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the things we invent when we are scared

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t matter.)

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

He wants to punch something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natasha nods.

Tony clenches his fists so tight his hands hurt.

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Stone Inc.?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speaking of sleep…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d ask: “So, anything?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony sincerely doubts that.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tony—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anytime, man.”


 

As he waits, Tony watches Steve.

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

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

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

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

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

Tony wants to touch him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing that he wouldn’t leave behind.

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony frowns. “And what do you suggest?”

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute.

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

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

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

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

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


 

Tony’s estimates are rarely wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or like a shield.

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He decides not to dwell on that too much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s James Barnes.

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

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

Also, he’s smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Steve smiles.

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

Tony doesn’t remember ever seeing Steve that happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still. Our room.

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

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

There’s a ring.

A ring on Steve’s finger.

A ring on a very specific finger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve starts fluffing his pillow.

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

“Okay,” Tony says, body rigid.

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

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

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

Like a picture going out of focus.

Like a glitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve smiles.

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

I wish I was lying.)

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