Tony was in the workshop. He didn't remember coming down, but he suspected it didn't matter. The suit was laid out before him, but his concentration felt fuzzy. He tried to focus, make the details clearer, but even rubbing his eyes didn't help. Maybe he was tired? He didn't feel tired, and he could usually work pretty well through exhaustion. It felt like there was a noise in the back of his head that got louder when he-
"You still down here, Shellhead?"
Tony tensed. There was something wrong with that voice.
He turned to face Steve, at a loss for what to say. There was a tightness in his chest that loosened at the sight of Steve that Tony couldn't explain. Steve looked at him with a lopsided smile, just out of a shower if his damp hair were any indication. He looked...
He looked like a whole slew of other thoughts that Tony needed to push away. Because feelings for Steve weren't something Tony could entertain anymore. Anymore? Where did that-
"You okay?" There were two hands on his shoulders. Tony looked up into cobalt eyes that were warm and open. Steve moved one hand to Tony's forehead, humming softly.
"I'm fine," Tony said automatically, trying not to shiver as Steve moved his hand to run through Tony's hair. It was intimate and soft, neither of which Tony thought he could handle right now. He couldn't pull away though, no matter how much he tried.
"You've been working too long," Steve said, tracing Tony's cheek. "Come on. Let's get pizza. The others might be up for a few rounds of video games too. What do you say?"
Tony glanced at the schematics. He needed to try...
Steve pulled away but caught hold of Tony's wrist. "It's an order now. You're zoning out too much."
Steve tugged lightly on Tony's wrist, not pulling, but not relinquishing his grip either. Tony was helpless to resist.
* * *
"You know what we want. You would be wise to give it to us before we lose patience."
* * *
Tony sighed, loosening his tie as he looked down at his tablet. The math wasn't right. No matter what he did, the numbers didn't add up. The repulsors were never going to function at this rate.
"Long day?" Steve asked as he walked in the kitchen.
"Very," Tony replied, rubbing his eyes in an attempt to add the variables again.
Steve hummed in response, moving behind Tony to get to the kitchen proper. Tony lost a few minutes as the frustration grew almost to the point of throwing the tablet against the wall. This should be easy. Something was wrong. Why couldn't he...
A cup of coffee was pushed into his hands, the warmth flooding through his fingers. He looked up, but saw no one. He didn't realize Steve was behind him until large hands started to massage his shoulders. Tony couldn't help the soft moan that escaped his lips as Steve's expert fingers eased out the knots.
"You're so tense," Steve said as Tony placed the mug on the table, hands still tightly wrapped around the warmth.
"The repulsors won't work the way they should," Tony grumbled, feeling Steve's fingers dance across his neck.
"You'll figure something out," Steve said, giving one particular knot an extra bit of attention. Tony groaned, leaning back to get more of the touch.
But then Steve's hands were gone. Tony did not let out a whimper at the loss, he really didn't. He would deny that until his dying day. He jumped as he felt Steve against his back, his chin resting on Tony's shoulder. "Steve?" he asked uncertainly.
Tony held his breath, his cheek almost close enough to brush against Steve's. Steve flicked through the tablet Tony had left on the table, apparently giving their closeness no mind. He closed out all the programs with ease. "I think you've done enough work for the day."
"Let's go to the Met."
Tony blinked as Steve moved away, his heart pounding and his breathing faster than it should be. "You hate it when I offer to take you."
"That's because you'd buy the whole thing out for a private showing," Steve replied. Tony looked up to find an easy smile on Steve's face, the kind that he gave to Natasha or Sam. Even though he and Tony were friends now, Tony still very rarely saw it directed at him.
"That's just what I'd do this time," Tony said, not sure where this was headed.
"This time I don't mind," Steve said, pulling Tony to his feet. "Let's take the night off, you and me."
Tony didn't know what was going on or why Steve had a sudden change of heart, but Steve never let Tony be extravagant for his sake. He never let Tony spend any money on him, outside of the team. Steve would accept gifts from everyone else, but from Tony it felt like he was always holding back a wince.
To have Steve not only accept something, but to suggest it... Tony felt something in his chest flutter. Steve wasn't throwing disapproval his way, but open acceptance.
Tony nodded numbly, forgetting to breathe for a moment when Steve smiled at him. He was off kilter, but he didn't mind the new direction.
* * *
Pain. So much pain. Tony gasped, holding back a scream. He couldn't give in. Couldn't let them-
* * *
The arc reactor was a problem. It shouldn't be, because Tony had had one in his chest for almost two years and it had worked fine then. ...Aside from the whole palladium poisoning thing, but he'd gotten that fixed eventually. But now the elements weren't forming right and the alloys were too brittle. Why couldn't he think clearly and get this done?
"Do you have a minute?"
Tony looked up from the computer to see Steve in his workshop again. He was wearing a blue sweater and jeans, and he wouldn't look out of place in a modern coffee shop for all that he was from the 1940's. He was holding his uniform in his hands. "What's up, Cap?"
"You're right about the uniform being a bit too stiff to move in," Steve said. "Your offer about making it lighter still open?"
"I..." Tony said, caught off guard. Steve had flat out refused the last time he offered, saying the current uniform was still good enough and that he didn't want to waste it just for a few minor upgrades. Tony had hidden the hurt, sulking in his lab by upgrading the Widow's sting and Clint's arrows. They at least appreciated his upgrades. "But I thought you didn't like the waste?"
"I don't," Steve said, rubbing his neck. "But Natasha pointed out that your upgrades were also safer, and even I can't block every thing that comes my way. Though if you're busy..."
"No, I... I can work on it now," Tony said, practically falling over himself to get his hands on the uniform. Steve was asking him for something, something Tony could actually do. Something that would keep Steve safe. Tony needed to keep Steve safe. He didn't know why it was so important suddenly, but it was. "I'll make it better," Tony promised. "You won't even miss the old one."
"I know you will," Steve said, and when had he gotten so close? Tony had moved closer to get the uniform, but this was much closer than he intended. He only had to lean up a little to kiss Steve, and the realization caught in his throat.
Steve just smiled, his eyes gentle and kind with a focus on Tony that made him shiver as he felt Steve's breath against his lips. "Thank you, Tony."
"No problem, Cap." His voice didn't break, but it was a near thing, and he couldn't help the disappointment when Steve pulled away.
"Huh?" Tony said, startled out of the longing.
"Call me Steve when we're like this," Steve said, casually running his thumb over Tony's cheekbone. Then his smile turned wicked. "Though I don't always mind 'Captain' in the other kinds of circumstances."
With that, Steve left the room.
Tony stared after him in shock, much of his blood migrating southward. Steve couldn't be suggesting what Tony thought he was suggesting. Or at least, not with Tony. Maybe he was just joking? Steve wouldn't...
Damn, that was a fantasy that would keep him up at night. In more ways then one.
* * *
"So obstinate. But you see, Mr. Stark, everyone breaks sometime. It is a proven fact, and we have all the time in the world. Your friends won't find you. You give me what I want now, and it will be less painful, I promise."
* * *
Why wasn't the cooling system working? Tony resisted the urge to punch the wall. He couldn't get the repulsors to work, the arc reactor was shit, and now the cooling system wasn't working with him. And wasn't there some sort of problem with ice?
"What's wrong with me?" he muttered, rubbing his temples as he tried to focus. He'd made the first suit in a cave while being tortured. This should be a piece of cake, so why was his mind running so slowly?
"You've been working too hard," Steve said.
Tony tensed. He hadn't realized anyone else had come into the room. When he looked up, a smile teased at Steve's lips. "You can do it," Steve said encouragingly. "But right now I think you need a break."
Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. "It feels like all I've been doing is taking breaks recently."
"Well, this time will be different," Steve said, pulling Tony up off the living room couch and setting aside his tablet. "Come to dinner with me."
"What?" There had to be a more intelligent response to that, but Tony couldn't think of one.
"Come to dinner with me," Steve repeated.
Friendship, Tony reminded himself firmly. Friendship and nothing else. "Sure."
Steve's face lit up in a smile Tony had seen once before in the old news reels, but never in this time. It looked right out of that old video they played in the museums, but more. When Steve had been happy back then, it was still missing the spark it had now.
Steve was still holding his hand, Tony realized. And now Steve was raising it to his lips, pressing a single kiss to Tony's knuckles. "Good," he said simply.
Tony couldn't breathe. This wasn't just friendship. All those things Tony thought he'd been imagining, they were real. They were real and Steve wanted him. Wanted him enough to let Tony spend money on him and make Tony feel needed. Was that what changed? Steve finally understood? "Steve," Tony said, his voice softer than he'd meant to make it as he forced himself to breathe again.
"Shh," Steve said, pulling Tony into a tight embrace. "I've got you. I'll catch you."
Tony felt a painful gasp work its way through his lungs and he closed his eyes, trying to hide what little he could by burying his face against Steve's neck. "But you..." Tony said, his voice muffled enough to hide how broken he felt. "You never wanted me. You never..."
"I've always wanted you," Steve said quietly, running his hand through Tony's hair. "I just never knew how to get you to realize that. Took me a while to figure you out."
Tony didn't know how to respond to that. It couldn't be true that Steve had always wanted him, could it? He always turned down Tony's offers for upgrades or gifts. This wasn't right, was it?
All thought shut down as Steve pulled him forward for a kiss. Steve's lips were soft against Tony's chapped ones, pressing firmly and demanding attention. And Tony gave it to him, because even if Steve hadn't always wanted it... Christ, Tony had. For so damn long.
Steve pulled away and Tony felt flushed at the smile Steve gave him. "Come on," Steve said, his eyes holding both a mischievous promise and passion. "Let's get some dinner."
Tony couldn't say no.
* * *
"If you tell us what we want, we can leave you in there. You'd like that, wouldn't you? You wouldn't even care if you wasted away in there. That life can be yours, Mr. Stark. Just give us what we want."
Pain. So much pain as electricity shot through his body. Tony couldn't give in though. He couldn't...
* * *
The suit was almost working. He could feel it dancing on his fingertips. The problem was that 'almost' wasn't the same as 'working'. He hated the fact that it still wasn't coming together. He couldn't even get the schematics of the old suits to work, and he was just about to throw the tablet against the wall.
"You're late," Steve said, startling him out of his thoughts.
"Am not," Tony said, looking down at his watch. 6:10, which was... maybe it was late? He was also wearing dress slacks and a nice shirt, so he must have gotten ready before he got lost in the armor.
"'Meet you down in the lobby,' you said." Amusement laced Steve's voice, not anger, which surprised Tony. "I should have known that you'd be up here getting lost in your work."
"I..." Tony said, debating if he could hide the tablet when Steve wasn't looking. He doubted it, especially with Steve' looking at him like that, but that didn't mean he couldn't try.
Steve foiled his plans by plucking the tablet out of his fingers and kissing Tony's temple. "You're late," he repeated, a soft fondness in his voice Tony didn't know what to make of.
"Sorry." When had Tony lost track of time? He almost had the problems worked out this time... He looked at the tablet again, fingers twitching.
Steve followed his gaze to the tablet. "Are you on a break through? We can order in. I know how it's been frustrating you lately."
Tony snapped his eyes back to Steve, who was wearing a shirt that barely fit him and navy slacks that hugged his thighs. The shirt had the first few buttons undone as if he were teasing Tony. Yeah, no. Work could wait.
A date with Steve Rogers was more important.
"Nah, I'm good," Tony said, waving it off. "We can skedaddle, or whatever old time-y phrase you'd use."
"Punk," Steve said, slipping his hand around Tony's back and pulling him along. "I don't know why I put up with you."
"My charm and good looks?" Tony asked, hyper aware of the hand on his back and Steve's proximity.
"Nah, can't be those. Must be the fact that I love you."
Tony stopped, even when Steve tried pulling him forward. He stared ahead, not looking at Steve. He clenched his hands into fists and closed his eyes.
"Tony, are you alright?" Steve asked. Tony felt a palm brushing over his forehead. "We can go out another night. Let's stay in and order pizza, then you can work on the suit a bit more. You were close, right?"
Tony took a deep breath, listening to the sounds around him. They were at the Tower, so it should be pretty quiet. But there was a light tapping sound he couldn't account for, along with a keyboard clacking, now that he was listening for it.
And Steve's voice. Steve's voice that he wouldn't be able to hear again. He'd known something was wrong from the start, but he'd pushed it aside. The voice was wrong. The voice was one he couldn't hear again, no matter how much he wanted to.
"You don't love me," Tony said, his voice flat. If only he'd realized that sooner, instead of letting denial pull him along.
"Tony, what are you talking about? Of course I do," Steve said, hands going up to his shoulders to shake him gently. "Hey, look at me. Tony, what's going on?"
Tony wouldn't look, not at this. Already he had gone too far, playing back every small touch and kiss. "This isn't real. You never loved me."
"Of course it is!"
"No," Tony said, struggling to get out of Steve's grip. This was wrong. Steve didn't love him, he was sure of that. He wouldn't be holding Tony down either.
"Steve Rogers is dead."
He pulled at the restraints - not Steve's hands. God, he wished they were Steve's hands. He heard snapping and felt a sharp pain against his skin as the ties broke. Someone was yelling, scrambling back in his chair as Tony swung at him, knocking him out cold.
There were wires every where that Tony started tearing off, ignoring how his body felt like it was on fire. He stumbled forward to the door, grabbing the keyboard that had been so noisy. He hated noisy keyboards. At least he thought it was a door. A cave? He hid behind the wall, listening as feet pounded closer.
There was more shouting as the guards burst in. There were only two of them, and the first went down with a whack from the keyboard to the back of the head. The second shot at him, but the shot flew wide and Tony hit him in the stomach, then the back of his head when the guard hunched over.
Tony stumbled as the second guard went down, the world twisting around him. He looked back to see - a machine? - no, that wasn't a machine. It was water. Buckets of water they had held him down in. Was it? It was hard to see clearly. Didn't matter. He wouldn't build them weapons. He had to go.
Tony swallowed back bile as the haze continued to cloud his mind. He carefully bent down to pick up the first man's gun. It was loaded and it was easy to find spare clips in the guard's robes. He had to find the armor. He was too defenseless like this.
He picked up the other gun as well, making his way out of the cavern. He ducked behind a rock when the Ten Rings guards passed, feeling his heart rate jump as he rubbed his eyes. Everything was fuzzy around the edges, but he couldn't stop to think about that now. He had to get out of here. He had to avenge Steve.
He continued down the cave's path, watching carefully for any other guards. He heard angry voices before he came across them. Familiar. Not English, but not... They looked like the Ten Rings, but none of the words sounded like the myriad of languages he'd heard before. He paused at the mouth of the cave, peeking in to catch a glimpse.
There were five of them in there, one that was obviously the leader berating the others. Tony remembered him. Bald and vicious, a nasty piece of work. He'd been one of the few Tony feared. The man hit one of the guards, yelling at them in a foreign language.
After that guard went down, Tony shot two of the others. It was surprisingly easy considering his hand should be shaking. He ducked behind the wall again as the return fire came his way, taking a careful shot when he had the chance. Why would his hands be shaking? No time to think about that.
"Come out, Mr. Stark. You won't get very far, not without your armor." That wasn't the leader of the Ten Rings. The voice was different. Wrong. That was... Tony shook his head, trying to clear it. Whoever it was, they were right. He needed his suit.
Would it come if he called it? No bracelets, but he didn't need those any more, did he? His head was too jumbled to think clearly. He tried calling the suit anyway.
"Three minutes, Mr. Stark. Come out while you can, and we won't use the electric shock this time when we put you under. You can go back to your dreams, if you'll just give us the designs for the armor."
The dreams. Steve was alive in the dreams. Steve loved him in the dreams. Tony took a step forward before he could stop himself.
The suit wrapped around him as the guns went off, and he immediately brought up a repulsor to fire. There was more yelling and Tony could barely stay upright with the armor's momentum.
"Sir, while it is good to have you back, your blood is showing an alarming amount of-"
"Mute," Tony gasped, hands going to his ears. The gauntlets ground against the helmet, making the sound worse. He put them down and fired wildly as he saw red out of the corner of his eye. Not blood.
The Red Skull.
The Red Skull and the Ten Rings were working together? Tony launched himself at the Red Skull, stomach lurching as he tilted to the right. He was still on target enough to slam the Red Skull against the wall. His repulsors whined to life at the horrific apparition the Red Skull called a head. He would end this. He'd end this now.
Tony stilled. He was still dreaming. He had to be. Steve Rogers was dead.
"Stark, listen to me. Don't kill him," Steve's voice said, the suit automatically locating the origin and throwing up the image of Steve to his right.
The Red Skull grinned, lip-less mouth baring his teeth in a nightmare. "I did not realize the armor came at your call, Mr. Stark," the Skull said, ignoring Steve. Because Steve didn't exist. "It is a mistake I will not make again."
"Stark, let us handle this," Steve pleaded, his voice closer and gentler. "JARVIS says you've got something in your system. Leave him to us, Shellhead."
"Do you hear him?" the Red Skull asked, sneering despite the threat of a live repulsor seconds from shooting him. "You are still in your sick fantasies, Mr. Stark. Give us the schematics for the armor, and you can go back to your dream world."
"Iron Man?" Steve asked, his voice confused. "Whatever he's telling you it's not true. Just let him go and we'll deal with him."
Tony hesitated. It was enough for the Red Skull to grab his wrist, yank it down, and crush the circuits. The pressure on his wrist hurt, but it wasn't enough to break it. There was something wrong with the suit. Had he been fighting? It shouldn't break so easily, not when...
There was a hand at his throat, crushing the metal inward so that Tony could barely breathe. He tried to use his good hand to claw at the grip, but it was too strong. His vision swam as the Skull rammed him up against the same wall he'd been captive against.
"Stay back, Avengers. A mind like his would be such a waste, but it would only take a little more for his own suit to cut his throat."
"Let him go, Schmidt," Steve said. There was steel in his voice, but also a note of fear that Tony hadn't heard very often. Dreams. They were nice. Tony closed his eyes, savoring the sound one last time.
Dreams couldn't save him.
Tony stopped clawing at the hand around his neck. The Red Skull wasn't even paying attention to him at this point, putting him as down for the count. And Tony was down, more or less, but he used the last of his strength to twist the armor into the right position, facing the Red Skull head on. "JARVIS," he gasped, "Fire Unibeam."
The reactor in the center of the suit came to life. The Red Skull was yelling something and trying to move away, but it was too late. Clutching at his side, the Red Skull fell.
It was a very satisfying thump. Tony only just heard it over the resumed gunfire and yelling, but he amped up the suit's speakers to hear it. He could also hear Steve calling his name, but metal in his suit was still bent inward and choking him. He wondered if he would also make a satisfying thump when he hit the ground. He had about thirty seconds to find out before his legs collapsed or he passed out.
Steve was avenged. Now he could return to the dream world and never come back.
* * *
"-second degree burns all along his-"
"-used electric shock to get him to-"
"Hallucinations and dizziness are two of the possible symptoms that-"
"Yes, Director. He'd been more susceptible to suggestion and-"
"Steve, there's something you should see about the machine."
* * *
Tony woke up to an aching body and bile forcing it's way up his throat. To top it off, he had a pounding headache, ten times worse than any hangover he could remember. He was trembling as he tried to thrash about, but something was holding him down.
"Easy," a voice said. Rhodey? No, Clint. Tony focused on his face, but the shaking didn't stop.
A hand on his forehead caused him to startle, but the binding kept him from doing anything worse than making his head hurt more. "These are withdrawal symptoms, my friend," Thor said, his voice low and soothing as he moved his fingers through Tony's hair. "It was a while before we could track the Red Skull down and the Midgardian drugs have a strong hold on you, but the doctors assure us they will pass."
Tony looked around as much as he was able. No Rhodey or Pepper, which meant he hadn't been out that long or that the Avengers had convinced them Tony's injuries weren't that bad. The latter was unlikely, but he didn't think anything was broken and there were usually plenty of reasons to agree with a logical Bruce when the man put his mind to it. Speaking of Bruce, the man was slumped over Tony's bed, his glasses askew on his face.
No Natasha, but if he hadn't been out that long, then she might still be interrogating. She liked interrogating when one of her team was down. Tony knew how she got when she was fretting, and giving her something to do helped.
No Steve. Of course there was no Steve. Steve was dead.
Tony closed his eyes. He tried to control the shaking, but there was no stopping it. "W-what-?"
"The Red Skull had some kind of weird-ass dream machine," Clint replied. "They were recording your dreams, trying to get you to think of the suit schematics. Bastards."
Tony hadn't been able to think of them. Though whether he'd been fighting the suggestion or whatever mind-clouding drugs they had given him, he didn't know.
"They were meddling with things mortals should not touch," Thor growled. Thor moved Tony's bangs aside, then wiped his temples with a cold cloth. That felt good.
"Bruce said there was some variable introduced to keep you from realizing something was wrong," Clint said.
Of course. Steve always appeared when he was getting frustrated or questioning why he couldn't figure out even easy things. In the end, Steve had even suggested putting off their date if Tony was on a roll. How close had Tony been to giving in? If he hadn't already been shaking, he would have shuddered. As it was, Thor had to help turn his head as he dry heaved. The Red Skull had used Steve to get to him.
"Easy," Clint said again, worry in his voice. Clint stood, carefully sliding Bruce's glasses off and setting them on the table. "It's just the detox. The cocktail they gave you was pretty nasty."
Tony nodded. Or tried to, given the shaking and dry heaving, but Clint got the point. "I'm gonna get the doctor now. They wanted to let you come around naturally, but now you're awake they might give you something to help with all of this."
Which probably meant more sleep. Sleep meant dreaming, and seeing Steve again. Steve was dead. But he nodded again, watching as Clint shared a look with Thor before leaving.
Thor continued to wipe his forehead with the cool cloth, occasionally running his hand through Tony's hair soothingly. "It is good to have you back, my friend," Thor said, a genuine smile on his face. "We feared many things when you were taken."
"Sh-should know better," Tony said.
"Aye, we should. We were heartened to see you left some of the foes for us this time. It is wise to share in victory."
Tony actually managed to laugh at that. He was shaking and the laugh made him feel more nauseated, and how horrible was he to laugh when Steve was dead? But some of the wariness left Thor's eyes at the sound, so it couldn't be too bad of a thing.
* * *
Tony woke a few times and the shaking started to decrease after a while. The other symptoms started to fade as well, long enough for him to get a shower (even if he needed help for it) and feel almost human again. Sadly, the hamburgers he demanded hadn't gone down well, and Bruce was too polite to say "I told you so," but that didn't mean he wasn't thinking it hard whenever he glared at Tony.
That didn't stop the worried looks that his team gave him over his head. Clint and Bruce were the worst about it, but even Thor was touching him more often if just to reassure Tony. They seemed surprised by his quiet mood, but Tony didn't feel up to acting like things were normal. How they could act like things were still normal was beyond him. Steve had only been dead for two weeks, but they acted like Tony was the only one who got their attention. Maybe it was denial, focusing on the team mate they hadn't lost. Or maybe they were just acting, trying to spare Tony from further taxing on his body. They'd have been told after Tony was captured, he realized. Maybe they were just avoiding telling Tony what he already knew.
He wondered if they'd already had the funeral.
"Rhodes is pissed, by the way," Clint said as Bruce gave Tony some juice. Tony's hands still shook, but he managed not to spill any.
"We had two leads," Clint continued. "And he got stuck on the false one. Then he had to stick around and mop up over there, because the Hydra base there wasn't anything to sneeze at either. But he should be back soon."
Tony nodded, drinking his juice silently. Rhodey would yell at him, but Tony would also get Rhodey hugs, and those were the best. Pepper had already been by for a few hours, even if she couldn't stay for long with the press conferences she had to do to tell the world Tony Stark had been found again. The smell of her perfume was gone, sadly, and Tony still had to wait for his next source of comfort.
Bruce met Clint's eyes again, pushing his glasses up his nose. Bruce barely ever met Tony's eyes on bad days, so that meant he was even more worried than normal. "Tony," Bruce said, half-reaching out for Tony's shoulder before he stopped himself. "Are you... Did something happen in the dream? You, ah... You've been quiet recently."
Steve had been alive in the dream. "I'm fine," Tony said, willing the concern of his teammates away.
"You have to say something to him," Natasha's voice came from the other side of the wall, slowly coming closer. Tony was relieved that the shared look of worry was at least not about him this time. "You saw the video! Even if you don't feel the same, you need to-"
"It's not that simple, Nat. You saw what they..."
Tony froze. That was Steve's voice. But Steve was dead. Steve had died on the operating table while the fight had still been raging on. The only reason Tony knew was because he'd been keeping tabs on the monitors when it happened. The doctors had been failing to revive Steve for at least ten minutes before Tony was taken down. The last thing he'd heard was the head doctor throwing in the towel. Steve was dead.
Bruce saved the juice before it fell, but only just. "Tony, what's wrong?" Bruce asked as Clint started to call for a doctor.
Natasha and Thor burst through the door, followed closely by... Tony closed his eyes, hunching over. He was still dreaming. He had to be.
Steve Rogers was dead.
"Clint, Thor," Natasha said, her voice brisk. "Call one of the doctors on standby, but don't let anyone in."
"Natasha, something's wrong," Bruce growled. "The doctor needs-"
"It's not something the doctors can handle," Natasha said, her voice softer as she spoke to Bruce. "But I've got an idea what this is about."
"In the video, he said-" Steve sounded pained when he spoke, his voice tugging at Tony's heart. But it couldn't... he was dead. Tony was dreaming. He still wasn't free of it.
"Steve," Natasha said, her voice sharp. "Don't talk right now."
Tony didn't open his eyes. It was a dumb tactic, but maybe if he ignored the illusions long enough, they would leave him alone.
He should have known the illusions would be just as stubborn as the real people. "Tony, look at me."
"Steve is dead," Tony said, thankful that his voice remained level. "This is still the dream."
"What?" Bruce asked, confused.
"How do you know that?" Natasha asked. "Is it something Hydra told you?"
It wasn't condescending, but Tony bristled anyway. "Because I was monitoring him!" Tony said, opening his eyes to glare at Natasha. She was right in front of him, worry in her eyes. He didn't want her worry. "I saw it, alright? They tried to revive him, but it didn't work! Doctor Iverson called it. He's dead. I don't..." He didn't know which was worse: waking up to find Steve gone or this nightmare where people pretend his illusions were real.
Natasha swore, and beside her, Tony could hear Bruce growling. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the illusion flinch. "Of course you would," Bruce muttered darkly. "Never mind patient privacy."
Natasha shot a glare at the illusion, which Tony was definitely not looking at. "He did die for a while on the operating table, and when this is over, I'm sure there will be a long conversation about privacy issues and things you shouldn't hack into, especially while on an active battle ground," Natasha said, but she didn't sound angry. "But the serum managed to get a strong enough hold eventually. It was probably pretty soon after you were taken out."
Tony looked at Natasha, for the first time meeting her eyes. "He's dead."
"He's not," Natasha replied.
"And how do I know it's not another dream?" Tony asked, anger slipping into his voice. "And don't tell me to flip a coin."
Suddenly he had an armful of Natasha, who was hugging him tightly. "Would you dream this?" she asked, her breath soft against his ear as the illusion gave a half-hearted protest.
Tony felt his jaw drop open. Despite the fact that yes, he did have a few fantasies involving Natasha, none of them included her hugging him. Especially not while Steve was-
Tony was not ashamed to say he yelped. "You pinched me!"
"You said no coins," Natasha said, a smile in her voice as she laughed softly.
His arms wrapped around her tightly as fear took over. He couldn't... What if this was real? What if... What if it wasn't? Could he get his hopes up? He felt a hand rubbing his back, and Tony looked up to see Bruce smiling at him sadly. He didn't dare look at Steve. Because if he did...
He couldn't help how his eyes moved in the direction of the sound. Steve looked wrecked, torn between emotions Tony couldn't quite name. There was exhaustion and guilt etched into the rings around his eyes and the pain of a fresh wound about his shoulders. There was no love there, not like in his dream, but that didn't mean this still wasn't an illusion.
He wanted this to be real.
As Tony wavered, there was shouting on the other side of the door and it burst open. He barely had time to look up before Natasha gracefully moved away and he was not so gracefully nearly pulled off the bed by a man in armor. "What the hell did I tell you about disappearing without me?" Rhodey demanded, none of the worry that was evident in Rhodey's face in his voice. It wasn't comfortable with the armor and the smell of gunmetal nearly overwhelmed by Rhodey's aftershave. But he'd dreamed countless times of getting hugs from Rhodey when the man was deployed, enough to know that it never measured up to the real thing. There was no way this wasn't the real deal, armor and all.
"He, uh, wasn't taking no for an answer," Clint said, looking mildly embarrassed from the doorway. The door itself was hanging on its hinges.
"Damn right, I wasn't." Rhodey glowered at the other Avengers, silently daring them to do anything about it.
Tony closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This wasn't a dream. Or if it was, it was a nice one.
* * *
Tony woke up again some time later to a darker room. Rhodey was slumped on the bed in Bruce's usual chair, no longer in the armor but in a button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Tony's hand was held captive under Rhodey's cheek in a way that was sure to leave a mark. At least he wasn't drooling on it.
Tony tensed as he saw Steve curled against the window, head bowed in sleep. He was out of uniform, but Steve wouldn't... Steve usually went home if either Pepper or Rhodey were here, preferring not to intrude. Was this still the dream? He hadn't spoken to any of the others again after Natasha shooed everyone but Rhodey out. He didn't know if the illusion was stabilizing or if he was waking.
But if this were the dream, Steve would be sitting closer, smiling at Tony as he woke up. Steve hadn't been acting normal when Tony saw him last, but he wasn't acting like he was in love either.
Tony's body ached, but it seemed like the worst of the withdrawal symptoms were gone. He shuddered, glad there were no cravings for more of whatever they'd had him hooked up to. His free hand still shook a little, but he assumed the rest of the pain was just from the electric shock therapy Hydra had been giving him. They'd probably let him out of the hospital soon, which would be great. The sooner the fussing stopped, the better. Then he could go down in his workshop and forget about the embarrassing way he'd reacted when he thought Steve was dead.
He could always blame the cocktail of hallucinogens that had been running through his system for his behavior. Actually, that sounded like a fantastic idea. The other Avengers probably wouldn't mention it again either.
He apparently shifted a little too much, because suddenly his hand was cold and he was staring at the hand print on Rhodey's face and trying not to laugh as the other man yawned.
"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty," Rhodey said, rubbing his eyes. "I am not saving your ass from a dragon, by the way. I'm also not kissing you."
Rhodey totally would do both if it meant saving him, but Tony didn't call the bluff. "Where's Pep?"
"While you were off in dream land, the rest of us weren't getting much sleep," Rhodey said dryly. "She's got board meetings early tomorrow, but she dropped by for a little while you were out of it again. Since you're not that bad, I promised to hang around for her."
Tony nodded, eyes briefly glancing towards Steve before he looked away again.
"He's real," Rhodey said, dashing Tony's hopes that the Avengers wouldn't mention that sort of thing.
"That's what people tell me," Tony quipped, but still didn't look up.
"Yeah, and people tell me you're a smart ass who's been sleeping too long," Rhodey said, trying to act casual. The worry slipped into his eyes, however. "You okay?"
Tony was not believed. "Then what did you dream about while you were worrying the rest of us?"
Tony made double sure not to glance up at Steve, but Rhodey seemed to notice anyway. Rhodey's eyes softened, and Tony leaned in when Rhodey threw an arm around his shoulders. "You sure know how to pick 'em," Rhodey said. "Still, I think you've finally found good taste. Him and Pepper are much better than the last few you've crushed on."
"Shut up. Crushes are for kids," Tony grumbled, but he was a little relieved that Rhodey approved. It was hard not to approve of Captain America, granted, but Rhodey had a point about Tony's previous affairs and terrible judgement of character.
"What was that about the media calling you a man-child?" Rhodey said. "You think-"
Tony looked over before he averted his eyes again. That didn't erase the image of a sleepy Steve rubbing his eyes as he uncurled his legs from his chest. Half-awake was a good look on him, but Tony decidedly wasn't thinking about that.
"He's awake," Rhodey said, smothering a yawn of his own.
Tony wished he had demanded a tablet, because now he had nothing to keep his attention or to keep his hands occupied. He could only stare at the burn marks on his hands and be grateful that they weren't too bad.
He heard a couple of pops and cracks that had to be Steve stretching. "Colonel Rhodes, would you mind if I spoke to Tony for a minute?" Steve asked after a short period of silence.
Rhodey's arm tightened around him, before relaxing. He casually glanced at his watch, managing to catch Tony's eye. The question was clear in Rhodey's gaze. He wouldn't leave if Tony didn't want him to.
Tony didn't want Rhodey to leave. Rhodey was warm and solid, and Tony was still half-convinced Steve was a dream. But he nodded, because Steve was acting strangely, and curiosity always won out.
Rhodey didn't show that he'd seen, but he slipped a tablet he must have brought to appease a bored genius into Tony's hand as stood up, a clear message backup that Tony never used, but always appreciated.
Rhodey stretched. "I guess I'll go find some coffee then."
"Bring me back some. Not hospital coffee either. Also, you still have a hand print on your face." Tony unlocked the tablet and snapped a picture before Rhodey could hide from him. He received a glare for his efforts.
"I still have pictures of the summer of '91," Rhodey replied.
"Sure thing, honey bee," Tony said with a guiltless smile as Rhodey left.
Then Tony was left alone with Steve, and the awkward factor increased by at least 300%. That was actually low-balling it. But at least this time he had a tablet to focus on, something to do with his hands.
"Yup, that's me," Tony said, finding a mindless game that Natasha liked to play when she was only half-paying attention. It had explosions for connecting enough of the colors together, which was always a plus in Tony's book. "Gold star, Cap. You can recognize your teammates."
He glanced up to see Steve collecting himself and setting his shoulders back. Steve moved closer, stealing Rhodey's chair.
There was a long pause before Steve spoke again. Tony discovered a lightning attack in the mean time, and that was cool. It made him think of Thor.
"You thought I was dead," Steve said.
"Yup," Tony said, sighing as he hit the wrong block. "Realized it was a mistake. We're good to go. Unless you're mad about the whole privacy thing, but I think I learned my lesson on that."
"I want to apologize."
Tony paused the game, looking up at Steve in surprise. "What for? It's not like you can really help nearly dying."
"They were recording your dreams to find the schematics," Steve said.
Tony stiffened, because of course that's how Hydra was getting the information they needed. Which meant Steve-
"I saw the footage. Natasha and I were just making sure they hadn't gotten any important information, but those were... private. We should have waited."
"You needed to know if there was anything time-sensitive," Tony said, dismissing the apology as he went back to the game. His movements were too stiff to be casual no matter how hard he tried.
Steve let out a frustrated noise. "Tony, I saw-"
"I know what you saw," Tony said, cutting him off. He wasn't sure he could handle Steve saying it. "Don't worry about it. It's not your problem."
"Knowing that one of my best friends is sweet on me isn't my problem?" Steve asked.
Tony couldn't help the flinch at that, his body acting the traitor. Steve swore. "No, I don't mean... the fact that you like guys doesn't bother me, Tony."
"But the fact that I like you does?" Tony bit out. "It's fine, Cap. I'll bury it again and try not to do anything untoward while-"
"While you're around. In fact, I'll skip town for a-"
Tony stopped short. The game was long forgotten as Tony clutched at the tablet in his hands. He'd lost, and wasn't that the metaphor of the year?
Steve ran a hand through his hair as he rubbed his forehead in agitation. His voice was small when he spoke. "I don't want you to leave."
"Okay." Because when was Tony able to deny Steve anything?
Steve's shoulders rose with a deep breath before he continued. "What they did... I'm sorry they used me to - I never really thought of you like that."
Yeah, Tony didn't need to be let down gently. "It's a-okay, Cap. That's why you don't need to-"
"Damn it, Tony, would you let me finish?"
Tony looked up at Steve sullenly. Apparently he could deny Steve things after all. "Why should I?"
Steve had his face in his hands, but not before Tony saw a hint of fond exasperation about his lips. "You're impossible."
"Yet here I am."
"There you are," Steve agreed, falling silent.
Tony took that as a sign the conversation was over. He woke up the tablet and hit replay, ignoring Steve entirely. He didn't need to be told Steve didn't love him. He knew that. He'd looked. As long as Steve didn't send him away, he could deal with that, bury it deep again and pretend Steve had never noticed. Even if he couldn't be the one for Steve, he could still try his damnedest to make Steve happy.
"I've been thinking about it now," Steve said, interrupting Tony's thoughts.
Tony snorted, not looking up from the game as he kept his shoulders from hunching over. "Never would have guessed." Steve certainly had looked tortured the last time he'd seen him.
"Tony, they used me to try to get information out of you in the dream," Steve said, anguish in his voice. "And they used your feelings for me to keep you from realizing what was going on. That was..."
Steve looked physically ill when Tony looked up, and okay, yeah, of course Steve would be torn up over that. Christ, that was exactly the sort of thing Steve would get torn up over. "It didn't go further than a kiss, Steve," Tony said gently. "And none of that was your fault. It's fine." Also, not the first time someone seduced him for information, but he didn't think that tidbit would go over well and he was actually trying to be reassuring for once.
"It's not fine," Steve said, looking at Tony with too-earnest eyes. Tony put down the tablet and placed a hand over Steve's fisted one, rubbing small circles into it to relax him. Finally, Steve slumped forward, surprising Tony by resting his forehead against Tony's shoulder. It hurt a little, but Steve wasn't pressing on any of the burns. "None of this is coming out right. I had a plan for what I was gonna say, but it's all jumbled now."
"No plan survives a meeting with the enemy," Tony said, unable to help the smile that crossed his face. That was one of the things he always loved about Steve. "Not even one of Captain America's plans."
"You're not an enemy," Steve grumbled. "Just a punk who doesn't like plans."
Tony awkwardly brought his hands up, rubbing Steve's back. This... It wasn't what he wanted, not really. But it was nice. Steve still wanted to be his friend. One of his best friends if what Steve said was true, which was a fact that slightly shocked Tony. Steve had never let Tony do anything for him, so Tony couldn't see how that ranked as best friend material, but he'd take it.
Finally, Steve leaned back. Tony felt the loss, but kept his expression neutral to hide it. "I meant what I said earlier," Steve said with a small sigh. "I've been thinking about it. A lot. Since... Tony, what they did wasn't right. But if you still want to try, I'd like to take you out to dinner."
"What?" Steve couldn't be... Steve wasn't cruel. Now that he knew about Tony's feelings, he'd never try to lead him on. But that could only mean... Steve had never shown any interest, never let Tony do anything to help beyond absolutely necessary. They were friends, apparently good ones even, but Steve never...
"Not to those fancy places," Steve said, but then he shook his head. "Sorry, that was... I saw in the dream that you..."
"You don't like when I spend money on you." Tony knew that. He did. That's why he assumed Steve didn't like most of the things he did.
"I don't like wasting money, but I never thought about how it was part of how much you like giving," Steve said, looking down at the tablet like he wanted a mindless game to distract himself with as well. "Just... give me some time to adjust to that. We can find a compromise that makes us both comfortable later. Let me handle the first date, then you can plan the second one."
Tony blinked. First date. And Steve was assuming a second date. "You said you'd never thought about it before."
"Didn't mean it was a hardship to think about after," Steve said. "But you were pretty insistent on not letting me finish."
That was probably well deserved, but Tony glared anyway. The little 'punk' (as Steve liked to put it) didn't have to rub it in.
"I'm no good at this dating stuff." Steve looked away and out the window, a sad smile on his face. "But I'd like to give it a shot. What do you think? Still want to bury it again?"
Tony didn't speak. Instead, he leaned over, ignoring how the movement reminded him he hadn't taken any pain killers since the last time he woke up. Steve caught sight of the movement, worry replacing the melancholy. "Tony, you shouldn't-"
It wasn't much of a kiss. Tony had definitely done better before, and he was a little ashamed of his technique now. But he didn't try to gain access or lick his way into Steve's mouth. Just a gentle brush of his chapped lips against Steve's smooth ones. It had an intimacy to it that sent shivers down his spine as he pulled away. It was different from the dream kiss. It felt...
It felt more real.
Steve's eyes were wide, but a small half-smile quirked at his lips. It wasn't the warm, bright smile from the dream, but Tony could work with this. It was more than he thought he'd ever get.
"That was..." Steve said, looking a little stunned. His fingers went up to his lips like he almost couldn't believe it had happened. It was surprisingly endearing and Tony allowed himself to feel a little smug. "Was that a yes?"
"That was a yes."
"That was a 'You're waiting until he's out of the hospital before you even think about it,' Rogers."
They both started, looking up to see Rhodey with a tray and three cups of coffee. Steve blushed, though if it was from shame at potentially over stressing a recovering Tony or embarrassment from being caught, Tony couldn't say. He was looking forward to studying the difference in the future.
"Yes, Sir," Steve said, sitting a little straighter.
Tony had no shame or embarrassment to speak of. Rhodey had seen worse. He just grabbed his cup of coffee as Rhodey offered it to him and contemplated other ways to get Steve in trouble. He sighed into the freshly brewed Americano with great pleasure.
Steve looked a little wary when he accepted his own coffee, and Rhodey pat him on the back. "Take care of him," was all Rhodey said, earning him a raised eyebrow from Steve.
"I'm right here," Tony grumbled. "And I don't need taking care of."
"Bringing you coffee counts as taking care of you. Should I just take these back then?" Rhodey asked.
Tony curled around his coffee, ignoring the slight twinge of pain that brought. Rhodey just laughed, sliding into the seat next to Steve's. "Then Rogers can get the coffee next time. It's freezing out there."
Steve's tentative smile warmed Tony more than the coffee did. Rhodey took one look at Tony and beamed at them with a ridiculously pleased expression, and Tony discovered that yes, he still had some embarrassment left in him.
"Is Tony blushing?" Steve asked, interest and curiosity in his eyes. "I must be dreaming."
Steve deserved the pillow thrown his way. But if it was a dream, it was at least one Tony was willing to stay in.