There’s a strange place, between asleep and awake, that Steve has come to know quite well since he woke in the twenty-first century. It’s there that he usually ends up after one of his nightmares, catching the rat-tat-tat of gun fire mixing with the whoop of the ceiling fan and smelling the sharp metallic tang of blood and the unmistakable floral detergent that his sheets are now washed with. It is here where he is left disoriented and at his most vulnerable, unsure how to react for fear that his response will be wrong. That, if he were to take up arms against the countless screams of fear and anger, he would unwittingly harm someone, like Tony, who shares his bed more often than not.
It is on one such night, when he’s trapped in that disorienting place, unable to catch his breath from the thick choking smoke around him, cascades of fire licking up the walls and warping the windows, distorting the click-whir of Jarvis and the soft hum of Tony’s breathing, that it happens. Red Skull rises from the flames, face twisted in a smile, and there is screaming and choking and he has his hands around Red Skull’s throat, but it’s Tony scrambling at his hands, Tony whose eyes are wide in fear, and Steve startles, casts off the lingering demands of the dream, and realizes.
“Oh God,” Steve breathes, releasing him and falling backwards off the bed in panic. He hears Tony suck in a choking breath, coughing and then there is the distinct thump of Tony falling off the other side. He scrambles to his feet, pushing aside his paralyzing fear. He gets to Tony, who is curled up and gasping, pain screwing up his features and Steve doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to handle this. Tony chokes out another breath and reaches blindly for Steve’s hand, tears catching in the corners of his eyes and Steve lets him, is so careful when Tony’s fingers tangle with his.
“It’s okay,” Tony rasps. “It’s okay, Steve, shh. It’s okay.”
But it’s not and Steve hates himself because of it.
This is how it starts.
“I am getting a ridiculous sense of déjà vu,” Tony says, and Steve looks over his shoulder. Tony scratches absently at the arc reactor, pointedly looking at the clock over the television. Steve manages a short smile and goes back to sketching, catching the shadows on Natasha when she was in the middle of training, of which he can just remember. Tony sighs and flops down on the couch beside him, wiggling forward until he can put his head on Steve’s thigh, absently poking at his sketchbook.
Tony’s silent for about ten seconds, which is seven more than Steve expected. Tony says, “I mean, it’s not like it’s a bad thing. The whole ‘insomnia-because-you-don’t-want-to-keep-me-up’ thing, but we’ve been over this. With me. Remember? The whole issue with the couch and the cushions and Clint shooting me with arrows for a week after we had sex because we didn’t tell him what had been on those cushions? Any of this ringing a bell?” Tony rolls over, pressing his nose against Steve’s stomach. “And! I distinctly remember you having to suffer through one of my lesser nightmares, with all the –” Tony gestures at his chest, fingers curling protectively over the arc reactor before he continues. “And it’s not like I mind. I know you weren’t seeing me then, I know this, Steve, so you need to stop this whole insomnia binge because I have had three looks from Natasha and Clint went and found his exploding arrows again and even Thor looks put out and you know how difficult that is? Just. Come back to bed. Please.”
Steve says nothing, keeping his eyes on the firm stroke of lead against paper and Tony sighs, tucking himself more firmly against Steve’s side. “Well, two can play at this game, Rogers. And remember, I’ve had years of practice.”
They stay on the couch until dawn. Steve doesn’t sleep.
It becomes something of a game, seeing how long Steve can evade Tony and catch sleep without worrying about harming him again. He manages to hide in Natasha’s room twice, Bruce’s lab three times, and the hallway closet a grand total of ten. Steve has become the master of micro-sleep, but he still can’t fight his way out of that shapeless place between sleep and reality, and the more he evades Tony, the more he evades real sleep, the more distorted it gets. He actually throws a cereal bowl across the kitchen believing it’s his shield.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Bruce asks, staring at the exploded mess of cheerios and milk. “Because that doesn’t look correct.”
“It’s nothing,” Steve says, rubbing at his eyes. “Just a bit of insomnia.”
Bruce shakes his head at him, opens his mouth to say something, but Tony walks in. Steve catches him in his periphery, notes the haggard drag of his steps, the dark circles that are turning into bruises under his eyes, and the pull of stress around his mouth and the shaking in his hands. And that’s when Steve realizes he’s not protecting Tony. He’s doing more harm by hiding then he is actually dealing with this.
“Morning, Tony,” Bruce says, but Tony doesn’t acknowledge him. He grabs for one of the coffee cups, fingers clumsy against the ceramic, and a splash of hot liquid drops on Tony’s hand. He hisses in pain, reacting on instinct, and the coffee goes sloshing over the counter, just missing Tony when he jumps back in surprise.
“Fuck, fuck,” Tony says, grabbing for the roll of paper towel. Bruce joins him, soft words placating the frantic edge around Tony’s movements and Steve knows it should be him saying these things. He looks down at his hands, catches the layer of his red, red gloves, and his own fingers shifting before his eyes and breathes out.
He gets up and leaves the kitchen behind, ignoring the pained look Tony shoots him, and makes his way to their once shared bedroom. It’s time he tried.
Steve shakes awake, phantom memories of a train car, the cold slash of air, and Bucky’s screams playing havoc with his perception. He can’t move, his body frozen in place as he clings to the side of the rail car, the snick-snick of the railroad car catching and sticking in his ears like cotton. He’s shaking, so hard he’s afraid he’ll fall apart, and he realizes that the images are overlapping in his eyes. In one, he can see Bucky, falling, falling, falling, and in the other is Tony, sitting up against his side, thigh pressed against Steve’s ribs. He’s just watching, eyes soft in the darkness, and Steve breathes past the adrenaline rush, the rib of panic and fear that is still crawling about in his spine, and shakes away the shadowy image of Bucky’s death. Tony says nothing, even when Steve drags his hands over his face and wipes away the tears.
He breaks his silence only when Steve has managed to gather himself back together, emotionally drained and wanting nothing but to stay awake, to stay away from the dreams. Tony says, “Go back to sleep. Nothing can get you here.”
Tony’s smile is a bright flicker of white and Steve reaches out, brushes his fingers over Tony’s naked hip. Tony taps him on the chest, one-two-threefour, and Steve closes his eyes, breathes out, and Tony taps a little softer, a little easier. Steve falls asleep to the easy staccato of Tony’s fingers and the words, I’m not leaving you, Steve, whispered in his ear.
And this is how it starts repairing.