Steve yawns and flips to the next page of the book. He’s skimming the text, accidently skipping entire paragraphs, and he has no idea what’s going on. He wonders how long he’s been on autopilot.
He rubs his eyes, because they itch after being forced to stay open for so long. His eyelids desperately want to shut, and he forces them to stay open. His head pounds with the effort. His limbs feel both heavy and like they’re melting into the couch. He’s going to fall asleep here if he’s not careful. He can’t allow that. Can’t sleep. And definitely not here.
He pushes himself off the couch and almost crashes into the coffee table. He’s glad that everyone else in the tower is asleep so no one witnessed Captain America’s clumsiness. He’s stumbling toward his room when he hears footsteps on the stairs. He pauses, sleepiness pushed out of his system by adrenaline.
There’s someone in the tower. Threat? Steve’s mind catalogues the available weapons. The base of the lamp could inflict a good blow, he could always snap off a leg of the coffee table, and if he makes it to the kitchen there’s an assortment of knives he can use as a weapon and a couple serving dishes that could serve as a shield.
He edges his way toward the kitchen, eyes trained on the stairs, ears straining for any sign of who the intruder is. Footsteps are irregular, one slow step, two fast. Then two slow steps, one fast. Then a pause.
Steve opens the knife drawer as a blue light washes over the stairwell.
His body relaxes as he realizes it’s only Tony, and Steve sags against the counter. If he’s starting to hallucinate threats then it’s really time for him to sleep, but the thought of sleep sends his heart hammering in his chest, and his hands shake, and there’s no way he’ll be able to get to sleep now.
He knows rationally that his body needs to sleep, but he has to trick himself into sleeping or exhaust himself until there’s no other option. He can’t lie down and wait for sleep to come. He hasn’t been able to since they pulled him out of the ice. He’s too afraid that he’s going to lie down, and when he wakes up time will have passed him by again. Will he wake up two weeks into the future? Two years? Two decades? The thought of losing this life he’s been making for himself, his team, terrifies him.
He hears Tony mumbling something, words Steve doesn’t understand so he assumes it has something to do with his project. The arc reactor shines proudly from his chest, a beacon to light his path, and Tony pauses when the light falls on Steve.
“Isn’t it a bit late for you to be up?” Tony asks.
“Speak for yourself,” Steve answers. He closes the knife drawer and grips the handle to stop the shaking in his hands. He’ll be awake as long as he wants to be. As long as he can be. His eyes burn, demanding that he shut them, but he knows that if he shuts them, if he even blinks for a second too long then they won’t open back up.
“Did you have a nightmare?” Tony asks, reaching a hand out to touch Steve’s arm.
Steve jerks back. “I’m fine.”
“Right. This is completely normal behavior for you.”
It is, Steve thinks but he doesn’t say, because he’s not sure that’ll help him win his argument. This is how Steve’s night always go. He pushes his limits, usually managing to stay awake until 3 or 4 when he finally crashes, and he sleeps until his alarm goes off at 9am. The system is working perfectly for him.
“I’m fine,” Steve repeats. He presses the heel of his hand to his eyes and wishes they’d stop twitching.
Tony doesn’t argue as he reaches past Steve for the warm beverage cabinet. He ignores the coffee and the hot chocolate and finally finds the tea tucked into the back corner of the top shelf.
“How about I make you a cup of tea,” Tony says. “It’ll help you sleep.”
Steve’s legs scream at him to run. His arms demand that he fight. His brain struggles with the best way to respond to the threat. Tony wants to drug him? Tony’s supposed to be a friend, an ally.
Steve knocks the tea bag out of Tony’s hand, and Tony looks shocked for a moment before the corner of his mouth twitches, irritated.
“What the hell is wrong with you? I’m trying to help.”
Steve should apologize. This isn’t good leader behavior. And he should stop discouraging the good things Tony’s done—inquire after a teammate, offer to help.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “I’m usually alone right now. I’m sorry.”
The angry lines in Tony’s face smooth away into concern. “You get like this every night?”
No, Steve thinks, self-preservation comes first. His mouth betrays him. “Yes.”
Tony takes a deep breath to keep himself from yelling about stupid super soldiers who think they have to be strong enough to handle everything on their own.
“Let’s get you to your room,” Tony says and he places a hand on the small of Steve’s back that’s not meant to be a suggestion. He gives a gentle push, and Steve’s feet start to move.
“I don’t want to sleep,” Steve slurs, his voice thick with exhaustion, and Tony’s reminded of a toddler that doesn’t want to take a nap. Sometimes Tony forgets how young Steve is, that even though he’s been alive for decades he was unconscious for most of that time.
“You don’t have to,” Tony says and his hand slides so he’s wrapping an arm around Steve, holding him protectively as they walk down the halls. “We’ll just lie down and talk.”
Tony’s worried about how easy this is, because even though Steve is a soldier, he’s a Captain, and he gives orders these days more than he takes them, but there must be something in that serum enhanced brain of his that makes him still say yes sir and obey when there’s a command given. Or maybe, and this is a truly terrifying thought for Tony, Steve’s so far gone he can’t be bothered to think for himself and listening is much easier than thinking.
Tony can’t believe Steve has been working himself into this state every night for who only knew how many weeks and Tony had missed it. That they all had missed it. Are they so used to Steve taking care of them now that they’ve forgotten how to look out for each other? Or are they so used to Steve being strong and capable and able to handle anything that it had never occurred to them that he might be struggling?
Steve breaks free of Tony when they reach Steve’s room. He stumbles toward the bathroom.
“I should come with you,” Tony says, “make sure you don’t choke on your mouthwash or something.”
Steve’s eyes widen, and the fear leaking out stuns Tony long enough for Steve to run into the bathroom and lock the door. Tony kicks off his shoes and wonders how Steve still has hang ups about modesty in the bathroom. Hadn’t he brushed his teeth with his fellow soldiers? Didn’t they piss into holes in the ground?
Tony shakes his head as he pulls the comforter off the perfectly made bed. He’ll give Steve three minutes before he breaks the door down to make sure he’s okay.
Steve only needs two. He comes out of the bathroom, significantly calmer than he’d gone in. His shoulders are relaxed, and he even gives Tony a shy smile as he slips into bed. He’s still in his sweatpants and white crew neck and Tony can’t help his smile.
Steve grabs a pillow and curls around it, and he rests his head next to Tony’s chest. “You promised to talk.”
“So I did,” Tony says. He drops a hand to run through Steve’s hair without meaning to. He’s going to pull back, realizing he’s just violated Steve’s sense of personal space when Steve sighs, his body sinking further into the mattress.
Tony’s chest tightens with feelings he doesn’t want to explore right now. “You shouldn’t let yourself go like this. You look vulnerable right now. Young. It’s weird, because you’re my Captain, but right now you look like a scared little kid, and I can’t fit those two images together. Not that you don’t deserve to let your guard down, to step out of the superhero persona and just be Steve, but this is different than the Steve we see too. Steve is shy and awkward and sometimes a little bumbling, but it’s adorable, and you’re young then in an earnest, ‘I believe in the world’ sort of way. Not like this. You’re—“
Tony pauses, realizing that he’s babbling, that he’s being more than a little insulting, and he doesn’t know why Steve hasn’t said anything. He hasn’t corrected Tony or snapped at him or even laughed at the sentimentality that’s somehow snuck into Tony’s voice.
“You’re asleep,” Tony says, recognizing the rise and fall of Steve’s chest. Steve’s hand curls, possessive around one of Tony’s arms, and Tony tells himself he doesn’t leave because he’s afraid pulling back will wake Steve up.
Tony wakes with a jolt when the alarm system in the room starts blaring.
“WAKE UP, SOLDIER!” it screams and Tony topples off the side of the bed. “NO TIME TO BE LAZY. WAKE UP, SOLDIER!”
Tony’s pulse pounds through his body as he tries to figure out where he is and where the yelling is coming from and why the hell would Steve have that as his alarm setting? Tony pokes his head up to see that Steve’s jerked awake too. And he’s yanked his pants down?
Tony’s mouth drops as Steve kicks aside the blankets and shoves his sweatpants down. Tony’s mind goes blank, because oh wow Steve is stripping and then he’s disappointed because Steve’s wearing briefs, but then he realizes that Steve’s fingers are running desperately over his bare thighs and his breathing is coming in labored gasps.
“Uh?” Tony asks, catching sight of a couple black markings before Steve makes a horrified sound and falls over the other side of the bed.
His head pops up, and Tony thinks that this should be hilarious, like a moment straight out of one of Pepper’s stupid rom-coms, but Steve’s eyes are blown wide with fear and shame, and they’re filling with tears, and the smile dies on Tony’s lips.
“Hey,” Tony says, quietly like he’s trying not to startle an animal. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I fell asleep here last night. Are you okay? Do you need me to leave?”
Tony desperately hopes the answer to the last question is no. Something is definitely wrong with Steve, and it has something to do with the markings on his legs. War wounds? Tony knows what it’s like to wake up with scars stabbing pain through your body.
Steve looks from Tony back down, and Tony wonders if he’s looking at his legs again. There’s a look of concentration on Steve’s face, his eyebrows pulling together, his bottom lip caught between his teeth, and Tony wants to know what he’s doing.
Eventually, Steve exhales, and his shoulders roll forward in relief. He stands up, pulling his pants back up.
“What the hell?” Tony asks because it’s the first thing his brain can come up with.
Steve blushes and ducks his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry about last night. I’ll stay out of common areas.”
“What?” That’s not what Tony had meant at all. He doesn’t mean to be angry or judgmental. He wants to know what’s going on. He’s worried. “No, I don’t want you hiding when you’re like this. How long have you been like this? Why are you like this?”
Tony watches as Steve closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. When he opens his eyes again they’re a clear blue and there’s a determined set to his jaw. His shoulders are pulled back, and Tony can practically feel Captain America radiating off of him.
“Everything’s under control,” Steve says.
“You didn’t answer any of my questions.” Tony crosses his arms over his chest, gearing up for a fight. If Steve wants to pull out his authoritative bullshit then Tony can pull out his anti-authority guns.
“I don’t have to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a schedule to keep to.”
Tony studies Steve’s face carefully, and he can see the cracks in the mask. His eyes occasionally flick to the door or the windows assessing an exit strategy. His mouth doesn’t want to stay in an impassive line, the corners keep trying to turn down into a frown. And Steve’s hands are trembling.
“Jarvis, lock the door,” Tony orders, watching the surprise flare on Steve’s face before it is quickly replaced by anger.
“You can’t trap me in my own room,” Steve says. His hands ball into fists and they stop shaking.
“I just did,” Tony points out. “Tell me what’s wrong with you, and I’ll let you out.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Steve says and his fists unconsciously brush his thighs. “I’m fine.”
“Maybe right now you’re not freaking out, but you’re not fine. Do you pull your pants down every morning?”
Steve groans because he knows he’s not going to get out of this. Tony isn’t going to let him sidestep this issue, because once Tony’s found a puzzle, once he’s gotten interested, he doesn’t back down. He pushes and pushes until he gets the answers, and Steve is too tired for that kind of fight.
So he climbs back into bed and sits with his back against the headboard. “I have trouble at night.”
Tony doesn’t say anything, he just climbs into bed next to Steve.
“I don’t like to sleep,” Steve admits, his eyes looking anywhere but at Tony’s eyes. He looks at Tony’s cheekbones, his chin, his hands, the plain blue sheets, the walls. “I’m afraid to sleep.” Steve’s voice wavers, on the brink of cracking. “I’m afraid that I’ll wake up and be lost again.”
“The alarm,” Tony says. “That’s why it’s deafening. To make sure you wake up.”
Steve nods, miserable that he’s so easy to read.
“What about the pants?” Tony asks. “What’d you do to your legs?”
Steve’s eyes flick to Tony’s for a fraction of second, before Steve’s tugging his sweatpants down. On his thighs, in thin black marker are a series of symbols and lines that Tony doesn’t understand. He recognizes the Greek alphabet and hash marks, but there are colored dots he can’t quite figure out. His brain buzzes as he looks it over. Each letter has a different number of hash marks some have 30, some have 31, and—oh.
Tony drags his eyes up to Steve’s face. Steve is staring at his hands, and there is a slight blush rising on his cheeks.
“You’re keeping track of the days?”
“When you woke up, you looked scared.” Scared because he didn’t know if this was fake. Tony remembers hearing that Steve had wrecked a fake set that was supposed to emulate Brooklyn from the 40s. They’d tried to ease Steve into the future by lying to him, and now he’s paranoid, and he can’t relax until he’s sure that he knows how many days have passed, that he hasn’t missed anything, that he’s still in the right time.
“I get it,” Tony says. “Except for the dots. Why the dots?” There are red ones and green ones, purple ones and black ones, and a couple yellow ones as well. It makes no sense to Tony.
Steve smiles and shakes his head. “I can’t tell you. The letters, the marks those are easy to figure out. For someone to fake. The dots, though? Those are personal. They trigger memories so I know.” Steve’s hand brushes his thigh and he covers the marks for a moment. “No one can fake those.”
There’s a green dot from four days ago, because Bruce had gone to a press conference even though he hates being exposed and even though he’d known reporters were going to harass him about the Hulk. Three days ago there’s a purple and black dot, because Clint and Natasha had returned safely from a mission. Two days ago a yellow dot represents Thor throwing a luau for the team.
Yesterday there’s a red dot, because Tony stepped up. He proved that he did in fact know how to play with others. He took charge when Steve was too weak to. He showed himself to be a teammate, a friend, and Steve wants to cherish that memory forever.