?” Welker asks bluntly.
Steve’s answer, of course, had been ‘no’ to which she replied “then why don’t you deserve a chance to start over too?”
He then stubbornly switches to the argument that he was allowed to start over but it just hasn't worked. However, it doesn’t take her long to prove to him that he hasn’t really tried, It isn’t that he can’t adapt to the 21st Century, it’s that he won’t.
Dr Okoyo still asked Steve to draw but the requests became more specific. He asked him to draw his nightmares. Or memories that intrude on him while he is awake. What he wants for the future. Sometimes he asks Steve to draw stories of what happened, like a comic book of the most horrible times in his life. Dr. Okoyo then asks Steve to write underneath each frame what was happening, how that made him feel at the time, and how it made him feel now. Steve balks – he simply doesn’t have the vocabulary to express what he is feeling.
The doc is undeterred and gives Steve a ‘Feelings Wheel’ which lists a huge range of emotions. Steve does his best and ends up with more than one panic attack or spate of crying. Whereas he didn’t really feel anything before, now it is almost like he feels too much.
All of this serves to make Steve feel vulnerable and off balance. Steve is antsy and anxious when he sees Sam next. Of course, Sam picks up on it and pesters Steve for an explanation. Steve does, hoping for a bit of sympathy. He doesn’t get it. “Sounds to me like they want you to get better.” Sam observes.
Steve huffs out a breath, “yeah, I guess.”
Out of the blue Sam asks him “Do you want to get better?” His voice is neutral but his eyes are sharp. Steve pauses to think and is honestly surprised with the answer.
“Yes,” he says, “I do.”
Sam give him a smile he hadn’t seen in a while. “Well then,” he says, “how can I help you with your homework?”
Steve starts using his resources. And by that, he means the people around him, to start to get a grip on the future (well, the present). Claire, of course, is only too happy to provide him with any information he wants, but she insists he balance what he learns. For each negative thing he learns about (the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima) she makes sure he looks into points of progress like the end of Polio, the Marshall Plan, and the Civil Rights Movement.
But where he really learns about the 21st Century is from talking to people about their lives. He first starts with Sam, and learns about what Southern Food is like and why he thinks Air Force will always beat Army in sports. He also gets lots of music recommendations. He leans about global affairs and society from Natasha – until she finally relents and tells him of her memories of Russian food and culture that she misses. He even learns what it is like to grow up in the circus from Clint. The circus?! He had no idea.
And the art. Steve had loved art before the war. After he got out of the ice…well…he couldn’t bring himself to care, it was all too different. He had not bothered to catch up on what had happened in the past 70 years. It was too painful and reminded him of everything that he had lost.
But then Tony had shown up with a book on contemporary art and Steve was entranced. He spent hours going over the photos of the paintings and sculptures. Claire was more than happy to feed his new obsession and catch him up on Dali and introduce him to Georgia O’Keefe. She also picked out movies about and by great artists. Then he gets pulled into digital arts and what people can do with photography and…it is all so amazing and overwhelming. There is now street art and performance art and participatory art. Steve loves Banksy and laughs out loud when he learns about ‘yarn-bombing’.
The more Steve reads the more he itches to draw. He requests, and gets, additional paper and some colored pencils. For the first time, Steve can see all the colors of the pencils he is using. It is a whole new world - and one of the few things he feels he has gained. Steve draws the look of Natasha’s face as she teases Clint. Sam when he lets out one of his ‘big’ laughs. But his favorite is the portrait he draws for Joyce.
Steve really likes Joyce. She is straight forward, practical, and warm. And she loves to talk, so when she is on duty Steve asks her to tell him stories. It’s for research, he tells himself, even though he knows this is a lie. One afternoon Joyce comes over and pulls out her phone to show Steve photos of her weekend family BBQ. The best photo is of Joyce’s daughter hugging her son while they both grin into the camera. The photo makes Steve smile and then he laughs when Joyce tells him about her grandson’s lizard escaping only to be found hours later in the dessert fruit platter.
Steve can’t get that picture out of his head so he draws what he remembers. He, somewhat shyly, offers the picture to Joyce the next time she works and he is aghast when she immediately bursts into tears. Steve isn’t sure, but thinks he may have just committed some sort of deeply offensive faux pas. Before he can get too worried, however, Joyce comes up to him and give him a huge hug, tells him she loves it, and calls him sweetie. He can’t remember the last time he made someone smile.
And the food. He would never have thought of this growing up in the depression, but having to eat to keep up with his metabolism isn’t as fun as it sounds. Or at least it wasn’t until Steve started to get introduced to the culinary options of the 21st century.
His nutrition team had been making sure that he was getting enough to eat, but they hadn’t been adventurous – hoping to avoid stressing him with additional changes. But that all changes with a moon pie.
Steve is in between sessions and is idly drawing one day when one of the techs, Davis, grabs his lunch and pulls out a crinkly package that looks like a large brown…well…Steve isn’t sure what.
Whatever it is, Davis is obviously enjoying it, and he offers some to one of his co-workers. When his co-worker, Richards, sees it, he reaches out in delight.
Steve gets up and walks up to the wall, curious. Trying to figure out what it is as the two men pull…is it marshmallow???…from their fingers.
Richards notices Steve looking and pauses before leaning forward and pressing on the intercom button.
“Hey Cap, you ever had a Moon Pie?”
Steve has no idea what that is and shake his head, “I hope that is not a literal description.” He comments.
Davis leans forward, too. “Do you like marshmallow?” He asks. Steve nods again. A few quick moments later Steve is in possession of a quarter of a Moon Pie and he is in heaven. The techs enjoy his enthusiasm so much that the next day he gets treated to something called a Heath bar (good) and a Butterfinger (not so good) as well as cakes called Little Debbies. Over the course of the next few weeks the techs, guards, and even Dr Okoyo get into the habit of bringing Steve new foods.
The nutritionist are enthusiastically on board and Steve soon starts to experience an increasingly wide-ranging selection of international meals. Some he doesn’t like (hot curries are just not for him) but other’s he is delighted by (Greek and Israeli food is amazing, so is Mexican). Dr Okoyo’s Nigerian wife makes a huge traditional meal and he and the doc sit on the floor and eat it with their hands.
Joyce and Sam bring him a host of Southern food which easily meets his caloric requirements for the day and blow his mind with new flavours. Sweet potato pie is AMAZING! Okra is…weird. Steve tries it all.
Steve gets as much out of watching people’s enthusiasm in sharing things they love with him as he does in trying the new foods. There are good-natured arguments over what everyone thinks he will like and who get to bring him something next. It adds a sense of adventure and excitement to Steve’s days that he hadn’t realized he was missing.
Steve decides that Natasha is evil. In a good way, but still evil.
She gets him hooked on the Lord of the Rings books, after finding out that he had read The Hobbit in the 1930s. Steve devours the first book and get more than a few laughs when the techs notice his shocked expression when Gandalf dies. He is so shocked that he first just gapes at the book and then, when the tech asks if he is okay, he responds in an enthusiastic ‘no.’ Before they get too worried, Steve launches into a tirade about how Gandalf is his favorite character and the book can’t possibly be worth reading now that he is dead.
One of the security guys, Russell, assures him that the rest of the books are still worth reading and convinces him to move on. Except he can’t because Natasha only gave him the first one. Steve insists they call, her but Russell balks. At first Steve thinks it is because he isn’t allowed to make calls, but it turns out Russell is just afraid of the Black Widow because he ‘likes his manhood attached to his body.’
Steve calls him a wimp and convinces them to link the call to the speakers in the room. The phone only rings once before Natasha picks up.
“Romanov, you red menace, they killed Gandalf! As if I didn’t have enough problems already,” Steve calls into the air.
It is only because he knows Natasha as well as he does that he realizes she is surprised. She recovers quickly.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t capitalist propaganda himself. What can I do for you Steve?”
Steve scoffs is fake disbelief, “They killed Gandalf!!” Even though she can’t see him, he is shaking the book much to the amusement of the watching spectators. “I have been assured that I should keep going, but I can’t do that since you have only provided a teaser.”
Natasha laughs, and the assembled techs and security staff look shocked. “Okay Steve, I will be there in half an hour. You can tell me what you thought of the first book and I will bring you the rest.”
“I dunno,” Steve deadpans out of nowhere. He doesn’t know why, but it feels good to tease Natasha, “I will have to check my schedule, I might be busy…”
He can almost hear here eye roll. “Right, I will see you in 30, Steve.” He can hear the phone click as she hangs up and he chuckles to himself. When he looks up at Russell the man is shaking his head.
‘What?” Steve asks curiously.
“You must have balls of steel,” Russell replies, “You just called up the Black Widow and demanded she bring you something. I can’t tell if I am horrified or impressed.”
Steve smirks at him, “You do realize you have to protect me if she comes in here looking for revenge,” he teases. He thinks it is funny, Russell just looks worried.
Natasha is in a good mood when she arrives with the rest of the series, and she walks into the Cube without hesitation and and gives Steve a huge hug. Steve winks at Russell's shocked face over Natasha's shoulder.
She then demands snacks (which are quickly provided and suspiciously calorie heavy) before launching into an analysis of the first book like she is a literature professor.
They argue over the symbolism and the importance (or not) of Tom Bombadil before Natasha agrees to hand over the next book.
Steve actually enjoys the intellectual challenge and debating with Natasha. Before Steve knows it, they finish off all of the snacks, as well as the dinner that was delivered while they were talking. It is almost midnight. He is surprised they let him stay up this late given how they have been keeping him to a strict schedule. The guards and techs have changed and Steve is blinking heavily. But he doesn’t want Natasha to go.
The conversation peters out as Steve struggles to keep up his end. Natasha, of course, looks refreshed as always and she is finally the one who tells him to go get ready for bed. He reluctantly does and expects her to wish him goodbye, but she just gestures for him to lie down and she settles herself next to him on her stomach.
“Close your eyes, Steve.” She says.
He does as she asks, a little uncomfortable being so close to her. He doesn’t want to invade her space. Although, he suspects that she wouldn’t be close to him unless she wanted to be. He can hear her shuffle around and then, much to his surprise, she starts to read. Natasha has a lovely voice, somewhere between the purr of a cat and the sound of the ocean. It doesn’t take him long to get caught up into the story, and it doesn’t take him long to fall asleep either.
“Are you ready to go home?”
It is the first question Dr Welker asks Steve on the six-month anniversary of his suicide attempt. Three months ago he would have immediately said ‘yes’ but now he takes the time to really think about it. To pick apart what he is feeling.
Steve knew he had made a lot of progress in the last few months. Particularly after he had decided he wanted to get better and he had committed to engaging with his therapy. But he is afraid he will fall back into bad habits. “I know I want to go home, but I am not sure if I am ready,” he says slowly.
Welker seems pleased with his response.
It turns out that ‘going home’ is not the same as being ‘cut loose’. He will be back in the tower but JARVIS is going to be keeping an eye on him. He also has mandatory out-patient sessions with all of his care team twice a week. And a very strong safety plan.
Steve is surprisingly okay with this. At first he just wanted to ‘get better’ but now he is realizes that ‘getting better’ is more of a journey than a destination.
And the gauntlets stay on. Not because Steve still needs to be forced to take his medications, but they mean he won't have to pop pills numerous times a day. Steve is okay with this too, and is already working on how to incorporate the gauntlets into his fighting style.
But with the realization that he can leave SHIELD comes the realization that he will be back in the public eye. Steve has no idea what the world has been told about his ‘disappearance’. However, when he expresses these concerns to Tony, the billionaire just laughs in his face.
“Oh Capsicle,” he chuckles, “people are going to be so excited to see you!And Fury will be happy because that means he won’t be bothered anymore by people leaving flowers and star-spangled teddy bears at the gates of SHIELD.”
Steve has no idea what he is talking about, so Tony pulls up news articles from his injury. All SHIELD press release had only stated that he has been seriously injured in the line of duty and was now undergoing a long and arduous recovery at SHIELD.
Steve grimaces, he doesn’t feel right about lying to the public, and he says as much. Tony quickly shuts him down, “It isn’t a lie Steve, that is exactly what happened. You got injured, and it has taken you a while to recover. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. We have told the public the truth and it was up to them to determine what that meant.”
Next Tony pulls up photos of the outside of the Triskillion. Piled in front of the gates are thousands of bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals and cards. Steve has to blink rapidly to get the...ahem...dust out of his eyes.
“We didn’t want to pressure you during your recovery by giving you the cards, but they are so disgustingly sweet they could give you diabetes.” Despite being snarky, Steve could tell that Tony was also touched. “I have them at the tower if you want them.”
For the two weeks, the majority of Steve’s sessions focus on how to manage what he feels once is he back in the outside world. He had not realized how institutionalized he had become and his anxiety about being on his own was starting to make itself apparent.
The sessions help, as does the extensive safety plan that Steve worked out with Dr. Welker and the realization that all of the Avengers were going to be in the Tower. Steve isn’t positive, but he has a sneaky suspicion that he wouldn’t be lacking company for a very long time.
Tony stops by twice in the last week to pester Steve with questions about what he ‘needs’ and Steve is sure he is going to end up with a refrigerator full of root beer and cupboards of Moon Pies. Steve just smiles at Tony’s antics, recognizing it for what it is: Tony's way of telling him that he cares. Steve also doesn’t miss the fact that Tony and Dr. Welker have more than one conversation about JARVIS keeping an eye on Steve.
Sam and Clint are even more overt in their excitement. Sam swings by to let Steve know he will be staying at the tower for a few weeks to train with the Avengers and Clint has already challenged Steve to sparring sessions. The trash talk has already begun.
The excitement about this return makes Steve smile, he is more grateful then he can express that his team members are welcoming him back with such grace. By all rights, they should kick him off the team. But that option has never been mentioned. Only once, Welker had asked Steve if he wanted to try something different, but Steve didn’t want that. If he belonged anywhere, it was with the Avengers.
The most unexpected visitor is Director Fury. Not once has Fury visited while Steve's been in SHIELD custody. Not once. The day before Steve is scheduled to go home, Fury shows up in a cloud of black leather, holding a thick manilla folder in his hand.
“Captain Rogers,” he says.
“Director,” Steve acknowledges. Steve is back in civilian clothing, courtesy of Sam, but for the moment he is still inside the cube.
“I hear you are about to be released.” It isn’t a question, but Steve nods anyway. Steve has a sinking feeling that the Director is about to do something horrible, like take him off of the Avengers.
“In that case,” Fury continues, “I want to know if you are ready for your next assignment?”
Steve is confused. He knows very well that he isn’t cleared for missions. He nods anyway and Fury places the envelope into the pass-through slot in the wall.
Steve nervously picks up the envelope and pulls out what has to be one of the most comprehensive mission briefings in his entire life.
For one insane moment he thinks that Fury was playing a trick on him, at least until he realizes that Fury had no sense of humor.
From what he can tell, he is the mission. The first section of the briefing is a detailed plan aimed at getting him back into shape both physically and mentally. It looks like this will take a few months. The second section is more confusing. It is something about integration training and cultural exposure. Steve reads a few pages until he realizes that it is, in fact, a travel itinerary for a bunch of places he has never been to. A bunch of places he want to go.
Steve glances up at Fury, but the Director is giving nothing away. “Keep reading.” He orders.
The last section of the briefing is a series of applications along the East coast of the United States. College applications. They are already filled out with his information and each had a small sticky note near the bottom where he was supposed to sign.
“I don’t understand..” Steve says.
“We will have to work out a part-time schedule for the classes, or see if you can do them remotely, but when Coulson spoke to the admissions counselors they seemed to think we could work something out.” Fury almost has a smile on his face.
“Your care team has had several conversations with me about how SHIELD could have handled your entry into the 21st Century a better. For the most part, I agree, and I am hoping this will give you a better foundation than the one you had before.”
Steve just stares at Fury for a few moments before looking back at the mission briefing. “I don’t know what to say, sir.” He mutters.
“Well, Rogers, I know it is an intimidating mission, but I figure if you can handle Nazis and alien invasions from space, you can manage some exercise, a road trip, and the occasional co-ed. So what do you say? You up for this assignment?”
Steve feels a smile start to creep across his face. He can see it. He can actually see a future here, something bright was finally starting to shine out of the darkness.
“Yes sir,” he says, “I think I am.”