Tony had been dreaming about Steve ever since he had (stupidly, unnecessarily) breathed in the remnants of a substance he was now calling 'timefog' (he wasn't so great with naming things, whatever; nothing could be as bad as 'BARF'). He had not only been dreaming about Steve, he had been dreaming about Steve dreaming, which was way weirder. These two sets of events may have been causally connected, or not; he didn't have any real data to go on.
He had been dreaming about Steve dreaming about him, to be entirely precise, and it was starting to be too mind-boggling for Tony's tastes. Like two mirrors reflecting each other, all the way to what could be best described as ∞.
The latest occurrence had been just hilarious, really. It had been around 7 pm, he surmised, when he slid into sticky sleep at his desk – it happened to him quite a lot of late. It was the kind of sleep from which you woke with glue in your eyes and a crick in your neck, and also with a vague memory of a dream in which your... in which Steve, deeply asleep, had a vision of drawing Tony. This was where it got weird (no, wait, everything was weird already, this was where it got weirder). Steve sleeping – that had been more of a sensation, a color, a smell (it made no sense!). The drawing itself, however – Tony remembered the drawing in glaringly vivid details.
Still woozy, but more or less awake, Tony fumbled for a cup of drinkably stale coffee and glanced at Steve's real-world art that was still lining the windows of the office in the Compound. Yep, the same style; the same hand, evident in every stroke. The straight lines, the sharp angles. He had been looking through Steve's eyes, in the dream; so, the following thought might have been his, or Steve's. All the boundaries had been blurred like a chalk outline someone had stepped on. The subject of the picture couldn't be more familiar. It seemed to Tony that Steve (the Dream Steve? the Real Steve?) must have drawn it a thousand times. Lines: straight. Angles: sharp. Shading: unmistakably Steve's.
Iron man, quickly taking shape on the page, right there on the panel one. And right there, next to him, Captain America, his hand around Tony's metal shoulders. Best of friends. An intrusive idea that felt a bit foreign to Tony. Had he ever considered them that?
Well, maybe somewhere on the way to that, at one point, but that was long gone now. An unsuccessful experiment.
The Dreaming Steve wished they could have that again. The Dreaming Steve wished he'd never taken it for granted.
Upon startling awake, the feeling of frustrated longing, of angry melancholy, still permeated every organic cell, every plastic molecule in Tony's chest.
He shook his head at himself, and also in order to get rid of the dreamerly remnants. Started opening and closing the desk drawers. Finally located a stack of post-its, probably left there by someone else.
The lines, oh so straight; and the angles you could cut your finger on...
He wrote: In your dreams, he misses you. Stark, you're pathetic. He stuck it onto the surface of the desk.
The next one was even worse. The very same night, well after midnight, when he had finally tumbled into sleep: he was (Steve was?) sitting in a highly modern kitchen, all in metallic grays and earth yellows (weirdly, inexplicably, in his dreams Tony knew names of all these colors).
"It sounds like a rom-com plot," Barnes was saying. He was sitting across the isle from Steve, and that was when Tony became aware of his presence. Shorter hair. A different metallic arm. A weird sense of comfortable companionship with a smidge of regret mixed in (Tony loathed all of it, but it was as if he could barely access his own feelings). "You were sitting there, drawing pictures of you and Tony Stark, thinking about how much you missed him?"
"It was a dream," Steve protested. "It doesn't mean anything."
Of course it doesn't, Tony thought, startling awake, wiping too much sweat from his face. Feverish? He should probably check it out. He stuck this onto the bottom of his mental to-do list, to forget about it forever, in all likelihood.
Well, fever dreams would be an explanation as good as any, he thought as he was pulled back under.
And – strangely enough – right into the same dream, a little later, and there was the kitchen again, and the coffee (disgustingly sweet and creamy, just like Steve liked it), and Bucky (no, Tony thought fervently, Barnes, but it was too late and his consciousness somehow melded back into Steve's); and Bucky said something about liking, and Steve said: "I do like him, he's just so, so Tony sometimes. He's loud and reckless, he burns bright and fast, like a falling star..."
And despite the pretty words, a wave of sickly yearning, of a hope gone stale was so overwhelming Tony thought it would strangle him (turned out it was his covers that had somehow got rolled under his chin). And as he was waking up, he heard Barnes say: "Maybe you should talk to Stark."
And Tony felt so disgusted with himself that he thought he would throw up.
The razor in Tony's hand felt too heavy, and he suddenly hated the smell of his shaving cream. He was staring at the lime green post-it he had stuck onto his mirror last night:
In your dreams, he's crazy about you. In your dreams, fucking Barnes is telling him to call you. You should have your head examined.
What do I know about timefog?, he mused. I know it appears around the portals that are, yay, spewing the yet-unnicknamed alien creatures I am contractually obligated to fight. The substance: unrecognizable. Hallucinogenic? Maybe. Permanent effects? I've no fucking idea.
Since then it had become even more screwed up. Almost every day, almost every night, he would find himself there at some point, on the inside of Steve's head, looking out. And although he didn't see how any of that could possibly be real, he let himself taste Steve's mind, bit by bit, sliver by sliver; Steve's emotions were big and all-encompassing as the ocean – I'd never thought he felt that much, looking at his exterior – and sometimes it was peaceful and warm and sad, and sometimes it was turbulent and jagged, but never too little, never cold or indifferent You'd think I'd be dreading sleep, he mused, but oh no, I want the dreams, I need them. I'm becoming addicted.
And not all of them were comfy, sentimental, artsy-fartsy, lovey-dovey, full of longing and regret. There was this one – a recurring one – in which (and Tony could barely wrap his thoughts around it) Steve slept and dreamt he was Tony, sitting in a pub in Berlin, at this table, with bottles and glasses multiplying around him, a geometric progression. And the despair is overwhelming, and the tears won't stop, and he's staring at his own head enclosed in a black box on the table. Aloud, he says: "Why is this my life? What am I doing wrong?" But the words that are eating him up inside are 'Here's to saving the world... from me', and the Dream Steve, the one who is watching it all through Tony's eyes, is also crying in his sleep, and he's falling apart for Tony. And the real Tony (the one at the Compound, not the one at the table in a pub in Berlin; not the one on the table), he's despairing at Steve's despair, and he's falling apart too.
Two mirrors, with their shared infinity of pain.
Weeks passed. Wherever he turned, he saw his post-its (multiplying around him like the glasses and bottles in that dream, for fuck's sake).
In your dreams, he is sometimes so cold. It's probably something to do either with Siberia or with Antarctica.
In your dreams you don't know whether your own eyes are blue or brown – either that, or he doesn't. You should invent time travel and ask dear old Carl Jung what that shit is supposed to mean.
The time stops. The time skids. And what's with the weird counter thing, anyway? Get a grip, Stark.
And sometimes he wasn't even fully asleep. His concentration would slip, his mind would start wandering, and bang, for a moment he would glimpse emotions that weren't his, a sadness of the wrong brand, the memories of himself seen through a different pair of eyes.
This can't be your imagination. In your visions, you know certain facts you normally wouldn't. (Stop calling them visions! Stop calling them facts!)
It definitely is your imagination! In your dreams, you're in high school together, ffs. With Hank Pym's dead wife, of all people, who is somehow your age. Steve couldn't have known Janet Van Dyne. (God, how much he loves you in those high school dreams!) You're going crazy. Tell someone.
Don't tell anyone!!!
He doesn't love you. Stop.
He tried plugging himself into a slightly altered BARF tech gadget thing he had come up with. The readings were... inconclusive.
He didn't like the readings, so he declared them inconclusive.
He liked the readings too much, but that was just because he was going crazy, apparently. Inconclusive, inconclusive, inconclusive.
He said it was just a dream. He said it didn't mean anything, in that one in the kitchen. If you are going to listen to him, listen to THAT.
A few months back, he'd moved out of the Stark Tower to avoid remembering the time he'd lived there with Pepper. He moved back now because the memories of Pepper and the breakup seemed positively healthy and happy and bright in comparison.
Things he'd left at the Compound: his post-its, all over the place; Steve's stupid office with his stupid art; his feelings.
Well, okay, maybe not his feelings.
Things he'd taken with him to NYC: well, apparently his feelings. Evident every time he closed his eyes, evident every time he avoided to. Evident when he got out on the street and Jesus fuck, the tall, broad-shouldered blonde with a baseball cap, two o'clock... that obviously wasn't Steve, how could he be.
The shit kept happening. The shit was, patently, quite stubborn.
The events took an unexpected turn when Natasha sent him another of her encrypted voice messages. In itself, the fact wasn't particularly surprising; she did it from time to time. Checking in, keeping contact, all that jazz.
A classic case of having the cake and eating it too, Tony mused. She was a little colder than before, a bit more reserved. An ugly step back towards the Natalie persona. At the same time, she pretended nothing was wrong, nothing had changed. She asked how he was. She unnecessarily informed him everyone on her side was reasonably healthy. She chatted about mission details of Steve's Secret Avengers (tm) she wasn't supposed to disclose to him (but hey, it was Romanoff, there was probably an agenda behind it).
It was... hurtful? Welcome? Both?
Sometimes, Tony even replied.
But this one – this message was a one to be listened to endlessly, on repeat. This one was a one to which you rubbed your eyes and let your forehead sink against the table-top. This was a one to make you yell: "Okay, Occam, so razor this!"
"Hey, Tony. How are you doing? My sources tell me you are back in NYC. Could you let me know if the Peter child you'd brought to Germany is ok? This will sound strange, but Steve has been having very peculiar dreams for weeks now. He's inhaled some of that portal fog I'm sure you've seen. There may be some reason for worry. But... In any case, he dreams, and he is growing more convinced that something about the dreams is true. He keeps dreaming he's killed little Peter. Some reassurance to the contrary would be welcome, if you could be bothered to reply this time. Come on, Tony, it's really important. And also... all right, to hell with this. Fury tells me you've been in contact with the fog too, at one point. Are you all right?"
Because it was true, all of it, insomuch that Tony had dreamed of Steve dreaming about it. Repeatedly. Sometimes it was Peter taking a bullet for Steve, but Tony had a feeling that wasn't the one that worried Steve so much. In that one Peter looked different, older, and Steve did go on blaming himself afterwards, but...
It's the recurring one, in which Pete doesn't catch the platform that's falling on him, in Leipzig. It's the one in which Steve lifts it off him and just stands and stands and stands there until I come to arrest him, and he doesn't intend to resist, but then I stop, and I just stand and stand and stand there beside him. And all we can do is look on.
That dream never ended on its own accord. Tony always startled awake. There was sweat, there were tears; mostly, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Occasionally, he would throw up. And on the other side of the world – and now he thought it was even true – he had a feeling Steve would sit up in bed and just shiver until dawn.
Somewhere, everything was possible.
"You ever heard of the multiverse?" Tony had asked in another dream, and Steve had shaken his head.
"Wow, I’m too drunk for this," Tony said with a short, bitter laugh, as he refilled his glass (that Dream Tony drank way, way more than he did in reality; Real Tony thought it was unfair to have hangovers from dreams about drinking, but those might have been just headaches from irregular sleep patterns and shock). "Okay, the idea is that our universe isn’t the only one. There are thousands, millions, billions—a whole lotta universes out there, sweetheart. And in all these universes, things happened... differently. There are a million different Earths out there, a million different Steves, a million different Tonys"
Somewhere out there, anything could be true; was true. That was the scary part.
Reed Richards and Tony had a history. It was mostly a history of too much competition, mutual irritation and a whole lot of open eye rolling. Still, they'd known each other for decades. When Tony showed up at the Baxter Building without even calling first, Richards just (as tradition dictated) rolled his eyes, beckoned him inside, and said: "What is it now?"
Tony gave him a tablet; he'd spent the night logging, writing down all he remembered about the dreams, as well as his measurements, BARF readings and speculations. "Read that and tell me what you think."
"More read/Reed jokes, after all these years? Really, Stark?"
Tony shrugged. "Unlike you, they never get old."
Reed couldn't resist a good puzzle, though. Tony watched him as he thumbed through the pages, his face changing from a frown into an expression of, at first, interest, and then quiet fascination. "This", he said, tapping his forefinger on the tablet hard and repeatedly (which made Tony wince internally), "this is very interesting."
After maybe ten minutes of an inevitable discussion of scientific methods, validity and who's a bigger jerk, he strapped Tony into a piece of his own equipment, and after some more squabbling and several hours of uneasy sleep (because by this point Tony could pretty much fall asleep anywhere, anytime, he was so tired, but staying asleep was a wholly different matter), they had a set of results.
"I've never seen anything like it."
Tony just nodded. "I'm acting as a receptor of sorts; that's what you're thinking, right?"
"Your brain is receiving and internalizing Berger waves, which shouldn't be possible – hell, it shouldn't be possible to emit them in such quantities as your pal does, let alone..."
"You don't get to cut either of us open and play around; concentrate."
"You concentrate, Stark."
"How can I concentrate, I'm receiving fucking Berger waves in abnormal quantities. Am I emitting too, by the way?"
"Much less than he is. But yes. Yep."
The next inescapable question was... "So, echoes of the multiverse or an overactive imagination, what do you think?"
Richards gave him a speculative look. "Can you keep a secret? C'mon, I'll show you something if you promise not to try and reverse engineer it."
"I'll most certainly try to reverse engineer it, whatever it is, and you know it."
"I don't think you can."
"Now, that's an outright challenge, Richards!"
Reed called it a multiversal gate; Tony considered the name strangely prosaic. It was a quantum miracle, a kaleidoscope of worlds, a... a...
"I'm not letting you play with it, Tony. "
When he got home from Reed's, he found a stack of post-its (Pepper must have left them behind), and scribbled:
You got it for him so bad! Don't you?
He considered the note for a moment, then crumpled it in his hand and threw it across the room into the paper bin (it was a perfect hit).
He couldn't even remember when he had started feeling like this about Steve. Since forever? At first he had tagged it 'fascination' (because, come on, it was Steve Rogers; he was larger than life, somehow; everyone had googly eyes for him), and then, when he got to know him a little, Tony went with 'buddy infatuation'. Naming was important. He never was particularly skilled at it. But buddy infatuation was a classification that had worked for years. He had himself neatly convinced he simply had a huge soft spot for the guy, even though he tended to push all of Tony's irritation-buttons, enthusiastically and repeatedly and all at once. In the last year or two, Tony had even thought he was mostly cured from his non-feelings. Leipzig and Siberia had proven him spectacularly, hilariously wrong. It was a miracle, how good he was at burying his emotions into these tiny shit piles in order to hide them from himself. They were probably glaringly obvious to anyone else who cared to take a glance.
Had he been cured from the thing, he wouldn't have ended up nearly so hurt and enraged. How dare Steve do that? How dare he... crush Tony's idealized image of him and prove to be just like everyone else. Of course, looking back now, it was easy to be smart and insightful and full of self-irony. The hurt still burned hot in Tony's heart. Because – and he knew this was probably unfair, but he didn't give a flying fuck – he had had this idea firmly entombed in his head, this image of Cap as a perfect friend, an immovable rock of goodness, someone who could never fail you (judge you, yeah, but you somehow got the impression he had the right to). Someone who could be obstinate and rigorous, perhaps, but wouldn't let you down.
All that had happened had crushed Tony neatly into the ground and stomped on him for good measure. He didn't know how to get past that, especially in those first weeks, while he still sat and stared at the phone and wondered how do people do this?
And then the dreams and insights and glimpses had begun, the tiny pieces of the Steve-puzzle falling into place. Had Tony known him before? Well, yes and no, he supposed. Can you fall in love with someone again even though you haven't really fallen out of love with them completely the first time around?
What Tony had loved before now seemed like a cardboard cutout (like a paper doll they wouldn't let you play with as a kid because you were a boy, for fuck's sake). He looked at the metaphorical doll in his hands and just shrugged noncommittally. What he now wanted was to take a million of Steve's brain-scans and paste them all over the walls and stare at them for hours (he was more or less aware normal people probably wouldn't consider this particularly romantic). In any case, his own glaring hurt had slowly retreated, step by step, faced with Steve's pain and regret regarding everything that had happened – the feelings Tony had become illogically, unexpectedly privy to against all odds; in the end, his own pain had mostly bowed out and taken a back seat for the rest of the ride.
"Slow down. Hey! You need to slow down!"
Reed had shaken him by the shoulder. If Tony hadn't blinked and shuddered and disconnected himself from the multiversal gate, Reed would probably have snatched the chance to slap him or something. With a very good excuse, of course.
"That was... not awesome," Tony said a bit later and reached for the drink Reed had poured him. His hand was shaking as badly as his voice. "I mean, it's absolutely fascinating, but mental-sanity-wise... not awesome."
Of course they had had to experiment. There was no one around to restrain them. Richards had tentatively used the gate before, with a lot of calculation, to peer into a multitude of different worlds, but still hadn't developed a method of manipulating it reliably. He had also postulated something that he called the 'affinity principle'. Basically, if you connected yourself to the device, it let you find the worlds that were significant for you in some way, that attracted you, that were somehow akin to something in your mind. Basically, you subconsciously found the worlds you wanted or needed to see. It had sounded like bullshit to Tony, but hey, he now apparently had to get used to living in a world where timefog was a thing and you cold emit and receive Berger waves with your brain. Yay.
They had strapped Tony into the equipment. He had relaxed, as instructed. He had let his mind wander. He was assaulted with a flood of images in the gate, sometimes flickering rapidly by, sometimes lingering to torture him. Most were familiar, from his and Steve's dreams. There was the pub in Berlin and the weird severed head, and there was Peter, taking the bullet for Steve, and there was Steve, dying on the courthouse steps. He did also see a glimpse of the high-school dream universe, and that had given him a glimmer of hope; there was at least one place where they were moderately happy, eh? But perhaps the worst of all was another iteration of his old vision, the one in which the Earth had burned, and everyone lies dead, and Tony reaches for Steve's pulse, and Steve tells him how he failed to save him, and dies.
He could have lived without seeing that one again. No, seriously.
Everything was true, somewhere.
And sometimes the world was so horrible he just wanted to bury himself in Malibu sand and stay there forever.
"I think I've just witnessed a new phenomenon", Reed had said. "When you plug yourself into the gate, you will most probably see the worst possible outcome of everything on Earth. At least if the 'you' in question is Tony Stark. You know what, I think I'm going to call this 'the Stark effect', in your honor."
"Don't you dare. I've waited for years to discover something worthy of the name 'Stark effect'. You can't possibly take it!"
"Sorry. Too late. It's been named now. Nothing you can do about it." Reed had paused. "You got it for him so bad," he had said. "Don't you?"
He picked up the phone from the nightstand and dialed Steve’s number before he could second-guess himself. (Okay, so that was another thing he'd brought back to NYC: Steve's burner phone.)
Steve picked up on the fourth ring.
"T-Tony?" he asked around a huge yawn, and the sleepiness in his voice made Tony feel simultaneously guilty and pleased, because Steve answered his call. "Tony? Is something wrong?" Steve sounded wide awake and concerned now.
"Hey, Cap. Nothing’s wrong," Tony hurried to assure him. "It’s just..." He was hearing his own voice, he really was. It sounded positively vibrant with excitement. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it either. Actually hearing Steve's voice after all this time, actually being on the phone with him – it gave him such a rush that all he could do was let go and be carried with it. It didn't feel as wrong as a part of him thought it should. "I wanted to tell you that Peter's okay. I just saw him. He's fine."
"The spider-man kid from the airport. I know you know what I'm talking about."
"I... I know. But how do you...?"
"That's another thing I need to talk to you about. Look... this is the part where I say 'You ever heard of the multiverse', and you shake your head, yeah? And then I say 'Wow, I'm too drunk for this', although, in all seriousness, I'm really not."
Steve was silent for a little while. Tony let him process this for a minute.
"It's all true, isn't it?" Steve said in a voice somewhat less shocky than Tony had expected.
"I'm thinking..." Tony began, and I should be talking myself out of this, but he really, really didn't want to. It felt so good to finally want something that you maybe, just maybe could have. "I'm thinking we should discuss it in person? Come on, what do you say? If I send a super-secret jet for you, would you be willing to come crash at Casa de Stark? I'd come pick you up myself, but Friday disapproves of me flying anything this sleep-deprived and overexcited and generally in a screwy state of mind."
He was pretty sure he heard Steve gulp. "Yeah," the man whispered, barely audible on the other side. "Yeah, okay."
"Great. See you soon, handsome," Tony drawled, and killed the line, and let his head sink back against the wall. Handsome? Like, really, Stark??
And yet... Maybe because they'd just actually talked (in the real world! to each other!), or maybe it was really just his imagination this time, but he kind of thought he could sense Steve there, on the other side of the world. Steve who (Tony thought) didn’t feel so cold anymore.
Seeing him in person. Like being hit by a very warm, very soft truck. The tired eyes, the suppressed smile and a whole bunch of sheer presence that tended to outglow anything else around it, as far as Tony was concerned. He would have stopped and fought for breath, at least a little bit, at least for the dramatic effect, but hell, who cared about breath anyway. They just stood and looked at each other for a moment. Within touching distance, in a small, sheltered bubble of space-time that was effectively saying: screw you, multiverse. At the moment, we don't care. At the moment, you don't exist.
Their eyes met. Electric shock was an old metaphor, but at least one aspect was sure true: it's generally impossible for the shock victim to let go of the energized object. They were glued to the spot.
The emotions – something between a ping-pong infection and an avalanche – were too much. A part of Tony couldn't take them. It just stood a little apart, and looked on, and thought: of all the unlikely things that have happened in the past few months, this seems hardest to believe.
Because Tony's arm was rising on its own, and Tony wasn't sure what the limb's intentions were (maybe to check Steve's pulse, like in the vision? But that was too morbid. Or perhaps to touch him on the shoulder, to make sure he was real. Or maybe, just maybe, to shake his hand like a normal person would). But the motion seemed to break the spell, and Steve closed the final distance between them, and all of a sudden Tony went rigid with nervousness, and he thought: But this was not supposed to be a hug! Why do people keep thinking everything is a hug?
Then he found himself pressed to the big chest, wrapped in gentle and a little desperate arms, and he let himself bury his head into Steve's shoulder for a moment and just held onto him, just breathed in the warmth. And this moment of contact seemed to break the final seal, and his own mind was suddenly tightly enveloped in the spacious, abundant affection that was all Steve; slowly bubbling joy finally dared rise it's head and peer out from the snow, blinked twice and said: Is this for real? Can I stay? Tony felt it spread through him like warm ice-cream, which made no sense whatsoever, but that's Steve for you, he supposed.
And then he remembered that, while Steve was emitting a shitton of Berger waves, Tony was emitting considerably less, and he didn't know if Steve was receiving any of his at all. So, basically, he had no idea if Steve was aware of the way Tony felt at all. And an old impulse to hide it, hide it while you still can resurfaced for a moment, but Tony pushed it firmly away. Somewhat self-consciously, he tried to hug Steve a bit better, a bit tighter and closer, but in the end he was aware that nothing but words would probably cut it this time.
"Hey," he murmured. "I missed you." It was easier to say than he thought it would be.
"I missed you too, Tony." As replies went, this one was blueberry pie and stars and late night coding sessions and all the good things in life, rolled into one.
"Herbed cream cheese omelet." Tony slid a perfectly folded omelet onto Steve’s plate, and another one onto his own. He could tell Steve was surprised that Tony could make something other than grilled cheese sandwiches.
"And a plain triple cheese omelet for my super-scientist son, because he doesn’t like cilantro," Tony said indulgently, before taking his place at the breakfast table.
"Um, Mr. Stark?" said Pete. The boy was wearing a red T-shirt that read May the d/dt(mv) be with you! (Tony wanted one too!). He looked super-awkward. "Thank you for breakfast, it smells wonderful." Steve murmured his own appreciation too; right at that moment, Tony had eyes only for him. Steve himself, however, seemed to divide his attention between the other two equally. Now that he was so close, Tony was getting little echoes off him all the time. Steve was drinking in both their presences, and while on one hand he seemed to be saying 'wow, you're really here, you're sitting next to me', he also seemed to be thinking: 'wow, you're not dead!' at the boy, and it was almost as intense. Steve had known he hadn't killed Peter for real, not here in any case; but those visions sure had a way of messing with your hippocampus. Tony concentrated. The boy was saying something on the lines with: "It gets weird though when you act like you’re my dad…"
Tony huffed. "Peter! I can’t believe you’d talk to your super-science father like that!" He clutched at his heart dramatically. The bubbling joy had to go somewhere, after all. He wasn't sure if it was his or Steve's but did it really matter? "Is this the thanks I get, after feeding you and housing you for the last," he glanced at the kitchen clock, "fifteen hours and sixteen minutes?"
Throughout this rendition, Peter’s face grew redder and redder like he was about to explode in protestations or laughter.
"Steve, this is Peter Parker, my genius intern, here for the weekend," Tony told Steve with relish. "He invented an anti-magnetic inverter for his high school science fair. Peter, this is Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, whom you've already met, if you remember. He was... bluer and somewhat more flaggy at the time."
"And, er, tossing platforms at people", Steve said, in a feeble attempt at humor that couldn't mask his enormous relief, at least from Tony. Steve held out his hand, and Peter shook it.
"Wow, it’s an honor Cap—Captain."
"You can call me Cap; I don’t mind," Steve said kindly.
"Okay!" Peter squeaked. He stuffed a piece of omelet in his mouth as if to dam an outburst of words. Steve went back to his food that he seemed to be enjoying very much. Tony served them extra ham slices on the side, and extra-sweet, extra-disgusting coffee for Steve.
"I can’t believe that I’m having breakfast with two of my heroes," Peter said. "Thanks again, Mr. Stark, for the tremendous opportunity."
Steve raised an eyebrow in Tony’s direction. Are you going to have him keep on calling you Mr. Stark?
Tony rolled his eyes, but obediently turned to Peter. "Just ‘Tony’ is fine, Pete. I've told you that before." Then his grin turned evil. "Or you can call me Papa Tony, if you want."
"Um," Peter said, holding his fork awkwardly. "I’ll just stick with Tony, thanks."
And then it was just him and Steve, outside on a balcony like back in the old days, and the sun was shining for once, and Tony found himself at a loss for words. Which was unacceptable, obviously. "Yeah," he said. "So that’s Peter."
"You did that for me," Steve said in wonder. "I mean, you thought I—you knew I—"
They were standing side by side, shoulders touching, elbows touching; pretending as if it was nothing out of the ordinary to be standing so close to each other.
Tony nodded. "I thought you might like to see him." And then he half-turned his head to look at Steve and smiled. Somehow, their faces seemed closer to each other than ever.
Tony’s quiet admission seemed to give Steve the courage to say the words that he had been holding in. "You share them, don't you? The dreams. I thought I sensed you there."
"It was so... you. What I felt."
"I can pretend to explain the science I don't totally understand yet, if you want me to, but..." Steve didn't, it seemed. Not right at that moment, at least. Tony felt him shift, and a firm hand sneaked around Tony's waist; Steve glanced at him from a corner of his eye. Still, all he said (quite nonchalantly, Tony had to give him that) was: "The alien mist, then?"
"It's timefog," Tony snapped. "And yeah. At least I think so."
"And it's all real, somewhere?"
Tony did care about the question of the multiverse, he did. Honest word, all that crap. But all he could think of right now was the light touch around his waist, and the warmth of Steve's body on the left side of him, searing his hip and side and arm. He turned around a little bit more (a little bit closer! every inch counted); Steve made as if to let go, probably thinking Tony was trying to untangle himself from him. Why would I ever want to do that, ever, like, ever? But of course Steve would be insecure. There was so much unsaid between them. No, scratch that. Everything between them was still unsaid, and he couldn't even imagine where he would start with the business of saying it, now. So he turned all the way to Steve (who had somehow managed to go from happy to worried and haunted in a matter of seconds). Kiss or words, kiss or words? No matter how much he longed to touch those lips with his own... And oh god, a hug like the one before, but with kissing; that thought sent a mental hot shiver trough him all right. Steve's eyes went marginally wider at that very moment. Which was... interesting.
"Do you feel this at all?" Tony asked quietly. And, he lay one hand against Steve's chest, and the other on his waist; and never looking away from Steve's eyes, Tony pushed all the warmth and kindness and joy and, yes, well, he had to say it at some point at least in the privacy of his head, love – he pushed it all towards Steve, he opened himself as much as he could and he showed. Put some Berger waves to a good use for once in his life. And all of a sudden, Steve's lips were on his, hot, insistent, desperate, scared. And there was fervent hope there, and a whole burning sea of tenderness, and to tell the truth, he had no idea what was his and what was Steve's any more, but if just kissing was going to feel like this, he honestly couldn't care less.
"You do know I'm sorry, don't you?", Steve whispered after a time.
"I got that," Tony replied, but it sounded too curt and dry even for him, so he tried again. "Me too, buddy. Look, I do know. You've been punishing yourself enough. You need to stop."
"When we're touching, I feel you much stronger." Steve paused. "I never knew you hurt this much."
And how in the name of hell did he pick that up now, with all the affection and desire and all the good things flowing back and forth between them? Oh well. Tony shrugged. "Guess I'm going to be a bit better now, though." And he noticed he was smiling.
"I guess." Steve smiled back. And seriously, he had to stop doing that. How was Tony supposed to have any kind of conversation while Steve did that?
"The other Steves and Tonys in the multiverse—" Steve hesitated. "Do you think they have people out there who love them?" And there, normal people could apparently say that word aloud. Well, cheers to them, he supposed. All he could do was plant another little kiss in the corner of Steve's lips.
"I hope so, Steve. I hope so," he said quietly. He did hope that. Out there, in the infinity of worlds, anything was possible, right?
Then they both leaned forward and, smoothly like an orchestrated scene, their lips greeted each other again in a languid kiss. Once, twice, then three times more. Their limbs—everything moved slowly like molasses. Steve closed his eyes, but Tony couldn't help but look. Not a second of this should go unobserved.
Tony’s eyes were hooded as he gently pressed their foreheads together. Holding Steve’s nape with one hand, he smiled. "I’ve got you."