Steve is sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea, and idly sketching, occasionally looking up to see if the numbers on the clock have changed. They have. It now reads 3:02am, but if feels like he's been sitting here for hours rather than ten minutes. One of the drawbacks to being a super soldier is that his body doesn't require as much sleep as it once did, and he often finds himself awake while the rest of the Tower is asleep.
If he stays in his bed he runs through memories of the war so he usually wanders around the Tower until he's tired enough to go back to sleep. He's already done an abbreviated workout down in the gym, showered, and changed into a new set of pajamas, but he's still wide awake so now he's hoping that drawing will relax him enough to go back to sleep.
The stove-top light is the only light in the kitchen which makes it difficult to see, but Steve likes the way it casts shadows on his paper, and he draws the stretched outline of the salt shaker and turns it into something else.
His quiet is disturbed when Tony stumbles into the kitchen. Tony's breathing heavy, there is sweat clinging to his skin, and there are angry red lines across his chest as if he'd been scratching at himself.
Tony doesn't notice Steve as he braces himself on the counter, his shoulders shaking as he tries to pull in even breaths, and Steve isn't sure how to alert Tony to his presence without frightening him.
"You look like you could use some tea," Steve says, wincing as Tony jumps and turns around, a hand pressed over his arc reactor. The room is darker without the blue light, and Steve stays still as he waits for Tony to realize that it's only Steve, that he isn't in danger.
"Shit," Tony says, dropping his hand. "What are you creeping around the dark for?"
"I've been sitting here for a while," Steve says. "So, did you want tea?"
Tony drags a hand down his face, and he looks more ragged than Steve's seen him in a long time. His eyes have sunk into the dark circles around them like a black hole drawing him into nothingness, and in the blue light of the arc reactor he looks haunted. Steve knows what it's like to be woken up by memories. He knows the panic as you come to, how your heart still thuds, too fast, as you realize that you're no longer on the battlefield. He knows the reluctance to close your eyes again, because you're afraid that you'll get pulled back into the dream.
Steve also knows that Tony will never admit to any of that.
"I'm not old. Or British," Tony snaps. "Or Charles Xavier."
Steve smiles. "What about Captain Picard? I'm sure we have some Earl Grey around here."
Tony's eyes narrow. "You're mocking me? Really?"
Steve shrugs. "I assumed you didn't want to be coddled, but if that's what you want, I can shift gears."
Tony throws the refrigerator door open so hard he almost rips the door off. Steve stays quiet as Tony rummages through the fridge for whatever it is he's looking for. He's getting better at reading Tony's mood, at knowing when to push, when to back off, how to trick Tony into giving up the answers he doesn't want to give.
Tony sits down next to Steve with a plastic container full of blueberries and a can of whipped cream. Steve sips his tea as Tony pours a liberal amount of whipped cream onto his spoon. He drops a few berries on top and then shoves the whole mess into his mouth. Steve lazily adds a few strokes to his drawing.
"Really? You're just going to sit there? What kind of leader are you?"
Steve lets his pencil rest on the table so he can give Tony his full attention. "You want me to talk to you?"
Tony scowls as he realizes he's been caught in a trap. "For the record, I hate you."
"For the record, I don't believe you."
Tony eats another spoonful of whipped cream and blueberries.
"I'm guessing you had nightmares again," Steve says and Tony refuses to meet his eyes. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Tony rolls his eyes. "Right. We all have terrible pasts so you know what it's like for me."
"No. I have no idea what's it's like for you. Have I been through hell? Yes. Do I have horrifyingly real nightmares? Yes. Are they exactly like yours? No."
"I'll tell you what they're like." Tony's hand curls into a fist around his spoon. "I can feel the grimy hand around my neck, his nails digging into my skin. I can hear his laugh, and I know he's laughing at what's coming next. I kick and I struggle, and I scream, but it does no good. It only makes him laugh harder. And then, when my mouth is open, when I'm begging, he shoves my head under and I breathe in water."
Tony's eyes are hard as they try to pierce the blank mask Steve's wearing. "Do you know what that's like? Do you know how water burns through your lungs? Do you know what it's like for your air to be cut off? To struggle but not be strong enough?
"The worst is that I know it's a dream, but I can't break out of it, because I'm still not strong enough. I have to watch it all play out, knowing what's going to happen, knowing that it's not real, but feeling it anyways. When I finally wake up, bathed in sweat, in the Tower I've built, I have to face that I'm still powerless even after all this time. That's what it's like to be inside my head."
Tony knocks the blueberries to the ground and they scatter across the floor. He looks like he's going to hit the bottle of whipped cream as well, but then he brings it up to his mouth and sprays it straight in.
Steve picks his pencil up again. He's careful to look disinterested, but he keeps an eye on Tony just in case things don't play out the way he thinks they will. He knows with Tony that he always has to be ready for the unexpected.
Tony runs a hand through his hair, making it stick up in even more directions. The whipped cream can clinks on the table, but Steve doesn't look up from his drawing. Tony's fingers curl around the edge of the table, because he's baring his soul here, and Steve can't even be bothered to pay attention.
"What? You're not going to say anything? Give me any sage advice? Tell me it will all get better?"
Steve's smile is sad as he looks at Tony. "It doesn't get better, not completely."
Tony drops his head into his hands and tugs on his hair, because he knows that. If it got better he wouldn't still be having nightmares. It's been years and he can't shake the memories, can't shake the fear. It's gotten better, he doesn't have them every night, but he has them often enough that he can't forget.
"Can't you lie to me or something?"
Steve reaches out a tentative hand and brushes his fingers over Tony's wrist. "I respect you too much for that, but I can be here for you when you need me. I can remind you that they're only memories."
Tony drops his hands from his face, letting Steve seen the vulnerability in his eyes. "It won't stop the dreams."
"No," Steve says, and his chest aches because he wishes he could do that. He wishes he could make the pain and the fear go away. He would even take Tony's nightmares and make them his own if it would help Tony sleep better. The man gets little enough rest as it is between everything everyone is demanding of him. He's saving the world, working on clean energy, occasionally inventing weapons when Fury is desperate. It's too much for one person, but there isn't anyone else who can do it.
"Bruce needs to invent a dreamless sleep pill," Tony says, rubbing his eyes. "Why doesn't anyone have him working on that?" He pours some more whipped cream into his mouth. "I need to sleep. Damn it, Cap, I need to sleep!"
Tony slams his palms down on the table, rattling the salt and pepper shakers. He looks like he's going to burst into tears. "But I can't, because the minute I close my eyes, it will start up again. I can't watch Yinsen die. Not tonight. I need coffee."
Tony gets up, and Steve intercepts him before he can reach the coffee machine. Tony's eyes narrow at the obstruction, but Steve stands his ground.
"Why don't we lie down," Steve says. "We can go to the living room, put on a movie. You don't have to sleep, but the caffeine will mess with you."
It's a sign of how utterly exhausted Tony is that he doesn't protest. He lets Steve lead him out of the kitchen and into the living room. His personality flares back up again as Steve lies down on the couch and motions for Tony to lie down on top of him.
"Ah, I see," Tony says. "This is all an excuse to feel me up."
"You know me," Steve says. "I'm all about taking advantage of people."
"I knew you couldn't be good all the time." Tony lies down anyways, his head resting on Steve's chest. "What movie are we watching?"
"Anything you want," Steve says, handing him the remote. It's dangerous, giving Tony that kind of power, but Steve knows he'll be asleep soon, and Steve will be able to turn it off so he wraps an arm around Tony, holding him close, hoping that this will be enough to protect him from his nightmares.
"You must really feel bad for me," Tony mumbles, his breath warm as it seeps through Steve's shirt. Sometimes, silence is the best response to Tony so Steve keeps quiet and waits for Tony to pick his movie.
It doesn't take long for Tony to fall asleep. He barely makes it through the opening credits, and Steve mutes the TV. He lets the flashing pictures give some light to the room and leans his head back against the arm rest. Tony is a warm reassurance, and Steve holds him tighter. His free hand cards through Tony's hair, touching him in ways he wouldn't dare if Tony was awake.
Steve knows that Tony believes that he needs to do everything on his own, that he needs to push away people that offer to help, because accepting help is sign of weakness. Steve also knows that Tony isn't always right; though he'll never say that to Tony's face.
Steve knows that in the morning Tony will crack a joke as he climbs off of Steve, and he'll go into the kitchen to make coffee and then disappear with the full pot to his lab. He won't acknowledge tonight, his weakness, the time spent on the couch, but Steve doesn't expect him to. Tony will pretend that everything is fine until it isn't, and then Steve will find him and hold him until Tony's strong enough to pretend again.