The room was bright and airy; it was a little bare of decoration for Tony's tastes, as these things went, but he supposed that it was what one could expect from a military hospital. It was clean, freshly-scrubbed, and the bed in the center of the room had been made with the usual precision, all neat corners and starched sheets folded back. The man in the bed lay there, eyes shut, his chest rising and falling slowly with each breath, so slowly that Tony could practically count another breath of his own between every one. Sunlight played across his face. He was still handsome, but a little older than Tony remembered him -- it had been a couple of years -- and his hair haloed gold around his head, caught by the light. Tony had seen him without the cowl maybe three times. He'd forgotten, really, that the man underneath was as handsome as all that.
It was a nice room, but it was a hell of a place to die. Especially for Captain America.
The three other men in the room looked up, and the repulsor pump in Tony's chest lurched and juddered with the shock of it. There was General Fury, and of course Bucky Barnes, and--
"Absolutely not," Tony said, stabbing two fingers in the air in the direction of-- of-- he couldn't even let himself think the name. "Nick, you utter bastard, you said nothing about him being here."
Fury stared back, unmoved; his good eye didn't so much as blink. "Would you have come if I had?"
And Tiberius Stone, gorgeous as always, seductive as poisoned wine, was grinning at him.
"Now, Tony," Ty said, with a smile like he hadn't paid any mind to Tony's reaction, "is that any way to treat your old--"
"Shut up," Tony hissed at Ty, because he really didn't want to know how Ty was going to finish that sentence with Fury present. He suspected it wasn't going to be good for his chances of future government work. He turned back to Fury. "I am not working with him."
Fury just kept looking at him. "I confess that I haven't read all your adventures," he said, "but, luckily, Cap and Bucky are big fans."
And then there was Bucky, still in uniform, tears soaking into his mask, stepping into Tony's field of vision and holding out an issue of Marvels. Tony Stark and DreamVision, it read.
Captain America was asleep.
Captain America was dreaming.
Goddammit, not again.
They couldn't ask him to do this again, Tony thought, and cold sweat beaded on his skin. Hair prickled on the back of his neck; the prickling went all the way down his spine.
They literally couldn't -- there was nothing left. They had to know that.
"I'm still not exactly sure where you're going with this," Tony said, "but whatever you want me to do in the good captain's mind, you'd need a machine first. And if you'd read the story in Marvels, you'd know that after I made it out of my nightmares I destroyed all of the DreamVision prototypes belonging to Mr. Stone here."
He stressed Ty's last name. It was best to be professional. Something approaching professional. Jesus Christ, he never wanted to see Ty again in his life. And yet.
Ty smirked and held out a hand to a table in the corner, where a familiar-looking battered leather case sat. "You might have missed one. Terrible oversight."
Tony looked at Fury's pinched expression, at Bucky's tear-stained face, at Steve Rogers, still dreaming placidly away on the far side of the room. He'd only met Captain America a handful of times, a dozen at most -- and maybe only two or three times, out of the mask. He'd had him over for dinner once. They were acquaintances, really, nothing more. Comrades, in the way that everyone on the same side of the fight was. Calling their relationship a friendship would have been an insult to the word.
Rogers' chest rose and fell, and something in Tony's chest welled up and ached in sympathy.
He wasn't just going to let Captain America die. Even if he had to cooperate with Tiberius Stone to save him.
"All right," Tony said, his throat so tight that he could hardly get the words out. "Brief me."
For all that Bucky's face was streaked with tears and that he was trembling as he talked -- poor kid -- his report was remarkably coherent. They had been in battle, they'd been separated, and then there had been, Bucky had said, a bright light. Maybe some kind of new Nazi weapon. And by the time Bucky had fought his way back to Cap's side, he was lying there. Asleep. Just like this.
"That was two days ago," Fury said. "It took us this long to extract him safely. Our scientists' best supposition is that -- possibly inadvertently, but likely intentionally -- the Nazis managed to trigger Cap's kill switch."
"What?" Tony asked. A kill switch?
"There was a code. Hypnotic. An implanted suggestion." Fury's smile was thin. "You didn't really think we'd have built a super-soldier without a way to shut him down, did you?"
Had they even met Steve Rogers? Sure, of course, in theory you'd want that precaution -- but Tony had barely shaken the fella's hand before he'd realized that Rogers was one of the good guys, the true good guys, absolutely incorruptible. But he supposed it was necessary. In theory.
Tony made a face. "And I see the Germans have taken advantage of that."
Fury had the grace to at least acknowledge the point, with a curt jerk of his head.
"So," Tony said, "I'm assuming you also built in a way to wake him up." He glanced over again at the sleeping figure. "Tell me I don't have to kiss him."
Or tell me I do, he thought, very quietly, at the edge of his mind, and he could feel Ty's cool gaze boring into him, and he was certain that one person in this room knew exactly what his type actually was.
"There is a way to wake him up," Fury said. "And that's where it gets interesting."
Fury nodded. "There's... a second serum, a drug, that will bring him out of this. We have Dr. Erskine's old records. But they're encrypted, and we're missing half of the cipher key. Richards is working on cracking it, and he and Banner are ready to synthesize the drug as soon as we have the formula, but Richards says he thinks the cipher is impossible to break and they need the complete key."
Tony knew Reed well enough to know that when he said a thing was impossible, he meant it. But he still didn't understand where he -- or Ty -- fit into this puzzle.
"So what can I do for you?" Tony asked. "You want me to help Reed out? Work on the decryption?"
He could do that. It wasn't like he hadn't had practice at Bletchley Park.
Fury shook his head. "No, Stark. I want you to get the rest of the key from the man who has it."
Confused, Tony stared back at Fury, and then at Bucky-- who jerked a thumb in the direction of Rogers' bed.
"I thought of what you did in Marvels, Mr. Stark," Bucky said, his high voice gone even higher with worry. "I remembered the dream machine. And I thought, well, if we could go into Cap's dreams, we could talk to him and get the key. I volunteered, but General Fury said he wanted someone who had experience with the DreamVision."
And that-- well, that meant him.
"Ideally," Fury said, "we want someone who both knows Captain Rogers and is familiar with this DreamVision machine." He gave a skeptical glance to the case on the far side of the room, and Tony didn't blame him. He wouldn't have trusted it either. "Mr. Stone has informed me that he and you are the only two people who have enough knowledge to safely operate the machine, and are furthermore the only people who have used it. He says that this particular model fits only two, and one place is for Rogers. That means one of you needs to operate it and the other one needs to use it. And of the two of you, you're the only one who's met the captain, making you the only possible candidate. Talk to Rogers. Get the code from him."
Tony glanced at Ty. "No funny business this time, right?"
"Cross my heart," Ty said, with a smile that made Tony want to scrub his own skin off. "You're supposed to get him to trust you," Ty added, his voice hovering on the edge of a sneer. "Get him to give it up." Tony... just wasn't going to entertain the layers of possible meaning there.
It sounded good. Plausible. Tony could almost see how it would work, except--
"He doesn't really know me," Tony said, holding out his hands helplessly. "I mean, sure, I've met Rogers a couple of times, but I wouldn't call myself his friend. And now I'm supposed to mosey into his dreams and get him to part with classified information and he's just supposed to believe me? Like I'm his best friend?"
Fury's one-eyed stare was baleful and unimpressed. "You're a charming fella, Stark. Be charming."
"He ain't exactly a lady, Nick," Tony shot back.
Somewhere behind him, Ty made a quiet noise of derision.
Not that that would stop Tony -- oh, it would definitely not stop Tony, if Rogers were interested -- but it would definitely stop Rogers. He was sure of that one. And Tony wasn't about to make a pass at someone like Captain America. He wouldn't have. Not Captain America. Not unless he'd been absolutely certain there could be reciprocated interest, and he hadn't been. And while Rogers had been friendly enough, when he'd met him, that was all it had been. Friendliness. Even though he'd had such a lovely smile.
"He likes you," Bucky offered. "He's always talking about how swell it is that we met you, Mr. Stark. He definitely remembers you. He's a real fan. Likes you a lot."
Huh. Rogers sure hadn't come off that way, and Tony had dealt with plenty of starstruck fans in his time. Rogers had been... nice. Polite. Reserved. Which just went to show, Tony supposed, that he didn't know him at all.
Tony spun around. "And I have to ask, Tiberius, what's in it for you?"
Ty half-smiled. "Fame and fortune. My name in lights."
"You have that," Tony said, because everyone knew about Viastone. "Try again."
Ty's gaze went past Tony, and when Tony glanced back he saw that Ty was staring at the case.
"It's the last prototype," Ty said, very softly, and his eyes were alight with that fire of genius, the spark that had drawn Tony to him, the spark that could have burned Tony alive and Tony would have let it happen. "I thought you and your Marvels friends destroyed them all. Can you blame me for wanting to see it in action again, one more time?" He smiled a smile; Tony couldn't find the lie in it, and that was the most terrifying thing of all. "And who wouldn't want to save Captain America?"
"Probably you," Tony said, and Ty laughed. It wasn't funny.
"I'm full of surprises." Ty studied him for a few moments, and then turned back and handed Tony a notebook. "Here. You'll want to double-check your dosage. You wouldn't want there to be any mistakes."
Ty's hand brushed his, and Tony shuddered.
The DreamVision machine looked a little more haphazardly-built than the ones Tony remembered; it was an ungainly, boxy thing, with wires and tubes visible through the gaps in the ill-fitting case. Tony gave it his best dubious glance as he settled into the chair they'd pulled up to Rogers' bedside.
"Relax," Ty drawled. "It'll work."
The machine was already halfway to hooked-up; tubing stretched out from somewhere in the machine's innards to a needle taped down into Rogers' arm, and the somnacin compound was already flowing. Tony had done that part himself. There was no force on Earth that would let him entrust anyone else's life to Tiberius Stone. At least, not more than he had to. Tony had insisted on redoing Rogers' dosage calculations himself, from scratch, before he'd redone his own, and the notebook Ty had handed him was now filled with hasty formulas. And Ty had just smirked at him as Tony came to the exact same conclusions.
"You'll have to go fast," Ty said, like he was gracing Tony with a brilliant new observation and not the same fact that had instantly occurred to Tony when he looked at their drug supplies and thought about Rogers' enhanced metabolism. "Go fast, or go deep, where you can stretch out subjective time. Or both. He'll burn through this quickly enough that you don't have time to be leisurely." He smiled that predator's smile. "Just don't go too far down, Tony. I trust you remember what happened last time?"
"Shut up," Tony said, baring his teeth, rolling his sleeve up, and swabbing his own arm with an alcohol-soaked pad. Now was not the time to think about being trapped in his own subconscious. Or eternal nothingness.
Fury coughed. "Gentlemen. Please."
Ty had a needle in one hand and the secondary and tertiary dosage calculations on a scrap of paper in his other hand. His smile in return was also all teeth, and Tony wished that Ty had never understood him so well. "Still got a head for numbers?"
Tony tried to snatch at the paper. "Yes. Gimme."
It was more than he was used to having to memorize; his somnacin doses were vastly different from Rogers', but if he needed to take them deeper into the dream he'd have to be able to redose them both from within. There wasn't a way for a dreamer to signal out; he was pretty sure Ty had been working on one, but, well, Tony had set his research back by years, hadn't he?
Because he was still an asshole, Ty held the paper back for a few seconds before relenting and handing it over.
He committed the numbers to memory, mouthing them to himself until he was sure he had it. "You going to kick me up and out?"
Ty shook his head. "You're going to kick yourself out. Get the number, do whatever you need to do to wake up, and then we can work on synthesizing the cure and bringing the captain out."
Great. He hated killing himself in dreams. Well. It was for Captain America, he reminded himself. Maybe he could just wake up. It depended on the drug mix; the purer mixes just let him float out. And surely they had nothing but the best for Captain America.
"Remember," Ty added, "he's already dreaming. He's the architect. You can probably get away with modifying small items, weaponry if you need it, your own body, but the setting will be all him. Wherever he goes, you're going with him."
Tony nodded, leaning back in the chair and holding his bare arm out. "I remember."
"Good luck," Fury said, unexpectedly.
Bucky looked at him, eyes wide and round, standing out even more vividly with the mask on. "Please bring him back, Mr. Stark," he said, and his voice was very small. "If anyone can do it, you can."
Well, hell. Now he really had to. Tony Stark of Marvels couldn't let a fan down, now, could he?
He smiled. "I'll get him back for you, kid."
Ty set the needle against Tony's arm, and Tony watched him every step of the way, because it wasn't like he actually trusted him, but there were no other choices. When the needle was in, Ty flipped a switch on the DreamVision machine. The machine clunked loudly and then the tubing filled with the solution.
Tony could feel his eyes starting to close. That-- fuck, that wasn't the regular mix, he hadn't checked the goddamn mix--
"There's a sedative," he slurred. Goddammit, that was going to ruin everything. He wasn't going to be able to die without heading deeper into the dream -- down into raw subconscious, if he wasn't careful. "Ty, you son of a bitch--"
"Of course there's a sedative," Ty said, unconcerned. "Rogers needs to minimize how fast he burns through this stuff. But you'll still be able to kill yourself to get out; I'm cutting the sedative on you once you're under. Him too, in a bit. Jesus Christ, Tony, it's like you think I don't know chemistry. Recite pi for me."
If Rogers had a sedative too, that meant they were going to need to get him out carefully, bring him back up through the levels of the dream, change the mix as they went, and God, how like Ty not to tell him. Well. He'd worry about it later, he supposed.
"Three point one four one five nine," Tony mumbled. "Go fuck y'self. Two six five three five eight nine seven nine three--"
And he was out and down, gone into the dream.