Other than the unusually loud cacophony of car horns the scene looked... relatively normal when Steve arrived. There was one car that had jumped the curb, but it had little more than a dent in the fender to show for it. The scene certainly didn’t seem like it warranted their presence.
Most of the team had beaten him there. They were still new at this, working as the New Avengers, and it showed. Most of them were used to working solo; they certainly hadn’t been reporting to Steve for a long time, some of them never had at all. They’d already gotten to work investigating before Steve arrived, but it was just as well. He’d ask them to fill him in later.
Tony was leaning over a black box in the middle of the street, a scanner in hand, obstructing traffic while the rest of the Avengers tried to placate the increasingly irritated crowd.
Spider-Woman and Luke were busy talking to one of the police officers on the scene, and from where he was standing Steve could hear Luke assuring the officer that they would be out of the way as soon as Tony had determined that it was safe for people to pass through the area again.
He seemed to have it well in hand, so Steve headed over to where Tony was instead. Spider-Man was standing a few feet away, and he waved when he saw Steve, so Steve sidetracked. Tony was working; he didn’t need Steve distracting him.
“What’s going on?” Steve asked.
Peter shrugged. “I was swinging down the street, about fifteen minutes ago.” He nodded toward one of the buildings in the direction he’d come. Steve could still faintly see the dangling webs that had yet to break down. “And this big ball of light just popped up in the middle of the street. Almost caused a wreck. And when it disappeared, there was that box, just sitting there.” He pointed, like perhaps Steve hadn’t noticed it. “So then I figured, hey, I’m an Avenger now. I should call Tony…” he trailed off. “Just in case it’s something particularly evil. I’m thinking teleporter—”
“Try extra-dimensional portal,” Tony interrupted, stooping down to pick up the box.
“A portal?” Steve asked. “From where?”
“I couldn’t say,” Tony said. “But whatever it was, I don’t think its putting anyone in danger anymore. I’ll want to take this back to the tower, find out what it is and why someone would dump it into another dimension.”
“You’re assuming it was intentional,” Steve said.
“True,” Tony agreed, sounding pensive. “Either way, it’s interesting. And more importantly, we can’t leave this thing around for any old person to pry open. Not without knowing what’s inside.”
“It’s safe to move, right?” Peter asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer before picking up the box. When it didn’t violently explode, he rattled it a bit. “Seems safe.”
“...Maybe I should take it,” Tony said, gently taking the box from him. “I’m going to head back to the tower and see if I can crack it open.”
Steve nodded. “We’d better get out of here before they decide they’re just going to drive over us,” he said, nodding back toward the traffic. The drivers at the front seemed to realize that they were preparing to leave, and were already beginning to creep forward. “We’ll meet you there.”
Tony had been down in his lab for hours before he heard the keypad beep, announcing someone’s entry.
“Take the long way home?” Tony asked without looking up. No one else had any business coming down here, and anyway, Tony had long since memorized the sound of Steve’s footsteps coming down the stairs. It had been a long time since he’d heard it; and though they echoed differently down the tower stairs, the sound of Steve’s footsteps was unmistakable all the same.
“I had some things to take care of first,” Steve said. He didn’t expound, and Tony didn’t press. They hadn’t spoken in private like this is a while. The familiarity felt strange, considering how long they were apart after the Avengers disbanded, but it was hard to ignore their history together. “Any progress?”
Once upon a time, Steve might have told him about his day first.
If Steve would prefer to cut to the chase, Tony could give him that. Tony pushed back from the desk and grabbed the canister he’d been examining. He’d found it sealed inside the exterior containment unit, a sort of redundancy that was both airtight and externally locked. He’d had to crack the thing open to break the seal and get at what was inside. Tony popped the lid, and withdrew the delicate glass vial he’d found, with several shiny purple pips inside.
"They're seeds," Tony said, rattling the vial in front of Steve's nose.
"Seeds?" Steve echoed. "That seems like a strange thing to toss into a portal.”
Tony shrugged. “It’s hardly the strangest thing we’ve seen,” he said.
“Fair point. Any idea how they got here?" Steve asked.
"Not yet. I called Reed. He took the chest they came in—said he was going to try tracing the energy signature back to wherever it came from," Tony said.
He didn't think Reed would have much luck. The outside of the box had been glowing like a beacon when it first arrived, all sensors indicating that it was not of this world, but the energy signature had very quickly faded afterwards.
"Will they grow here?" Steve asked.
"Probably in a controlled environment, with some coaxing, but in our soil? Who knows. Until we've got the proper containment setup, it's probably best not to test it," Tony said. "These things aren't even from this dimension, let alone Earth, and the last thing we need is some alien invasive species growing out in the garden."
Not to mention that until they knew what they were dealing with, Tony was inclined to err on the side of caution. The lock-box that the seeds had come in was heavily armored, inside and out. It was hard to say whether that meant the seeds were valuable or dangerous, and it was just as likely that they were some alien equivalent of dandelions or saffron as it was hemlock or marijuana, or any number of things. There were no markings on the outside of the capsule at all to explain its contents, though there was a company logo on the side—Wayne Enterprises. The only Wayne Enterprises Tony had been able to find was a plumbing supply company in Montana, so Tony supposed there was no equivalent company in their world.
Tony uncapped the vial and shook two seeds out into his palm, rolling them around with his thumb. "I'll try to grow a couple of them here in the lab, and then we can ask Hank to take a look."
"All right. Call Hank and keep me informed," Steve said. He nodded awkwardly, paused for a moment as though trying to think of something else to say, but then turned to go instead. Tony resisted the urge to call him back, come up with something else to say just to keep him there.
"Sure thing, Cap," Tony said breezily as the workshop door clicked shut.
The bed dipped next to him, and Tony exhaled softly, coming awake slowly and blinking against the sunlight shining through the blinds. He rolled over onto his back, and Steve leaned over into the space he was just occupying, pressing feather-light kisses first into Tony’s shoulder, then his neck, his jaw. He worked his way up to Tony’s lips, and Tony sighed contentedly as Steve cupped his head in his hands and pulled him in for a lazy kiss.
“Good morning,” Tony said. Steve gave him a small smile in return.
“Happy birthday,” Steve replied, and kissed him again.
“My birthday?” Tony asked. That wasn’t right. “I just had a birthday—” Tony very distinctly remembered working through his birthday not long ago, and the extent of the celebration had been when Pepper had dropped a cupcake on his desk. Wasn’t that last month? It certainly didn’t feel like it had been long ago...
Steve gave him a teasing smile. “Well, I won’t tell if you won’t, old man.”
Tony frowned at that, but he didn’t have the heart to linger on it, not with Steve’s hands wandering below the sheets and that coy smile on his face. Steve kissed him, long and slow, and then leaned up slightly, propping an elbow next to his head.
“I know you were up late, and I’ve let you sleep in, but if you make the kids wait any longer for cake, I think they’ll explode,” Steve said. He pecked Tony once more on the cheek and then rolled to his feet. Steve was already dressed for the day, wearing a simple t-shirt and jeans. He stretched and then grabbed the blanket and tugged it a little further down the bed, like he didn’t want Tony to get any ideas and try to go back to sleep.
Wait, did he say kids?
Tony kicked the blankets the rest of the way down the bed and followed Steve down the hall toward the living room.
Vision was sitting in the armchair in the corner, with two little boys on his lap, and for one jarring moment Tony didn’t recognize them. They were four or five years old, by the looks of it, and Tony stared at them blankly before it clicked. Of course, his children, and Wanda—
Wanda chose that moment to enter the room, carrying a tray with a large cake. The frosting was haphazard and lopsided, melted off a little on one side like the cake hadn’t cooled long enough before it was frosted, and Cassie Lang darted out from underfoot to completely throw herself at Tony’s legs and cling to him.
“Happy birthday Uncle Tony!” she piped happily. “We made you a cake!”
“Cassie was very helpful,” Wanda said, and Cassie beamed up at him proudly. “Scott was...less helpful. I think more frosting made it to his mouth than the cake.”
“Scott?” Tony asked. For some reason he couldn’t explain, his stomach swooped. Wanda didn’t seem at all alarmed by the surprise in his voice. “But... Scott is...is...” He trailed off, suddenly forgetting what he was about to say. He rubbed his temple absently, and Cassie was quick to distract him, tugging at his pant leg to get his attention.
“We used lots of candles,” Cassie said seriously, ignoring Tony’s fumbling for words. She looked hilariously grave as she conveyed that information, like she was afraid Tony wasn’t fully aware just how serious his old-ness was. “Like, lots.”
Steve laughed at that, and shuffled her off to the couch before dragging Tony along to follow her. When Tony wouldn’t budge, he pecked him on the cheek, trying to coax him along.
“Shouldn’t we be doing this in the kitchen?” Tony asked.
“There’s not enough room in the kitchen,” Steve said.
“Not enough—” There were plenty of seats in the kitchen for the few people on the Avengers roster. It wasn’t as though Tony had that many people willing to celebrate, well, anything with him, really—
And then he turned, and there were Clint and Jan. Behind them, Thor, Carol, Rhodey, Pepper and Happy—all standing around the coffee table, and Steve pushed him along to the center of the group and parked him on the couch.
“How are you all here—”
Steve cut him off before he could finish the thought. “We asked Reed and Sue to keep an eye out for any disasters while the Avengers were all busy. I promised them cake.”
“This has to be a fire hazard,” Clint said while Steve lit the candles, and Jan elbowed him playfully.
Tony looked around at all of their smiling faces, and the part of him that was confused faded into the background. This felt right. This was… this was perfect.
“Okay Tony,” Steve said, setting the lighter down onto the coffee table. “Make a wish.”
“I—I don’t know how I could wish for anything better than this,” Tony said. Steve smiled, soft and fond, and leaned down to kiss him.
“Wish for a pony,” Wanda advised him teasingly, and everyone laughed while Cassie agreed wholeheartedly. Tony closed his eyes and blew out the candles.
Steve pressed the button for the gym floor with his thumb, and then stood back to let the door roll closed. He turned to face the doors, but just before they rolled closed he saw Hank come around the corner, looking lost. He quickly reached out to catch it before it could close completely.
“Hank?” Steve asked, and the man in question turned, his expression quickly shifted from confusion to relief.
“Steve,” Hank said. “Do you know where Tony is?”
Steve thought about it. He hadn’t seen Tony that morning at breakfast, not that that was much to go on—Tony’s meals were hardly regular. As far as Steve knew, no one had come by looking for him. If he was expecting Hank, surely he would have called ahead if he’d been forced to work late?
“His garage?” Steve tried.
“That’s what I assumed, but I don’t have access. I’ve been calling him all day, but he won’t answer his phone,” Hank said. “He told me he had something he wanted me to take a look at, but I haven’t heard anything about it since yesterday…”
“I’ll let you in, and we can see if he’s there,” Steve said.
When they arrived, most of the workshop lights were out. One lamp shone where it was clamped to the workbench on the other side of the room, casting long shadows down the length of the workshop.
Steve walked over to the bench to shut the lamp off with a click, then cast a glance around the room as Hank dialed up the overhead lights.
Steve almost didn’t see him, standing stock-still with his back to the rest of the room. Immediately, he could tell that there was something wrong.
“Tony?” Steve called, making his way over to him. Tony didn’t respond, staring silently at the wall, and as Steve drew closer he could see just the edge of something coiling around his neck.
Something crunched under Steve’s boot, and he lifted it to see broken flecks of glass scattered across the floor.
“What the—” Steve looked up to find the source of the glass was the broken case to the terrarium that Tony had set up—
“Look out!” Hank shouted, and Steve whirled around just in time to bat away the thorny tentacles lunging at his back. He grabbed the first thing within arm’s reach—a socket wrench—and slammed it down on the...the creature, what looked like a purple flower wreathed in thorny vines. The blow connected and it shrieked, sap oozing from the torn end of the vine Steve had severed with the blow.
It dragged itself underneath one of the work benches, flexing its maw with a sort of ugly, wet sucking noise that made Steve shudder. The plant considered Steve a moment, dragging all of its limbs in closer, before it moved again, almost lightning-quick.
Not toward him, Steve realized a moment too late, as the alien lunged at Hank.
Hank swore and ducked out of the way, but years of simply shrinking away from danger had him underestimating the plant’s reach, and it wrapped two thorny vines around his arm and swung around in front of him.
Steve hurdled the workbench and ripped the plant off of him. It immediately began to coil its way up Steve’s arm, and he quickly spun around on his heel to slam it down inside of an open toolbox before it could really get a grip on him, forcing the lid shut and latching it.
The toolbox rattled violently and fell onto its side, but the lid held. Steve piled a hefty-looking engine part on top, just to be sure, before offering a hand to Hank.
“You okay?” he asked.
Hank pulled down the collar of his shirt to reveal a shallow bite mark. It was bleeding lightly, along with the scratches on his neck from the thorns, but it would’ve been a lot worse if the thing had actually managed to sink its teeth into him.
“Fine,” Hank said. “Thanks to you. Is Tony—?”
Tony hadn’t moved from the spot, and Steve stepped around him, heart in his throat over what he might find. His stomach roiled.
Vicious spines resembling teeth protruded from the body of the plant, its thorned tendrils coiling tightly around Tony’s chest and up his neck. The stubble on his jaw told him that Tony had been down here for a while.
“What is this thing—” Steve asked. It looked like it was, God, burrowed into his chest. He glanced away briefly, feeling sick.
“Jesus Christ,” Hank gasped. He waved a hand in front of Tony’s face, then pulled out his phone to shine a light in his eyes, examining his pupils. “He’s completely catatonic.”
“What is it doing to him?” Steve asked. “He’s... smiling.”
“This thing looks like a rafflesia flower,” Hank said. He glanced up at Steve, and then explained, “They’re parasitic. And it—when it bit me, just before you pulled it off, I got this flash of…” Hank trailed off, grasping for the words, and then shook his head. “I think he’s... dreaming. And it’s feeding on him. We need to draw him out of it, somehow.”
Steve nodded. He reached out for it, and it writhed under his touch.
“Wait!” Hank shouted as Steve gripped the tentacle coiled around Tony’s neck to rip it free. “We don’t know anything about this thing. Just ripping it out could seriously hurt him.”
“So what do we do?” Steve asked, trying to sound calm but failing.
“Just—give me a minute,” Hank said, booting one of the computers. “See if you can get through to him, somehow.”
Tony leaned back against the porch railing and closed his eyes, feeling the warm spring breeze on his face. It was getting dark, but someone had set out candles on the patio table, so that the light from them brightened the deck. It was shaping up to be a beautiful night. The Avengers had split off into smaller groups as they wandered outside, and Tony was content to watch them chat amongst themselves.
After a while Steve found him, leaving Scott, Jan and Hank to converse amongst themselves, and Tony turned to press a quick kiss to his lips. Steve tasted like pineapples, and Tony smiled and plucked the drink out of his hand, taking a quick sip. Someone had made punch, earlier, and Tony had carefully avoided it before he’d seen Scott offer Cassie a glass. He knew they would never bring something alcoholic, but his caution had become a force of habit.
Tony glanced over Steve’s shoulder at the three of them, and watched Jan say something that made both Scott and Hank burst into laughter.
“Where’s Cassie?” Tony asked
“She insisted she was old enough to join us once Scott told her the adults were taking the party out onto the patio, and then she got bored and convinced Clint to go play videogames with her instead,” Steve said fondly.
He chuckled. “That’s teenagers for you,” Tony said.
Steve gave him an odd look. “Tony, she’s eight.”
“Oh… right,” Tony said. “I could have sworn she was older.”
“Blink and she will be,” Steve teased. “Better hide your car keys now.”
“I guess,” Tony said. He glanced back at the patio door, unsure, and for a moment he found himself expecting Cassie to come back outside to join them, young, surely, but not so young that it bored her to join them, certainly not eight years old—
Steve tugged him closer, and the train of thought slipped his mind. “Tony, let’s turn in early,” Steve murmured in his ear. “I’m sure no one will miss us.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, smiling softly. Steve trailed his fingers down Tony’s arm and took him by the hand, guiding him toward the door. The glass sliding door whispered softly as Steve pulled it open, and no one seemed to notice as the two of them slipped inside.
They stopped once in the kitchen, and twice more in the hall, pausing and holding each other tight and kissing each other breathless. Tony could hear the faint sounds of the party growing quieter as they made their way to the bedroom. He pulled the door closed behind him, and the sounds dulled as the latch clicked shut.
Steve pressed him down into the mattress, breath feathering against Tony’s neck, and reached up to cup his cheek. “I love you,” he said.
Tony blinked. “What?”
“I love you,” Steve repeated.
“You don’t—” Tony blurted, leaning back when Steve dipped to kiss him. “No. Why are you—Why are we—” Tony shook his head. “This isn’t right. We hardly talk. Definitely not like we used to, not since the Avengers disbanded—”
“Disbanded?” Steve gave him a quizzical smile. “Just relax, Tony.”
“This isn’t right,” Tony repeated. He gently pushed Steve away.
“Tony,” Steve said, sounding far away.
He rolled to his feet, shaking Steve’s loose grip from his arm and padded toward the hall.
“Tony, come back.”
The lights were dimmed, and the halls were quiet. And why wouldn’t they be?
These halls had been quiet for a long time.
The lights were on in the workshop. Was someone down there? Did he forget to turn the lights off? He headed for the staircase. His footsteps were hollow on the stairs, echoing much louder than they ever should have, and he stopped short of the door, suddenly fearful.
He reached out, carefully, to push open the door, and the paint peeled under his fingers, the walls began to crack and split. He looked up, and there was Steve. Somehow he’d gotten around him, maybe taken the elevator and beaten him to the lab.
Somehow Tony knew Steve hadn’t beaten him; he had already been here.
He gasped, and remembered. Steve smiled sadly, and then everything went sideways.
Steve could see him coming out of it even before the machines could register it, could see the alien plant losing its hold, and Steve grabbed it before he could think. He ripped it off with a wet sound, and it shrieked and writhed in his grip. He was ready for it though, flinging onto the bench and bringing a wrench down on it with a sickening crunch.
Tony gasped and coughed and dropped to his knees. He shivered and pressed a hand to his chest, where there was blood steeping between his fingers from the bite.
“Tony, are you all right?” Steve asked, kneeling next to him. Tony blinked, finally focusing on him, looking relieved for a split second before his expression shuttered warily. Tony squeezed his eyes shut.
“What happened?” Tony croaked, his voice rough from disuse. He batted Steve’s hands away from his shirt when he reached for it, and added: “It’s fine.”
He heard the scrape of boots on concrete, the crunch of broken glass. Tony glanced blearily over his shoulder, recognized Hank, and tried for a small smile.
“Hank,” Tony said. “It’s good to see you.”
Tony winced when he turned, agitating the open cuts on his neck. They were evenly distributed over his shoulder, little dime-sized punctures that were bleeding lightly. There was a scratch on his cheek. Steve had put that one there himself, had caught Tony’s skin on the edge of one of the alien’s thorny appendages when he’d pulled it off of him.
Steve reached out to touch Tony’s cheek, intending to tilt his head to see how bad the damage was, and Tony flinched so violently that for a moment Steve worried he might have hurt him. Tony shoved him back, then blinked and shook his head. His hands were shaking as he pushed himself to his feet.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, still shaking his head. He was backing toward the door, stumbling a little as he tried to get his feet under him. “I need… some air.” He turned and all but ran for the stairs.
“What was that?” Hank wondered.
“He needs to see a doctor,” Steve said. He made an aborted move to follow, and then stopped himself, remembering the way Tony had looked at him. “Hank—”
“I’ll go talk to him,” Hank offered. Steve nodded.
Steve had no idea what had come over Tony, but the look on his face—
He hadn’t looked scared, or angry, he’d looked—he’d looked sad, and...confused, maybe, like for a moment he couldn’t tell if he was awake or still dreaming.
Steve didn’t know what he had done to elicit that response from him, but he didn’t ever want to be the person to put that look on his face.
He stood, indecisive as he watched Hank follow Tony up the stairs, wanting nothing more than to follow him, too, and reassure himself that Tony really was okay. Then he got to work.
Steve stooped to pick up the toolbox from the ground, and it rattled violently at the movement. The plant settled down after a moment of protest, and Steve grabbed the vial of seeds off the bench top as well.
Tony had been using the fume hood as a makeshift greenhouse so that he could monitor the plant’s environment. It wasn’t built to be a blast shield—that equipment was more expensive, and kept in another part of the lab. Still, the glass was sturdy, yet it looked as though the creature had punched through it with little effort.
Steve took the other alien and locked it inside the more sturdy containment shield at the back of the lab, just in case. He was fairly certain it was dead, but he wasn’t interested in any surprises. Then he took the tool chest and headed for the stairs. He needed to know exactly what had just happened here.
Tony made his way up to the penthouse and onto the balcony.
The door opened a few minutes later, and Tony cringed inwardly, glancing over his shoulder.
Oh. It was Hank, not Steve, who pulled the glass door shut behind him. He held a first-aid kit in his hand, the one that Tony kept in the bathroom in the hall for any of the Avengers to use. He lifted it, giving it a little shake.
“I think I’d prefer it if you went to see a doctor,” Hank prefaced, “but something tells me that’s not going to happen.”
The moment Hank mentioned it, little stabbing pains seemed to flare in the cuts on his neck. Whatever that thing was, it must have had a natural analgesic in its bite. The wounds hadn’t hurt at all when he’d first woken up, but now they were very steadily moving from uncomfortable to a sharp, stabbing pain.
He swept a hand over his collar, and it came back red. Tony nodded for Hank to sit down.
Tony glanced back down, through the railing on the balcony edge and toward the ground far below. Once upon a time, they might have called Don Blake for this. Tony didn’t think he was a much better patient back then, but Don had a way of wrangling the Avengers into doing what he asked of them that even the God of Thunder couldn’t quite compete with.
Hank popped the kit open and pulled out one of the alcohol swabs from the pack. He tore it open and stuck the wrapper back into the box, never one to litter, and then reached out to dab at Tony’s neck. The cuts stung, but Tony held still and let Hank concentrate. He’d had much worse than a few bites and scrapes in all his time as an Avenger.
“You’re probably going to need to see a real doctor eventually,” Hank said. “We don’t really know what that thing is… You should have bloodwork done. And a brain scan. And…”
Tony wondered what sort of alien infections his already less-than-stellar immune system had been exposed to this time.
“I’m fine,” Tony said. Hank didn’t look happy with that answer, so Tony sighed and added, “I’ll go. Later. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow morning,” Hank said, and Tony nodded. “Good.”
They fell silent, and Tony shifted uncomfortably under Hank’s scrutiny.
“How’s Jan?” Tony asked after a moment, hoping to break the tension.
Hank smiled ruefully. “I wouldn’t know,” he said.
That surprised Tony. He’d known they were having problems, but he hadn’t spoken to either of them in—well, in about as long as any of his other old team mates. He clearly had a lot of catching up to do. “I’m sorry,” Tony said.
“It’s fine. She hated England, hated…anyway,” He shook himself, and then turned his attention back to folding the bandage down. “Hold that,” he said, guiding Tony’s fingers to the spot, and then ripped a piece of tape with his teeth. He smoothed the edges down. “There. Good as new.”
“Thanks,” Tony said. Hank nodded and picked up the pieces of the first aid kit, slotting them back into place.
“We acted like a change of location would somehow magically fix our problems. We should have talked more. There are still a lot of things we never worked out,” Hank said. “If I could do it over again, that’s what I would change.”
“Hank—” Tony said, but he just waved him off.
“It’s okay,” Hank said, snapping the first aid kit shut and pushing himself to his feet. He offered Tony a hand. “I’m just saying that - maybe keeping everything bottled up wasn’t the best idea, in the end.”
After returning from the Baxter Building, Steve went to find Tony.
His workshop was the last place that Steve looked, but in retrospect he shouldn’t have been surprised to find him standing in front of the blast shield in the dim light, eying the dead form of the creature behind the glass.
He’d given the live creature to Reed to study, and Reed had been happy to explain his findings to Steve. He’d gotten a little carried away on explaining the exact science, but Steve had understood the gist of it. The alien fed on the bioelectrical aura of the host, inducing hallucinations and rendering the person virtually comatose to keep its victim placid.
Steve had no idea how long Tony must have been down there, or whether he’d been at all aware of what was happening, but the thought made him shudder.
He was watching the creature like he expected it to jump through the glass. He didn’t look concerned, though—the expression on his face looked almost… wistful. Steve wasn’t certain what it was that Tony had seen, trapped in a dreamlike-trance for god knows how long, he only that it had affected him greatly.
“Don’t worry,” Steve said, “it’s dead.”
Tony startled a little when Steve spoke, stepping back from the blast shield. Then his eyes dropped to the sandwich in Steve’s hands, and his expression shuttered.
“You haven’t eaten,” Steve said, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “But if you’re not hungry—”
“No, it’s fine,” Tony said. “Thank you.”
Steve hesitated before he carefully handing him the plate, and then shoved his hands into his pockets.
“Reed has been studying the alien,” Steve said offhandedly. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to bring it up, but Steve he pressed on. “He says that when it attaches to a… host, it taps into the host’s brain and projects images into their minds.”
Tony shrugged and picked at the corner of the sandwich bread, clearly not that hungry after all, or maybe waiting for Steve to leave him first. He didn’t look up.
“Well, like you said, it’s dead,” Tony said in a rush. He deposited the sandwich on a bench top with a clatter, making for the main lab. “And I think I’ve learned all I need to know on why whoever sent it here did. So if you’re worried, you don’t need to be. I’m fine.”
“Tony,” Steve said, and it was enough to stop Tony in his tracks, hand tightly clutching the door frame. “What did you see?”
His fist clenched. “It was nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing,” Steve insisted, “Whatever you saw, it... I’m just trying to understand. I know it has to do with me.” Tony’s expression soured, his shoulders taking on a defensive posture.
“What makes you think that?” Tony asked.
“Because you won’t look at me,” Steve said. “And you flinched, when I tried to touch you. You haven’t… I don’t know what it showed you, what I—what I did to you, in those visions it gave you, but—”
“It’s not like that,” Tony said quickly.
“Then tell me what it was like,” he begged, shaking his head desperately. “Tony, please. Talk to me.”
Tony stopped, and whatever excuse he’d been preparing died on his lips. He glanced away, eyes downcast, and crossed his arms, clutching at his sleeves with white-knuckled fingers.
“Fine. I saw us,” Tony whispered, like it pained him to say it. “I saw you, and me, and all of the Avengers. I saw the mansion. It was… just like I remember it. Wanda was there. Clint. Scott and Cassie…”
“Us,” Steve repeated. “Us, as in…?”
Tony nodded miserably. “Listen, I understand if this makes you uncomfortable. I don’t expect you to feel the same way, so just. I’m sorry. Please just drop it.”
“I don’t want to drop it,” Steve said, hurrying to catch Tony’s arm before he could flee again. He turned him to face him fully. “I want to know.”
“It was just a stupid dream. It wasn’t real but,” Tony said.
“But what?” Steve demanded, before Tony could hesitate.
“But God I wanted it to be,” Tony choked out. “We were so happy. It was so perfect, and even when I noticed something was off, I tried to ignore it and pretend everything was all right. But. I knew it had to be an illusion. I knew right away when...” He trailed off with a sigh.
Steve reached out to put a hand on each of his shoulders, tugging him gently forward into a loose embrace. Tony didn’t resist at all, only turned his head away so that Steve wouldn’t see.
“How did you know,” Steve asked, and Tony shuddered silently in his hold. “How did you know that it was a dream?”
“I—” The shame on his face made Steve’s heart clench. Tony started to pull away, and Steve held him more loosely, but he didn’t let him go. “You told me that you loved me. And. I know that wasn’t true.”
This time, Tony tried to pull away entirely, but Steve was too busy processing to realize that he was suddenly holding Tony’s arms much more tightly, not quite believing what he’d heard.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I—”
“I do,” Steve blurted, interrupting. When Tony looked confused, he explained. “Love you. I do. Or, I could,” Steve said. “God, Tony, that’s how you knew?”
Tony’s expression morphed from confusion to disbelief, and when his eyes flicked back toward the containment shield, where the dead plant was still lying, Steve’s heart constricted.
“It’s dead, Tony,” Steve said fiercely. “It doesn’t have a hold over you anymore. And I—I can’t give you that reality back. I wish I could,” he added, thinking of Wanda and Clint, Vision and Scott and Cassie, and feeling the grief as though it was new.
He reached out to touch Tony’s cheek, right under the bandaged cut, and this time Tony didn’t shy away. Tony’s breath hitched in his throat, afraid any wrong move may shatter the moment. He was looking at Steve, unsure, his expression something torn between awed and terrified, and it made Steve’s heart ache.
“But Tony, you can have this,” he said.
Steve had barely moved a centimeter before Tony dragged him forward, kissing him with a sort of raw emotion that took Steve’s breath away. Tony wrapped his arms around Steve’s back, as if he could tug the two of them any closer together, and the high, desperate noise that slipped from Tony’s throat and the heat of his mouth dragged a shudder out of him. Steve pulled back, just a hair’s breadth, and smoothed his thumb down Tony’s jaw, soothing, urging him to breathe. Steve kissed him sweet and slow, then, and the tension seemed to bleed out of him in degrees, Tony’s mouth softening under Steve’s lips.
Eventually they broke apart, gasping and cheeks flushed. He turned his face into Steve’s neck, gripping the back of Steve’s shirt like he was afraid he might disappear if he didn’t hold on. “Am I dreaming?” Tony asked.
Steve smoothed his hand down the back of Tony’s head, threading his fingers through the soft strands. “You’re not dreaming.”
“I don’t want to wake up, this time,” Tony said.
“You’re not dreaming,” Steve repeated. “I love you, and I’ll tell you as many times as you need to hear it.” They’d wasted so much time, but they had so much more time ahead of them. “For as long as it takes.”