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» [C] DON'T PUNISH YOURSELF, PUNISH YOURSELF [INVITES]
Posted: Jun 7 2017, 12:41 AM
steve is Offline
For the first time in ages, Steve felt hope.
What shape did this hope take? A faint glimmer in the night; a drop of water in the desert. A place, as of yet unreachable, but perceivable, where things might return to some vague semblance of peace. Happiness. Comfort. Somewhere where when Steve laid his head down, there would be a hand behind it, supporting it… a place where he could let spill forth all the things he had thus far kept buried deep inside him. Where tears might fall, and no one would question his strength, or his determination because of them.
Hope is a dangerous thing. It doesn’t listen to logic, or reason, and it sure as hell tries to exist in spite of every attempt to extinguish it. It’s the last memory, the final token of a life-once-lived left, gripped in a sweaty palm during our darkest hours. It flourishes in pain and anguish, and arrives even when the doorstep to our souls is comprised of soot and ash. When all else fails, one may look to hope. Sometimes that’s enough.
Steve wasn’t sure whether his hope had existed all along, but laid dormant, or whether he had cultivated a cast-off seedling into new life. He didn’t remember feeling like this. The days before Ash’s return had been full of a hollow darkness—the outside shone, vibrant for the sake of others, but the inside was carved out and left empty, full of cobwebs and dust. He had never really figured out how to transcribe that pain into something anyone could understand, and to be honest, he hadn’t wanted to.
But today, each day… since Ash’s return… he awoke with a spark. Just a spark. A fledgling of a chance, just a mere possibility, that maybe, just maybe… today might be better than yesterday.
Ash wanted to stay.
Ash wanted to stay, with him, here.
Steve had to remind himself constantly that just because the man he was caring for wanted to stick around didn’t mean he was rekindling feelings for him, or recalling the past they had built together. Perhaps it was ultimately wise that this was a concept Steve refused to touch, mostly because he wasn’t ignorant of the fact that by being a constant companion and a caregiver and a gatekeeper, he was becoming a focal point of dependency. Or, worse, a captor. Sure, a captor with good intentions… but Stockholm Syndrome and cruelty aren’t obligate symbioses. One can be perfectly well-intentioned and still find their relationship has developed out of a need for one another, a reliance driven by survival… not a want, or a wish.
That’s why he began to bring others in.
Friends, mostly. Yes, people Ash used to know, but he thought that that might work in their favor better than strangers. These people would know the man Ash once was; would understand why it was important to be patient and understanding with the man he was now. Or so Steve hoped. He could only ask them to help; he could not direct them on how to act or, really, what to expect, when confronted with this specter that spoke, smelled, and moved like Ash… but wasn’t.
There was Pietro, the friend who bore immense guilt… and was one of the two who had reconnected Ash with Steve before it all went critical. There was Bruce, the soft-spoken, yet sage acquaintance… who had exchanged shame with Ash once upon a time, and who nonetheless had not judged him for the atrocities he, too, bore in turn. There was Sam, his friend, who had the expertise to deal with someone like Ash… but who also, Steve knew, was incredibly wary of the man that had beaten him and destroyed his wings like he meant nothing. And there was Tyson, the once-lover… who bore a deep ache and hunger for any sort of connection he didn’t know he was failing to conceal. All of them had their merits. All of them had their crutches. But they had volunteered, and Steve couldn’t deny the help he knew he needed. Couldn’t deny that Ash needed them.
This wasn’t about bringing Ash back to who he once was. It was about opening all the doors, and paving all the roadways, so that Ash could choose from any future ahead of him and know happiness. Maybe he would fall in love, or in lust (or in both) with Tyson again. Maybe he would realize Bruce had the better words and the better reasons to forgive oneself, and could say them far more aptly than Steve could ever explain. Maybe Sam could teach him that he didn’t really need Steve… that he could be self-reliant. It didn’t matter what happened so long as Ash could find where he fit into the collective story.
In all this, Steve strove to ignore himself. Strove to work solely backstage. But his hope, even as small as it was, was hardy and tenacious. Every glance, every memory, every touch was a drop of water to questing roots, or a glint of sunshine to unfurling leaves, feeding a thirst he wasn’t entirely aware of. He tried to blanket it. To recognize, again, that he was the only consistent thing in Ash’s life, and it would not be doing right by him to interpret more than the face value whenever Ash reached out to him. This was a man tortured, isolated, and beaten. He wasn’t hungering for Steve... just the human connection.
Sure. Smiles, though fleeting, still made their debut. But that was it. Until Ash was self-sufficient, until he knew what it meant to be independent (of thought, of body, of dreams, of everything), Steve kept his distance. He did not confide in him. He did not show weakness around him (not intentionally anyway). He was a rock. A stabilizer. An inanimate object that provided objective stability unfettered by feelings.
Sure, that was utter bullshit, too. But it was all he could do.
The second visit to Tony’s lab went far better than the first. This time, Steve was prepared, with book in hand, and water and snacks for patient and doctor-slash-technician. He set a water bottle by Ash’s side, by Tony’s, and perched on a stool just inches from Ash’s knees with everything else tucked in pockets, or his large hands. Last time, he had gone up against his own convictions, and told Ash stories from the “once-life” he had formerly lived just to keep him his distracted. This time, knowing it calmed Ash, he chose a safer bet. A novel. A work of science fiction, like they were, but so removed from the cold, serrated edge of reality that they could still enjoy its meaning. It was from this he read the entire time, glancing up then and again to gauge Ash’s reaction.
More than once, he caught Tony staring at him, head-cocked, and lips pressed thin. Whatever bugged him, he didn’t say; Steve was in no mood to question.
The smell of hot metal and of foreign, mechanical substances clogged their noses after a while, and all three began sniffling. Tony went away, returning with cloth masks like the kind one sees in construction. But when he offered them out to the pair he was tending to, he was met with refusal. Ash’s vehement head-shake no was soon followed by a polite and soft, yet distracted “no, thank you” from Steve. Faraway blue eyes refocused on the task at hand, but the words swam a little in front of him.
The blonde ex-medic’s hand had gone to his face at some point, touching the spot where his cheekbone had been broken. A fist had done that. But memory demanded he consult a different moment: Ash propelled forth to slam them both into a fire door, a black mask on Steve’s own visage cracking with the impact. The same mask, ultimately, that Steve had torn from the face of the man before him. A mask that had meant a muzzle, and a muzzle that had silenced a future.
It was but a moment. Just an instant. But Steve had to shrug himself out of it, and in the few seconds that it took to for him to locate his place in the chapter, he realized both Ash and Tony were staring at him. He smiled warmly at them both—smiled a lie with the utmost conviction.
“Sorry. Lost my place. That’s what I get for daydreaming.”
Steve didn’t mean to stay so late. Granted, sometimes exhaustion took over, but what with it being nearly three in the morning… he had slept far, far too long. On the couch, no less. In another time, the position he had kept would have left him sore and creaking, but these days… well, when he stood, he pressed on his left hip as though half-expecting it to ache, and then let his hands fall when he realized it didn’t.
He glanced towards the bathroom door, which was shut tight, and then to the kitchen. Dinner plates still sat on the table, so he set about washing them. A sink full of hot water and soap, his sleeves rolled up, a mindless task he could invest in… it lured him back into that state of half-consciousness that threatened dreamland. But hands passed from plastic plates, tupperware, and glasses to the sink again and again, shifting the pile towards clean with an ever-growing efficiency.
In a moment like this, he could almost pretend.
It had been a week or two since the last time he had pined for what was, and he would be lying if he didn’t sometimes think it would be a relief if he could see Ash only for who he was, and not who he should have been. If he could move on from the grief, finally, knowing that the Ash-That-Was would never return. That wasn’t to say he wanted to date, or, really, partake in intimacy even. He was too wounded for that even if you did take away the part of the reason that had entirely to do with the man (most likely) asleep in the bathroom. But to be able to wake up not yearning for solace only an Ash who loved him could bring. It would be a relief to be free of that. If only it were that easy. If only it could happen.
Sarah Rogers had always told Steve he felt too much, too often for this crazy world that we live in. That one day, his sentimentality, and his empathy, might do him personally more damage than good. Steve had thought it meant he might run into a final sort of trouble one of the times he picked a fight he could by no means finish. Or that he might remain poor forever because he was always giving away his earnings. What he had failed to understand was that Sarah had known how her son hurt. Even for others, it ran deep, shattering bone and severing sinew, striking him at his very core and leaving a mark that was indelible. She had known just how much Steve could endure, that he did have a limit, even though most would see his energy as endless. And she had known, right up to the moment of her last breath, that what stung Steve deepest was an inability to heal those he needed most to mend.
This was the key to endless heartache. He could not heal his mother, and he could not heal Ashley. So many more, despite his best efforts, had slipped free of the mortal coil forever. And when he now looked at Ash, who somehow, somehow was alive… those marks—red-hot streaks of lightening—never let him forget how, for a year, Steve had failed him. He could not fix him. He could only wait, and hope, and pray, that maybe, one day… he might find out why all this had happened. What he had done to deserve such suffering. What Ash had done to deserve being unwritten.
On a base level, he knew there were at least a dozen answers. But once upon a time, they had both been good people, hadn’t they? They were just trying to do their best. To make a difference. Where had the path gone wrong? Where had the timeline soured and withered? All he had ever wanted was a home, and someone he loved to share it with. Surely they deserved better, even with all their sins?
The dishes were done. Pale hands gripped the stainless steel sink so tightly he knew he could rip it free if he wanted, with absolute minimal effort. But he didn’t. Because Steve wasn’t here to be Steve. He was a means to an end. He could not be the victim. Ash deserved better than that. Ash deserved his devotion… until the day came wherein goodbyes would be passed, and doors forever closed behind them.
Do not lie to yourself, Steven. You love him.
But hope is a poison.
Posted: Jun 24 2017, 10:30 PM
Ash is Offline
Being real was exhausting.
Even now, with only something akin to a half-life, Ash didn’t know how real people did it. How did they think so much? How did they react and exist and still manage to breath deep enough to not pass out. Every waking moment was a million different things that could go wrong—that he could do wrong—that would destroy everything. The asset didn’t worry, but he wasn’t the asset anymore. His programming didn’t mean shit when confronted with a never ending list of scenarios he hadn’t been trained for.
Division had no use for small talk or yoga or cooking.
Not that he missed his barren cell, but life certainly was simpler as an object.
But it was mostly impossible to think of himself that way, now. He had seen the pictures, the videos, of himself as a real man. He had seen himself before all this; whole and young and unburdened by the world...and as strong as the disconnect was between his trainwreck of body and that unblemished boy, there was little point in denying that the base was the same; a burned tree still had the roots of its healthy self. Was this what it was like to regrow from the ashes? Had all this been a controlled burn so he could start fresh?
Maybe that would make it easier...if everyone could just let go who he used to be.
Not that Steve was a problem, quite the opposite, on most days he was the only reason Ash managed to get out of the tub in the morning...but Steve wasn’t the only one who remembered him. Whoever Ashley Winters was had made enemies. He had killed and wounded and left a lasting legacy that even now, a year later, wasn’t forgiven. It didn’t matter that he didn’t remember. It didn’t matter that he had done so much worse as Division’s asset...all that mattered was The Sanctuary and The Compound. Fuck if he even knew where those places were, let alone what he had done before he’d been told.
Heaving his guts out had never felt so fitting; hand shaking, skin pale, reliving every bullet spent as everything he was surrendered itself to the porcelain throne. He was a murderer even before he was unmade. How could he live with that? How could he believe he was still the good man Steve thought he was with so much goddamned blood on his hands? It was one thing to say that it hadn’t been him as the asset, but this...this was him, wasn’t it? He hadn’t been wiped or frozen or tortured. He had followed orders like they were going out of style; giving it everything he had consequences be damned. Shouldn’t he have known? Shouldn’t Ash--if he was as good as Steve said--refused to be a good soldier when it meant innocent lives would be lost?
Had Steve ever known him at all?
The ghost of Ashley J. Winters paced, to and fro, his fingers itching for something he couldn’t quite name. His hand seemed to move of its own volition, reaching for his pocket as if it knew something he didn’t. Tap. Tap. Tap. Open the pack. Warmth on your fingers and a deep breath in. The man stared at his mismatched hands for a beat, as if waiting for the memory to crystallize in his palms.Without a word, he closed the distance between himself and the bathroom door, all but flinging it open as he stalked over the threshold. “Steve...I…?” The words were like sand on his tongue, gritty and too dry to swallow. His hands moved again, the right seemingly pulling something from his pocket, the left held open to tap whatever the right retrieved.
With a rough sigh, he shook his head and returned to the bathroom.
The next morning, a strange scent seemed to seep through the crack beneath the bathroom door. It was heady but soothing, somehow, clicking somewhere deep inside Ash’s chest. Like a predator sniffing out prey, the werewolf’s nose crossed the threshold first; flared nostrils sent that smell singing straight to his core. A single pack of Marlboro Reds was sitting on the kitchen counter, smelling like a lifetime of memories locked up behind the wall in his head. His head swiveled left and then right, spotting Steve pretending to read on the couch, his stiff shoulders giving away just how much he was attuned to what was going on behind him.
Ashley reached out, his hand pausing for a millisecond before meeting the thin plastic wrapper. Steve hadn’t done anything to hurt him yet...and even if it was poison it wouldn’t keep him down for long. Peeling back the the thin red line—unwrapping the cellophane—felt like coming home. Something in his chest that had been clenched tightly, released ever so slightly as he tapped the the pack against his left hand. Without conscious thought, he flipped the first cigarette in the pack tobacco side up before retrieving another loosened one with his lips. A single match, clearly left for this and this alone, lit the tip.
The smoke curled into into his mouth like it belonged there, cooling for a few moments before being inhaled into his lungs. Bruce was always preaching the importance of breathing...did this count? The nicotine rush wouldn’t mean much, but the act itself was certainly relaxing; the tightness in his brows and body eased ever so slightly at the feeling. As the smoke streamed out his nose, Ash smiled. Hope was a brittle thing, but feeling the echo of himself doing this a thousand times before made it all a little more real.
Made him feel a little more real.
Just knowing his muscles remembered something besides killing was like a balm to his soul. It didn’t make him any less guilty or any more of a man, but at least the proof was there. His roots couldn’t be damaged beyond repair if echos like this remained, right? If this was still there...maybe more was too. Who was to say this wasn’t just the tip of the iceberg? It might seem small, insignificant even, but after being gutted so thoroughly, having an honest to Christ habit felt like a godsend. It didn’t take long for the bathroom—and the man—to start smelling like an ashtray, but even that inconvenience felt like a little victory.
Division never would have let their asset carry such a remarkable scent.
Steve, as much as he tried to be a steady spot of sunshine, wasn’t a difficult nut to crack. At least not for what remained of Ash Winters. He could still read him like a book, better than a book considering actually processing the written word was still nigh impossible for him. So when said nut showed up with his panties in a twist, it was obvious. His phone was a constant point of interest, pulling his eyebrows down and causing his fingers to clench tight into a fist. Something was wrong; wrong enough that even someone with significant brain damage (i.e. one Ashley J. Winters) couldn’t not notice.
The werewolf plopped down on the couch a little closer than he usually would, his hands shoved in his hoodie pockets and his movements marginally louder than usual so as not to startle the other man. “Something up?” He asked, after a long moment, voice rough with disuse and breath heavy with the aroma of his Reds. “And...don’t just pretend. it isn’t. I’m brain damaged not stupid.” The words could have come off as harsh, but the clear undercurrent of worry cut their sharpness.
Steve sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as if the weight of the world were growing heavier by the moment. It almost made Ash wish he hadn’t asked...but not knowing what was eating at the Captain clearly wasn’t getting him anywhere. When he finally answered, "I'm just arguing with that woman you met the other day." there was a heavy dose of resignation in his tone, his entire being seemingly swiveling to gauge Ashley’s reaction even though he barely moved. It took a moment, but former weapon nodded, his gaze zeroing in on the phone briefly before skipping away.
“About the baby?” He asked, shifting slightly closer, as if he wanted to offer a comforting arm but couldn’t bring himself to actually cross the entire distance. “You didn’t mention. But she said...It. Doesn’t really...compute? For me.” Ash paused, rubbing an anxious hand through his hair, “Maybe I’m wrong, but...you wouldn’t want a baby without ya know...more? A relationship.” His shoulders shrugged and his eyes slide to the ground and stuck there. Maybe he was wrong, but everything he knew about Steve made this situation stick in his brain like a splinter, irritating everything as it invaded just below the surface.
And that wasn’t even considering the implications of Steve having a baby on the way; what it would mean for him...what place, if any he could even begin to have in any life that involved a helpless child? For all he knew, that was exactly what the fight was about. Carrie had met him now—had witnessed the mess he was—even if it was through the proxy of the internet. Was he already starting to cause Steve problems?
God...he hoped not, but honestly, very little else added up.
Posted: Jul 17 2017, 11:23 PM
steve is Offline
"One oft-ignored symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is nausea."
Tap, tap. Scribble. A cough. A shifting of limbs, and hushed whispers. Could be someone talking, could be cloth against cloth from the too-caffeinated fidgeter three rows back.
Steve is listening, but he's not all there; he's sat through this class once before. With this lecturer, too, and the middle-aged woman is reiterating word for word what she said last time. But he has to take it again. Too many sick days meant a do-over—college is unforgiving. Even for the veterans. Most of his ailments these days are a direct result of that his three tours in that sandy landscape, but he refuses to compromise on their behalf.
"Anxiety and PTSD go hand in hand. A sufferer experiences a trigger, which activates the stress response." The tip of Steve's pencil lead broke, smearing graphite across doodled sparks and flames spilling out of the windshield of a sketched-out and impeccably-detailed IAV (Interim Armored Vehicle) Stryker. "You know this as the fight or flight response. When someone is healthy, their body can recover quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes brought on by fight or flight. When the stress response occurs too frequently—as in the case of PTSD sufferers—the body struggles to re-adapt. Instead of properly cycling through the 'come down' processes, it stays in an semi-emergency readiness state, which has an adverse effect over time on the body's ability to otherwise stay stabilized. This can affect the digestive system. Ergo, vomiting. This is especially common in situations where the suffer has a strong sense of disgust and/or inadequacy aimed at themselves."
Steve blinked. A classroom from days past faded from his mind's eye to reveal a sparsely-decorated room. He rubbed away the memory with the knuckles of a closed fist, pushing past the ache of emotional exhaustion that had lured him into a half-sleep. Behind his shoulders, the thin drywall of Ash's apartment did nothing to the mask the sound of the man heaving bile and foodstuff into the toilet. Yet he stayed outside the door, listening, just in case...
Steve knew it'd only be a matter of time before the NOLA locals realized one of their enemies was in their midst again. Were he stronger (or weaker?), he might have told Ash to stay away from any public channels in order to dodge discovery from the get-go. He might have avoided grasping at the few wisps of normalcy like chatting and wandering around that, ultimately, came at the expense of others and their traumas. He might have even packed up and left, taking his damaged charge with him, and never returning. Never mind that Division had a way of manipulating people; never mind that there were others in the area who had done far worse; never mind that Steve had friends and family here now. Real, actual roots, ones he didn't want to sacrifice. He tried not to begrudge them for their anger, because there was simply no way for them to know that Steve had agonized over his decision to bring the incapacitated man—once upon a time his lover, his betrothed, his closest friend, and now… what?—back into the city. They couldn't know how Ash spent so many of his nights curled up with his memories and his remorse, alternating between inhuman noises and the bodily betrayal which now afflicted him. How could he fault them when all they saw was the final outcome? A man alive who shouldn't be; a man unpunished who should be?
By the time Ash finally exited his bathroom/hiding place, Steve was sitting at the table, looking through a sheaf of papers. Whether the other man had or hadn’t heard the super-soldier striding across the apartment so as to not give away his worry was a moot point; blue eyes fixated on the distracted tapping of slender fingers, the uneasy working of pale lips and teeth. Whereas Ash struggled to enunciate past whatever emotion bubbled beneath the surface, Steve was struck by the jamais vu of the moment.
Ash was, once upon a time, one of those unfortunately-shackled souls that had to rely on a cigarette or three to manage when he got stressed. Despite Steve’s frequent, medic-driven naggings, despite the warnings on the packets—hell, despite popular opinion—the brunette was all too often wont to dump that carcinogen-laced smoke into his lungs to ease his nerves. And no argument, full or half-hearted, on Steve’s behalf had ever stopped him. It was something, outwardly and vocally, Steve sighed about and said he would learn to live with (yeah, yeah, with much complaining), but the truth of the matter was… after a spell, Steve had grown to feel weirdly nostalgic about the stinging, musky aroma. If he caught a whiff while walking, it took him back—to moments of happiness and stolen kisses; to a time when the future seemed free.
Was it any wonder Ash was hankering for them now, what with the stress of trying to rationalize his future with his past, or his recall with the forgotten? While Division had undoubtedly detoxed Ash in order to fill him up with their own medicinal cocktail, the memory of a soothing routine could still be there, buried beneath the scar tissue. An oral fixation combined with the fact the memory-inducing nature of the olfactible... and the fact nervous habits died hard, apparently. Even for the amnesic.
He had Ash’s brand waiting for him the next morning.
In recent years, Steve had been rather… absent from his own birthday. It wasn’t a lack of desire; other things had simply occupied the forefront of his mind during those key moments when he would have normally cared. Grief and rage had dominated some years; loneliness, others. There is something painfully melancholic about making a cake for oneself, or sharing a beer with an empty bar-stool, but worst still were those years when everything was dominated by what he’d lost. Connections he treasured were few and far in between; death had a way of showing up and severing them when he ought to have been celebrating another year of his own life lived.
On top of this, his features weren’t changing with the passing of time either; he neither felt, nor looked, any older than the day he and Ash had gone their separate ways. He knew he had the serum to thank for that, but he felt weirdly betrayed by it, too. What was the point of a birthday if you had nothing to show for it? No wrinkles, nor gray hairs, not even scars. Grant had mentioned he, too, aged slower, but admitted he had no idea if Steve would ever see a change. Grant seemed happy for it, but Steve had yet to decide exactly how he felt about it.
Not to mention... so much had happened between then and now. So much had changed. Birthdays just weren’t a big deal anymore. He didn't want them to be.
This is why the 4th was embraced like any other day: with an early run, a cup of coffee (for the taste), a not-insignificantly-sized breakfast (for the energy), and an on-foot trek over to the apartment. In that order. And when he passed the threshold of Ash’s semi-permanent abode, nothing was particularly amiss right off the bat; after all, there’s no way Ash could know, right? The purposeful absence of the little minutiae of his life were a part of Steve’s rules—the rules he had written to keep his distance. That included his birthday. Ash’s world didn’t need to revolve around Steve’s, regardless of whether or not Steve was caring for him. And Ash hadn’t asked, which meant that bridge was never crossed. Or so he thought.
The glass jar Ash pressed into Steve’s hands was warm to the touch from being held close, and for a moment, Steve was baffled enough to try to give it back. But Ash insisted, and so the blond turned it over and over in his hands, watching hundreds of tiny, colorful paper stars tumble within its confines, without speaking. There was a lump in his throat; he tried to swallow past it, but couldn’t. Out of the corner of his eye, Ash was now presenting him with an unwrapped cosmic brownie, a single match stuck in the center.
A paper crane, torn from the pages of a book… one metal and one flesh-and-blood hand presented the carefully folded creature to Steve under the watchful eyes of a guard. Steve slipped it into his pocket. When he got home that night, he turned the little bird over and over between his fingers until he fell asleep, damp cheeks glistening in the darkness.
Metal fingers twisted over the top of the match with a deft movement. A single, flickering flame. Make a wish, Ash said, and when Steve blew out the makeshift candle, he did. He was glad there was a rule against asking about birthday desires… because he couldn’t burden the man across from him with the knowledge of it. For wanting so, so, so badly to be the Steve to his Ash, and nothing more. Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Not every day was perfect. Most days weren't, actually. There's something to be said for the standard that's set when a Good Day is identified by the lack of breakdowns, trauma, or blood. But that's how it was in this new present life. A good day was a day when Ash remembered enough to feel good about himself, but not so much that it triggered the seizures and the nosebleeds. Or when Steve was wholly focused on the moment, and something inside could unknot enough for him to laugh, or relax, or sleep, or do all three. Good days were smiles and no gastrointestinal distress. Good days were free of nightmares and flinches, of bruises and tears.
Today was not a good day.
With routine comes certain compromise in behaviors. Normally, Steve wasn't one to check his phone religiously; he didn't like the fragile little device for a number of reasons, but most of all because it distracted him from the moment. It was generally his policy to turn on "Do Not Disturb" for most of the day, permitting exchanges with only a handful of people (despite his insistence that he wasn't much of a texter, someone had disseminated his phone number to the rest of his coworkers months ago; this had resulted in a multitude of unwanted texts that he still tried—and often failed—to meticulously reply to). Most of these people were he cared for: Kamila, Clint, Nick, Sophia, Grant, Peggy, Pepper, Delilah. Reasonable. Sensible.
Then there was Carrie.
Steve had never really wanted kids of his own—that is, biological. He loved children; there was no doubt about that. But he recognized his own health was questionable at best, and he recognized that the amount of childhood baggage he had carried into adulthood wasn't insignificant. He knew his mother had done his best. He didn't blame his father for passing. But when Ash had spoken of a white picket fence and their 2.5 children (which, Steve recalled with a glimmer of a smile, he always said just like that), Steve had assumed if they did go that route they would adopt. Or their hypothetical offspring would be his bequeathment.
But it was his genetics that had contributed to that which grew in Carrie Cutter's belly now. And it was her hands that spewed borderline vitriol at him via that tiny, semi-hated piece of technology now.
Against his better judgment, Steve returned to the phone regularly, teetering between forcibly calm replies and the occasion slip that spoke of deeper, poorly repressed issues. When Ash sat next to him on the couch, Steve fumbled the phone for a moment out of a partial shame and surprise. He hadn't meant to ignore Ash, but he knew good and well he had been caught doing just that, and when he finally whipped up a reply to the man, it was with a note of exhaustion coupled with reticence that he said it.
This conversation had to happen someday. He simply would have been happier of that someday was no day.
Still, Steve's whole body was as taut as a wire waiting for Ash's reply.
He and Ash were still far from a relationship. They may never return to that point, after all; that's something Steve repeatedly forced himself to acknowledge. But despite this, Steve knew he had wanted to remain faithful to Ash, even when he believed him to be dead. No, that wasn't quite it. Steve couldn't be anything but faithful to Ash, because the alternatives were too painful. A widower, resolutely loyal to the last, not out of a moral or ethical obligation, but because love chose their paths regardless, and was an unkind keeper. Because to love was to lose, and he had lost so, so much.
But Steve hadn't been faithful. On the surface, he portrayed to himself and others the brief interlude with Carrie as a moment of weakness, not as a moment of gaslight-driven manipulation. Why? Why, when the truth was so much kinder to his continence, to his reputation? Why, when perhaps Steve's worst crime was not actually letting himself cheat on his dead fiance, but on assuming he was safe from the true darkness of humankind after all he had been through? On assuming a
Steve knew. He knew if he truly admitted what happened, he might eventually lose his mind. And he couldn't afford to do that—there was a child's life, Ash's life, hell, even Carrie's life to consider. Without him, would they be safe? Would they be free of Division's influence? Maybe they'd be better for it—but without certainty, he couldn't let that happen.
Ash's questions came quickly after that. Steve closed his eyes to them, nodding along with each sentence, keenly aware of the warmth radiating from the man sitting next to him.
...a hand gripped his wrist, pressing his fingertips into warm, unrelenting flesh. The heat beneath his skin was fire. He had the strength to pull away, but he was scared... scared...
Soft hands, moving over his ribs, counted them… gentle butterfly kisses mingled with teeth and tongue and hot breath... He touched a lock of brunette hair like a child testing dew drops on a spiderweb, and was rewarded with a smile...
"—She said… It."
"You can call me filthy names... hit me..."
A laugh. A caress. Those calloused hands that gripped his hips, pulling the man with the far smaller frame to him… A hand lifted to grab a hold of the back of a neck and to pull that mouth down to him…he kissed stubble, and it tasted like home.
He would never hit a man or woman close to him like that. Not when intimacy was supposed to be about love, passion, safety...
"Maybe I'm wrong, but..."
Was he violating her? Was she violating him? He was inside her, but he hadn't wanted this—he hadn't wanted this! If only his grip hadn't bruised. She was like acid on his skin. Diseased muck that spread from the point of contact… tar he'd never get rid of...
"—a baby without—"
"—you forced yourself inside of me..."
His voice was but a whisper… imploring… and when corded muscles wrapped around him, and lips pressed themselves to the crook of his shoulder and neck, his lungs exhaled roughly of their own accord...
Her weight was heady, but not in a good way. Like rapids churning—a wall between him and freedom. If he could just breach the surface, he might not drown… but naked curves pressed themselves into his chest, hollowing out a hole where strength had been once before… he'd never reach the surface...
"—sunshine..." ...and he loved the sound of it, and the way he said it...
By the time Ash fell silent, Steve was up and striding for the sink. He leaned over the edge of the counter, stomach clenched, fighting back bile and copper. A sponge sat on the counter-top, and he seized that, scrubbing without water at first until he could turn on the sink as hot as it would go. He'd never be clean of the black oozing mess she'd left inside of him, not ever, but maybe, maybe this time he might not feel so goddamn dirty…
The bubbles turned pink, and his stomach lurched again.
The clock ticked a little too slowly. Paper tore; someone swore. Scribbling. Tap. Every time she took a step, her shoe let out a little sigh, like it was tired of supporting her. Steve leaned his cheek on his fist, and smeared a shadow into his notes with his thumb.
"One oft-ignored symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is nausea."
Posted: Sep 18 2017, 06:22 PM
Ash is Offline
The questions didn’t go over well...worse even than Ash had expected and he was a being used to expecting the worst. Steve was up and moving, quick enough to make him flinch back. The unintentional response was small—probably not even noticed by the other man given his distress—but it was a failure nonetheless. Steve wouldn’t hurt him; he hadn’t yet, even when he probably should have...but still his body panicked. Swallowing the fear was harder than it should be; his hands shook and his breath caught like the helpless damsel everyone with a brain knew he wasn’t.
When he stood it was stiff and uncoordinated, lacking the grace that had been beat into the weapon. Steve deserved more than a flinching shadow, especially at a time like this. Whatever was going through the other man’s head was clearly something that shouldn’t be faced alone. Ash would never know whether it was anger or compassion that gave him the strength to cross the room; whether it was rage at whoever...whatever had hurt Steve, or simply care that his caretaker (he’s so much more than that) was in pain. Maybe it was both, the spirit of some avenging angel taking control to set their little world right again.
Regardless of origin, it allowed Ashley to place one hand over the furiously scrubbing ones while the other turned off the water; he wouldn’t realize until much later that it was the first time they had touched skin to skin in months. “Steve.” There was blood on the blond’s hands and now, by extension his own. “Steve...come on. Let’s...let’s sit down okay?” The words wanted to stick in his throat, tried to tear up their lungs on their way out. Like blood trapped behind his teeth, though, once he opened his mouth the flow wouldn’t stop. “You don’t-don’t have to talk. Don’t’ have to. Just...come on. Come on, sunshine.” It all dripped from his lips, not so much against his will, but certainly without his express consent. “You don’t have to tell me shit. But let...let me wrap. Your hands.”
Some weeks it seemed like the good days outnumbered the bad, but good is a relative term. Some days he didn’t wake up screaming. Some days he could talk with some semblance of a regular cadence. Some days...some days he didn’t’ end up in a fucking heap shaking from seizures and the blinding pain of his brain trying to rip apart his skull. But some days weren’t most days, at least not yet. The ratio was improving though, and with that truth came the realization that Ash couldn’t stay hidden forever; that he shouldn’t even if he reasonably could.
The walls pressed in on him, good days and bad, feeling more and more like a cell as the days turned into weeks and months. Steve wasn’t trying to be his keeper, he was just trying to protect him. But never seeing the sun without an escort certainly felt like prison. A nice prison, but still a prison. There was so much more that needed to done before he could slip back into society...but even just a taste might relieve the strain.
That taste would end up being the highlight of the next few months. A brief foray into the life that could be. A trip planned in haste between just he and Steve, without the guards or security, without thorough vetting. It should have been terrifying...and in a way it was...but more than anything, the feeling was invigorating; getting away from the same four walls. Feeling the sunshine on his face until he didn’t; until the whole world seemed to fall silent. The eclipse, whatever it may have meant to others, was something special to Ash.
He felt...at peace, tied in some sort of solidarity to the rest of humanity in a way the weapon could have never understood. When his hand, of it’s own volition found Steve’s there was no fear. He felt small, but not the kind of small that spoke of hurt and helplessness...but instead insignificance compared to the vastness wonder of space. To know that the world didn’t end with his pain; that it continued to spin and change and carry on, waiting for him to step back out and really experience it all was freeing.
That memory would hold him over in the months to come. It would be pulled out and re-imagined, spun this way and that in the wreck of Ashley’s mind searching for that feeling again. He would hold onto it with trembling bloody fists when the the whole world seemed to be shrinking to a pinprick of despair, suffocating him. If he never told Steve thank you, it wasn’t for lack of appreciation, but like so many things in this half-life he was living, words were often foreign to him.
Maybe talking more would have helped him, in the short term, but he wasn’t silent for lack of trying. What do you say when your head is full of vitriol and poison? What can be said when all you see behind closed eyelids is death and blood and empty eyes through the circle of a scope? Was this a backslide? Or was it inevitable? Was this all he would ever be? A heaving, trembling dog in a man’s body, fingers itching for violence and limbs too tired to move. He hadn’t left the bathroom in two days, it was too long, but the prospect of letting Steve see the unending gore dripping from his skin made the shaking worse. There was a large crack in the porcelain of the tub from when the weapon that was attached to his shoulder had held too tight. It had cracked the smooth, white surface like it had once crushed bone. It could again, at any moment. One wrong move, one misplaced swing of his fist could add another tally to his macabre list.
Could he crush his own skull with the hand? Or would his brain stop him? Maybe Division had put in a failsafe, would it hurt to try? Well...of course it would hurt. Crushing his own skull was bound to hurt, but wouldn’t it be easier than this? Whatever all this was. Steve had tried so hard to make this place safe while still giving him a measure of privacy, but had he even considered just how dangerous the metal arm was when fully functional. He’d been kind to ask Stark to fix it, probably too kind,given the possibilities it now allowed. He could break his own arm—the flesh and blood one—pulverize his skull, rip into his own innards...but Steve wouldn’t stay out forever.
He’d find the corpse, or the half-dead, twitching remains of his charge and blame himself. How can Division’s weapon still feel guilt about something so seemingly insignificant after everything it's done. It’s ridiculous. One man’s feelings shouldn’t stop him from doing what needs to be done...and yet, here he is fist poised for a blow to the temple that will never land. With a shaky sigh, Ashley’s hand dropped, thudding against the side of the tub.It’s much simpler to light a cigarette and take a few uneven drags before pressing the glowing ember to his own skin.
He doesn’t believe he’s ready for the real world, yet, not by a long shot...but doing nothing all day certainly won’t get him any closer to a normal existence. While it wasn’t exactly easy to get ahold of the surveillance footage from their escape without leaving the apartment, it should have been harder. Maybe Steve knew and left it for him to access, or maybe it was just an exhaustion fueled mistake. The other man was certainly running himself ragged more days than not. If it weren’t something he felt he needed to do, he would have broached the subject...but losing the chance to really understand what happened seems unacceptable.
The footage was grainy, the sound muddled but legible to enhanced ears. Most of the events, while fuzzy, weren’t as important as the end. Watching himself fight back was as liberating as watching him rip his handlers to shreds was nauseating...but that last fight was mostly a blank. Watching himself take down the guards like the weapon he was—even knowing they deserved it—was difficult to stomach. They trained him for this, to murder a man for his bare hands, and it was only hubris that they be brought down by it...right?
And then their was Pierce. Even his name made Ashley’s muscles stiffen on a good day. As horrible as the rest of them were, at least they didn’t pretend to care. They didn’t make him want to do well for any other reason to avoid pain...but Pierce, Pierce tried to give him purpose. He gave affection when it suited him and took it away just as easily. There was something different about Pierce, there always was, and seeing him again felt like walking over his own grave.
Without warning, the world seemed to tunnel. Pierce had said something. Something that made his ears ring and his breath catch. His head was pounding...and as he watched himself fall, boneless on screen, his present self fell forward, face clunking against the keyboard with glassy, half open eyes. Blood dripped from his nose onto the keys, slipping into the empty spaces, but Ashley was none the wiser.
Posted: Oct 2 2017, 11:39 PM
steve is Offline
Perhaps the worst aspect of what had happened to Steve was that he simply didn’t know where to turn to process it. He had confessed to no one the situation in its entirety. Clint and Kamila knew something was wrong because they were the first to find him. They had helped him from the shower where he had sat for who knows how long after Carrie had left. They had seen him flinch at the sight of the bed, still messed, still reeking of the smells of the night he had lived through. But they didn’t know how Steve’s own righteousness, his moral conviction, had been used against him to make him a willing participant in an event he had wanted no part of. Grant knew something was definitely amiss, because Steve had told him as much. Because he and Peggy had directly asked about Steve’s—previously unheard of—absence from his post. But they didn’t know that he still didn’t always know his own strength; that the bruises on Carrie’s arms were the direct results of a body that listened too easily and, consequently, became his downfall. Sam had made an educated guess. But he didn’t know the serum had affected Steve in more ways than one—that heightened senses meant heightened sensations, and sometimes he could feel everything. They all knew. But they didn’t know.
As for Steve? He knew, intellectually, that it’s absolutely crucial to try and work through the consequences of traumatic moments as soon as possible, no matter how painful. This was an attack on his identity, his body, his entire self—an attack where the perpetrator didn’t even fundamentally understand what she had done wrong—and unless he actively worked towards coming to terms with that trauma, it could and would affect him for the rest of his life. But where does a man—a bisexual man at that—turn to in the deep South to talk about rape? Bibles were the primary book of choice here, especially amid the types who murmured “boys will be boys” and brushed the dark side of streets beneath the faded rugs in their front hallways. Old ways clung like sweat and oil; the newer generations strove to be better than that, but state seats were filled with men who saw their childhood in an era where to be a victim was practically a crime. Who could Steve possibly turn in a place like this?
If he were still living in Brooklyn, he might find support in the community there, where the still-vibrant non-heteronormative culture knew the cold, hard reality of assault well. Or would he? Could he really, truly ever escape the assumptions of others? Was that assumption something he assigned to himself? The face he saw in the mirror was full of life and vigor; strangers sometimes grabbed his arms in public if only to feel the muscle beneath it. How could that person be the type to be overpowered by someone else, especially when they weren’t even physically forcing him?
Fearing no one would listen, he never spoke up. And that, in its own way, was destroying him.
The threshold of pain was crossed—the sink was awash with red-stained water as it swirled into the drain—but Steve still tore at his hands with the scouring pad. The act was all-consuming—scrub until the sensation of filthiness is overcome. Pain was an old friend; he had often joked, in his “less healthy” days, that all his aches and bruises were how he knew he was alive. Now, even though he understood that this was an attempt to find an equilibrium between internal and external pain, he couldn’t help but wonder if that was why this year had been full of so much suffering. Was this a consequence of his newfound gifts, even if he hadn’t been the one to accept them? Was that it? Or did he have some sort of past transgression that weighed far more than the scales had showed him, that he still needed to do penance for? He would gladly pay any price to atone for whatever he had done to earn this… for it hardly seemed fair that all this should happen to someone who otherwise at least hoped and strived to be a good person.
A hand passed into view, the sudden and abrupt focal point of Steve’s now-tunnelling vision. Whether he stopped before the left hand touched his bloodied knuckles and palms, or after, he didn’t know… but where pain and panic was before, now was a sum zero. He froze, not because he didn’t relish the touch—had this been the first time they had touched like this in almost two years?—but because it had jarred him back into reality. Reality was where there was an Ashley that needed him more than he needed Ashley. Reality was where he had to be strong. Reality was where Steven Rogers didn’t break down, at least not publicly. He had weathered more catastrophes than he cared to think about this year, but he had no idea how it looked from the outside. Maybe everyone was perfectly aware of how not okay he was. Maybe he was fooling no one but himself.
Why was he so tired, then?
The sentences Ash formed, pulling Steve away from the sink and the moment, were remarkably clear. That alone was enough to disrupt the compulsion, though with it came a newfound recognition of shame. He muttered an apology; he had no idea if Ash even heard it.
But the nickname…
As terms of endearment go, maybe it didn’t mean much. But to Steve, it was a glimpse into the person Ash had once been, and perhaps more crucially, a glimpse into the man who had once loved him. In it of itself, the word could mean nothing—only the fact it wasn’t something he had ever told Ash, and the fact Ash used it willingly now…
You’re looking into this too much, Rogers. Just because he uses a nickname that once meant something to you doesn’t mean it means anything to him. Words mean nothing sometimes. Like when you told Carrie you didn’t want to have sex with her; that meant nothing, too. Because it happened anyway, and now you’re here, sitting across from your ex-fiance and the man who beat you to a bloody pulp (those are not one and the same person, by the way), getting your hands bandaged because you couldn’t keep your own emotions in check. What had Ma said? Don’t force others to experience your troubles—they’ve got enough of their own?
He sat. He let Ash bandage his hands. He was a body, carefully in control, and yet the fact Steve did not slip the gauze from Ash’s grasp and take over in the wrapping truly indicated just how preoccupied his mind was with avoiding a response he might regret. It wasn’t about avoiding his own hurt, but again, as he told himself every time he entered this little flat, about giving Ash all the choices he absolutely deserved without forcing him into expectations he wasn’t prepared for.
But… God. If nothing else, Steve needed someone to talk to. Someone to tell. Someone to… explain. Last time this year, all he had been was Steve. Just Steve. Now he was a brother, a protector, a symbol, and soon… a father. Because he had let someone take advantage of him. Because preconceived societal conventions had only prepared him with the wrong way to deal with this. Because he had seen someone irrevocably wounded, and realized to give her this was to prevent further catastrophe—but it was at the expense of some part of himself he could never return.
Hands pressed over eyes, he exhaled slowly, trying to exude the tension in his limbs via his breathing. That failed. But what finally convinced him to speak was not his own need; that would never be enough. No, Ash deserved to know. He deserved to know that it was okay if he never wanted to look back on what they had once had, because it was impossible to get back to that place. He deserved to know Steve wouldn’t fault him if he never returned to these damaged goods—or if Ash blamed him for it because he couldn’t remember the kind of person Steve was. That Steve would become a father, regardless of what else the future might bring, but Ash didn’t have to be a part of that if he didn’t want to.
He sat up a little, finally stirring from some unseen place. White-wrapped hands gestured at his own chest, but his gaze was out the window at the darkened sky. The heat of the day competing with the air conditioner within left a thin sheen of condensation on the glass; even if he could see through it, he knew the light pollution outside would prevent him from being able to see the stars. The atmosphere could be suffocating here, but not as bad as the memories were.
“She woke me up. The window was open—she came in through there—and… I told her to get off of me.” Fingers, which now rested upon his knees, pressed into the joint like a hand gripping the rope of a life preserver in a storm. Don’t overreact, Steve. Don’t do that to him. “She wouldn’t. So I forced her off. But I hurt her in the process.”
It hadn’t been bad. Just bruises. But because she had seized the opportunity to push him inside of her, his DNA was inside of her, too… and between that and the marks on her arm, he didn’t think there was a police officer alive that wouldn’t jump to the obvious conclusion.
He cracked a smile at Ash, then. Sardonic and exhausted, it tried to pass itself off as making light of the situation when it was anything but. “She threatened to go to the police if I didn’t…” A swallow, stuck in his throat. He got up, then, but slowly, knowing good and well he had startled Ash earlier and trying to avoid that now. Nonetheless, his body thrummed with unspent energy. The path of his pacing took him to the window and back again, still avoiding Ash’s gaze. “I let her do what she wanted. It was—it was the only way. Anything else… I couldn’t jeopardize what my brother had worked for. The trust he put in me, letting me take his place… I couldn’t put everyone through the alternative. It… maybe I wanted it. I don’t know. Better to be…”
But he couldn’t say it. Was it really? Better let someone profoundly violate you than be branded a criminal?
When someone figures out that answer to that, can you let me know?
The incoming eclipse had slipped Steve’s mind, but for some reason, it stuck in Ash’s. When Ash asked him if they could view it, unfettered by the ten thousand restrictions Steve had imposed on them in order to protect his unusual charge... at first, Steve was a little apprehensive. He had to remind himself that there was no point to helping Ash recover from the damage Division had caused if Ash also couldn’t enjoy his life as it was meant to be lived as well. And maybe it was partially a matter of coming to terms with the idea that someday this little apartment might be empty; that Ash might leave because he no longer needed Steve. That wasn’t easy to face. But he would never forgive himself if he didn’t try to do right by Ash, regardless of the final result. So he agreed.
Either the place he took Ash would just be a place, or it might bring back memories. He knew the risk with choosing it, even if he couldn’t fathom a better viewpoint for them to be allowed to be alone and breathe. This was the last place they had talked frankly with each other; had loved each other completely; had extracted promises from one another; had been one instead of two. Those promises hadn’t been kept, no, and frankness now was a foreign thing, but the cottage stood on, albeit a little more weather-beaten for the wear. The inside looked no different; the outside smells and sounds encroached just the same, like a radio turned just below the threshold of active hearing.
They spent the night before there, with Ash asleep inside (presumably in the bathroom, since that’s where he felt safest at “home”), and Steve wrapped in a blanket on the porch, listening to the gulf lap at the sands in the darkness.
The next day, Steve made sandwiches and lemonade, and read to Ash until it was time.
Seeing the sky change like that… how dusk fell across the entire land—it took his breath away. Steve had never been much for space, or the science of it, but even he could appreciate how all it took was a time and place to completely alter the entire world as they knew it. He felt its change deep in his bones. The entropy of seconds, regardless of desire, moves on, it seemed to say. Maybe he’ll never have the happiness he yearned for, but someday there’d be peace. Even if it was a few minutes in the darkness. And when Ash reached out to him and took his hand, Steve squeezed it gently without thought, and without hesitation.
No day was perfect. There was no one moment in which Steve couldn’t recognize some aspect of Ash’s captivity reflected on his body or his face. But it was easy to forget that while these things undoubtedly tormented Ash, because they would any sane human, it was the remorse and guilt of his choices that really had the power to destroy him.
Ash’s grit wasn’t purely the stubborn tenacity of righteousness, but a strength derived from lifelong goals he had always felt he had to achieve. All Ash had ever wanted was to become the kind of man his father was—never mind that his father, up until the elder Winters’ deathbed, had been profoundly reluctant to accept Ash for who he was. His father was a decorated man, a hero in every right… except where Steve thought it mattered most. But this was not Steven’s father. This was Ash’s. Don’t we always cast our parents in rose-colored light? Rub away the inherent flaws, and strive for the impossible successes, in hopes that they might love us unconditionally in return (despite it going against the very definition)? And that, too, had had its part in driving Ash into the hands of Division, because he was damn good, and everyone, it seemed, but his own old man knew it.
Then came the covert ops. And Steve turned a blind eye to them because he knew someone had to do the dirty work occasionally—that Ash was doing this for the greater good just as Steve was when he put on his scrubs. Fight in a war, be an agent, work in a hospital, and you begin to understand why people go to the lengths they do to see something to the end; that good men could have their hand forced when they thought it was for the right reasons. He had always assumed Ash would know what line he couldn’t cross, and Ash had... until Division had wormed their way into his head, playing off the fear of his brutal attack and the knowledge he was powerfully indebted to them for his life, never admitting how readily they’d betray him in a moment’s notice if it meant they kept the balance they saw fit.
Then came the Sanctuary/Compound attacks. And Steve rued his choices just as badly as Ash regretted his, because he ought to have been there, to remind Ash of who he was before it was too late. To warn him of what Division was capable of before it happened.
Would have, could have, should have. It was their life story, wasn’t it? We can’t obsess with the past; the future is all we have.
While hiding emotional wounds could be managed around Steve, hiding the physical ones from him was virtually impossible. I he wasn’t distracted by his own injuries, or, say, physically separated from someone by time and space, sooner or later he’d spot what shouldn’t be. That was his nature, and his natural ability. Someone he knew someone was suffering before even they were.
That said, it took a few weeks for Steve to realize Ash was hurting himself.
Thanks to the man’s healing factor, by the time Ash rejoined the world outside his sanctum, his self-inflicted wounds were usually healed. But the first time Ash walked out a little too soon, an instinctive glance was all it took. Might as well be a neon flashing sign for how clear it was, and Steve cursed himself for not seeing it sooner. Little pockmarks of red, up and down Ash’s arms… already fading, but not gone.
Ash averted his gaze, even as Steve crossed the room and gently brushed his pale fingertips against the marks, wiping them away touch by touch. In the silence, nothing was said; didn’t Steve understand this? Even before Ash had given himself up to the authorities in the hopes of righting some of his wrongs, they had never reached a satisfactory conclusion or compromise about what Steve wholeheartedly believed of Ash versus the blame Ash semi-justifiably placed on himself. With the memories from Division that resurfaced day by day, it was even worse now; even though Ash hadn’t had any conceivable control over his actions in the last year, it hardly (in his eyes) absolved him of the guilt and shame he carried because of them. And all that emotion was beginning to spill out. If they didn’t figure something out, all this effort they both were going to to survive might not even matter.
The next day, Steve came back with a punching bag that he double anchored to a support beam. And rubber bands. They seemed meager in the face of the turmoil Ash faced, but it wasn’t about trying to overcome that right now. It was about redirection. Ash would never recover from anything if he felt like he couldn’t breathe; if the world was caving in. Snap the bands when you hunger for the sting. Punch the bag to kill the fury beneath your skin. Don’t hurt yourself. Please don’t hurt yourself like that.
...what did it mean something that the only times they touched each other without reservation was when they were in pain?
Don’t think about it.
With it no longer necessary for him to be utterly confined to the apartment, Ash now made brief forays into the outside world of his own request. But never alone. Together. Always with Steve. Though Ash had requested this new freedom, neither of them were ready for him to do it solo. So, together. The odd couple walked cities they don’t know side-by-side: a mismatched pair, once uneven in favor of the brunette, but now leaning towards the blonde; a mirrored pair unaware of the eeriness in which they moved, with blue and storm-grey gazes scanning the horizon in equal measure.They liked places where they weren’t known, preferring to walk the streets of Shreveport and Baton Rouge, or drive hours into Mississippi to meander through Jackson at dusk. Sometimes they hiked the outskirts of New Orleans, hopping from preserve to preserve where they could go for hours, if not their entire trip, without seeing another face.
They never shopped. They mostly took the bike, but sometimes Steve would borrow a car and they’d roll the windows down when they were outside city limits. They ate at dirty diners and empty coffee shops where Steve tasted Ash’s food so he’d know for certain it wasn’t drugged, or would bring their meals with them. They liked tourist traps, but only the ones where they were free to wander; they never visited zoos, and while Steve liked museums, they never went to art galleries or institutes. Steve never suggested it. Concerts were off limits, but music in the park wasn’t, and Ash relearned how much Steve loved the sound of a violin, or could be eased into restfulness by the mellow chords of a piano.
Steve saw Ash in awe of the wide open spaces between the patches of civilization, or the water at the gulf, and remembered a man who had once looked out over a shapeless, sandy landscape and dreamt of hope.
It was, for the first time in a very long time, normalcy. Despite their careful avoidance of others, of the lives damaged by their presence, there was a perfection in the imperfect moments they had together. No, nothing could ever really be normal again, not between them, or as part of the reality that surrounded them. But they planned day trips not out of necessity, but because they wanted to. Did they deserve it? Maybe in the separate corners of their minds, they knew this was borrowed happiness, but they couldn’t spurn it. Maybe others would never completely understand their world, or what had happened to lead them here, but… surely. Surely it was okay to enjoy this.
As the good days became more plentiful, so did the bad days, occasionally, resurge with a vengeance. Time was crumbling Steve’s boundaries, and weakening his rules; as they settled into a routine, his careful orchestrations of schedules, exposure, and rehabilitation gave way to a more relaxed lifestyle. Some days, Steve had no goal but to be with someone who, despite the dissimilarities to the man he was before, he felt comfortable being around. He wasn’t sure what led him directly to the slip-up: the idiosyncrasies of his mind meant he never truly forgot anything, but… he could force himself to be mindless. To not be present. Still, the surveillance tape shouldn’t have even been on him when he visited Ash that day… but it was. Password-protected and encrypted, but what were those obstacles to someone of Ash’s talents? The drive never should have left his pocket.. But he didn’t have it when he left. And he didn’t think of it again.
How long was it between then and when he found Ash, face down on the laptop, blood smeared across his face?
Steve’s hands were familiar with the patterns they carried out, so much so that it was purely instinctive: check for a pulse, check for damage, check for breathing. Ease Ash off the chair, because you know, thank God, there’s no injury to his neck or back, or any of his extremities. Lay him down on his side, and tuck his right hand beneath his head. One bent knee, and an arm outstretched. Let him be, he’s alright, don’t panic… he’s only unconscious.
The former medic hovered between his patient and the laptop, which sat just out of reach, but itched at his brain like a burrowing insect. There were a hundred reasons Ash might have passed out, many more innocuous than most… but he wanted answers before Ash resurfaced. What had he mislaid; what had he failed to care about? A mental recount of his steps didn’t detect errors, but he multitasked that with counting the steady beat of Ash’s heart beneath his fingertips until he was certain of a lack of arrhythmia. Maybe that’s why it didn’t immediately dawn on him Then he stood.
The usb stick stuck out like a sore thumb. He didn’t even bother touching the computer; he knew what was on there, right down to the scene. What Ash had witnessed, and the reason for why he was laying on the floor now. Steve might be able to blame exhaustion, or he could blame stress, but he had never meant for Ash to look at that footage again, even if he himself obsessed over it. Ash didn’t need to remember that. Ash didn’t need to see it.
Lowering himself back down beside the other man, broad shoulders leaned back against the bookcase behind him. He tilted his head and closed his eyes.
Steve knew that when Ash remembered his name back in that room, it could be as much a fluke as the truth breaking through. Movies show amnesiacs shedding their fog like a new skin: memories come rushing back immediately, and so do the feelings attached to them. But the kind of damage Ash’s brain had sustained… Steve was lucky the unconscious person next him was even capable of walking and talking, of dressing himself, of feeling normal emotion. Traumatic brain injury is what they called it. Memories obliterated by sustained impact, or drugs, or unnatural forces invading the body (in this case this was clearly, in part, the shocks Steve had witnessed in other videos); memories that don’t come back, no matter how hard one tries. Broken patterns, shattered traits; even reassembled, the person that was before is no more. Ash’s grey matter had been irrevocably altered by the year under Division’s thumb. The fact he remembered anything at all was in it of itself a miracle, and Steve knew that.
Still, there had been no worse moment than when Steve stood in that hallway, so badly beaten he had no idea how he was still standing, and he had thought, for a moment, that Pierce had won. Ash had hesitated. And Steve saw in his eyes a yearning for a life formed by the man before him; what was name compared to that, no matter how brutal that life might be in comparison?
But no, Ash had said. Nyet. No. Like that, victory, or so he thought—together, they could stop anyone…
There was so much buried in Ash Steve knew they still had to uncover. That code word, that phrase, that command that had rendered Ash unconscious, that had driven Steve to help obliterate the man who once controlled him, was probably what had done this to him now. Steve’d be lying if he said he hadn’t gotten used to their little moments of… simplicity, and couldn’t help but begrudge their cold, hard return to reality now—even if the simplicity was a lie. He knew better than that. Still, with one obstacle conquered… well, there were plenty more knots to unravel. A grim smile played around on Steve’s features, a smile for no one, that was weighed down by emotional exhaustion.
A pale hand reached out and brushed Ash’s cheek, before snapping back into its owner’s lap. All he could do now was wait for Ash to wake, and it wouldn’t help one iota if Ash woke without knowing who touched him. So Steve tilted his head back again, thinking of the conversations they were about to have, and trying not to dread them.
Posted: Nov 13 2017, 09:47 PM
Ash is Offline
Relief swept through Ash as Steve allowed himself to be guided away from the sink. The hard work wasn’t done yet, but being able to help--even only this much--was a godsend. Watching for so long without being able to do, to say what was needed had been an unimaginable weight on his shoulders. To know Steve was hurting, to be able to see it, and not do anything, had slowly been eating away at the ever growing pieces of Ash that were coming back. He wasn’t the same, no...he would never be the same, but the root was still that of Ashley J. Winters, and that root had wrapped itself around Steve without any intention of ever untangling whilst alive.
Steve had done his best to separate the past from the present--to protect and care for the remains of the weapon without imposing his own will--but more and more of Ashley yearned for the man with each passing day. Maybe it was just dependence, but something deep beneath the blood and guts of his being ached for the resurgence of easy affection that he still wasn’t sure they had once shared. Did it matter? Could he not love this man, even if he hadn’t before? Could a man like Steve want something like him beyond the shackles of responsibility?
Gauze felt so flimsy in the hands of one used to cold steel. How could something so simple repair and protect the damage done to such precious flesh? Artists hands. Righteous hands. Hands meant for so much more than violence, but oh so willing to sully themselves for the right cause. Steve would heal soon enough, physically, but physical hurt wasn’t the real cause of his pain. Ash wouldn’t push, he couldn’t; he honestly didn’t know how in any way that wouldn’t cause more harm than good...but he could be there. He could listen if just given the chance. The man was still, perhaps too still, as he waited; he would wait forever for Steve, if need be.
Once Steve started to speak, Ash didn’t dare interrupt. Not that he really had to the words to do so, not with the fuming rage burning in his guts. It shouldn’t have come as a shock, not with all he knew of humanity’s darkest deeds, but this had been the furthest thing from his mind. Steve had been assaulted, raped, by the woman who was trying to force her way into his life to this very day. Steve had been powerless, despite his strength, because of it...and he’d been drowning in that night ever since. The werewolf’s flesh hand reached out, not quite touching, instead just hovering over the other man’s shoulder for a few moments time.
Before he could offer the comfort of touch, Steve stood slowly, and begun to pace. The more he spoke, the greater the rage grew, it was like a living thing, roiling in Ash’s guts. The arm recalibrated twice, shifting back and forth between modes with soft, mechanical whirs and clanks. Letting out a soft puff of air after the other’s words slowed to a stop, Ash stood. His movements were slow, cautious, as he closed the distance between them. “No.” There was so much more he wanted to say, but just like his hand which once again faltered, he couldn’t bridge the gap.
Swallowing thickly, he tried again, “It’s not...you didn’t want it.” His metal fist clenched tightly at his side as he willed flesh to be less frigid. Steve’s guilt was misplaced, but not uncommon given the resources the asset had scoured early on in its recovery. With a huff, he gave a facsimile of a self-deprecating smirk as trembling fingers ever so gently made contact with Steve’s cheek, causing their gazes to meet. He still struggled with eye contact, with touch, with talking...all of the things he was trying to do now make a difference. The rage had cooled some, shoved away for another time, buried deep and left to fester while kind words served their purpose. “Again and again. You said...it wasn’t. It wasn’t my fault. So it isn’t. Yours either, Steve.” What he wouldn’t give to be eloquent again--to be the man Steve remembered--if only for the night; to ease the hurt and guilt and months of confusion with the well of emotion his former self would have known how to wield properly.
With hesitance born of past pain, he wrapped both of his arms around Steve. It was careful, for both of their sakes, but after a beat of tense acclimation, Ashley laid his head on the blonde’s shoulder, putting his mouth close enough to his ear to allow a whispered, “Not your fault.” to be heard loud and clear.
You would think he would be used to the guilt by now--used to the way it tore up his insides and made his hand shake--but no, each new memory was like a fresh brand burned into his skin. Searing, skin-peeling agony that left a shadow pressed into his hide and sinew. The more he remembered, the more flesh must be taken as payment: small, weeping circles that healed much too soon. They cleared the fog in his mind, the ache in his innards that spoke of hundreds of lives destroyed, but they could never be the punishment he deserved...and yet, anything worse would hurt Steve. As it was, the burns kept him from leaving the bathroom more and more often, until finally a breaking point was reached.
He had depleted his supplies, and the new wounds would be sluggish to heal without proper nourishment. Steve was almost certainly in the livingroom--Ash could hear him puttering around--and it was unlikely he would leave until he had seen that his charge was in one piece. It had been too many days without contact beyond spoken words and texts from beyond the door. And so, the former Fist of Division tried to make a stealthy break for the kitchen...only to be stopped after only taking a few steps from the bathroom. He reeked of smoke and sweat, and yet, Steve only had eyes for what others couldn’t see beneath his sleeves. The werewolf stood stock-still as gentle fingers were brushed against his arm, pulling the pain away as if it had never existed. From half-healed wound to unblemished skin, the transition was near instantaneous.
Without a word, Ashley continued his trip to the cabinets, grabbing more protein bars and instant coffee despite the futility of the action. Steve knew now. No amount of hiding could take that information from the other man’s brain. Short of settling him into the chair--Don’t even think that, it’s gone...and you wouldn’t wish that on anyone anyway--there was no way to reverse what he had seen. Ash spent the rest of the night curled up in the tub anyway, but come morning, he had no reason to hide. Even if he had harmed himself once more--he hadn’t, not yet, he’d stayed awake all night weltering in the guilt of what Steve had seen, too ashamed to do the very thing he had been using to relieve guilt--hiding would do no good.
His keeper’s return would find him pale and racoon-eyed but freshly showered and slouching on the ground amongst his small huddle of plants. As tired as he was, as sullen, he tried to be receptive to Steve’s techniques. He was only trying to help; even if the last thing Ash deserved was help, it was so Steve to give it anyway. The punching bag, although unused that day, would become a staple of Ashley’s sleepless nights. It would take his blood and his sweat and his pain and store it away for another day, the fabric thick with the asset’s shame. It wasn’t perfect, but it was, at least, productive in a way; honing himself for the inevitable next fight, pushing himself past the brink of exhaustion, reliving the horrors his hands hand committed through a unharmable medium.
The industrial strength rubber bands Steve brought were a simpler solution, meant for the little moments of agony, the guilt of everyday life...redirection as it were. They, just like everything else Ash touched, would break, but they held up better than the average office supply would have. Snapped bands would soon come to litter the floor, hiding in corners and under counters, a testament to just how often Ash needed that redirection from his own intrusive thoughts. It all seemed hopeless, piled up that way, visual and visceral and real.
How could he ever make it in the real world when even living in this box had him floundering?
As unsettled as Ash was by his returning memories, there was no way he could continue existing as he was, with so little contact with the outside world. He was stuck in a feedback loop, his only contact with the outside world being that of the chatroom that fueled his fear and distrust of all those outside his claustrophobic four walls. He couldn’t stay hidden forever, but the prospect of tackling NOLA just now was daunting...and so, they didn’t. With Steve at his side, Ash walked free for the first time in over a year. Each new city brought with it the feeling of anonymity and hope...that maybe this could be real someday. Not just day-trips, but their actual lives. Maybe someday, he wouldn’t be so tense. Maybe someday he could venture out on his own. Maybe someday he and Steve could walk hand and hand down the streets of New Orleans without watching the skies for black helicopters and the tell-tale glint of sniper scopes.
It was progress,stilted progress, but progress nonetheless.
Which was what made the video that much more devastating. As soon as Ash’s head hit the keyboard, the boundaries were back in place; his cell door would close again. How could he go out if a single word could render him unconscious. If anyone else within Division knew, they could take him at any moment. Steve would try and defend him...but at what cost? Could Steve defend them both against a full strike team if he was caught without his shield? It wasn’t worth the risk.
Ash awoke silently, nothing denoting his return to consciousness but a slight change in breathing. He was on the floor--carpet, soft but in need of a vacuuming--and the bottom half of his face was half wet, half dry and flaky: nosebleed. He’d had enough of them over the past year to recognize the feel from skin impressions alone. A quick survey of the room through slitted eyes and thick lashes proved it empty save for Steve. His concerned shape sat nearby, not touching, but clearly not for lack of wanting to. His brain felt like it was too big for his skull and the pressure made it feel as if his eyes were ready to pop. Neither of these were new feelings, but they were unpleasant nonetheless. “How long.” His voice croaky and rough with swallowed blood, his stomach queasy with it.
The answer, no matter how long was a problem; well...anything under five minutes was workable, but the tacky gore on his face assured him it was longer than that. Longer than five minutes meant he could be restrained and already in transport by the time he came to. Escape was still possible, but the odds of being found once he was incapacitated and moved was significantly lower; the trackers had all been taken out...maybe he should request a new one, no matter how much it made his skin crawl.
Once he had spoke, Steve carefully started checking his vitals. Heart beat, reflexes, pupil response...the later was probably troubling based on the his caretaker’s furrowed brow. The pounding in his head--like an icepick driven through his eye to scramble his brain--was more than likely a symptom of whatever the other man saw. There was also strange halo around the lights in Ash’s vision, one that seemed to trail ever so slightly as he looked away. It would heal, as it always did, but the nausea and disorientation from whatever those words had done was nothing to scoff at.
Ashley’s memory from before he ended up on the floor was foggy at best, but one look at the laptop, and the scene on it, was enough for him to connect the dots. He had watched the escape, and just watching it had triggered the same cognitive event that had been forced on him that day. It wasn’t the visuals--there was nothing special about those, it was just a simple, fuzzy security feed--but the sound, the sound was clear enough to be made out by his ears. And that, that was important.
His blackouts had an auditory trigger. They weren’t natural, or coincidence, or drug induced. It was something that was trained into him, just like the obedience and the emptiness and the stillness he still struggled to overcome each and every day. Which stood to reason that, if it was trained, it could be undone. Either Division had literally altered the topography of his brain, and stopped it from healing, which seemed unlikely…or, they had instilled certain responses into his brain’s chemistry through repetition. It was like Pavlov’s dog, bell to word, salivation to unconsciousness.
With a silent exhale of discomfort, Ash pulled himself upright. He was still prone on the floor, but even getting half of his body vertical felt like an achievement given the way the world spun. “They trained this in...somehow.” He couldn’t meet Steve’s gaze, so instead, he stared at the computer, “We can untrain it. We have to.” If pressed, the werewolf was certain he could remember enough to recreate the appropriate conditions, but chances were, there was a better way. “Notes...recordings. Division kept. Records.” Anything more he might have wanted to say seemed to be swallowed up by a blackness within his thoughts. He was still awake and yet, the mere idea of saying more seemed impossible.
A few shades paler than normal, Ashley slumped backwards again, his eyes unfocused.
Whatever this was wouldn’t be easy to counter, but staying under Division’s sway was so, so much worse.
OOC: THIS THREAD IS NOW CLOSED.
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