At first, Tony thinks it’s a normal dream. More realistic than usual, maybe, but eight year old Tony Stark is far from a stranger to vivid dreams. He’ll put his hand down on a table and feel it under his hand, despite knowing that both his hand and the table are figments made up by his sleeping mind.
So when he finds himself in a dream version of his own house that he can feel under his feet, all he feels is a sense of unease. He has this dream sometimes, and in each one he wanders the empty house and never finds an exit in the endless hallways. In some of the dreams he’ll call out, but no-one ever answers.
He hears himself make a noise. It’s creeping up on him already: the inevitable knowledge that no-one will ever come for him, and he’ll be wandering the empty house forever.
Tony startles. He turns around.
Several feet ahead of him is a boy around Tony’s age who’s just as short as he is. There’s an almost sickly look to him and Tony finds his gaze catching on the sharp angle of the boy’s elbows and knees. His hair is pale, along with his skin, and he keeps staring around the room and at Tony like he’s never seen anything like them before.
“Hi,” Tony says, and the boy’s eyes return to his face. He had been staring at the polished floors.
The boy asks, “Are you… real?”
Tony frowns. “Of course I am. You’re the one who isn’t.”
“I’m real,” the boy insists, brow furrowing. His chin juts out stubbornly. “That’s not a nice thing to say to someone, telling them they aren’t real.”
Tony blinks. “Sorry. This is my dream, is all.”
“This isn’t your dream, it’s mine,” the boy says. He’s looking with Tony with something like wonder.
Tony’s confusion blurs into realization just as the boy says it.
“Are you- are we soulmates?”
Tony feels his shoulders hunch and he instinctively pushes them back. He’s been working on his posture, trying to mirror the adults around him- any sign of how awkward Tony truly feels gets him told off nowadays. So even though his heart has started beating like a rabbits’, he forces his expression to calm.
“S-soulmates aren’t supposed to share dreams until they’re teenagers.”
“Teenagers,” the boy repeats after a moment, like Tony had just spoken another language.
“We’re too young,” Tony tells him. “I’m- I’m only eight.”
“Me, too,” the boy says. His face keeps flickering from hope to something like fear. He takes an uncertain step forwards, but stops when Tony’s back becomes even more rigid. “I’m Steve Rogers.”
Tony opens his mouth but nothing comes out. He swallows, says, “I’m Tony.”
It’s something he doesn’t have to do much- everyone already knows who he is when he meets them.
Steve doesn’t seem to know him, however. Maybe it’s due to Tony purposely leaving out his last name, which sounds more like a brand every time Tony says it. “’S nice to meet you,” he says, brightening. After a hesitation, he holds out his hand.
Tony eyes it before his manners take over, almost tripping over himself in his haste to shake his hand. He’s been working on his handshakes with Jarvis- the correct grip, the right pressure.
At the touch, Steve’s shoulders jump. He stares down at the hand that Tony has just let go of, quick enough that Jarvis would be disappointed. “This feels so real.”
At a loss of what else to do, Tony bobs his head. Most of his dreams feel as real as it did to touch the boy’s cold hand.
“I still don’t think you’re real,” Tony says, quiet enough that he thinks Steve doesn’t hear it.
But Steve’s face falls, then hardens into angry lines. “Well, maybe you’re the not-real one. Maybe- maybe-”
The corner of his mouth ticks and Tony has this bizarre urge to reach out and comfort him. He doesn’t have much experience with it- comforting or being comforted- but when Maria strokes his hair on the rare occasion she’s around after he has a nightmare, it always makes him feel less like the world is crumbling around him.
“We’ll see each other again, if we’re both real,” Tony tries.
Steve’s eyes are shiny. He blinks hard, scrubs the back of his hands over his eyes. Then he asks, “Where are we? Ma said it’s always a place where one of the soulmates has been, somewhere important, and I’ve never been someplace this nice. I’d remember.”
“This is my home.”
Steve goggles. “You live here? Gosh.” He cranes his head and even turns on the spot to see all the way around the room.
Tony watches him and tries to unstiffen his shoulders.
“Where’s your bed,” Steve asks. “And your bathroom?”
“We have lots.”
Steve cocks his head at him before his eyes begin to widen. “You mean there’s more of it?”
Tony nods, and stops himself from leaning back when Steve says, “Jeez, can I see it?”
The halls never end, Tony doesn’t say. “Okay.”
He leads Steve out to where he expects another hallway, but surprisingly, the front door opens into the garden, just like it does when Tony’s awake.
Steve gasps, and at first Tony assumes it’s a reaction to the garden which is perfectly trimmed, bursting with colour even in winter. But then Steve grabs at his elbow and Tony turns just in time to see him stagger.
“I-” Steve cuts himself off by coughing. It sounds like Tony’s coughs do after he’s had a chest cold, and then Steve is gone.
For a moment Tony freezes, stupidly terrified by the idea of being back in the endless halls. But his feet stay in the grass of the garden, the sun warming his shoulders.
Still, the panicked loneliness is rearing its head. It’s quiet now, but it’s gaining traction behind Tony’s ribcage.
Of course it wasn’t his soulmate. The earliest recorded case of dream-sharing was a pair of nine year olds, long before Tony was born. What Tony saw was made up by his fear of being left alone again.
Still, Tony reaches down and touches the spot Steve was standing. He stays crouched there for a long time.
I hope you’re real.
He doesn’t say it, but he thinks it with a fierceness that’s still warming his chest when he wakes.
It takes half a dozen dream-meetings for Tony to start to believe it.
Three days after his eleventh birthday, Tony sits down next to Steve (who Tony isn’t sure exists) in a shoddy chair (which definitely doesn’t exist outside Tony’s headspace- or their shared headspace, if Steve is, in fact, real). They are, according to Steve, in a hospital waiting room where he does homework and waits for his mother to get off her shift at the hospital.
“So I’ve been considering the idea that you aren’t a guy I made up to have someone to talk to,” Tony announces.
Steve nods meekly. He’s been sold on the notion that they’re soulmates since their second dream meeting and has been annoyingly certain that they’ll one day meet and spend the rest of their lives together.
“Aw. I’m flattered,” Steve says.
Tony makes a face at him. “No one dream-shares with their soulmate at eight, Steve. Not even people who meet their soulmates before they’re eight. The earliest that two soulmates have dream-shared is nine years old.”
Steve shrugs. “So we’re special. Or there are other cases like ours but they don’t tell people about it. Hey, what’s your favorite colour?”
Tony sighs. Steve is constantly wanting to know more about Tony, eager to learn all he can before they inevitably meet. “Red.”
Steve nods. “I can’t see that one. Or green.”
Tony looks at him. “What?”
“I’m red-and-green colourblind,” Steve says, leaning back so his head is against the peeling wallpaper. “What’s red like?”
“Um,” Tony says. He shifts in his seat. Steve’s laundry-list of body defects always make him feel oddly guilty. “I don’t know.”
“Fair enough. I wouldn’t know how to describe a colour to someone who’s never seen it. Hey-” Steve pauses to cough into his elbow. It quickly turns into a coughing fit that has him bending over to press his forehead to his knees.
Tony’s hand hovers over Steve’s back as his small frame shakes. They’re both small for their age, but Tony is starting to worry about how thin Steve is.
Tony waits for the coughing to subside. “You’re sick again?”
“’M fine,” Steve says, sounding angry about it. He wipes his sleeve over his forehead where sweat had gathered during the coughing. Then he looks over at Tony. “I looked up where Malibu is. My Ma said we can visit if she gets enough saved up.”
Tony’s chest twists. “Steve-”
“How many people get to meet their soulmates this young?” Steve has that determined look that Tony is growing wary of. “I want to spend as much time with you as I can.”
Tony has to avert his eyes as a smile tugs at his lips. This is the closest thing he has to friendship and he isn’t even certain Steve is real. “Steve, even with the dream-share, we’ve spent maybe 2 hours together. You might- you might not-”
He’s twisting his fingers together. He makes himself stop and shoves his hands in his pockets. “People don’t usually like me,” he admits. He doesn’t continue- doesn’t say it’s because he’s either too quiet, too shy, or he’s too loud and too fast and too smart and people make fun of him whatever he does.
Steve’s jaw locks. For a moment Tony thinks he’s going to say something that will make him look away, but then Steve says, “People don’t usually like me, either.”
“Why,” is all Tony can come up with.
Steve gets this tiny, pleased smile that has Tony suppressing butterflies. “Lots of reasons. Some of ‘em are even good reasons.”
Tony’s nose scrunches.
“I made a friend,” Steve says, like it’s an afterthought. He sounds surprised. “His name is Bucky. He’s the most popular kid in our class and I thought he was makin’ fun of me at first, but he’s a real good friend.”
“Oh,” Tony says. He thinks he should say something like that’s great, but anything he tries to come up with sounds stale.
Steve rocks sideways and knocks their shoulders together. “People should like you.”
Tony attempts to think of a good response. “Mm.”
Steve pauses. “I like you.”
That gets Tony looking over at him- fast, fleeting, looking away as soon as their eyes meet. Meeting Steve’s gaze feels like a firecracker has gone off in Tony’s stomach, sparks bouncing around between his organs.
Steve looks just as nervous, almost regretful. “You’re- you’re a swell guy, Tony. I’m really looking forward to meeting you.”
Suddenly, Tony doesn’t even care that Steve might not be real. He doesn’t care if the dream-shares are just Tony’s impossible mind running a hundred times faster than everyone elses’, as usual. He doesn’t care if Steve is something his own inexplicable brain made up in order for Tony to feel less like he’s going to be alone his whole life.
“I could visit you instead,” he says. “I haven’t- I haven’t told my parents about you yet, but they’d let me go and see you if I told them.” It’s not quite a lie- he’s sure Maria would want him to, and she’d try to talk Howard into it. She’s always been in love with the idea of soulmates, even though her relationship own soulmate hasn’t worked out too well.
Steve’s eyes are wide as he stares at Tony. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Tony’s throat clicks. “You said- you mentioned you live in Brooklyn, New York?”
“Yeah,” Steve repeats, quiet and croaky. He wets his lips. “I’d- we don’t got a lot of space, but we have a couch you could sleep on. My Ma would take time off work to make us dinner.”
Tony lets himself believe that there’s someone out there who wants to spend time with him, just because he’s him. But it feels too good to be true, so he takes a deep breath.
“There’s something I should tell you. If we’re going to meet.”
Tony almost chickens out. But then he remembers Micky Braden, the boy a year older than him who had pretended to be Tony’s friend and then got Tony to do his homework for him and ignored Tony when the year ended. He remembers Lisa Holloroy, who didn’t know he existed right up until she heard his last name. He remembers his mother warning him not to get too close until he’s explicitly clear about their motives.
“I’m Tony Stark,” he manages.
When Steve doesn’t say anything, Tony chances a glance over.
Steve is looking at him expectantly. He raises his eyebrows when Tony meets his eyes.
“Of Stark Industries,” Tony continues.
Steve stares for another second before blinking. “Oh, the weapons company?”
Tony ducks his head, then makes himself draw it back up. It’s like how he has to act in front of the cameras- no weaknesses. If they see a chink in his amour, they’ll pounce. “Yes.”
Steve nods slowly. “So you’re a secret?”
This time it’s Tony’s turn to wait for an explanation. When Steve doesn’t continue, Tony says, “Um. What?”
“You’re a secret,” Steve repeats. “’Cause the Stark Industries fella- um, sorry, I can’t remember your dad’s name.”
“Howard,” Steve nods, “doesn’t have a wife. Or a kid. That’s what the papers all say- is it for your safety? Is it ‘cause of your mom?”
His face is solemn, which dismisses the theory that it’s Steve’s weird idea of a joke. Tony says, “He has a wife and kid. He has me and Maria, they got married years before I was born- what news have you been watching?”
Steve shrugs. “I get newspapers from out of the bins. But last week there was a page about Stark- Howard- and it said he was, um. Well, it definitely didn’t mention a wife. But it did say he was working on-” He sits up straighter. “Hey, do you get to see him making the flying cars?”
“Yeah!” Steve grins. “I won’t be able to afford one until I’m fifty, probably, but golly, I’d love to see people flying around the city in those! Do you know when he’ll have them ready?”
Tony’s mouth opens and closes. Flying cars? “Howa- Dad gave those up ages ago.”
“How old was that newspaper? You sure you didn’t pick up one from the thirties out of that bin?”
Steve gives him a look like Tony’s the odd one. “What? No, the 20s. ’29.”
Incredulous, Tony asks, “Why were you looking at a newspaper from 1929?”
It strikes him just as Steve says it, even with denial crowding Tony’s headspace. No no no no, this almost never happens, and not like this, there’s almost never soulmates that are separated by more than a few years-
Steve says, “’Cause that’s the year,” in the tone of someone explaining something very obvious to someone very thick. Then he says, “Tony,” in an increasingly worried voice.
Tony assumes he looks pretty bad. He feels fucking terrible. He feels like someone’s dug into his chest and is working his heart out from behind his ribs.
He also feels like he’s going to have a giggling fit. It’s a very strange mix to feel.
“Hey.” Steve puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Tony, mortifyingly, feels his lip wobble. He pushes Steve’s hand away and says, “You’re in 1929. You’re eleven years old in 1929.”
Damn his brain, his brain that everyone calls wonderful, the brain his father resents him for, the brain that has him figuring out the maths in a millisecond.
Steve says, “Yeah. So?”
Tony waits, chewing the inside of his cheek and doing his best not to cry. It doesn’t take long for the fear to set in Steve’s face.
“What year is it for you,” Steve asks.
Tony’s throat closes up. It takes him three tries to get it out: “1986.”
Steve stares. Then he says, “Oh,” and it’s the worst sound Tony’s ever heard, so much poured into one breathless syllable.
Tony scrubs a stray tear away from his own cheek, turning his face away. It’s then that he realizes just how damn old the hospital looks; old in ways that he should’ve realized earlier.
Steve says, “Tony.”
“Guess I’m not visiting after all,” Tony chokes out.
When Steve moves to touch his shoulder again, Tony stands so violently that the chair falls over. “You’re sixty-fucking-eight,” he snarls. “You’re almost sixty years older than me, Steve! How the fuck do we get around that! I’m eleven, and somewhere out there you’re a year younger than my dad!”
Steve’s face is even paler than usual. He looks like he wants to hurl all over the floor. He takes a breath like he’s about to speak-
Tony wakes up in his own bed, in 1986, crying so hard he has to gasp for air.
Tony never gets good things that stay.
After that, they try not to talk about meeting each other outside of their dreams. Whenever Steve tries to bring it up, Tony forces himself to wake up. After three meetings end like this, Steve stops mentioning it.
Once every few months, Tony will open his eyes in a dream and find himself looking at Steve. They switch locations unevenly- sometimes it will be from Tony’s mind, sometimes from Steve’s.
When Tony is fourteen years old, he finds himself in a dream version of 1930s Brooklyn. It’s empty apart from him and Steve, like all their dreams are when they share a headspace, and Tony spends a minute looking around at the quiet streets. He’s visited New York now, and it’s never been anything but bustling.
Steve walks over to him. “There’s my apartment,” he says, pointing.
Tony follows his finger. It’s as small as Steve always describes it. “Looks homey.”
Steve huffs a laugh. “Yeah. There’s a word for it.”
A breeze whispers past them. Tony feels his hair tug sideways with it.
“I told someone about you.”
Steve raises his eyebrows at him. “Yeah? Your parents?”
“No, uh. There’s this guy in my dorms, he lives a few rooms down. I think I mentioned him?”
Steve nods. “Your buddy, Rhodey.”
Tony tilts his head, considering. He has friends- or, he has people he spends time with, but Rhodey is the first person apart from Steve, his mother and Jarvis that Tony feels safe around; like he can trust him with his secrets.
He’s still quietly prepared for Rhodey to screw him over, but after three years of living next to the guy, Tony can say with a level of certainty that he trusts Rhodey around 80%. Maybe 85%.
“He helped me look for you in some databases.”
Tony thinks about explaining computers to Steve and decides to shelve that one for later.
“I thought you didn’t want to meet,” Steve says after a moment.
Tony pockets his hands. In these dreams, he tends to appear wearing things he’s comfortable in- sweatpants he uses to lounge around the house; shirts that are singed from experiments gone wrong. This time, he’s wearing ripped jeans and an AC/DC shirt.
“I don’t see the point,” Tony admits. His fingers curl into fists in his pockets. “But I still- I don’t know. I want to know the option’s there.”
He bends down and sits down in the gutter. It’s grimy, but dry.
Steve joins him, sitting a careful distance away- close enough to touch, still. “I’d like to see you, whenever you’re ready.”
Tony makes a bitter noise in the back of his throat. “You won’t always think that.”
“What makes you say that?”
Tony fixes him with a dry look, but he has to look away to say it. “You never came to find me. I’ve been in the public eye my whole life. I wouldn’t be hard to find. Somewhere along the line, you agree with me. Or- or you die.”
His gaze flickers over to Steve, who is examining his own clenched hands. Once, Steve had mentioned that his doctor would be surprised if Steve made it to the age of 20.
“It’s probably a bad idea,” Tony continues. “Finding your records. You’re probably dead already, and then I’ll spend all of these dreams plotting how to save you.”
Steve smiles, but it’s not a happy smile. “How would you do that?”
“I don’t know. Time machine.” Tony wishes that the sun wasn’t setting across the buildings, because it’s beautiful, and Tony doesn’t want to appreciate it right now. Tony wants rain and fire and something that suits how he’s feeling right now.
He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes. Sitting beside him is a version of his soulmate, a version younger than Tony would ever see, a version from decades before Tony even existed. If Tony touched him, all odds said he’d be touching a ghost.
“You should forget about me.”
Tony takes his face out of his hands and looks at Steve. “Well, that’s a change of tone.”
Steve is wearing that charged expression that means he’s trying to be brave. “I mean what I said- if I still- if I’m alive when you are, I’d like to meet you. But I’m- I’d be too old. So you should… move on. It’d be better.”
Then he goes back to examining his hands, which are white-knuckled in his cheap pants.
“Move on,” Tony repeats. “Was- did we ever move in?”
“You know what I mean,” Steve says. He looks exhausted, even in a dream. Tony finds himself wondering how tired Steve looks in real life.
Tony says, “Are you going to?”
“Going to what?”
Tony nods towards him. “Move on. If there’s no chance for us.”
“I don’t know if I could,” Steve says. He waves a hand between them. “I mean, we still meet in dreams. I think it’d feel dishonest if I tried to be with someone else.”
Tony sighs. “Yeah, you seem like the kind of guy who’d wait for your soulmate,” he says, and he bites his lip. “By the way, I, uh. I kind of slept with someone. Not kind of. I slept with someone.”
A beat passes. Then Steve says, “Okay.”
“Feels shitty saying that after what you just said, but. Yeah.” Tony watches the yellow glow of the sunset throw itself over the buildings. It’ll be dark soon.
Steve doesn’t say anything, so Tony tries, “Should I be sorry?”
“No,” Steve says immediately, but he doesn’t look at him. “We didn’t- we aren’t a couple. Plenty of people have relationships before they find their soulmate.”
“It wasn’t a relationship.”
“Okay,” Steve says again.
Tony twists his fingers together. His nails bite into his palms. “So what, you’re going to stay celibate your whole life?”
Steve lets out a hollow laugh. “Tony, even if we weren’t soulmates-” He stops. “I’m not the kind of guy who has that,” he finishes.
“Relationships. And anything that goes with ‘em.”
Steve rolls his eyes and his cheeks colour with something other than cold. “That, too. And- I think we’re too young, anyway. No offence.”
Tony waves it away. “So you haven’t even kissed anyone?”
“I’d tell you if something like that happened.”
Tony thinks about leaning in. But he feels too much like a fish eyeing a hook, so instead he says, “If you get to give me your blessing to move on, I do, too. Go- sow your seeds and whatever. No, seriously,” he says when Steve laughs again. “C’mon, you deserve good things. Good people.”
“So do you.”
Tony watches him: the coat collar turned up against the wind, the thin material letting everything in.
“You should find someone else,” Tony tries.
“Mm. You, too,” Steve says, but he won’t meet Tony’s eyes.
Tony says, “But you don’t want to.”
Steve’s mouth twists. He leans back and sets his hands against the sidewalk. “I’d be- I’m fine with this. Just this. I could live with this.”
It makes Tony’s throat constrict. He has to swallow over it before saying, “You could live with seeing me once every few months in a dream?”
“Yeah,” Steve says hoarsely.
“We don’t know if we’ll age at the same rates. And we’re in different decades.”
“If-” Tony’s mind whirls with a plethora of possibilities that he’s cooked up over the years. “Steve. All this is going to bring us is a world of shit. It’ll make us miserable.”
“I can live with that.”
“That’s-” Tony drags in a ragged breath. “I can’t- I can’t do this. Okay? I’m not doing this.”
“Okay,” Steve says, maddeningly.
“I’m not going to stop sleeping with people.”
Steve doesn’t even flinch. “Okay.”
“Quit it,” Tony snaps.
“Oh my god.” Tony slaps him in the shoulder.
Steve’s mouth is open in a laugh as Tony wakes up.
A month after Tony’s parents die, Tony falls asleep and finds himself opening his eyes in the middle of an abandoned fairground, summer air heady around him.
“My parents died,” is the first thing he says when Steve appears.
Steve’s face falls. “Jesus. Tony, I’m so sorry-”
Tony cuts him off. “Where’s this?”
“Coney Island,” Steve says after a beat. “Tony-”
“Nope, shhh.” Tony points up at the Ferris wheel. “Let’s get on that. Do Ferris wheels work in dreamscapes? Who cares, let’s find out.”
He starts towards it only for Steve to take his arm. He shakes Steve off, but Steve just takes his arm again.
Tony whirls around to face him. “What?”
“My Ma’s come down with TB.”
Tony falters. “Shit.”
“Yeah.” Steve shifts warily. “Was wondering if I could have a hug.”
Tony eyes him. “This is a ploy for you to hug me.”
“You’re being very insensitive to a fella whose Ma has TB.”
Tony wavers. “She actually does, right? This isn’t-”
“She does.” Steve’s eyes are tight around the edges.
“Shit,” Tony says again. “Is she okay?”
Steve’s shoulders lift and fall. “They don’t know yet.”
Tony pauses, but tentatively leans in and wraps his arms awkwardly around Steve.
Steve doesn’t hold back: Tony feels that if Steve wasn’t underweight to the point of worry, he’d be hurting Tony’s ribs from how hard he’s squeezing.
Tony resists, but it’s almost embarrassing how quickly he folds, hugging Steve just as hard. It’s just- it’s been so long since someone’s touched him like they actually give a shit. Jarvis died in the front seat, his chest crushed by the steering wheel, and Howard and Maria died from internal injuries on the way to the hospital, and Tony has been avoiding Rhodey ever since he got the phone call, too busy self-destructing to allow himself something that might be akin to comfort.
Since then, it’s been a blur of booze and bodies and exotic places. Tony doesn’t remember most of it and doesn’t really want to.
Tony pulls back before he can do something stupid, like burst into tears. He still has to sniff them back before he manages, “Hey, uh, is my hair black here?”
Steve frowns at him. “Yes?”
“Okay. Good.” Tony sniffs again and wipes a hand down his face. “It’s blonde, in the waking world.”
“I can’t imagine you blonde,” Steve admits.
Tony laughs. “Yeah. It’s a bad look for me. I only did it so I wouldn’t get noticed- I’m going by a fake name for a while. I just- I just want to go out for once and not, not have them-”
His voice breaks and he forces himself to stop. He squeezes his eyes shut and takes a step back only for Steve to follow him and place a hesitant hand on Tony’s arm.
“I don’t want to go back,” Tony says. He wants to lean into Steve again, but he stays back.
Steve squeezes his arm. “Then don’t.”
Tony groans. “I have to. It’s- it’s my company now. I gotta- I need to do something, I can’t keep fucking around my whole life, I can’t-”
It’s winter in the waking world, but here the sun soaks into Tony’s skin through his shirt. It illuminates Steve’s face, puts some colour into his bloodless skin. And Tony’s aching fit to burst, he’s been running since Obie called him about the crash and he just wants someone to stay, someone solid, someone who cares-
Steve’s breath hitches when Tony lurches forwards and slants their mouths together. Tony feels Steve’s grip tighten for several long seconds as Tony licks into his mouth, and Tony thinks yes finally and tries to give himself over to feeling good for a while-
Steve mumbles something against Tony’s mouth before jerking backwards. Tony tries to lean back in, but Steve lets go of him and backs off a few steps.
Tony doesn’t try to follow. His shoulders are tightening again. Great. One more thing he’s fucked up.
“Oh, come on,” he hears himself say. “We’re soulmates. You seriously think never going to fuck in these dreams?”
Steve’s whole body tenses and Tony feels it like a punch to the gut. Stop it, stop ruining this-
“You think-” Tony thinks his voice is breaking. He can’t be sure. He’s not entirely sure of what he’s even saying now.
Steve’s saying his name. He’s even coming closer, but Tony recoils from his touch like a wounded animal.
Finally, Steve grabs Tony’s shoulder and Tony pushes him, hard enough that Steve stumbled back and nearly falls.
When Steve rights himself, he approaches Tony slowly. “Hey-”
Tony hears himself swear. The swears turn into sobs, and he lets Steve close his arms around him again as he cries into Steve’s shoulder.
It doesn’t take long for Tony to pull himself together, after a lifetime of reigning in his emotions from the public. After maybe ten seconds Tony can form actual words again, albeit watery ones. “Sorry.”
Tony has to take a second to get the next part out. “Don’t leave. Don’t- don’t go.”
“I won’t,” Steve says. It’s soft and quiet into Tony’s hair.
Years later- or, years for Tony, a few months for Steve- it’s Steve’s turn.
Tony falls asleep and opens his eyes to a room filled with chairs. It looks like a classroom, but not quite.
“Hey,” Tony greets when he spots Steve sitting in a chair to his right. “Where’s this?”
“Figure painting class,” Steve answers dully. “From when I was in art school.”
The flatness of his voice is indication enough that something’s wrong. Tony gets up from his chair and comes to sit down in the one next to Steve’s desk. “Something up?”
He tries for casual, but it’s beating in the back of his brain, the thing that has had Steve down the last several times that they’ve shared dreams.
The sight of Steve’s face, when he turns to him, has Tony’s stomach plummeting. Steve’s eyes are rimmed with red and his face is blotchy from crying.
“Ma died,” Steve says. He sounds bone-tired that Tony gets when he’s alone after a party.
Tony moves his chair closer. It scratches loudly against the floor and makes Tony wince, but Steve doesn’t seem to notice.
“What do you need?”
Steve looks down at the table. There are names etched into it. “Nothing. I’m fine.”
“You seem fine,” Tony says, and gets a droll look in return.
Cautiously, Tony shifts his chair over until their chairs are touching, along with their legs. Then Tony reaches up and lays a hand against the side of Steve’s forehead. Steve doesn’t react at first, but then his eyes are closing and he’s turning into the touch.
Neither of them move for a while, save for Tony’s thumb, which strokes tiny circles just below Steve’s hairline. When Tony’s arm starts to tire, he briefly takes his hand off of Steve’s forehead to shake some life back into it.
Steve makes a noise in his throat, soft enough that Tony hardly hears it.
“I know,” he tells Steve. “You’re fine, it’s all good, I got you.”
He puts his hand back on Steve’s face, on his cheek this time, but Steve leans away from it. Tony waits, but all Steve does is heave the kind of sigh Tony imagines Atlas would let out.
“How are things with you,” Steve asks.
Tony shrugs and lets his hand drop to the table. “Same old. Parties. Work.”
“Enjoying any of it?”
Tony debates saying yes and assumes Steve would just snort. “Ehhh. Work, sometimes.”
Steve hums. He takes the hand that Tony has on the table and tangles their fingers together.
Tony tries to convince himself his heart hasn’t sped up so much. Calm down. God. You’ve had orgies and hand-holding is what gets you flustered?
“There’s a war on,” Steve says. He rubs absently at Tony’s hand with his own.
That gets all hand-holding related nerves out of Tony’s mind. “Yeah,” he says. He’s been dreading this ever since it hit him in history class a decade ago.
Steve is quiet. Then he says, “I’m going to enlist.”
Tony closes his eyes. Then he opens them and says what he’s been assuring himself for years. “Steve, they won’t take you. Not with all your health issues.”
Steve shrugs. “I’ll get around it.”
Shit. Tony doesn’t doubt him. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe this is how it always happened.”
“Hey,” Tony snaps.
Steve looks at him, eyes full with determination. “How old are you, Tony?”
Steve smiles. “I’m twenty-one. Our ages are out of sync. You know what that means.”
Tony does. It means Steve’s time is running out, that Steve will have dreams of Tony consistently and Tony will get them less and less- Steve will share a dream with Tony, then next week there will be another dream but Tony will have aged a year in between them.
“You’ve been looking into soulmate cases like ours,” Tony says.
“So’ve you,” Steve says. “You’re in the future, there will be more cases for you to read about- have there been any that end happy?”
Tony doesn’t bother answering. Instead, he squeezes Steve’s hand. Steve’s veins easily stand out against the back of his palm, a different pale blue than his eyes.
“You’re not going to ask me how it ends,” Tony says.
“How what ends?”
“Would you tell me?”
“I don’t know,” Tony says honestly.
“Then I won’t ask,” Steve says. He pauses. “It wouldn’t change anything, anyway.”
Tony’s mind reels with slideshows of Hiroshima, of pink triangles, of bomb shelters and death camps. You can’t tell him, he argues with himself, as another side of him asks why not? Like he said, it won’t change anything.
Tony squeezes Steve’s hand again. “Hey. I’m going to try to find out what happens to you.”
“Happened,” Steve corrects.
“Happens,” Tony says. “You’re right here next to me.”
Steve looks like he’s going to say something to that, but in the end he just brings their joined hands up and kisses Tony’s thumb.
The next time Tony sees Steve, the first thing Steve does is look down at his own body.
“What the goddamn hell,” Tony says as Steve’s face falls as he takes in the sight of his body, which is perfectly normal apart from the army uniform that sits baggy over his thin frame.
Tony says, “Please tell me you didn’t actually lie on the enlistment forms.”
“I- okay, yes,” Steve says. “But that wasn’t what got me in! There was this man-”
“You got in? You’re in the army? Steve-”
“It’s okay,” Steve assures him, advancing. He glances down at his own hands as he holds them up to placate Tony, and an array of emotions run across his face. “Uh. Someone thought I had promise, so I volunteered for an experiment.”
Tony is going to burst a goddamn blood vessel. “An experiment? On a human? In the forties? What the fuck did they even do-”
“It’s okay,” Steve says, almost yelling now. “Tony, it’s fine! They made me, uh- they improved me.”
“You’re fine as you are,” Tony all but snarls.
Steve’s face flickers into something pleased. “Thank you. But I’m- in the real world, I’m healthy now. More than healthy. I’m strong, even.”
Tony pauses. His mind runs over a history of human experiments. “Seriously?”
Steve nods. “You should see how I really am now. I’m- I’m taller than you now. I’m actually okay looking. I had hoped-” he looks down at his body again. “I’d like you to see what I look like now.”
“You look fine like this. You look good.” Tony’s mind whirs with possibilities- he can’t even imagine what Steve would look like healthy, let alone strong and taller than him.
Steve gives him a grateful smile. “Thank you,” he says again. “Um, how long has it been for you?”
Tony is instantly reminded of how goddamn long it’s been. Even with the anger, Tony has spent the total thirty seconds of this dream soaking in how good it is to see Steve again. “Over a year. You?”
“Less than a month.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. He moves forwards.
Tony looks him up and down: he looks like the soldiers Tony sees in war memorials. God, he hopes Steve’s name isn’t up on one of those. He’s searched, but nothing has come up.
“What name did you enlist under,” Tony asks, just in case.
Steve blinks. “Steve Rogers,” he says. He takes another step forwards. “This isn’t so bad. I think you’ll wear age pretty well.”
I want to see you grow old, Tony doesn’t say. Instead he says, “I wear everything well.”
“True,” Steve says, and grins. “Hey, guess what? I’m not colourblind anymore.”
What the fuck kind of experiment did you go through? “That’s great, Steve.”
“Mm.” Steve’s grin fades. “It was a bit- uh, the first red I saw was blood.”
Steve’s head bobs in a tight nod. “The man who made this possible- he was shot. He didn’t make it.”
“Steve,” Tony says, at a loss of what else to say.
“I caught the man who shot him,” Steve continues.
Tony tries to imagine Steve chasing a man down the street and actually catching him rather than keeling over and having an asthma attack.
“I look really different now,” Steve says, interpreting Tony’s look correctly.
“I can’t imagine it,” Tony says honestly. “I like you just like this.”
Steve gets that pleased little smile again. Tony hopes that whatever he looks like, his smile stays the same.
The years blur into each other. It’s disarming and more than a little lonely: Tony will open his eyes into a shared dream maybe twice a year if he’s lucky, whereas Steve is having them every six weeks or so.
At least Tony doesn’t have much to keep Steve updated on- whenever Steve asks after him, Tony will tell him he’s fine and things are the same as ever. Both of which are more or less true. Tony has sex with strangers and drinks more than is probably wise. He sleeps more than he should in the hopes that Steve will appear.
Sometimes I think you’re the only thing that keeps me going, he doesn’t tell Steve after another long, empty year. “I still haven’t fired that PA,” he says instead. “How’re you? Still doing classified things?”
Steve smiles. “Yeah. Sorry.”
“Give me the watered-down version, then.”
“We blew something up. It was a successful mission.”
“Sounds exciting,” Tony says.
Steve hums in agreement. Their arms are touching; they’re sitting next to each other on a ratty couch in a dream version of Tony’s old dorm room at MIT. Everything is just how it was before Tony had to move out- the dry fishbowl filled with electronics instead of fish, the AC/DC posters mingling with the Einstein posters, the mad clutter that Rhodey complained about every time he came over to do homework and refuse to buy Tony alcohol.
Tony watches Steve out of the corner of his eye and remembers how they’d been convinced Steve would be taken by sickness before the age of twenty. “You look happier. You’ve looked happier for a while now.”
“I am,” Steve says. His eyebrows pull inwards and Tony stops him before he can say it.
“I’m fine, Steve.”
Steve nods, but Tony can tell he doesn’t buy it. “It seems like a lonely life, is all.”
What can Tony even say to that? “Yeah, well. What can you do.”
“I hope I help.”
“Good.” Steve gives him another smile and Tony can’t help but return it. “Hey, you’re getting laugh lines.”
Tony stays still as Steve reaches up and brushes at the corner of one eye with the tips of his fingers.
“I told you age would suit you,” Steve says.
He drops his hand and Tony has to stop himself from grabbing it and placing it back. “I’m only thirty-four.”
“Looks good on you anyway,” Steve tells him. This time, his smile is tinged with sadness. “I hope I get to see more of it.”
“What, me aging?”
“Yeah. I’d like to see how the rest of your life turns out.”
It strikes Tony as an almost cruel thing to say- Steve wants to see how his life turns out? Tony doesn’t even want to see it. Tony’s been convinced for years now that he’s going to die alone before he’s fifty choking on his own vomit after a party he’s too old to attend.
He wants to leave, to shy away from this conversation, but leaving means he won’t see Steve for almost a year. He clears his throat. “So, this Peggy woman you keep telling me about.”
Tony tries to drag up an encouraging smile. “She seems nice. Good for you, even.”
“I guess,” Steve says after a second passes.
Tony tries again. “We’re still trying to find someone else, right? Someone who isn’t separated from us by fifty odd years?”
Steve ducks his head. He’s looking at his hands in a way that means he’s still coming to terms with that big body he has to walk around in when he’s awake. “I haven’t tried too hard.”
“This is enough for me,” Steve says, for the hundredth time.
Steve hesitates. “I’d prefer this than a lifetime with anyone else.”
It makes Tony ache. He’s going to wake up with a hangover and the empty feeling that accompanies sleeping with someone he doesn’t give a crap about, and somewhere in time, Steve will be waking up in a place he won’t tell Tony about to throw himself into a war that ended before Tony existed.
“That wasn’t a yes,” Tony says.
Steve sighs. “Most of the time, it’s enough. It must be harder for you, since you don’t get to see me so much.”
Tony feels himself nod. He wants Steve to touch him again, take his hand or touch his new laugh lines; anything.
But Tony keeps his hands to himself and so does Steve- Tony doesn’t say it, but he suspects it’s the same for Steve, that he, too, would hate waking up from touching Tony with no-one next to him.
The next year, Tony gets to see Steve twice. The first time is in a version the cave he’s been imprisoned in for months, and the second is in a version of his workshop.
Tony opens his eyes just in time for Steve to rush at him, grabbing him by the shoulders and looking him over frantically. “Are you okay? Last time, you said-”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“Are you still-”
“No.” Tony’s smile is brittle. “I got out. I got myself out months ago. Remember that plan I mentioned?”
Steve wavers. “The plan where you were going to build a suit of armor in plain sight of your guards and hope that they were all technically inept enough that they wouldn’t notice?”
Tony’s smile turns into a grin. “I’m just that fucking good.”
Steve can’t seem to figure out if he wants to smile or not. He runs his hands down Tony’s arms until he’s squeezing Tony’s hands. His eyes flicker towards Tony’s chest.
Tony takes a hand away from Steve so he can press his palm to his chest reflexively. The glass offers no give under the pressure. “Uh, yeah. I improved it, it’s not so ugly anymore. I mean, it’s still-”
He stops, swallows. “Can’t believe it follows me here.”
“Your hair didn’t change here when you dyed it in the waking world,” Steve says. “Maybe- these dreams, maybe how you appear in them is how you really are. In your soul.”
The idea of the arc reactor being so deep inside him in ways that go beyond physical is something Tony can buy. He thinks even if he managed to get rid of it and heal himself, he’d still feel the phantom pain, the extra weight of it sitting in his chest cavity.
Tony doesn’t believe in souls, but- “That’d explain why you’re all, uh.” Tony waves a hand down Steve’s short, skinny frame. “You’re always so sad you never get to show off your shiny new body.”
“I think you’d appreciate it.”
“I appreciate this,” Tony says, waving his hand down Steve again.
Steve smiles. “You’d appreciate my new body more.”
“Pshhh.” Tony lets himself drift in the fact that Steve is here, right here in front of him, holding Tony’s hands. Everything these past few months has faded away apart from the mission: stop weapons production. Hunt down the men who kidnapped him. Find out who organized it in the first place. Destroy any of his weapons that made it into the wrong hands.
He thinks about telling Steve about it- walking in the desert for days with his hope waning; the first flight; the horrible realization that it was Obie all along. Obie standing over him with the arc reactor in hand. Obie’s body jerking with the electricity Tony ordered Pepper to distribute.
It hovers at the back of his throat. But then he swallows it- why bother telling Steve any of it? He’ll never hear about it anyway, he’s over fifty years in the past, and Tony gets to see Steve so rarely- can’t this be an interlude for both of them? A brief pause where they don’t have to be at war with anyone or anything.
“I’m kind of a superhero now,” Tony tells him instead.
“Oh, you know. Capes, flying around, saving the world. That kind of thing. Captain America kind of thing- you guys have Captain America when you are, right? His comics started coming out in World War 2.”
Steve does this funny little jerk, blinking rapidly. Then his face sets into a composed calm. “We- we have those comics. Yes.”
Tony is a little weirded out by the reaction. “Oookay. Am I missing something? You not a fan of ol’ Cap?”
“No, it’s not-” Steve drops Tony’s hands absently. “They’re okay. I don’t read much of ‘em.”
“Speak for yourself. I collected them for a while when I was a kid.” Tony stretches his arms over his head and moves to sit on the cot that he occasionally sleeps on after pulling an all-nighter. “Hey, there are some theories that say Cap was a real person. You seen anyone like that wandering around the battlefield? Don’t know if the comics are accurate, but if they are, he has inhuman strength and healing. They’re probably blowing it out of proportion- even if Cap did exist, he was probably just a normal guy who survived a lot of crap.”
Tony stops rambling and looks over at Steve, who hasn’t come to join him on the couch like Tony expected. Instead he’s holding his shoulders like he’s stolen the last cookie out of the jar after Tony had spent the whole day professing his want for said cookie.
“Uh,” says Steve when Tony raises his eyebrows at him. “I’ve seen a lot of guys like that. You survive a lot of stuff in a war.”
“I’ll bet,” Tony says, narrowing his eyes. “You good, Steve?”
Steve nods rapidly. “Yeah, I’m- I’m good.”
Tony waits. When Steve just stands there twisting his hands together, Tony says, “You sitting next to me or what?”
“What? Oh- right.” Steve hurries to sit down next to Tony on the cot, shooting Tony what he probably thinks is a reassuring smile.
Tony eyes him. He opens his mouth to ask what the hell is up with you before he feels the telltale haziness that usually means he’s about to wake up.
“Kiss me,” he says.
Steve startles, but does.
Tony wakes up with the pressure of Steve’s lips still ghosting over his mouth.
One year (and what Tony assumes is a few months for Steve) later, Tony opens his eyes into a dream version of a church. He cranes his neck to look around- it’s definitely Steve’s, Tony never went to church except for when his mother took him along to the occasional mass. Tony’s always felt uneasy about the concept of religion, but Steve was raised Catholic to the point where he could definitely put personal meaning into a church.
“Hi,” Tony says when he sees Steve sitting bent over in one of the pews. “How long has it been?”
“Two weeks,” Steve says. His voice is gravelly, like he’s been drinking or crying. “You?”
Tony sits down next to him. Cautiously, he says, “Uh, almost a year. You okay, Steve?”
Steve doesn’t reply.
Tony bends until he can see Steve’s face. He’s wearing the same dazed, weary expression that he wore after his mother died.
Shit. “Everything good with you? How are the troops?”
“They’re fine, but. Uh.” Steve coughs. He wipes a hand down his blotchy face. “Bucky’s dead.”
Fuck. “What happened?”
“It was my fault,” Steve croaks. “He fell off a goddamn train while he was saving me. I- I tried to get to him in time, but-”
“Hey, hey, hey.” Tony puts an arm around Steve’s shoulders and after a second of stiffness, Steve all but melts into him. Tony rests his chin on top of Steve’s head. “I’m sure you did everything you could.”
Steve takes a big, shuddering breath. “It doesn’t matter.”
Steve pulls away, pushing a hand through his own hair. “I’m- I’m going on a mission tomorrow. High stakes. I don’t-” His throat clicks thickly. “Tony, I don’t know if I can come back from this one.”
The dread that Tony’s been feeling most of his life- dread induced from the knowledge that Steve is most likely dead by the time Tony is born- rears its head. “Don’t say that.”
“I just want-” Steve swallows again. His throat sounds almost clogged. “I want you to be prepared. And I want you to- to finally be able to move on. Neither of us have, not really. You deserve better. You deserve someone who can be there for you outside of a dream.”
“Fuck off,” Tony manages. “What, you can save yourself for me- uselessly, because we’ll never meet- your whole life and I can’t do the same? Not that I’m- I’m not exactly saving myself-”
“You’ve never been in a relationship, Tony.”
“That’s- okay, that’s not all because of you, that’s partly because of my fucking baggage-” Tony reaches and puts a hand through Steve’s hair. He leaves it there and tries not to clutch. “You’re my soulmate. I’m with you, no matter what.”
“That’s not fair to you. Or either of us-”
“I don’t care. I love you anyway.”
Steve’s head lifts. He stares at Tony with red-rimmed eyes. “Yeah?”
Steve smiles at him, but it’s heavy with everything dragging him downwards. “I love you too, Tony. I’ve loved you since we were kids.”
Tony wants to cry. Steve’s always making him want to cry, despite being one of the main things in his life that brings him a real joy instead of a short-lived, fake thing like booze or sex.
“You can’t stop me from doing this,” Steve croaks. “And you can’t talk me out of it.”
Oh, Tony knows- he’s known Steve’s stubbornness for 30 years now. “Steve, if you- if you die, we’ll never see each other again.”
“That’s generally how it works.”
Tony smacks his shoulder. “Don’t be a smartass right now, alright? I’m trying- I need to know. I’ve been looking for records of you everywhere for most of my life, but I can never find anything.”
Steve says, “Yeah. There’s a reason for that, I figured it out a while back.”
“Well, tell me then.”
Steve sighs. It’s small and tired. “Captain America was- is real. It’s me. I’m Cap.”
“What? Steve, come on-” Tony stops. He’s only ever seen drawings of Captain America, all in comic books or Saturday cartoons. No photos existed, because Captain America wasn’t supposed to exist, despite what the conspiracy theorists said.
“Cap got his powers from falling into a vat of acid,” Tony tries.
Steve laughs. “I got them from climbing into a machine, actually.”
Tony stares at him. “Wait. You have- you’re, what? You’re super-strong and-”
“Heal four times faster than I should,” Steve finishes. “My senses are heightened, too.”
Tony stares at him some more. “What the fuck.”
“Yeah.” Steve ducks his head to stare at his own shoes. “That was my reaction. Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. Does it help?”
“I.” Tony considers. He comes up with the answer as soon as he cuts through the shock. “Yeah. If there are records on you, it won’t matter if they’re classified. I can hack into anything.”
Steve gives him a look that means he doesn’t quite get what Tony’s saying, but he replies, “Good. That’s- that should give you some closure.”
“Hey.” Tony takes his hand and grips it tight. “Don’t go- wherever you’re going tomorrow with the mindset that this is your last night on earth.”
Steve’s gaze goes distant. He gazes up at Tony before straightening. “Tony.”
“I- I wanted to ask- if-” Steve stops. He wets his mouth, eyes on Tony’s shoulder before his own shoulders slump. “No. Nevermind.”
The nervous look, now replaced by defeat, clues Tony in. He tilts Steve’s face towards him as Steve’s eyes widen and kisses him, first on the mouth and then on the chin, trailing kisses down to Steve’s neck.
Steve’s breath leaves him in a gasp. Tony can feel him angling his head so his lips brush Tony’s hairline as Tony sucks gently at Steve’s neck.
Tony freezes. He’s almost tempted to keep kissing Steve, to make him forget everything except how good it feels, but Steve says his name and Tony gives in, resting his head on Steve’s shoulder.
“I don’t think I could handle it if-”
“-we were together like that and you had to wake up with me half a century in the future,” Tony finishes for him. “Yeah. I know. I get the feeling.”
Steve lifts Tony’s head and hesitantly rests their foreheads together. “I wish-”
“Don’t. I know. I know.” Tony’s mouth ticks downwards. “I hate that we never really met.”
“This is real enough.”
“It isn’t,” Steve agrees after a moment. “But it’s all we’re getting.”
Tony sucks in a breath and blows it out. “Fuck. This is so unfair.”
Tony lifts his forehead off of Steve’s enough that they can meet each other’s gaze without going cross-eyed. “Don’t die.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“I’ll be so pissed at you if you do.”
Steve laughs weakly. “You don’t believe in heaven, right?”
“No.” Tony’s stomach won’t stop churning. “I wish I did. It’d be nice to imagine we could finally meet after all of this is over.”
Steve smiles and Tony almost lets a sob out from behind his teeth. His doomed soulmate, dying decades before Tony is born.
“Try to have a good life, Tony. Try to forget about me.”
Tony’s hands can’t stop moving. They touch Steve’s chest, grip in his shirt, then drop again. “Yeah, no, those two aren’t compatible. Shut up.”
“If it helps,” Steve says, “I believe in heaven. Even if you don’t. I believe we’ll meet one day, even if it’s not in this life.”
“God.” Tony ducks his head against Steve’s shoulder again. “Fuck. I fucking hate this. Why is this happening? Why dangle a soulmate in front of you your whole life and then go hey, you can never be together because one of you dies years before you’re born, ha!”
“I’m still glad we knew each other.”
“Quit saying your goodbyes, asshole.” Tony lifts his head to glare at him. “Okay? Just stop.”
Tony stares at him and tries to let himself believe this isn’t the last time he’s going to see Steve. It’s then that Steve’s smile ticks and dies, and his mouth opens.
It’s the slow panic of knowing he’s going to wake up. Tony all but grabs Steve’s face as if he can keep him from leaving, ground him here in their shared dreamspace for a second longer.
Tony says, “Don’t-”
Steve vanishes. Tony’s hands close around nothing.
He stares at the empty space for a long time, picturing a time that is happening decades ago and right now- Steve dying by gunshot, dying by hypothermia, dying by bomb blast. Somewhere in time, Steve is leaving him for good.
The first thing Tony does after waking up is grab his phone and instruct JARVIS to start running programs on multiple organizations that were operating in World War 2 to access their restricted files.
It takes less than ten minutes before JARVIS says, “I have found a Steve Rogers, Sir.”
Tony bites his tongue. “Where?”
“SHIELD databases, Sir.”
Tony swears. He had been hoping it wasn’t the organization he’s currently a fucking consultant for.
“Bring it up, J.”
An open file appears on Tony’s phone. CAPTAIN AMERICA, AKA STEVE ROGERS.
It punches the breath from Tony’s already shitty lungs. There he is- even with the physical changes, Tony can see the skinny boy he’d fallen in love with: Steve, strong and tall and muscled, his jaw and shoulders filled out like they never were in the dreams.
Tony scrolls down the pages- Steve’s health problems, which were even more numerous than Steve had let on. Steve’s four rejections from the army. Steve entering into Project Rebirth and coming out several inches taller and strong enough to rip logs in half with his hands.
And then the part that makes Tony bend over and press the phone hard into his forehead: KIA.
Tony reads the report with eyes that fill the more he gets down the page. It’s short and to the point: Steve drove a plane into the Atlantic ocean in order to save the lives of millions of people. His body has never been found.
“Jesus,” Tony chokes. He lets his phone drop onto his mattress. Somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic, Steve’s skeleton is resting- or would the ocean have scattered it, decayed it to the point of dust? Would any part of Steve still exist or would it have been eaten by fish long ago?
He picks up his phone and scrolls back up. The photo of Steve has Steve looking almost grim, polished, determined. Tony tries to imagine the man in the photo smiling like his Steve did.
When there’s a knock on the door and it opens, Tony shoves the phone under his knee, which is pressed into the mattress.
“Are you decent?”
“You could’ve-” Tony’s voice breaks embarrassingly. He clears his throat. “You could’ve waited for me to answer before opening the door.”
“Yes, well, we don’t have time.” Pepper shoves her hair back behind her ears. She looks frazzled, but a kind of frazzled which means she’s on top of a hundred different things. “You better be r-”
She stops, lips parting. “Tony, are you okay?”
“What? Yeah, I’m fine.” He gives her what he hopes is a convincing smile, but he’s been practicing smiling in the mirror since he was six and he can tell Pepper isn’t buying it.
She purses her lips, looking him over. “Get dressed,” she says. “We have to be at a board meeting in half an hour. You know, the one I’ve been telling you about all week?”
She hovers near the door, continually looking him over. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” Tony clears his throat again. “No, everything’s fine. I’m fine.”
Her gaze is anxious. She folds her arms. “If you’re dying again and aren’t telling anyone again-”
“I’m not dying,” Tony says, but the mention of dying has his voice cracking again. He casts his gaze up at the ceiling and blinks several times to clear his eyes. When he looks back at Pepper, she looks more worried than ever.
She starts, “If-”
“I’m getting dressed,” he tells her. “Get out unless you want to see some things you have explicitly expressed never wanting to see. Unless you changed your mind?”
She rolls her eyes, the worry momentarily taking a backseat. She gives him another once-over. “I’ll be outside. If you’re not ready in one minute, I’m coming in and physically putting your clothes on myself.”
She shoots him another look that means he’s being much less convincing than he hopes. When the door closes behind her, Tony gives himself a good five seconds of resting his face in his hands before he pushes himself up and heads for the closet.
Tony doesn’t dream of Steve again. He doesn’t try to tell himself anything other than the truth- Steve is dead, Steve died a long time ago and every dream he’s ever had of him was an echo.
Life continues on in the new normal: Tony careens around in the Iron Man suit and attends board meetings and improves the world with green energy. He doesn’t tell anyone about what he learned about Steve- both Rhodey and Pepper know of his existence, but he doesn’t want the pity that will come with him telling them that his soulmate died in World War 2. They pity him enough, having a soulmate distanced impossibly from him by time.
Tony tries not to be too pissed off at Fury whenever they talk. It’s not Fury’s fault that his organization has the files that Tony’s been looking for his whole life.
Still, he thinks Fury notices. Super-spy, after all.
“You okay,” Fury asks one day. It’s this weird thing he’s bene doing lately, talking to Tony like he cares. Tony hasn’t decided whether he buys it or not.
“Fine,” Tony says automatically. They’re in an elevator; Fury is dragging Tony along to a meeting about Things Tony Has To Do If He Wants To Continue Being A Consultant.
“Don’t look so suspicious,” Fury tells him, which lets Tony know his glance was less subtle than he’d prefer it to be. “Just checking up on you.”
“Mm. Because you’re so concerned,” Tony says. He brings out his phone and starts tapping it as an excuse to do something with his hands and have somewhere to look.
Later, he isn’t sure what makes him say it. The prolonged silence, maybe.
“I found out Captain America was real.”
Fury laughs. Or, he does a Fury-approximation of a laugh, which is more of a huff. “And you’re pissed that no one told you your favorite comic book hero was real?”
“He’s my soulmate.”
That wipes the smile off of Fury’s face. He stares at Tony. Tony stares at his phone.
“Steve Rogers,” Tony continues. He gives a small shrug. “Soulmate. Yeah.”
Fury is silent for several seconds. Tony sees his hand waver close to him out of the corner of his eye, like Fury’s thinking about putting a hand on his shoulder. Then it drops back to Fury’s side.
“I’m sorry,” is what Fury finally says.
Tony shrugs again. “No big deal.”
He stays stiff for the rest of the elevator ride, and walks out in front of Fury until Fury waves him back and says he’s just walked past the meeting room.
Tony avoids Fury for the next few months. It’s not hard, since they don’t see each other much anyway.
But when Tony gets a call and sees ‘PIRATE MAN’ flashing on the screen, he hits ‘ignore’ and spares a thought that he has to stop changing the names of people in his phone when he’s drunk.
He hits it again when Fury calls a second time ten seconds later. And again, five seconds after that.
On the fourth try, Tony clicks the green accept icon and says, “The world had better be ending.”
“That’s me. You called me, remember? How old are you again? So sad how your brain’s already going.”
“Shut up for a second,” Fury says.
Tony rolls his eyes, but does.
“We should’ve called you sooner,” Fury continues. “But then we got new information and- I didn’t want to give you false hope, so we held off.”
Tony sits up straight in his chair. “What happened,” he asks, mind flashing immediately to Rhodey- he’s overseas at the moment, but Tony talked to him this morning and he sounded fine-
Fury says, “We found Steve Rogers,” and Tony forgets about every shard of shrapnel as his heart stutters on a beat.
“Oh,” Tony says, instead of the whirl of questions that threaten to overwhelm him. Is there anything left of him? How can you be sure it’s him? Can I see him?
“Tony,” Fury says. “He has a pulse. He’s alive.”
Tony has no idea how to respond. He can’t remember how to work his limbs. His hundred-mile-an-hour brain is hazy with shock.
“Oh,” he says.
The only reason Tony doesn’t start crying upon seeing Steve laid out on that bed is due to a lifetime of stifling his emotions, and also because Fury is less than a foot away.
“We don’t know when he should wake up,” Fury tells him.
Tony nods. He takes in Steve’s face, the long fingers that haven’t changed, the lips that Tony is used to being pale which are now pink.
He looks whole, healthy, safe. His hair is coiffed in a way that-
Tony doesn’t look away from Steve, but he turns his head incrementally towards Fury. “Did someone brush his hair?”
Fury pauses. “Yes.”
“Huh.” Tony takes a step towards the bed, and then another. His hand hovers over Steve’s chest as it rises and falls- if he lowers his hand he’ll be touching Steve, really touching him.
He takes a tight breath and brings his hand back to his side.
“We’ll leave you alone,” Fury says.
Tony makes a noise of agreement, sparing a glance around the room- despite this whole heartwarming soulmate-meeting shtick that Fury is contributing to, Tony is sure SHIELD has ulterior motives. There’s no way they’d unearth Steve, alive, and then let him loose without trying to recruit him for their own means.
Still- “Thank you,” Tony says.
Fury pauses by the door. “We have someone on standby if you want someone else to explain things to him. It’ll be a hell of a shock.”
“It’s fine, I’ll do it.” It sounds like too many emotions for Tony to handle at once, but he wants their first meeting to be them, just them, and he needs to talk to Steve as soon as it’s possible. He needs proof that this is real, needs Steve to say his name-
“An agent will be outside if you change your mind,” Fury says, and closes the door as he leaves.
Tony isn’t sure how long he sits there- long enough for the sun to come up, long enough that someone knocks on the door and offers him food, long enough that Tony has to take a toilet break and actually answer Pepper’s calls.
Around about the time Tony is falling asleep in a chair they provided for him, Steve’s eyes flicker open.
Tony thinks he’s imagining things, or has fallen into a dream. But he pinches himself hard on the wrist and Steve’s eyes stay open, eyebrows pulling inwards as he takes in the ceiling.
His head turns in Tony’s direction. He blinks twice, surprised. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Tony says, fighting back laughter or tears or both. God, he thinks. God god god god. You’re here. Finally.
Steve’s frowning, but only slightly. “I… are we dead?”
Tony shakes his head. His hands are clenched on either side of the chair. “No, you dick.”
“Okay,” Steve says slowly. He looks around and begins to sit up. “Where are we?”
“SHIELD. Hospital wing.”
“You spend a lot of time here?”
“…No,” Tony says, and then has to close his eyes when he sees what Steve’s getting at. “Steve, no. This isn’t another meaningful place of mine. This is- this is real.”
Steve is sitting now, their knees pressing together. His eyes track Tony, disbelieving. “How- how would-”
“The serum, apparently.” A laugh escapes from Tony’s throat. “It kept you in stasis for seventy years.”
“Seventy-” Steve blinks hard. His hands flex against the mattress. “This is… real.”
“Really real.” Tony’s grinning. He probably looks like a maniac. “You’re here. We both are.”
Steve says, “Huh,” almost thoughtfully. He lifts a hand off the mattress. They both watch it as he cups the side of Tony’s face, thumb stroking across his cheek.
Tony leans into it. It feels just like it always did in the dreams. He closes his eyes, losing himself to it, and when he opens them Steve’s gaze is soft and reverent on him.
“Tony,” he says. His fingers touch the edge of Tony’s eye, which is wet.
“Yeah. Hi,” Tony says, and chokes on another laugh. “Guess we’re not doomed after all.”
“Guess not,” Steve murmurs. He’s looking at Tony wondrously, eyes roving all over him like he’s drinking him in.
Tony wants to kiss him so bad his stomach hurts, but he gets the feeling that if he starts kissing Steve he won’t stop. “Uh, when you’re ready, they can debrief you. Then I can take you home. If you want to-”
Come home with me, Tony doesn’t finish, because Steve is already nodding.
“You’re still not convinced you didn’t die and this is some weird version of heaven,” Tony says when Steve continues to stare at him like he’s an angel.
Steve nods again. “Might take me a while,” he admits, with a tremulous smile.
Tony doesn’t blame him. He isn’t entirely sure this is real, himself. “I’ll remind you.”
Another nod. Steve He drops his hand to hold Tony’s- at least, the one that isn’t still death-gripping the chair. Steve tilts their foreheads together and closes his eyes.
Tony closes his, and for several seconds the only sound is their admittedly shaky breathing as it evens out.
Then Steve takes a bracing breath and pulls back. He has his determined face on, though it’s worn a little by dazed wonder. “Right. Okay. How’s about you explain to me the basics of what I need to know and I can get a more detailed explanation outside and then we can go home?”
“Uh. Sure,” Tony says, though he hasn’t thought much of it through, too occupied by oh my god Steve isn’t dead and Steve is in front of me, I could touch him right now for the past day. “Well, we won the war.”
“That’s a good start.”
“It is,” Tony agrees, and feels himself grin again.
It’s a good start- the two of them bent forwards against each other, speaking into the small place between them, the new possibility of a lifetime together lighting them up from the inside as Tony gives Steve a shoddy rundown of world history from the last seventy years.