Freezing, icy air slid along his skin, seeping through his layers of clothing, enough to bite down on his bones. It surrounded him, piercing his rib cage and tangling around his lungs, and he struggled against the weight of it, but it was too much. Far too much to try.
It crushed him.
The coldness wrapped around his body as if it were tentacles of vines, spiked with thorns, and the pain—a physical and emotional mixture—was unbearable; his chest felt like it would concave on itself, his breath released in short, harsh pants, straining to fight for the little bit of oxygen left within the atmosphere, despite knowing it would do nothing. It was a battle he wouldn't conquer. A fight he would not win. A struggle he'd be defeated in.
And even when his eyes snapped open in realisation it had been a dream, a cold sweat slicking his back and uncontrollable shudders whipping, mercilessly, up his spine, it felt like he was still freezing. Dying.
Because that was what it was to him.
Crashing the jet was ultimately his death, but though he'd survived from the effects of the serum, he'd still died in a way. He'd died to those who'd known him. Peggy, Howard, the Howling Commandos he'd not only had the privilege of serving with, but solely knowing them as people. The moment he'd crashed, they assumed him dead. For seventy years, he was.
Sure, he was physically alive, all flesh and blood flowing through his veins, as fit as ever, but a part inside of him felt as though it was still frozen in the depths of that dark, endless abyss.
Sighing heavily, he glanced at the clock: 3:05am. Great. He'd never been able to sleep well since being dug up; an oddity, to be so unfamiliar to the modern world that he found it impossible to sleep for more than four hours. Well, for the first few months, until he'd managed to make a whole eight hours when with Tony—
Wait. Where was he?
Tony wasn't next to him, in his usual place of pressed up against Steve's back. His sheets were thrown back, rumpled, and strangely cold. This was an uncommon thing—from what he knew, as he'd usually sleep through any movements or sound—but during the times he had woken to an empty bed, he felt a tight clench in his chest.
And now that he'd found himself alone again, he needed to change it.
Steve found him in the workshop, of course.
Hunched over his desk, dressed in grey, pyjama bottoms and nothing else—his bare back rippling and bunching with muscle as he worked, which Steve stared at a bit longer than intended—and had some sort of tool in one hand, his other fisted tightly, and it was clear he brimmed with tension.
He'd taken one step forward before Tony spoke, his voice oddly quiet and husky, but held the tinge of snide Steve was always used to, "I know I'm one to look at, but please, Cap, you're making me blush."
Ignoring him with a roll of his eyes, Steve crossed the distance between them, laying a hand on Tony's shoulder; it was knotted with built-up stress. "What're you doing up?"
"I could ask you the same question."
He gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I asked first."
"I asked second," he countered, but it didn't make either back down. It was a frequent avoidance from both—bickering, skirting around what they really wanted to say—all because they'd not approached this issue before. And yet, what Steve heard next, caused an almost stand still of time. "I heard you shouting."
Did he mean... "When?"
"An hour ago. You were sleeping, well, dreaming."
He felt a brief twinge of pain in his chest, so momentary, that it felt nonexistent. "Is that why you came down here? To get away?"
Finally, after what felt like eternity, Tony looked up. "No, of course not. You just happened to start once I'd gotten down here," to which he added in a much lower voice, "besides, I've slept through it before."
"What?" Steve blinked several times. "If you've—why didn't you wake me up?"
"You're not supposed to wake a person up when they're having a nightmare... or is that sleepwalkers? I've never really known the answer to—"
He drew in a long breath, shrugging, "What do you want me to say, Rogers?"
And then he laughed, a fleeting, bark of laughter that was so mirthless and tinted with what only Steve could pin as pain, fell from his lips. "That's the last thing you want to hear, or anyone would want to hear, for that matter."
"What I want to hear is for me to decide." Absently, Steve's fingers thread through Tony's hair, fiddling with the strands at the base of his neck. "The same goes for what you want to tell me is for you to decide." His thumb stroked over the tender spot behind his ear. "But you know you can tell me anything, right?"
A weary sigh. "Yeah."
"Then don't hold back, Tony."
He shook his head. "I, I don't know if I can tell you."
Ah, another matter they'd not yet broached: Tony's reluctance to share his personal issues.
It had been this way since the very start of their relationship. Whenever Steve showed the slightest sign of concern, Tony would worm his way out of it, change the subject as quickly as possible, or wouldn't answer at all. Any chance to hide his feelings, he took it.
Not that Steve disrespected his decision to do so. He'd known Tony was a private, complicated man, who was attached to his pride, and so opening up to anyone would take patience before he entrusted them. It took five months, after they'd started dating, until Tony crossed the line with Steve—even when he insisted he could wait—yet Tony gradually exposed parts of himself, as fast or as slow as he wanted.
Which was the reason Steve asked carefully, "Why?"
"No, really, can I tell you? I mean, I'm sleep-deprived, got a dry throat, not to mention all that extra baggage, really, lot of stuff going on, so, you know, it's probably best to just scrap the idea altogether. Don't know why this was brought up in the first place." He checked his watch. "Is that the time? It was really nice having this pillow talk, minus the pillows, but I am way too tired, so g'night Cap, see you in the morning."
Before Tony could brush past, Steve held a hand to his chest, holding him back. "Tony..."
The look he gave Steve was painful; it ripped through his chest like a hot knife.
He'd only seen it few times—a brief look of what could only be a sense of being lost—would flicker across his features, and it would always cause the same twist of agony throughout Steve's being.
The first was from the death of Phil, when they'd gathered around the table, the bloodied cards splattering against the glass. In that drawn, tense silence, Tony had stood without a word and left the room, never to be seen until later that day. And Steve had caught the look, even when Tony tried to hide it; he saw it.
His second had been during one of his panic attacks. One moment he'd been working over prototypes for a new suit, and the next, he'd collapsed from his chair, wheezing and clutching at anything within reach. It was Steve who'd found him, panting heavily, laid out across the floor, and it was he who comforted Tony—which, evidently, led to the beginning of their relationship—wrapped an arm around his shoulders as Tony rocked back and forth, his eyes scrunched shut.
The look continued over the panic attacks, and was the last time Steve had seen it.
And now, here it was again. What made it hurt even more was because they were the reason for this time, or even worse, Steve was the reason.
Tony smacked his lips together. "I tell you and you'll think of me as a failure, or alternatively, think it so insensitive you'll want to leave."
"In fact, to save the both of us the trouble, I'll let you go now—"
Exhausted by his rambling already, Steve hushed him with a hard, bruising kiss to his mouth; thankfully, Tony responded, one of his hands tangling in the blonde's hair, the other closed around his white shirt in a tight fist, and he moaned, so quietly it was barely heard, but it vibrated against their mouths.
Steve couldn't tell how long it went on for, but he didn't care. Lifting the smaller man into his arms, he guided them back to the couch, falling down onto it with Tony straddling his lap. It was a heady, passionate kiss, with a blend of biting and stroking tongues, gripping hips and leaving purple bite marks on flesh, and even now, after the hundreds of kisses they'd shared, it still felt like the first.
Eventually, as the air grew thin between them, they broke away.
Steve ran his hands up Tony's chest, cupping his reddened cheeks. "You know I'd never run away from you." His thumbs stroked over the rough stubble prickling his jaw, a small smile briefly lighting up his face. "I promised you that once you dragged me into your life."
"As I recall, you were willing."
His chest loosened slightly. "Well, you were very convincing." Pressing a kiss to his temple, he murmured, "There's no rush to tell me, but I don't like when we keep things from each other. I want to help."
"It's way past the deadline of helping."
Shrugging, "Worth a try, if you'll let me."
A few moments passed, and after a patient and thoughtful pause, Tony nodded. "Okay... okay, but you won't run down those stairs once I've told you, will you?"
"No," he said. "I'll take the window instead. Faster escape and I can make the distance—oh, I'm kidding, Tony!"
"Any more jokes and I'll fling you out the window myself," he mumbled, tautly, before sucking in a breath. "Right, okay...I...I never woke you up all those times because I don't know how to... deal with it, you know? I don't know how to cope with my own nightmares—let alone yours—and so if I tried, I'd make everything worse."
Steve frowned. "That's why you never woke me up?"
"Well, to tell the truth, it's why I think I don't deserve you." He shook his head. "Not just the nightmares, but everything else."
"I've no idea what you're talking about, Tony—how long have you felt this way?"
Tony shifted uncomfortably on his feet, looking away. "I don't know, a few months? Ever since we started dating? I'm not good for you, Steve. I'm a mess. I drink. I look for trouble. I—we don't even spend time together anymore, and that's my fault! I can't keep doing this to you. One day, I'll go overboard, and fuck everything up." His hands clenched. "Hell, I've already started to fuck up, haven't I? I can't even console you over your nightmares—"
"Then speak to me about it now."
Sighing, he repeated, "Let's talk about it now."
"Our nightmares, or just yours?"
"Whatever you're comfortable with." He leant down and kissed Tony, softly. "I trust you."
And he meant it. Tony was probably the one person he'd come to trust fully, with his secrets, problems, heart, as unlikely as it sounded to anyone else's ears—infused together by a mutual faith in each other, which neither had ever expected—and yet it still made Steve trust him with everything he possessed.
Again, they lapsed into silence, and Steve didn't question it any further, or broke that quiet level of the atmosphere. He allowed it to happen. He could almost hear Tony's mind working furiously, if the furrow in his brow was anything to go by. It was always like this, and in the beginning, Steve didn't know how to deal with it. Should he leave? Or try and think of something to say? Over the times this progressed, he learnt to remain quiet, and wait for Tony to speak.
So he did just what he'd taught himself, even as five minutes ticked by.
"It's...it's about when I was captured." His voice returned to that low, quiet tone. Steve chose to not speak, in case he said the wrong thing. "Not so much the actually getting taken, or being held captive in a cave... but it was Yinsen."
Steve had heard it in passing from Pepper, accidently eavesdropping one night, which once he'd understood just what she was referring to, he'd slipped away out of the respect of Tony's privacy.
"Yeah," he replied distantly. "The Professor."
"Do you wanna stop there?"
"No, no." Tony shook his head, tapping a single finger to his arc-reactor—as if he didn't realise he was doing it. "I—no, I need to say more, it—I don't know, it still feels heavy, weighing me down."
Cautiously, Steve leant forward and brushed his lips over Tony's forehead, whispering, "Take your time." Another kiss. "I'm listening."
He took several measuring breaths, each long and done to ease his rapid heartbeat which Steve could feel against his chest; it reminded him of his own struggles to breathe when talking, or even speaking, about what went on during the night.
"We'd planned to escape together, so he could see his family," Tony said eventually. "But we needed more time, a distraction."
Almost immediately Steve had a feeling as to where this was going.
Tony shook his head, eyebrows drawn together as he recalled the memories. "Yinsen was the distraction... he bought me the time to get into the suit... but I found him on the floor, shot in several places over his chest." His throat bobbed over a thick swallow. "He... he told me he'd reunite with his family. His family were dead, Steve."
"I'm sorry, Tony."
"He sacrificed his life to save mine." He scrubbed a hand over his face, frustrated. "He told me not to waste my life."
It was a while before Steve said anything, to let him absorb everything that had been said; he'd known of what happened to Yinsen, but he'd had no idea how much it affected Tony. "And you haven't wasted it."
An answering snort. "That's debatable."
"You haven't." He kissed him for the hundredth time, lingering with a drag of his teeth. "What happened in those three months—it made you who you are today."
"A man with a hole in his chest with anxiety issues? Yeah, it was a good change."
Running his hands through Tony's hair, he smiled. "It's made you a better man."
"Always the sap." He made to scoot off Steve's lap. "So, are we done here? I mean, I'm sort of okay that we had this slumber party, but confessions aren't really my thing—"
"What about me?" Steve asked, unsurprised with his evasion of the topic. "Wouldn't it be fair for me to return the favour?"
He shifted on his lap. "You don't have to—"
"I want to." With permission, he continued, "They're always the same. Of the crash. I swear, just as I hit the ice, I was still conscious. The cold, the flashbacks of everyone I'd grown to love, and the drifting off, all hit me at once." He let out a low breath, but it felt as if he'd released all the air in his system. "It repeats. Every night. Ever since I woke up."
Tony didn't speak, but only stared, his mouth slightly parted. "That's...just...I don't know what to say besides you win."
He wasn't offended by the comment, and chuckled quietly, his thumb running over Tony's bottom lip. "It's not a competition." His head titled to the side in thought. "I wanted to share this so you'd understand you're not alone."
"If I had a dollar for every time you've said that to me, I'll need to start giving my money away."
Shaking his head, he repeated in a hopeful tone, "Do you understand?"
His mouth quirked up. "I'm starting to."
"I'm glad." Belting his arms around Tony's back, Steve pulled him into a tight embrace, nuzzling the crook of his neck. "Okay to go to bed now? I missed you."
"I missed you, too," he returned easily, but then sighed. "I—I'm sorry for what I did wrong, you know, sneaking off and then avoiding the thing I've avoided for the most of our relationship, not good with all the sentiments really, so, yeah, sorry about that."
Without a beat, Steve grabbed him by the shoulders, and shook him slightly; it didn't make Tony look up, so he gently pinched his chin, forcing eye contact. "Listen to me: you have not done anything wrong. You never have."
"Steve, seriously, you don't need to pretend—"
"I'm not pretending," he persisted. "Look, you might be intolerable at times, and a pain in my ass—"
"Thanks for softening the blow—"
He ignored him, "But you're a good man, Tony. And I love you for that, okay? I love you. I love you and that's all that matters."
To this day, Steve knew he would never regret this first utterance of love, because he meant it with every fibre of his soul; the words flowed so effortlessly from his mouth that it was as if he didn't even feel them leave, and when he caught the light in Tony's eyes, his chest warmed and swelled with deep devotion.
He smiled, so wide it stretched his cheeks until it hurt. "I love you."
Again and again he'd say it, but he didn't want to push it—or scare Tony away—even though he'd been bursting to say the three words for months now.
"I..." Tony's eyes searched his, before he found Steve's hand and linked it with his. "I love you, too."
Just like that, like a click of fingers, all the darkness within their dreams evaporated between them. It would return, of course, but for those few moments, they were alone in the comfort of each other, and that was all they needed.
And as they vacated to their bed, in a twist of arms and legs, they realised that they'd never been alone.
That they'd finally found their light.