He gets the assignment on Tuesday, an op to bring in an old informant who wants to defect, an asset who will only surrender to Steve's team. War makes for odd allies. Training for the mission will take two months, the actual snatch and grab a few days. But the mental preparation to go from a civilian mindset to soldier’s is not an easy transition. It requires time. Command gave him two weeks.
Learning the technique of disassociation is a special operator’s most powerful weapon. While Danny may accuse him of acting inhuman, Steve has adapted a method for enduring long, painful, and tiring events. He just needs to achieve that zone again.
It starts with pain or re-learning how to cope with extreme levels of discomfort. On Friday, he visits the dentist for a cavity and requests not to be given an anesthetic.
“While this is a shallow filling, I really recommend that you allow me to numb the area,” Dr. Keio says.
“Thanks, but I'm declining the injection.”
Steve gazes at a tiny spot in the ceiling, counts the specs of water damage, then the tiny imperfections. He ignores the sound of the drill, the feel of carbon steel into bone, and focuses on a happy place: The waves lapping the ocean on the lanai; the most beautiful sunset.
But no matter how hard he thinks about such serenity and peace, the pain is too great. He raises his hand for the doc to stop, realizing in anger that his dissociation skills need work, that his mind isn't where it needs to be for the rigors of the upcoming months.
He loves to run, five miles at night every other day after work and ten on the weekends. But with running comes focus, honing his ability to forget his legs, the burn of lactic acid, the stretch and pull of tendons. Steve increases the distance, spends the first few miles getting his pace down, then uses the next ten miles focusing on something else -- like sanding every inch of a new deck or building a house brick by brick. It ensures the monotony of every task synchs to the beating rhythm of his heart, of his every breath.
When he reaches the twentieth mile, he's strong enough for that final kick, and makes the long trek back home.
Every morning, he gets up before dawn, slipping out of bed without waking Danny. After a year, it's a well-honed skill.
His five-mile swim becomes six, then seven, finally eight. Steve knows to pace himself, to build up stamina, test his body, but most importantly his mind. On the days he doesn't run after work, he dives into the ocean and goes out as far as his muscles will allow, then he pushes harder, farther, until he reaches a swim coma. Then it's only instinct and muscle memory, and yeah, that's it, when he empties out his head of all thoughts, and he's one with the water.
When Steve finally comes out of the surf, his legs feel like rubber, and Danny is there with a towel.
“You're an idiot, you know that?”
Steve doesn’t even realize he's shaking until Danny wraps the fuzzy cotton around his shoulders. Steve's senses go from nothing to the scent of Danny's skin, his sweat, the faintest hint of coconut shampoo. Steve grabs Danny around the waist and pulls him into a hug, cherishing the press of muscle, and Danny's fond, okay, okay, you goof, in Steve's ear.
It's an endearing sound, one he'll cherish the next time he's under the ocean, forced to accept silence as a companion, knowing he can return to reality, to Danny's laugh when the time comes.
Chin and Kono are waiting for him when he walks out to the lanai for a series of high rep physical workouts.
Kono's hair is pulled back in a ponytail, a challenging grin plastered across her face.
Chin shakes his head. “We're all going out for a beer after this, right?”
The next ninety minutes are spent doing non-stop calisthenics. Hundreds of pushups, sit-ups, dips, and pull-ups from a hundred year old tree in Steve's backyard. After the fifth set, Steve zones out, the monotonous high repetitions another buzz in his head. It's a sound he can dismiss and push out of his thoughts.
His mind and body humming like a well-oiled machine.
Steve lays in the large athletic tub, repeatedly flexing the muscles in his arms and legs, breathing in counted measures.
Catherine takes the bucket of ice and pours the contents over Steve's body, filling the tub to the brim. He closes his eyes, his brain yelling at him to quit, get the hell out of the freezing water, but Steve ignores the panic, pushes away the fear, thinks only of how nice it'll be to put on dry cloths and crawl into bed, under the warm covers, soaking in Danny’s body heat.
“Ten more minutes,” Catherine says. “You can do it.”
Steve’s teeth begin chattering, but he doesn’t think about it, he only imagines warm sunshine on his face, the sand under his toes, and beautiful blue skies.
The last week before he begins formal training, Steve volunteers to work with the SWAT Team.
“We just cracked a giant drug ring and now you want to go play sniper?” Danny complains. “Would it hurt to do paperwork the last few days before you go jumping out of airplanes? Are you that much of an adrenaline junkie?”
But Steve can't back away from the pressure of being on the edge, not so close to mission prep. He needs the constant stimuli, the feeling of overwhelming danger, the release of cortisol and endorphins.
Because if he can keep his palms from sweating and his heart steady when facing a gunmen with a hostage, then he's conquered a biological response forged over millions of years of human evolution.
So, he inhales deeply for four seconds, then exhales, reducing his pulse-rate before entering the warehouse completely calm.
The night before his deployment, Steve drinks a beer outside on the lanai while Chin mans the grill and Kono and Catherine throw a Frisbee. He's loose limbed and relaxed in his chair, the bottle loose between his fingers.
Danny wanders over with his own Longboard and sits in the chair next to Steve, looking wary and nervous. “You doing, okay? I mean, it looks like you are. If I didn’t know you were boarding a plane to lands unknown, I would think you were going on vacation.”
“I'm fine. And I'm going to be fine when the mission is complete.”
“Yeah, you should be. With all the crazy training and all. I mean, you're prepared, right? It's been almost three years since you were last active and well...”
Steve puts the beer in the sand and rests his elbows on his knees and looks at Danny, gives him one hundred percent of the attention he deserves. “I'm actually doing the most important thing I need to prepare to get through what lies ahead.”
“Creating my trigger.”
“Your trigger? Isn’t that a bad thing?”
“Not always. I'm creating a mental portrait, so to speak.” Steve gazes at Danny's stubbled cheeks, at the eye crinkles he loves to kiss. “It's what I'll use to ignite all my conditioning in order to survive. The one thing that'll make me want to live, no matter what comes my way.”
Danny goes slack-jawed, staring at Steve with such fondness it makes his chest ache.
Steve licks his lips and clears his throat. “When I was going through BUD/S, my trigger was seeing myself walking across the stage at graduation knowing I had accomplished what I worked so hard to achieve -- that image made me endure. But once I earned my own SEAL team and took on the responsibility of leading men into life-threatening situations, my trigger was the image of all my men returning from a mission unharmed.”
“It's coming home to my family,” Steve says, waving his hand around. “To Chin, Kono, Catherine, and to you. The image of everyone laughing and smiling right now -- I will live and endure anything for this."
Steve smiles when Danny leans over and envelops Steve with his arms, squeezing him with all of his strength and all of Danny's beautiful, beautiful heart. Steve commits it all -- the physical weight of Danny’s love, the taste of his mouth and lips -- to memory.
He forges a new happy place, one that will get him through anything.
In response to my Dec Meme. Stellarmeadow asked me -What would Steve go through mentally now if he was suddenly recalled to an assignment with the Navy?