It manages to be funny for approximately eight minutes before it progresses into something more serious, at which point Tony grabs the hand of the Iron Man suit from off the floor and flicks on the repulsor.
“Tony,” Bruce says warningly, taking a step forwards.
Tony’s hand- which is holding the Iron Man hand- stays in place, but he holds off on shooting to say, “Aw, Brucie, you know I hate that tone-”
“Because that tone always means that you’re going to either get us all killed or seriously injure us,” Bruce says, and it’s flatter than usual, due to the recent Hulkage- he’s always pissy when he dissolves back into Bruce, and less than half an hour ago the Hulk had brought an entire building down by falling through it, which has got to be at least slightly emotionally draining.
Tony lets his bottom lip pout outwards. “Brucie, I’m hurt by the lack of faith you have in me.”
In the corner, Clint folds his arms. “Yeah, well I’m sure we’ll all be hurt by the lack of skin we’ll have on if you-”
“Breathe,” Steve cuts him off, looking remarkably calm for someone in this situation.
‘This situation’ being waking up in SHIELD medical after both he and Tony had suddenly passed out for no fucking reason, at the same fucking time, in the middle of a fucking battle with Loki that they had to get carried out of, and then woke up in unison with a red fucking string pulled tight between their little fingers.
Tony’s first reaction had been, “What the fuck.”
Steve’s reaction had been, “Language, Tony.”
Anyway, Steve’s stupidly fucking calm and Tony’s kind of fucking pissed and everything fucking sucks, because they’ve tried untying it, cutting it, burning it, chewing it, and now Tony’s trying to shoot it and nothing works.
“If this is your batshit brother’s idea of a prank,” Tony says, turning to Thor, who looks unabashed, “I will wring his neck with this fucking string.”
Steve shoots Tony a glare that could make a politician spontaneously combust. “Tony, there is a lady in-”
“Fuck, cunt, shit, Mitt Romney,” Darcy talks over him, and her smile turns into an innocent beam as Steve’s eyebrows shoot upwards. “This is only the second time you’ve met me, Cap, so I’m going to do us both a favour and excuse you. And I assume Tasha doesn’t count?”
“’Course not!” Clint pushes himself off of the table where an agent is trying to examine a cut on his shoulder- unsuccessfully, because Clint likes being in medical almost as much as Tony does, which is to say not at all, to the point where they’d rather suffer cracked ribs than sign in- and slings one arm around Natasha’s shoulder. “Tasha’s one of the guys.”
“Kindly remove your arm, Barton,” Natasha says, “Or I’ll remove it from its socket.”
“Speaking of arms,” Steve says, “Lower yours, Tony. We’re not going to shoot at it.”
“It’s string,” Tony says despairingly, but drops his arm as he speaks. “We’ve been up against Dr. Doom, Loki, and countless other ego-inflated evil geniuses with daddy issues, and I refuse to be beaten by a piece of fucking string.”
“Obviously it’s maaaagic string,” Clint grins, wiggling his fingers in the direction of it- Steve is sitting up on one bed and Tony is on one a few meters away, giving the string a full meter to stretch across.
Darcy shrugs, coming to stand in front of it. “Pretty sure that’s our best bet, Hotguy.”
“It was funny the first t-”
“It’s funny every time, and it totally sounds the same if you say it fast enough,” Darcy says, and reaches out to close a few fingers around the string.
A few doctors have done it already, and it has the same result: even though Steve and Tony’s hands are both at their sides, when Darcy tugs it upwards, the pressure stays the same.
“Huh.” Darcy pulls it higher, then out towards Steve, then up over her head, pinching it in her fingertips. “Not much slack.”
“Not any slack,” Tony corrects her, the yank of the string around his finger just the same as it was before Darcy started pulling.
“It adapts. It’s always tight, but even if you loop it around the statue of liberty- and I’m considering trying that, maybe it’ll take pity on Steve’s patriotism- it’s still going to be the same tightness. It can get longer, it can get shorter, but it won’t-” for the second time, he brings his hand to his mouth and shoves the string in between his teeth. “Fucking- break,” he finishes through his teeth, before letting it drop back, sighing loudly.
Thor leans Mjolnir on the wall- he’s learned his lesson after breaking countless coffee tables after trying to prop it up on them- and folds his arms. “This does indeed sound like something my brother would bestow on you. Perhaps it gradually becomes lethal as the days pass.”
“Thank you, Thor,” Tony says. “Glad to know one of us is looking on the bright side.”
Over the next two days it doesn’t become lethal, but it doesn’t come off, either.
They can go wherever they want- walking around the tower, around SHIELD, etc- but there’s always the string stretched between the two of them, which five people have walked into so far.
Well, seven people if you include the three times Tony has ‘accidentally’ made Clint walk into it.
“I love it,” Darcy says on the third day, twanging the string that’s pulling across the kitchen, from the table where Steve is sitting, to the coffee machine where Tony is re-filling it. “No, really! You can be all, ‘hey, where’s Steve?’ and then just follow the yellow brick road! Red brick road. Whatever, it’s awesome!”
“Glad to know you find our pain amusing,” Tony says into his cup.
Darcy snorts, and bends to duck under the string to get to the cupboard, thanking Steve when he lifts his arm for her so the string only comes up to her neck.
“Whatever,” she says again. “At least you’re not magically handcuffed together like Clint and Coulson were. Bet that made going to the toilet awkward.”
She tosses Coulson a grin as he walks into the kitchen, doughtnut in hand.
“Actually,” Coulson says, biting into the doughnut, “We both held it.”
“For seventeen hours?”
“Worst seventeen hours of my life,” Clint yells from the lounge. “Even though we did find a better use for those handcuffs afterwards.”
Darcy says, “Oh, did you now,” and squeaks when Coulson slots a hand over her mouth.
“That,” he says, “Is highly classified, Agent Lewis.”
Darcy steps out of the way, and Coulson wipes her lipstick off of his hand on a tea-towel.
Darcy says, “I’m in SHIELD-”
“A decision I regret more and more each day,” Coulson says mildly, taking another bite of the doughnut so the jelly starts leaking through.
“-so you can totally tell me,” Darcy says, leaning forwards on the counter, her glasses drooping slightly down her nose, smiling in a way that she usually directs at Tony when she wants to see the latest shiny things that shoot at Doombots.
“If you don’t, I will,” Clint yells, and even from here they can tell he’s yelling it from up on the rafters- he sleeps there sometimes, and everyone’s more or less used to it.
Coulson chews his doughnut slowly, looking forwards towards the coffee maker and not regarding Darcy at all. “I expect to have those reports on your desk filed when I get back, Agent Lewis.”
“I hate you.”
Coulson swallows another piece of doughnut, biting through a sprinkle or two as he does. “You keep telling yourself that.”
She scowls at him as she walks out, but there’s no heat in it.
Coulson nods at Steve as he sits down opposite him- the fanboying, Tony notes, has died down considerably, if you ignore the occasional manly squeak that Coulson lets out sometimes when Steve does something particularly heroic.
Steve takes a bite of his toast- dry, and wholegrain, and for some reason it makes Tony’s mouth twitch upwards every time he hears the crunch of his teeth connect through it, because it's wholegrain fucking toast, who the fuck actually eats that- and says, “Any news?”
“One of the Kardashians is going through a divorce,” Coulson says, shucking up his sleeves as he reaches for a plate to put his doughnut on, “But I don’t think that’s what you meant.”
“I understand that reference,” Tony says mockingly, sing-songing it, and Steve’s hand closes around the string to tug sharply on it- they’re the only ones who can make it do that without the length of it changing, they’ve found out, and even then it only does if one of them wants it to- and Tony yelps as he narrowly misses getting hot coffee all over his hands.
“Whoa, hey, not cool! Don’t fuck with a man’s coffee!”
He takes an angry sip- and pulls it off, because he’s Tony Stark, and Tony Stark can take angry sips of coffee if he fucking wants to- and the string skims across the top of Coulson’s head as he passes.
“Whoops,” Tony says, taking Coulson’s frown and running with it, patting Coulson where the string caught him.
“Don’t push it,” Coulson warns.
Tony flashes him a grin and pulls out a chair to sit down, placing his coffee on a coaster as he does, because Steve is anal about leaving stains on the tables.
He sucks a drop of stray coffee from his thumb before saying, “So, if Loki didn’t do it, who did? Some invisible supervillain who happened to be at the same place at the same time? Because seriously, weirder things have happened.”
“What’s the point of this, anyway,” Steve says, lifting his hand again, and the string gives a bit this time. “If it’s not going to hurt us, then it’s just an inconvenience.” He tugs at it, frowning. “A really annoying, distracting inconvenience.”
“An inconvenience that, unfortunately, is going to keep the both of you out of the field for now,” Coulson says, taking the last bite out of his doughnut.
“Mph,” Tony grunts, even though he had been expecting it. He takes another mouthful of coffee, which tastes better than usual due to Darcy making it, and imagines having to fly all around New York, back around buildings, lampposts, etc, to untangle the string after a battle.
He snorts into his coffee, the image of Fury’s resultant bitchface too clear in his mind, and Steve glances at him.
“My witty internal banter,” Tony explains. “I’m hilarious. Don’t mind me.”
And it catches him off guard, like it always does, and the gentle upward slide of Steve’s smile is enough for Tony’s breath to catch in his throat.
Steve says, “Sure, Tony,” and Tony feels the usual tide inside him: in and out, clutching and howling and wanting and slamming up against the cliffs.
And it’s not a storm, exactly, but it’s not calm sailing, either: it’s a lake with a water lily in it and it’s a raging whirlpool, biting down on ships and spitting bones back out, and it’s Steve and it varies from minute to minute.
It drags from sickly-sweet at the back of his throat to wanting to press his teeth at the base of his throat, to wanting to push him up against a wall, push him up against anything with a flat surface, to slow and careful and hot and angry and Tony’s always been the smart one, the one running ahead of everyone else, but he can’t catch up to this if he tried.
And Steve is smiling at him, and he’s everything Tony was never sure about wanting but kept on wanting it anyway, and his knuckles look dusty, like they always do, and he’s so different from the guy he had been half-hating-half-idolising-half-something-else-altogether all his life.
Then Steve is reaching over for the sugar bowl, because he adds obscene amounts of it to his coffee and Clint always jokes he should just eat the whole packet in the cupboard, and the tag is sticking out the back of his shirt and there’s a dip in his collarbone and a splash of a scar just under his right ear from a bike accident before the serum.
And Tony has bodies of water all thrashing inside his chest, his throat, his gut; wrestling with salty knuckles against the arc reactor; all shoving against the other ones.
Steve says, “Tony, you okay?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, automatic and perfected over the years, and tells himself he doesn’t see the look in Steve’s eyes when he gets up. “I’m going to- uh. Workshop.”
When he sits down at his usual chair and Dummy is, once again, wheeling into the string and beeping happily as he does it, he realizes that escaping from Steve is going to be even harder than it was before this.
So he busies himself in his new project- new blades for the Helicarrier, because the current ones are shit- and trips over the string twice, nearly burning himself three times when his hand runs into it without noticing.
On the second time he falls over it, he goes sprawling, and hits the floor back-first.
He stares up at the ceiling, getting his breath back, and the weight on his little finger increases, like it’s pulling him towards something.
It’s not like they spend every day meditating on the string, or anything. It’s just another weird thing they’re up against, it’s just another shitstorm- not even that, it’s a fucking string, it’s more irritating than anything else- and Steve and Tony are benched for the time being, but everything else carries on as per usual.
Clint invents a new flavour of milkshake that no-one can stomach except for Thor, who loves it and doesn’t understand why one of the new agents keeps throwing up. Natasha sharpens her knives in obvious places and pretends to be confused when someone asks her to leave. Bruce and Tony do science things which usually results in the both of them having to hold up the string for each other, because they keep walking into it.
They all spar together, and Steve and Tony perfect a new routine: making the others duck or jump over the string, then the other one takes them down. It’s actually kind of useful, and Tony runs rings around Natasha- literally- and she tries to cut her way out before remembering, and then has to wait until Bruce and Steve help unwind her.
Darcy and Clint take pictures before getting the camera snatched off of them, and Coulson rolls his eyes at all of them and tries not to let his smile show.
Darcy snaps her phone shut with a finality that she didn’t need in the first place, and smacks it down on the table with a force that, again, she didn’t need. “It’s official, SHIELD confirmed it. There is absolute fuck-all about your stringy whatchimicallit in Norse mythology.”
Steve looks up from where he’s been reading a Kurt Vonnegut book- he’s read all of them cover to cover in the two years he’s been here, but he says he likes to re-read things.
“Who says it’s Norse?”
“I says it’s Norse,” Darcy says. “Or whatever the equivalent of that was in a grammatically correct sentence. Besides, what else could it be?”
“A great number of things,” Thor says, keeping his eyes on Natasha’s hair, which he’s braiding, and Tony is never going to get over that, ever. “And those books are sadly inaccurate.”
Clint twists his torso so his head is dangling next to Thor’s knee. “You just say that because your brother got a horse pregnant.”
Thor’s nostrils flare, which is never a good sign, and Tony doesn’t know whether to run screaming or burst out laughing as Thor says, in a pinched sort of tone, “We do not talk about that in this household.”
“O-kay,” Steve says. “So, Thor.”
He holds up his wrist, and the string stretches. “Is this Norse?”
“Possibly,” Thor says, after he’s stopped glaring at Clint.
“Gosh,” Tony says, flipping another page in the TV guide which they don’t need, because JARVIS keeps everything stored, but everyone insisted. “That was helpful.”
“And I suppose you are an expert on all Christian, Bhuddist and miscellaneous other teachings, I assume?”
Tony shrugs. “Why should I? I don’t believe in any of them. I didn’t even believe in you until you hit me with lightning.”
“I have apologized for that many times already, do not make-”
“I wasn’t fishing for an apology, I was just saying-”
“Quack,” Steve says, and both Tony and Steve fall silent, albeit grudgingly- ‘quack’ was invented by Bruce (well, it was invented by ducks, obviously, but that’s not the point), and they use it whenever they want anyone to shut up.
So far, it’s worked about 40% of the time, because in the middle of an argument, it doesn’t help if someone shoves in between them and starts yelling, “QUACK, QUACK, QUACK, MOTHERFUCKING QUACK, SHUT THE FUCKING QUACK UP, OH MY GOD.”
Usually, it escalates things, and it’s provided most of them with endless entertainment, unless you’re the one who’s pissed off, in which case, ‘quack’ has never helped anything and only escalates how furious you are at the time. It's resulted in a few hulk-ings, and one one occasion, Thor almost accidentally commiting homocide on a bunch of innocent pigeons.
Steve raises a hand to rub in between his eyes. “Call Coulson. I’m sure he’s working on it.”
Three days, one battle with Loki (which Tony bitched his way though as they watched it on the news until Steve hit him with a cushion and told him he was in the same boat and you don’t see him grumbling, even though he totally had been) and stacks of paperwork (that Darcy is still yet to do) later, there’s a Norse goddess standing in the kitchen.
Tony takes a second to reflect on how much that sentence doesn’t freak him out before holding out his hand and saying, “Tony Stark.”
The goddess- and he knows it’s a goddess because a) she’s fully decked out in robes that are held together with a metal that Tony is pretty sure isn’t from around here, b) Thor looks like he recognizes her and c) she’s standing next to Sif, who Tony’s met a few times- stares down at the hand that he’s not holding out, which has the red string trailing from it.
Then she cranes her neck past him where it ends at Steve’s finger, who is standing about half a foot to his right.
She stares for a few more seconds, before looking up to Tony’s face and sighing. “Well, shitfuck. What’d you do?”
Tony thinks he takes this very well before he starts to laugh, because she’s a goddess with the robes and the accent and she sounds like a fucking trucker.
Both she and Sif are giving Tony the stink-eye when he finally straightens up again, wiping the wetness out of his eyes and chuckling slightly.
“Sorry,” he says, and almost everyone is glaring in his direction. “I just- come on.”
“I could kill you,” the goddess says, “with my brain.”
And then Tony is collapsing into laughter again, choking on it when he says, “Please tell me-”
“It was a genuine threat, and I sometimes drop by Migard and catch up on Firefly,” the goddess says, and Tony loves his life, oh my god. “Which is easy as fuck, seeing as it only had one season.”
“Still bitter about it,” Clint says, nodding. “So, you’re a god?”
“Goddess, yeah,” she says, straightening her headdress and managing to look badass while doing it. “Bit different than the other ones. I hang around you lot more often than I should, apparently. But you haven’t answered my question.”
“’shitfuck, what’d you do?’”
“We didn’t do anything. I think. Why, what did you think we did?”
“Well, I don’t frigging know,” the goddess says, giving Clint a look like he’s the stupidest person she’s seen in the entirety of the cosmos. “You did it, how the fuck am I supposed to know what it was?”
“Ma’am,” Steve says, stepping forwards. “With all due respect, we don’t think we did anything.”
Again, she shrugs. “Well, Cap-i-tan, obviously you’re wrong about that. You’d have to break something pretty major to get this,” she says, and motions towards the string.
She says, “Reality,” and Tony wasn’t really expecting anything else.
“Uh,” he says. “Oops?”
He practically feels the look that Steve gives him, so he says, “I mean, how’d we do that? If we did. Which, personally, I don’t think we did. No offence, trucker-goddess.”
“Verdandi,” she says. “Call me Verda. I think I can leave out the z-formation snap that goes along with it.”
She honest-to-god flips her hair over her shoulder, and Sif, sensing another laughing fit from Tony, cuts in with, “Verda is one of the three fates. She has taken a… special interest in the fate of the Avengers for many centuries. I thought it best for her to come and see your current predicament.”
Bruce is cleaning his glasses on his shirt- well, not really, he usually only does it when he’s anxious or if he wants to look smarter (or if he needs to clean his glasses, but that’s not often, since he breaks them every time he hulks out and hence buys new ones every few weeks or so)- when he looks up and says, “Centuries?”
Verda raises her eyebrows at him. “Well, duh. I had to plan some stuff. You guys are sort of important.”
“Maybe a smidge,” Verda says, holding up two fingers close together to indicate just how smidge-ily important they are. “Anyway, you seemed interesting, so I took your case. Sorry about the shit you’ve been through, that was mostly my fault. Emphasis on the mostly.”
Tony… really, really has no idea how to react to that. “Right. We… forgive you, I guess?”
“You sort of don’t have a choice,” Verda says, “But whatever.”
She reaches to take the string, and half an inch away, her hand stops.
It stays there for a few seconds, hovering, and Tony opens his mouth to say, great, is there a protective fucking force field or something, she drops her hand and says, “Yeeeeah, probably shouldn’t.”
Steve says, “Why not?”
“Too many variables,” Verda replies, and her shoulders come back. “Okay! So, you’re absolutely sure none of you did anything to disturb reality?”
“Not that we know of,” Bruce says, “But it’s entirely possible.”
Verda hums, her hand flexing like she wants to reach out, but keeps stopping herself. “Okey-dokey. That makes my job a fuckload harder, thanks. Seriously, none of you know what this is yet?”
Steve and Tony both say, “No,” at the same time, and everyone else stays suspiciously silent.
The both of them turn to look at their team, and it’s an awkward few seconds before Darcy says, “I Googled ‘red string,’ and it sort of came up? You know, after scrolling through half a dozen pages of pictures of literal red string.”
Verda beams. “Knew I liked you. Yeah, it’s probably what you think it is.”
“Uh-huh,” Darcy says, her eyes widening on Steve and Tony, and swallowing. “I so knew it, and also, if you like me, does that mean-?”
“Hey, I don’t decide your shit, free will is a thing, you know,” Verda says, reaching to tip her headdress the right way again, because it keeps sagging to the right. “Take some lessons from the Winchesters. Anyway, it’s the red string of fate, and it’s not supposed to be fucking corporeal, so I have no idea what the fuck happened.”
Steve and Tony glance at each other, and Tony shakes his head when Steve mouths, what?
When Tony looks back, Verda is cocking her eyebrow at him.
“What?” He raises his hand to his chin. “Do I have something on my face?”
Verda sighs the all-suffering sigh of an immortal god that so far he’s only seen Coulson actually pull off. “Fuck. Mortals, I swear to Odin-” she cuts herself off, her jaw flexing. “This is some big shit here, capisce? Like, hole-in-the-fabric-of-space-and-time shit.”
“Must be Thursday.”
“Touché,” Verda allows. “I don’t know how it happened, or what you did, but we have to fix it. Fast. Otherwise all sorts of shit is going to come leaking through.”
Tony hums, nodding. “We’ll get right on that. And what is ‘it,’ exactly?”
He twists his wrist and grabs the string so that when he hefts it up, Steve’s hand is jerked up with it. “You know, the random, fucking annoying thing that I’ve been tripping everyone up with accidentally over the past few days? The thing that will. Not. Fucking. Break, even when Steve hit it with his shield, which, BTW, is made of the hardest metal known to man? BTW means by the way, BTW.”
“I am aware,” Verda says. “Asshole.”
“So what is-”
“In your world,” Sif says in a clipped voice, looking at Tony in a way that means she’s trying very hard not to turn and glare at Verda, “it is in Japanese mythology, I believe. It is used to bind two people together who are meant to meet, or assist each other.”
She hesitates, her eyes flickering to Steve and then Tony and down to the string, which Tony has let go of and is still pulling tight between them. “In most cases, the yarn is white, or occasionally gold. It is, I’m sure, stretched between every single one of the people in this room.”
“Yes indeed-y,” Verda says, and her smile this time has less light in it than the one she gave Darcy. “Gold strings for all of you. Kinda pretty, actually.”
Steve looks past her, towards Sif. “What’s so special about this case?”
“In this, ah, particular case,” Sif says, looking at Thor for a bit too long with raised eyebrows before she continues, “It is red. Red string is rare, but not unheard of. It is only used in the most powerful, ancient, extensive relationships where the two have destinies far beyond them as they would if they were separate entities.”
Tony blinks. Blinks again. Blinks a third time and okay, sure, whatever, he’s eternally bound to Steve. He can work with this.
“Ooookay,” he says slowly. “Powerful, extensive relationship. Got it. I’ll be sure to weasel that in somewhere in the next press conference; that’ll go down well. Really up Cap’s publicity.”
“Ancient,” Steve repeats, his eyes skating off of Tony when he glances at him. “But Tony and I have only known each other for a few years.”
Verda opens her mouth, pulling in a breath that Tony’s sure is going to be a spectacularly sassy comment that would rival only Beyoncé and possibly Fury, but Sif says, still not looking away from Steve, “Verda, if you do not close your infernal mouth, I will drag you back down to your sisters and lock you there for the next decade.”
Verda’s mouth snaps shut, eyebrows bumping upwards like, wow, overreact much?
Sif clears her throat, her lips twitching before she continues. “For you, yes, it has only been a few years. But Tony and you have been woven together since before the two of you were even born- since before the birth of the first human child, I’m guessing, if what I’ve heard is true. Your bond is deeper than gold twine, deeper than white.”
“Um,” Steve says, but apparently Sif isn’t finished.
“It is- it is not just destined, Steve Rogers. It will reach through the decades, through entire universes if it has to. It will scour the galaxies without rest until the two of you are standing next to each other. Migardians-”
And there it is again, the tiny mouth-twitch, looking up at their faces like she’s breathing the both of them in. “Migardians call them soulmates, I believe.”
Steve says, “Um,” again, but it’s more shellshocked than anything else, and Tony stays silent for a full five seconds before raising one hand- the hand with the string on it- and blurting, “Soulmates, soulmates, or just, like, soulmates?”
His gesturing over the past few days has lost its usual emphasis due to the string, but he still tries, waving ineffectually, even though he doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s supposed to be motioning about. “Like, platonic soulmates, or-”
“There have been… instances,” Sif says, and now there’s a hint of a frown, “of platonic-”
“You love each other,” Verda says, sighing. “Doesn’t matter how you slice it. There have been people with red string that are siblings, people with red string that are lovers, this one time there was a guy with-”
“They need not to know about that story,” Sif talks stiffly over her.
There’s a short silence, where Tony sneaks a look at Steve, who is- standing in fucking parade rest, what the fuck, and is looking straight ahead at Sif.
“Um,” Darcy says, like she’s grabbing for something. “Um. I’d like to hear about it.”
“Yeah,” Clint says, louder than he should. “Let’s all gather around and hear about the guy. I love the guy! Who’s the guy?”
Verda mutters something that sounds like mortals, again, in the same tone, but Tony isn’t really paying attention.
The next few days are, understandably, kind of awkward.
Like, imagine you suddenly learned that the guy you’ve been in love with since about three months after you met him is your soulmate, which- and this is the rational part of your mind, because you’re a genius who totally has better things to do than worry about this- might kind of mean that he has the same feelings towards you.
So, yes. It’s kind of awkward. If ‘kind of awkward’ meant ‘so incredibly fucking awkward you could cut the awkward with a knife, bake the awkward in a cake and spread it with awkward icing and get everyone to eat it and be so. Fucking. Awkward,’ then it was kind of awkward.
Because, honestly, even though Tony is a genius, and he does have better things to do than worry about this- there is no socially acceptable way of asking one of your best friends if they’re in love with you.
Even if you are soulmates.
And that is never, ever going to get less weird to think.
But then there’s the idea- because Tony covers all grounds, always has- that feelings have nothing to do with being soulmates whatsoever, because Sif hadn’t mentioned anything about it once during that speech. She was all with the ‘OMG FATE AND DESTINY!one!!’ and what the fuck ever.
So for all Tony knows, Steve’s feelings towards him are honestly platonic, and the whole ‘soulmates’ shtick is just some ‘fate’ bullshit that they can gloss over later.
And then there’s the whole ‘the threads of reality are obviously falling to shit,’ so, yeah, there’s that.
Verda sticks around, pissing them off and sassing Coulson and getting along surprisingly well with everyone- especially Coulson, and Tony thinks this would be a good time to get terrified- and Fury says it’s for ‘further research,’ which Verda does precisely none of before getting Thor, who’s apparently an old buddy of hers, to take her out on the town.
They make the headlines. Tony offers to pay for the damage. Tony finds that the damage is a few million dollars more expensive than he thought it would be. Tony bribes the reporters to edit out the part where the Asgardian god flashed an entire restaurant.
Tony hates his life, except he really, really doesn’t.
In fact, everything’s kind of perfect except for the fact that Steve is avoiding him, and Tony is avoiding Steve, and the fucking irritating piece of fucking string that’s still attached to his fucking pinkie and makes his hard to do everything, including jerk off.
Like, try jerking off with string around one of your fingers. It doesn’t exactly set the mood.
So Tony is understandably pissed off, and sort of confused, and keeps wanting a drink, and lets everyone come into the workshop sometimes, but mostly Bruce and Natasha, because- just because.
So he’s pissed and confused, and then- and then, of course, the dreams start.
At first, it’s just glimpses- he catches a hand reaching out, a flash of blue eyes, and then he’s waking up for the second time that night, twisting in the sheets and breathing hard.
The first night after that, he’s- he’s not watching, but there’s definitely a Tony Stark there, and it’s not him.
But he can still feel what Tony- not him Tony, another Tony- is feeling, so he feels the hitch in his breath as he says, Hey, Steve?
Steve glances at him, distracted, but when his eyes focus on Tony, his smile widens.
He’s pinning up a poster on the hallway, something about the pep rally next week that Tony is probably going to end up skipping out on, because his parents said something about attending a dinner party that night.
Steve says, sixteen and filling out and five and a half solid feet of everything Tony’s ever shoved away, Hey, Ton-
Tony- forty two and very much not rocking puberty like he was in the dream- doesn’t sit up when he opens his eyes, mostly because it’s still dark outside and he’s confused as fuck.
“Okay,” he says to no-one. “And now I’m having vividly realistic dreams about a nonexistant high school, at an age where I had already graduated college. Awesome. This is the best week ever. Fuck my life.”
Bruce is used to this by now- he bends under the string and Tony lifts it for him so he can cross the room to get the chemicals, and Bruce says, “Thanks,” knowing Tony won’t reply, because he’s too lost in the blueprints.
“Mm,” Tony grunts, not looking up from where he’s hunched over the desk, scribbling corrections on the blueprints.
Bruce taps on the string again with two loose fingers, and Tony lifts his wrist so the string moves with it.
“Thanks,” Bruce says again, and ducks underneath it, careful not to jog the vials in his hand.
He sets them down on his desk, and, on second thought, turns back to Tony.
He looks like he always does in the workshop: tired, wired and caffeinated, with smudges everywhere and his hair shoved up in all directions.
There’s a mark on his wrist where the desk has been digging into it, and they all know that, logically, the string should be doing the same thing, but both Steve and Tony say it doesn’t hurt at all.
Got to love magic, Bruce thinks to himself, and then wets his lips.
“He draws you like this, you know.”
Tony doesn’t answer, doesn’t even stop scribbling, and Bruce almost smiles, because right now, he isn’t even sure if Tony hears him or not, but he’s betting on the ‘not.’
“Steve,” Bruce clarifies, even if he’s just talking to himself. “He draws you, when he comes down and you’re not paying attention. One time when I asked him, he blushed- he always blushes when it comes to you, even if he denies it- and told me that he likes seeing you so in your element.”
Nothing. The scratch of pencil on sharp paper doesn’t falter.
“I wasn’t even surprised,” Bruce continues. “if anyone was going to be soulmates, it was you two. It was always you two, I think. And I’m- I’m glad we found each other. All of us. But most of all, I’m glad that you and Steve found each other, no matter how inevitable it was.”
There’s a shuffle of paper, and Bruce watches as Tony flips it over and starts on the other side in short, looping equations that even Bruce can’t read.
He smiles, and it’s nothing compared to how he’s seen Steve smile at Tony sometimes- a lightbulb compared to the full blast of the sun, turned up high.
“His favourite poem’s ‘Bluebird,’ by Charles Bukowski,” Bruce says. “He writes it around the drawings of you, in his notebook that he doesn’t think anyone knows about it. You should go and find it; it’s in the third drawer next to his bed.”
Again: nothing, and there are times where Bruce loves him- not anything more than a friend, never anything more than that- and loves him down to his core, down to the coffee-grits and that first glass of alcohol and all those bad decisions that out him in the gutter, in stranger’s beds, in the desert with bloody knees- because they’ve all lead Tony right here, right now, sitting with Bruce in their workshop, and he wouldn’t give it up for anything.
He tries to tell Tony this, but when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out.
Finally, Tony blinks, looks up. “How long was I out?”
It takes a few seconds for Bruce to find his voice. “I’m not sure. Couldn’t have been any more than an hour.”
Tony says, “Okay,” and turns back to the paper.
Later, Tony Googles ‘Bluebird,’ by Charles Bukowski. He has to spell-check the last name a few times before he gets the right result.
He reads it through once, twice, then a third time and he’s feeling kind of sick and kind of something else and he swallows once, twice, then a third time, and doesn’t notice he’s pressing his palm against the arc reactor until his pulse point pushes into it.
On the day marking a week being stringified, Verda walks into the room in full battle armour, Sif and Thor flanking her.
She gives everyone a few seconds to stare before saying, “Hi! We’re going to go and clean up the shitstorm that you guys obviously started which no-one is owning up to. Toodles.”
“Again, ma’am,” Steve says, in a tone that Tony’s learned to decipher as bitch, I will cut you, “We don’t think this is our fault.”
Verda snorts. “Yeah, that’s what Hitler said.”
Sif not-so-discreetly steps on her foot, and Verda makes a face at her. “Okay, I’m going. Fucking hell.”
She gives the room a once-over, and raises her middle finger to point at them. “Don’t screw with anything while I’m gone. Especially reality. Oh, wait!”
Sif hisses, “Verda,” and Verda groans, loud. “Fine! Guys, we’ll call if we find anything.”
“Have fun,” Darcy calls, waving a floury hand from the kitchen, where she’s attempting to bake cupcakes and only half succeeding. From what Tony’s heard, she hasn’t broken anything yet. Like, say, the oven.
“Yeah, fuck you too,” Verda says. “Also.” She stabs a finger at all of them again. “If you two start experiencing weird shit that may or not be universe leakage, you call me. Got it?”
“It is indeed got,” Tony says. “Toodles.”
Verda flicks her hair over her shoulder again. “Toodles. Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me.”
Wisely, Tony waits until the door is closed behind her, Sif and Thor to declare, “And that’s how you make an exit, ladies and gentlemen.”
He doesn’t dream about the weird high school thing again, thank fucking god.
Instead, he dreams about boats, and the people on them, and slicing through the water- and it’s not him, it’s not, but he’s not watching and he’s not the Tony on the boat and he doesn’t know what the fuck is happening- with Steve at the bow, hanging off the side and whooping into the wide ocean air that goes on forever.
They cut through the tape at the finish line and the crowd explodes, and Tony catches himself thinking that Loki owes him that tie with yachts on it, and that Natasha is going to have to take the minivan to drive her kids out to see him afterwards, and the sun is in their faces and on their shoulders and dragging along the back of his neck and Steve is grinning and it sends him reeling-
Then, just as Steve is coming towards him with that beautiful fucking smile that unwinds him on the best of days, the one that outshines the sun behind him, it changes-
Crawling through the trenches in World War Three, bloody and muddy and dragging each other along by their sleeves.
Tony has grit at the back of his throat, and Steve is beanpole-skinny and Captain-America-determined and he’s wheezing, his breath coming in ragged gasps as his gulps rattle in and out-
Then again, and again, and again, and Tony (but not Tony) is saying something into a pillow before Steve pulls it out from under his head.
Tony whines, long and loose, one hand grabbing outwards. Gimmieee.
Tony, Steve says, but there’s a soft smile somewhere in there, even if Tony isn’t looking up. We need to go. We’ll be late.
You’ll be late, I’m going for moral support-
Which I am ever so thankful for, thank you for making this huge sacrifice for me, Steve deadpands, and the bed sags in the middle as Steve sits down.
Tony sniffs. It is a huge sacrifice. I’m missing out on a whole day of doing nothing to go to your stupid thing.
Like I said, Steve says, and bends down to press a kiss to his neck. I’m very thankful.
There’s a few fingers trailing up Tony’s bare hip now, and Tony bites down on a grin as well as Steve’s bottom lip when he rolls over to face him.
If I’m not mistaken, Tony says, and doesn’t have time to finish that sentence, because he’s going, going, gone-
This time, he only catches flashes of it.
Glimpses of red, cutting in and out of his vision and then there’s brilliant gold, strings of white in between them, pooling from Natasha’s wrist, and he knows it’s hers because of the scar down her thumb.
Then Bruce, and his are tinged with green, jutting out from around his waist, knotting around his gut and then into it-
Flash, flash, flash, and for one full, vibrant second, there’s light.
Light in their faces, on their shoulders, down the back of their necks, light in their mouths, light, light, light, streaming down in rivers and filling them up and running over their hands, down their shirts, through their skin, light in slippery torrents and oceans and streams and all gathering towards-
Tony blinks, hard, and there’s an empty space in his bed and the only light in the room is the one he’s covering with both hands.
Officially, movie night in on Thursdays.
Unofficially, it’s whenever more than four of them are in the lounge after dinner and they have nothing else to do- or Pepper suspiciously cancels Tony’s appointment and everyone else sidesteps whatever they had on for the evening and somehow end up in the lounge and hey, look, a movie’s on, might as well sit down- so basically three nights out of seven.
And if there’s one thing Tony’s learned about movies over the years, apart from that the black guy will never make it to the end, is that when you’re in the thick of it, things start to seep through.
Like, when you’re not paying attention, and you get so lost in the movie, and you don’t catch yourself smiling until a scene is over.
And even with the Avengers- who aren’t ‘most people’ by a long shot, who don’t let things seep through unless it’s blood through a bandage- Tony catches them sometimes, even if it’s only for a second.
He’s seen the tail-end of Natasha’s smirk when Betty White made a star appearance in whatever show they were watching, he’s seen Bruce’s quiet smile as the main character got a happy ending in Easy A.
He’s watched as every single one of his teammates let something flash across their faces, he’s heard them smother a laugh- he keeps an eye out for flinching, because one time he might have forgotten to tell them that he doesn’t like movies involving drowning anymore, and apparently he tuned out for a good forty seconds and didn’t respond to anything, even Clint shaking him.
And he’s not alone there, Natasha did the same thing with a scene in a saloon where someone brought out chains and a collar, except that she did respond to Thor shaking her, and very enthusiastically, via slinging her legs around his neck and almost choking him in the time it took to get her to snap out of it; Bruce hates anything to do with cages, and Steve goes scarily quiet anytime a war scene shows up, which they actively try to avoid.
But apart from the PTSD, they’re the memories that Tony finds himself turning over when he starts glancing at the liquor cabinet too often: the Avengers, maybe plus a few others splayed out over the couches, with the kitchen light on and the lounge light off and the TV screen throwing light across their faces. Thor’s quiet, amused laugh that no-one thought he could do. Clint’s crow’s feet getting more defined whenever he grins.
But now there’s that fucking string that’s only stretching a few inches, because everyone got pissed off with it being strung across the two couches and having to duck under it every time they went for more popcorn.
So Steve and Tony sit side by side through Coraline, and the string is still pulling, the pressure just white noise by now.
Halfway through the movie, Clint comes back with a refill of lemonade and one side of his face twists as he sits down next to Bruce, bringing both his knees up and folding his legs under him. “Wow. That’s incredibly fucking creepy.”
Darcy doesn’t look away from the screen, but her face scrunches in an almost identical way. “What, the buttons for eyes? God, yes. I mean-” she flops her hand at the TV, where Coraline is backing away from the hands holding the black buttons in one hand and a needle in the other. “Look at it.”
“Trying not to,” Steve says from behind his hand- apparently, all movies in the 21st century are dramatically different to the ones in the forties, and after a while he just gave up and started blocking his ears/covering his eyes when something comes up that he doesn’t want to see.
He’s covering his eyes with his left hand, so his other is less than an inch away from Tony’s, so there’s less of a yank to fight against.
When the buttons are put away, Tony nudges Steve, who drops his hand away and then saying flatly, “This isn’t any better.”
“Remind me never to make you watch The Human Centipede,” Natasha says, her face impassive, and he outcry from that is almost unanimously protesting, except for Steve, who just looks confused.
"Quack," Bruce says to the whole room, looking pointedly at Darcy, who rolls her eyes.
“It’s nothing,” Darcy says. “Just the movie that will fuel my nightmares until I die, and maybe even after. It completely ruined rimming for me.”
Clint starts choke-laughing on his lemonade as Steve flushes uncomfortably red, and Tony is stuck between joining in on laughing and getting extremely turned on.
“How- how the hell,” Clint gulps, “do you know what rimming is? Was that even invented in the 40s?”
“I hadn’t heard of it until I woke up,” Steve says, looking straight at the TV and stubbornly trying to make the blush die down, “so I wouldn’t know. Sorry, Clint.”
“Somebody learned how to use Gooooogle,” Clint sing-songs, leaning towards him.
Steve tears his eyes away from the screen long enough to glare at him.
Even though he’s from a time where computers were room-sized and i-pads were literal pads that you put on your eyes, he’s adapted. He learned how to use Google within two hours of waking up, and gets slightly pissy anytime someone suggests otherwise. Same with microwaves, laptops, etc. It’s a goldmine of jokes that Tony used to use frequently to get a rise out of him in the first few months he had known him.
He doesn’t anymore, but mostly because he stopped wanting to piss Steve off, which is, uh.
They sit through the rest of Coraline, and Steve only has to cover his eyes a few more times. Tony doesn’t blame him, and he doesn’t know if it’s made by Tim Burton or not, but he’s putting his dice on yes because it’s creepy as shit.
Then, halfway through Chicken Little (Bruce wanted to watch kid’s movies and no-one wanted to argue with him at that point), the constant pull on Tony’s little finger stops at the exact same time Steve shifts his pinkie so it’s pushing into his.
Tony is suddenly hyper-aware of every limb on his body and how he has them angled, and he manages to make it through the next ten minutes of the movie- something happens with aliens, which, come on, this is Chicken Little, where the fuck did aliens come into that- without looking over at Steve.
It’s nice, though, to not have the persistent fucking tug of it dragging him sideways or backwards or whatever, but he can’t concentrate on that, because Steve is radiating body heat even though the single finger which is touching Tony.
The movie ends, some more shit happens with the aliens, none of which Tony is paying attention to, and Darcy announces that she’s going to bed as she’s standing up and stretching.
“Me, too,” Steve says, moving his hand away, and then the tug is back.
He stands, and the red string is stretched out thin behind him. “Night, everyone.”
It should be funny, honestly- the string leading out beyond closed doors, across the kitchen, etc, etc, but all Tony wants to do right now is follow it wherever, because at the other end of it is always going to be Steve.
And he remembers, even after all this time, the first time he felt like this:
He had been saying some throwaway comment about a committee, or a new fundraiser, and the news had been on and Steve had been curling his fingers around the straps of his shield in a way that he does when he’s particularly on edge, due to a battle yesterday.
And Tony doesn’t remember what he had started the conversation with, or even what it was about, but at one point he had said, “Guess that’s what I get for being a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist.”
Something like guilt but not quite had flickered across Steve’s face, and when he looked up at Tony, it had been the same fucking knife in his gut.
Steve had said, “You know you’re so much more than that, right,” without a trace of irony in his voice, and Tony had almost laughed, thinking he was joking, but Steve’s expression hadn’t changed.
Tony had fallen silent, his smile sloughing off his mouth, and he was halfway to saying, uh, what, when a welcome distraction had come in the shape of the siren blaring.
And Steve had leapt up like he always did, Avengers Assemble yelled through the room even though it didn’t need to be, and Tony didn’t remember the few seconds before it until much later.
He still remembers, sometimes. When he’s sifting through people at a gala or laughing at a joke he doesn’t find funny or grinning at someone he doesn’t care about, and the suit is stiff at the collar and the mirror doesn’t let up and Steve is saying, you know you’re so much more than that, right?
That night, he dreams about Steve fucking him.
And he knows it’s a dream, because it has the same quality of the other ones: he’s Tony, but he’s not that Tony, and he’s not there, but he can still feel the scrape of Steve’s teeth over the pulse point in his neck.
He can still feel the slick, slow shove of Steve pressing into him in shaky thrusts. There’s sweat pooling in Tony’s collarbones and Steve is trembling as he lowers his head and kisses it away.
Their hands are tangled together- free of strings, red or otherwise- and there’s no space in between them, legs twisted in each other, bodies lined up so Tony can feel the heat of him all the way down the front of his body.
He’s completely surrounded: first by the sheets and then by Steve, and there’s no part of his skin that isn’t being touched by something, whether it be the mattress or Steve’s sweaty fingers.
And Tony is so far past gone he can’t even speak, can’t even gasp Steve’s name or kiss back or do anything but hold on.
Steve says Tony’s name into his neck, into his shoulder, panting it into his hair, and it’s broken in all the right ways, sounding as overwhelmed as Tony feels.
I love you, Steve breathes, shattered, his fingers bruising Tony’s hips and his mouth bruising Tony’s lips. I lo- love- oh, and it’s wobbling so hard it half comes out as a sob, and Tony’s hands are shaking so hard he has to try twice to get a good grip at the back of Steve’s neck.
He tugs upwards weakly, in short, sharp bursts, and then Steve’s kissing him and his voice is bursting at the seams and Tony never thought he could feel like this, like he’s burning from the inside out in the sweetest way that he never knew about.
Steve kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, and comes with a shout, pressing Tony’s hand into the pillow.
That night, he dreams about Steve making love to him, and he wakes up hard and achingly empty and cold all over.
He finds out every single fucking thing he can about the red string of fate, the variations of it, and is knee-deep in both Norse and Greek myths when he decides that he’s both too sober and too horny for this, and has no way of fixing either of those (he’s trying the whole ‘not drinking’ thing, which is harder than it fucking looks because Howard passed down a lot more than just his IQ, and jerking off just makes him remember the freakishly realistic dream and only elevates his horniness levels).
When he stretches and glances down at the clock, it’s been three hours, he’s found jack-shit on anything helpful, and his stomach is growling.
Also, it’s 9 in the morning, which means he actually got up at a time that Steve would call ‘appropriate.’
Shut up about Steve, he tells his brain. Seriously. Not cool. This isn’t funny anymore.
And because the universe hates him, when he opens the door, Steve is walking past with a towel slung low around his waist, because Tony was a moron who made the blueprints to this place and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch Captain America walking from his shower.
Fuck you, past self. With a repulsor.
Steve, surprisingly, looks just as caught-in-the-headlights.
“I- hi,” he splutters, the hand in the towel tightening. “I- was showering. Obviously,” he continues, the blush from yesterday flaring up again. “We’re, uh, out of shampoo.”
Tony nods jerkily, and when he talks, it comes out as a croak. “I’ll get Coulson to pick some up.”
And wow, it hasn’t been this awkward between them since the first few weeks after Steve moved in.
Steve’s throat clicks, but the blush is fading when he says, “You know how he hates that.”
“Yeah,” Tony says, still nodding, and it’s then that he realized that he hasn’t stopped since he started and wants to die a bit. “Well, that makes it more fun. I’m going to go, uh. Talk. To Darcy. Have fun getting dressed.”
The last part falls out of his mouth before he can stop it, and he’s never hated the Stark Verbal Diarrhoea any more than he does in this very moment, because oh my god.
Steve says, “You, t-” before he stops himself, and his blush is back at 100 miles an hour.
Tony stares for a second. “Steve.”
“Did you almost just say ‘you, too?’”
It’s a well-known fact that Steve can maintain his dignity almost anywhere, but right now, in a dripping towel in the middle of a hallway, it’s next to impossible.
“Maybe,” he says dryly, and they keep each other’s gaze for a full six seconds before Tony’s mouth starts twitching, and he purses his lips to keep himself from laughing, and then Steve starts to laugh and Tony stops trying not to.
They laugh like they can’t stop, and for a good thirty seconds they can’t, laughing turning into gulps of breath when they run out of air, and Tony should be pulling away from this, should be running as fast as he fucking can in the opposite direction, but Steve is laughing and Tony’s ribs are hurting in the best way he can think of, and they have this, and it’s enough.
It takes a long time before they stop chuckling, and by the time that happens, they’re both looking at each other with the easiest smiles they’ve traded ever since they woke up with the string.
“Have fun getting dressed,” Tony says again, and revels in how a clump of Steve’s hair sags over his ear when Steve rolls his eyes.
“I will. Have fun talking to Darcy.”
And then Tony starts laughing again, because no-one living, dead or otherwise, could resist it when Captain America walks off grinning and shoots ‘fantabulous’ at you over his shoulder.
For eleven months now, Darcy has been Tony’s right hand woman. Or, well, left hand woman, because he also has Pepper. And Natasha, so that makes Darcy his right-foot woman. Or something.
Anyway, she’s eight different flavour of awesome, and even though she procrastinates until Coulson has to yell at her, she’s still one of the best SHIELD agents that Tony knows. Not that he knows many, but whatever.
So understandably it’s her that Tony corners when she’s bleary-eyed after only being awake for two minutes.
“Hey,” Darcy replies, low and still not awake yet. “What’dyawant.”
Tony resists the urge to reach out and ruffle her hair, because she always looks adorable after she’s just woken up. “You’re the go-to girl for the red string of… whatever thing, right?”
“At y’r service,” Darcy says, rubbing a groggy hand over her eyes. “Why’re you up? It’s only nine.”
“Early bird catches the Loki,” Tony says. “Or something. So, uh. String.”
“String,” Darcy agrees, and reaches down to pluck at it. “Still there. Were you going to ask me something, or did you just do this to piss me off first thing in the morning?”
Tony leans over to flick the coffeepot on before directing a grumbling Darcy into a chair, and sitting in the one beside her. “Tell me everything you know about it.”
“About the string?”
“No, about the flower placement in the lounge. Yes, the string.”
Darcy frowns like she’s having trouble using words bigger than three syllables, which, okay, fair enough, Tony is the same most mornings.
“Destiny ‘n shit. Verda already explained.”
“Yes, but-” Tony bites down hard into his knuckle before releasing it, partly for the sake of something to do with his hands and partly because he’s so sexually frustrated right now he’s close to dry-humping the chair he’s sitting on. “But what do you know about it? Like, the details? Why us? What affect does it have on us? Why the fuck is it on my finger rather than being all metaphorical like it’s supposed to be? What’s universe leakage and how can we show Verda that we didn’t do it?”
Darcy looks at him for a long time, probably absorbing all of that, before she answers. “You should be calling Verda for this.”
Tony restrains himself from pulling out the sides of his hair. Or maybe strangling Darcy. “I know, I’ll do it later, just tell me.”
Another few seconds, and Darcy yawns widely. “Well, you’re soulmates. Like, barely anyone gets actual soulmates. You’re written in the stars, that kind of shit. You’re really important, but I’m guessing that’s just the whole ‘Iron Man and Cap’ thing.”
She drums her fingers on the table, her other hand flexing the way it would around a coffee cup. “Okay, let’s see. Um. Apparently you’ve loved him since before you were born and your souls connect on an entire different level than most of ours?”
“Lovely,” Tony says, not allowing his mind to focus on any of that, because it’s too big for even him to handle, because honestly he still can’t wrap his head around why Steve is soulmates with him, of all people. “Great. Fantabulous, even. Except that makes fuck-all sense, because I didn’t even like him when we met.”
Darcy makes a face, like, why are you making me think thoughts like this when I just woke up, you fucking bastard. “What’d you think I am, a shrink? I don’t know what went on inside that monkey cage you call a brain! You’ve loved him forever, you’re going to love him forever, your freaking soul is going to love him forever. And when you met him for real, your soul was re-learning him after being apart from him for, like- how old are you?”
“I was forty one when I met Steve,” Tony says on autopilot, because this is just-
And. Fuck. He can’t even find any words for how this is. And up until lately, he wasn’t even aware that souls existed, much less soulmates.
Darcy nods, her eyes squeezing shut as she speaks. “Right. My guess is that confused your soul, because it’s fucked in the head. Or the soul-equivalent of a head. Basically, it’s as emotionally constipated as you are.”
She scrunches a hand through her hair, sighing loudly and opening her eyes. “Look, like she said, this is some serious shit. Like, probably the only reason Cap was frozen in the first place is so he could meet you. Everything’s all-” she twists her hands together, like it’s her turn at charades and she’s trying to describe a dog after never seeing one before.
“You’re connected, okay,” she says finally. “Really intensely, intimately connected, on a billion freaking different levels. No matter what, you guys are going to end up loving each other. Like, bottom line.”
Tony waits for a while after she stops talking, because there is nothing that could prepare him to react to this. There’s no manual for ‘so your best friend turned out to be your soulmate, here are ten steps of making yourself not be such a fucking idiot about it.’
“Okay,” he says, after Darcy looks like she’s about to fall asleep against the wall. “That’s- okay. Okay.”
“Okay,” Darcy says. “Can I go now?”
“Ask Verdaaaa,” Darcy groans, reeling it out and letting her head drop against the wall. “Ask the goddess who actually has some idea of what she’s talking about. I’m not up for… coherency. And I’ve already had this talk with Steve, anyway.”
“Verda,” Darcy repeats. “Ask. Go away. Coffee. No, coffee come here. You go away.”
The phone rings for an absurdly long time, and Tony finds himself wondering what a goddess’s voicemail would sound like.
Then Verda’s voice is in his ear, loud and annoyed. “What?”
Tony decides he’s pissed off more than enough demigods before and lived to tell the tale, so he’ll most likely be fine. “It’s Tony.”
“Lay it on me, Tones.”
My life is weird. He clears his throat. “Uh, about the universe leakage-”
“What did you do?”
“I- we didn’t do anything,” Tony growls. “I was just-”
“And it’s not going to look like the cracks in time in Doctor Who, either. Well. I don’t actually know. Are there Doctor Who-ish cracks? Because that might work.”
“No,” Tony says. “No, there are not any Doctor Who-ish cracks. I wanted to know if- if, uh.”
He pauses, realizing that every way he’s phrased it in his head is going to sound stupid coming out of his mouth.
He settles with: “I’ve been having dreams.”
Radio silence. Which isn’t exactly positive.
“…Clean the sheets afterwards.”
“Not those kind of dreams,” Tony hisses, and then bites down on him correcting himself because there had, in fact, been one of those kinds of dreams, but he’s trying his best not to think about it.
Which turns out to be really, really hard (ha, pun! Or not, shut up brain), because he can’t get the memory- and it feels like a memory, it feels like it actually fucking happened, like if he lifted his shirt there would be bruises in the shape of Steve’s thick fingers, that there would be the imprint of the arc reactor on Steve’s chest, cherry-red and fading fast- out of his head.
He can’t look at Steve and not feel that hot, consuming haze of safe, the phantom stroke of hands carding through his hair; a mouth on his neck, the same mouth saying his name and completely re-shaping it like it’s this bright, precious thing instead of one that’s demolished entire cities.
“It’s,” Tony says, and doesn’t know how to continue. “They’re- they’ve only started since after it happened, and they’re really fucking realistic and it’s like I’m there but I’m… not?”
Silence again, and Tony opens his mouth just as Verda says, “Do they have the string thingies?”
A pause, and Verda sucks in a long breath. “Okay. How many dreams, and what’s happened in them?”
“Uh.” Tony scratches for words- he hasn’t tried saying any of it out loud, and he feels like a moron when he tries. “A few every night? Some of them are just- normal, like a normal life, or something. But there’s- in the dreams, I know things. Like, in one of them there was a pot plant on the windowsill and I knew that some guy called Peter Parker gave it to us. Who the hell is Peter Parker, anyway?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Verda says, sounding like she’s holding in a laugh. “Anything else?”
“In one of the dreams, we were mermaids?”
“Yeeeep. Sparkly fins and everything. Humans didn’t even exist. It was this huge ocean-world-thingy.”
Tony rubs at the back of his head. “Is that a good ‘huh’ or a bad ‘huh?’”
“It’s an indifferent ‘huh,’” she answers. “It’s just interesting. Has Steve been having these dreams?”
“What,” Tony says, his voice going up a pitch, thinking of sugar-sweet kisses on mottled bruises and rocking together until they’re both shaking, “I don’t know. How should I know? We don’t keep dream diaries.”
She hums. “Maybe because you’re besties who also happen to be soulmates? Don’t you sit around and braid each other’s hair and tell each other everything? That’s what Thor and Jane do, and they’re not even soulmates. You already one-up them.”
“Thor’s a hair-braiding slut,” Tony says. “He’ll give it up for anyone.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Verda shifts, and Tony hears something clanking.
He frowns, mostly grabbing for a subject switch. “Aren’t you supposed to be fighting something? Or storming a castle? Or- something that doesn’t involve answering your phone? It’s scary how many demigods I have on speed dial, I swear to- not you.”
“The Bifrost went screwy again,” Verda says. “We’re taking a break at a tavern in another dimension.”
“This phone call is being held through another dimension?”
“Don’t geek out on me, Tones,” she warns. “Drool over algorithms later. If you and Steve are having the same dreams, I’d say you were definitely experiencing universe leakage. Or seepage. Some kind of oozing thing, anyway, and it’s not good.”
It’s then that Tony realizes he’s been staring at a pot-plant for the past five minutes, and has no idea who put it there. “Are you saying we might be catching snippets of different universes?”
“Not even ‘might.’ I’d say there’s a huge, blaring probability of it. Go get Steve, now.”
He thinks Steve takes it rather well.
Apart from the whole ‘won’t look Tony in the eye’ thing, that is, which Tony is a total hypocrite about, because it’s not like he’s trying to meet his gaze, either.
“Seriously,” Verda says from where she’s on speakerphone, Tony’s cellphone in the middle of the table, “I don’t know what you guys did to piss the universe off, but I’d love it if you’d patch it up and send it a fruit basket.”
“I’m good at sending fruit baskets,” Tony says.
“Yeah, because you’re always offending everyone,” Darcy calls from the lounge, and Tony flips her off even though she can’t see him. He likes to think she gets the general vibe.
Again, Verda pulls in a breath, and in the background, Tony can hear Thor shouting at someone.
Steve’s hands keep linking together, then coming apart. “Is everything okay? Thor sounds-”
“Thor is also constantly offending everyone,” Verda replies, sounding bored. “Sif’ll clean it up. Anyway, you guys seem like the epicentre of everything, as far as I can tell, but I’ve been wrong about worse things.”
“Shut it, Tones,” Verda sighs. “Fucking mortals. Just- you two should start trying to triangulate the dreams.”
“They’re sort of all over the place,” Steve says, and Tony sneaks a look at him again, remembering the unsteady tremble of Steve’s voice as it had broke on I love you.
And then there’s the uncomfortable weight in his throat again, there’s the urge to reach that short distance and take Steve’s hand, there’s the always-present drag of the red string between them, and Tony breathes out hard through his nose.
“Try to pinpoint them,” Verda says. “You might not get anywhere, but it’s our best bet so far. We’re getting nowhere, and Thor just broke a troll’s nose.”
“Then the troll was probably disrespecting a woman, or something,” Tony says, too sharp. “How do we pinpoint the dreams?”
Verda says, “By sleeping together,” and Tony can hear Darcy’s loud snort through the wall and Steve’s determinedness to not make eye contact with Tony increases tenfold.
“Next to each other,” Verda clarifies, like she’s spelling it out for someone who’s mentally handicapped. Which, Tony supposes, is what humans are to demigods. “It might help zone in on the signal if the string doesn’t have to put so much effort in pulling the two of you together. Cut it some slack, for fuck’s sake.”
“Ignore that,” Darcy yells. “Sleeping together is totally fine and if you do it now, Clint owes me a hundred b-”
She’s cut off by a loud thwack that sounds awfully like Clint’s hand coming in contact with the back of Darcy’s head, and Tony smothers a smirk despite everything.
Steve says, “What, so are we supposed to walk around hand-in-hand now so the string doesn’t have to do all the work?”
“It could help, yeah.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony says, picking up the phone. “Thanks for your input, you were very helpful, good luck prying that troll off the floor. Toodles.”
“Toodles,” Verda sings, and Tony pushes the ‘END’ button.
They sit there in relative silence, with Steve kneading his hands together and Tony trying to force his thought away from Steve’s hands, and there’s light knifing in the kitchen window and falling on both of their feet.
Steve’s hair is dry by now, only damp at the roots, and in some of his dumber moments, Tony’s thought that if light had a definable colour, it’d be Steve’s hair.
And he thinks back to the clear light on the Helicarrier, back to you’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers, and I think I’d just cut the wire and big man in a suit of armour, take that away and what are you, and wonders if there was ever a chance that Tony wouldn’t fall for him.
Granted, he hadn’t seen Steve smile until after they saved the world, which was sort of where it had started for him, because in the end it was Steve’s smile that finally made him realize oh shit, I’m in love with you.
But there’s something about that first smile: not that pained, tight smirk when they were yelling at each other on the Helicarrier, not those practiced ones for posters and cards and who knows what the fuck else, but the fleeting, disbelieving huff of a smile that Tony didn’t think Steve could do until he said whatever he had said about shwarma, and Steve’s smile was the thing that made Tony realize hey, I actually lived through that.
But apparently it was always going to end up like this, start like this, stop in the middle like this, pitted around the centre of everything: Steve and Tony opposite each other in the kitchen, not looking at each other, with the red string corporeal as fuck and yanking at the both of them.
“So,” Steve says, and Tony doesn’t startle, but it’s a close call. “Soulmates.”
It’s then that Tony realizes that no, they haven’t, in fact, had this conversation yet.
“In every universe,” Steve continues, like he’s telling him what he wants for breakfast.
Tony says, “Seems like,” and for a split second, he thinks the string tightens.
Steve nods, his jaw shifting.
Light splits the room, cuts it in half, and Tony remembers the dream and light, light spilling over from everyone’s wrists and throats and mouths along with the threads, until he couldn’t tell what belonged to who and whose hand he was grabbing on to so he wouldn’t get swept up in the thundering avalanche of it.
“I can’t believe there are mermen versions of us out there,” Steve says after a lengthy silence, and when Tony looks up, there’s a hopeful smile on Steve’s face like he’s pinning it on Tony’s reply.
Tony blinks a few times before cracking up because of Steve for the second time that morning, and Steve is right there with him, again, again, again, and there’s light in rivers through the window and Steve’s eyes are creasing at the corners and at some point their fingers end up next to each other, so the pull quietens down but doesn’t stop entirely.
They’re homebound in the tower for the time being- it’s sort of compulsory- and it’s been a week and a half now and Tony is bored out of his skull, certain revelations and interesting dreams aside.
And as all the Avengers know, a bored Tony is a dangerous Tony.
He designs three new kinds of blades for the Helicarrier, making them more aerodynamic, lethal, etc (hey, you never know when you might get the chance to shove Loki and/or Doctor Doom into them), and then moves on to new armour for Sif, who doesn’t have any human ones.
He shoots arrows with Clint in the rec room- he’s terrible compared to him, but almost everyone is when it comes to Hawkeye- and misses most of the targets, but whatever, it’s only his third time with a bow and arrow, and he’s a hell of a lot more dependent on repulsor blasts, which he knows how to aim better than anyone.
For the first time with him being enormously bored, he doesn’t break anything, which Darcy congratulates him on and Coulson gives him a dry look for.
Everything Tony breaks, Coulson has to do the paperwork, and he thinks it’s one of the reasons he sometimes ‘accidentally’ trips Tony up as he passes.
“You mean it with love and we both know it,” Tony always yells at him when that happens, and Coulson usually shoots back with something half as witty and tacks ‘Stark’ on the end of it.
He spends a few hours on the couch with Bruce and Steve, catches up on ‘Community,’ thinks aloud about forcing the producers to film the fourth season faster, and gets a glare from Pepper for it.
He designs a new bow for Clint, even though he doesn’t need one, starts on the designs for Steve’s new suit and stops after zoning out for twenty seconds on the thought of how Steve’s legs had felt pushed through his-
But that didn’t happen, at least not to him, and some lucky Tony Stark out there is getting laid by some version of Steve and he hopes to high heaven that the fucker is at least appreciating it.
Then again, he’s pretty sure that anyone and everyone getting fucked by Steve would do a lot more than just appreciate it.
He closes the designs, flicks the holograms away and tries not to focus on the fact that somewhere out in the cosmos, he is having an awesome orgasm via Steve.
Of course, as he’s thinking that, the door slides open and Natasha steps inside in that freakishly graceful way of hers that makes her able to pull off choking a man with her thighs and look sexy while doing it.
She doesn’t say anything, and a lot of the time, that’s what Tony likes about her: she’s silent, she pays attention, but most of all, they can both sit together and not say anything and then leave afterwards, if it’s what one of them needs.
He lifts his hand and she ducks under the string before taking a seat across the room from him, still not saying anything, and Tony is so fucking grateful for it he has to bite down on his tongue to stop himself from thanking her.
There’s a snick as she slides one of her knives out of a strap on her thigh, and reaches for a sharpener that Tony conveniently, coincidentally puts there sometimes that has no relation to Natasha whatsoever.
And it’s like that: Tony welds and Natasha scrapes her knife with the sharpener, neither of them even meeting each other’s eyes as they do this for the next twenty minutes, until the repetitive snick-snick-snick turns into white noise along with the tug from the string.
They all have this, one way or another- this language that you’ll never find in the dictionary, this way of communicating without looking at each other, acting out entire conversations with a shower of sparks from Tony’s side and the soft sounds of metal-on-metal from Natasha’s.
But then there’s Clint: pulling the arrow back in unison, even though his hits the target and Tony’s goes off to the side. And Bruce, both working on their own projects on different sides of the room, punctuated by occasional can you get that for me, please.
Thor’s is usually sparring, sweaty hair in clumps over his neck; but sometimes lying on the roof of the tower and stargazing- Tony’s never asked him if he’s homesick, because he doesn’t need to.
Coulson’s is in filed reports that Tony has skimmed through once or twice- he leaves easter eggs for them, and then pretends not to notice if they bring it up.
And Steve draws, quiet and unassuming and scratch-snick-scratch on the paper, and every one of them has sat with him at some point as he’s drawn whatever and whoever, folding his legs underneath him as his sprawl get looser by every passing minute.
Tony’s is the workshop, obviously, and no-one really gets any talking done down there, which is how he likes it. He’s been shaken out of concentration by Darcy snapping her fingers in front of his nose and saying Tony, tune in, and can never bring himself to get angry at her for it.
Then there’s the morning coffee, where most of them are still asleep and Darcy’s hair is in kinked waves over her shoulders. Then there’s movie nights, which are getting more and more frequent. Then there’s talking in hushed voices over the comms on a mission, and bumping into each other in the hallway at 2 a.m. after a nightmare that they’ll deny ever happened, and all of them learning each other and re-learning each other and falling into their own separate languages, and they understand each other almost effortlessly.
It’s a while before Natasha finally stands up, pushing her knife back into the strap and leaving the whetstone where she found it.
Then, as she walks over to the door, as she’s bending under the string: “You shouldn’t sell yourself short about him.”
Tony doesn’t look up, and remembers back when they used to call each other by their last names.
“We like you,” Natasha says, looking straight at the door as she heads towards it, “even if you don’t. And that goes double for Steve.”
Then the door is closing behind her, and Tony doesn’t get floored by much, but Natasha has never fallen into any normal category.
When he looks up a few hours later, Steve is standing in the doorway of his workshop with his arms folded across his chest.
“Hey,” Steve answers, semi-uncomfortable. “We should probably go to bed.”
The sentence makes Tony’s hands falter on the wrench he’s holding.
“Because of the dreams,” Steve continues, like he’s backtracking, and Tony says, “Yeah, no, I know,” and eases his safety googles off- he never used to use them, but every single one of the Avengers has expressed their concern about how Tony usually wears nothing but sweatpants and a shirt as safety gear, and eventually he caved.
He places the wrench down on the table, wipes his hands on his pants- they’re dirty enough already, who cares about a few more oil stains- and follows Steve up the stairs, down the hall and into Tony’s room.
He doesn’t ask why they’re not both going to Steve’s room, mostly because he doesn’t really want to know the answer, and is halfway to freaking the fuck out over everything- Steve, bed, Tony, bed, Steve, bed, bed, bed- when he blurts, “I’m going to shower first. Due to oil and things.”
Any other time, Steve would look at him, amused, say, sure, Tony and roll his eyes. Now, though, he glances across the room at him and says, “Yeah, okay. I’ll be, uh. Sleeping.”
It’s a short, jumpy shower, and Tony towels himself dry just as fast, trying not to let his hands linger on the lack of bruises around his hips.
He shaves, nearly cutting himself next to his ear due to his hands shaking, and throws out the razor when he’s done with it.
He changes into a new pair of sweatpants, pulls on a shirt that he thinks Darcy borrowed due to the stretching in the chest area, and flicks off the bathroom light as he leaves.
True to his word, Steve is asleep when he gets back- from what Tony’s seen before this, he sleeps like he’s still in the army, facing sideways, tight limbs pulled in close to his body.
He makes sure not to disturb the sheets, climbing in and lying as far away from Steve as he can, until he’s almost falling off the other side.
At this point, the tug of the string is almost comforting.
Fresh out of their twenties and both grinning as Tony holds out his hand, mock-posh.
May I have this dance?
You’re a moron, Steve says, but there’s splashes of colour high in his cheeks and-
Tony- Iron Man- in freefall, and Clint is yelling his name over the comm and Tony catches a streak of blue as he-
Feverish kisses on heated skin, and it’s late and they should be getting sleep for the meeting tomorrow. There’s a tie slung over the headboard-
Seagulls overhead. Weddings bands on their fingers. Steve throwing a handful of sand at Tony’s face, and they’re both laughing as Tony drags him down into the surf-
Needles lining up along the crook of Steve’s arm for Project Rebirth, and Tony is saying, Steve?
I’m guessing it’s too late to ask to go to the bathroom, Steve says, his voice muffled.
Tony hides a smile, and-
This time, it’s more than just a flash. It’s more than first-you-see-it-then-you-don’t, and it flickers for a few seconds before taking root, and Steve has a guitar propped up on his lap, strumming it in a careful sort of way.
Tony is lying upside-down on a couch, just shy of forty and letting the blood rush to his head before he leans sideways and hauls himself so he’s lying horizontally. He has an arc reactor, and taps his fingers against it rhythmically with the beat as he looks towards Steve.
No pressure, he says, and he’s smiling.
Steve doesn’t answer, glancing up at Tony from under his eyelashes before looking back down at the guitar, his tongue darting out to wet his lips.
Seriously, Tony continues. No pressure whatsoever. The huge lack of pressure right now is-
Not helping, Steve tells him, his fingers pausing on the strings before starting again, slower this time.
Tony shrugs, thinking of the soft beat that Steve had drummed against his jaw this morning when they had woken up. I’m just saying, you don’t need to be worried or whatever. We passed you needing to be worried eight months ago. Stop it.
I’m not worried.
Your face says otherwise. Tony eases himself up so he’s sitting, crossing his legs under him. You know, I think I’m actually getting jealous of the guitar.
You’re treating it like you’re about to throw it down on the couch and make sweet, passionate love to it, Tony says. It’s kind of arousing and kind of really freaking weird.
Steve says, I’m not going to throw my guitar down on the couch and make sweet, passionate love to it. He reaches to adjust the strings, and glances up at Tony again, a hint of a smile on his face that makes Tony’s breath stutter in his throat. That’s what you’re there for, remember?
Tony doesn’t do blushing. It’s just one of the things he doesn’t do, along with trip up little old ladies and kill people. He doesn’t blush, his face just- heats up suddenly for no apparent reason, and he has to chew on the inside of his cheek to stop himself from smiling uncontrollably.
And Steve seems to notice, because the hint of a smile turns into a full smile and his fingers grow bolder on the guitar. So, do I just-?
Tony groans, flopping down. Just sing, for fuck’s sake. You’re not going to earn anything if you don’t start doing the Munford and Sons covers they asked for.
Mumford, Steve corrects, and Tony waves him off.
Whatever. Sing. Blow my eardrums. We can get to additional blowing later.
Steve shoots him a stern glare, but it loses momentum fast. He clears his throat, and the tune gets louder, his thumb catching on the strings.
So love the one you hold, he sings, easily audible over the guitar, and Tony’s seen him up on stage twice now, but there’s something scarily intimate about-
Waking up is both simultaneous and hilariously awkward, and they’ve managed to spread less than ten minutes of dreaming out over eight hours of sleep, which has got to be magic again, because what the fuck.
Neither of them have moved in their sleep, except for their hands lying almost on top of each other, and Tony thinks that’s magic, too, because other than that they’re both at opposite sides of the bed to the point where there’s this huge, empty space in the middle.
“I,” Steve says. “Um.”
“Indeed,” Tony says, and he’s woken up at an obscenely inappropriate hour of the morning again, and they’re both avoiding each other’s eyes.
Tony isn’t even aware of it coming out of his mouth as he says, “So hey, are you in love with me,” until he looks over and Steve is staring at him.
Fuck you, brain-to-mouth filter. “I mean, I guess by default, you at least-”
“Not just by default,” Steve says, so fast the words blur together. Then he swallows, and Tony nearly jumps as Steve links their hands together under the covers, the strings touching
The next words are slower: “I- you’re my best friend, Tony. And I’m- of course I’m in love with you.”
He doesn’t say it like he’s admitting something, he says it like he’s stating something, like the sky is blue and so is the arc reactor and Steve’s eyes, which Tony suddenly can’t stop staring at, and then it’s been twenty seconds and Steve is fidgeting and Tony hasn’t said anything, shit.
“Great,” Tony croaks. “Fantabulous. Back at you, Rogers. Steve. Cap. Hey, how do you feel about pet names?”
“’Cap’ isn’t a pet name,” Steve says, but he sounds relieved.
“I wasn’t talking about ‘Cap.’ I was talking about, like, ‘snickerdoodle.’ Or ‘honey.’ Or ‘my darling heart.’”
“Sounds like a mouthful,” Steve says, without missing a beat, and Tony’s thought it before and he’ll inevitably think it again, but Steve’s smile could cure dying orphans. “Can’t I just call you ‘Tony’?”
Tony shrugs. “Anything but ‘bluebird.’ Bruce told me stuff,” he adds at Steve’s expression, and kisses him to make it go away. “Shut up. It was oddly nice. Speaking of nice, do you think you could show me those secret notebooks at some point?”
“I’ll think about it,” Steve says, and he’s blushing furiously through his grin, and Tony realizes that the shocked look that Steve’s only just ended was from the kiss, which is fucking fair enough, because they haven’t done that before, and how the hell did Tony kiss Steve and then not notice?
Which- okay, Tony didn’t even think about it before he leaned in to do it, didn’t even realize he had done it until after he did it, because kissing Steve just feels like the arc reactor humming, or Steve’s heart beating, or waking up next to him: something your body is wired to do, like you’ve done it a million times already.
Tony’s eyes track across Steve’s face before kissing him again, just as quick as the first one, and Steve’s lips catch on his when he pulls back, because they’re dry.
Steve seems to notice this at the same time he does, because his tongue comes out to wet his lips, and Tony watches it with the sudden burst of hunger that always occupies it.
And then Steve’s kissing him instead of the other way around, propping himself up on his elbows so he can lean over Tony, who is more than okay with being pushed softly into the sheets by his shoulders with Steve’s long, wide fingers.
And Steve’s kissing him like he’s making up for lost time, like he’s missed him, like this is why he woke up in the first place, and Tony arches up into him and fans his fingers out around the back of Steve’s head as he pulls him in.
They kiss and Tony knows they’re both thinking of the dream, of Steve gasping I love you and Tony taking it, taking everything Steve can give and reaching for more, and Tony’s hand shakes slightly when he pushes it through Steve’s hair like he’s always wanted to do.
He may or may not make a pathetic sort of noise when Steve pulls back, leaning forwards and chasing his mouth.
But Steve doesn’t lean back in- instead, he moves upwards, his fingers brushing Tony’s jaw.
“Close your eyes?”
Tony does, and his lips part over a sharp breath as he feels Steve press his lips against Tony’s eyelids- first the right, then the left, and then again on the right one.
Then there’s nothing but cool air, and Tony’s eyes flutter open.
“Uh,” he says, his breath skating everywhere for no fucking reason, “thank you? No-one’s, uh. Hey, at least you can be my first something, namely eyelid-kissing. Is that a thing?”
“I… don’t know?” Steve looks nervous again, but he’s not moving away. “My mom used to do it when I was sick. 50 on each one, every night.”
“She must’ve had a lot of spare time.”
Steve says, “Not really,” breathing it over his mouth, and leans down to kiss his lips, feather-light but quicker than Tony had kissed him before.
It's lingering and its normal and they've done this a billion times before, in a billion different ways, in a billion different universes, but it takes Tony's breath away every time.
Later, after enough smug looks directed at them to last several lifetimes, after writing a letter- or, well, getting Pepper to do it- to the producers of ‘Community’ and offering to fly Clint out, after hours and hours of lazy kissing, Tony and Steve sprawl out over the couch with the others for a movie.
“Not Indiana Jones,” Coulson says before Darcy can even put it in- again, which they don’t need, because JARVIS has everything already and they don’t need a DVD player, for fuck’s sake- and matches the scowl he gets in return.
Clint nudges at his elbow with his foot, which is the only part of him that can reach Coulson. “Come on, Sir. It’s a classic!”
“It’s a classic that you’ve made me watch eight times,” Coulson replies, and ignores the pout that Clint gives him.
Natasha comes to lie down next to Darcy, who is on the opposite couch, and stretches out across all the space that Darcy isn’t filling, pillowing her head in Darcy’s lap.
She gives Tony a warning look when he raises his eyebrows- hypocritical, because he’s currently leaning his head into Steve’s neck- and asks, “What are we watching?”
“Anything but Indiana Jones,” Coulson tells her, and this time, Clint kicks him. Ineffectively, but he still kicks him.
From where he’s sifting through the DVDs, Bruce says, “We haven’t watched The Princess Diaries in a while.”
“Don’t like it,” Darcy says. “It’s, like, completely different to the book.”
“You read it?”
“Yeah, I read it! I read girl books! Why is this a surprise to some people?” Darcy shifts further down, her hand in Natasha’s hair. “Put on Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.”
Clint snorts. “Why, is it more accurate to the book than The Princess Diaries?”
“Don’t even act like you don’t know, Hotguy,” Darcy says. “You’ll just be lying to yourself.”
Clint mimes crying, and Darcy nudges the back of Natasha’s head. “Hit him for me, Tasha.”
Natasha smiles sweetly- which is just as, if not more terrifying as her smiling wickedly- and Tony doesn’t even see her hand go out and grab the remote, he only sees a blur of black and then Clint is holding his forehead, groaning in pain, and Darcy starts to laugh.
“Traitor,” Clint moans, pressing the heel of his palm in the space in between his eyes.
Coulson glares at Natasha, because he glares at anyone who tries to hit any of his team, but especially Barton, and Natasha smiles again.
Darcy snaps her fingers at Bruce. “Put on 13 Going on 30. No, not- yes, that one! That one! The one right next to the one you’re-” she huffs; moves to get up before looking down at Natasha and lowering herself back down. “The one with Jennifer Garner on the case.”
Bruce hesitates for a second before reaching for the right one, and Tony frowns.
“Since when do you know-”
“Betty likes chick-flicks,” Bruce says, and pushes the DVD in.
“Boo,” Clint says as the DVD menu pops up, throwing a piece of popcorn at the screen so it bounces off. “Jennifer Garner sucks.”
Coulson says, “Bite your tongue, Barton,” and Clint sits up.
“You like Jennifer Garner?”
“I don’t not like her,” Coulson says after a few seconds, and Clint’s mouth ticks upwards.
When Jennifer Garner is just waking up to find that holy crap, she now has boobs, Tony leans his head up slightly so when he speaks, his mouth is right next to Steve’s ear.
“Hey, can you actually sing?”
“In the dream- the, ah, other universe, you-”
“Oh,” Steve says, equally quiet. His hand- the one with the string, the one that’s around Tony’s hand- flexes slightly. “I guess so. I mean, I’m not great, but I do sometimes. Sing, I mean.”
Tony tips his head up so he can meet his eyes. “Like in the shower? Because that doesn’t count. Everyone does that.”
Steve’s lips curl upwards in that pleased way that Tony doesn’t see often, like he’s found a box of puppies next to a box of kitten and said boxes are next to a baby panda bear.
“You sing in the shower?”
“Everyone sings in the shower, Steve.”
Steve’s eyes are soft along with his smile, like they’re both being lit up from the inside. “I’d like to see that sometime.”
“It’s a date,” Tony says, trying to beat down the stupid butterfly-like feeling in his stomach- butterfly-like, not butterflies, because Tony Stark doesn’t get butterflies. Not even when Steve is looking down at him like he’s absurdly in love with him and wants nothing more than to give him the moon on a platter.
Which kind of melts said butterflies and then re-animates them until they whirl around his stomach in a drunken frenzy.
“Um,” he says, trying to remember why he had even started this conversation in the first place and trying not to hit himself with the fact that he just got fucking lost in Steve’s eyes, and it’s not just a stupid sentence used too many times in Twilight. “Um, anyway, my original point of this being. Uh. You singing. Which you should… do.”
“Okay,” Steve says, and they’re both still talking quietly because the movie isn’t that loud and they’re not the only ones in the room.
“Now,” Tony says. “Like, right now.”
The lift of Tony’s shoulders is caught by the couch along with Steve’s arm. “No time like the present.”
Steve says, “Uh,” and then stops, and Tony watches his face flicker.
The laugh comes and it’s just as quiet as his words, and Tony says, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Steve says, and he’s looking at him like that again: giving him the moon, giving him the moon plus all of Jupiter’s moons, giving him every moon plus all the stars he could ever want, and it makes something swell in Tony’s ribcage, “I just figured out why the other Steve chose that song.”
“The Mumford and Sons one?” Tony takes a perverse amount of pride on saying it correctly.
“That one,” Steve nods, and he’s still looking at him, moons and planets and stars and entire galaxies, all for Tony.
He doesn’t have to ask again, and Steve starts to sing, his mouth at Tony’s ear, lilting and slow.
“So love the one you hold, and I’ll be your goal,” he starts, and Tony’s chin is pressing into his collar, and his eyes are heavy.
“To have and to hold,” Steve sings, barely above a whisper, and one hand comes up between them, slow as his voice, covering the arc reactor through Tony’s shirt.
Tony pulls back slightly, just enough to catch his gaze, and Steve’s face is full of every single thing Tony has never admitted he wanted.
Steve sings, “A lover of the light,” just as hushed, with that same expression, his thumb rubbing gentle circles at the edge of the arc reactor.
Tony listens and wonders if there’s a universe, any universe, anywhere, where he didn’t fall for him.
They get through 13 Going on 30 with minimal interruptions from Clint, mostly because Coulson starts making out with him halfway through it.
Pepper joins them for the next movie, which is a surprise- she gives the red string a look, even though it’s not stretched far at all- and at one point, Darcy asks, “But don’t you have things? I mean, you’re Tony’s CEO. He must run you into the freaking ground.”
“Thank you, Darcy,” Pepper says, “for reminding me of my mountains of paperwork I have waiting for me at my desk when I get back.”
Honestly, Tony thinks it’s one of the main reasons she and Coulson are such good friends.
She scrapes her hair back into a ponytail, and Tony catches a glimpse of her freckles under the makeup as she says, “I wanted to see how Tony was doing. For some mystical reason that is beyond me, I thought he wouldn’t deal with the, uh, string very well.”
“I am offended you’d think that of me, Pep,” Tony says. “Offended and hurt.”
Pepper laughs under her breath, and her smile is a lot looser than it used to be.
Mrs. Rogers- call me Sarah, she had said- whisks the fork against the bowl, whipping the eggs in a way that until now Tony hasn’t seen anyone but chefs do, and he feels so utterly out of place in this tiny kitchen, watching Steve’s mom make- make- well, he doesn’t actually know the name of it, but it’s in a pan and there are eggs.
Um, Tony says. I could help with the dishes, if you want.
Sarah bats him on the shoulder as she crosses the room, which takes about two steps, and Tony feels like an asshole for having a bigger kitchen. Don’t even think about it. I’ll get Steve to help later. You can, however- she passes him a bowl full of something that looks like soup, but then again looks too thick for it. -throw this out. It went off two days ago.
Tony says, Yummy, and feels like an absolute asshole for it, which is apparently a theme for him today. Uh, where do I-?
The sink, she says, and Tony graduated from fucking MIT last year, he can manage to pour soup down a sink.
He peels off the cling-film and crumples it into a ball, turning to throw it in the bin before turning back and twisting the tap on. Water swirls down the plughole, followed by the thick, red gloop that could have passed for soup if he got here two days earlier.
He rinses the bowl out afterwards, rubbing the leftovers off the rim with his fingers, and sets it down on the drying rack.
Upside down, Sarah tells him, tapping his elbow as she does, and Tony doesn’t know what she’s talking about for a second before she point towards the bowl.
So it drains, she says.
Tony says, Oh, right, and flips it over.
She beams at him, motherly in a way that Tony never really got, and he stiffens when she leans forwards and kisses him quick on the cheek.
If she noticed, she doesn’t say anything, because the next words out of her mouth are, And could you gather up those eggshells, please? I’m going to put them in the garden to ward off snails.
Tony looks towards the heap of eggshells, and answers the question that doesn’t make it out of his mouth: They don’t like the sharp edges.
Right, Tony says, vowing silently to Google that later. Do I put them in a bowl, or-
He stops as he hears a door opening, and then Bucky’s voice echoes through the hall, followed by Steve’s.
We’re in here, Sarah calls, and Tony stands awkwardly next to the eggshells and tries to figure out what he should do with his hands.
Steve and Bucky are in the doorway before he finishes, and Bucky raises his eyebrows at Tony, who is drying his already-dry hands with a tea-towel.
Hey, Stark, Bucky says, looking amused to the point of grinning.
Hey, Barnes, Tony replies, looking towards Steve like, ‘what’s with him?’
Steve shrugs in an answer, and steps forwards to plant a chase kiss on Tony’s cheek. Hey, Tony.
Hey, Tony says, hyper-aware of Sarah, who is cleaning a stray drip of egg yolk from the pan, and then realizes that was probably the reason for Steve kissing his cheek rather than going in for the kill. How was class?
It was good, Steve tells him, smiling.
It was class, what do you think, Bucky says, leaning on the counter next to Tony. You know how it is. Oh, wait, you don’t, because you’re freakishly smart and graduated when everyone else was learning long division.
Sarah says, Down, boy, and Bucky’s grin widens.
Hey, Mrs. Rogers.
Sarah, she corrects, dusting the flour off her hands. Say it with me: Seh-rah.
Mih-suhs-Roh-jerrs, Bucky says, and she flicks him in the arm with a tea-towel she takes from out of Tony’s hands.
She pushes her floury hair out of her face with her floury hands, and leans to kiss her son on the cheek, and then Bucky. You’ll be glad to know that Tony stayed around here all day, helping me get ready.
It was nothing, Tony says, and wants to hit himself, because he sounds like one of the fucking Bradies. Seriously. It’s not like I had anything else to do, and you popped Steve out, so how bad could you be?
Again, the urge to hit himself, but Sarah laughs, high and soft and weirdly like Steve’s. Well, I’ll take that as a compliment! It’s not often I get praise for making my son.
Bucky elbows Tony in the ribs, none too lightly. Oh, believe me, this guy can go on for hours about how great Steve is. I’ve heard it first hand. Steve this, Steve that, Steve’s hair is like candy floss carved from greek gods-
Tony and Steve both say, Bucky, at the same time, with the same lean on the last few letters, and the same glare.
Sarah watches the both of them with a badly-concealed smile. Greek gods?
I never said that, Tony says, trying to remember if he did that one time when he called Bucky while blackout drunk.
Sarah stops trying to cover her smile, and reaches out to squeeze Tony’s bony shoulder. It’s fine, Steve has been known to say some similar things about you.
Sarah says, Once, he trailed off when he was describing your eyes-
Mom, Steve hisses, reddening.
There’s a pregnant pause, before Bucky pipes up with, He draws you when he thinks you’re not looking-
Tony raises a hand to scratch at his mouth to hide the smirk, and then-
And then, and then, and then, and Steve and Tony both blink themselves awake.
Again, their hands have drifted towards each other- the strings are still there, pulling insistently unless they’re pressing together.
When Tony looks over, Steve’s eyes are wet.
“It’s fine,” Steve says just as Tony opens his mouth. He raises the hand with the string on it and scrubs the back of his palm over his eyes, and Tony waits until he drops it again, eyes red-rimmed but mostly dry.
Steve clears his throat like he’s trying to get a lump out of it. “I’m- I’m happy they’re okay somewhere out there. They deserved-”
He can’t seem to get it out, and Tony- Tony has no idea how to deal with this, except that it’s Steve and Tony’s known him for years, and he’s his best friend who he happens to also be in love with, so there can’t be anything easier, right?
Steve’s laugh is watery when it finally comes. “Jeez, how many universes are there?”
“Too freaking many,” Tony says, remembering worlds upon worlds upon worlds, all flashing one after the other- worlds where they’re both cancer patients, worlds where they’re both civilians, worlds where they’re both supervillains with bad capes. Worlds where they’ve known each other since first grade, where they met for the first time at a college party when Steve was nineteen and Tony was fifteen, where they met after a car crash, in the hospital, in a restaurant, in the line at a supermarket.
Worlds where Natasha was dead, where Bruce was dead, where Bucky was alive, where one of them or all of them are dead or dying or coming back to life (there’s more than one universe where they’re superheroes, of course, and getting resurrected happens more often that you’d think in those universes).
And then there have been universes where some of them didn’t exist at all, where Pepper was called ‘Rescue’ and had an Iron Man suit custom-made, where there was someone called Carol and someone called Wanda and Hank Something. Worlds where they’re tutoring a team of teenagers- Billy and Kate Bishop and Eli and some other kids that Tony can’t remember the names of but still cares about in some distant, offhand way, even though he’s never met them.
Missing links that don’t exist in their universe when they look for them- they’ve scoured through databases for Teddy Altman and never found anything- and even though they don’t know them, Tony’s stuck with the knowledge that Billy laughs like a walrus when he lets it go too far, and that Kate looks just like Clint does when she lets an arrow go.
Then there are the universes where they’ve adopted, where they’ve had their own biological kids, where they’ve sort-of-but-not-really taken a kid under their wing, batman-style.
Where they spend too much time with some kid called Miles Morales (who’s apparently another Spiderman, and Tony searched it when he woke up and there aren’t any traces of him, at least not yet, because he seemed kind of young in the dream) and end up signing the papers a year later after one too many near-death experiences.
After those dreams, they always wake up feeling like they’re holding onto something that isn’t there.
Tony and Steve, Tony and Steve, Tony and Steve over and over, loving each other in every way humanly possible and then over again, in every world and under every circumstance.
And they haven’t spent more than a few minutes in each of these worlds, they only get glances into them, but in those minutes, they can contain entire lives.
Tony reaches and takes Steve’s chin in his hand, tilting it sideways so he’s facing him, and then leans forwards. When he kisses Steve’s right eyelid, Steve chuckles, albeit thickly.
Tony moves to Steve’s left, then his right again, kissing them softly before pulling back.
“We could sleep in shifts.”
Steve shakes his head. “Nah. Wouldn’t work. I fell asleep for a bit during the movie, and saw a few minutes of a world where we were both women.”
Tony pulls back fully, blinking with wide eyes. “Without me?”
“No, you were there.”
“No, I mean I didn’t get to see it-” Tony scoots up the bed, sitting up. “That’s so unfair! I’ve always wanted to have lesbian sex, and I didn’t get to-”
“We didn’t have sex, Tony,” Steve says, and the laugh comes with more substance this time. “We were arguing over which breakfast cereal has the best spokesperson.”
“Oh.” Tony deflates. “Who won?”
“Fair enough. Then what?”
“Then what, what?”
“Then what happened?”
Steve breathes out loudly, and Tony watches as more of the Bucky-and-Sarah dream leaves him. “We argued over who would walk the dog.”
Tony leans his head on the bedpost. “We argue a lot in that universe.”
“We argue a lot in every universe,” Steve says, but he sounds happy about it. “And before you ask, yes, we were both very attractive.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask,” Tony says, and then pauses. “What cup size were we?”
Tony stabs his finger at him. “There! There it is! You manage to say it like that in every single universe! That’s not logical-”
“Then some things don’t change,” Steve says, too relieved by it, and kisses him like a thank you, like he’s the one giving Steve breath when they’re both underwater.
Tony kisses back, and thinks about what Darcy said about re-learning him.
The next morning, Tony dials Peter Parker’s number, because there isn’t a database in the world that Tony can’t hack. That’s his theory, and he’s sticking to it.
“Hi, this is Tony Stark,” he says when someone answers.
There’s a five-second silence, and then an old woman is saying, “Look, I haven’t got time for your prank shit. Go shove your phone up your-”
“No, it’s really Tony Stark, seriously,” Tony says. “I’m calling for Peter Parker? Did I get the right number?”
Another silence, and then the woman is talking uncertainly away from the phone. “Peter, someone’s on the phone for you.”
He hears someone who sounds just like the kid in several dreams yell, “Coming, Aunt May,” and then footsteps down the stairs, and then the familiar voice is in his ear.
“I’m Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, and you’re Peter Parker, AKA Spiderman. Don’t hang up,” he adds quickly.
And apparently baited pauses run in the family, because it’s a few seconds before Peter is saying, “Um. Okay. How did you-”
“I’m getting glimpses into other universes, and you’re Spiderman in a lot of them. I put two and two together. How old are you?”
“Sixteen. Why? And are you seriously seeing other universes? Is there an evil me? Oh god, there’s totally an evil me, isn’t there?”
“Not that we’ve seen, but it’s possible,” Tony says. “So, I was just, uh. Checking. It’s been a strange week.”
Peter says, “Yeah, I bet,” and Tony remembers one of the first dreams, where Peter had been twenty-five and a high-school teacher with floppy hair.
Tony coughs, low in his throat. “Okay. So. Glad you exist, I guess. Call me if you get into any trouble, kid.”
Peter’s voice is mostly a squeak when he says, “Oh my god, seriously?”
Tony tries not to grin. “You were just as enthusiastic in the other universes.”
“Heck, yes, I was,” Peter continues to squeak. “I- am I going to have the Avengers on speed dial?”
“Nope. You can have mine, though.”
“Seriously,” Peter squeaks, and Tony doesn’t remember him being this squeaky. “This is- this is the best day ever, oh my god, I love you. I mean, I don’t. I mean, I just told Iron Man I loved him after a thirty second phone conversation, oh my god, I’m just as lame in the other universes, huh?”
Tony leans back in his chair. “Let’s call it part of your charm. Save this number into your phone, use it whenever something big goes down. Say hi to MJ for me.”
“…Say hi to Gwen for me.”
“Oookay. Sure. Who’s MJ-”
“No-one,” Tony says. “Forget I said anything. Bye!”
“Bye,” Peter says, and Tony hangs up on what’s probably the most exciting/confusing phone call of the kid’s life to date.
He turns, and Darcy is squinting blearily at him from the doorway.
She starts to speak, but interrupts herself with a yawn that stretches her mouth. “Who- who were you talking to,” she finishes, rubbing her hand up over her forehead.
Darcy’s head comes up. “Get out of here.”
“Yeah? Who is he?”
Tony just grins, putting a finger to his lips.
Darcy tails him for the rest of the morning, whining loudly, until finally Tony turns around and asks her where she even lives anymore.
She frowns for a second, still groggy with sleep. “I think I got kicked out of my apartment two weeks ago.”
“Oh,” Tony says. “Sorry.”
She shrugs, and then puts both hands on the string. “’S fine. I’mma find Steve. Bye.”
Then she starts following the string, trailing one hand down it as she goes, and Tony really shouldn’t find that funny.
Verda walks through the door of the workshop less than an hour later, covered in blood and still in full battle-armour, Sif and Thor nowhere to be seen.
“So,” Tony says. “Find anything useful?”
“If by ‘useful’ you mean ‘fuck off and die in a hole,’” Verda says flatly, “Then yeah. By the way, go fuck off and die in a hole.”
Tony blinks. “That was harsh.”
“Fuck off,” Verda sighs, and crosses the room to take the chair next to Bruce, who is standing up and has his eyebrows raised at the blood that she’s dripping over the floor.
She rubs a hand over her face. “You guys didn’t do it.”
“You didn’t do it,” Verda repeats, and eye contact with her is just plain scary. “Some other universes’ Avengers did. They were fighting some dickhead, and something went off, and shit started exploding. Like reality. But this universe is the only one where things-” she waves a hand at the string, which is stretching out the door. “-manifested like yours did.”
Tony has to stop himself from saying something when she shoves her hand through her hair, getting blood through it, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Probably because they’re wedged so tightly together. Fucking- dimensions, shit, I hate them. Fuck, can I leave now? The mortal coil is just-”
Tony says, “I know, right,” and Bruce gives him a look, like, please stop dissing our species and/or mouthing off to a demigod who may or may not control our collective fates.
Verda doesn’t give him the same look, but it’s similar.
Tony rolls his hands off one another, stepping forwards. “So how do we-”
“You,” Verda says, spinning the chair around so she’s facing the wall, “don’t do anything. You sit your ass down and wait for the other Tony to sort his shit out.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“I don’t frigging know,” Verda half-yells. “Someday soon it’s going to just not be there anymore, and then I can leave and stop travelling through alternate universes, which is fucking terrible, you guys suck and it’s so much effort with your fates, fucking hell.”
There’s a silence, which Bruce breaks after a few seconds by saying tentatively, “We’re… sorry?”
Verda huffs crossly, leaning back in her chair so it tilts. “You better be.”
Bruce and Tony meet each other’s eyes, silently communicating, do not bring up the whole ‘why are you covered in blood’ thing, which leaves them standing awkwardly with a Norse goddess as she leaves entrails all over the floor of the workshop.
Bruce opens his mouth, and Tony gives him wide eyes and frantic shake of his head, before Bruce says, “Uh, where are Thor and-”
“They’ll be around,” Verda cuts him off, shoves her arm over her eyes, and doesn’t say anything else until Coulson comes down to ask if anyone’s gotten back yet.
They wake up the next morning from a universe where, thanks to the serum, Steve lived to five hundred and twenty eight years old and visited Tony’s grave every day for four hundred and ninety-nine of them.
“You’re aging,” are the first words out of Tony’s mouth. “You’re definitely aging, we checked, you’re not going to become the tortoise thing out of that book.”
Steve gives him a funny look, and Tony backtracks: “You know, the one with the chick and she asked for her husband to get eternal life but not eternal youth, and then he… turns into a tortoise for some reason.”
Steve’s look continues, more amused than panicked now, and right now, Tony’s rambling just to see the panic leave him entirely.
“Or a turtle. Was it a turtle? What’s the difference between tortoises and turtles, anyway? Maybe it’s just a racist issue. We should protest. We should protest the racist issues between tortoises and turtles, I’ll get Pep-”
“Turtles have flippers,” Steve says. He’s still breathing hard, they both are, they’re still remembering the perfect side-part in Steve’s hair at age one-hundred and four, the same when he’s two-hundred and five, then three-hundred and ten.
At five hundred, he had gotten caught in a fire at a hotel, but it grew back the same way.
Then there’s the way the trigger had given easily under his fingers- his bent, unwrinkled fingers, fixed in his unwrinkled hand, and he had tipped his head up to look at the sky.
The sky, Steve’s eyes in the mirror, pictures that have set in and curled at the edges by now: all paling compared to the soft, blazing blue that he hadn’t seen in centuries, the electric blue that used to lull him to sleep at night, the arc-reactor blue he was heading towards when he had squeezed that trigger.
Tony nods, and their hands are still linked together, like the last few nights.
“Like in Finding Nemo,” Steve elaborates, even though he doesn’t have to, even though they’re only still talking so they can shake off the ghost sensation of Steve with the gun that won’t work, chasing Tony’s lingering last breath with the bullet.
“Like in Finding Nemo,” Tony repeats, and blinks hard, trying to put things into place. “The ones who said ‘duuude’ every second sentence?”
Steve says, “Noggin,” in almost the exact same voice the turtles do, only weaker.
Tony can’t laugh right now, but he manages to drag up a weak chuckle. “Tubular.”
They’re quiet for a few minutes, getting their breathing back to normal, and they’ve done this before: not in the same circumstances, not in the same bed, but they’ve sat on the roof, or on the couch, and starved off their nightmares together.
This time, however, Steve’s head is in the crook of Tony’s bare neck, and one hand is, again, splayed over the arc reactor, his fingers going out over the metal and onto skin.
Finally, Steve says after a long breath inwards, “It was a grasshopper.”
“In the story,” Steve says. “It wasn’t a tortoise, it was a grasshopper that the man turned into.”
Tony shrugs. “Grasshopper, tortoise, hare, same thing.”
Steve doesn’t reply.
There’s another few minutes of slow breathing, of Steve’s hand moving up and down with Tony’s chest, before Steve reaches upwards.
Tony watches, confused, as Steve runs his hands through his own hair, and then it clicks as Steve starts ruffling it, mussing up the parting down the left side.
Still combing his fingers through, he sighs. “I know it’s stupid-”
“Fuck ‘stupid,’ you just saw yourself commit suicide in an alternate universe,” Tony says, and his hands join Steve’s, brushing his hair to the right with the flat of his palm. “You’re allowed to get freaked out over it.”
He fluffs it up around the back, and Steve’s smile turns soft as he starts spiking it upwards in small tufts.
“There. Now you look sufficiently moronic. Don’t say I never did anything for you.”
And Tony’s hands are still in his hair, and Steve’s leaning in before Tony can focus on anything else.
He doesn’t kiss him- instead, he presses their foreheads together, and Tony can feel the wiry down of his hairline at the same time that Steve squeezes their hands together, the knots on their pinkies brushing.
“I’m glad it’s you. Even in… in the bad universes,” Steve says, and his fingers are still over the scars around the arc reactor, mapping their hearts in the only way he knows how, “I’m glad it’s you.”
It’s times like these that Tony gets it, sort of- how people can give so many pieces of themselves to one person, even without meaning to.
Thor and Sif show up around midday in the lounge, equally bloody and pissed off as Verda had been, and Sif glares at Tony for a good thirty seconds without explaining why before announcing she’s going back to Asgard for a while.
At this point, Tony is mildly concerned by all the glares he’s been getting from Asgardians- Thor doesn’t glare, but his usual ‘HELLO, FRIEND TONY,’ is kind of flimsy.
When he tells Natasha this, she shrugs. “You were probably an ass to them in an alternate universe.”
“I’m an ass to them in this universe,” Tony hisses. “So far, me being an ass has been the one constant thing about every single reality, and I take comfort in that!”
Natasha’s mouth does a funny little spasm that Tony still can’t pin down.
“That’s… worrying,” she says.
There’s a chair underneath him, and Tony knows if he took off the suit, it’d be cold against him. But then again, the suit is just as cold, so he doesn’t think he’d be able to tell the difference.
He hasn’t taken off the suit in what feels like forever, to the point where he’s actually surprised when he reaches up and the metal fingers touch skin.
The chair is cold, and the armour is colder, and if he touches Steve’s body it’s going to be colder than the both of them.
So he doesn’t. He sits and he doesn’t bother pretending Steve is talking back when he opens his mouth.
Can you feel it out there? These kids?
It tastes stale, but he keeps going, even though he’s running out of reasons why to at this point. They'll salute and follow orders, but you can feel it. They’re Nick Fury's kids. They don't like me and they don't want me here. They want their Daddy back and that's that.
The shrug is heavy, metal dragging. Guess they'll have to learn to love me.
Lift, drop, say it like it’s something you’re tossing over your shoulder: You did.
And that- that aches to say, more than Extremis, probably more than the inevitable bullet digging into the back of Steve’s neck, into his gut, when the shots rang out.
Again, he shrugs, and it’s heavy and heavier and yanking him down. Eh, it's my fault, I made a terrible speech to the command crew. I was trying to make a point and I - I told them about King Pyrrhus of Epirus. You know who he is, right?
Shrug, shrug, shrug, metal on metal and metal on skin and it’s always been like this, hasn’t it.
You probably know who he is, he says, and it sounds hollow even to him, because Steve isn’t saying anything and he’s never going to, he’s never going to sit up and never smile in the way that Tony’s learned to back away from, because it always made him want to lean in.
He breathes in through his nose, and doesn’t let it come out shakily. I knew we were one dumb slip away from this bill passing and sides being taken. One of us would give them an excuse to pass this bill and that would be it. I told you. I told anyone who would listen.
It’s always been like this, hasn’t it: breathing in and not letting it shake.
We had to work within the system, Tony says, his voice so steady it’d scare a politician. We had to work with the leaders that the people of this country voted to represent them. To not to this is arrogance-criminal arrogance. I told you that. I knew that you would force me – no, that's wrong, you didn't force me.
He remembers, sort of, back to when he was young and looser, more stupid and more happy, when the alcohol wasn’t a permanent appendage he was constantly crawling back to.
But I knew that I would be put in the position of taking charge of this side of things. Because if not me, who? Who else was there? No one. So I sucked it up.
The silence is empty, but Tony honestly keeps expecting something different.
I did what you do, he says, and his voice doesn’t shake, and doesn’t shake, and doesn’t shake. I committed. Because if this wasn't handled with full commitment, thousands of people could die. Innocent people.
And there was a time where he could count the innocent people he knows on his hands, and not have enough fingers left to hold a bottle with.
I knew what I had to do, he says, and this time, something gets through: a wobble at the end, and he bites down hard on the inside of his cheek, hard enough that it swells with blood.
And he keeps expecting Steve to sit up, for it to all be an elaborate plot, for Steve to ask what the heck are you crying about, Shellhead, because Tony’s crying now, silent tears down his cheeks after he thought he couldn’t anymore.
He keeps expecting Steve to sit up and punch him, sit up and draw a gun, sit up and beat the living crap out of him with the shield that’s angled across his bloody torso, and he still looks beautiful with flecks of blood through his hair.
The good news through all of this is, he says, and now his voice is breaking, moving towards shattering completely, splitting along the edges, and he has to take another ragged breath in before he can continue.
I never took a drink, he chokes, and almost laughs. And if I didn’t drink during this, I’m probably never going to. So there’s that, and he swallows; drags in a breath that hurts going down.
To do what I needed to do to win this quickly- I knew that meant you and I would probably never speak again. Or be friends again. Or partners again. I told myself I was okay with it because I knew it was right and I-
And it’s always been like this, hasn’t it. Tony Stark, pushing and pulling and losing himself and everyone else in the sound of gunfire, of explosions, of everything he’s ever painstakingly put together that’s blown up in his face.
I knew it was saving lives, he croaks, and the next breath is verging on a sob. It was! It was the right thing to do! And I knew the world favours the underdog and that I would be the bad guy. I knew this and I said I was okay with it.
A few years ago, this would have been a lie. But Tony’s been fighting for a while now, for so long he can’t remember what it’s like to close his eyes and not see machine-gun blasts on the back of his eyelids.
Sometimes, he tries to pinpoint how long it’s been since he felt like the good guy, and it never comes back with good results.
And- and even though I said- even though I said I was willing to go all the way with it- I wasn’t.
He remembers being told that the ends justify the means. He remembers hearing it, saying it, and yelling it across a field with too many bodies already stacked up on top of each other.
And he never wanted this, not this- he never wanted this ending, justified means or not, because Steve is bloody and cold in a SHIELD basement and Tony would-
He breathes, and breathes, and breathes and wishes he fucking wasn’t. Wishes he could switch the two of them, and it’d be him with closed eyes on the slab, and Steve would be out somewhere doing some good and not stuck down here monologuing to his dead fucking body.
And- And I know this because the worst has happened. The thing I can’t live with has happened. And for all our back and forth- and all the things we’ve said and done to each other-
He chokes in a sob, breathes, lets his voice break as much as it needs to and hates himself for every single one of those things.
For all the hard questions I had to ask, and terrible lies I’ve had to tell… there’s one thing that I’ll never be able to tell anyone now.
He’s yelling now, he’s grating it through his teeth and he wouldn’t be surprised if someone came down here.
The one thing! The one thing I should have told you. But now I can’t.
And it’s always been like this, hasn’t it: saying the things you wish you said over their graves, wishing you’d loved them hard enough or not at all or both at the same time.
Always Steve, beautiful and bloody, and Tony put together and sewn up in the wrong places but functioning all the same. Always Tony left behind while everyone died around him, even though all the bottomless glasses of bourbon and the suicide missions, and it’s always two people in the same room but only one of them using all the air, and Tony’s been breathing for forty-eight years now and its weighing on him.
It’s always been like this, hasn’t it: Tony Stark, scattering shrapnel and hitting himself in the chest in the process.
So when it hits, it’s not a punch. It’s not a thud of knuckles against skin, it’s not a stab, it’s not a sob.
It’s a quiet, defeated confession of a tired man who’s been broken repeatedly, who has put himself back together, but is too long gone to know what he’s losing anymore.
It wasn’t worth it.
It doesn’t solve anything, it doesn’t bring him back, and Tony would take every single fucking punch Steve offered if it meant seeing his hands move again.
He sits there for a long time.
And after a while, he gets up, because that’s what he does.
He gets up, and-
Tony bolts up in bed for the first time since the dreams started, and finds Steve’s hand before his eyes are even open.
Steve’s breathing hard, his shoulders shaking, and Tony’s gulping breaths like he’s actually the man in the dream, the poor bastard in some other universe, lightyears away, who is walking out of the SHIELD basement, away from Steve’s dead body-
“Fuck,” Tony says, and it’s just as cracked, almost identical to the sobs of the man they had just been listening to.
Steve’s free hand comes up to his neck, his grip on it tight and trembling, like he’s going to find a hole there if he explores any further.
Tony drinks in the sight like a lifeline. “Did you-”
“Yeah,” Steve says hoarsely, his voice scratching up his throat.
Tony’s eyes go up to the hand that’s clenched over Steve’s neck, and reaches out both of his, fingers probing along his unmarked neck, the slide of his shoulder, down his chest, like he’s pressing the blood back in.
“Yeah,” Steve says, and it’s just as unsteady as the first time. “You?”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “Could I-”
Steve breathes, “Yeah,” and Tony has to force a laugh out between his teeth.
“It’s creepy when you-”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and Tony doesn’t blame him for it, doesn’t care about it, doesn’t care about anything other than Steve’s hot lips on his, Steve’s smooth neck under his shaky fingers, Steve’s breath scraping in and out.
He smears his mouth over Steve’s neck, pushes his hands against his stomach, right over where the bullets went through in another version of him, in another timeline, from the trigger from someone else’s finger that doesn’t exist in their universe, and breathes, and breathes, and Steve is right there breathing along with him.
Then Steve is saying, rushed, like he’s still thinking about the set of his limbs on the metal slab, “I’m sorry he has to do it without him.”
Tony opens his mouth, but Steve talks over him: “I’m so sorry you have to do it without me, I’m sorry about whatever happened, I’m sorry we made stupid decisions and I’m sorry for all the worlds where one of us doesn’t make it in time or-”
“But we did,” Tony says, and lets his voice break as much as it fucking needs to, because Steve’s is just the same. “We did, Steve, we’re fine. You’re fine, you didn’t-”
And hey, Tony would be fine with not thinking about this ever again for the entirety of his natural life, so he says the rest of it as fast as Steve did: “We’re fine and it fucking sucks in all those other worlds where one of us is dead, or we don’t admit we’re batshit insanely in love with each other, and it sucks and I’m sorry but we can’t help them. We can’t. All we can do is just-”
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe, and Steve’s chest is heaving up and down in the same pace as Tony’s is.
“This is the universe,” he says. “This is reality, and it’s ours and that’s all it’s ever going to be. It’s ours and it can’t get taken away from us, and in this reality we have each other, and I hate that we don’t even get to have each other in some worlds, and none of them are probably ever going to find out about the whole ‘soulmate’ thing anyway, and I sound like a fucking chick flick-” and Tony’s breathing is just getting faster instead of slowing down.
“-And I’m glad it’s you, too,” Tony says, everything tumbling out of his mouth before it even processes past his brain, because there are so many worlds where Steve is dead and he’s not going to waste it when Tony gets gifted one where he’s alive. “I’m so fucking glad it’s you, Steve, and I love you and your fucking hair and how you say my name and how you believe so hard in everything, and I’m not just in love with you because I can’t not be, I’m in love with you because you’re the one who insisted on movie nights in the first place and because of that one time you stayed up with Clint the entire night after he had a panic attack and was too fucking stupid to admit it.”
He sucks in a breath, and it’s a fuller than any breath the other Tony is ever going to breathe, and that Tony may have gotten his own Steve but this is his Steve, sitting in front of him and looking at Tony like he’s the only oxygen left in the world, or any world, for that matter.
“And you like tomatoes in your sandwiches,” Tony says, stupid and stumbling and it’s a horrible way to end this off, but he’s tripping over every single word that comes out of his mouth and Steve is still staring and he can’t stop now-
Tony says, “Who likes tomatoes in their sandwiches,” sort of helplessly, and the kiss is welcome and desperate and Steve makes a soft sound in his throat and it’s everything, it’s a new world in its own right and Tony wants to drown in it.
He opens his mouth under Steve’s, crushing his fingers in his shirt and pressing their stringed hands together between them.
They don’t go back to sleep.
They don’t fuck, either, because it’s been a long week and neither of them can get the worlds out of their heads- the memories of Steve’s cooling body, of Tony’s, of worlds giving way and worlds taking root and people dying in every single one of them.
Worlds peeling away, overlapping, and Steve and Tony don’t always come in pairs, but they find each other anyway, gravitating towards each other in every universe.
Because it’s out there, and it’s happening: somewhere, in another reality, Steve is kissing Tony in his bedroom on prom night, undoing the buttons on his tux with fumbling hands. Somewhere, Steve is realizing it’s always been deeper than friendship, in the middle of a workshop when Tony has oily fingerprints under his ear. Somewhere, Steve is trying to hold the blood inside Tony’s body as the sky slices open above the both of them.
But right here, right now, Steve is pulling Tony to his feet by both hands as Tony grumbles something about hating tomato sandwiches, and that only rabbits and American icons can eat them and enjoy them.
Steve lets it all wash over him for second: the pillow-lines creasing Tony’s worry-lines, his smile-lines, his new salt-and-pepper hair, and thanks whoever the hell allowed him to have this, Verda or otherwise.
He pulls Tony forwards, close enough he can feel Tony’s breath on his mouth. “I said I’m getting a tomato sandwich. You can have whatever you want.”
Tony grumbles again, under his breath so Steve can only just hear him. “Midnight snacks make you fat.”
Then, when he meets Steve’s eyes, his lips twitch. “Bread makes you fat.”
Steve’s gasp is overly loud and overdramatic and it’s filling the spaces of every nightmare the both of them have ever had, real or not. “Bread makes you fat?”
“I blame Clint entirely for making us watch that movie. I still don’t like it.”
Steve shrugs, and they start out the door. “I think it was okay.”
“Yes, Steve, but you think the third Matrix movie was ‘okay’ rather than ‘the number one worst thing to ever grace our TV screen,’ so your opinion doesn’t count.”
“You bet it does.”
They throw comfortable, tired comments at each other down the hallway, and when they make it to the kitchen, the light is off.
Anytime one of the Avengers come out to the kitchen after one in the morning, there’s at least a 60% chance that someone else is out there, drinking alcohol, coffee or just staring at something. Same with the gym.
It’s gotten better lately- they’ve gotten better lately, they’ve been sleeping more and not jolting awake as much as they used to- but everyone has their bad nights.
Tony flicks the light on, and they both squint at the sudden blare of brightness.
Steve says, “JARVIS, lights to forty percent,” and the lights dim before he shapes the last word as he slides a chopping board out of the cupboard.
Tony’s had to buy a lot more kitchen appliances since the Avengers moved in- before that, it was just mugs, multiple coffeemakers, and a blender. Now he actually uses the fridge for something other than beer, has plates when he looks for them, a cheese grater in the shelves, and a freaking spice rack.
As he hears the fridge door opening and closing, the slice of light that’s gone as quickly as it comes, he fiddles with the settings on the toaster- Clint likes his lightly toasted, Tony likes his charred to shit- and looks up when Steve slots two pieces of bread into the toaster for him.
Tony says, “Thanks,” and passes him the plastic bag of tomatoes from beside it, because Bruce likes to buy things from an organic market and Tony doesn’t mind unless he doesn’t have to eat it.
He pushes the lever down and turns, his tailbone pressing into the counter as he looks to his right, where Steve is pushing a knife through one of the smaller tomatoes, chopping it into thick slices.
It’s strangely rhythmic: the soft thud of the knife hitting the chopping board through the tomato, the scrape of the blade against the wood as it pushes the scraps away, and Steve’s wrist comes up and down in such a practiced motion that Tony remembers being told that he used to make dinner in the army- peel potatoes, chop unions, and apparently slice tomatoes.
It makes him smile thinking of Steve, five-foot-nothing with thin wrists and the same Captain-America-determined expression, but directing it at a vegetable.
He’s not Captain-America-determined now, though- his features are calm, his expression smooth, his sleeves pushed up like they always are when he’s making something.
He’s also glancing at Tony every few seconds, because Tony is blatantly watching him now, not even trying to hide it.
And there it is, there’s the small quirk of a smile that beat the living shit out of Tony’s head and heart and left him breathless in the best way he could possibly imagine, and in the dim kitchen light with the beginning of morning starting to seep through the windows, it’s all for him.
Tony’s shrug, unlike the previous Tony, is lifted and dropped by much lighter shoulders. “You’re more interesting to look at than the toaster.”
“Hey, you should be flattered. You know how I am with kitchen appliances.”
“You do have a slightly worrying infatuation with them,” Steve admits, and picks up the butter knife, dragging it across the butter in the bowl. He hums. “Tony Stark likes me more than the talking blender. Golly gee, today’s bound to only go up from here.”
“Don’t diss the blender, Darcy taught it to trash-talk yesterday,” Tony says, and he’s grinning as he leans forwards, chinning his head on Steve’s shoulder.
He feels Steve’s head twist slightly, and then lips are being pressed against his forehead, once, twice, three times.
“And I like the talking blender a lot. Which should, uh.” Tony’s throat clicks. “Prove how invested I am in you that I’m not cooing lovingly over it this very second.”
He can feel the stretch of Steve’s smile against his hairline.
“I’m honoured,” Steve says, and it’s as soft as the light filtering through the curtains, through the lightbulb that’s turned up enough to cast shadows, but only just.
When it happens, it’s not momentous, it doesn’t have gravity of any sort, and honestly, Tony is more focused of the thereness of Steve’s mouth moving against his, breathing past his lips.
And it’s living proof of living proof- proof that they’re both right here, in the universe where they fit in the middle, in the tower where everyone’s strings are thick and damaged and overlapping, streaming from wrists and pinkies and around their ankles, knotting together until none of them can move.
Proof that yes, there are other universes and they’re packed in next to each other in every one, back to back or side to side or waking up next to each other in the sheets, in an alley, in the trenches where there’s no-where else to sleep.
Yes, there are galaxies that are burned out, skies that died a long time ago with the both of them holding it up. There are clutches of worlds where they never met Natasha, or Clint, or Pepper, worlds where Happy dies before the scream can even register in his throat.
There are worlds, and they know it, where they have a bright-eyed daughter called Margret, who measures out the weight of pencils before using them. Worlds where they have a dull-eyed daughter called Jess, a son called Miles who has skinned knees from how many times he keeps forcing himself to his feet, worlds where they lose them both, where they never have either of them.
Somewhere, they know, Lissa Stark- who has the shape of Steve’s eyes but Tony’s colour- is in mid-laugh from the sight of Peter Parker with ice cream tracked over his eyebrows.
And they’re still waking up, still in the ghost-grip of Steve’s pulse and Tony’s hopeless, dragging shrugs that are more metal than anything else. The cold seep of it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t worth it, beaten and exhausted and still getting to his feet when he’s finished, because he’s past anything else at that point.
They’re both lost in it, in the pull of every world and the steady hand of their own, where they’re in the middle of it all- everything and nothing happens next, three seconds ago, two thousand and twelve years ago, all at once, and they’re kissing in a darkened kitchen, hands tangled and anchoring them.
So neither of them notice the red drag from their fingers- or, well, the lack of it- until Steve’s gaze catches on his hand for too long half an hour later, just before the other Avengers start getting up.
“Huh,” Steve says, and it takes a few seconds and Steve rotating his little finger pointedly for it to click for Tony.
He looks down at his own hand- still unmarked, even though the string had been there more than long enough to leave rubbed skin- and curls it, raising his eyebrows. “When did-”
“I’m not sure. I wasn’t looking.”
Tony nods, eyes still on his bare hand. “Guess the Other Us figured it out.”
Steve sits down lightly, taking a mouthful of coffee before he speaks. “Good for them.”
He startles, looking up from his fingers as Steve’s fingers link through his in a way that if they still had the string, the tug would stop.
He opens his mouth to tell him this, and he’s on the cusp of it when he realizes that this, right here, holding hands at the breakfast table like they do it all the time, would be a perfect time to say ‘I love you.’
His tongue gets swamped by it, his throat instead produces a gush of air, and he stops just as he breathes it back in.
They’ve bled into each other’s hands, they’ve grudgingly told each other about their nightmares, shared or not. They’ve woken up in each other’s arms and out of them, and Steve pretty much got shoved through the decades for all of this to happen anyway, and he sings to him and gets him coffee and Tony would gladly do all of that and more if Steve was waiting at the other end.
They’re soulmates in every single universe including this one and best friends to boot, and god, isn’t it obvious-
Steve squeezes his hand, trying to meet his gaze. “Tony, are you okay?”
Tony can’t answer, all the words sticking to the roof of his mouth, staring at Steve across the table and hugely fucking aware of how happy he is; how it’s climbing his ribs, warm and broad and bright.
Their team is going to come in soon. Natasha will head straight for the coffeemaker, tip out Steve’s batch, and whip up the strongest shit that Tony still thinks has got to have some toxic waste in it, and doesn’t know how she finds the ingredients for it in this kitchen.
Clint’s going to eat the crust of a piece of toast that is so lightly toasted it’s basically bread and make a beeline for Coulson, who will no doubt still be awake from last night, filing reports and bitching about it.
Darcy will be bumping into walls and mumbling things into her coffee cup- she won’t tip out Natasha’s from the pot, she just takes whatever happens to be in it at the time- retreat to the lounge, and flip the channels until she gets to the morning cartoons.
Thor may or may not come in at all, due to spending more time with Sif and the Warriors Whatever since he got back, but Jane says he’s just catching up and will be back and eating them out of house and home in no time.
Bruce is going to amble in at some point, either in complete disarray- hair sticking up, ink on his face from where he’s fallen asleep on top of some papers, creases in almost every part of his clothing- or slowly and in his pyjamas, which have mini iron-men on them (a gag gift from Clint, which make Tony grin every time he sees them).
“Yeah,” Tony says, talking over him, and his smile is still gaining momentum. “I’m fine. I’m- I’m really-”
He grins, and grins, and this- warm hands and blurry pasts and the kitchen in the morning, in the evenings, everyone eating shwarma and talking over each other like a song rising- is the world he was given.
He gets leftover takeout Darcy has an eternal stock of in the fridge, he gets Coulson’s small tick of a smile when he doesn’t want to admit what Tony said was funny, he gets Thor’s beaming grin when he wins at Monopoly.
He gets Steve’s morning breath, Natasha’s barrelling laugh, Clint’s scraggy hair after he showers.
And it’s not going to last, and he’s seen this all disintegrating in dozens of different ways, but right now he has his team and everything that trails along behind it, lagging and tripping and bursting at the seams.
Steve has his eyebrows raised, smiling confusedly at what Tony’s sure is an embarrassingly wide grin. “O-o-kay? Are you sure-?”
Tony catches whatever Steve was going to say by kissing him with an open mouth, smile against smile, and Steve huffs a laugh past his lips.
Tony grins, leaning back slightly just to lean back in and kiss him again, and their fingers are all lined up next to each other.
Even though the string is gone, they both know that when they finally stand back, the yank of it is still going to be there.
And it’s been pulling them towards each other for the longest time.