Epilogue

The 1 was an easy enough fix.

With Tony sleeping next to him, Steve was able to go to sleep before 11:11, and sleep long after 1:11. He would always be an early riser, but when they slept together they were both able to get more than a few hours sleep. When Steve woke up, he would always have that brief spike of panic-same as every time he opened the freezer, the cold triggering something he couldn't quite let go of-but it lasted no more than a second, brushed away by Tony's skin against his, Tony's steady breathing in his arms. Tony's presence, even asleep, was enough to weigh Steve down, anchor him to the here and now.

9 was the hardest; it took the longest, and it was many years before Steve was able to truly stop.

They tried, in the beginning; tried doing only 8, tried doing only once, even briefly tried not at all, just to see if by not starting Steve wouldn't feel compelled. Whatever they did, it didn't work. The numbers just screamed and screamed, echoing in Steve's head until Tony just kissed him and told him to go brush his teeth again. Tony was always the one to give in, to tell Steve to just listen when the numbers pushed too hard.

There's no rush, he always said. Maybe it'll work tomorrow. Maybe it won't. Maybe it'll work in fifty years, maybe never at all. It doesn't need to. I don't like watching you in pain if there's a solution.

That's not a solution, Steve always countered bitterly, That's giving in.

When you're able to stop, you will. I have faith in you, Steve.

Tony always seemed to. Eventually, years later, Steve did. He never did learn why, why in that moment he was suddenly able to. All he knew was that he'd gone to the sink, brushed his teeth once, heard Tony's first reason of that night-nothing particularly special, something about how atrocious he was at board games-and just…hadn't felt the need. He'd paused there a long time, waiting for the numbers to rush in his ears, urge him forward…nothing. They stood at the sink maybe five minutes before Tony came up behind him, pulling Steve into his arms.

Told you.

And…if they come back?

Then they come back. It's nothing we can't handle-together.

Tony had pulled him to their bed, listing his other eight reasons between kisses. Steve had half-heartedly told Tony he didn't have to keep listing reasons anymore, but Tony had only snorted and told him the fact Steve believed he would ever stop was just another reason to love him.

The morning 4 never actually went away.

They were, however, able to make a substitute. Tony had already been disrupting Steve's morning runs for almost two months, but the disruption only put the numbers off, didn't actually stop them. It was Tony that came up with a solution-44. Instead of running for 4 hours, Steve ran for 44 minutes, a much easier thing to fit into their mornings. Steve really did like to run when the numbers weren't breathing down his neck, and with Tony flying next to him, chatting away, he never heard so much as a peep.

The nightly 4 took longer.

Each night between changing, Tony pulled him in, just like that first night together, kissed him quick, murmuring that phrase, still love you. Steve asked about it, once, maybe a week after they'd begun dating.

Still love you, Tony smiled against his lips, the final time that night.

Not that I'm objecting, but…why do you say that?

Tony paused a long moment, looking at Steve as if debating whether or not to say something. Eventually, he did.

You always look so ashamed of yourself. You look back at me when you finish changing like I'm…like I'm going to be disgusted by it, or bored of you. You give me this look like you're worried things have changed and they haven't. They're not going to; I still love you.

Over the first year or so of their relationship, they managed to whittle it down; first only 3 times a night, then 2, until finally, just the once. Though he'd stopped having to change 4 times a night, every so often, Tony would murmur to him sometime between sex and sleep, still love you, you know, and Steve would pull him closer, drowsily replying, always.

The 2 they never really concerned themselves with.

Over time it sort of went away on it's own, becoming less routine and more of a comforting little tick that Steve was able to ignore when he didn't have time for it, and rely on when he needed something to soothe him. When Tony was away on business, or that god awful time Tony had been in the hospital for nearly a month, Steve took to tapping against the lock.

1. 9. 4. Lock. 1. 9. 4. Unlock. 1. 9. 4. Lock.

It wasn't really good and it wasn't necessarily bad, but it made missing Tony a little more bearable so Steve didn't mention it and he didn't try to stop.

They had their setbacks, of course. Tony had vicious nightmares of his time in Afghanistan, had been having them for months before the Avengers even came together; it had been the reason he'd been up that night he'd caught Steve in his compulsions. They were mostly chased away by sleeping with Steve, but every once in a while they reared their heads. Tony would wake up screaming and sweating and thrashing violently, and Steve would hold him like Tony always held him, whispering reassurances and promises of safety and protection and love until Tony's panicked squirming subsided and he was able to calm down.

Steve still had panic attacks every once in a while, sometimes out of the blue; numbers they thought they'd beaten would resurface. Years, even decades later, every once in a while Steve would be going about the morning or night and suddenly, without even realizing it, start to go through the motions. The hideous shame that came with it would rise, but Tony never said a word. If Steve had a day where he needed his routines, Tony just went along with him, never questioning what had set him back unless Steve wanted to talk about it.

Of course, their lives being what they were, every once in a while, a supervillain attack managed to interrupt a routine. They learned that Steve was able to get into a strange, focused sort of headspace then, able to focus long enough to defeat the threat at hand. He wasn't very talkative, just enough to deliver orders, and his physical strength actually increased, something to do with adrenaline.

The result of this headspace, however, was messy. As soon as the immediate danger was gone, Steve was a wreck, confused and panicked and destructive. Only Tony could calm him down, but even then it took time. Patience was something Tony never seemed to run out of, but the time it took to calm Steve down was time Tony was in danger.

Though he did everything in his power not to, Steve did hit Tony again. The third time wasn't good-it would never be good-but it was just a slight bruising on Tony's arm, and nothing compared to the second time.

The second time was maybe a month after they'd begun their relationship. He was coming down from the headspace, and he snapped Tony's wrist fighting him off when Tony thought Steve's silence meant he'd calmed and he hadn't. The moment Steve realized what he'd done, he fell silent. Tony was talking a million miles an hour, mostly to reassure Steve he didn't care, he was never going to care, it was worth it, et cetera et cetera, but Steve knew part of Tony's speed-talking was out of pain, and that cut Steve to the bone.

He didn't say a word, just took Tony by the other arm and hauled him down to Bruce's workshop.

His wrist, Steve informed Bruce in a clipped tone, My fault.

Then, he turned to Tony.

I need to be alone right now.

Tony had looked at him then, and for a long moment Steve thought Tony would say no. Steve was going to leave either way, but he needed this. He needed to know that Tony could be okay with that, that Tony wouldn't try and come after him. That Tony would be still be there for him when he came back. As always, Tony knew what Steve needed to hear.

Still love you.

It was the same thing he whispered to Steve every night when he made his rounds, changing between pajamas and clothes. It was a new routine, their routine, and Steve was going to miss it like a body part.

But he needed to go.

He left on his bike not ten minutes later, unsure where he was going but knowing that he needed to be away from Tony to think. He drove almost all day and stayed the nights in motels. He never stayed still, never long enough in one place to get even the barest of impressions before taking off again. He spent his time thinking about Tony, about their relationship. The danger he posed to Tony was very, very real, he knew that. At the same time, they all took risks with their lives for things they deemed worth it.

Clint jumped off buildings on a regular basis to take the shot he needed to take, because he had faith Thor or Tony would swoop in to catch him. Natasha dove into heavy fire more than once, knowing Steve would be there with his shield should anything stray too close. Bruce trusted them all to keep him on the right side of the hero/beast line, and to protect him when he changed back.

They made their choices, and they lived with them.

He needed to believe in Tony, to trust his decision. They all took risks with their lives every day, and it was Tony's choice to take this one. Steve would do everything in his power to protect Tony, from both the supervillain of the week and from himself, but he wouldn't doubt Tony's decision to put himself on the line for what he believed was worth it.

Steve returned to Avengers Tower, to Tony, little more than a week later. Tony's wrist was in a cast, and the look of pure relief on his face told Steve he'd made the right choice. Tony didn't say anything, shyly, adorably unsure of what decision Steve had made. Steve crossed the room the blink of an eye, pulling Tony into an abrupt, needy kiss.

Does that mea-?

Yes.

They told the other Avengers the extent of Steve's condition that afternoon. Not the details, but the scope of the problem. Coulson held a briefing a week later about how react to panic attacks-don't touch, talk in a soothing tone, etc etc. Halfway through Tony hacked the powerpoint to display a picture of his face and the words 'don't even try, just go get Tony', for which Steve gave him a half-hearted glare. That night, one of Tony's nine reasons was the way Steve glared when he knew Tony was right.

Though over the decades Steve's symptoms faded away, Tony never did stop giving him reasons.

Sometimes, it was silly little things, minor details no one else would even blink at. Tony couldn't remember a birthday or an anniversary to save his life-even major holidays could be hit and miss-but there wasn't a single detail about Steve too minor to escape Tony's attention.

"The intense, far-off look you get when you're really into a sketch."

"That you know my favorite coffee mug."

"Your ridiculous love of list-making."

"The way you write your 'q's all squiggly."

"That you actually walk little old ladies across the street."

"The wide-eyed look you still get when you walk into superstores."

Sometimes it was funny things, moments they'd shared over the years that Tony held close, shared jokes and random adventures Tony used to get a laugh from him when things were a little too serious.

"You know all the right times to nod when I'm babbling."

"Your Captain America voice; hello."

"The look on your face that time I asked if you wanted to get fondue."

"The fact that the symbol of America doesn't like apple pie."

"How deliciously awful you are at strip poker."

"That face you make when supervillains dare to interrupt team bonding time."

And then sometimes, Tony was simple.

"You stay when you have every reason to leave."

"You bring out my best when I'm at my worst."

"The ease with which you read my mind."

"The way you look at me."

"You're my best friend."

"You're you."

Tony whispered the last as his ninth reason on their wedding night, pressing kisses to the back of Steve's neck. Steve had been embarrassed, ashamed that even on their wedding night he had still been unable to let go of his routine. Yet, with two gentle, loving words, so clearly a reason saved for a special moment, Tony did as Tony does best; he wiped Steve's shame clean away, turning a humiliating routine into one of Steve's most precious memories.

Steve reflected once, decades later, after his compulsions had faded but Tony's whisper-soft promises of reasons to love him had not, that in all their years and all his many reasons, Tony had never once mentioned Steve's appearance as a cause.

No because you're so sexy, no because you've got abs of steel, no because I look at you and want to drool. Tony had told him all the above and plenty more a thousand times, of course, but never then, never in his nine nightly reasons. To Tony's mind, Steve knew, those weren't reasons. They were benefits, but they weren't why Tony loved him. And Steve found himself thinking then, that for all the varied reasons Tony seemed to think he loved Steve more than anything, Steve knew without question that Tony was wrong.

Because Steve loved Tony like a drowning man loved air; fiercely, instinctively, with a desire that filled his very being. Tony had saved him that day on the stairs, and Tony had saved him every day since.

And for that, Steve knew in his bones, he would always love Tony so much more.