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the things we invent when we are scared

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If somebody asked Tony what would happen the next time he and Steve saw each other, he’d say they would fight.

He wouldn’t say it out of pettiness. It was just—well, what seemed likely. Even right now, two years after their fight, while Steve and the other rogue avengers are in the middle of renegotiating the Accords with T’Challa’s help, Tony doesn’t think that would make a different between the two of them, when they were in the same room again.

He’s not even angry anymore. Well, most of the time, at least. It’s just. That’s just how he and Steve work, apparently. It’s foolish to hope for anything else.

(Sometimes Tony gets those dreams – dreams of Steve stepping inside the lab. Steve walking straight to Tony and taking him in his arms, his smell a sweet, musky scent flooding Tony’s senses, whispering things in his ears. Sometimes he whispers I’m sorry, other times he says I missed you, and sometimes—

Doesn’t matter.)

When Tony received Natasha’s call, he—well, he thought she was wrong, for starters. Natasha’s track record stands against that, of course, but Tony just couldn’t help but think what she’s saying – Steve being attacked, Steve being kidnapped, Steve not answering any communications – just didn’t jive well with reality. It couldn’t happen. It just couldn’t.

He wants to punch something.

To be honest, he just did a fair amount of punching, taking down a bunch of goons in this base that could easily be in a picture right next to a dictionary’s definition of villain lair. All of Ross’ men are laying on the floor, some knocked out, others tied up, waiting for the arrival of the CIA agents who are supposed to clean this mess up. And what a mess it is – Ross had apparently taken chasing Steve’s team to the levels of obsession he previously reserved for chasing the Hulk, to the point where Ross was unhappy with even the idea that they could get a pardon through a diplomatic negotiation. He had decided to take matters on his own hands, and Tony can only imagine the paperwork that’s gonna come out of this.

His men are neutralized now, though. Tony leaves the task of watching over them to Vision and Rhodey, flying out of the main chamber and into a hallway.

He’s headed for the last room, from where Natasha sent him a signal when she confirmed that was, indeed, the place they were looking for. As he rushes towards it, FRIDAY shares some readings of tech waves and signals she picks up, but Tony doesn’t hear it. He can’t hear anything right now.

When he gets to the room, he punches the door open.

He looks around, vaguely acknowledging Natasha’s presence along with many panels showing a flood of data. His gaze darts around the room, and he stops in his tracks when he finds what he’s looking for.

Steve Rogers, handcuffed to a chair not unlike a torture device, face pale and eyes closed as if he’s—

Asleep, Tony quickly completes. His stomach turns, but he tries to ignore it. He looks asleep, which is exactly what he is.

It’s still not any easier to watch. Steve is restrained on the table, and if he were anyone else, Tony would guess they had arrived too late, just from how pale he looks.

Tony controls his mind and stops himself from going down this road. Some sort of coma, Natasha had said. He turns towards her. She’s typing commands on Ross’ computers, no doubt trying to get all the data she can find.

He opens his mouth to speak, but she’s faster than him: “It’s a mind controlling device.”

Tony raises his eyebrows, turning back towards the chair. There’s nothing on Steve’s face or body other than the restraints, no cables connecting him anywhere. “A wireless signal?” He comes closer, thinking a loud. “Of course not, why would it affect only him? But if it isn’t…” he trails off, a bitter taste filling his mouth. He turns towards the panels, watching the data flow, a feeling of bile rising up to his throat. “Nanites,” he says finally.

Natasha nods.

Tony clenches his fists so tight his hands hurt.

“Clint’s got Ross in the other room,” Natasha says. “He’s not being very talkative, but that’ll definitely change when the CIA gets here. For what it’s worth, we think Steve was supposed to work as a test subject. I think Ross only wanted to neutralize him, but whoever he partnered with had other ideas, possibly of applying the device to others. They had your research on nanotech as a first step, and then if they wanted to expand, to be able to control other people… I imagine the logic was that if it worked on a supersoldier, it would work on anyone.”

“How do we get him out?” Tony interrupts. It vaguely occurs to him Ross must have partnered with a tech company, definitely a Stark Industries rival. He feels no curiosity over who it was, though, not now, when the only thing he can see is Steve’s pale face and the only thing he can think is my tech; my tech did this.

There’s a small pause that makes Tony want to puke.

“Ross claims it’s impossible,” Natasha says, her voice just the slightest amount quieter.

Tony would deny it to his final breath, but he’s shaking as he approaches Steve’s body, so unbearably still in that fucking chair, and starts undoing his restraints. “We’ll fucking see about that.”


 

“I’m surprised you let me in,” Rhodey comments, in that casually annoyed voice he gets when he wants to fight Tony on something, but doesn’t have the energy to do it.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Tony asks, watching Steve’s vitals as if they haven’t stayed the same for the past hour.

He’s not looking at Rhodey, but he knows Rhodey must make a face as he comes inside. Tony doesn’t blame him: it must be a somber sight, himself sitting at his worktable looking through endless data, some armor pieces scattered around in front of him, the only other living soul asleep in the center of the room.

Steve is lying on a table, eyes closed, with the exact same expression Tony saw two days ago. He’s still in his uniform, though the upper part is open, where Tony had to place electrodes on his chest to check his heart rate. His arms are lying on his sides, an IV in the vein of his wrist.

(If Tony’s honest, it still feels a bit unreal, to him. It feels like he’s working backwards. He had imagined he’d been avoiding Steve by now – pretending he wasn’t around, maybe fighting with him over petty things when they had to talk to each other. In a way it feels like he’s been robbed of this, of this… anger. And that stings, really, because it’s almost dangerous, to peel this anger off. What’s underneath scares Tony most of all.)

“I don’t know, maybe because you’ve been locked up here for two days?” Rhodey crosses his arms. He’s in his uniform, a sign he’s already dealt with enough shit for today. And he’s been handling a lot of shit to let Tony work on Steve here, instead of handling him over for the CIA to take care of. “Or maybe because you didn’t bother taking any of my calls or answering any of the messages I’ve left you? Take your pick.”

Tony bites his lower lip, eyes still on Steve’s vitals, trying to gather something he may have missed. If he’s honest, the only reason he even knows how much time has passed since they found him is because of Natasha and Sam’s constant visits – he doesn’t remember the last time he looked at a clock. “Didn’t mean to make you feel slighted, sour patch. Sorry.”

Again, he doesn’t need to look to know Rhodey rolls his eyes. “You suck at playing dumb, Tones.” He walks towards Tony’s worktable. “Nothing yet, huh?”

Tony’s jaw clenches. “No, actually, I’ve solved it. Cap is just taking a nap, taking advantage of the opportunity to get some beauty sleep.”

Rhodey doesn’t take the bait of his childish answer, instead coming closer to also watch Steve’s vitals, looking over Tony’s shoulder.

They stay in silence for a moment. Tony knows Rhodey sees the same thing he does: Steve’s life signs are perfectly normal, as if he really is just taking a very long nap. Not only that, but his heart rate and brain waves indicate peace.

“The CIA guy – Everett Ross - thinks we should try moving him to Wakanda,” Rhodey says. “It’s still just an idea. It won’t be easy to negotiate, all the bureaucracy…”

“What about the other Ross?” Tony interrupts. He’s tinkering with a gauntlet on his hand, trying to see if he can do anything to send signs to the nanites in Steve’s body.

“Same tune as before.” Rhodey crosses his arms. “Says Cap’s as good as dead.”

Tony’s stomach clenches. He can feel Rhodey’s eyes watching him.

“What about Stone Inc.?”

“CIA caught Tiberius on his way to his private jet yesterday evening. See, you’d know that if you'd answered my calls,” Rhodey pulls up a chair, sitting next to Tony. “He claims it’s the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century and that we’re criminals for not allowing him to use it.”

Tony turns his head, his interest increasing momentarily. “Did he say anything we don’t know?”

“Not really.” Rhodey sighs, and Tony notices for a moment how tired he looks, with a pang of guilt in his chest. He left all that shit in Rhodey’s hands. “Just what his data already told us.” He raises his hand and gestures at Steve casually, voice gaining a rehearsed tone. “Nanotech injected into skin to make the brain project pleasant illusions for an undetermined amount of time. Or, as the internet prefers to call it,” he makes a face as he makes finger quotes. “A ‘dream machine’.”

Tony turns back to the gauntlet. “Nothing new, then,” he says, and his voice shakes a little. He makes a point to reign it in – there’s no time to lose control now.

“Yeah,” Rhodey says. He eyes Tony almost curiously. “No change in his vitals either, huh?”

“Nope. He’s like an all-american Sleeping Beauty,” Tony says, internally grateful for managing to sound casual.

“Speaking of sleep…”

“I’m thinking of injecting some of the armor’s nanites into him,” Tony says, pretending to not hear Rhodey’s clear concern. “Bruce is coming over tomorrow, he’s gonna make an estimate of possible side effects, and then we—”

“Tony,” Rhodey interrupts. Tony looks at him, sustaining his worried, tired dark gaze. “Maybe if you took a break and let someone else look at him—”

“Everyone is totally welcome to look at him,” Tony says firmly. He points towards Steve with his arm. “He’s right there. Anyone who wants to help me is welcome to try – and, by the way, if you have any brilliant ideas, I’m listening.”

“You know that’s not what I mean,” Rhodey replies. He runs a hand over his face, pinches the bridge of his nose. “Tony, maybe you’re not the best person to handle this.”

“Wow.” Tony shakes his head in an exaggerated disbelief. “Twenty years of friendship, and that’s the faith you have in my abilities? I mean, I guess I should be glad we’re at least putting it all on the table…”

Tony. You know what I’m talking about,” Rhodey says, a little desperate. “You’re too…” He presses his lips together, and Tony clenches his fingers around the gauntlet. They’re veering onto dangerous terrain, never before acknowledged. “You’re too… invested.”

(Sometimes, in the years they spent apart, Rhodey would ask about Steve. He wouldn’t say his name, though. He would just stop, take a sip of his drink, and lay his eyes on the side of Tony’s jacket where the inside pocket was, where he knew Tony carried the phone, even though Tony never told him.

He’d ask: “So, anything?”

Tony would make light of it, mostly. He’d shrug exaggeratedly, rolls his eyes, make a flippant gesture and say “Who cares?” or “How should I know?”.

Rhodey wouldn’t say anything, just nodding quietly and changing the subject, because he was a good friend like that.)

Tony stares so firmly at the gauntlet; it’s as if he’s talking to it.

“I’m just saying. Maybe someone less… affected, could be able to see a bigger picture you might be missing.”

Tony is too smart not to hear what Rhodey is saying, and Rhodey is too smart not to know that.

“I’m not delusional,” he replies. “He’s going to wake up.”

“I hope so,” Rhodey says, and the lack of agreement stings inside Tony’s chest, the mere possibility of the alternative too painful for him to even acknowledge. Rhodey lands a hand on his shoulder. “I want him to get better too, Tony. We all do. But you’re just…” He swallows, and Tony knows he’s thinking of how much he wants to spell it out, trying to spare Tony the hurt by not saying what they both know to be true. “You know what he does to you.”

Tony’s hands are hurting, now, because he’s clinging to the gauntlet too tight. “You think we should send him to Wakanda?”

“I think you should go to sleep.” Rhodey’s hand squeezes his shoulder gently. “I think you should take a break, let FRIDAY or me monitor him, and then when you get back, your mind is gonna be clearer, and maybe you’ll have another insight.”

Tony takes a deep breath. His eyes close on their own, suddenly so heavy Tony can barely believe he’s been keeping them open for so long without a break. His stomach still clenches, the tension easy to read in his neck and shoulders.

He wants to keep working, but he also wants to be useful. Right now, it’s impossible to do both. Still, the thought of leaving Steve makes his chest feel tight.

“I can’t go to my bedroom,” Tony says. Rhodey, because he loves him, doesn’t ask why.

“Okay.” He nods in the direction of the workshop’s couch. “I’ll pick up some pillows for you.”

Tony presses his lips together in a thin line. His eyes must spell out the anxiety spiral in his head, because Rhodey’s face turns more determined.

“I’ll watch over him, okay?” he says, and Tony nods, shakily. He feels tired and weak and useless, and his brain is already in self-sabotage mode, thinking of Steve’s vitals changing just as Tony closes his eyes, of his life signs dropping as soon as Tony drifts off to sleep. “Tony. You can do this. I believe in you, and… I think he’d believe in you, too.” Rhodey’s voice is certain, unwavering. “He’d know you’d manage to get him out.”

Tony sincerely doubts that.


 

It takes almost a full hour for Tony to fall asleep.

He almost gives up on doing it, more than once. It’s only the exhaustion of his body that keeps him lying on the couch, as opposed to standing up and telling Rhodey to go home. His brain doesn’t get the message that it’s time to rest, so he keeps running through mental calculations, formulas to increase the speed of the nanites so they can find Stone’s nanites in Steve’s bloodstream and somehow turn them off – but would Steve’s veins even be prepared for that kind of chase? And it would need to be gradual, too, otherwise there’s no way of telling how his brain would respond…

Tony knows he’s not getting anywhere with those scrambled thoughts, but they’re inescapable, so it’s almost a relief when he finally dozes off, sleep winning the battle against his anxiety.

He dreams of Steve. That’s not new – he’s been dreaming of Steve since he fell from a wormhole and woke up blinded by a smile and blue eyes looking at him as if he was worth looking at – but this time it’s different. Tony won’t be able to remember exactly what was the dream when he wakes up, but he will remember the franticness of it, the desperation – as if something terrible is about to happen, as if they’re running out of time.

When he wakes up, he goes straight to his worktable and tells FRIDAY he wants a scan of Steve’s brain.

The scan shows up in a panel in front of the table, Rhodey watching with wide eyes as Tony orders FRIDAY to search SHIELD’s database for a former scan of Steve’s brain right after he got out of the ice.

“There’s no change,” he says, grabbing Tony’s arm. “His brain isn’t—”

“Yet,” Tony says. His head is spinning, blood buzzing in his ears. “It’s not deteriorating yet. But it will.” He turns, picking up his phone, dialing Bruce up. “I don’t know how could I have missed it. This isn’t a regular coma, those nanites are forcing his brain into a specific constant pattern. It’s not natural – it will wear him out. Not right now, sure, maybe not even tomorrow, but eventually…” He waits, the line ringing on the other end, pacing, pressing the phone to his ear way too strongly. “Come on, pick up, pick up… God damnit.” He throws the phone at the table.

“Tony—”

“FRIDAY,” Tony snaps his fingers, turning towards the elevator. “I’m going out.” He’s halfway through tapping the reactor when Rhodey grabs his wrist.

“Tony! Calm down for one second.” He pulls Tony to turn towards him. “What’s going on?”

“Bruce won’t answer his phone.” Tony blurts. Part of him wants to shake Rhodey off and just go, but the thing about Rhodey is that something about him always makes it difficult for Tony to do that. “I need him to scan Cap for side effects before I inject my nanites in him. We can’t wait until tomorrow, we don’t know how long until that thing starts damaging his brain—”

“Let me go then,” Rhodey interrupts, landing his free hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I will be back before you know it. And you…” His dark eyes sparkled knowingly even as his expression didn’t betray anything. “You can watch over him.”

Tony swallows. “Thank you,” he says, and his voice is too soft, fragile as if it’s made of glass.

Rhodey’s gaze grows warm with what can’t be described as anything other than sympathy.

“Anytime, man.”


 

As he waits, Tony watches Steve.

He looks asleep. More than anything, though, he looks… relaxed. There’s no tension in his jaw. His hair falls over his forehead and his closed eyes make his eyelashes brush the upper part of his cheeks. His breath is calm and steady, chest raising and lowering at steady intervals.

Tony has never seen him look so peaceful. He associates Steve with an edge of tension, of discomfort – the lingering feel of being out of place, out of time. It was always in his posture, in his gaze, even in his smiles.

The Steve in front of him right now, the Steve who’s apparently living a happy fantasy in his head – Tony doesn’t know him.

He wants to stop looking, but he can’t really look away, because it’s not like Steve can catch him staring this time, after all. So he just watches, drinks in every line of Steve’s face. The beard is an addition that seemed jarring at first, but grows more natural every time Tony sees it. It makes him look older, dangerous, like a true criminal on the run. But to Tony it stings a little just because it reminds him of the time they spent apart – it reminds him of dreams of cupping Steve’s smooth face and feeling his silky skin against his, and it reminds him those dreams are long gone, fading in the space between them as the years had passed.

When FRIDAY says Rhodey and Bruce are on their way, the panel above them flickers light blue, casting a pale glow over Steve’s face that makes Tony miss his eyes. Decades could go by and Tony is certain those eyes wouldn’t change, that same unwavering, strong blue gaze that could warm him right to his toes and simultaneously make him feel colder than ever.

Tony wants to touch him.

He uncrosses his arms, clasping his hands behind his back instead. He gazes over at the display of Steve’s vitals, just to have something else to look at.

He wonders what Steve’s dreaming about. Being back in his time, maybe? Tony can see how that could be appealing - to have been able to safely land that plane, to get back from the war with Peggy Carter, to live a happy life and die as one soldier who made a difference, rather than as a legend to made the ultimate sacrifice.

Except, a spiteful, mean-spirited voice whispers in Tony’s head, someone would be missing from that fantasy, wouldn’t he?

Tony’s stomach twists and he clenches his hands too tight. Right, he thinks. Steve’s happiest dream would never be complete without his best friend.

Or more, the voice goes on, seemingly delighting in the way Tony’s heart shrinks in response. Or maybe his dream would be to get Barnes healed and to stay with him. After all this time, they still found each other. A beautiful story.

Tony shakes his head, but it’s impossible to stop the flow of thoughts as they come in. Together. Just the two of them. That would be Steve’s greatest wish, the one thing he’d do anything for – even hiding something, even lying

This line of thought is pointless and more than a little petty, but there’s some truth to it, and Tony knows. There’s nothing Steve wouldn’t do for Barnes.

Nothing that he wouldn’t leave behind.

Tony forces himself to sit down, taking sharp breaths. Now is not the time to be thinking about that, not with Steve’s life on the line. He forces himself to focus on the life signs, on the line of the steady beat of Steve’s heart. This is what matters now – to keep Steve alive, to bring him back. There’s nothing Tony wouldn’t do to make that happen.


 

“We have a problem,” Bruce says, staring at his tablet.

“Which one of your doctorates led you to this groundbreaking conclusion?” Tony replies, focused on his latest modification of the nanites. He raises his head, though, even as he keeps working with his hands, modeling outcomes for FRIDAY to calculate.

Bruce ignores his provocation, touching something on his screen. “Take a look at this.”

FRIDAY projects the images above them. It’s a scan of Steve’s brain, but not one Tony’s ever seen before.

“I’m running models on how he’d react if we use your nanites,” Bruce says. His voice sounds worried. “And I don’t think his brain is going to take it if we turn them all off at once.”

“That’s easy,” Tony says, a little frantic. His mind is already running through schematics. “I can program them to pick them off one by one – it will take a little longer, but it would be a matter of seconds.”

“I also don’t know how he will take it.” Bruce clutches his hands together, nervously. “Psychologically, I mean… If Stone’s data is correct, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be, he’s living in his dream world. Most importantly, he thinks what he’s dreaming is actually real. If we just turn everything off, it will be a huge shock.”

Tony frowns. “And what do you suggest?”

Bruce sighs. “I don’t know. Ideally, we’d be able to… prepare him somehow. But that would require getting in contact with him, and I don’t think we…”

Tony bites his inner cheek. He doesn’t want to think of Steve’s dream world, but he wonders how different it could be from the reality he’s actually living in. To be brought out of it so suddenly… It could be hard.

Not hard enough to break him. Nothing breaks Steve Rogers, Tony argues mentally, but he doesn’t feel confident enough to bet. Some things you just don’t risk.

His eyes dart towards Stone’s data, on display above Bruce’s head. To add insult to injury, it’s such a fucking simple design. If Tony ever felt prone to supervillainy, he could make a couple of those in a heartbeat—

Wait a minute.

“We can talk to him,” Tony says, standing up, walking towards the panel. Bruce looks at him puzzled, but he continues, touching and marking specific spots for FRIDAY to copy. “I can develop a couple of these in an hour. Half an hour, maybe. We modify it so it responds to Cap’s brainwaves, and someone can get inside his fantasy, and—”

“We can wake him up gently,” Bruce completes, nodding frantically. “Make him aware he is dreaming just before we turn everything off.”

“Would that work?” Tony asks, the rush of the idea still over his body, reluctant to allow even the slightest doubt to get through it.

“I… I think it could,” Bruce says, a little hesitant. “But we’d still be putting someone else under… under this.” His nerves makes his voice go slightly softer. “There’s no telling what type of reactions—”

“I’ll do it,” Tony says without thinking, but as soon as the words come out, he knows he wouldn’t have it any other way. “The nanites are already adapted to my physiology – I can tweak them so they won’t affect me. I’ll go in, wake Cap to reality, and then you turn everything off and bring us both back.” He doesn’t wait for Bruce answer, already on the way to his worktable. “Come on. From my estimates,” he starts picking up his tools, opening schematics on panels in front of him. “We can get this done by the morning.”


 

Tony’s estimates are rarely wrong.

He and Bruce finish working on the new batch of nanites around six a.m. Bruce is yawning, but Tony is in full work mode, ready to crank out twenty more hours without batting an eye. There’s no need for that, though – FRIDAY modified the design accordingly, and everything is ready to go.

Rhodey arrives soon after, forces Tony to eat something before helping him settle on the lab table. It’s right next to Steve, so FRIDAY can monitor both of them at once.

“Don’t look so worried,” Tony says, as Rhodey starts plugging the electrodes on his neck. “Or I’m going to start thinking you don’t trust my genius.”

“I trust your genius,” Rhodey says. “It’s the rest of you I’m worried about.”

“This will be fast.” Tony props himself up by his elbows to let Rhodey place electrodes behind his neck. “He’s gonna take one look at me and go ‘Uh, sorry, isn’t this supposed to be my happy place?’”

Rhodey doesn’t laugh. Instead he finishes placing the electrodes and sets his hand on Tony’s shoulder, letting him lie down again. “We’re ready to go.”

“Okay,” Bruce says, from behind the worktable. “Don’t forget it, Tony – break it to him in small doses. Be calm and go slow.”

“My specialties.” Tony gives him a thumbs up, then turns towards Rhodey again. “Watch over us, buddy.”

“I will.” Rhodey’s hand gives his shoulder one final squeeze. “Just – be careful. And whatever you see…” His face closes in a weird expression, a mix of compassion and worry. “Try not to take it too hard.”

Tony’s stomach clenches, the image of Steve carrying a wounded Barnes away from him with all the care in the world flashing through his mind, stinging like an actual knife in his chest.

Or like a shield.

“I’ll be fine,” he says, giving Rhodey a confident grin. Then he closes his eyes as Bruce starts the countdown, and, before he knows it, he’s gone.


 

Tony opens his eyes before he has the time to even imagine what he’s going to see.

He’s shocked to find himself in his workshop. For a moment, he wonders if their plan failed, but the absence of both Rhodey and Bruce lets him know this is not the real world.

He looks around, taking in the details. He’s gotta hand it to the Stone Industries – it doesn’t feel like a fantasy in the slightest. In fact, it feels like he’s just woken up, and whatever he saw before was the dream.

It’s the glow of the reactor in his chest that keeps him from falling for the nanites’ illusion. Tapping it will activate the process of turning the ones infecting Steve off, but he’s not supposed to do that yet. Still, he lets his fingers linger over it, comforted by the familiar feel. It hasn’t changed, its small triangular shape solid under his fingertips, reminding him none of what he’s seeing is real.

The workshop is a bit outdated, he notices. Which makes sense, he supposes – Steve hasn’t seen the place in two years, so his memories couldn’t build an accurate copy. Tony sees the lack of a coffee stain on the couch, an old design on the panels displayed in front of him. Even the chair he’s sitting on, he notices, is one he threw away in favor of a model more forgiving on his back.

He stands up. After assessing the nanites’ genuinely impressive capacities of fooling his brain, his mind gets consumed with curiosity over Steve’s fantasy. It’s still the 21st Century, which is a bit surprising, though not much – Steve being Steve, Tony rationalizes, he probably couldn’t want to just go back to the 40s after seeing the social advances the future brought.

Besides, Tony thinks, walking towards the door with large, nervous steps, no one said the fantasy had to make sense. Dreams rarely do. Maybe he’s about to walk outside to Steve being happily married to a young Peggy Carter, even in the future.

Or maybe he’ll walk outside to an empty Tower and an invitation to a Barnes-Rogers wedding on his desk.

Tony swallows. He steers himself. He needs to be focused, no matter what he sees.

Think about him asleep, he tells himself, and the image of Steve lying on that cold lab table is what does it, gives him courage to open the door and finally step outside.

The compound is empty, it seems, but there’s signs of a lived in space – a loaded dish washer, a wrinkly blanket on the couch, misplaced books and tablets. If he’s honest, it doesn’t seem that different from what he saw the few times he visited, when it was inhabited.

“Oh, hey, look what the cat dragged in,” says a voice from behind him, making Tony jump, startled. As he turns around, he sees Sam sitting behind the kitchen counter, eating a bowl of cereal.

Okay. Sam is easy. Tony’s always liked the real Sam - he can probably handle a dream version of him.

“Hey,” he says, still a little jumpy. He wants to think of a way to ask about Steve without being too suspicious – though he guesses he can’t alert dream-Sam like he can Steve, but, honestly, he’s not taking any chances. He sits next to him, then fakes interest in his bowl. “Do we have any cereal left?”

“Nope,” Sam says, after swallowing. “I sent Viz and Wanda to grab some, though. If they don’t get too lovey-dovey in the way, it should arrive soon.”

Tony nods. Vision and Wanda – that makes sense. Doesn’t give him any indication of where Steve is, though. So far, everything looks… strangely normal. Which is even more nerve-wrecking.

“Hey, have you seen Cap around?” He blurts, unable to control himself.

Sam frowns, seeming monetarily confused by the question. “Isn’t he training?” He takes his bowl to his lips, sipping his milk. “Thought you said he was supposed to test the magnets on the shield today.”

Tony presses his lips together. Ok, he thinks. So Steve is around, and using something Tony made for him. So they – here – are on good terms.

That’s… a little surprising, if Tony’s honest. As much as he had joked about it to Rhodey, a part of him was sincerely worried that just his presence could tip Steve off to the fact that this wasn’t his dream world.

But now, that’s clearly not the case. Whatever world Steve dreamed up, it apparently has a place for Tony.

He decides not to dwell on that too much.

He stands up and nods towards Sam. “I’m gonna see if I can find him.”

“Don’t distract him too much,” dream-Sam says with a smirk. Tony raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t reply.

He turns and starts walking towards outside. The compound’s gym has its own facility outdoors, for the comfort of their fliers.

On his way, Tony takes in everything around him, trying to note the details of whatever is different about the place in Steve’s head. Unsettlingly, though, everything seems to be exactly the same as Tony remembers the real compound to be like, back then. He even comes across Natasha on the way, and she greets him quietly with a smile. If Tony didn’t know better, he’d say he went back in time.

When he arrives to the gym, he feels his stomach churning a little in expectation. In a way, this is the first time he’s seeing Steve in two years.

He feels his heart pounding, and tries to calm himself down, aware that an overreaction would only make Steve confused. From Sam’s reaction to his presence, it’s very clear that whatever life Steve is living right now, he and Tony are at least on speaking terms. They’ve maybe never fought, or they made up– maybe dream Tony picked up the phone to call Steve like real Tony had thought of doing so many times, or maybe…

Tony shakes his head to gather his thoughts. Whatever it is, he’ll know soon.

He takes a deep breath and opens the gym’s door.

The interior is, like everything else in the compound, exactly like the its real world counterpart. The entry hall is a huge open room that’s usually used for sparring, and it’s mostly empty, with the exception of a few weight racks and one lonely figure who turns towards the door as Tony comes inside.

It’s James Barnes.

Tony jumps, unable to mask his immediate, visceral reaction of horror. The only moments he’s seen this man in the past two years were in nightmares that ended up with him waking up sweating cold, the sound of his mother’s last breath echoing in his ears.

The man standing in front of him doesn’t look the same as Tony remembers, though. His hair is a little shorter and he’s wearing casual gym clothes, his metal arm (Tony’s stomach twists as his eyes land on it) intact and visible.

Also, he’s smiling.

“Hey, man,” he says, and even his voice sounds different – lighter, with a soft tone that Tony vaguely identifies as friendly.

He walks towards Tony, grinning slightly. Tony stands frozen, unable to move but desperate to run away. He’s shaking, his mind trying to control his immediate instincts to hide, or to attack Barnes, or to throw up.

Barnes’ walk turns into a light jog, but as he catches a better look at Tony’s expression, he slows down and frowns.

“Everything okay, Stark?” Tony flinches at the use of his name (his father’s name). “You look like you’re gonna be sick.”

It’s a testament of how much of Tony’s life was spent in front of cameras that he’s able to school his features into something that doesn’t transmit the inner turmoil in his chest to his face.

“I’m fine,” he manages, through gritted teeth. “Have you, uh. Have you seen Cap anywhere?”

Barnes raises his eyebrows, and then he smiles playfully. “Cap?” He asks, but Tony barely registers it. “Someone’s in trouble.”

Tony hardly manages a simple nod, still too shaky to move. Barnes steps forward to place his weights on the rack, and Tony knows he should take the moment to put himself together, but he can’t stop his flow of thoughts. He knew Barnes would always be a part of Steve’s dream life (maybe the most important part, he thinks, pain stinging his chest like sharp, bitter glass), but why is he here? At the compound? Could he and Steve be living here together? The thought is oppressive in its plausibility, and Tony’s breath catches.

Tony feels the sleek, hard surface of the reactor against his knuckles, only then realizing he’s clutching his chest. He shuts his eyes, drawing a longer breath.

“…he must be getting out at any minute,” Barnes says, and Tony realizes he probably missed something. He turns towards Barnes, trying to force himself to at least carry out a semi-normal interaction, but then Barnes smiles at something behind him. “There he is.”

Tony knows he should take the time before turning. He knows. But the thought of Steve Rogers, alive and awake, in front of him, is enough to make all rational thinking leave his head, and he turns immediately, like a planet chasing the Sun’s orbit.

Steve is right outside the bathroom door. His hair is longer, his beard is still there, but there’s something about seeing him, for the first time in so long, that knocks the air right out of Tony’s lungs. He feels his eyes burning, and he blinks quickly to hide it, and for one second he thinks: This isn’t going to work. It can’t work, because he won’t be able to keep this up, he just wants Steve to wake up and be alive too bad to break this to him slowly. He thinks he might just ruin the whole plan by breaking down right there.

And then Steve smiles.

And the way he smiles, for a moment, looks almost foreign. His eyes light up and his whole face brightens, a dimple showing up in his cheek. He looks younger.

Tony doesn’t remember ever seeing Steve that happy.

It’s not—it’s not an ecstatic happiness. It’s the kind of happiness that’s quiet and constant, like a leaf you keep inside a book that makes you smile every time you open it. It’s soft and yet it feels solid, safe, like this Steve is deeply familiar with this happiness, like he knows it’s his and it won’t ever go away.

“Hey, you,” Steve says, and—He’s not talking to him, Tony thinks. He—he must be talking to Barnes. Steve would never look at him like that.

(Tony knows, because if Steve had ever looked at him like that, Tony would have probably deserted all his responsibilities and beliefs and joined the Rogues on the run. He probably would’ve ignored the U.N. and the government and anyone.)

Then Steve walks towards him, and Tony thinks: he’s going to pass by him. He will, he has to, and he has to be looking over Tony’s shoulder, even if that seems less and less likely as those blue eyes never snap away from him as Steve comes closer and closer and—

And it’s a quick, smooth movement — truly coming from someone with an enhanced speed and balance — the way Steve stops right in front of Tony, with that same blinding smile, and sets his hands on Tony’s face and leans forward to press a kiss on his lips.

Tony flinches, jumping away immediately, the warm, soft feel of Steve’s mouth on his like an electric current going through his body.

Steve frowns. His face is still so close, Tony can see perfectly the little wrinkle it forms between his eyebrows. “Something wrong?” He asks, sounding genuinely confused, and Tony’s mind, like a whirlwind, tries to grab onto concrete details to form an answer, but he’s stuck looking at Steve’s face. He can still feel Steve’s breath on his mouth, and his face tingles at the contact with Steve’s beard, and Steve has a light freckle right under his eyebrow, and it’s so light and small it tugs Tony’s heartstrings and he finds it hard to breathe.

“Tony? Sweetheart,” Steve asks, and what the fuck, why is he saying that, and his hands are on Tony’s face again and Tony can’t find the presence to answer, all he hears is sweetheart over and over in his brain, sweet like honey, spilling all over anything even remotely resembling a rational thought. “Are you okay?”

“I’m,” Tony forces himself to spit out, even as Steve’s thumbs stroke his cheeks and he shakes. Steve’s hands are so big, so warm and he can feel they’re calloused but the way they’re holding his face, the way Steve is touching him is so gentle, so delicate, and the warmth of Tony’s cheeks seems to mix with the warmth of Steve’s hands and Tony can’t think, he’s just too close, too overwhelmed, nothing but Steve all over his senses. “I. You. You have a freckle.”

Steve smiles, and it’s that same smile from before, easy, overflown with affection and fondness. His hand travels up Tony’s face, fingers tousling his hair, sending shivers all the way from Tony’s neck down to his toes. “I’m guessing someone has been in the lab too long again.”

Tony distantly hears a sound he guesses must be Barnes’ laugh, but he couldn’t look away even if the man had a gun pointed to his head, because Steve’s hand slides down from Tony’s hair to take his wrist, and he lifts Tony’s hand to his face and presses a light kiss on his knuckles. Steve actually fucking closes his eyes to do it, as if it’s really important to feel Tony’s dry skin against his mouth, as if even the lightest brush is enough for him to want to dwell on it.

“Yeah. I guess I. Did. Maybe.” He sounds like an idiot, so he searches for an excuse, desperate to find anything while his brain is too focused on the way Steve’s eyelashes look when he closes his eyes. “I… I need some sleep.”

Steve laughs this time, shaking his head as if he’s used to Tony’s bad sleeping habits. “Maybe I should walk you to our room so you don’t bump your head,” he jokes, but his blue eyes are earnest and concerned as he waits for a response.

Our room. Tony nods as a reflex, thinking he must have misheard, and then Steve closes his fingers around Tony’s wrist and starts pulling him towards the door. He smacks Barnes’ shoulder with his free hand. “Talk to you later, Buck.”

Tony just goes along, playing up the role of sleep-deprived zombie, because even his genius mind needs a moment to wrap itself around what’s happening.

It’s a bug, Tony thinks, following as Steve walks towards the compound’s entrance. It’s a failure in the system. Tiberius Stone is really just a hack after all.

Still. Our room.

As they get inside the elevator, Tony feels heat prickling from his cheeks down to his neck. A bug, certainly, but how? What misstep in programming the nanites could have caused this?

And then Steve’s thumb strokes his hand, moving slightly to interlace their fingers together, and Tony’s brain just shuts down, because.

There’s a ring.

A ring on Steve’s finger.

A ring on a very specific finger.

Tony lets out a noise, quickly forcing his eyes away from the sight of Steve’s big, warm hand interlaced with his and the thin, discreet gold band, right on Steve's ring finger.

Steve gives his hand a light squeeze. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Tony says frantically, even though his voice shakes, and his face is so warm, and fuck, he’s sweating. Steve is now holding his sweaty hand. “I’m just. I.” He bites the inside of his cheek so hard it nearly draws blood, trying to make his next move careful, but it works as well as it can be expected. “I’m not wearing mine.”

For a millisecond, Tony is certain that he somehow misunderstood every single one of Steve’s actions, from the kiss to the hand holding to the sweetheart still echoing in his head, and even though Steve is wearing a wedding ring and kissing Tony, he’s married to someone else—Barnes, Peggy Carter, literally anyone else in the world other than…

“Oh?” Steve raises an eyebrow, looking at their joined hands. The corner of his lips turns upwards in an affectionate half-smile, as if he’s amused by what he definitely seems to think is just confusion born of Tony’s lack of sleep. “You always take it off when handling dangerous substances, remember? It’s probably just somewhere on your worktable.”

And then he leans closer again, tilting his head to press a kiss to Tony’s temple.

“I’ll help you look for it later, okay?” His mouth moves so close to Tony’s skin that it makes it tingle, his voice low, enveloping like a blanket. Tony’s knees feel so weak it’s honestly a miracle he doesn’t fall down right there.

When the elevator door opens, Tony rushes ahead, slipping out of Steve’s hold. He takes a few quick strides into the suite, on his way to the bedroom, desperate to put some distance between them, to get that amazing I.Q. of his to start working again.

The room looks like the one Tony knows, except it’s more organized than it would be before the work of the cleaning crew. Tony doesn’t stop around to check out the decoration, though, opening the door to the bedroom.

In a way, he almost expects to walk into a honeymoon suite, so it’s a relief to see his old king size bed, his desk filled with documents, the platinum TV across the room. Tony takes a deep breath.

Steve is right behind him, and when Tony turns to look at him, he seems a little confused by Tony’s escape. His half-smile has faded, and for an irrational moment Tony misses it fiercely. It’s as if someone just turned off the sun.

“Sorry,” Tony says, running a hand through his hair. He’s really thankful for his terrible sleeping habits for providing a reasonable explanation for why his voice sounds so shaky. “I’m just a little twitchy.” He tries a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure you’re gonna be able to fall asleep?” Steve asks, sounding genuinely concerned and a little… something else, that Tony is not quite sure what it is. “Want me to stay with you?”

“No,” Tony answers, entirely too fast, from the look on Steve’s face. “I just need to… clear my thoughts a little.” It’s not even a lie, but Steve’s blue eyes find his and Tony feels strangely guilty anyway.

“Okay,” Steve says, after a moment of hesitation. He walks towards the bed and pulls the covers, clearing a spot for Tony.

Please, let him not fluff my pillow, Tony thinks, a little desperate.

Steve starts fluffing his pillow.

“Just be sure to rest, then, alright?” He turns his head towards Tony, voice a little lighter. Tony is a little stuck on his hands – big, gentle hands going over his pillow, smoothing and softening as if the regular pillow is not worthy of Tony’s head. “FRIDAY will let me know if you keep working,” Steve adds, voice playful but firm, as if he’s had the experience of having to put Tony to bed many, many times before.

“Okay,” Tony says, body rigid.

Steve steps away from the bed and comes closer to press a kiss on his forehead. It’s so light, so casual, Tony has to fight not to flinch. Part of him wants to push Steve away, to get away from the close contact, but he forces himself to stay still, to at least play at some amount of normalcy.

From the wounded look on Steve’s face, Tony’s tension doesn’t go unnoticed. “Are you sure everything's okay?”

As he talks, something happens – it’s as if the light bends, the room around them distorting slightly.

Like a picture going out of focus.

Like a glitch.

Panic rises in Tony’s chest –he hasn’t sent the signal yet, he can barely believe what is happening, this is too fast. He forces his body to move closer. He’s unable to mimic any of Steve’s affection towards him, though, only raising his hand and setting it on one of his wide shoulders awkwardly. “Yeah. No… no worries. I just really need, need some sleep, sweet—sweetheart.” He pretty much chokes out, his voice strangled, the pet name on his lips sounding like a parody of Steve’s silky, sweet tone.

Steve’s eyes find his, though, and whatever he sees seems to reassure him enough, because the room around them starts going back in focus, taking shape and going back to look like the real world.

“Have a good sleep,” he says. There’s a spark of something else, frailer, almost insecure, in his voice, that tugs Tony’s heartstrings before smashing them altogether. “I love you.”

And Tony is cursed. He will hear the echo of these words for the rest of his life, and every sound he hears from now on will pale in comparison, every song meaningless and weak compared to Steve Rogers’ voice saying he loves him.

His heart feels strangled, as if someone is squeezing it so tight it’s a miracle it can still contract enough to keep beating. His next words come out roughly, his voice hoarse: “Love you, too.”

In a world where nothing around them is real, the truth is too heavy, and every syllable burns Tony’s mouth. In this moment, he’s certain he will fail. He can’t do this. It’s too much, to be in this dream world that’s supposed to be Steve’s but feels like it should be his own.

Steve smiles.

(Tony thinks: I wish you were telling the truth.

I wish I was lying.)

Then Steve turns, leaving, and Tony stands in the bedroom, taken by an irrational urge to ask him to come back.

Chapter Text

Of fucking course, Tony doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t think he has ever felt less inclined to sleep in his life, and that’s something, coming from him.

He takes the time to investigate the bedroom, instead. It’s a nice way to keep his hands occupied as his mind races at light speed.

There are two pictures on his nightstand.

The first one shows him and Steve in suits. Tony doesn’t recognize the one he’s wearing, so he suspects it was probably custom made for the occasion; Steve’s is a dark blue, perfectly fitted. In the picture, Steve is grinning wide. He has his arms wrapped around Tony’s waist and a dot of white foam on his nose, which Tony can guess is cake frosting, because it’s all over his own face in the picture, too. He’s also laughing, hands on Steve’s shoulders and head thrown slightly back, eyes shut. Steve’s gaze is on him entirely. Neither of them is looking at the camera.

In the second picture, though, they are definitely posing. They are in front of a huge statue Tony guesses must be a monument of some sort, though he doesn’t know where. Tony is wearing sunglasses and, this time, his arm is on Steve’s waist. Steve’s beard is more of a scruff, and his face and arms are all red, definitely the result of a light sunburn. He’s smiling, though, his hair incredibly light, falling over his forehead. They both look so touristy and happy it’s almost offensive. Tony is wearing a fucking Captain America T-shirt.

Next to the pictures, there’s a pair of reading glasses Tony recognizes as his, a tablet, a pen, and a newspaper wrapped with the crosswords half-done. Tony has never done the crosswords in his life.

The drawers are different, too, Tony finds. There are separate piles of socks and underwear Tony doesn’t recognize – he very adamantly refuses to let his brain dwell on the discovery that Steve is a briefs man -, and when he opens his closet, he can see clothing in hangers that’s also not his. He runs his hands over them and recognizes some of Steve’s shirts.

In a separate cabinet, there are all his suits, and then, at the end of the closet, there’s a specific one in a garment bag.

Tony doesn’t need to look at it to know it’s the same one from the wedding picture. He decides to stop searching the closet.

The next step is the bathroom, which, just like the bedroom, is full of tiny differences, small details that let Tony know it’s not just his. Two sets of towels, two toothbrushes, and so on. Tony sees a shampoo of his favorite brand except meant for blond hair and immediately knows: I bought this for him. Then he puts it right back where he found, to resist the temptation of smelling it.

When he finishes picking the room and the bathroom apart, Tony sits on the bed, trying to get his thoughts in order.

There’s no other way of putting it now: In this dream world, he and Steve are married, have been married for God knows how long, and Steve is immersed in this fantasy to the point that he thinks it’s real. Okay. Okay.

Tony wonders how did this happen. Because– it’s a bug, a failure in the machine, it… it has to be. Right? He runs a hand through his hair, sighing.

Maybe it’s your fantasy, that wicked, evil inner voice whispers, relentless. Maybe you dreamed this up and convinced yourself that’s what he wanted.

The thought is cruel but tempting, an explanation that doesn’t makes Tony feel like a hurricane is inside his head, and the only thing that stops him from believing it is the memory of Barnes in the gym, Barnes and Steve talking like the best friends they are. Tony is pretty sure no fantasy of his would ever include Barnes in any way.

(He knows Barnes is innocent. He does.

It’s just that looking at him brings back the image of the most painful things Tony’s ever felt. Things like the images of the hand who strangled his mother or Steve Rogers turning his back to him.)

The idea that this is Steve’s dream, though, is still too impossible for Tony to wrap his mind around. His last memory of Steve is of the weight of his body trapping Tony to the floor, furious eyes pining him down as he lifted the shield above his head.

(For a moment, a part of Tony had almost reveled in that, in that raw display of anger all over Steve’s features. His own body was shaking, blind with fury, and he wanted Steve to be angry, wanted Steve to feel even a fraction of the rage and pain he was feeling – wanted to yell at him, to punch his face, to burst his precious Barnes’ head open. Stoic, righteous Steve, trying to stop Tony, trying to sound all rational and reasonable after keeping the truth from him for years, as if the death of his parents was nothing, as if Tony was nothing.

Steve brought the shield down and Tony remembers thinking, for one flashing second: at least he cares enough to kill me.

He was even wrong about that, in the end.)

Tony shuts his eyes. He knows he needs to plan a way to talk to Steve, to gently start breaching the barrier in his mind between fantasy and reality.

It’s hard, though. It’s hard to reconcile the Steve who kissed him, the one fluffing his pillows and calling him “sweetheart”, with the Steve he knows and remembers (the Steve who left, the Steve who was never his to stay in the first place).

Tony doesn’t feel angry, not anymore, not like in the bunker. The anger in the bunker had been all-powerful in the moment, but Tony came to almost miss it later, when time allowed the hurt to truly set in. Then, he’d get down to thinking about Steve’s actions, thinking of the why, researching and learning every detail about the brainwashing of the Winter Soldier.

Deep down, Tony would regret the anger, and that, more than anything, would sting – not thinking of how much Steve didn’t trust him, but of how Tony had proven him right.

Right now, though – yeah, he’s not angry. Mostly he’s just… confused, still feeling the lingering touches of Steve on his skin.

He spends the rest of the afternoon using dream FRIDAY. He has to give it to Stone Industries: it’s truly amazing tech, keeping an entire universe alive in Steve’s head. He tries to catch up on details of the fantasy he may need in order to talk to Steve without getting caught blindsided. Aside from their marriage (which, apparently, was a very discreet ceremony that wasn’t covered by the media, but Tony refuses to look for photos or videos, for his own sanity), everything seems to be… very normal. The Avengers are all the same, all residing in the Compound. Barnes, Tony is relieved to find out, is not part of the team, but apparently, he visits regularly.

Once he finishes updating himself, Tony starts thinking strategies. The slight glitch when Steve felt his discomfort was dangerous, and Tony can’t let that happen again. He has no idea how Steve’s brain would react to Steve breaking out of the simulation without the nanites being turned off – would a different fantasy immediately replace the failed one? Or would he just be stuck in a blank coma, maybe indefinitely? Whatever it is, Tony doesn’t want to find out.

Steve comes back when it’s starting to get dark, and he knocks on the door of the bedroom.

“Come in,” Tony says, his nerves already acting up. He knows he needs to be more convincing this time, so he lies on the bed and messes up the pillows and covers, as if he’s just woken up from a long nap.

“Hey,” Steve says. He’s the slightest bit hesitant, but he seems pleased when he notices the messy bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better.” Tony makes a show of yawning and stretching his arm above his head. “Sorry for, uh, being weird before.” He watches Steve from the corner of his eye, alert to his every movement.

Steve smiles.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says, coming closer. He’s sweaty from whatever workout he was doing, so thankfully he keeps his body away from Tony, leaning forward to lightly press his lips on Tony's forehead. “Not like I didn’t know what I was getting into when I married you,” he adds, a playful spark in his eyes, and Tony’s heart rushes pathetically in his chest in response.

“Uh. Yeah,” Tony manages to say.

Steve apparently takes his awkwardness as sleepiness, fondness all over his face as he steps towards the bathroom.

“I’m gonna take a shower so you don’t kick me out of the bed for stinking,” he says, rolling his shoulders forward in a stretching movement. Tony feels a little hypnotized by the muscles of his back, so much he barely feels thankful when Steve closes the bathroom door behind him.

While Steve is gone, Tony closes his eyes, trying to push himself toward sleep even though he knows there’s no way he will be able to do it. His own bed feels like a foreign territory, vastly different just with the knowledge that Steve will be there by his side, through the night. Tony finds himself worrying about ridiculous things, like how much he moves or shifts during sleep, or snoring, or sweating too much. Of course, the concern makes no sense, since Steve has been sleeping with him for a while in his fantasy now, so none of that would come as a surprise to him, but Tony can’t help but worry that Steve has expectations of pleasant behavior from his dream self that the real version of him can’t live up to.

He hears the door opening as Steve leaves the bathroom, and the sweet smell of shampoo and soap floods the room. Tony inhales deeply and tries to forget that Steve must be changing right next to the bed.

A few moments afterwards, the bed shifts as Steve climbs in next to him. Tony’s fingers curl around the sheets nervously as he feels an arm being laid over his waist and a body coming closer, fitting against Tony’s back.

“Hey,” Steve whispers, light in a way that lets Tony know he’s definitely smiling, and a part of Tony wants to cry. He wants to cry, because the most fucked up part of everything is that it feels so good, to have Steve holding him, his solid and warm presence more comforting and wonderful than anything Tony’s ever felt. His body relaxes against his better judgement, melting against Steve’s in a way that draws an unexpected sigh out of Tony’s lips.

Steve chuckles, clearly pleased. It’s a soft sound, that Tony can only hear because they’re so close.

Tony can’t imagine any version of himself, dream or not, ever getting used to this.

“Hey,” Tony croaks. Steve scoots against him, his knees at the back of Tony’s thighs.

The last time they were this close, they were trying to kill each other.

(Tony’s nightmares had proven to him, though, that he would never have been able to kill Steve. Barnes, sure – he could’ve taken him out on that uncontrollable anger, even if he would have regretted it later. But Steve? Even the thought makes Tony wake up sweating cold and shaking, unable to go back to sleep.)

A silence follows his response. Tony feels Steve’s nose nuzzling the back of his neck, sending a shiver down his spine, the warmth of his breath incredibly distracting.

He can’t see Steve’s face, but he imagines he’s closing his eyes to sleep, and he wonders if he’s got that same peaceful expression Tony saw in his workshop, when he was imagining what could Steve be seeing to make him so happy.

“Can I ask you something?” he hears himself saying.

He doesn’t really know where he’s going with this. He only knows there’s a pulsing urge in his chest to try to make sense of everything he’s seen so far. He wants to ask why, but he knows he can’t say that.

Steve takes a moment to answer, so Tony was right, he was probably getting ready to sleep. “Sure.” He gives a light squeeze around Tony’s waist, and his beard scratches the back of Tony’s neck, not helping the whole shivers situation at all. “What is it?”

“I was just. Uh. Thinking.” Tony presses his lips together, trying to be strategic about this. Fuck it, he decides. “What you said before, about… about knowing what you were getting into. When you—when you married me.” The words are choked out, because it feels foreign, to say that to someone. To say it to Steve, specifically, feels almost otherworldly.

“Yes?” Steve’s voice is inquiring now, more awake than before.

“I guess I was wondering if you ever… You know, if you ever regret it. Or—or if you think, I don’t know, that it could’ve been different. Somehow.”

Now he feels Steve fully awake behind him, his grip growing more urgent on Tony's waist.

“Hey,” he says, trying to pull Tony slightly, to get him to turn around. Tony resists, both because he’s a coward who can’t handle looking at Steve right now, and because he feels like a coward for asking this in the first place. In a way, it feels invasive, like he’s poking inside Steve’s mind as he’d poke an engine, trying to find out some part that would make everything around them make sense.

“I’m not upset,” Tony says, not wanting to create another glitching incident. “I’m just curious. Just asking.”

Steve’s hand caresses his torso, climbing up towards his chest. Tony’s heart rushes as he feels the weight of Steve’s palm over his shirt, just a thin fabric separating it from the reactor.

“Never,” Steve says, after a moment, his voice solemn and serious, as if he’s never been more certain of anything else. “I would never regret it.”

Tony swallows. This is why it’s so fucking hard, talking to Steve. Everything with Steve is so damn focused. Tony usually feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of feelings he’s capable of feeling at once - Steve, on the other hand, seems to always have one primary feeling for every situation, and he can grab onto it and make it his solid, unshakable stance. This is what makes him so amazing to watch and so infuriating to fight with. This, Tony realizes, is what would make it such a monumental experience, to be loved by him.

“Okay,” Tony says. “And you don’t think it could have ever been… different? I mean,” He’s being careless right now, making bets about the reality of Steve’s fantasy he has no idea are actually true. “We didn’t get off to the best start.”

Steve’s chuckle is muffled against the collar of Tony’s shirt. “No, we didn’t,” he says, and something about that, about the knowledge that Steve’s mind didn’t rewrite this part of their story (the first of their many, many messes), floods Tony’s chest with warmth. He wants to turn around and hug him. He focuses on staring at the side table next to the bed instead. “I couldn’t stand you.”

“I couldn’t stand you,” Tony says, and it’s half truth, half lie, entirely too complicated to be either of those things.

“You made that very clear.” Steve’s voice is light, and Tony feels his lips pressing a kiss against the back of his neck, a wave of shivers following the tiny touch. “Still. I don’t think it could ever have been different.” His hands travel up and down, in steady, comforting lines over Tony’s chest and stomach. “I can’t imagine not falling in love with you.”

Tony bites his lower lip so hard it almost draws blood. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, and Tony can feel his smile against his skin, a soft, smooth line. It’s fucking insane, to think of all the ways he has experienced Steve’s smile today. It makes his head spin. “Why are you asking me these things?”

“No reason,” Tony hurries to reply. He settles more onto Steve’s embrace, telling himself the bullshit lie that he’s only doing it to reassure him, and not because the contact makes his body more relaxed and comfortable than he has felt in months. “Just, I don’t know. I think too much.”

“Sometimes,” Steve agrees. His hand comes up to Tony’s hair and ruffles it. “But don’t go getting any ideas in that genius brain of yours, ok?” His other hand, still around Tony’s waist, gives him a light squeeze. “You’re stuck with me, mister. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

There’s so much more Tony wants to ask. So much he wants to say, to throw on the table. In a way, he realizes, he wants to argue with Steve, to fight against what he’s saying, to prove him wrong. He wants that to not be Steve’s fantasy, he realizes, because he’s terrified of what it means, to think there’s even a chance something like this could happen in the real world.


 

Sleeping inside the dream machine doesn’t work like sleeping in real life. For Tony, it’s almost as if time passes by immediately as soon as he closes his eyes – or, more accurately, he imagines, as soon as Steve does. Either way, when he sees sunlight creeping between the curtains of the bedroom’s window, he doesn’t feel any more rested.

Steve is still next to him, though not spooning him exactly. He still has one arm over Tony, in a clumsy, but so casual gesture of intimacy that it makes it hard for Tony to think of what he will do now, what is his next step.

“’Morning,” Steve says, with a yawn. He turns to lie on his back and stretches his body. His sleeping t-shirt rides up a little, and Tony, who is by no means a religious man, thanks whatever deity might be listening that he can’t see the peek of Steve’s rear that those low-hanging sweatpants definitely don’t manage to hide.

“’Morning,” Tony grunts in response, without moving.

He turns towards the wall to not see when Steve starts changing into his workout closes.

“Oh, I just remembered I didn’t ask you last night,” Steve’s voice comes from behind him and Tony does his best to not imagine him in various states of undress. “Did you finish the HUD?”

“What?”

“The new design for Rhodey’s HUD? Wasn’t that what you were working on?” Steve asks, and Tony feels a little grateful for a familiar topic. Speaking about work – that’s safe.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s done,” Tony says. Then, excited for the opportunity, he adds: “It’s just some minor upgrades, nothing huge.”

“Sure, sure,” Steve doesn’t sound like he believes it, but his voice is amused, as if he thinks Tony’s just being modest. “Anyway – I thought we could have a day in, then. I finished the paperwork with the latest mission reports yesterday.”

Only Steve would have mission reports inside of his goddamn ideal fantasy world, Tony thinks, his mouth curling in an involuntary smile.

Then he processes what Steve is actually saying.

“Uh. A day in?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. Tony hears him picking up something inside the closet, probably a pair of sneakers. “I thought we could order some food, watch a movie. We’ve been going out so much lately.”

Have we? Tony thinks, before he realizes that this is such a standard, basic, couple situation. It sounds almost comically normal, compared to the reality of his and Steve’s lives. He wonders if part of Steve craves that, this simple, uncomplicated domesticity.

“Sounds good,” Tony agrees. He knows he can’t avoid Steve forever, especially not in his dream world. And he’s done enough recon work by now – it’s time to start laying the groundwork for what he actually came here to do.

There’s a moment of silence, where Tony can hear Steve finishing changing. Then he feels a light touch on his shoulder. He sits up quickly, almost as a reflex, but thankfully not shrugging Steve’s hand off. When he turns, Steve is wearing his workout clothes and staring at him with thoughtful eyes.

Tony’s mind distantly notices that being in a dream didn’t make Steve suddenly learn his clothing size.

“So, about yesterday…”

Tony feels his body tensing, hyper aware of the proximity between them as if they haven’t spent the night spooning.

“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t getting any wrong thoughts.” Steve sounds a little hesitant too, as if he’s also feeling the tension. “You’ve never said anything like that before, and the last thing I want is for you to doubt us.” His voice grows firmer as his words come out, as Tony’s chest grows tighter. “We can talk about this, if you want. We can talk about anything.”

Tony frowns. He honestly frowns, because if there’s one thing he knows for sure about his and Steve’s relationship, is that they can’t talk to each other about anything.

“I’m okay,” he says, although he’s still thrown off by Steve’s words, by the way he keeps staring into Tony's eyes, unafraid and certain. “Really, I was just asking."

“Alright.” Steve nods, but his hand still lingers on Tony’s shoulder, his thumb drawing a small line on Tony’s collarbone. “Just wanted to make sure. I know we started off messy.” His mouth curls in a shy smile, but it’s so fond, Tony kind of wants to freeze time so he can capture it, because he didn’t know such a huge amount of affection could fit in such a tiny expression. “But we’ve moved past it, and I’m so happy we did.”

Did we? Tony wonders again. Being in Steve’s dream is like getting constant curve balls thrown at him – just when he feels like he’s gotten a grip on the frontier between dream and reality, Steve says something that messes everything up in his head. We still met by yelling and insulting each other here, but did we break our team apart by fighting? Did I try to kill your best friend and then you struck my chest with your shield? And if yes – how the hell did we move past that?

There’s no way Tony can bring himself to ask these questions, so he doesn’t say anything. Instead, he lets his body answer, and, apparently, it turns out what his body wants is to hold Steve’s hands, so that’s what he does. He stares into Steve’s eyes – he’s fascinated by how the shades of blue mix in them, how they go from cold to warm in about a thousand different ways, how his eyelashes frame them and turn his strong gaze into something almost delicate.

Steve blinks, and there’s a millisecond delay between the movement in both of his eyes, one slightly slower than the other. Impossible to notice unless you were staring at him fixatedly, like Tony is doing right now.

Tony thinks: Oh, he blinks weird. Then he thinks: Did we hurt each other here, too? And he pulls Steve closer and kisses him.

It’s a quick kiss, but—but it’s fucking hard to make it quick, that’s what it is. Steve’s lips are so soft, so plump and smooth that Tony can’t help but imagine how it would be, to open his mouth and capture that lower lip between his teeth. He doesn’t, of course he doesn’t, but even the thought is inebriating, and so is the way Steve leans into the kiss, how he doesn’t seem to mind Tony’s pulling him into an awkward position, how he doesn’t seem to mind anything as long as Tony is kissing him.

When Tony pulls away, he feels a little like a teenager, flushed and winded over a tongueless, chaste kiss. Looking at Steve makes him feel a little better, because he knows he wasn’t the only one affected. It actually takes a moment for Steve to open his eyes, and that, that just messes Tony up, because who even does that, who gets lost like that in such a small touch, and fuck, Steve would totally reciprocate if Tony opened his mouth, wouldn’t he? He’d part his lips immediately, pliant, and Tony would bet his reactor that he’d taste so fucking sweet—

“You, uh. You should go do your… your exercise thing,” Tony babbles, gesturing clumsily towards Steve’s workout attire.

Steve grins, something cheeky in his smile, and his hand goes to the back of Tony’s neck, gentle, but still big and firm. “Are you sure?” He asks, all the blue in the world directed at Tony, completely focused on him as Steve’s voice goes a few octaves lower, dripping with honey and promises. “I’d be willing to spare a few hours.”

There’s no mistaking what he’s offering, and for one insane second all Tony wants to do is say fuck yes, pull Steve into bed and find out what sounds he makes when he’s coming apart. But it’s just a quick, delirious moment, and it’s immediately replaced with shame that he would even consider that, that he’d go so low as to feel tempted to take advantage of Steve like this.

“No. Go on your run,” Tony says, his own voice gaining steadiness for what feels like the first time since he got inside the dream. He won’t do this, no matter how much he wants to taste the full extent of Steve’s kisses, how much he wants to know how his body shudders and shivers when it’s touched, how much he wants to hear his voice shaken and overwhelmed with pleasure, unable to say anything other than Tony, Tony, Tony. He may want this, may feel his body burning at the mere thought, but he would never do it if there’s even the slightest chance Steve may not want it as much as he does. “And when we get back, we’ll… cuddle. Yeah. And, then, uh…” He searches his brain for something to say. “We can put Lord of the Rings on.”

The movie suggestion is a bit of a guess. Tony has seen (okay, maybe watched) Steve reading Tolkien’s books around the Tower multiple times, when he was using his floor for whatever mission they were working on, and yes, maybe he entertained the idea of buying two tickets for the newest Hobbit movie a few times then, in that period between the Chitauri and Ultron, when he and Steve were able to establish something that resembled a friendship just enough for Tony to dream of more. But he never actually got around to asking him, and for a moment it feels like he’s putting himself on the spot with this offer, letting real hopes slip inside this fantasy.

Then Steve’s smile grows, and so does the warmth in Tony’s chest, and God, why isn’t Steve this happy all the time? Like, always?

“Okay,” Steve whispers, his voice giddy and his eyes sparkling, and Tony feels like he’s cheating the world, for being the only person who gets to see this. This smile should be broadcasted on Times Square. For world peace.

Steve leans down and presses one last kiss on Tony’s mouth, and Tony is, at once, taken by the urge to just keep him there, forget about anything that isn’t that soft mouth.

Then Steve pulls away and does his weird blinking thing, and Tony thinks, at the same time, I love you, and, what the fuck am I doing?

“Okay,” Tony says, hands climbing to Steve’s shoulders, pushing him away lightly. His face must spell out his temptation to do otherwise, because Steve’s expression is amused, but thankfully, he doesn’t question Tony’s behavior, only nodding and still taking a moment too long before finally standing up and turning his back to the bed.

Tony watches as he goes away, and when Steve turns his head to take one last look, he’s smiling, and Tony can’t help but smile back.


 

While Steve is on his run, Tony makes plans.

He’s not really confused anymore. He is, after all, a genius, and as blindsided as he was by the world in Steve’s mind, he’s clever enough to have taken all the information in, by now.

All things considered, there are two courses of action available: what he needs to do and what he wants to do. Deep down, Tony is aware that the two of them don’t intersect, not really, but Tony’s ability to figure out the best possible plan for any given problem is only matched by his ability to stick his fingers in his ears and go la la la as he watches the plan pass him by.

Anyway. There’s what he needs to do ― wake Steve up ― and what he wants to do ― go after Steve, tell him to leave his workout alone, take him to the couch and just cuddle him for a while, watching that fucking geeky movie he loves, hearing his laugh and seeing his smile and not thinking he’s not gonna get anything like this in the real world.

But.

There’s something else.

There’s what he can do.

And what he can do ― which is, definitely, not what he should do by any means, but hey, let’s not dwell on that ― is to look for answers.

Tony may be a little blind, sometimes, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s learned to accept the impossible when it’s presented right in front of him. That’s just how his life goes, apparently: this guy turns into a green monster, aliens are real, your dead father saved your life with a new element, and, hey, Steve Rogers is in love with you. Have a nice day.

But Tony isn’t exactly looking for answers. Instead, he’s been given one big, overwhelming, impossible answer, and now he’s scraping for questions that might help him make any sense of it.

And the thing is: he knows what can help him.

Or, to be more precise, who can.

Tony spends almost fifteen minutes fidgeting and pacing in the bedroom before deciding that fuck it, he’s already knee-deep in torture, why not just poke the wound where it’s freshest and most sensitive?

He finds Barnes in kitchen, sitting on the isle.

Tony can’t see his face, but he can vaguely assume he’s eating something. There’s a newspaper in his non-metal hand.

For someone who’s been the star of so many of Tony’s nightmares, he looks frighteningly normal.

Tony takes a deep breath. He tries to enjoy this moment of advantage as much as he can, but it’s hard. Every muscle in his body is clenching at Barnes’ presence, and he can feel his breaths getting shorter, even as he fights to keep control of them.

But Tony is nothing if not impulsive, so he forces himself to step inside the kitchen with loud strides, making his presence known.

Barnes turns slightly, giving him a head nod and turning back to the newspaper. Tony stops right across the counter, in front of him.

“Morning,” Barnes grunts, between a mouthful of cereal. Looking now, without the shock from yesterday at the gym, he looks impossibly young. Tony wonders if those are Steve’s memories at play, better prepared to form an image of young Sargent James Barnes than of the deadly Winter Soldier.

Tony manages a shaky nod in reply.

Barnes doesn’t seem to care much. He pours himself more cereal, then extends the box towards Tony, his face a silent question.

Tony feels torn between throwing up and giving a hysterical laugh. He takes the box, instead.

Barnes turns back to his newspaper, apparently not noticing.

Tony wants to hate him. He really, really does. Bizarrely, though, he finds that it’s harder to hate Barnes when he’s not thinking about things other than Barnes’ own fucked up existence. It’s easier to hate Barnes more as an afterthought than as the sole focus.

Namely, it’s easier to hate Barnes when he’s hating Steve.

Back then, the all-consuming rage and hurt felt so huge it was almost overwhelming. It was easier, in those times, to pretend it was still about Barnes, when it never was, not really.

(If Tony is honest, it’s not that he never blamed Barnes for his parents – especially not there, at the bunker, when it felt like the world was falling over his head. It’s just that afterwards, that blame was too hollow to hold onto, and, when he was forced to face the prisoner behind the Winter Soldier’s terrifying aura, Tony couldn’t blame Barnes any more than he, as a teenager, blamed the car’s brakes.)

“Can I ask you something?” Tony hears himself saying.

Barnes, still chewing on his cereal, nods.

Tony inhales deeply. There’s a spark of guilt in his stomach. Asking Steve questions is one thing, but this feels like deliberately snooping inside his mind, digging into memories and feelings Tony has no right to know.

However—he still feels the tingle of Steve’s beard against his skin. If he will wake Steve up, if he will tear this world apart, then he needs to at least bring himself to understand it.

“Was there ever something between you and Steve?”

For a moment, Barnes just stares at him in silence. Then, he throws his head back, making a muffled noise, and Tony can only watch as he fights to swallow the cereal in the midst of a fit of laughter.

“Me and Steve?” He asks, when he finally manages to compose himself a little, with a large smile on his face. Tony wonders how many times in his life Steve has seen that smile – brattish, almost arrogant, but still friendly. “What the hell are you talking about, man?”

Tony wants to shrug, but he can’t.

“He cares about you,” he chokes out instead. “He… really, really does.”

“’Course he does. He damn well should, that punk.” Barnes’s smile grows fonder, and then a spark of suspicion crosses his face. “Why are you asking me this? Trouble in paradise?”

Tony forces himself to shrug, this time. “I’m just asking,” he says. His voice is a little weak, but he pushes himself to keep going. He feels like he’s poking the wound but it somehow refuses to bleed, and he needs that, needs that hurt, to ground himself in reality. “Me and Steve, we can be—I mean. Let’s just say a lot of people wouldn’t have seen this, I mean, us, coming.” He gestures aimlessly in Barnes’ direction. “You and him, though. You’re… different.”

Barnes raises an eyebrow, eyes studying Tony for a moment. “Steve and I are brothers,” he says finally. “It’s not like that between us. Never has been.”

Tony clenches his hands into fists. Just like with Steve in the bedroom, he almost wants to argue, to say Barnes he’s wrong, he can’t be right.

“He’d do anything for you,” he says instead, because he can’t help it, he needs to say something.

“Of course he would,” Barnes says, and now he frowns. “He’s Steve. That’s just how he works.”

And Tony knows this. He really, really does, which is what makes everything so damn hard, right now. He imagines young Steve becoming friends with James Barnes, watching him die, and then later trying to protect him. Finding out about the Winter Soldier, about his crimes, and still trying to fight, to solve it, to save him somehow. Stubborn, self-righteous Steve Rogers, who would never leave a friend behind. Who would keep secrets to protect those he cared, those he—

Stop it, Tony tries, but it’s impossible. Before, it felt like a painful, but rational situation: Steve choosing Barnes over him, choosing to keep Barnes safe over trusting Tony. A straight, clean knife in Tony’s back.

Now, though, it’s all such a fucking mess. Tony can’t stop thinking about Steve’s hands – Steve touching him, holding him. Steve saying he couldn’t imagine not falling in love with him.

Steve caring for both Barnes and him.

He had no right, Tony thinks. And it’s true, but it doesn’t change the hurricane of feelings messing up his head. It’s as if the knife was replaced by a thousand small, sharp needles—the pain follows no straight line, twisting and curling in on itself, impossible to distinguish where it starts and where it ends.

“I know,” he tells Barnes, because of course he does. He knows how Steve is – has literally seen inside his head now – and he knows how much they can hurt each other, and he knows he wants Steve with every fiber of his being, so much it pains him to think about it, and somehow, being wanted back doesn’t make it any easier.

Does it have to be, though?

The thought hits him like lightning, and it’s as if an electric current takes over him. Since when did Tony Stark ever care about what was easy?

Barnes is staring at him with a half-amused expression, and Tony can imagine: his face is probably funny right now. Doesn’t matter – he’s taken over by a bizarre and undeniable hope, along with sheer want to just see Steve, touch him and hold him and make him smile that huge smile.

“You know,” Barnes says, grabbing a mug of coffee and taking a sip. He smiles before continuing. “You’re good for each other.”

I’m glad I didn’t kill you, Tony thinks, and he’s shocked by the sheer honesty of the thought. He is, at the end of the day, grateful to Steve for stopping him from doing that, stopping his rage from taking him to the point of no return. And he is also fucking mad at Steve, and he also wants to touch him, and fuck, how long is Steve taking on that damn run, anyway?

“Don’t make me cry,” Tony quips. Then, because this isn’t the real Barnes, and no one will ever know he said this, he adds: “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I mean it. Stevie—he can be hard to figure out. Most people look at him and see just… the propaganda, y’know, the dancing monkey.” Tony frowns. “But he really opens up with you.”

Tony thinks back on Steve at the bedroom. We can talk about anything. He thinks on how much Steve touches him – how affectionate he is, how open.

And he gets it.

It’s as if a lightbulb goes off in his head. He can almost hear a clicking sound.

“Hey,” he starts, exceedingly casual. “Was it too hard for you to handle us together? You know, after Siberia?”

Barnes, as expected, seems confused. “After what?”

“Siberia,” Tony repeats, his voice stronger now. “It was quite a mess back there. I’m not proud of how I’ve acted, but I mean, finding out like that…”

“What are you talking about, Stark?”

“You know. The… The things you—the things HYDRA made you do.”

Barnes’ eyes widen, a flash of pain in his expression. “Stark—Tony,” he says, his voice very careful. “You… You knew about that. You’ve—you’ve known for years.”

Tony’s jaw clenches. “I have, haven’t I?” He stands up suddenly, startling Barnes. “I need to go.”

Barnes stares at him with a shocked, nervous gaze Tony is pretty sure he would never see in the man’s real face. “Stark,” he calls, and it doesn’t sound like his voice – it mixed with something else, another voice, stern and strong and that makes Tony’s heart swell in his chest. “Is everything okay?”

When Tony turns, Barnes’ image is slightly wavy under the kitchen lights, and his pale blue eyes makes Tony think of another pair of blue eyes, one he has loathed and loved for years and now desperately needs to see again.

“Not yet,” he says. “But it will be.”


 

Before Steve arrives, Tony looks at the pictures.

The wedding picture makes him feel antsy, too anxious for Steve to get back, so he focuses on the other one, the tourist picture. It’s so damn cheesy, they look ridiculous. But now Tony isn’t thinking about the disgustingly couple-y vibes that the picture emanates.

No, he’s looking at Steve. Sun burnt, happy Steve. Steve, in love. Steve, with Tony’s arm around his waist, body leaned towards him even if he’s looking at the camera. Steve who has a team, who has his best friend back. Steve who touches Tony all the time, closes his eyes to kiss Tony’s hand, asks Tony about his feelings and loves him without a care in the world.

Steve, who arrives after a moment or two, not sweaty despise working out, because dreams don’t always have to make sense, and especially not when you feel you’re about to wake up.

“Tony?” He asks, from the doorway. Something about his posture seems momentarily foreign and then immediately familiar, because, Tony realizes, it’s stiff. “What are you doing?”

Tony puts the picture aside on the bedside table. “Just waiting for you.”

Steve’s eyes search his face nervously ― Tony can see, from the corner of his eye, the walls appear wavy, slightly out of focus, though not as glitched as before ― but then Steve nods, walking inside as if he was waiting for Tony’s permission.

He stops a few steps from Tony, in front of the bed. His expression is confused, and Tony’s heart tightens. He pats the spot next to him on the mattress.

“Come here,” he says, his voice as soft as it can be. Relief colors Steve’s features, and when he comes closer to sit, Tony can’t help but touch him, coming closer, their legs resting against each other.

There’s a moment of silence, where Tony studies Steve’s face. His eyelashes, his beard. The freckle under his eyebrow Tony has never noticed before, despite having silently watched that face for so many years. It’s the tiniest freckle.

“So, are we, uh, going to watch the movie?”

“Not right now,” Tony says, firm. His hand holds Steve’s wrist. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Steve lets Tony’s fingers climb up his wrist, towards his palm, until they finally curl and hold his hand. He holds it back tightly. “Okay.”

Tony presses his lips together.

Steve is clinging to his hand, now. He’s nervous, Tony knows, and he’s not the only one.

“I had a talk with Barnes today.”

Steve nods, encouraging. There’s a frantic energy coming from him. Tony bets he himself doesn’t fully understand it.

“We talked about that one time he murdered my parents.”

Steve’s eyes widen. “What?” His free hand flies to Tony’s face, touching his cheek. “You… Why?” His brow furrows, his gaze full of worry, his touch so careful and attentive. All his focus is on Tony, protectiveness radiating from his body in warm, strong waves.

I don’t know, Tony wants to say. It was just in my head, sweetheart, I think I’m having a rough day. Then he wants Steve to hold him, as he certainly would. He wants Steve to run those gentle hands over his back, pull him closer, hug him. He wants to let Steve take care of him, to hear him whispering words of love in his ears. He wants to whisper back. He wants this to be it, just like he wanted when they fell asleep in bed, last night. He wants this to be real.

It isn’t, though.

“I regret it, you know. The way I reacted. I should never have attacked Barnes. He wasn’t any more responsible than a gun would be.” Tony doesn’t look at Steve as he speaks. Instead, he looks at his lap, where his and Steve’s hand are interlaced. “But just, seeing that… And then you… I just, I couldn’t think.”

Steve’s hand shakes against Tony’s cheek. “Tony, what are you talking about?”

Tony caresses his knuckles with his thumb, drawing a small circle on the back of his hand. “I was so angry at you. That damn phone—I wanted to throw it away when I got it.”

Tony is still not looking at Steve, but he can feel the way Steve shivers, as if he’s suddenly cold. “I… I don’t get it,” he says, his voice weak. “Phone? And Bucky—Bucky wasn’t even around when…”

“When you told me,” Tony completes, because, yeah. There it is.

He raises his head, and it’s Steve’s turn to look at their hands.

“Steve,” he calls, stopping his thumb movements and giving his hand a squeeze. “Look at me.”

“Tony—”

Look at me.” Tony’s voice is more vehement, and Steve is pale, paler than he’s ever been, like he’s gonna be sick. Tony puts his free hand on his neck, tries to make the touch steady and comforting. “Come on, baby,” he says, the endearment jumping off of his lips without him meaning to.

Steve complies, his eyes searching Tony’s face, blue pools of confusion and pain and a spark of what Tony can only conclude is fear. “Tony—”

“Steve,” Tony interrupts him, and he hates what’s he about to say as much as he knows it needs to be said. “We’re not married.”

Steve’s body shudders, and there’s a clear glitch on the room around them. Tony’s hand tenses on the back of his neck.

“No, not yet. Hey,” he says, his other hand squeezing Steve’s. “I’m here. I’m here with you, okay? Focus on me.”

Steve’s nod is shaky, but it seems to work, and although the room is still strangely distorted, it doesn’t seem to be fading. Tony takes his hand over his jaw, stroking his chin with his thumb and leaning closer.

“We fought. Badly,” he says, every word painful to come out, because he can see the realization starting to flood Steve’s face, and he’s never seen Steve look that lost, that hurt. “It started out stupid, but then it got—it got ugly.” He draws a sharp breath. “I lost it. I attacked Barnes, and you stopped me.”

“No,” Steve says, almost pleading. “That doesn’t make sense. You—”

“You never told me,” Tony says, and even saying it hurts, the truth weighting over them like an anchor. “You knew, for years, and you didn’t tell me.”

Steve’s bottom lip shakes, his eyes glimmer and Tony feels as if he's intruding, for seeing that. It’s such raw, bare pain, it doesn’t fit with the Steve he knows, so stoic and impossible to read.

The room glitches again, and Steve is shaking right now, his breath sharp and short. Tony turns entirely towards him, cradling his hand in between his, their knees bumping together.

“Look at me,” he says again, because Steve’s gaze is lost and nervous, and Tony needs him to be focused as he says this. “We haven’t spoken in two years. We’re not married – we have never even been with each other before.”

Steve doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t seem able to. His hand lowers from Tony’s face slowly, rests on the top of his thigh and closes into a fist. His breath is hitching, and his eyes are teary and wide. The sadness that floods them is more than Tony can bear to watch.

“Tony,” he says, and now it doesn’t sound pleading. It’s too low to sound like anything.

He tries to pull his hand away, but Tony holds it firmly in place between his palms.

“Tony, this…” Steve's eyes dart away for a moment, looking towards the room around them, and Tony hurriedly leans closer, so close he can feel Steve’s hitched, panicked breaths.

“I missed you,” Tony says, and that, that comes out easily, even if it seems like Steve barely registers it, taken over by the despair of the realization. Tony holds his chin, gently pushes his face towards him. “God, I missed you so much.”

Steve doesn’t say anything, but he also doesn’t push Tony away. He looks so scared.

Tony breathes deeply, trying to organize his thoughts before continuing. He feels momentarily wordless, so he just looks at Steve. His teary eyes. His closed fist, on top of his leg. His nose, breathing in and out in an uneven rhythm, nostrils flaring.

And there it is, Tony thinks, spotting it with a wave of overwhelming fondness. The freckle. Right beneath Steve’s eyebrow, so tiny it’s almost invisible. A part of Steve he didn’t know before.

Tony loves that freckle so fucking much.

“Listen to me,” he says, and the fondness must slip into his voice, of course it does, because confusion shows up in Steve’s expression. “Since I’ve got here, I’ve been trying to understand this place, this scenario your mind dreamed up. I wanted to figure out what was different here, to get us to this. And I finally get it, now. It’s you. You’re different.”

There are tears prickling in the corners of Steve’s eyes right now, and Tony wants nothing more than to lean forward and kiss them away, but he needs to get through this. For both of them, he must.

“You and I, we’re—we’re so bad at talking to each other,” The last part comes out with a choked, small half-laugh. “We suck at it. And then I come here, and I find out that you’re—you’re in love with me.” He’s grinning now, even if his voice wavers as he says the words aloud. “And I had no idea. Maybe I was dumb, but God, all this time, I… I thought you hated me. When you left—I thought you didn’t care about me at all.”

Steve presses his lips together in a thin line, and Tony can see that for what it is, an attempt to get his bottom lip to stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice so small.

“Shhh. Let me keep going. I have a point here, I promise. Let me recap: We suck at talking to each other. We fought, and we hurt each other, and in this life you dreamed up, nothing of that ever happened, because if it did, you couldn’t make yourself believe you deserved this.”

Steve’s eyes are so wide his eyelashes touch the freckle. And Tony loves this freckle, and this man, so much. He loves his stoicism and his self-righteousness and his stubbornness and his sadness. He loves Steve and he loves every part of Steve, even the parts Steve himself doesn’t love, the parts that go away when he wants to imagine he can live a happy life.

“And I get it. I really do. But you are so—damnit.” His eyes are burning, and he’s gonna mess this up, but he needs to say it, needs to get it out and say it. “You are so difficult to read. Even inside your head, I couldn’t figure you out. You always just… escapes me. Being around you turns me into such a mess. You’re infuriating, and I hated you, and—I love you so damn much. I don’t even know how long I’ve been loving you,” Tony says, or maybe chokes out is the right term, because his voice is all wobbly now, and he’s crying, and too close to Steve’s face to take control of his words. “I love you. Fuck, I love you.”

Steve winces at his words. He looks downwards, tries to pull his hand away again. “Tony. What happened…” His jaw clenches, and Tony is watching in real time, Steve Rogers pulling himself together, closing himself to Tony. “I’m so sorry. For, for everything… This…” He raises his free hand to gesture around them, and the whole room distorts further, as if in response.

“Shut up,” Tony says, in a hurry. Steve’s eyes dart back towards him. “Shut the hell up right now and listen to me. I love you. You—you love me.” Saying it sends a wave of warmth through his chest, and Tony swallows a sob and grins through tears. He rests his forehead against Steve’s, feels his breath on his. “Holy shit, you love me so much, it’s ridiculous.”

Steve lets out a tentative smile, small but honest, and it’s hard, for Tony, to stop himself from finding out what it tastes like. “Tony—"

“Hold on,” Tony whispers. “Hold on, I’m not done yet. You dreamed up this world where things had to be different for us to be together, but see, you were wrong about something, as you often are: I love you. In that messy, fucked up world we’ve got, I already love you.”

Steve swallows. His nostrils widen as he takes a sharp breath. “You can’t possibly—”

“Will you just stay quiet? Can’t a man confess his love without you interrupting every five seconds?”

This gets him a half-laugh, Steve’s eyes sparkling with something resembling hope, and that’s it, Tony’s done. Even though both of them are a mess of tears and snot, he presses his mouth against Steve’s in the sloppiest, saltiest kiss of all time, probably, but it doesn’t matter because it’s Steve mouth and it feels so good. Tony doesn’t care—he’d kiss Steve everywhere, anytime, and now that he can do exactly that, it’s not gonna be some gross bodily fluids that are gonna stop him.

“Anyway, where was I?” Tony says when they pull apart, breathless, getting an actual laugh out of Steve. He grins wide and hard, their noses touching. “Oh, yeah.” He takes a breath before continuing. “This life you made up, this life you think you can’t have—you’re gonna wake up and we’re gonna make it happen, both of us, together.”

Steve’s eyes are wide meeting his, and Tony feels like he’s gonna die in the moment of silence that follows, when Steve doesn’t say anything.

Then he closes his eyes and leans forward, resting his forehead against Tony’s.

When he speaks, his voice is low, soft, almost a whisper: “I’m scared I’m still dreaming.”

“Then wake up,” Tony says, his own voice shaking as he holds Steve’s wrist. “Wake up, and this will be it. You’re not gonna be able to get rid of me.” He tries a lighter tone, but his insecurity slips in his voice, even as a slow smile turns the corners of Steve’s mouth upwards. “Trust me.”

Steve’s nod is immediate and solemn, as if of all the things Tony’s said to him, this is the one that makes the most sense. “I do.”

Tony pulls Steve’s hand closer to his chest, to the reactor—he can hear Steve’s sharp inhale of breath, but his movement is certain, sure. He wants Steve to touch him there. He wants Steve to touch him everywhere.

He feels Steve’s hand relaxing, allowing Tony to lead his movement, and he uses Steve’s fingers to tap the reactor—once, twice.

Then, Tony looks up, just so he can see Steve’s face one last time before the world around them turns into darkness.


 

Steve has a headache.

That’s the first thing he feels – a strong headache, going from the back of his neck to the top of his head, as if someone’s been pulling his hair for hours.

It’s gone as soon as it came, though, and the next thing Steve sees is light, intense and unforgiving as soon as he opens his eyes, a shock that makes him feel blind for a few seconds.

After a moment, he blinks his eyes open slowly, getting used to the brightness of—of keeping them open, he supposes. He puts his hand to his face, his vision limited to the leather of his glove, trying to avoid the light. Then he registers movement and sound coming from next to him.

“Goddamnit, will you stand still? I’m almost done, you’re gonna end up ripping them off—”

“I will make you a thousand new electrodes if you get these off me right now.”

The second voice sends a shiver down Steve’s spine, because he’d recognize that voice anywhere.

“Tony, will you calm down—This isn’t Sleeping Beauty, for fuck’s sake—"

Steve blinks. The flow of memories is inevitable, and he remembers so well he almost feels the tingle of Tony’s mouth on his skin, his hands squeezing his.

I love you, he had said. Then he had said, trust me, and how could Steve say no?

He shuts his eyes one last time before pushing himself to sit up. The brightness around him slowly takes shape as Tony’s workshop. Steve is on a lab table, and there’s a second one close to him. Steve notices Bruce and Rhodey, standing nearby, and then.

Hey,” Tony says, walking towards him. His eyes are wide and his gaze searches Steve’s face frantically. “How are you feeling?”

“He might be a little confused,” Bruce says, examining something in his tablet. “Nothing serious, though. His brain seems to have handled it very well.”

Steve opens his mouth to answer, but he’s cut short by a warm weight on his arm. “Are you sure? Everything is fine?” Tony asks, hand curling around Steve’s forearm.

Tony’s proximity makes it hard for Steve to think. His gaze falls on Tony’s hand, holding his arm gently, and Tony’s eyes follow his look.

I love you, he said. The memory makes Steve’s face heat up and forms a knot in his throat.

“Uh,” Tony says, a tinge of embarrassment in his voice, along with… Is it nerves? It’s strange, the idea that he can make Tony nervous. “Maybe I should…”

Steve doesn’t want him to pull away, but he doesn’t know what to say. He has no idea what this touch means.

Now that the confusion of opening his eyes is over, Steve remembers everything so clearly. How Tony had touched him and forgave him and kissed him. He had said it was real, but dreams always seem real up until the moment you wake up.

(Steve would know, because he’s been dreaming of Tony for years. In fact, he’s pretty sure he’s had this exact same dream before, and it always ended with Steve waking up in bed alone, Tony as unreachable as the idea of going back to sleep.)

This time, though.

Wake up, and this will be it.

Trust me.

Steve does. He may not trust his mind right now, but he trusts Tony with all he has.

So he nods. “I’m okay.” From the corner of his eye, he can see Rhodey and Bruce watching them in stunned silence, but he barely registers it, too focused on Tony to think of anything else. He takes his own hand to rest over his, touching it hesitantly, unsure if Tony will flinch or pull away.

In the dream, he was never unsure. Every time he looked at Tony, he was flooded with overwhelming certainty, he is mine and I am his, as simple as if he was thinking the sky is blue.

Now, though, it feels a little like jumping out of a plane, that small action of holding Tony’s hand. It feels like being in the dark. It feels like being unfrozen in a new world.

It feels like waking up.

Tony doesn’t pull away. Instead, he grins, wide and beautiful, and, eyes blazing like liquid gold, he leans forward and captures Steve’s mouth in a soft, chaste kiss.

“Good morning, sunshine,” he drawls out when they break apart. Personally, Steve thinks he’s the one who looks like sunshine, smiling like that and irradiating so much warmth.

He looks so beautiful it’s almost scary. He looks like Steve’s whole future.

“’Morning,” Steve whispers, more kissing than talking as he pulls Tony closer again, drowning in brightness.