The crowd around him was a mixture of protestors and supporters, some calling out his name and others jeering. He lowered his head, grimacing a bit as he saw the state of his uniform. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
No one else saw the sniper.
It wasn't even a choice. He saw the gun, and the next thing he knew he was shoving his guard out of the way. The bullet hit his shoulder; not necessarily deadly but still serious. There was pain, blood streaming from the wound.
He was surrounded by utter chaos. And then it suddenly changed.
He jerked as the bullets hit his chest, his world exploding into a blurred mixture of pain and confusion. There were screams all around him, hundreds of voices blending into one. His vision tunneled, black creeping in around the edges of his vision.
"Sharon?" he whispered. Then he frowned. He was forgetting something, something important. Faces blurred. Images blended.
Red and gold armor, familiar and safe. No, not safe. It was the enemy. Danger. Friend. Foe. One and the same, always and forever.
Tony. He tried to whisper, to say something, to say anything, but no sound came out. Blood. Why was there so much blood?
It wasn't supposed to end this way.
Steve Rogers woke up with a yell, his heart beating wildly in his chest. He looked wildly around the dark room, trying to orient himself.
There was a rustling sound beside him, a slight hint of movement, and a hand gently touched his arm. Steve swung his fist in that direction without thinking, common sense kicking in a heartbeat later. He stopped his swing at the last second, less than a quarter of an inch between his fist and Tony Stark's face.
"Damn it, Tony," Steve said tightly, unclenching his hand. He reached up and ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. "I keep telling you to not do that."
The lamp beside the bed suddenly turned on, its lowest setting enough to illuminate the room slightly. "Don't do what?" Tony asked mildly. If it hadn't been for years of experience, Steve never would have heard the hint of irritation in his voice. "Try to calm you down when you wake up from a nightmare?"
Steve frowned at him. "One of these days I'm not going to pull my punch in time."
"I'm fairly certain Extremis can take care of a broken nose," Tony said, his brow furrowing slightly. "I mean, it would still hurt, but--"
"Tony," Steve cut in, a warning tone in his voice.
Tony shook his head, the ghost of a smile on his face. "Was it the same dream?"
Steve frowned, leaning backward so that his back was leaning against the wall. "It's more than just a dream."
"Well, yes, technically." Tony made a sweeping gesture with his hands that Steve suspected probably meant something. "Want me to yell at Reed again? It probably won't help him get that microscopic transdimensional rift closed any sooner or stop the alternate memories from slipping through, but I don't mind doing it if it will make you feel better."
"No, Tony." Steve closed his eyes for a moment. He could still see the blood on his chest, hear the screams as the crowd panicked.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Then Tony pressed a soft kiss on Steve's bare stomach, an inch or so above his navel. A second later, there was another kiss a few inches higher. Then another a little above that one.
Despite himself, Steve smiled. "We should try to get back to sleep," he said, not opening his eyes. "I promised Hank that I'd be there to help out at the Academy for a few hours in the morning."
Tony kissed Steve's neck. Then he chuckled. "Of course that's why we should go back to sleep," he agreed, sounding amused. "It has nothing to do with Clint reminding you very loudly this morning that the mansion's still being reconstructed and the bedrooms aren't soundproofed properly yet."
Steve felt his face flush a bit. "Do you really think I care what--"
It was right then that the alarm system went off. A moment later, Steve's phone - which had been sitting quietly on the table beside the bed - started to ring. Beside it, his Avengers communicator started chirping as well.
"What the hell?" Steve was already out of bed, reaching for his uniform before he thought to glance at Tony.
Tony's eyes were vacant as he used Extremis to try figuring out what was going on. He came back to himself almost instantly. "Damn it," he muttered, looking at Steve and shaking his head. "We need to get to Luke and Jessica's place. I'm not sure what's going on, but they need us there."
Peter Parker looked unusually serious as they landed on the roof of the crappy apartment building that Luke Cage and Jessica Jones called home, even though they technically couldn't see his face because of his mask. His shoulders were hunched, and he kept moving back and forth with barely suppressed nervous energy. "Did you bring any of the others with you?" he asked, looking around as if he expected someone else to magically appear.
"What others?" Tony asked. "Most of the Avengers who were living at the Mansion are staying at the Academy now that we have so many kids there fulltime. Clint's the only other one staying there right now, and you told us to come up with an excuse not to bring him."
Steve crossed his arms. "We'd still like to know why, by the way."
Despite being hidden by his costume, Peter still managed to look sheepish. "It's-- complicated," he said, looking around again.
"We're still the only ones here," Tony pointed out. Despite the armor, Steve could practically hear him frowning.
Peter nodded. "I know, it's just-- well, you better come see." He looked at both of them nervously. "It's not good."
"Lately, it seems like it never is," Steve muttered with a frown.
Without saying another word, Peter turned and started toward the stairwell. Sharing a quick look, Steve and Tony followed a moment later.
"We thought you should be the first to know," Luke Cage said, shrugging with feigned casualness. If it hadn't been for the way his right hand was clenched into a tight fist, Steve never would have picked up on how tense he actually was.
Steve stared down at the table in front of them, his eyes narrowed. "We appreciate it."
Iron Man's helmet opened, revealing Tony's unusually pale face. "Please tell me that I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing."
Peter glanced down at Tony from where he was perched on the wall, unmasked and looking a lot younger than he really was. "Of course. That's not really a Skrull laying on the table dressed up like Jessica Drew. It's, uh--" He trailed off. "Yeah, I'm coming up blank with a different explanation."
"Peter," Jessica Jones said, shifting Dani from her right side to her left.
He glanced at her.
Jessica smiled coldly at him. "Please shut the fuck up."
Luke reached up to rub his temples. "Jess, that ain't helping."
Steve held up a hand, and the others immediately went silent. He met Luke's gaze. "Tell me again, exactly what happened?"
"Like I said, the three of us were checking out a couple of small explosions down at the docks," Luke said, frowning. "Jessica was caught in one of them, and the next thing Pete and I knew we were staring at--"
He trailed off, gesturing at the Skrull resting on the table.
"No one else knows?" Tony asked.
Luke shook his head. "Nope."
Tony glanced at Steve. "Well, at least we have new nightmare fodder now."
"That's not funny, Tony," Steve said, closing his eyes for a moment.
Peter looked around the room, his eyes wide. "Our lives are about to get a whole lot more complicated, aren't they?"