Steve wakes up.
The sense of deja vu is overwhelming, but when he tries to move his limbs refuse to obey. Everything is bright and sharp, and his eyes drift shut of their own volition. He tries to remember what happened; there must have been a fight. Who was their last villain? Zola, Steve thinks. Zola turned into a half-robotic monstrosity, to better complement the monster he'd been all along. Steve doesn't remember the fight itself.
He's aching, bone-weary, more than he'd been after sleeping for seventy years. He doesn't hurt; he's just so damn tired.
Despite his best efforts not to, he blacks out again.
He wakes up, and the room is still too bright. This time, Steve can feel all the ways his body is protesting this new development. His shoulders are stiff, legs half-asleep, throat parched. His head is killing him. It's hard to focus on more than one thing at a time, slowly, as if he's thinking through a thick fog. Everything, everything is slow.
Steve manages to turn his head, and there's —
'Welcome back, Lieutenant Rogers,' says Peggy. She smiles, so proud and happy, and she's wearing a white coat. She's holding a chart in her hands, and Steve can't breathe. There's a shrill, loud noise coming to him in waves. Heart monitor, he realises. He's hooked up to a heart monitor.
Peggy puts her hand over Steve's, where it's laid out on top of the covers. 'Please calm down,' she says, more gentle than Steve has ever heard her. Except Steve isn't sure this is his Peggy, even though the name tag on her white coat reads Dr M. Carter, MD. 'I know this must be very confusing for you, but you're in good hands. You're all right.'
'Wh…' Steve coughs. His voice is faint and hoarse, like he hasn't used it in years. 'Where…?'
'New York,' Peggy says. 'You've been asleep, Lieutenant. For almost three years.'
Before Steve can say — or try to say — anything else, before he can demand what the hell Peggy means, before he can anything, Peggy nods. Tony, in white scrubs, comes up to the side of the bed. Steve manages to lift his eyes to see, and there's an IV line going right into his arm. Tony takes out a small syringe with clear liquid, and —
Steve wakes up from a three-year coma in a VA hospital in Manhattan.
There was an IED in Iraq, they tell him. His unit was ambushed. Steve got the worst of it, but thanks to his quick thinking everyone survived. He got a medal for his troubles.
They tell him he's a first lieutenant in the Special Operations Command. Delta Force. Born July 4th, 1988. That's what his dog tags say, too.
The men in his unit jokingly called him Captain America, but there was only ever respect to it. They'd go through hell and back for him.
Dr Margaret Carter is not a special agent for the British government, and Dr Tony Stark is not a playboy billionaire in a suit of armour. There are no heroes. There are no aliens or gods and, above all, there are no men out of time.
'The human subconscious has a way of processing things,' says Bruce. Dr Bruce Banner, clinical psychologist. 'You were asleep, but you were still aware of everything around you. That's how it works. Your brain just arranged the information in a way that wouldn't be overwhelming.'
Steve raises his eyebrows. 'By turning me into a superhero in blue tights.'
'Coping mechanism dressed up as a wish-fulfilment fantasy,' says Bruce, shrugging. 'You had to label and categorise the people your brain registered. It did what it could to make it bearable. It's going to be okay, Lieutenant. Right now it has to seem like the things that happened in your dream are more real than your life before the coma, but it's going to be okay.'
'You were there,' Steve says. 'In my dream. You turned into a giant green rage monster.'
Bruce just smiles.
Steve doesn't tell him that in his dream, the Hulk saved everyone.
They give him exercises so that he gets full use of his body again, and day three is his first PT appointment. When his therapist walks through the door, Steve's heart stumbles over itself and he chokes out: 'Bucky?'
He's — he's the same, except dressed comfortably for exercise and for a moment Steve thinks it's a long-sleeve shirt, but then realises that Bucky's left arm is just covered with tattoos. It's a good thing Steve's not hooked up to the heart monitor any more, because the staff might assume he's having a heart attack.
Bucky blinks in surprise. 'They told you my name?'
'I — no.' Steve watches as Bucky leaves a beat-up bag at the foot of the bed, and perches on the edge. 'This is gonna sound idiotic,' he says, 'but I dreamed about you.'
Bucky grins. 'That's not idiotic,' he says. 'I've known you a long-ass time, Steve. You'd better recognise me.'
Everyone addresses Steve by his rank, and hearing his name on Bucky's lips makes something twist in the pit of Steve's stomach, something cold and aching.
'You okay to start?' Bucky asks. 'We won't be doing any advanced acrobatics yet, just some stretches to get you back on your feet.'
Steve nods, and then Bucky is helping him lie down, and his hands are warm through Steve's cotton shirt. He's firm but gentle, and even though Steve can't find his own voice Bucky doesn't seem to mind. He keeps a comfortable running commentary, which Steve figures is only fair since for so long he's been doing it with Steve actually comatose, not just tongue-tied. He's smiling and he looks Steve in the eye, and he seems happy.
Happy that Steve is awake, or maybe just happy in general. Maybe his life is so much better than whatever Steve could've dreamt for him — a best friend who followed him to war.
He's discharged two weeks later, and thanks to some strings Fury's pulled — a CO is a CO — he has enough back pay and pension that he can rent a small apartment in Brooklyn. His stuff got put in storage, and now the third-floor walkup is littered with cardboard boxes.
It feels alien, the whole place, but mostly the inside of Steve's head. Memories of a life he knows he's lived fight for dominance over the memories his head insist are as real as anything else. He trails his fingers over book spines, unpacks his old drawing supplies. Clothes that, despite all logic, still fit him.
Peggy kissing him on a landing strip, wind howling in their ears; Bucky falling, falling, falling; Steve taking the plane and angling the controls downwards and then nothing.
But Steve doesn't get to call Peggy by her first name, here. She's Dr Carter. He's a patient to her. She, Bruce and Tony are trying to talk him into more detailed tests. People don't just randomly wake up from comas, after all, and when they do it's a research paper in the making. Steve doesn't care, though he's not particularly enthusiastic about being a lab rat, but maybe if it helps someone in a situation similar to his it'll be worth it.
His unit is deployed, and Steve is glad.
And Bucky —
Bucky comes over three times a week. He pushes Steve, but not as hard as Steve pushes himself. Steve doesn't hate PT; what he hates is that he's helpless, and that he's weak as a kitten, and that he's not improving at a rate that he'd like.
'Oh, wow,' says Bucky, impressed, after Steve curses a blue streak. Some of it was directed at Bucky, and Steve would feel bad except he's too annoyed and exhausted for that. 'You're kind of a shit, aren't you.'
'Is that your job now?' Steve shoots back through gritted teeth. He's breathing hard, flat on his back on the workout bench, with Bucky sitting between his spread thighs to help him stretch his right leg. Steve's shirt is soaked through with sweat. 'Witty banter? Stating the goddamn obvious?'
Despite his visible exasperation, Bucky doesn't take it out on Steve. He pushes Steve's knee up, putting all his weight behind it, and slowly starts pressing it against Steve's chest. It's the eighth stretch out of ten, and then they'll have to do the left leg. Steve is looking forward to it like he's looking forward to a — ow. He shuts his eyes against the pain, and doesn't make a sound.
'I think I liked you better when you were still unconscious,' Bucky says. He's a little breathless; this is a workout for him as well, since Steve is a pretty big guy.
Steve lets out a snort. 'Trust me,' he says around an exhale, 'I liked you better when I was comatose, too.'
It's a lie. After they're done, Bucky always stays for coffee or just to hang around for an hour or two. He's good company, and it's a little frightening how pitch-perfect Steve's subconscious got him. He might not be Steve's lifelong best friend, but he's something else. Maybe something better.
Steve knows he hangs on to Bucky too desperately; the fear of losing him is irrational. But one night Bucky stays to help Steve unpack one of the boxes, and the TV is a mind-numbing background noise of some crime drama, and Steve can't. His hands are full of plates wrapped in brown paper, and Bucky is sitting opposite him counting forks from one set, and Steve leans in to press his mouth to Bucky's and the world stops.
Bucky's breath hitches, and he's still for an infinite second before he starts to kiss back.
The floor is uncomfortable, stiff wrapping paper rustling under Steve's back when Bucky pushes him down. He murmurs something against Steve's mouth that Steve doesn't catch, but just his voice — warm and low, affectionate — is enough that something in Steve breaks, except it feels a lot more like it's something finally, finally mending.
Steve doesn't know how to explain any of it, all the guilt and longing for a man he's never actually watched die. So he whispers, in the quiet dark of night as they're curled up together on the couch; he smiles and he whispers, 'I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream.'
It makes Bucky laugh. He presses a soft kiss to the corner of Steve's mouth. 'You're too much of a bastard to be Sleeping Beauty, pal.'
'Yeah, but you like it,' says Steve. His hands inch under Bucky's waistband, and he slowly drags Bucky's pants down his thighs. Bucky lets out a small, content noise, and his eyes drift shut when Steve traces the length of his cock with the tips of his fingers.
'I do,' he sighs, hips jerking up to meet Steve's touch. 'I really do.'
Steve's unit is deployed, and he's glad. He doesn't think he could take their joy at his recovery.
He goes in for tests every other day. He doesn't really mind, since he's not cleared to look for a job yet. There's MRIs, X-rays, his whole body but mostly his brain dissected under a microscope. Thursday therapy with Bruce is a relief, after those days when nurses hustle him about like a sick child.
Bruce says he's improving. He asks if Steve can better differentiate between his memories and his coma dreams.
'Yes,' Steve lies.
It's funny: when they're doing PT, Bucky is perfectly professional. He doesn't touch Steve in any way that could ever mean anything more than what it is. To Steve, who has entertained quite a few dirty fantasies of PT leading to sweaty sex on the floor, it's kind of a shame.
'I'm not compromising my work ethics,' says Bucky when Steve finally asks if he's ever going to fuck him after a session. 'Three times a week I'm paid to help you get better, not make you feel better. Keep your pants on, Rogers.'
Afterwards, Bucky takes him out for coffee. They go to the park, and Bucky invites Steve to his place.
He invites Steve to stay the night.
Four months after Steve wakes up, he thinks he's probably going to be all right. His life seems sometimes like he's walking through it in a daze, half-asleep still. It's always a shock when he meets someone he knows, who he could call a friend, and they're strangers.
The night it happens, he's lucky: it's one of the nights Bucky is over, curled around Steve's back.
Steve wakes up shivering. It feels like the time he had scarlet fever — except he's never had scarlet fever, or asthma, or anything. There's cold sweat clinging to the back of his neck and Steve buries himself deeper under the covers, but it doesn't help. His hair is damp, and so is the pillow. He tries to get out of bed, but he's too weak. The shudders that go through him are like an electric shock.
Next to him Bucky slowly comes to, and then he's swearing and turning Steve onto his back and checking his pupils.
'Shit,' he breathes, and climbs past Steve and out of bed. In a second, there's a click and light from the bathroom, and it throws long trembling shadows over everything. Steve shuts his eyes and tries to breathe.
'You're burning up,' Bucky says, close to him again. Steve could have told him that. There's a cold washcloth pressed to his forehead, and the bed dips as Bucky sits down. 'Steve. Steve, do you have a first aid kit or something?'
Steve shakes his head. He wants to say something. He wants to tell Bucky he's going to be all right.
He passes out instead.
A dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep.
That's what they say.
Steve wakes up.
Deja vu all over again, and his head is killing him. He's cold, he feels weak, and everything is bright and sharp. There's noise around him, and then someone turns him onto his back. Steve realises he's on the floor — somewhere. It's hard under his back, like concrete.
He opens his eyes, but his vision is swimming.
'Where…?' he manages, hoarse like he hasn't spoken in years.
'Oh, thank fuck.' Tony's voice. Steve forces himself to focus, to focus on Tony hovering above him. He's got grime and dirt and blood on his face, and he's — Steve remembers the suit of armour. He recognises it, he knows it.
'We thought Zola got you good with that mind control device,' Tony is saying.
Steve can't breathe, panic rising in his chest. 'Tony,' he starts, nothing more than a whisper. Why am I here, or I shouldn't be here, that's what he wants to say, but his throat is too tight.
'In the flesh,' Tony confirms, grinning. It's wrong, wrong, wrong. 'Well, armour, but you get the idea.'
It's wrong. It's the wrong place, the wrong time. Steve rolls onto his side and gets up on one elbow, weak as a goddamn kitten. He doesn't throw up, even though he wants to. There's someone touching his shoulder, like it's supposed to be comforting, and if Steve had any strength in him he'd grab whoever it is and break both their arms.
'It's okay.' Natasha. She sounds worried, and relieved. So, so relieved. 'Just stay awake a little while longer, Clint's bringing the quintjet around right now.'
'No,' Steve grits out, shaking with helpless, pointless anger. It's a dream. It was supposed to be a dream, and he was…he had… 'No, no — Bucky —'
'Don't talk,' Natasha says. 'It's okay now. You're okay.'
Her grip on Steve's arm is warm and sure, and nothing like what Steve needs. There are black spots dancing before his eyes, and he prays to god for unconsciousness, to pass out. Pass out and never wake up, or pass out and wake up in the right place.
'You're okay, Captain,' Natasha says again. 'You're home.'