Steve hits the ground, diving behind a large boulder as the building behind him explodes, the force of it surrounding him in an intense wave of heat and concussive noise. Once the worst of it passes, Steve peers around the edge of the rock, grim and satisfied as what’s left of the HYDRA base crumbles in a pile of ash and smoke, taking with it the last of the skeleton crew that has been left to oversee a base that is -- was -- of minimal significance. There is no reason for Steve to be here -- no tactical reason anyway -- but still, he stands and watches as the building burns, ignoring the long, angry gash that runs along his side. He should be feeling something, grim satisfaction if nothing else, but he doesn’t. He feels hollow. Turning on his heels, Steve limps the half mile back to where he ditched his transport. He doesn’t look back.
Natasha and Sam are both waiting back at the small apartment he’s been renting. Short term, month by month only. He’s got a deal worked out with the landlord who agrees to keep quiet, since technically Steve shouldn’t even be in New York. Not that that’s stopping him. The place is furnished, but it’s minimal and impersonal. Utilitarian. Steve doesn’t care. He’s here to eat, sleep, recover. Nothing more. He spares a glance at his guests and makes his way into the bathroom, stripping out of his tac suit. It’s going to need some work before he goes back out again. The cut across his abdomen is worse than he’d thought, and he winces as he pulls the fabric away and pokes at the edge of the wound. Before he can do anything else, Sam is at his side, muttering about reckless idiocy as he pulls out the medical kit.
“What the hell were you thinking, Steve?” Sam curses, pushing at him until Steve takes the hint and hops up onto the counter, leaning back against the wall so that Sam can get a better look at the injury.
“I was thinking that I saw an opportunity, and I took it,” Steve responds with a shrug.
“Bullshit,” Sam practically spits the word out of his mouth, seething with barely-controlled rage. But his hands are perfectly still as he cleans and patches Steve’s wounds -- a testament to Sam’s control and abilities. “Going in there alone, without a plan, without backup, without even fucking telling anyone where you were going? Jesus Christ, Steve, you could have gotten yourself killed.”
“The place was practically deserted, Sam, it was fine,” Steve brushes him off, but he can feel Sam’s fingers almost twitch against his skin. Over Sam’s shoulder, Steve sees Natasha leaning against the bathroom door frame, expression unreadable.
“That’s half my point,” Sam huffs. “Don’t you dare try and bullshit me about how this stunt was necessary, or how you were digging up information, or about how you were trying to keep people safe. It was reckless, it was self-indulgent, and it was fucking stupid. You’re going to get yourself killed if you keep trying to punish yourself like this.”
Steve opens his mouth to protest, but he can’t bring himself to. He looks away, unable to meet either of their gazes, afraid that they’ll both see the truth. It doesn’t matter. They both know him too well. He doesn’t need to say anything, or even look at them. He can’t hide anything from them, anyway. A moment later, Sam deflates, sighs, gently puts an arm around Steve’s shoulder and pulls him into a slightly awkward hug.
“I just don’t want to lose your dumb ass, alright?” Steve’s shoulders sag ever so slightly, and he leans fractionally into the contact. A moment later, Sam pulls away. “Get changed, I’m ordering dinner.” He looks pointedly at Steve’s stomach, which chooses that moment to complain loudly, then slips past Natasha and heads back down the hall. Natasha doesn’t budge. She stares at him, Steve can’t tell whether it’s pity, or judgement, or anger, or something else entirely.
“It doesn’t matter how many sins you try and right, how much penance you try and pay, it won’t change what happened,” she says at last, not unkindly.
“You think I don’t know that?” Steve snaps back, suddenly angry. Natasha doesn’t flinch. It’s the first hint of real emotion he’s shown in days.
“I think Sam is right, that you’re trying to punish yourself. You’re no help to him dead.”
“I’m no help to him anyway. I’m the one that put him there,” Steve responds, feeling his chest tighten with the familiar pang of overwhelming grief. He sees that moment on repeat, playing over and over in his mind. He’s memorized every second, every movement, and what happened was his fault. It’s irrefutable. It was his hands, his blows, his rage and desperation.
“You haven’t seen him since,” Natasha says. It’s not a question, but Steve shakes his head in response anyway.
“No. I tried, but Rhodes wouldn’t let me.”
It’s a bit of an understatement, saying Rhodes wouldn’t ‘let’ him. When he’d tried to get in to see Tony, he’d been met by War Machine’s fist, slamming into his face hard enough to crack his orbital bone and send him to the ground, dazed.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t blow your ass skyhigh,” Rhodey had said, every gun on the armour whirring to life and pointing at Steve. “I swear to you, if he doesn’t wake up, I will.”
It had been stupid, trying to go and see Tony. He shouldn’t have gone there, he has no right.
“He’s stable,” Natasha says, pulling him back to the present. “They’ve moved him back to the tower. Security. He’s being monitored around the clock.”
“You’ve seen him?” Steve asks, voice raw. Natasha nods only once.
“Stable, but still unresponsive.” Of course he is. Unresponsive. He’d been unresponsive since Steve’s fists had pummeled him into oblivion, since he’d slammed his shield through Tony’s chest, since he’d beaten Tony into a coma in that cold wasteland.
The best doctors in the world, and they aren’t sure Tony will ever wake up. And if he doesn’t wake up, it will have been Steve that killed him.
Steve has already accepted that he won’t be able to live with that.
That night, Steve dreams of Tony for the first time since he’d watched Tony stop moving, stop breathing under his hands. Everything around him is a foggy haze, but Tony is crystal clear in front of him, solid and real when Steve reaches out to touch him. Tony spins around as Steve’s hand reaches for his shoulder -- he says nothing, but he stares at Steve with those deep brown eyes. Steve feels as though those eyes are capable of seeing into his very soul.
“Tony, I --” Steve stops himself. Nothing that he can say to this dream Tony will absolve him. When he wakes, Tony will still be on death’s door step.
He dreams of Tony more after that, but he’s still taken aback when Tony speaks to him.
“What are you doing here, Steve?” Tony asks, his eyes narrowing. Steve only shrugs in response. He doesn’t have an answer, he’s just dreaming, that’s all. Tony feels warm and solid in a way that dreams usually aren’t, and Steve remembers these moments with startling clarity when he wakes, but it’s still just a dream.
“I want to see you,” Steve says after a moment, when dream Tony refuses to budge. It doesn’t seem to be enough, because dream Tony continues to stare intently.
“I want to see you,” Steve says again, desperation hanging in his voice, “and I need you to be okay. God, Tony, I just -- I need you to wake up. Please.”
“I can’t,” Tony says flatly, “I would if I could, but I can’t. I’ve tried.”
Steve shudders. All this does is lend credence to his belief that the damage is permanent, that he’s actually pushed Tony over the edge, somewhere he can’t come back from.
“Please,” Steve whispers again as dream Tony dissolves in front of him.
He wakes up with streams of hot tears running down his face.
Steve tries to sleep more after that. It’s the only way he’ll see Tony, and he’s desperate for even the slightest bit of contact. Somewhere along the way, his subconscious works out that the lines between dreams, reality, and somewhere in between are nebulous and malleable, and that those states often bleed into one another.
But of course, when he actually tries to sleep, he can’t. He carries with him reams of tension and anxious energy that refuse to be burned away, no matter how far he runs, how hard he punches, how much of HYDRA he burns to the ground. They’re the enemy, even after all this time he’s still cleaning up from DC, but right now HYDRA is just an outlet, a lightning rod for all the rest of his anger and grief. If he can take a few of them out while dealing with what he’s feeling, that’s a win, right?
Up until it isn’t.
Sam and Natasha had been right -- of course they had. Somewhere along the way, he’d stopped holding himself accountable. He’ll still protect them with everything that he has, he’d never let harm come to anyone that he’d fought with, but he’s long since stopped showing himself the same courtesy. Recently he’s only managed to sleep in snatches, and even then he’s only dreamed once. Even as his eyes fell on Tony, Steve could feel that he wouldn’t be there long.
“I’m sorry,” Steve had blurted without preamble. “God, Tony, I’m so sorry. I wish I could take it back, and I can’t. Please, I’m begging you, you need to wake up. I l--” he hadn’t managed to finish his thought before he’d jolted awake.
The lack of sleep, the lack of restraint, the lack of thought regarding his own safety, it was only a matter of time before that caught up with him. A misstep, a slow call, and he goes down hard. He can see the exit as the building comes crashing down around him, but he’s not fast enough. Not this time. In his last conscious moment, two separate thoughts twine together in his mind.
Maybe he can finally see Tony again.
He deserves this.
“Something is different.” It’s the next thing Steve is aware of, and his heart leaps at the sound of Tony’s voice. Tony’s right, something is different. His hold on the dream is much more stable, more solid. It feels more like reality. In fact, the only reason Steve knows that it’s not reality is because he’s spent too much time dwelling on these brief encounters with Tony.
“You shouldn’t be here, not like this. What happened?” Tony’s voice is sharp and startling.
“Not sure,” Steve says automatically, then pauses. “That’s not right. Building collapsed. HYDRA base. Don’t think I made it out.”
“So we’re both here for a while,” Tony says with a half roll of his eyes. “Might as well make yourself comfortable.” He waves his hand at the open space around them, and Steve isn’t quite sure what to do. Right now, his body is trapped under rock and cement. Hundreds of miles away, Tony’s body is unconscious in the tower. Yet, here they both are, side by side, and when Steve reaches out to touch Tony, he feels as real and solid as he felt under Steve’s hands in Siberia. Steve quickly pulls his hands away and steps back. He has no right to touch Tony. His hands shouldn’t be anywhere near Tony, not after what they’d done. Tony flinches, but then steps closer.
“You know, I got used to seeing you around here,” Tony says casually. Steve isn’t sure how to respond. Time doesn’t really pass the same way here. “You were saying something before. What was it?”
Steve shakes his head, not sure that he can finish the thought. Of course, there is a chance that he’s being crushed to death, slowly bleeding out right now, and this might be the last moment he’ll ever have with Tony.
“You’re not,” Tony says, as if reading his mind. “Can’t tell you how I know, but you’re not. Sam and Nat are getting you out. You’ll recover.”
“But you might not,” Steve says so softly, he’s surprised that Tony can hear him. But Tony does hear, and shrugs in response, noncommittal.
“You put me here,” Tony says, matter-of-factly, without accusation or anger. Steve nods, shame flooding through him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this to happen.” Again, Steve feels the hot prickle of tears in the corners of his eyes, but Tony just shrugs.
“I wasn’t pulling my punches either. I was trying to kill Barnes, I know I was. And I’m not entirely convinced I wasn’t trying to put you out of commission, too, Cap.”
“But you didn’t,” Steve protested.
“’Cause you beat me to it. And it was two against one. Besides, I’m pretty sure that if you tried to kill Rhodey, I would have destroyed you,” Tony says.
Steve pauses. “Rhodey broke my face. When I tried to see you,” he says after a moment. Tony laughs in response, warm and genuine. Steve thinks it might be the most beautiful sound in the world. He wants to memorise it, to hold it close and cherish it in whatever little time they have left together.
“I can’t say you didn’t deserve it,” Tony says, catching his breath. Steve smiles, only for a moment, but it feels real.
“How can you forgive me?” Steve asks after another beat. Tony quickly raises his hands in defence.
“Didn’t say I forgive you, Cap. You and I both know we’re a long way from that.” Steve knows it’s true, and he feels his chest tighten in a wave of grief, that they might never get the time to move past. But he deserves this, his brain reminds him.
“You were saying something else, before. After the sorry,” Tony prods after the silence stretches between them. It’s Steve’s turn to shrug. He’s not sure he wants to say it now, but Tony is insistant. “Come on Cap, we’re stuck here together, you can at least give me this.”
The truth is, Steve isn’t quite sure how to say it. The simplest way doesn’t really convey the depth of what he’s feeling, and he’s all too aware that the words on his lips are contrary to his actions, and that Tony isn’t ever likely to believe them. Still. He might never have another chance.
“I love you,” Steve says simply. “I’ve always loved you. You drive me insane, have since the first day I’ve met you. You’re brash, you know how to get under my skin, but you’re kind, and you’re brilliant. It took me a long time to realise that I loved you, but I do. I fell head over heels for you on... on day one, when you went toe to toe with me, right up in my face without even considering the fact that I'm enhanced and you aren't. You wouldn't have stood a chance, and you still came at me, because you're brave and stubborn and magnificent.”
Tony looks at him with a mixture of relief, pain, uncertainty, resignation, acceptance. But not surprise. He’d known what Steve was going to say before he said it. Steve waits a beat, and then another, waiting for Tony to say something -- anything.
“Too bad shit’s so complicated right now,” Tony says at last, and Steve can’t help but agree. It is complicated, and it’s his fault. He thinks of Bucky, safe in Wakanda, waiting until they can break HYDRA’s hold. He stands by his choice to defend Bucky with everything that he had, but he hates that the price was so high, and he can’t find it in himself to blame Tony at all. Not after what they’d learned. Still, Steve mourns, and now after his confession he quietly grieves the loss of something that was never his to have.
Tony closes the distance between them, cups Steve’s jaw and runs a thumb across his cheek, across the bone that had long since knit itself back together. “I love you, too, you know,” Tony says, trying for casual and falling short. “But I don’t know how we even begin to come through all of... this.”
Steve doesn’t know, either. There’s so much baggage now, so many issues, so much betrayal, so much hurt. “I don’t know if it’s possible to come back from this,” Steve whispers, closing his eyes.
“We can try,” Tony says, leaning in to press the softest, gentlest kiss to Steve’s lips.
Tony pulls away, just far enough to speak, his words a soft breath against Steve’s skin.
“I think it’s time I wake up.”