Isolation

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)


Author's Notes: Many thanks to tavella for beta-reading for me!


Avengers Tower was full of people laughing and smiling and chatting as they nibbled the hors d'oeuvres being distributed by circulating servers with silver trays. Steve drifted through the crowd, smiling to himself at the snippets of conversation he overheard. It was good to see his friends so relaxed, so at ease.

Steve reached out to scoop an hors d'oeuvre off of a passing server's tray, but she didn't pause for him like she had for the others, and he almost upended the tray for his snack. She didn't seem to notice. Steve frowned for a moment, but then shook his head. It didn't matter. She probably just hadn't noticed him. It was a busy party.

But as Steve moved between the clusters of people, he began to realized that no one met his eye as he passed by. No one nodded hello, not even Jan. Hank's eyes slid right over him without seeing, and Clint didn't tease him about what he was wearing or accuse him of chaperoning the party or anything. Steve blinked. Wait. Was Clint supposed to be here? No. No, that wasn't right. Clint was...Clint was dead. He knew that. He could never forget that.

Yet everyone else kept chatting as if there was nothing unusual about Clint's presence. Steve reached out to touch Hank's shoulder, to get his attention and ask him what had happened, but the air seemed to crystallize between them, blocking him off from Hank as if there was a pane of glass between them. No, Steve realized, his fingers resting against the barrier, feeling the warmth leech out of them. Not glass.

Ice.

The ice began to grow cloudy as it thickened. He had to break it while he still could. Steve lifted his fingers from the ice and curled his hand into a fist and pounded against it. It didn't crack, didn't even shiver. Steve could feel his heart rate picking up. "Hank!" he shouted, but Hank's form, blurred by the wall of ice, didn't turn. He didn't even seem to notice the barrier, sipping from his drink and talking to Jan obliviously.

Steve whirled away from them. If not Hank, then-- But the ice had surrounded him while he'd been trying to break through. Steve took two quick steps over to the other ice walls that enclosed him and pounded on them with all his strength, threw his body against them, but he couldn't even chip them. Damn it, ice wasn't this strong! Steve pounded on the freezing wall with both hands before resting there a moment, leaning against it, breath coming fast in his chest.

Pressure. Pressure under his hands. Raising his head, Steve realized with horror that the ice hadn't been thickening outwards. It was growing inwards, eating up the space in which Steve stood. "No," Steve breathed. "No!" He pounded on the ice, heart pounding frantically. "No! Not again! Hank!" But no one heard him yelling.

Blurred into unrecognizability by the thickness of the ice, the party went on around him. "Jan! Clint!" Steve shouted, his hands aching from pounding on the ice. God, it was cold. So cold. Steve's motions began to slow. It was no good. He leaned his forehead against the ice and watched his friends go on without him as the cold sank into him and the ice closed in. Maybe this was the way it was supposed to be. Maybe it was right that the ice take him back. He wasn't a part of their world, their time, not like Tony was.

Tony...

Steve didn't have the strength left to speak.

But he didn't need to speak to Tony, did he? --Tony...--

There was no response. Steve's eyes slid closed, his whole body chilled by the ice, feeling it begin to wrap around him.

The ice shuddered under his cheek and Steve's eyes snapped open. A red and gold smudge was faintly visible through the thick ice. --Tony!-- The smudge moved and Steve's frozen prison shivered again, and again, and cracks spread across the surface, and chunks of the ice fell away and even as Steve sagged towards the floor, free at last, the armor fell away and Tony caught Steve in warm, strong arms.

Steve wanted to press close to the warmth of him and couldn't, but he didn't need to, Tony drew him in tightly on his own. "I'm here, Steve," he murmured. "I've got you."

"Don't leave me behind," Steve choked out. "Don't--"

***

"--let me fall behind." Steve's eyes snapped open as he gasped for breath, heart pounding in his chest. He was disoriented for moment; the cold was gone but Tony still held him tight. Slowly, his surroundings registered: their bedroom, still night-dark. He sighed in relief, leaning into Tony's embrace. "It's all right," Steve said, "I'm--" he broke off, blinking in surprise as he realized Tony's eyes were still fluttering open, "--awake," Steve finished softly.

"Steve?" Tony murmured, eyes coming fully open. He let out a little sigh when he met Steve's gaze. "I was dreaming. I was at a party. All the Avengers were there, but I was looking for you, and when I found you--"

"--I was frozen in a block of ice," Steve finished.

Tony's eyes widened. "Did we just have the same dream?"

"Not quite the same dream. I was inside the block of ice."

Tony' expression went suddenly serious and intent. "You do belong in this time, Steve. You're needed here and now as much as you ever were before, if not in quite the same way."

Steve leaned his forehead against Tony's and let his eyes slide closed. "Being needed isn't the same as belonging." --I'm only here because of a freak accident.--

"Thor would say that if you're here, it's the will of the Gods." Steve could hear Tony smiling.

"Thor isn't exactly a model of integration with the modern world," Steve said, but the corner of his mouth twitched upwards anyway.

Tony rubbed Steve's back. "Do you believe you belong" --with me-- "with the Avengers?"

Steve opened his eyes and looked into Tony's eyes across the shadowed space between them. --Yes.-- "And yes," he said softly.

Tony swallowed. "Well then, you have to belong here and now, don't you?" He smiled a little. "You're always telling me that fate brought the Avengers together. Both times. The Avengers wouldn't have come together and stayed together either time if it wasn't for you. You can't be destined to help form the Avengers and not be meant to be exactly where you are."

Steve found Tony's hand with his and laced their fingers together. "The world moves so fast sometimes. I don't know how you keep up."

"I don't keep up. I set the pace," Tony said, smirking. But, silently, he sent, --I'd never let you be left behind.--

Smiling, Steve lifted Tony's hand to his lips and kissed it softly. "Let's see if we can find a better dream to share."

--This has serious possibilities, you know.-- "Have you ever tried lucid dreaming?"

Steve chuckled. "Another night. For now, we need real rest."

--End--