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Ephemera

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Steve Rogers awoke with his heart pounding out of his chest.

He gasped in the darkness; covers clenched in white-knuckled fists. Sweat soaking the sheets beneath his back. Like dreams were wont to, this one was escaping him already. Slipping between his fingers.

He thrust his arm out, frantically grasping at the other side of the bed. His breath quickened when his fingers found nothing.

That wasn’t unusual. Tony was probably out flying, or in the lab working, or…

Dead.

Steve sat up, struggling to keep the panic in check. He’d had a nightmare, that was all. The finer details evaded him, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t real.

It couldn’t be.

He stumbled out of bed, one leg tangled in the sheets. He damn near tripped over them before he was able to free himself.

"JARVIS?” Steve questioned, voice cracking half-way through the word.

The AI didn’t answer.

He snatched his phone from the bedside table, scrolling through the contacts. Zeroing in on one name.

The phone rang once. Twice. His fingers slipped off the screen, sweaty and frantic.

“Come on, pick up. Pick up…”

Click.

‘You’ve reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark…’

Steve slammed his phone down on the bed covers. Voicemail.

Okay. There was a perfectly rational explanation for all of this. Tony never paid any attention to his phone while he was in the lab, unless it was a call to assemble. And he was down in the lab, working. On one of his late night inventing binges. There was nothing unusual going on here. Nothing at all.

He was fine.

Steve would go down to the lab, and Tony would be there, with bleary eyes and a blinding smile. And Steve would kiss him. Coax him up, and into bed, and Steve’s arms, where he most certainly wouldn’t be dead.

Steve stumbled out of the room, making his way to the elevator at a brisk walk he desperately wanted to be a run. He punched the button for the floor he needed. A little too forcefully. Enough that the metal bent under his finger. The journey there was a blur, and when he finally reached the lab, the normally opaque windows were blacked out.

Once again, he called for JARVIS.

Again, there was no response.

Steve forced himself to take a calming breath. Rubbed a hand over his face. Okay. This was still okay. JARVIS was offline, that was all. He wasn’t sure why, but Tony could explain when he saw him.

He was in the lab, working late. On an inventing binge.

He was fine.

“Tony?” Steve implored, words tinged with hysteria.

Silence.

Terror seized within his chest. Gripped Steve tight, and wouldn’t let go.

“Tony. Let me in.” His voice broke. “Please.”

Nothing.

He fumbled for the touch display next to the door, perilously close to hysterics. Tony just couldn’t hear him. He was blaring his music, like always. Helped him focus, he said.

Steve’s fingers were shaking so badly, it took him a few tries to pull up the number pad. When he’d finally succeeded, he punched in his override code, with a pang of guilt. He’d promised Tony he wouldn’t use his override unless the situation was dire, and it wasn’t. Tony was fine.

Fine, with a capital ‘F.’

When the doors slid open, Tony was there, though he didn’t notice Steve at first. He was humming along to his music. Tapping his foot in time with the beat. Tinkering with some contraption or another that Steve couldn’t name and didn’t want to. That wasn’t the point, anyway.

Tony had safety goggles on. His hair was sticking up in a few places. There was a smear of grease on his forehead, and another coloring his cheekbone. One hand was moving a million miles a minute on the holographic display, typing out data, the other fiddling with a bit of wiring, and his eyes were bright. Almost manic with energy.   

Steve’s heart ached with affection. His vision blurred, and he hid his face in his hands.

Oh, God. Thank God.

Tony looked up just as Steve took a shambling step forward. His lover’s face lit up, eyes sparkling with warmth, and he paused the music with a wave of his hand.

“Excuse me. Who invited you?” Tony turned toward him, pushing the safety goggles up his forehead. “Intruder alert! I feel threatened.”

Steve couldn’t bring himself to speak. He surged forward, gathering him into his arms like a man possessed.

“Steve?” Tony stilled. He pulled back far enough to get a closer look at his face.

"Let me hold you." Steve shuddered, trembling with emotion. Tension bleeding out of him, his relief was so great. He tugged Tony back into his arms, needing to feel the billionaire’s warm, soft, live flesh, pressed against his. “Please?”

Tony’s voice was soft, perplexed. “Sure. I’m yours to hold. That was the deal.”

Normally, Steve would snark back. Tony would respond in kind, and they’d continue that way until one of them dissolved into giggles, or something a little more…heated. But he couldn’t bring himself to make light of anything. Not now. He choked on a sob.

“Whoa. Hey.” Tony held him close. He was clearly confused, rubbing slow, soothing circles into Steve’s back. Almost hesitantly, as if he wasn’t sure he was doing it right. “Okay. You’re okay, tough guy.”

Steve had lived through World War II. Faced down the Red Skull, and scores of others. Stared death in the face more times than he could count. He knew what it was to stand his ground. To be afraid. To carry on, when all you wanted was to lie down and die.

Steve could live without Tony. If he had to. That was what people did. Moved on. Lived life, even if they left pieces of themselves behind along the way. But losing him would be like carrying on in a half-remembered world. Like drawing air into lungs that could hardly remember breathing. Losing Tony would make him a different man. A shadow of the man who’d fallen in love with a pair of dark eyes that held the universe in them.

Yes. Steve could live without Tony.

But God, he hoped he’d never have to.

Tony petted his hair. “Steve, what’s going on? Seriously, where’s the fire? Who died?”

A dark, humorless laugh exploded from Steve’s lips.

“Oh my God, I was kidding. How did somebody die? I wasn’t even down here that long.” Tony tore off his goggles, tossing them on a table as he started for the door. “Are we under attack? Is it Doom again? It’s Doom again, isn’t it? What did he do, break Manhattan? Did he actually kill someone, because I swear, I’ll fucking- “

“No.” Steve took both of his hands in his. “Nobody’s killing anyone.”

“Then why do you look like somebody shot your puppy?” Tony questioned, narrowing his eyes. He seemed to take in Steve’s appearance for the first time, and he imagined he must look a sight. Hair mussed. Eyes wild. Clad only in sleep pants and an old t-shirt.

“Oh.” Tony’s face softened. “Oh, Jesus fuck, I’m an idiot. Come here.” He gathered Steve into his arms. “Come here, sweetheart.”

Steve went willingly, burying his face in the side of his lover’s neck.

“It was a dream,” he choked. The lump lodged in his throat rose up to choke him. “Just a dream. I know that. I just…”

“Shh...” Tony rubbed his back.

“I thought I’d lost you.” His eyes burned. The tears he’d been holding back through sheer force of will escaped, soaking into Tony’s shirt. 

“You're not gonna lose me.” Tony coaxed Steve's head up. Kissed each tear-stained cheek. “They want me? They're gonna have to work for it.”

Steve huffed. “Yeah. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Tony scoffed. “I think I’m insulted. You don’t seriously believe I’m that easy to kill, do you? A thousand grim reapers would have to ambush me. A million. With pitch forks and torches. They can’t afford me.”

Steve released a watery chuckle.

“Here.” Tony captured Steve’s hand in both of his. Pressed it palm open, straight over his heart. “You feel that? I’m not going anywhere. I don’t have time to die. You see all this work I’ve gotta do?” He gestured behind him toward his workstations, with a flourish.

Steve wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist; dropped his head onto his chest. It was easier to hear his heartbeat that way. And his lover hushed him. Carded his fingers through his hair, and held him close.

In their line of work, the reapers wore capes. Earned a reputation as super villains. And Steve knew every one of them would line up to see the man he loved burn. He knew that one day, they might succeed.

But not here.

Not tonight.