He knew this dream.
It was a repeat of the same swill he'd swallowed since Afghanistan. The cave. People thought all caves were the same, but they weren't. Many had water in them, because that was how they were formed. Some opened to a lake or river or ocean. Some were formed by underwater rivers, over time, with stalactites and stalagmites dripping slowly into formation within the worn open paths. And some were caused by thousands of years of pure erosion, oftentimes by rain and sometimes by rocks carried by said rain. The cave he'd been in was one of the latter, with no stalagmites or stalactites to speak of. What little hadn't been formed naturally had been created unnaturally; it was something a person couldn't help but notice. When walls should have been smooth, they were rough. When the rock should have been compacted, it crumbled, bit by bit, as the days passed. Water sometimes soaked the ground into a pasty mud. The cave's walls held up piles of loose boulders, sometimes even to the ceiling, showing cracks to what likely had been natural paths through the rock.
This was that cave. Tony would recognize it anywhere.
His mind barely formed more thoughts than recognition, even as he felt the rest of what inevitably followed the dream: the heaviness of his chest, the weight of the battery in his hands and the wires tangling around themselves to his chest. The hands on his shoulders, shoving him forward.
His feet tripped slightly on the loose stones littering the cave as they pushed him forward. He fought, even though it was ultimately useless. Not just because they were stronger and he had nowhere to run, but because it was a nightmare. And sure enough, he was already bent over the bucket, with no time between the two. They put a hand on the back of his head, ready to shove him into the water, ignoring his struggles. He recognized this. He would try to hold himself still, to not give them the useless flailing that would leave them laughing as they pulled him up, just long enough to swallow water as he fought to gain breath. He would feel his lungs seize, even though he knew he was safe in bed. He would feel them compress against the wires in his chest. He might feel the wires spark within him, dangerously close to the water. He would certainly feel his body shake as he lost his control and fought, fought desperately, because he couldn't breathe and he was about to die.
He would feel his chest heave. He would open his eyes and see nothing but a wavering darkness, the depths of hell found at the bottom of a metal bucket. His vision would fog. His mouth would open. Bubbles would spurt out, bubbles that might have been air but weren't what he needed, anyway. His body would fall limp, unable to fight anymore. The world would turn black. His lungs would make his full body jerk, and he would breathe in – water. Cold, acrid, metallic water. Lights would pop, not anything he saw through his eyes, but the startled synapses of his dying brain as it realized it was not going to get what it needed.
He would die. And then he would wake up.
If it weren't so horrible, it would be boring.
Boring, something said. And the sight of the water rising to his face disappeared into black.
Tony lay limp on his bed, not moving save for the steady rise and fall of his chest. Steve covered his mouth with one gloved hand. The doctors didn't know what A.I.M.'s strange gadget had done when that man had used it. None knew why, in the middle of battle, Tony had dropped from the sky, his suit the only thing preventing him from taking likely at least one broken bone. No one knew why he'd fallen unconscious, or why he wasn't waking up.
Steve ignored Natasha as she came up beside him, looking over to Tony, still and pale and swaddled in the hospital's gown. "It seems Iron Man's attacker, a one William Maple, thirty-first in line to a leadership position – third, perhaps second, now, I would assume, and first if..." Natasha cleared her throat when Steve tensed. "He was working on research on the human subconscious when we reached his facility."
"We already know that," Steve snapped. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "What else?"
"Any information we may or may not have been able to glean from him has been put on hold due to what appears to be a self-induced catatonic state."
Steve's fists clenched. Tony's heartbeat beeped through the monitor beside his bed. An IV dripped slowly into his veins, feeding him better than he ever fed himself. "And the research?"
Natasha's gaze remained steady on Tony's chest, watching the slight rise and fall of the sheet. "Bruce is working on it."
Steve slammed out of the room.
He knew this dream.
The sky was wide and black and bottomless, surrounding him on all sides. Above. Below. And the stars shone in all dimensions, crowding him as his screens went black. And then they blotted out. Ink stains colored the twinkling sky, and he knew they would grow, sucking every light into darkness, impenetrable darkness, in which all Tony would see was the black. And then he would see new lights, more yellow – more artificial – than that of the stars. There would be enough to make out a single ship. And then more, and more, each blinking on in the black until there were hundreds, thousands. Ships behind ships, each converging on him. On Earth. And he would look down – for what? The portal? The planet? A weapon? He would look down.
They would be there. Rock, and gravity, suddenly, when before he'd felt weightless. And the Hulk would lie above them all, a silent, still sentinel, clearly dead if for no other reason than that. And below him – Natasha, her eyes wide and unseeing, Clint, his body slumped in defeat, an arrow limply held in loose fingers. Soldiers, men and women who had chosen to fight, to defend. To die pointless in the trying. Thor, not even of this world but trying to the end to defend it.
And Steve. His Steve. He'd seen this dream before he'd seen just what the man would mean to him – more than mentor, more than hero. More than friend. His impenetrable shield, broken by the darkness. His body, still. Still. And Tony would run forward, even though it was useless, and once trapped in that iron grip, he would hear Steve give him another reprimand. The worst reprimand of all. You could have saved us. Echoing with the usual you should have waited or you should have done as told, instead the fated, you should have saved us. You could, and you didn't.
Why didn't you do more?
And he would wake up. He would wake up, his heart pounding, trying so hard to keep from waking Steve, and he would tell himself, over and over again, together. Because the old man had promised. And that meant he wasn't on his own in this; if they fell, he would not be the only one standing. He would not be on the outside looking in. his body would lie right there with the others.
It was cold comfort, but it was better than the idea of living beyond them all. Living because he hadn't been there, doing everything he could.
Survivable. And the lights above him disappeared into the black.
"What have you got?" Steve asked, not bothering with any sort of pleasantries.
"Something," Bruce said, with the tone of voice that warned that that something wasn't going to amount to anything any time soon. Steve moved over to Bruce's computers – Tony's computers, actually, which he had bought for Bruce's use while in his tower. "It was the subconsciousness Maple studied, but it wasn't as simple as that." Bruce pushed away from the computers. Steve wanted to shove him back in front of the monitor, but of course it wouldn't help anyone if he ran the man into exhaustion. "There have been a few studies on this recently, but it's been suggested that dreams act as practice, one could say, for a problem one discovers in their waking world. The idea is that they act to prepare us for these situations, or something like them, in the real world, however random they seem."
Steve gritted his teeth through the explanation. "And what's the point of this, doctor?"
Bruce rubbed his hands. "I can't be sure – this is not actually my area of expertise," he said, not for the first time in their acquaintance. "But I'm reasonably certain the weapon Maple used attacks the mind through dreams. One's subconscious comes to the fore during sleep; it's said this is why dreams seem disjointed, fragmented. What I can't understand is how he reached Tony from behind his armor."
"Does that have any bearing on waking him up?" he asked. He tried to understand what it all might mean. Tony was trapped in his dreams? How could that work? How could they get him out?
But it might explain one thing: why Maple was unconscious, as well. It meant nothing to send someone into a dream without being able to get to them oneself.
"It might mean a way to get to him," Bruce said, his voice hesitant. He didn't know. As if Steve couldn't tell that from the wringing hands and the furrowed brows. "If nothing else, it would tell me more about the weapon itself. If..." Bruce tripped, then continued on, "if Tony was awake, we would be able to take the thing apart and figure it out from its mechanics."
"If Tony was awake, we wouldn't need to know," Steve said sharply. He breathed in deep. "Let me know if you find anything else." And he left the room, his knowledge of the situation, if anything, worse than it had been previously.
He left the room, the door opening and closing without him having to so much as slow his pace. The run from the hospital to the tower had done nothing but make him sweaty; the irritation bubbling underneath his skin hadn't quelled at all. At least the tower had a gym, if he was willing to use it. He wanted very badly to punch something until he didn't have the itching need to move. But he was still technically in the middle of a mission. He couldn't afford to tire himself. A refreshing run was one thing. Exercising himself into sleep was another.
But he had to stay there. At the tower. He could coordinate with Natasha and Clint just fine from the tower's systems, and he could get in touch with his Avengers trainees and ask them for assistance, as well. He could receive reports faster, gain information faster, and be right there whenever Bruce found anything more substantial than 'dream-eating.'
And most importantly, he wouldn't have to stand at Tony's bedside and watch that horrible stillness. He wouldn't have to count every single breath.
He moved to the elevator with the idea to look up any information on the armor's weaknesses, or any vulnerabilities in the helmet's shielding. Tony had granted him access to his blueprints a long time ago. It was about time he took advantage.
This... was not a dream.
He stood in his tower, in the kitchen. It was comfortable, a homey scene. Tiled backwash between wooden cabinets, a few dishes in the sink because a couple members of the household – Thor and Clint – had never quite gotten the hang of cleaning up after themselves. (And perhaps he never really had, either. But whatever.)
Coffee was on in the pot, of course, because he had it set to turn on whenever he entered the room. Its soft gurgling matched the warm aroma of Tony's favorite blend. The table, the replacement for the modest one he'd owned before so that each of them could sit together (and not have the table broken in half by Thor's thumping hand partway through the meal again), had two places set up. His heart lurched. A single candle sat in the middle, because – and here he was surprised he'd remembered – he and Steve had promised to have a night to themselves while the other kiddies were away. Steve had said he would come back from training by yesterday, and though he was running late, that was pretty normal when he could have a million things suddenly come up.
Tony hummed lightly as he left the kitchen to answer the doorbell. He would probably have to step up his game, he thought as he accepted the food from the deliveryman, and clean the dishes himself. Steve would appreciate the clean room, and Tony would use something keeping his hands busy. He had no real reason to be nervous – they'd been going out for over a month now, and there hadn't been any warning signs, though he wasn't exactly the fastest man to catch all those signals sometimes. He'd ordered from an expensive restaurant, and had included all of Steve's favorites. Even the stupid baseball park-like onion rings.
He took the food to the counter, leaving it covered for a while so he could get the dishes clean. Of course he wanted to keep working on his armor, on the idea of adding specific force fields to act as shields on each separate piece of armor, in case parts became broken or fractured, or in case anything kept him from using a full force field – like not enough power. Hell, force fields at all were pretty nifty; he just needed to figure out a way to get the magnetic push to work without potentially ricocheting an attack into an innocent bystander. But he also very much wanted to sit with Steve, who had been gone for quite a while dealing with the new Avengers in the old SHIELD base. They were good enough to fight on their own, but Steve would never send out a new team without experienced back-up. Natasha apparently notwithstanding.
Tony got it. They were Steve's team. His family, if Steve had been honest when he'd called the place his home. And Steve believed in accountability as much as Tony did. Making sure these new members didn't do anything to harm others, didn't take too many risks – it was something the old Avengers should do. Period.
He finished washing the dishes and was reaching for the towel when his phone chirped. He was smiling. He was still smiling, but his chest tightened and his gut sank. He wiped his hands on the towel, leaving the wet dishes to dry in the drainer, and pulled his phone from his pants pocket. He shouldn't answer it.
He answered it.
"Hey, Steve! You almost here? Any longer and I'll have to put the food on ice." He tucked the phone against his shoulder and turned back to the dishes, towel once more in hand.
"You... should go ahead and do that now," Steve said. Tony's grin faltered. His gut twisted.
"That far away, huh? Something keep you?" He carefully placed the towel down and gripped the phone.
"Yeah, something came up. Avengers business, you know the drill. I won't be able to get back for a few more days."
A few more days. By tomorrow afternoon, every other Avenger – save Natasha, who would apparently also be busy on 'Avengers business' – would be back in the building. That wasn't a big deal, he told himself. They could always go out to eat. He looked at the food he'd gotten. "Sure thing. That's what happens when you date a superhero, I guess."
He could hear Steve roll his eyes. "I'm not a superhero."
"Then you're going to have to lose some of the spandex," he said with a grin. His fingers shook. Together for over a month. They'd gone on two dates.
"It's not spandex."
"It sure fits like spandex." He turned away from the counter, from the food and dishes both. But that meant staring at the stupid little candle in the middle of the table.
"What does that say about your armor?" Steve asked. Then, "I'm sorry, Tony, but I've got to go."
"Sure. I'll see you later."
Tony stared at his phone. Steve had already hung up, and it shone now on a picture of Stark – no, the Avengers – tower. The shine of it nearly blinded his eyes.
He put the food in the fridge and left the dishes in the drainer. He really should have been working on his armor, anyway.
Perfect, something in him said, and grinned.
"What even is the point of the thing?" Clint asked through the monitor, staring at the picture of the gun on his Starkpad. Steve stared at the same picture in the Avengers meeting room. The thing didn't quite look like a gun, even though it had a long, hollow cylinder like one. The rest of it seemed more like some sort of computer. He hated how his mind echoed Bruce's words, how things would all be so much more understandable if Tony could explain just what it was they were looking at.
"I don't believe there was a point," Bruce said. "Which makes all of this far more dangerous." Steve's back stiffened. "He may have just reached for the first thing he could. Or he might have used it before it had been properly tested. Whatever the case, the console on it seems to be the key to understanding what it might have done, and how to reverse it."
Clint groaned. "That's useless! So you're saying we need Tony to save Tony?"
Bruce rubbed his unshaven jaw as Steve's teeth clenched. "Maybe? I don't know. I'm more interested in what Maple did to himself."
"Screw him," Clint said succinctly. "All I see is him making himself useless to us."
"But that may not be the case," Natasha said, her face turned down to read something, her hair framing the monitor projecting her image to the room. "We had the hospital run brain scans on both Tony and Maple. Both showed signs of dreaming – but they showed spikes in the thalamus and amygdala at the same time, in the same places."
Steve's breath hissed out. His entire body shivered. That meant that, while he'd been thinking Tony was trying to rest and recover, he was actually under attack? In his mind?
"He linked his brain to Tony's?" Bruce asked, then gasped. "Oh!"
"What?" Natasha asked. Steve gripped the table before him hard enough to leave indents in even the reinforced furniture. Tony, he thought stupidly, would be annoyed.
"It makes sense," Bruce mumbled. Steve wanted to strangle the man. He just clenched tighter onto the table. "There would be little point to attacking someone's subconscious without being able to ensure its success. In order to observe, if nothing else. But if he's going through the same mental transactions, I wouldn't be surprised if he's able to find them himself. That means he may be controlling what dreams Tony has. Sifting through his worse nightmares, trying to find the one most painful to him."
Steve thought he just might fly into a thousand frenzied pieces. "What do we have to stop him?"
"Nothing, as of yet," Natasha said. Steve closed his eyes. He thought of Tony, lying helpless in that bed, battling all those demons on his own. As if Tony stood a chance against his own mind.
"But we might," Bruce said. He grimaced even as he said it. The man looked at the strange contraption.
"We don't even know what it does!" Clint said, oddly the voice of reason in all this. He looked at all of them, at the firm lips and tight eyes, and said, "you can't be serious!"
"I'll do it," Steve said, ignoring Clint's blubbering protestations. "I'm able to survive any ill effects better than the rest of you, and I'm far less likely to turn into a Hulk if someone messed with my worst fears." He stood straight again, now that he had a plan of action. If he didn't do this, he would go out of his mind. His heart hammered just standing there, doing nothing.
Clint tsked. "Great. And how are we even supposed to get this thing to work?"
Bruce leaned closer to the picture, taking a stance not dissimilar to the one Steve had just been in. "It's entirely possible. If he used the gun – for lack of a better term – on himself, then the settings it's on would be the correct ones to connect with Tony."
"Have we learned how it got through his armor?" Natasha asked.
"It's not a gun," Bruce said, even though they'd already established that a while ago. "It makes sense that it wouldn't work as one. There are still things that can get through Tony's armor. Sound. Sight. He deliberately opened up these pathways into the suit so that he wouldn't be blind or deaf when inside. It may have traveled in lightwaves or radiowaves, or even heat waves or ultraviolet. It affects the mind. It may simply be something we don't yet understand yet. I've never heard of anything forcing someone into their subconscious, after all."
"I have," Clint said, gaining everyone's attention immediately. He held up one hand, his first finger and thumb pinched together and pointed to the floor. Bruce made a sharp sound of understanding just as Clint said, "getting hypnotized."
"In that case," Bruce said, "Tony may have only needed to be looking at Maple or the gun. I would like to know more about all this before we shot you with it, Steve. At least a few tests to ensure we didn't kill you."
Steve nodded, his jaw jumping with the force of his clenched muscles. "Get it done fast, Bruce."
Bruce nodded and left the room.
"I'll stay with Tony," Clint said. "Whatever's going to go down, I won't be much help. I'll make sure no one attacks his body while you deal with the problem of Maple." Clint moved to sign off, then hesitated. "Be careful, Captain."
Steve nodded, but he promised nothing.
Natasha stared at him for a while once it was just them. Then, quietly, she said, "I'll do what I can from here," and signed off as well.
Steve scrubbed his face, barely aware of the stubble he himself bore. He should probably take care of that, though. Who knew what Tony's subconscious could hold. It would be best if he entered looking the most familiar to Tony. And it would give him something to do instead of pounding a fist through one of Tony's walls.
No matter how good it would feel.
These were not dreams.
Tony buried his head in his hands.
"How is it going?"
Tony lifted his head, refusing to let the tears in his eyes fall. He stood. "Fine." He grinned over to Steve, who stood in the doorway of his lab with coffee in his hand. "It's fine. He'll be... fine."
Steve looked over to what remained of DUM-E after Tony had dug him out of the rubble of his Malibu mansion. There wasn't much save the bare bones of him, and even that was dented. Tony would be very lucky if he could save any part of what made DUM-E DUM-E. In fact... it wasn't looking good. Hence the panic attack freakout show Steve had walked in on.
Steve moved to the counter behind him and set down the coffee. "I brought you sustenance."
Tony tried for a smile. He did. Really. "Thanks. Caffeine is just what I needed." But he didn't touch it, because he knew if he did, he would only want to add liquor to it. And he wouldn't be able to find what he needed to find in his AI's remains if he did. And if he couldn't find it?
Well, if he couldn't find it, he wouldn't need the caffeine.
Steve stood silently behind him, and Tony shifted from foot to foot. Had Steve seen? Well, how couldn't he? Tony had actually had to rub away the damn tears in his eyes. Who could miss that? And the sniffles. Gotta love the tell-tale sniffles. And if Steve had seen it, and was still standing there, did that mean he was waiting for Tony to share? Giving him an opening to... open? He opened his mouth. "I–"
"I have to go," Steve said quickly. He moved to Tony, patted his shoulder once, awkwardly, and backed away again. "I have reports to read, and – I have to go." He backed out of the room like he was fleeing a monster.
Tony closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He could now; the arc reactor was gone.
Then he got back to work.
"Well, the apple lived," Bruce joked, removing the slide from the microscope and looking up to Steve. His eyes had bags forming beneath them. If Steve hadn't had the serum to help him, he likely might have had them, as well. They'd woken up the day before as usual, only to get the call about A.I.M.'s new research late at night from Fury. The new Avengers had gotten caught up in something else, and they'd had to race out alone. And then Tony had fallen, and it was almost night again, and still he had not woken, not once. "I'll test it on a living animal first – Natasha's out buying a mouse for us right now – and, if all goes well, I should be able to send you after Tony in a few hours." Bruce ran a hand through his hair. "I don't have to remind you, we have no idea what this might do. We don't know that you'll have any awareness, or if you'll even link with Tony. You may simply fall into your own worst nightmares, and we'll just be down another Avenger."
"No," Steve said. "He wouldn't have taken such a chance with himself. Even desperate, a man greedy enough to join A.I.M. wouldn't risk losing himself to dreams forever. He must have had something planned when he shot himself, and all evidence shows he's with Tony now."
"Somehow," Bruce said. "Even with all this, I still know next to nothing about this weapon."
"You know it works," Steve said. "For now, we'll use that."
Bruce sighed again. Rubbed the back of his head. Pushed his glasses back up his nose. "That... doesn't sound like a smart idea."
"It's the only one we have." Steve was glad he hadn't stayed by Tony's side. The one image playing over and over in his head was enough. "Let me know when Natasha gets back with the mouse. I want to see what happens myself."
Bruce nodded. "A good idea," he said, then, low enough that average ears would not have caught it, "since you'll be throwing yourself in next."
They were memories.
"Hey," Tony said, trying to enter the meeting room like it was just a thing he'd decided to do. Steve ignored him. Instead he stared inconsolably at the pictures of what may or may not have been the Winter Soldier, blurry images and unreliable testimonials – nothing more than anecdotes, really – dotted all up and down the holographic interfacing. From what Tony could tell, it was all saying James Buchanan Barnes had been literally stinking everywhere, and Steve was playing hopscotch trying to get to the right place at the right time.
Tony didn't really understand it. When someone he'd cared about had tried to kill him, he'd cut them loose. In fact, he'd ended up getting the man dead. (A cute euphemism for leading the man to his death.) Steve, when placed in the same position, had decided, hey, let's just let the man pound on me! It'll end well.
The thing was, it had. Ish.
He'd brought in coffee, though it wasn't for him. He'd thought to maybe get Steve to drink it, to pull him out of his funk and eat something, get some rest. Something. He didn't know. He honestly had no idea what to do in this sort of situation. He wasn't a comforter. He had no idea how to go about... comforting. "Any progress?" he asked, and wanted to kick himself.
Steve's shoulders reared back, like he was facing off against someone on a battlefield. "No."
Tony made to set down his coffee and look over Steve's shoulder – a cunning strategy that involved leaving it there for Steve to find when he came out of his focus-funk – only to have Steve sweep away from him. It left Tony in front of the pictures and data charts, but now he had no reasonable way of putting down the coffee. And with Steve hunched and stiff to his left, he didn't know that taking in those clues was what he was supposed to do at the moment. He moved to Steve, touched his shoulder. "Hey. We'll find–"
"I don't need your pity, Stark!" Steve rolled his shoulder, pushing Tony back. The coffee splashed onto his hand, and he hissed at the burn of it. Steve saw and hung his head. He scrubbed at his face. "All I need is for you to help find him. That's all."
Tony nodded. He stood there for a bit longer, not sure what to do. Leaving, however, felt wrong. All Steve's lashing out told him was that he really was at the end of his rope. He shouldn't be left alone during this. "We'll find him, Steve." Not to note that they were looking for one man on the entire surface of the planet, or that said man was a known assassin, and thus had a tiny bit of experience in not being seen. "We won't stop looking."
"Fine." Something rippled down Steve's back. Tony heard him take a deep breath, those frozen shoulders slowly rising and falling. "I need to get back to work."
In other words, go away. Tony carefully set down the coffee. "Yeah. No problem. I'll see if there's anything else I can try." Even though there wasn't. He turned to go as Steve moved to take his place in front of the Bucky Board again.
Tony whipped around at the tone, surprise and, he couldn't deny it, a flash of hope fluttering in his chest. Until he saw Steve holding up the mug. "You forgot your coffee."
Tony blinked. "Right." He came to take it.
"Don't leave that stuff here. It could mess up the systems."
It was in Tony to remind Steve that they were Tony's systems, that even if he hadn't safeguarded against such measures, he certainly could fix them. It was also in him to remind Steve that he had food and drink around his own monitors every day, and he never flipped out about it, because he knew better than to think that Tony Stark engineering could be foiled by water, for gods' sakes. But he clamped his lips shut. Steve was hurting, and he was frustrated, and let's face it, Tony was a freaking disaster when he got like that. It wasn't surprising that Steve was the same. He was human, too, despite the spangly butt he sometimes showed the world. "Right."
He left again. It would do no good to go back to looking for Bucky, but it was apparently the only way he could help.
The mouse survived. Probably.
They weren't sure, but its heart rate was fine, and though Bruce certainly couldn't match the mouse's brain patterns to Tony's, he could be reasonably certain it was dreaming. Mice had been found dreaming before, apparently, and even found to perform better in mazes after having done so. As if Steve cared about that in the slightest.
Every time he closed his eyes now, even if it was just to blink, he saw Tony's limp form in the middle of the hospital bed. Tony still hadn't woken. He wouldn't. Not until they got him out of whatever Maple had gotten him into.
He had to take several deep breaths, but he managed to keep himself under control. "Do you accept your tests' results?"
Bruce frowned down at the mouse in its small glass case. Steve, despite not being practically bonded to the hip with the man like Tony, could see what was clearly concern, simply from the furrowing of those bushy brows. "I'm so uncomfortable with this, I can't even say for sure. All I know is that the mouse is down, it's probably dreaming, and it definitely has something to do with the contraption Dr. Maple put together."
"Doctor," Clint said with a snort. He was supposed to be resting, letting Natasha take point with Tony's body until Steve went down, something Banner had talked him into. But here he was, standing with Steve. Not like Steve could say anything; neither he nor Dr. Banner had taken a break, either. "So, what? We just stick Steve in this and hope for the best?"
"Tony has been under its influence for nearly twenty-four hours," Steve said, his teeth sawing at each other. "We have no idea what's happening to him, or how long it will take before anything outwardly changes in him, for better or for worse, without our interference. Dr. Banner. After you set me up with the machine, I want you to continue doing everything you can to figure out what's happened and how to reverse it."
Bruce nodded. "Of course."
"Clint. You're on guard detail with Tony. When Natasha gets here, tell her that, whatever happens, she is to protect Bruce, myself, and that machine. Don't worry about Thor; if he shows up, Natasha will direct him here. Understood?"
Clint nodded, stroking his bow thoughtfully. "And if something comes for Tony?"
Steve stared at the strange machine on Bruce's lab table. "Keep it from getting to him."
Clint sighed. "Roger that, Rogers." He quirked a grin.
Steve headed to the empty table, sweeping up the mouse's cage and putting it gently on the floor. The metal of the table creaked slightly as it took his weight. He stared at the ceiling, and its whiteness reminded him of Tony's hospital room. "I'm ready."
"I'm not," Bruce muttered, so low under his breath even Steve could hardly hear it. Then the man hefted the device and pointed it at Steve. "Are you sure about this?"
Tony was trapped, unable to escape whatever it was Maple had done to him. "Yes."
He couldn't even say it made a sound, or that it flashed a color. Even though he'd known it wouldn't after watching Banner use it on the mouse, still it felt strange to be perfectly fine and wide awake one moment, only to have his eyes slip closed the next. He felt his heart rate evening out, his breath slide into a gentle rhythm. And then he felt himself slide down something, into something. Around something. And when he opened his eyes, he saw himself standing, not in Bruce Banner's lab in the tower, but in its gym.
He was remembering. And he wished, desperately wished, he wasn't.
"Steve." Steve kept punching the damn bag like it would give up its weapons and the lost children of the Pied Piper if he just beat it enough. "Can we talk?"
"Oh? You want to talk suddenly?"
Tony grimaced. And now Steve's punches were starting to echo the pounding preparing to flare behind his eyes. "We were in public, and you were getting up in arms over me kissing Lindsey Perrigan."
"Yes, far be it from me to take offense at you kissing someone," Steve snapped. He punched the bag hard enough to finally break it. Grains of sand slid out in a trickle, then in a tiny waterfall. Tony sighed. He had no idea how to reinforce a freaking punching bag, which meant Steve went through them like water. Steve practically ripped the thing from its chains and tossed it across the gym, leaving a bread crumb trail of sand in its wake. He turned and grabbed one of the back-up bags he had leaning against the wall, apparently in preparation for his own lack of self-control.
"It was a greeting!" Tony said. "High society does it all the time."
"On the lips?" Steve said. Not asked. Said. The chains of the new bag clanked as he set it in place.
"Yes." Steve sent him a disappointed, disapproving look. But it was true. It was shown on television to only be the cheek, but yes, sometimes it was on the lips. A light peck, little more than another country's way of saying hello. It meant nothing. He tried to explain the same to Steve, only to get Steve to send that short look back to him on full-blast.
"You refuse to see it, don't you?" And the man sighed. "It may mean nothing to you, Tony, but it means a lot to me. Kissing is something you do with your... special someone. You may do it casually, but I don't."
Tony took the blow straight to the gut, his breath leaving him suddenly. He hoped his face didn't betray him.
"Now that you're in a relationship with me, don't you think you should consider other ways to greet 'high society'?"
Yes. Maybe he should have. He staggered back a short step despite himself, not knowing where to go from there. Steve just turned back to his exercise, cutting Tony out and ending the conversation. Tony had nothing to say. Steve was right; how hard would it have been to turn the kiss into one on the cheek? Or to even let her hang for a bit, just long enough to realize a kiss wasn't forthcoming? He could have charmed her from her upset. It wouldn't have been impossible. But he hadn't looked to these alternatives, because he'd just... what? Become so accustomed to handing out kisses like his false compliments, as if they meant nothing? They were just a greeting; they meant nothing. Wasn't that exactly what he'd just thought? Of course Steve would be upset about that. The man had hardly kissed anyone at all. He'd even only kissed Tony a handful of times, and those kisses were usually similar to what Tony had given to Miss Perrigan last night. Here Steve was, girding himself up for physical intimacy with his first man, and Tony went and gave that exact same level of intimacy to a woman he hardly knew.
He left Steve to pound his frustration into the bag and vowed to not let it happen again.
Steve had never, not once, seen such an expression on Tony's face as that. Yet even as he felt his mind float amongst what seemed almost to be a movie strip, he recognized the scene as a memory. Not a dream. Not a nightmare conglomeration of Tony's worst fears. At first he'd thought he'd drifted into something different, some strange headspace of his own. Perhaps he had, still. He would never want to think that Tony had made such an expression because of him.
But it wasn't all he could see. There was so much more. He saw parts of Tony light up in bright red lights, with others a much, much softer blue. Almost white. Like the arc reactor had been. Others were light purple, and more were a deep brown, almost black. The red was what was lit up now, and somehow he knew it was pain. The black had been fear, and had been accessed already. As if Tony was some sort of dresser, and each color-coded drawer opened up to something within him. Memories. Musings. Thoughts. He could hear them echoing around him, even as he floated without form in the room. He was nothing but thoughts living in Tony's mind.
And as he watched, someone opened up that red drawer, one of those many, many red dots, and they were no longer in the gym watching Tony leave him to pound his frustrations into yet another punching bag. Instead they stood in their bedroom – Steve's bedroom, because he'd felt insecure in the idea of taking Tony's, of encroaching on his space and trying to worm his way into Tony's life the way he'd somehow wormed his way into this time period. Tony looked at Steve's bed, then at the door. He licked his lips. Even as nothing but some sort of intangible energy, Steve still felt a sudden heat in his groin.
"Tony, are you even listening to me?"
Tony winced. Steve – the Steve standing in front of him, in a memory Steve himself could not recall – was turned away, toward the New York skyline. "What you did today was reckless and stupid."
Tony closed his eyes. "Probably."
Steve sent Tony a Look. He himself recognized it; Bucky had given him shit for it a few times, when he'd looked at the Commandos like they'd kicked a litter of puppies. He saw the effect it had on Tony; he arched his shoulders back, but even that couldn't fully hide the flinch. He didn't know if the him that day noticed it or not; he'd turned back to the window, to the rolling mountains of skyscrapers and the twinkling lights that made the night seem like perpetual twilight. "You say that like it's unimportant."
"I got the job done."
"You nearly got Clint killed!"
"I caught him!" Tony said, and for the life of him, Steve couldn't even place what battle they were talking about. Tony and Clint did stupid aerobatic shit in battle all the time.
"And if you'd missed?" he asked.
"But I didn't! We calculated the risk beforehand; we did simulations in the gym–"
"Without once telling me?"
Steve hardly recognized the man in front of him, the one masquerading as himself. Then he saw the clenched fists, the trembling limbs, and he realized that, whatever Tony and Clint had done that day, he'd thought Tony was in danger from it. It served as only a slight balm; for Tony, it clearly only meant that he was very, very angry. Tony's gaze caught on the trembling limbs, as well, but while Steve was soothed by it, he certainly was not. Every muscle in his body went stiff. "Why would I need to tell you? I practice with the others all the time. I got Thor to shoot his lightning at me; you haven't said anything about that."
The trembling got worse. Steve stepped into Tony's space. Tony bent his head back to keep his gaze on Steve and didn't back away. "That's bad enough! And I know how it ends, since he already tried it on you when we first met him. We knew what would happen this time, as well. But that stunt you pulled? We knew nothing about that. Talking about it isn't the same as doing it, Tony! And in the middle of a battle against Hydra? What were you thinking?"
"I don't," Tony said. Steve heard the bitterness in his voice clear as day. "Isn't that what you want me to say?"
"It's not what I want you to say, Tony, it's the truth! For all your brains, couldn't you see the risk you took?"
Tony threw his head up. His fingers, however, trembled. Steve – the one in the memory – caught the challenge, but not the rest. "It worked," Tony said. Steve would have thought it stubborn if that damn brownish-black color wasn't rearing up all over him. Fear. Fear.
And then Steve stood toe to toe with him, looming over him with his added height, using his bulk to cage Tony in. And Tony's breath caught in his throat.
Steve knew that look. He knew that look. That was the look he himself had right before being pulled into the back alley of a theater.
"Just because something works doesn't make it right," Memory Steve said, even though, suddenly, Steve wanted nothing more than for that him to shut up. "You think the end always justifies the means, don't you?" Tony flinched. Memory Steve pressed on. "You think, so long as things turn out all right, that's all that matters. But the way you go about getting that result alters the world around you just as much. If you take stupid risks thinking it'll just work out, how much longer before you or someone takes another big risk, hoping for the same? How long until another Killian?"
It was a low blow. Steve could see how the old him, the one down there yelling at Tony, recognized that fact. But of course it was too late; Tony reared back, taking the hit to the chin the way Memory Steve – the way Steve himself, because that was him down there, all of it – had wanted him to. Tony's chest didn't move. He wasn't breathing.
The other him – the him from the past – just stood there, glaring down at Tony like he was little more than grime on his shoe. And Tony... Tony said nothing in his defense. He said nothing at all. A deep, deep orange rose in him, spots that meshed and molded with the red and brownish-black. He wasn't sure what it was until – something flickered in Tony's gaze, just for an instant. And how could Steve not recognize the face of someone who wanted to take it back, who wanted to turn his head in shame, when it was what he himself felt right then?
Self-aggrandizing. Self-hate. That was what that color meant.
The sound nearly made Steve jump, if only he could; while he felt himself as little more than a viewer through a tv screen, he was suddenly aware that he wasn't the only one watching. Whoever had opened that drawer in Tony was seeing this, as well. And they liked what they saw. Steve could feel it, as if from a distance: a sick thrill not unlike triumph. It was sadistic.
Maple, Steve thought. Because who else could it be?
He didn't even know what the man wanted or what he was after, only that he was finding ways to hurt Tony and he was enjoying it. That alone was enough for Steve to want to punch his face down into the dirt, to shove him against a wall until he bled. Until he couldn't stop bleeding.
And then he felt Maple's awareness of him, a ripple of shock in the air above Tony, who finally caught a breath of air into his lungs and said, "I'm not dealing with this," and turned to walk away.
"Of course you won't," Memory Steve said, even as Steve mentally shouted at himself to shut up. "You never deal with anything, do you? You just wing it and try to pick up the pieces when you fail."
From Steve's vantage point, he could see what the old him had not: Tony closing his eyes, slowly, his face crumbling. His shoulders stayed straight, a feat more likely learned from always being in the spotlight. But black and red and blood-orange burned bright in him just the same.
Too much, Steve realized suddenly. It was too much. Tony could be trapped in this memory forever. He knew it the instant Maple moved to act on it; as if the energy that made them who they were was tangled together. As if he, unlike the actors on the screen, could hear Maple shouting simply because he sat beside him on the sofa. Tony was being forced to live these moments because a man crippled by his own mind couldn't be a threat to anyone save himself. Because, if Maple managed to destroy Tony, he would not only have one Avenger taken out of the picture, but he could also have at least one other, all the other Avengers circling around him, and Maple knew how to reverse the effects of the machine, to get himself back into his own mind – and though, for an instant, Steve had the chance to know that, as well, he let it go to follow the thread of thought that led to Maple's plan.
Destroy Tony from within. Trap him within his worst circle of hell. Then, when Maple returned to his own body, he could find the other Avengers. If he had the opportunity, he would jump into their minds, as well. Yes, they now knew how to follow after him, but they didn't have his knowledge, and they could do little to stop him from destroying their minds, too. Especially after he mastered the art with Tony.
And if he couldn't? Well, then he would just have to tell them all what he'd seen. What he'd done. If nothing else, Captain America – Steve Rogers – could be thrown by the knowledge that it was through him, through Tony's memories of the man himself, that Tony had been lost.
Steve's heart twisted, even as it thudded dully in his chest. He and Tony had been together for so long now. Over a year. And yet this was how he made Tony feel? Why did Tony stay with him? How could he?
He felt the thrill of Maple's triumph expanding as he realized just who it was who had followed him into Tony's mind. Maple thought he'd already won, that Steve was already falling into a similar type of despair.
No. He wouldn't let this happen. If he let Maple take Tony away, how could he ever make up for giving these memories to him in the first place?
If Maple could alter what Tony saw – open those proverbial drawers – then Steve should be able to do the same.
He searched the strange lights blinking on and off in Tony like nerve synapses. And he reached. Past the dark inkiness and the bright blood, past the sickly sweet orange. Until he found, near where Tony's arc reactor had been, a small spot of that blue-white light. He had no idea what to do with it; he had no hands with which to grab, no muscles with which to pull. So he tried to infuse what he wanted into the world around him. It was a dream, for heaven's sake. He should be able to control something within it.
There was no reaching in the literal sense, just a sort of pushing of his senses, like the zooming of a camera, as if he could control which parts of the movie the cameras focused on. And when he did, when he got close enough to see clearly that one small speck of bright blue-white light? Warmth. Hope. This was the part of Tony that drew him in every time; the belief that anything, everything, was possible. The mind that saw the world in a million dazzling crystals, each one a possibility still within grasp. This was the Tony who built. Who created. Who moved forward.
Steve reached for that, made that his focal point. And as he demanded the cameras to zoom in on that one small speck, he found himself opening a door.
This moment had happened before.
Tony gasped awake, shaking so badly he thought for a moment it must be unseasonably cold in his tower. He opened his mouth to call for Jarvis, then remembered that he was gone now. Gone, never to return. Because Tony had sacrificed him to create the Vision. The thought just made it all the harder to not think of those days, of that cave, of another man Tony had sacrificed in order to chase down his ideal of a better future. Or just to chase down some sort of freedom. Something. He was shaking too hard to think.
He felt the bed dip as Steve rolled over, and he held his breath to try to keep his gasps from waking him up.
But Steve had the damn serum in him, and Tony was pretty sure it meant the man could hear a kitten fart from about ten miles away, so why did he even bother?
"Tony." And Steve pulled Tony into a loose embrace. "Space or cave?" he asked.
"Cave," Tony said, and Steve's arm loosened a bit more. Tony gripped Steve's hand hard. There was no hand like his. Large, yet finely tapered; callused, yet soft and gentle. Every touch careful, every gesture cognizant of its potential to harm. Steve's free hand touched his back gently, little more than a caress. The touch was nothing like anything he received in the cave, and that brought him a little further out. Steve, interrupted from his sleep in the middle of the night, slowly traced the muscles of his back, the line of his waist, until Tony was calm enough to allow a touch on his arm, a breath of a kiss on the top of his head. He shuddered out a sigh. "Sorry."
"No." Steve nuzzled Tony's neck. "Don't be sorry. Never be sorry for surviving, whatever that entails."
It was what Steve always said when he apologized for waking him with his problems. As if Tony living was the most important part of all this mess. As if that would be the one thing Steve wouldn't forgive. Couldn't live with. It was a warm, heady feeling. He didn't think anyone had ever said anything like that to him before Steve. He wasn't sure how long it took, but his heart rate finally calmed. With one last deep breath, he said, "thank you."
"I'm with you," Steve said. Not accepting the thanks, but not dumb enough to try to argue with Tony about it, either. And then he kissed Tony's neck. "I'm with you, Tony."
Tony grinned. "Till the end of the line?"
It might have been too close to home, but Steve just huffed a small laugh into Tony's skin. It was warm and wet, and it made Tony shiver. "This isn't a battlefield, Tony. It's just wherever you go, I go, too."
Tony wasn't positive what he did then. He knew he grabbed for more of Steve, because it was suddenly imperative that he feel Steve around him, on him. And he thought, maybe – and he didn't ever want to be quoted on this – but he was fairly positive he whimpered. A little bit. "What if I wanted to go on a vacation in the middle of something really, really important?"
Steve leaned back, his blue eyes hooded beneath furrowed brows. "Why would you want to do that?"
Tony ignored the question and just curled his fingers around those broad shoulders, feeling the cord of muscles hidden beneath Steve's skin. "Would you come with me then?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Is this a reference?" And then, when Steve apparently saw that Tony was, despite the seeming inanity of the question, completely serious, he frowned and said, "yes. Because I know you wouldn't ask it lightly."
Something popped in his chest. In his head. Behind his eyes. In every single muscle in his body. And he slumped bonelessly in Steve's arms. Steve just kept staring at him like Tony had made one too many pop culture references and just left Steve in the dust. "You would?" he asked again, because he may have been a genius, but he was apparently a very needy one.
"Of course. You would never make such a demand without reason." Something flickered in Steve's gaze, and he pushed a thin lock of hair from Tony's forehead. His hand cupped Tony' cheek and jaw – his hand was just that big. "Is this a reference?" he asked quietly.
Tony's lips twitched into a small smile. "More like an answer."
Perhaps the problem with Pepper was that, while she would always accept him as he was, she would likely always expect the old Tony. The Tony from Before. The one he could no longer be. Maybe that was why they'd never stood a chance.
For better or worse, this was who he was now. It wasn't possible to be anyone else. And this person, this man who was both Tony Stark and Iron Man, and couldn't disengage the two from each other, couldn't be just Tony Stark for Pepper – Tony Stark, the man who sometimes became Iron Man. Here, with Steve, he could be Tony Stark, Iron Man. One and the same. The man who saw the cave as more than just a survival story, who saw the cave as a place where Tony was, and Tony came out, and Tony fought before and after, but had to fight harder within. Like – it was impossible to explain. But the cave was not a place he'd been holed up in and had escaped. The cave was just Tony's first impossible battle – the first battle Tony had entered where he might not exit.
While Tony had always thought of it as the start of Iron Man, Steve called it his "awakening." And that was such a difference, such a monumental difference, that in the end, Steve would go on a vacation with Tony when there was something much more important going on. Even if he didn't understand why, because he trusted Tony to be good enough to need a reason.
He took a deep breath. Another. Another, even though he didn't need them anymore, just because it felt good and Steve's scent wrapped itself around his senses when he did. Steve wouldn't blow him off when it counted.
He clenched his eyes shut. Steve held him close, not asking the questions that likely burned in his mind, and just let Tony rest.
Before Steve, he'd never been able to get back to sleep after one of the dreams.
Tony's colors had evened out; while the red dots of pain still gathered along the edges, the blackish brown had all but disappeared. The orange-red of Tony's self-hate were almost all gone, too. Instead he was infused with the blue-white light, and something light, a yellowish-pink, that he was certain Tony would disavow having any part of if he were able. Steve felt Maple move to attack Tony again, and he reached for one of those many, many lights, not allowing himself to time to wonder at Tony's strength, at his loyalty and trust, to have that one small spark of light lead to another memory of Steve, of all people. After Steve had just witnessed Tony's terror and pain when in Steve's presence.
He felt the world shift slightly as he moved through the myriad of lights, not knowing which to pick and finding a strange difficulty in picking them apart. He found opening one drawer to be like opening several others, as if strings attached each handle to one another. He saw a glimpse of Tony and him in the kitchen, smiling and laughing as they waited for Tony's coffee to finish brewing, and at the same time, he saw Tony nursing a beer at the table as Steve fixed them dinner. He saw them flying together back to the tower after a battle, and also saw them sitting on its roof eating breakfast and talking about training the new Avengers. He saw Tony grab his shoulder to laugh and felt his hand pat his shoulder in fake commiseration. He thought he could almost feel Tony's fingers on his skin. The shock of it sent him reeling. Something opened, and broke through, and one of the drawers shoved open, pulling countless others with them. And he felt Maple in the air around him, around Tony, trapped and oblivious in the memories they were forcing him to relive like puppet masters. And Maple felt like he'd found a way to victory.
Steve's heart jumped to his throat. Tony.
Tony frowned. He'd been hopping from one memory to another, worse and worse and then better, a Tarantino film of his life, primarily his life with Steve since becoming an Avenger. But now, like a cut film strip, he found himself standing in the middle of something white, an empty space in some void, or like one of those cartoons where the setting fell apart, leaving nothing at all. He felt like Daffy Duck, too, trying desperately to fill a role with nothing to tell him how he should act. He stood for a moment, wondering just what was going on.
It was the emptiness that gave him some sort of trickle of awareness for the first time in a very, very long time. He finally realized he should have woken up a long time ago. The dream of the cave alone should have done it, and if not that, then surely the dream of the end of the world, of Steve dying in his arms. But those hadn't even run their usual course before veering into some soap opera Best Hits rendition of his not-romance with Steve. It was unnatural.
Why was he sleeping so deeply? Was he in a coma or something?
That didn't sound right. But he did remember fighting. Finding some Hydra gents who had squirreled away. They'd managed to find the agents with the scepter, but that hadn't meant – not by a long shot – that Hydra was just gone, done. They'd gone to a base. Tony remembered that part very vividly. Steve had gotten on him about keeping on the comms, about not taking risks. About following the rules, "just once, Tony, if you could." He'd decided that only babies followed the orders of a clucking mother hen and... what had happened?
They'd fought. Not him and Steve – probably only because Steve would never fight before a mission, or during a mission, or whatever. But they hadn't been the ones to fight. Tony had moved away from the group. It was easier to not be bitter or feel trapped if he wasn't sticking close to Steve. When he stayed near Cap, he felt like he couldn't fight. He felt like he had to constantly play nice for Steve's sake, and that did nothing but get him hit. Which, inevitably, made Steve angry with him all over again. Better to run off and get yelled at a little bit than stick around and get yelled at a lot.
Which wasn't fair to Steve, because he was fairly certain everything that happened afterward was probably a direct result of him not following orders.
Because things had gone wrong. He'd been hit, and he didn't even know what it had been that had hit him. He'd been trying to get a reading on the weird little device when suddenly Friday had warned him that something – and that had been her response, something – was coming at him.
And then he'd been hit by it, and he had fallen into... into the dreams.
He opened his mouth to order Friday to do... something. Even though he wasn't sure where the hell he was or what the hell was going on, or even if Friday would be able to hear him if he did speak – but it didn't matter. Just like the cartoons had backgrounds just painted onto the screen, there was one showing up right in front of him – the cave again. It sent a shiver of fear up his spine, but it was nothing compared to the feeling of some sort of fog rolling in. He could feel his memories of what had happened slipping away, being replaced by the constant fear and desperate anger he'd felt in Afghanistan. He sucked in a breath, tried to formulate some sort of cohesive awareness of what had happened and what was happening... a dream, or a vision, or a trick.
Instead his mind focused on the cave, on the echoing sound of feet outside the room he and Yinsen had been trapped in. And where was Yinsen? Even as a part of him recognized this wasn't real, the rest of him fell, until the knowledge was just in the back of his head, as if he truly were dreaming and simply aware that it was a dream. But it felt wrong. This wasn't how it happened. There hadn't been footsteps before the whole torture gig; he'd stood right in front of the bastard before he'd had his men grab Tony up and take him to the water bucket. And there was always, in the back of his mind, at the very least, a knowledge that Yinsen was around somewhere (although sometimes his mind would act like he was already dead) and the heavy feel of a car battery cradled in his hands. This had neither of those things.
And then the footsteps stopped, and Tony turned to find... Steve. By the metal door that had once caged him and Yinsen. He almost laughed. What the hell was going on?
And then there was the man who'd held the strange device, face furious, hands outstretched like he had been reaching for something. He snarled, his thin face contorting. "How did you manage this?" the man asked. He wasn't looking at Tony. Which made sense, probably, because Tony didn't remember doing much of anything.
"We were nothing because we'd chosen to be nothing," Steve said, his words making no sense at all. Steve walked forward, toward Tony. Facing, still, the man who'd shot him. Steve placed one gentle hand on his shoulder. On his other formed his shield. "We chose to hide in the background and watch. But if we choose instead to come forward, and to make others come forward, we can choose tangibility." Steve shrugged. "Apparently."
Tony frowned. "What?"
"I'll explain," Steve said, though, when he turned to look at Tony, he did not meet his eyes. Alarms banged around in Tony's head.
"You – you used it to make him conjure us?" the man asked, and though he sounded livid, he also sounded very interested. Dangerously interested.
"You're going to get out of his mind," Steve said, and something flickered along Tony's consciousness. This wasn't a dream. He knew this wasn't a dream, because his dreams may be sort of cracked – the normal ones, not the ones that stank of memories – but he was pretty sure this was not his mind's version of cracked. For instance, he usually hated magic and woke immediately at any sign of its existence.
Also, he could actually hear the conversation. He looked down at the floor. Nothing but his feet. He looked up. Then back down. Still nothing. Still just his feet.
Okay. Not a dream, then.
The man cocked his head and smirked. It made his lips, which had been just on the side of too large, look just right. The look, however, was still not a pretty one. "Get out? I have no idea how."
"Yes, you do." Steve sounded so certain, Tony almost missed the tiny tell, the minute shifting of his fingers on the grip of his shield, that said he wasn't sure. "That machine of yours wouldn't leave you trapped if you found yourself in need of an escape. You might find that fun with others, but not with yourself."
"Then you leave!" And the man turned on Tony.
Tony didn't see or feel anything out of the ordinary – the man hadn't even moved; he was just glaring at him like he could turn into Cyclops if he just tried hard enough – but Steve suddenly snatched his wrist and yanked him behind him. "Come on!"
Tony turned. The metal door of the cave opened up beneath Steve's fingers without a single squeak. Without the grating whine of metal over rock. And outside was not a corridor of hollowed rock or the hot Afghanistan heat, but a recess of stairs sheltered by walls of sleek metal and light paint. He recognized that recess. The stairs were not a part he usually walked, but he was known to do so. Rarely. Usually at the behest of the man beside him, who would use it as a training exercise or a warm-up. Tony stared at the walls. They did not belong there.
"Tony!" But instead of turning to Steve, Tony looked back to the man. His shooter still hadn't moved, but suddenly Steve was shouting again and – and when Tony saw a discrepancy from the corner of his eye, he dipped his head down and stared at his armor. Which was now on him.
"Move!" And Steve pulled him toward the stairs. He nearly tripped before he managed to get his feet underneath him. Tony opened his mouth to demand some sort of explanation – and oh, how he hoped it wasn't magic, please, please don't let it be magic – and Steve said, "you were hit by Maple's machine. It's trapped you within your own mind. He shot himself, and I came after him. Both of us are within your mind somehow. I don't know; you can figure it all out once we're out of here."
Here. Being his mind. He looked back down at his armor, suddenly on him when it had not been before. It had not been his mind which had materialized the suit onto him. "I'm not in control of what I see, am I?"
"No," Steve said, and Tony tried to remember just what he'd been dreaming about. It felt foggy; he knew what he'd dreamed, but it was like looking back on year-old memories. What he did remember, however, left him cold. "He targeted your worst memories. It's only through those that we can do anything. I guess dreams are linked to them; I think Dr. Banner had been saying something similar. It doesn't matter right now."
The stairs just went and went and went, and there were no doors on either side of them. "If you're controlling my mind, then at least get me to my lab!"
"I'm not controlling your mind," Steve hissed. His gaze was slightly unfocused, and a crease between his brows spoke of concentration. "But keeping him away is taking too much effort, and I don't have the time to search for your memory of something so innocuous as the door that leads to your lab!"
"How exactly are you keeping him away?" Tony asked, unable to keep himself from looking over his shoulder. He found he could see things as if using his own eyes, even though he felt the armor around his head. Shoddy workmanship, Steve.
"I took the door away," Steve said. "He's trapped in a tangible space. So long as I keep your memory of the cave even slightly opened, he's trapped there."
Tony really didn't know what to think of that. "Okay, so instead of just running, maybe we could stand still for a minute? Since, if we ever do get to 'conjuring the door,' the long hallway will just disappear? I think."
Steve did stop then, which was nice. But he stopped abruptly, which made Tony slam into the man. Which brought on a very strange mixture of the feel of the armor brushing up against the wall of friction, a pressure notice that didn't show up on a scanner because the scanners weren't there, and also the feel of Steve's uniform against his thin clothing, almost skin to skin, even though he was in his armor. The mixed signals made his brain fry.
Steve turned to him. "Tony. You have to wake up."
Tony's face scrunched. "Fairly positive you might want to elaborate on what's going on, let alone how you expect me to do that."
Steve's brows furrowed, and his mouth tilted into a deep frown. Tony recognized that look, and it made him shiver. Steve yanked his hand from Tony's like it burned, his face contorting into something almost like horror. "No, I'm not angry," he said. Steve actually had his hands out in a sign of surrender. Pointed at him. "That's not what I meant. I just – there has to be a way. Maple is certain that, if you wake up, we'll be snapped back out, as well. That's what we need. But you've been asleep for a long time, over a day now. You're right to think it won't be so easy to bring you back to consciousness."
Tony shivered again. Whatever was going on, he was out of the loop. He looked back behind them, only to see the neverending staircase of oblivion winding its way up and up and up. "What's going on, Steve?" he asked, his voice low. He looked back down at his body. "And why did you give me my armor?"
"You feel safe in it," Steve said, and Tony's brain flipped all over itself. That was Steve mentioning an emotion other than duty. And he was doing it without that stiff look of a man being tortured for information. Tony cleared his throat, but Steve continued before he had to ask his question again. "Maple's device sent you into a catatonic state. I don't know enough of the mechanics or the biology to explain it properly, but we're in your subconsciousness. Maple shot himself after shooting you, likely putting his machine on a different setting so he could, instead of falling into his own mind, fall into yours, instead. We couldn't find a way to bring you back, so I had the others shoot me with the machine, as well."
"You idiot!" Tony said, but Steve just rolled right past him.
"I can't really say what was happening at first. I was only aware of being... present in your nightmares with you, able to see what you saw. What you experienced."
Tony flushed horribly, his mind frantically tracing back through the foggy memories to see just what it was Steve must have witnessed. And he remembered memory after memory of being with Steve, of being in a relationship with the man that felt more like an imprisonment than anything else, as if he was constantly on trial, waiting for Steve's verdict. And every day, he would have to go through it again and again, waiting for the day when Steve would turn to him and say, "no, not good enough," and would turn away from him. Because there was nothing in him as good as Captain America, as Steve Rogers, and someday, someday soon, Steve would realize it, too.
Steve was now looking at Tony, but it was more like he was staring at something behind him, as if he could see straight through him and was staring at something around chest height. Tony looked behind himself again. "But I can see – they look like different colors to me. I'm sure there's probably another explanation for that. Ask Banner. Or, well, maybe a doctor?" Steve shrugged. "And I just know what they are, because if I... get close enough to them, I can feel whatever emotion they evoke. Or are. Or carry. I don't know." He scrunched his face up in that classic 'I want to know and it pisses me off that I don't' Captain America frustrated-with-the-twenty-first-century face.
Then Tony finally caught what it was Steve had actually said and paled. "You can read my mind?!"
"No! No." Steve held up his hands and shook his head. He blew out a breath. "That's not what I mean at all. I can see – it's like I can see how things around you – how you react to them. Emotionally. That's all."
"That's all?" Tony choked, thinking hazily back to those previous nightmares. Memories. All he could remember was that they were the ones that clawed back to him whenever he thought of their relationship, whenever he wondered if things were going well or not. Things he found following him everywhere he went. They'd all been specific instances, but normally they just conglomerated into a giant ball of 'failing.' Their relationship was failing. Because he wasn't enough.
"Tony." Steve grabbed his hand. It brought on that confusing mix of inside-the-suit not-inside-the-suit, and it flustered Tony enough to just stand there like an idiot. "Don't. We... can discuss this once you're safe." And Steve's gaze darted to the wall.
Oh. Well. Oh. He must have... seen something. The inside of Tony, the things he had tried so desperately to hide so that they could work. But whatever this was, whatever Steve was seeing, he was getting a clear glimpse of it all. Wonderful.
It wasn't like he hadn't been counting down the days. Waiting for the moment, that horrible moment when Steve would see one too many things, get disappointed one too many times. Tony kept his breathing even by sheer force of will. He could do this. It wouldn't be any worse than every single other time it had ever happened to him. People left him. People got disappointed in him. Because he could do better, but he didn't. There was something wrong with him.
Steve squeezed his hand. "Stop," he said, and it sounded like a plea. Captain America's face was contorted into something like pain.
Tony looked behind him again, pulling his free hand up to repulsor something. It was instinct more than anything else; he was fairly positive anything he tried wouldn't work. If these two really could manipulate his own mind at the moment, then the enemy being in range would likely just make his repulsors worthless, or take away his suit, or maybe just make him think he was in unimaginable pain. Or, he thought with a sudden queasiness that made his insides churn, they could just pull out the memory of Obadiah taking out his arc reactor.
If he died in his dreams – so long as the dreams weren't even dreams, and were something else, though they still occurred in his mind – would he die in real life?
Dying from a dream was something he'd actually told himself, over and over again, that he couldn't do. So much for that.
If he survived this, it would probably be added to the list of nightmares he had.
A nightmare about a nightmare. Ugh.
"How did you normally wake up?" Steve asked, as if that meant anything. "We'll try that first."
Tony cocked a brow at that; hadn't they been down this road? "I usually panic and wake up," he said. "I've done the first here, but not the second."
Steve nodded absently at the last part, as if he already knew. Which he did, because apparently Tony was sparkling different-colored emotes at the man. Tony ground his teeth. "There has to be a way."
"Maybe it's through the glitter vibes I'm throwing at you," he said, wishing he could snap his damn jaw shut when Steve's eyes lit.
"That makes sense. There's no other reason for me to be able to focus on your emotions like this, and to do it so intuitively."
And then there was that creepy staring again, as, Tony could only assume, Steve started looking through his emoticons for the 'gtfo' gif. Tony stiffened like a board.
"This is hard," Steve said, scrunching his face. "I need to focus on keeping Maple away... can you think of anything mechanically that could do this sort of thing?"
"I don't know enough about biometrics," Tony said, a line he'd felt he'd said far too many times in his life. Maybe it was time for a little light reading. "Did you try pressing the red button?"
Steve shot him a dirty look. Tony's heart might have wibbled a bit. Not much. Hardly at all.
The look disappeared.
Jesus, Steve was seeing everything.
"I don't know how to wake you up, or how to wake myself up, though," Steve said, his face scrunching as he hurriedly returned to his aura search. Or whatever.
"If you don't know how to get out, why the hell did you come in? How did you not manage to think that one through?"
"You were in danger," Steve said. As if that meant anything. As if, to him, it meant everything, and it was as simple as that. Tony's heart fluttered in his chest. He really, really hoped Steve hadn't seen that. Like a toddler getting praised by his parents. Geez. "There! That – that felt right. For a second. I think..." Then Steve flushed and looked up. "Tony. If you wanted to make an escape, and you only had the means of another's emotions, how would you go about it?"
"What is this, Fantasyland?" Tony groused. But, well, ever since he'd donned the suit, this had somehow managed to become his life. "Look, there's only one part of the human brain, by and large, in charge of emotions. It's tagged into every other, sure, but the amygdala is just one part. Whatever he used, it would have needed to affect that, right? Just so he could get an accurate read on, uh, whatever it is you're seeing." Tony waved a vaguely gauntleted hand, though he had no idea what it was supposed to encompass. "Shutting emotions off without damaging the brain is virtually impossible. Manipulating these emotions is far easier, and has actually been done."
Steve frowned. "It has?"
"Yup. People's anxiety has been increased, their defensiveness has been decreased, so on." Tony waved that all away. "Manipulating a person's mind from the outside has already been shown to be feasible. From the inside is, clearly, just as feasible. But that likely only gains a person greater access to their dreams, since it's natural to feel emotions during them. I think... if I were to make some sort of escape hatch, it would be through an obscure emotion, but one that often leads to wakefulness."
"There are emotions that are more common in dreams than others. Fear, obviously. Anxiety, I think, and anger. Neglect. Happiness, too, I think, though probably less common." Or maybe just less common for him.
"But yours were memories, not dreams," Steve said. He eyed the stairwell behind Tony, his face pensive.
"Shush," Tony said, thinking. "They're still from my subconsciousness, according to you, so they're like dreams. Only much more accurate." And then he realized he could have written off anything Steve had seen while inside his mind and wanted to smack himself. He hurried through that, hoping Steve didn't... well, he just tried to hurry through it before Steve could anything. "Obviously, it would have to be something you'd be reasonably certain you'd find, and in strong supply, or else you'd be screwed." He flushed as he thought of it.
"Ah. There it is again." And then Steve flushed, too. "Ah. Well. That does wake a person up."
Tony scowled. "That's stupid. There are people who don't even feel lust."
Steve cleared his throat. "Well, whether that's the case or not, Maple may not have been aware of it."
Tony made a disgusted noise. "So, what? I have to relive lusty moments?" He flushed, thinking of many, many nights with Steve. Then he paled, thinking about the many, many, many nights before those. "Uh..."
Steve snorted. Actually snorted. Tony wasn't sure if it was laughter or exasperation or what, but that had definitely, definitely been a snort. "Tony." And Steve stepped surprisingly carefully into his space. "I'm right here."
Tony cleared his throat. "Um..."
He wasn't even sure what he was feeling. He really liked the slide of Steve's hip against his own, though the there-not-there of his armor made it feel like Steve's length was brushing up against his waist, even though inside the suit, it would have been more along the leg, and far less... flesh against flesh. The jolt of pleasure was practically Pavlovian by now. But he also couldn't help but think that Steve was in his Captain America uniform, and he hated being interrupted with relationship stuff when he was in the suit. Hell, he pretty much hated Tony all the time when he was in the suit. Tony was reckless, stupid, rude; he did things on his own without consulting the team, hid things from Steve, and basically made a giant nuisance of himself when on the battlefield. And Steve, well, he focused on the mission, on what had to be done, and was never in the mood for any of Tony's distractions.
Though, to be fair, at the moment, Tony wasn't positive he would be able to get it up, anyway. He had, after all, just spent some good portion of time reliving some pretty bad memories, and he was in the middle of an awkward not-fight in his mind where a villain and his boyfriend, as it were, both had ready access to his emotions and, potentially, his thoughts. Not what he would call a safe environment, even if his definition of that was pretty loose.
Tony had quickly learned, however, that while Steve could make a move on Tony, it was almost always unacceptable for Tony to do the same. Not because Steve actively crushed Tony or put him down or stayed away, but because Steve always had something else to do – artwork to complete, reading to finish, a mission or assignment to get through. And Tony, well, Tony could disappear into his work for days and then just expect Steve to be ready for him. Or, well, he didn't expect it, but after not coming up for air for over fifty hours, wasn't that just his fault if Steve's free time had come and passed?
He would really like to take Steve up on the offer practically any other time, because hello? Opportunity was knocking. But right then, at that moment... with Maple just behind them, and some of Tony's worst memories only a half-hour past... he just couldn't get himself going.
Steve laid his head against Tony's and just breathed. It was not a new sensation, but usually did not happen when Steve was horny, and Tony fumbled mentally for a moment, wondering if he'd been pulled into another dream-memory. Steve's breath, hot against his nose and lips, made him flush. "You're right. That's poor of me." Steve's eyes closed. Tony shook; Steve could see everything he'd thought. Like it was pasted in front of his face. He hated it. "I'm sorry. And I'm sorry I can see all of this. You've hidden it for so long; you can't want your private thoughts showcased any more than I would."
Tony didn't know what to do with that, either. "You... aren't angry? That I've hidden things?" Because, as far as Tony had ever seen, that was Unforgivable Mistake Number One.
"It's hypocritical. I hide things, too."
That didn't really answer the question. "You're mad."
"Not at you." And Steve pushed away, leaving Tony cold and fairly positive it was, actually, about him. "If you don't want – we need a way to pull you loose from this. But if I open another memory, or dream, whatever the case, chances are Maple will be brought along, as well."
"And we need to keep him away from me, because he can see the flashing emoji's, as well," Tony said, finishing for him. Steve made a small face at the term, but nodded.
So. They had to make out with each other. And he had to get over it enough to like it. Well, it was Steve. And despite the jokes about him being with anyone long term, let alone Steve, that he constantly received from his friends and family, he really did love the man. His strength and fortitude, his commitment to doing the right thing. His kindness, his compassion. Even his obligation to duty had its merits, even though Tony would rather stick a fork in his eye than be anything like that himself. Steve had issues with being close with people, but didn't everybody? Tony, of all people, shouldn't throw stones. And duh, Steve got fed up with him, because he was Tony Stark and that was just what people did.
But apparently Steve wasn't having any of that, and he moved the hell away before Tony could get himself in gear. Tony hugged himself and tried to act like he wasn't cold at the same time. Good god, please give him a topic to get them the hell away from the awkward silence creeping up between them. "So, whatever that thing of his – Maple's?" Steve nodded. "Whatever that was, it had to have used the color spectrum. Probably ones we aren't able to see normally, either." Steve's brow furrowed. "Some creatures can see four hundred times the number of colors humans can. Some people – people I previously considered to be talking out of their asses – thought that, to these creatures, our body heat, pulse rate, and other biological signs would likely show up like flashing lights to them." Tony rubbed a hand over his face. "Also, it explains how the hell they got me in my suit."
"We were wondering the same thing. Color or whatever was one of Dr. Banner's ideas, too, though he also mentioned sound." A small smile slipped onto Steve's face. Proud. Amazed. It was a smile Tony hadn't understood when they'd first gotten to know each other, until he realized Steve thought his suit and his ideas and his inventions miraculous, and him, the man to create them, brilliant. As always, the look made Tony feel a hundred feet tall.
"Soundwaves might have been an option, too, but they don't explain what you and Maple see around me. You said you were more intangible?" Again, Steve nodded. "So it makes sense that there's nothing here of you. Your mind is linked to mine, or you've been made aware of the nerve synapses and chemical releases of my brain somehow. In any case, you're getting a look at my own mind – hence the things you call colors that are probably sparking up every time a new chemical or synapse reacts to whatever I see. You... pulling... on these different colors might just be you inducing these reactions more strongly, and linking them to the other parts of the limbic system, likely the hypocampus." At the blank look in Steve's eyes, Tony said, "the amygdala is found in the limbic system. The hypothalamus is in there, which controls waking and sleeping, along with the brainstem. So are several other parts of the inner temporal lobe, including the hypocampus, which is vital to memory and memory development. Whatever Maple did, it must have focused on the limbic system specifically. I would love to know how, if only to stop this nonsense ever again." Tony rubbed his head. "The weird thing is that the amygdala works on scents – which are properly filtered through my suit, thanks – and has nothing to do with sight."
"How'd he match the two?" Steve asked. It was not the question of Captain America, who always wanted the answers for the mission, and demanded Tony get them immediately. This was the voice of Steve Rogers, who loved to learn and loved to watch Tony teach. It made Tony feel like he could carry the world.
"I have no idea. But if he linked my hypothalamus to wake to the neurological flood of dopamine – which controls attraction – we should have a couple other options. If it's androgens, however, we may have a problem."
"I thought you said you weren't an expert at this stuff," Steve said, a small smile on his face.
Tony grinned and wondered if Steve could see it, what with the fake armor around him. Or if he even needed to at the moment. He had the disco lights, after all. "This is all just basic science journal stuff. I subscribe to a few. And I've always been interested in the human brain."
"Trying to understand yourself?" Steve asked with a smirk.
"No amount of reading about the average mind is going to compare with trying to understand mine." But then Tony's grin stumbled, as he wondered just what he was giving off at the moment. He didn't feel anything much one way or the other; he was curious, and trying to figure out a way to get the hell out of all this, and verbal sparring with Steve was just natural, especially after the verbal flaying they'd given each other countless times before. He cleared his throat. "Right. Well, if it's just our sex drive – the androgens – we are terminally boned. Or, uh, we'll have to be? Or something."
Steve just gave him a soft smile. That... was not the normal Steve reaction. His heart fluttered.
"Uh – um, dopamine just makes you more aware. It, um, can be linked to anything from lust to addiction." Tony's face twisted momentarily, and he really, truly hoped Steve couldn't see it. "All I would need there is a memory of a drink. Of..." He didn't even want to say it; how many times had Steve looked at him with disappointment when he'd drunk himself to the bottom of a bottle? How many times had Steve refused to go near him, sometimes for weeks, after he got so drunk he woke up by the toilet in the bathroom?
He... he was trying... to not do that anymore. To not be that. For Steve, sure, but also for himself. Because he didn't think waking up with one's drool sticking one's face to the bathroom tiles was something a genius billionaire philanthropist should be doing, playboy or no.
But it was hard, and he struggled, and more often than not, he ended up failing. Not, thank everything, to the point of kissing the foot of the toilet, but waking in bed with his clothes still on and his memory a blur, or waking in his lab with something he couldn't even name half-finished on the table and his face smushed into the couch cushion. He used to not care, because who did he have to impress? Who expected anything of him other than brilliant creations, which he could do just as easily when smashed out of his mind?
But then he'd become an Avenger, and people had started paying attention. To him. And his actions. And, well, he was told, over and over again, by everyone from S.H.I.E.L.D. to reporters to anything in between – like supervillains, for instance, who weren't quite as evil and conniving as reporters but were still annoying to deal with – that he was not a true Avenger, and he could never be a hero. Hell, wasn't that something Steve had told him? And hadn't Steve once said, "you aren't a hero, Tony. You're nothing but a man"? If even Steve saw it, then...
"Tony, whatever you're thinking, stop." Steve was doing that surrender move with his hands again. "I think I might know the basics of where your head just went, and if that's your reaction to just thinking about it, then I don't want you to do it."
Well, normally, making out with Steve would be much, much better. "Um, then – a memory?" Tony thought, mortified by the fact that he was actually blushing. He was a playboy, for gods' sakes! He didn't blush! He wasn't fourteen anymore! And he wasn't Steve, who somehow managed to blush at the idea of speaking about sex, even though he was brazen as hell during the act itself...
Aha! Finally! His body was starting to react properly!
He grinned. Ah, great! He might have a chance of getting through this. Androgens or dopamine, both got higher levels during lust. He may have started slow – a first, but, hell, things were all topsy-turvy in here, anyway – but he was good to go now.
"We are not opening a memory to you getting a drink!" Steve said, and Tony jerked. Steve immediately dropped his voice, acting once more so out of character that Tony felt his brain twist. "You've done so well – two months without a drop, and almost seven since you actually got drunk. I will not torture you like that!"
Thankfully, Tony was a big boy, and he managed to swallow back the whimper. It had been so long. He'd forgotten just what it was exactly he'd fallen in love with Steve for. But here it was. This was the goodness that Steve could radiate. Tony felt his shoulders rising toward his ears, felt himself hunching away from the sudden brightness, so glaring it nearly blinded him. But he never, ever wanted to stop staring. If this, this look on Steve's face, as he stepped slightly forward, eyes wide, and held out his hands as if offering to catch, was the very last thing he ever saw, he would count himself the luckiest man alive.
Steve must have seen something, because his gaze changed to that distant thing, and a small flush stole over his cheeks. He looked like he was watching something incredible. When he stepped forward, it almost seemed like he was being led by some sort of string. Tony's heart pounded in his chest. Steve's broad shoulders didn't cage him, but instead seemed to blanket him. When before, Steve had approached him the same as always, this time his every step felt hesitant, as the man watched whatever play of sparkly lights flared up inside Tony whenever he moved. Tony thought he should be very angry about that, or upset, but instead he was just happy. Happy that, for once, Steve could see. Happy that, for whatever reason, Steve was looking.
Tony loved Steve. He'd always loved Steve. Even when he'd thought he should hate the man, that he was the real thing, and the real thing could never live up to the legend – even when he'd thought Steve definitely wasn't anything like the Captain America he'd been brought up on, that he was an asshole who thought Tony wasn't worth anything (which was true, wasn't it, because it always was; he could make things and do things but they were never enough; he always failed in some way) – even then, at their worst, Steve had ended up being the thing he'd needed. Something to remind him of what he wanted to be.
Steve had stopped moving toward him, and stared now at the play of emotions inside Tony as if he was discovering some lost world. Considering the path Tony's thoughts had led down, he wasn't positive that was a good thing. But as soon as he thought that, Steve seemed to catch it, and he focused on Tony again. "Do you want to do this?"
If his brain could stop answering both affirmatively and negatively at such screechingly high volumes, he might have actually been able to figure out an answer. Instead he reached up and gently took Steve's face between his hands. He unsubtly pulled the man's gaze up to him, even as he wondered if he was feeling Steve's cowl against the tips of his fingers or if he was only feeling the pressure of it against the suit's sensors.
The man was gorgeous. He was always gorgeous, and Tony at age fifteen had been very well aware of that. But there was so much more than just the chiseled jaw and the golden hair and the almost aristocratic nose. There was the smile, the one that was no longer shy, but knowing, and appreciative, and even thankful. The one that graced those perfect lips right at that moment. Or the slight crinkles forming around those eyes, tiny little markings of what would certainly become laugh lines. The way those brows teetered downward just a fraction, as if Steve was concentrating, really concentrating, on the moment. On the person he was looking at. On Tony. As if he was the most important thing in Steve's sight.
Steve was beautiful. He was imperfect, and angry, and scary, and standoffish, and even worse with his feelings than Tony, if that was even possible. And he was absolutely, stunningly beautiful.
Tony loved him. He knew it was useless, and on a deadline, but it was his, and it was true. Tony leaned in for that kiss.
That was his first thought, but it wasn't for the usual reason. Steve's lips were soft, of course; they always were. But there was something feather-light in the touch of Steve's lips to his now, as if somehow Tony had changed from a knowledgeable rake to a precious pearl without his knowing. Steve's hands cupped his face in a mirror image of Tony's actions, those large, long fingers skimming the edges of Tony's hair. Tony's breath stole in his lungs. When Steve tilted his head and dipped slowly inside, light sparked in his whole body. He wondered if he looked like a Christmas tree to Steve. Wondered if he could see how much Tony loved him.
Then he opened his eyes, and he was alone.
For a moment, he thought he was awake. He thought he could feel the bed beneath his back. But there was nothing around him. No scenery, no hospital, no bedroom, no laboratory. Nothing. "Steve?" He looked around, but he couldn't see anything.
Something had gone wrong. Of course.
Steve woke up.
His lips still tingled from the kiss, even as his mind whirred with what he'd seen.
Tony loved him. Tony shot up in pinks and light reds and a host of other bright, beautiful colors when he was with him. Tony loved him so much it was even more than how much he hated himself.
He closed his eyes, for just one second, as he contemplated that. No wonder Tony had never stood up for himself whenever Steve got angry with him. Oh, he'd fought back, but he had never defended himself, had he? How hadn't he noticed it before? And yet, despite everything Steve had seen, everything he'd done wrong, still Tony loved him.
He rolled quickly off the cot, even as Natasha stood by his side, waiting. He needed to get to Tony. There were so many things he had to make up for.
But when he hurried out of the tower, he couldn't help but notice that no one else was moving around. "Has Maple woken up yet?" he asked, furrowing his brows.
Natasha turned on communications and tilted her head. "Status report," she said calmly, and Steve watched with something churning in his stomach. Clint, who would be at the hospital if Natasha was with him now, should have immediately called everyone the moment Tony awoke. The others should have done the same with Maple. "Still asleep? Steve is awake." She eyed him. Something heavy and black fell to his stomach.
"Tony," he said, and hurried away. Natasha just nodded. She would take over where he'd failed to do so. He felt duty calling him back, for just one instant, telling him he needed to lead. To coordinate with the others on what to do with Maple – they couldn't just leave him in Tony's makeshift holding cell forever, no matter that it was supposed to house the Hulk on a bad day. He needed to find out what Banner had found out about the device, and tell them what Tony had told him – if he could properly remember half of it.
But they would understand, wouldn't they? One of them was down. Hurt. And it wasn't just any Avenger – it was Tony. Perhaps they'd never explicitly stated what they were to each other, but it wasn't like it was a secret, either. They had to know – know, even if Steve never said it, that Tony hurt was the most terrifying thing to him.
He made it to the tower's car park before he realized that maybe they didn't. Because in all those colors popping up in Tony, there had been a lot of bright yellow – surprise. Delighted surprise, but... surprise. Whenever Steve did something nice.
He stopped beside his motorcycle, letting that sink in. Tony had been surprised. That Steve cared about him.
He breathed in deep. Okay, so he never said it. But he must have shown it, right?
But that memory he'd pulled out, of helping Tony through his nightmare – that had been about five months ago.
He'd done something in that time, hadn't he? He thought back and could see the two of them sitting in the living room, Tony tinkering with something or messing around on his Starkphone, Steve doodling or sifting through news of Bucky or... something. They would talk, but it would always be on Bucky or on Avengers business. He couldn't remember the last time he'd asked Tony what he was working on if it hadn't directly been in correlation to wanting Tony to work on something for the Avengers. And he could remember, over and over again, Tony dropping his current project, no matter what it had been, for Steve's whims. That... that wasn't a relationship, was it?
They still went to sleep together. They still had sex. But he hadn't been woken up by Tony's nightmares in weeks. And the last time he had, he'd just asked if Tony was okay. He hadn't helped him breathe or reminded Tony that Iron Man wouldn't let that happen, that he would do everything for his team. He hadn't done... anything. And, well, Tony had started sleeping in his cot in his lab pretty often, and Steve had thought Tony was pulling away from him.
It was all just a mess. He needed to speak with Tony about it.
But Tony wasn't awake. And neither was Maple. So what in the world had gone wrong? And what the hell was happening while he stood stupidly speculating the nuances of his relationship in a stupid parking lot?
He grabbed his helmet from the handlebar of his motorcycle and shoved it on his head.
"You're waking up," Maple's voice told him.
It was an obvious observation, one Tony would usually not bother responding to. But, well, who could help poking holes in the esteem of a supercilious villain? "Clearly, since I can feel the weight of my body on a mattress. And I can only assume Captain America is no longer here because he experienced the mix of androgens and dopamine, same as me." He couldn't see Maple, either; the entire space around him was just an endless expanse of nothing, same as before. A Looney Tunes blank space, waiting to be filled. "I'll wake up slower, but you can't stop the process now, I'll bet. Especially since all I have to do is..." And he imagined Steve continuing where he'd left off. It distorted with memories of them lying hard on a surface, Steve's fingers digging into his hips hard enough to leave marks. But that was just as exciting, and his pulse jumped to his throat, his cock hardening beneath... well, beneath fake clothes that he'd deigned to put himself in, and perhaps within the armor, as well. He didn't bother looking to see which feelings were correct, since both and neither were equally accurate.
"No matter what you try, your memories are always there, under the surface," Maple said, his voice like some headless narrator, coming from nowhere. Like words painted on a screen.
Tony knew that. He also knew that, as Maple spoke, he was likely searching for the perfect one to tear him down. Maybe he would try bringing up Pepper's final rejection. Or Jarvis' death, at Tony's own hand. Or maybe he was searching around for a way to remind him of all the bad times he'd had with Steve.
But Steve hadn't rejected him. He'd seen some of Tony's worst, and he hadn't rejected him. Not yet, anyway. And until they... discussed... whatever Steve had to discuss, Tony would just have to go with the knowledge that Steve had still held him gently as he'd kissed him. That was something. It might be everything.
He imagined Steve's hands being just as gentle as they traced their way down to Tony's neck, feeling Tony's pulse as if it was important it remain. Thumbing across that flutter of skin, perhaps tracing the line of tendons until he reached the bottom of Tony's throat. And he imagined Steve's tongue lightly tracing the path, and the bed felt solid beneath him.
"Stop!" Maple snapped. Tony could understand his fear. If he woke up without having managed to take Tony out of the picture, he had no leverage with which to bargain his freedom. He would be surrounded by Avengers ready for revenge. Even if it was Tony, they would still at least have his back in this.
So he imagined Steve going farther, touching his chest, leaning him gently against the wall as he suckled at Tony's pulse point. He found himself twitching, felt his movements from somewhere else. Heard sounds – beeping, soft, shuffling noises. Heard Clint say his name. Thought, perhaps, that he heard Steve answer.
And then Tony was standing in the remains of his mansion, looking at Pepper as she hugged him again and told him, as gently as humanly possible, that she just couldn't do it, that she'd thought he was dead. His heart lurched.
But it was the wrong memory to give him, because only a few months after that, Steve had demanded Tony help him attack a Hydra base. His life had ended that day with Pepper, in a way it hadn't since he'd had metal added to his chest. But he'd been wrong to think it would be the end.
And he could feel himself breathing, his eyelids fluttering. Could feel a soft weight against his lips. He groaned, and it echoed from within the memory he watched.
He couldn't move in the dream, but he took some satisfaction in hearing a guttural snarl just before he opened his eyes.
Steve leaned back, wondering if he'd pushed too far, done something too abhorrent, in trying to kiss Tony awake.
Clint was busy laughing himself stupid in the hallway, but Steve couldn't help but wonder if awakening the... andro-things or the dopa-stuff would work if done externally, as well. Would Tony even be aware enough to wake? Or would he be purely victim to whatever Maple might be doing to him right that second?
And then Tony opened his eyes.
Some noise scraped his throat. He had to hold himself back from hugging Tony to him. Tony looked confused still. Lost. Steve placed one hand on his shoulder and held up his phone, speed-dialing Banner. "Banner. It's Steve. Tony's awake. Keep Maple imprisoned."
"Of course." And Steve heard Bruce cover the speaker and shout orders to... whomever was in the room with him. Natasha, most likely, and possibly Vision or Sam, or even Rhodey, as well. Though if Rhodey were in the state instead of on the other side of the planet furthering peace talks, he would likely be at Tony's side.
Steve ended the call and tossed the phone away. He wouldn't worry about Maple. The others would handle him. For now, he had something more important to tend to.
Tony's gaze finally focused on him, and the man smiled, a bit tremulously. Doubting, Steve thought, that what had happened in his mind had been real, or had meant anything. So Steve squeezed his shoulder, just a bit, and smiled. "Welcome back," he said, and then, "we'll have that talk after the doctors give you the okay."
Tony made the usual face at the sound of the word doctors, but he nodded. That alone was so rare that Steve just took it and pressed the button for the nurses, who were likely waiting impatiently for Clint to let them pass. And sure enough, just after he pressed the button, two nurses bustled into the room, glaring over their shoulders before turning their full attention to their patient.
"That man?" Tony asked, and then, after answering the nurse's questions, "his... device?" And then he had to hold out his arm for the nurses to check his blood pressure.
"He's taken care of. His machine, whatever it is, is with Banner."
Tony nodded again. He barely flicked the nurses a smile. Normally, Steve would think he might be sulking about what had happened, about his precious armor getting beaten. And perhaps yes, that would come later, as he tirelessly worked to get rid of that weakness, as if to have a single flaw in his design was to invite catastrophe, or perhaps made him the weak link of the team instead of one of its strongest members.
But now he could recognize that look on Tony's face. He couldn't see those bright sparks of light anymore, but he could still match what he'd seen to what he was looking at now. And Tony was worried, certainly, but he was feeling doubt. Steve didn't think it could be about Tony himself; Tony usually chose not to look at himself. Steve had thought that ego; now he knew it to be shame. But there was no grimaced pinch to his lips to indicate that. So it had to be about him. About them, rather. About the "talk," and what it might entail.
Suddenly, Steve wanted these people out of the room.
So of course that was when the doctor came in.
"How are you today, Mr. Stark?" the man asked, already partly hiding behind his clipboard in preparation for Tony's ire. Steve briefly tightened his grip on Tony's hand in warning.
"I understand the importance of checking up on him, doctor," he said, "but we have a situation to discuss. Please forgive me when I ask that you be brief."
The doctor nodded, looking almost relieved at the opportunity to leave the instant Tony made a fuss. And the promise of not having to put up with the doctor's ministrations for long seemed to make Tony relax a bit. Steve would have to remember that for the next inevitable time Tony came back from a fight injured.
The doctor's check-up was little more than a quick survey of Tony's minor injuries and a series of questions that made Tony roll his eyes and backtalk the poor man a bit. Steve only gave Tonya a stern look once; he'd never before caught how Tony would, for a short instant, shut his mouth and look like he'd just been told he would never be allowed in the suit again, before raising his chin and jutting out his jaw.
The humility Tony sometimes showed had always been a small surprise to Steve; how could someone with so much show so little ego for it when it counted? It seemed he'd finally found his answer. And he almost wished it didn't exist.
Steve was more impatient for the doctor to leave than Tony; as the man gave Tony the usual "nothing seems wrong, but we'd like to keep you overnight for observation, anyway," Steve was the one to glare hotly at the man and tap his foot against the tiled floor. Tony, for once, was the one to paste on a patient smile and tell the man that the hospital just didn't have the machinery necessary to catalog the possible ramifications of the device Hydra's man had used. It was Tony who said he would be supervised by the Avengers, and that, if something came up that they couldn't deal with, he would be brought back to the hospital. Steve was too busy wondering if Tony had always thought Steve was actually disappointed in him instead of the way he acted, as if the two were the same thing.
They weren't. They'd never been. Hadn't he made that clear? Somehow?
He was so horrible at relationships. It was amazing he managed to ever say just what he meant.
Of course, when they were alone, Steve's mind froze. Tony looked him head on, of course; Tony always looked the end of his world head on. Steve straightened his shoulders. "I'm sorry."
It took Tony a short moment, just barely longer to blink than normal. He took a deep breath and pasted on that for-the-press smile. "Of course. I get it."
Tony still thought the worst. Well, why wouldn't he? Tony may not have been perfect in their relationship, but he'd never made Steve feel like he wasn't important. Like he didn't want to be with him anymore. Tony had never bullied him.
It was all jumbled in Steve's head. Tony had taken unnecessary risks, to the point of almost getting himself killed on more than one occasion. He pushed, especially when he felt vulnerable, and was not above hitting below the belt. And Tony always knew exactly where to hurt. Tony also had a predilection for working in his lab for not just hours, but sometimes days, at a time. Days. Without sleep, or food. Subsisting on coffee, more often than not swill than DUM-E put together because Tony couldn't be bothered to leave his task.
But Tony's wild, on-the-fly ideas were usually a result of his brain working overtime, even in the middle of a battle, and finding weaknesses and holes that Steve and the others couldn't get and wouldn't understand in a few seconds of terse communication, even when that communication was given. And Tony may have been defensive when feeling hurt, but who wasn't? Hadn't Steve used his own voice and even body as weapons when scared or upset? Hadn't he hurt Tony just as much, if not more? And while he didn't like Tony working constantly, pushing himself to exhaustion, didn't Tony always do so for the Avengers, or for his company, or for the future? Tony's inventions were amazing. Even Steve, still catching up with how things like those flat ranges worked, could see the brilliance in the slightest of Tony's ideas. He saved lives. He brought the world into a future only he could see. Watching Tony stride ever forward, the world struggling to keep up, always left Steve breathless. How had he managed to forget that the price of that would sometimes be lost sleep and poor nutrition, and an empty bed some nights?
When had Steve forgotten that a relationship was a partnership, not an assimilation? They didn't have to think alike, or act alike. They didn't have to be the same. They only had to be good for each other. And they were.
"No," he said finally, just as Tony's jaw started to seem locked in place. "I don't think you do. Listen to me," he said when Tony made a small, aborted grimace. "I have a lot to apologize for. I should start by saying I'm sorry I saw things you didn't want me to, but I can't. I'm grateful for that."
Tony finally looked away, and this time, the grimace wasn't fleeting.
Steve didn't even know what he was saying wrong. "I'm not happy you went through so many bad memories – and I'm even less pleased that I feature in so many." A wince. Well, shit. "I understand it's not your fault. Or, well, there are many things you do that make me angry, or exasperated. But not once have you ever made me afraid. And not once have you ever made me feel unappreciated or unloved. But that's what I did to you. And I'm so sorry for that."
Tony still frowned. But he didn't say anything. That meant it was still on Steve.
"I bullied you. I manipulated you." Tony made a noise then, but it was one that said he wanted to contradict what Steve was saying, so Steve just spoke over it. "I should have... I should be able to speak with you properly about these things. But I can't. I..." He could think of a hundred reasons why – he'd been born and raised in an era when men were supposed to be stoic. He'd grown up in a time when homosexuality was not even spoken of, and was treated even worse. He'd been so weak, he'd thought any show of it was worse than the truth of it. He still sometimes failed to realized just what he looked like to the world after his change. He failed, too, to realize just what it might mean to a man raised on tales of Captain America to see that same idolized man look down on another. To be disappointed, or even disgusted, with him. He'd failed to notice just how brittle Tony's sharp edges were.
But all of those were nothing more than fancy excuses, and they had no place here, between them. "I failed." There. Putting it in terms of battles and missions was easier. "I think I knew, even before, that I was doing it all wrong. I'm not much for romantic movies, but even I can see that the stories that work are those in which the partners talk to each other. Share their problems." Steve wiped a hand over his face. Tony, for all that he looked tired and worn, was practically vibrating, he was so stiff. "I failed to even consider speaking with you honestly about how I felt. About... anything, really. I didn't even trust you with news about Bucky."
And there, yes, another flinch. Because while Steve hadn't even noticed it, Tony certainly had. "I know you would likely have helped."
"I would have," Tony bit in. Then he snapped his mouth shut, his gaze flickering momentarily to Steve before once more looking away. Waiting for Steve's usual defensive response – a list of Tony's failings, of why Tony couldn't be trusted. God, what an ass he'd been.
"I know." Tony's gaze jerked back up at that. His hands clenched in the sheets. He didn't look away. "I know that, Tony. You've always helped, whenever I asked. Even when it meant abandoning your company or an important project." Steve couldn't tell if Tony's cheeks were trying to pale or flush. The look seemed almost like surprised wonder – like a child who'd never so much as celebrated his birthday was seeing his first amusement park. Amazed, and slightly terrified, as if they would be pulled away before they could step inside. "I know you would have helped, and yet I kept it to myself, anyway. I didn't speak to you man to man. I treated you like a child. I tried to control you. These are not... that is not the way a man should act. Especially not toward someone he... loves. And respects." Even just saying the words made him want to curl his lips. Why? Why couldn't he just admit he loved Tony without trying to set down conditions or hide it behind indifference? "I love you. Despite how I've acted, I've always loved you."
Now it seemed the kid was staring at the rides as if expecting them all to be part of some elaborate background, and if he stepped forward, he would bump into the painting and make it fall down, revealing nothing more than an empty stage. "I don't expect you to believe me. Words alone aren't enough. But I will prove it to you, Tony. Somehow."
Tony shook his head. "You're not... breaking up with me?" Tony's lips twisted at the line.
"No!" But perhaps that might have been expected, considering all he'd done to make Tony feel as if he was putting up with him instead of worrying about him. "If anyone should be doing so, it's you." Tony blinked at him. "I... saw those memories, Tony. I saw how you felt during them. No, don't. You did nothing wrong," he said when Tony ducked his head again. "I saw – you were afraid of me, Tony. And I kept hurting you. And being willfully blind to doing so! I hurt you. I became, to you, the very people who harmed me when I was – before I met Erskine." He bowed his head under the weight of it, the knowledge that he'd so easily become the thing he'd promised Erskine never to become.
"You're really hard on yourself, aren't you?" Tony gave him a small smile. It didn't seem right – it wasn't the usual tired grin Tony sometimes gave him. "I think we can both agree that I deserved it on pretty much all accounts."
"No. You didn't." Steve leaned forward as he realized what he was seeing. There weren't any dark, orange-red blotches sparking up that he could see, not anymore. But he knew that, if there were, they would be so numerous as to block out the sight of Tony's body completely. "Tony. With everyone else, I can discuss the events of a battle without... without losing my head. With you, I can't. Every time I see you fly off without back-up, my first thought is not, 'he's disobeying orders again.' It is always, every time, 'he is going to get himself killed.' And that concern – every time, I lash out because of it. And every time you lie or hide something from me, I get angry about that far more than about what or why. I don't think rationally when it comes to you. I let that – how I feel about you – get in the way of what has to be done."
"Steve," Tony started, but he wasn't done yet.
"I remember that battle in New York and how I ordered the gate closed and I know, I know, that I wouldn't be strong enough or logical enough to make that same decision again! Or how I sometimes ordered you ahead to investigate a Hydra base while we fought through their defensive ranks – do you have any idea how many times I had to tell myself that you were perfectly capable, that I didn't need you in eyesight to ensure you weren't harmed or in danger? I know you're strong. I know you can handle yourself. I've seen footage of you fighting enemies alone, and you are not weak. You are not a liability. Yet every time, every time, I still panic. It's not..."
Tony's eyes were so wide the chocolate brown shone within a halo of white. Tony reached for him, breaching a distance Steve still didn't know how to cross. Touching with an ease that left Steve jealous, and grateful, all in a tangled rush. "Steve." That voice held wonder, and joy, and something so much softer. That deep, uncompromising affection that was just another piece of Tony's brilliance; that inability of his to stop giving. "Don't you think I feel that, too? That, every time I rush ahead, it's because I want to get there before you do?"
No. No, he had never so much as considered such a thing. It made sense, of course. Steve may have been all about duty in battle, but Tony never had any patience for such things. He would always be the type to act on what he wanted – on what he believed necessary. And to hell with what anyone else told him.
It was completely different to how Steve fought. But it wasn't wrong. For once, maybe Steve should take a lesson from Tony. Act. Worry was so useless in the middle of a battlefield. Hadn't he known that with Bucky? Hadn't he simply done what he'd needed to do? Why was he telling himself to act differently now? What was he trying to prove? That he was all he'd been made out to be?
If Tony, with so much more to lose than just his reputation, could still move forward, then he could, too.
Steve took Tony's hand in his and gripped it. "Should we start all this over again?" he asked. "Can we? And do it the right way this time?"
It seemed ridiculous. But Tony grinned, and with their hands still clasped, shook Steve's up and down. "Hello. My name is Tony Stark. I'm in love with you."
Steve beamed. His voice, when he spoke, was shaky. "I'm Steve Rogers. I'm afraid I'm likewise afflicted, Mr. Stark."
It was stupid to laugh, but they did.