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We Tremble in Shadows

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When Steve wakes up, it’s cold and no one can see him.

Apparently there’s a lake in the mountains, because he’s spitting out water, remembering the haunting sensation of sinking, letting liquid cold fill his lungs and then—

He’s cold... and yet he’s not.

It’s strange, spending two decades of his life shivering under thin blankets, trying to fight off the chill of the air so that he doesn’t succumb to his illnesses and now... suddenly the cold doesn’t bother him. It settles into his chest as if it was always there next to his heart, breathing with him and stretching out to every cell in his body.

His skin is deathly pale with a tinge of light blue while his hair has become white like the snow around him. He’s dressed in his sleeping clothes, with a bright red, blue and white blanket wrapped around him. It’s his favourite because his mother made it for him before she died. He hasn’t seen it for years though, not since he left to follow Bucky into the army.

He stops, looking around at the mountains of snow and the rocky cliffs that surround him.

Bucky, Steve thinks, oh god, Bucky, is he alright?

Then a memory, of the soldiers teasing him because of his weak and small body, of him following Bucky on that suicide mission with the train job because he had an awful feeling, then Bucky about to fall down below into the ice and mountains before Steve pulled him up in desperation. They barely had time to give grateful embraces when Steve spotted one of the enemy soldiers, still alive, raising a gun...

There had been a shot. Bucky had cried out and Steve?

He’d smiled and asked Bucky why his friend was crying. “It’ll be alright,” he had lied, because he was used to lying, especially about things like this (“Not okay, Stevie, not okay,” Bucky had shook his head) before he had swayed backwards and then...

Steve fell.

“I’m dead,” he whispers, staring up at the moon.

Yes, the moon replies, and in return I’ve made you into winter.

(That’s all the moon ever tells him after that.)

-

Frost spreads from his every footstep; whenever he touches a tree trunk or the ground beneath him ice will follow. Steve smiles with joy when he first does this, marvels at each intricate way the trails of frost form like boughs of evergreens swirling around the windows of buildings. He loves whirling on the ice, letting the world pass him by and most of all, he loves creating each snowflake, making each design as unique and special as the people who walk through him.

The snowflakes make him feel less lonely then, like he’s important somehow. At least, when people look at him and see nothing, they smile at the sign of first snow.

(But sometimes he has to bring blizzards and death. Sometimes children and adults stay out too long and they become frozen forever. Sometimes Steve shakes with frustration, wondering why everything he touches goes so cold and no amount of snowball fights, of snow angels, ice sculptures and snowmen in the world can make it better.)

-

Steve sees Bucky from time to time. It hurt the first time that Bucky stormed past him because of all people, Steve had an insane and stupid idea that Bucky would be the one to see him (they are best friends, they are brothers, they are even more than that and they would die for each other; Steve did die for him—)

Bucky doesn’t see Steve though. Bucky doesn’t seem to see much of anything lately. He soldiers on, barking commands, takes the mantle of team leader seriously. There are no more Bucky smiles, no more Bucky laughs, no more Bucky jokes or twinkles in his eyes. Bucky is devoid of all emotion, demands that their friends refer to him as Barnes alone. He pushes everyone away, even Peggy (who Steve thought Bucky would be sweet on) and Howard.

In vain, Steve tries to talk to Bucky at times, even if Bucky can’t hear. Steve tells Bucky everything, about the new frost he’s brought out, about how beautiful the spring looks but Steve can’t come too close or the spirit of spring will shoo him away with her consort summer’s sunbeams. He lets Bucky know that he always dedicates every snowflake to him or their mothers. And sometimes if Steve closes his eyes, floating past Bucky on another mission, he can pretend that Bucky can hear him.

But at night, when Steve creeps in one time, he hears Bucky moaning Steve’s name, moaning a chorus of I’m sorry’s and I love you’s. Steve stops coming by after that, because while it hurts when Bucky can’t hear him, it kills him inside to know that Bucky can’t feel Steve’s forgiveness (and love, always love) in return.

(Then there’s the Red Skull. Then there’s Bucky wrestling with the Red Skull, nearly getting blown up by the tesserect. Then there’s a series of bombs on a plane and Bucky flying it down into the sea with his final words being—see you in hell, Stevie—while Steve screams for Bucky to turn back, that he won’t see Bucky anymore, or anywhere after this, it’s hopeless, no, no, no—)

-

They make a comic book series, one of the men who had known them, a name that Steve can't pronounce. They call it the Winter Soldier and Captain America, inspired by Steve and Bucky’s stories. Over the decades, Steve picks it up and wonders which one of them was (is) the Winter Soldier and which one is Captain America.

You’re Captain America, buddy. I mean, you stand up to bullies, send snowstorms to the wrong, you followed me to war just to watch over me even though you couldn’t even lift a gun, he imagines Bucky saying to him. (He talks to Bucky a lot in his head, he hopes that wherever Bucky is now, that his friend can hear him.)

But you went to war for our country, I only went for you, he thinks.

That’s what makes you so good.

Then Steve tries not to listen to not-Bucky anymore. He knows what he is. He is winter and he can only make things cold.

-

So much time passes and Steve can’t tell what year it is anymore. He spends most of his time dedicated to crafting more snowflakes, having more not-conversations with not-Bucky and his not-mother. He doesn’t try to see Howard or Peggy. After Bucky, it’s just too painful to watch those that he knew in his past life.

There are days when he wonders why the moon made him winter when all he wants to do is sleep and be dead like the rest of the souls in the war. He just wants to rest.

(Yet every time he sees the kids come out to play in the snow, he feels a little bit hopeful, a little more like himself. He stays for them, to see their smiles. They remind him of Bucky, of what he died for.

It was love.)

-

Occasionally he meets some special kids, some who touch his heart because he sees them doing something kind. Those are the ones he comes back to, to see grow up, to visit because then it feels like he’s doing something, even if it’s living through someone else.

There’s a Russian girl named Natasha who dances in the snow when her keeper, a man who trains her to kill (and who Steve loathes very much), isn’t looking. Steve watches sadly as she stains the white and her hands with red, as she begins to drown in that very colour until she finds no way to crawl out but to kill more. But occasionally he will let the snowflakes tip toe around her scarlet hair and he will catch a slight softening of her eyes as she lets herself feel again.

Clint is a rowdy sort who uses the snow and ice as his weapons when he pranks others (if only to remind them that Clint exists, that just because he’s orphan doesn’t mean that he’s nothing, god damn it, and Steve will want to reach out to hug him but know his embrace will only bring ice.) The boy in the circus complains loudly about the pain of having to worry about frostbite but Steve knows that he looks forward to the snow if only for the excuses to be silly, not to worry anymore. When Clint grows to be a killer for hire, much like Natasha, sometimes he aims his arrows at the bunks of snow to catch a target by surprise and Steve will laugh along with him.

Phil is a funny kid who Steve adores instantly. The first time that kid saw snow, he gasped and ran out in nothing but his pants just to jump into a pile of soft (and freezing) cotton, rolling around in delight. Despite his quiet demeanour, he’s quite the enthusiast for wintertime, always creating the best and well-fortified snow forts that Steve has ever seen. Even when he becomes an agent for the government, Steve will catch Phil sneaking out on snow days to make another fort.

Then there are other children, the ones who stay inside with secretive smiles, content just to watch the world become blanketed in a gentle (or at times, stormy) white. Steve likes the one called Bruce (there are many, but this one is his Bruce) who leans up against the windows until they fog up so that he can draw in words and equations. Sometimes Steve thinks that Bruce is lonely and understands (his father never looks at him, is always shouting, throwing the bottle) so he draws in unique pictures with frost, knowing that Bruce is always more cheerful to see it.

(Sometimes there are odd encounters with the adults too. Many years down the road, just before it all really begins, a god will fall down from the sky and then laugh boisterously at the wondrous white that his friend Winter has created while his adopted brother will scoff at the thunder god’s childlessness.)

Steve remembers all their faces and feels like he knows them even if they will never know him.

Then there’s Tony.

Tony is... well, there’s no other word for Tony other than Tony.

He makes inventions to monitor and make different coloured snow. He laughs at the people he pranks with yellow snow and tries to combine his little robots with snow play with little success (at least until he makes them waterproof.) He cusses and can be darn right mean to others but he has this charm, this vulnerability that Steve recognizes in all his special kids. He’s lonely and Steve is content to give him many snow days in attempt for Tony to get more times to try to drag Howard out to play.

When those don’t work, Steve feels horrible as Tony shouts outside that he hates winter, hates it for all its inconveniences, for making Howard so grumpy and inattentive, for being so cold and numb. Steve blows a quiet trail of snowflakes towards Tony in those moments, when Tony is lashing out at the world (because what else can he do?), the hopes that Tony will smile.

The frost makes Tony twitch and slam the door. Steve will leave but he always comes back to check on Tony and Howard, to draw designs on the windows if only to show Tony that someone cares for him (even if he doesn’t know it.)

-

Nothing changes except for the children, their stories and how they grow up. Steve will watch them live and die forever and ever until the moon finally lets him go, lets him go to sleep and the cold will leave its side by his heart...

(But no, unbeknownst to Steve, the moon will not let him go. It loves him too much to let the soul of Steve Rogers cross to the other side.)

“It’s just...” he says to not-Bucky in the night, “I’m surrounded by all the people in the world and yet I’m alone.”

It’s the moon’s fault, of course. But Steve can’t bring himself to hate her.

-

Then Tony gets kidnapped, escapes his rescuers and somehow gets trapped in a cave right in the middle of the season. Steve, following this with great anger and concern, circles the cave several times, freezing any pursuers by the feet before they can come close. Then he turns his attention to the child in the cave, the one shivering by his seat of ice.

“Oh god,” Steve walks over, putting a hand out to Tony’s forehead.

He winces when Tony hisses from the Arctic temperature touch and remembers that he can’t touch anything without freezing it.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispers, “all I can do is make you colder. I can’t make you warm.”

Tony ignores him, slumping to his side while his lips turn an unhealthy shade of blue. Steve floats up in agitation and panic. He tries to think. What is it about snow that can help Tony? What does snow do other than bury people, keep them dead under forever? What has he seen in his travels?

Wait, Steve recalls the brilliant igloos built in the Northwest Territories of Canada and the other tundra regions. If he creates snow that is hard enough and constructs it around Tony, he can insulate heat. That will keep Tony somewhat warm. Then Steve can search out for any animals that won’t mind waking from hibernation to huddle by Tony. Maybe if Steve prays really hard the god of thunder that Spring and Summer mention when they can pass a few words (without burning him), will send some lightning to create a fire?

Steve gets to work.

-

The igloo is warm enough, the way that Steve’s eyelashes gather droplets like melting icicles are proof enough. But Tony isn’t getting better.

The shivers get more and more violet as time passes on, even with the successful fire Steve somehow gets started by the entrance of the igloo the cave. Steve frets and frets, too terrified to touch Tony in case he makes it worse. He doesn’t want to leave Tony either in case the kidnappers come back.

Tony is so delirious that he didn’t notice the absurdity of an igloo constructing itself around him. He begins to mumble to himself about how he should just die here, alone. How he deserves it. It makes Steve want to cry (but his tears are wet snow and they make the chill in his bones even colder.)

“Sh,” Steve says instead, whispering the same songs that his mother sung to him so many lifetimes ago. “It’ll be alright, don’t worry, Tony. Everything is going to be alright.”

And Steve sings and talks, talks and sings, never noticing how Tony’s eyes go from glazed to entranced, watching every shaky movement of the winter spirit’s hands.

-

A rescue team finds them. Tony survives, only barely and there is an ice rink on the hospital rooftop after Steve is done crying from relief.

-

Things change as they always do (after all, children grow up.) But they don’t change in the way that Steve expects.

There are times when Steve swears that Tony is watching Steve skate down the street or sprinkle flurries across the lawn. But then Tony looks away and just laughs, throwing snow balls at his butler Jarvis and Steve shrugs it off. Yet the number of times Steve thinks that their eyes meet increases as Tony grows older.

Sometimes Tony will talk out loud (as he always does when he walks outside, muttering about calculations and projects Steve will never understand) but instead of addressing himself, it seems like Tony is talking to Steve. He’ll say something like, “What a nice snow day, we had. Thanks snow angel” or “The frost was a bit much but it was nice” while looking in Steve’s direction. But before Steve can reply, Tony will go back to talking about robotics and new ways to skive off of work.

Tony skips so many classes just to rush out into the snow that Steve has to decrease the amount of snow days just a bit to try and encourage the teenager to go back to school. But it doesn’t work. Tony will complain that the snow angel hasn’t brought enough white this year and that it’s annoying. Steve will reply with his own arguments and a smile but Tony will keep rambling (and then Steve stops, because of course, Tony can’t hear him, what is he thinking?)

Steve begins talking to him, like he used to talk to Bucky, except it’s to tease Tony or reprimand him for another alcoholic binge instead of to fill the silence. It’s just... it feels like sometimes Tony will talk back. Tony gets a funny look on his face, where he pauses and seems to squint, before he shrugs and walks on.

It’s interesting and different and Steve wishes (even though he shouldn’t), he just wishes...

-

“Please tell me if you can see me,” Steve begs one day, tired of all of this. “It’s killing me, watching you and hoping. I know you can’t but you just... then you look at me like that and I... I feel like you see me. Not just the physical me, but me.”

He wants to reach out and brush his hand against Tony’s shoulder, prove that he’s there, but he can’t.

“Please,” he says again, when Tony keeps scribbling away at homework that should have been completed three days ago. “Please just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then I can leave you alone.”

Tony says nothing.

And Steve, though it rips him apart, keeps coming back to visit the maddening teen.

-

Howard and Maria Stark die in a car crash. Tony seems to die along with them.

If there was any a time where Steve truly hated his existence, the fact that he can’t comfort with anything other than pretty frost patterns and songs, the fact that no one can see him, it would be now when he finds Tony drunk and trying to drown himself in a drift of snow.

Irrational anger makes Steve grab Tony and pull him from the hill of white. He sees Tony shiver and drops his hand, cursing himself (what if he had hurt Tony then?) for forgetting the frost touch before he realizes that Tony is trying to stick his face back against the snow to stifle his breaths.

“Gods, just stop it!” Steve cries out. “Don’t do this, not in my snow, I can’t, if you died because of—I can’t—”

His words get stuck as if he can’t remember how to shape them anymore (and maybe he has, after seventy or so years.) It’s useless to speak, Tony can’t hear him. No one will ever hear him but he can make the snow go away, try to get Tony back to his mansion somehow... maybe use a stick to push Tony’s body against sheets of ice...?

“...m’know...” he hears Tony mumble.

Steve thinks it to be more drunken speech and doesn’t want to eavesdrop on anything he shouldn’t be privy to. He tries to respect his charges’ privacy if he can.

“...I just... thought I’d see them again... like I see you, snow angel...”

This time, Steve does stop, an ache in his chest growing as he tries to ignore this impossible conversation.

“...M’crazy...” Tony repeats.

“No,” Steve whispers, “no, you’re not.”

“...Are you even there...?”

“Yes,” says Steve, “yes, they are and I am too.”

But Tony just rolls over and stares at the sky.

-

Tony becomes an adult way too soon (all of the kids do but Tony is special) for Steve’s liking. Steve finds newspapers whirling in the wind with headlines describing Tony’s constant partying and womanizing ways, the way that Tony drives himself into his work. Tony hardly goes outside to look at the snow anymore, and if he does, it’s with a sad smile and a lingering gaze that makes Steve want.

Obie is a horrible man, sucking the creative soul from Tony’s hard work, plotting Tony’s death. All Steve can do is watch, make Obie’s feet freeze during winter and pray for the best, for the person that Steve knows that Tony is deep down inside.

-

When Tony goes missing, Steve tries to go to the desert to find him, despite the snow and wind screaming at him not to. The sun and sand burn Steve and make him fall from the sky until all he think is this is what I deserve for wanting warmth.

He closes his eyes before he hits ground. Maybe I’ll go to sleep again.

-

The moon saves him again, gathers the sand spirits to carry Steve to the borders of the desert so that he can begin to recover.

By the time Steve is back to a semblance of his former strength (and he’s never really that strong, with global warming becoming more powerful day after day), Tony has become Iron Man and Steve knows then, when Tony is defending the world, showing them how bright and wonderful he really is underneath the playboy mask, that he loves him.

-

Of course, even though Tony can’t see him, he drives Steve insane with the number of times he nearly gets himself killed. It’s as if the man has a death wish, because every time he’s close to death, Steve swears that Tony looks at him and the expression on Tony’s face can only be described as bliss.

(Steve hates that and if the threat that tried to kill Tony mysteriously trips on ice or has their legs frozen or gets talked by a mini snow storm, well, at least Tony seems to find it amusing and not-suspicious-at-all.)

“No!” Steve wants to shout at him, “You’re not allowed to look at me like that, not when you’re about to die, I won’t let you!”

If anything, Tony’s smiles always seem to grow more manic at this point, and he’ll whisper something again before he somehow saves himself from another desperate situation.

It’s not healthy, Steve thinks, it has to stop.

-

“I think Tony can see me when he’s about to die, or when he’s very close to death,” Steve says out loud. He’s not sure who he’s talking to anymore—the moon, Bucky, his mother or himself. Maybe it’s the snow this time. Maybe no one.

Usually it’s no one.

“I think his self-destructive tendencies might be tied into him trying to see me, or maybe his parents, god, I don’t even know what I’m saying,” he crouches in the middle of his frozen lake, curled up against the ice. It’s crazy to even consider. When did he become so self-conceited? Tony did just fine by himself in the desert (the heat still scalds Steve’s skin when he closes his eyes, worse than the water he dreams about.)

“I can’t be around him anymore,” Steve says. “It’s dangerous.”

But you love him; he imagines not-Bucky replying.

It always comes back to love, doesn’t it?

-

Then one day the god of mischief comes down to earth with an army from space. SHIELD calls together all of Steve’s favourite (lonely) people in attempt to fight back against the threat. But Steve’s people are so damaged, so distrustful of anything they don’t know. They bicker. They fight while Steve hovers outside the hovercraft.

He thinks that the god of thunder can see him but Thor does not call any attention to Steve’s presence. If anything, he is more focused on trying to get his brother Loki back, in trying to find sense within this strange group of mortals. Steve wouldn’t be surprised if winter spirits are common on Asgard and usually ignored.

Steve grows so upset from the meeting that he paints the computer screens and glass walls with murals of his frost, little etchings and vision of children playing in the snow, of people singing carols during the holidays and dancing together under the stars. Then he sketches each of the avengers with wisps of ice, their stances strong as they stand together as equals. He makes a big ‘A’ above the frost sketches and hopes they see his point.

His avengers (the real ones, gathered in the room) gape. (“Is this another one of Loki’s tricks?” Fury asks but none of them answer, they’ve all seen Steve’s frost at some point. Well, not Thor. But the god is also awed and looks humbled.)

All of them stand, entranced by the drawings.

Whatever Loki had planned, their dissonance, is temporarily averted.

(But Steve’s work shatters as Barton comes crashing in, shooting an arrow at Phil just as Steve screams and freezes it in midair.

The shock of the ice-frozen arrow shattering on the ground brings all of the other avengers to attention. They scramble to fight back, trying to ignore how close they came to losing their best man...)

-

The avengers confront Loki together on top of Stark Tower just as Steve is finished making the greatest blizzard he has ever created and using it to blow away as many ships as possible. He regrets the destruction of public buildings and tried to limit the storm to just the skies but there’s only so much he can do and no one is allowed to threaten his avengers.

Loki is cornered, his sceptre broken. He looks half-mad and then he spots Steve, hovering just behind Tony.

His eyes narrow, as he sees the effects of Steve’s storm and he hisses out, “You meddling Winter Spirit!” before he shouts out a spell, something foreign to Steve’s ears and shoots it towards Steve—

Thor yells in outrage, Steve sees all of his avengers’ eyes widen as if they can see him, but why are they all panicking, no one was hurt, no one—

Steve looks down and sees red dribbling down his pale fingers, his face, his mouth. He feels the cold begin to envelope over his heart as time begins to tick forward for him and the thought of finally, sleep comes to him vaguely.

But there are metal arms holding him, shouting, “Snow angel!” over and over.

“...It’s Steve...” he makes a weak laugh but he doesn’t suppose it matters anymore.

For the third time in his existence, he falls.

-

If this is death, then it’s extremely uncomfortable. It’s too hot and Steve doesn’t like it (hasn’t liked it in decades) so he has to throw off the blankets before he melts

“Whoa there, snow angel,” he hears a voice say. “Just sit tight, doctor’s orders!”

Steve groans, the pain in his head unwelcome. It’s been ages since he’s had a migraine or a hard time breathing... wait... breathing... what...?

He sits up straight in bed, staring at his skin (still horribly pale from past illness but now with frost tattooed against his skin) and touches his hair, still snow white. But there’s a pulse... and breaths... just what did the moon do this time?

“I can’t believe I’m not dead yet,” he mutters to himself, “you’d think that the third time would be a charm.”

There are several furious and indignant calls of what and don’t-you-dare-say-that which echo through the hospital room before Steve realizes that, yes, he is sitting in a health care facility and, yes, apparently several humans heard what he said and they are all staring at him right now.

He feels his face cloud up with an icy blush.

“Um.”

The avengers stare back until Tony snaps at them to get the fuck out of the patient’s room so that he can be properly acclimatized to being alive. It takes Steve several minutes to process that sentence and the fact that Tony is staring at him as if Steve is the most wonderful thing in the universe. Steve has to look away because it hurts to stare at such intensity.

“You’re an idiot, aren’t you, capsicle?” Tony begins.

Steve can only splutter, “What did you say?”

“Apparently you’re a spirit of winter and they don’t live long if they succumb to the cold, as Thor put it. But you ‘re still here even after seventy years, gee, I wonder why. Maybe you were frozen alive in that lake we had to fish you out of? And now the moon goddess likes you so much that you’re still the spirit of winter. Fun stuff, snow angel,” Tony scowls, “just wish you didn’t have to have a death wish to get people to notice you.”

“Hey,” Steve snaps, “if there’s anyone with a death wish out there, it’d be you! Do you have any idea how many hypothetical heart attacks I’ve had because of you?”

“Well how else am I supposed to see you, snow angel? Everyone else on the team could apparently see you in their dreams, singing them to sleep when they were kids but I wanted more than that!”

He opens his mouth to scold Tony in return (and how refreshing it is to argue with someone for what seems like the first time in forever) but his brain is stuck on the last part of the sentence.

“...Everyone... else? You could... all of you could see me?”

Tony scratches his head uncomfortably, “Um, yeah. I mean, Thor said it was because you cared about us so much or something... I dunno... we could always see you Snow Angel, just not when we were awake.”

“I don’t... I can’t... this has to be a dream,” Steve shakes his head but his dreams are always nightmares, things of drowning or being burned in a desert.

“It’s not,” Tony reassures him. “You’d be surprised what you’ll start believing in the twenty first century.”

Steve doesn't say anything to that. He's not sure what he believes in anymore. Only the thoughts of watching children and adults smile for first snow, the little good that his touch can bring, have kept his heart from being consumed by the cold for the past seventy years. Now, Steve's mind seems to be stuck on the idea that he's somehow alive and still Winter. How is he supposed to live now?

"...I'm not sure," Steve says with hushed breaths (and how harsh they are.)

With hesitation, Tony offers his hand to Steve, “I could show you, if you want.”

Automatically Steve recoils, “No, I can’t, my touch.... it’s ice, so—”

Tony rolls his eyes, “Just take my hand, Steve.”

The snow spirit doesn’t move so Tony reaches over and places his palm over Steve’s before he can protest.

There is no cold, no frost that stretches out to kill any living thing it touches. Just skin against skin and Steve didn’t realize how much he treasured this, the simple act of holding hands. It’s a reassurance, a reminder that someone’s there.

It’s real.

“...You know, my dad used to tell me stories,” Tony says quietly, “about this stupid and sickly kid who ran after his friend to war. How the kid and his friend became the Winter Soldier and Captain America... He said that they were the bravest men that he’d ever met. And I always imagined that if I met Winter, he’d look like you.”

He tightens his grip and brings Steve’s hand up to his lips.

“You’re alive, Rogers, and maybe the moon goddess has you, but you’re the property of the Avengers now. We’re not letting you go.”

There are so many questions that Steve has, about all of this—the dreams, the moon, Thor, the stories—but all that matters to him at that moment is the hand whose warmth is telling him that he is real. Steve brings up his left hand, willing a little thread of frost to come out.

It tingles against his skin but it does not try to freeze Tony.

“I’ve alive,” Steve repeats.

“Yeah, snow angel,” Tony kisses his hand, “you are.”