There's a flash of light and a ball of orange fire shoots up into the sky. The sound hits Steve like a punch to the face, then a jolt knocks him off his feet. His skull smacks against the asphalt and he doesn't know if he's upside down or right side up, but he instinctively throws up his arms over his face as a wave of heat rolls over his body.
Pieces of shrapnel shower down and he rolls over to his side, thinking he needs to find cover and return fire. Steve completes a quick body check for broken bones, blindly searching the ground for his rifle, his eyes watering from the stinging air. The buzzing and popping of metal becomes a wail of sirens and he scrambles to his feet, heading away from the burning flames.
Where the hell is Jarvis? The ensign had been right beside him.
Scanning for the voice, Steve coughs on fumes of gasoline and cordite and pulls out his sidearm.
"Steve! Damn it. Will you please stay put?"
A familiar face emerges through the haze and Steve blinks in confusion. "Danny?" he rasps.
"Who else would come after your dumb ass after a freaking explosion?"
"But…" Steve stares transfixed at plumes of black smoke and orange flames in the distance, his heart thudding against his breastbone. "What about the rest of the unit? The IED –"
"IED? What are you talking about? A warehouse just went boom, probably detonated by a remote because you had to go charging ahead of the rest of us, you insane Neanderthal. And hey," Danny snaps his fingers, his high-pitched voice softening. "Steve, look at me."
Fingers touch Steve's face, run through his hair, and over his head. "Are you hurt? Did you crack open that thick skull of yours?"
Steve flicks his gaze between Danny's worried face and the roaring fire, then down at the front of chest. His body armor is black, not camo, and his arms are peppered in ash and cuts, not covered in blood.
"I'm fine," he says, then repeats the words even louder, until he believes them.
After a trip to the ER for tests and an examination, Steve is sent home with a script for pain meds and rest. He nods, agrees to the doctor's orders.
Danny carries on about brain damage. "Their x-ray machines are pieces of junk. You're never this agreeable about sane medical advice."
Steve doesn't argue, doesn't say a single word, putting Danny even more edge based on the copious amounts of hovering in Steve's personal space.
"I said, I'm good," Steve snaps.
Everything is too bright, too loud; his skin's overly sensitive to the heat outside, to the chill of the blast of air conditioning in the living room, to all of Danny's concern broadcasting off him in waves.
All Steve wants is to hit the shower, wash away the dirt and filth and blood...no, not blood. He glances at the tiny cuts and the sutures he doesn't remember getting at the hospital, the smell of charred flesh assailing him. He closes his eyes and tries pushing the bubbling memories at bay.
"Babe, take it easy," Danny says, grabbing Steve's shoulder, anchoring him in place.
He stares down at his timberlands hiking shoes, remembers lacing them and not boots this morning, shaving in a real mirror, using an overpriced razor.
"Are you going to talk to me anytime soon or do I need to start writing things down?" Danny asks, his voice a fraction of his normal shrill tone. "Maybe I could try charades," he says with a smile that settles some of Steve's nerves.
Steve wipes hand over his face. "It's just been a long day."
"A day where someone tried to blow us all up." Danny gives Steve this look, the one where his eyes go soft, and he frowns a little while trying figure out how to fix things. "Did that explosion rattle you too hard? Shake loose some stuff?"
Living in the past doesn't change anything; it's always been about putting one foot in front of the other.
"I'm going to take a shower," Steve says, standing up on steadier feet. "Tomorrow's Sunday. We'll sleep in."
Jarvis lies outside the wrecked Humvee, under a growing pool of blood. Steve crawls toward him, screaming for a status report as bomb fragments and broken pieces of pavement rain down on him. His gunner is slumped over the turret above him and there are two more unmoving bodies hanging out of the ripped-out driver-side door.
Machine gun fire erupts from a window across the street and Steve screams, "Cover that god damned building!"
He grips his rifle, takes aim at the AK muzzle flashes from the doorways, before he hears the whistling sound of a rocket-propelled grenade.
Steve gasps awake, flinging the covers off his sweat-slicked body, his lungs unable to gulp down enough oxygen.
"Shsssssssh, it's okay," Danny's voice breaks through the buzzing in Steve's mind. "Listen to my words, Steven. Breathe in…now slowly out. In and out."
Steve focuses on the words, on the slow, steady cadence of Danny's voice.
"Take a second, smell the salt in the air. That's the ocean," Danny says. "And that soft noise off in the distance? Those are the waves lapping just outside on a long sandy beach."
Steve wets his lips, tastes the hint of the sea on his tongue, and breathes in the sea and out the smell of burnt flesh and metal. Swallows past the phantom grit of sand. Steve curls his fingers around his cotton sheets, stares at tanned skin free of blood.
"Is it okay for me to touch you? Just nod or shake your head."
Steve nods, his whole body shaking, and he soaks in the warmth of Danny's hands, of well toned arms wrapping around his shoulders. Of Danny resting his chin on Steve's collarbone, his breath ghosting over the nape of Steve's neck.
"I was riding in a small convoy of marines with a member of my SEAL team," Steve says in a waver-thin voice. "We were going to meet with some other special operators when we were ambushed. Our Humvee hit a roadside bomb." Danny presses his lips to the top of Steve's shoulder and he takes a steadying breath. "Most of the unit was killed instantly. I was pinned down but managed to drag Jarvis to safety…but he'd already bled out..."
"I'm sorry," Danny whispers in Steve's ear. "Ah, hell, I’m so sorry."
Adrenaline hums through Steve's veins, pounds in his ears, and his muscles feel stretched too far across his bones. He squeezes his eyes closed, focuses on the ocean, on the beating of Danny's heart and the rise and fall of his chest.
"Do you want to go downstairs?" Danny asks.
"No," Steve whispers, turning his head, searching out Danny's eyes in the darkness. "No, stay."
"Not going anywhere, babe. Always going to be here."
Steve reaches out, wraps his hands behind Danny's head, pulling him close, kissing him long and slow. He memorizes Danny's lips, of the hollow of his throat, until his head settles against Danny's shoulder, Danny's soft murmurings and steadying breathing lulling him back to sleep.