A few years after Steve moved permanently back in time, he started having conversations with Tony again.
Don't look at him like that. He's not crazy.
It started out with little snatches of Tony's voice. He'd hear him, sometimes, while he was working in the basement with the bandsaw, or digging up the yard for Peggy's roses. “Ugh,” the figment of his imagination would say, “honestly, I know they’re in style now, but I’m still really judging you for those pants.”
Or: “Seriously, Cap, you have access to time travel and you decided to be an insurance agent? Why don’t you just make all your money in the stock market like a normal time traveler?”
And once, memorably: “Your fly’s down, soldier.”
He always ignored the voice, because he didn’t need to have run a support group in 2022 to know that hearing voices wasn’t a great sign, but sometimes - well, sometimes, he'd swear he saw a little bit of Tony out of the corner of his eye. Not like a ghost, or anything - Steve knew magic was real and aliens were out there, but he didn’t believe in ghosts. It was more like, when you walked by a person you thought you knew, but when when you looked again it was a stranger.
So really. He wasn’t crazy. Steve Rogers had met a lot of crazy people in his life, and he definitely wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t one of them.
Or at least, he didn’t think he was.
Until he started talking back.
It started one night when he was dying his hair.
Peggy had taught him how to do it, back when he’d just arrived and they were building his identity. He used to watch Natasha do it, when they were on the run, but it worked different in the 1950s, and anyway he couldn’t have explained any of that to Peggy even if he’d wanted to.
He bent down low, ducked under the tap to rinse, and when he looked up he caught a glimpse of Tony in the mirror. “Wow,” Tony said. “It’s hard seeing you as a brunette, but I gotta admit, it gets the job done. Do you get a lot of Anybody ever tell you look like Captain America?”
And Steve, who was, frankly, exhausted of Tony’s commentary, said, “Not as often as you’d think, all things considered.”
“Jesus christ,” Tony said, jumping back. “You can hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you,” Steve said, grabbing a towel and scrubbing his hair with it. “You’re a figment of my imagination.”
“Ah,” Tony said. “Right. About that - ”
“And I really shouldn’t be talking to a figment of my imagination,” Steve said. “Sam would be reading me the riot act. I can hear him now. Therapy works wonders, you know.”
“Sounds like Wilson,” Tony agreed. “And therapy does work wonders. You might want to look into it, once it becomes a thing in a couple of years.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve said, and slammed the bathroom door shut behind him.
The next time Tony showed up, Steve was waiting for the train, and it was pouring.
“Okay, so even if you don’t miss anything else about the future, you’ve gotta be missing accurate weather reports right now,” he said.
Steve glanced at him, then looked back across the otherwise-empty platform. “I don’t mind the rain.”
“Wow. So you’re really saying you don’t miss anything about the future.”
“I think we can pretty conclusively say that’s not true,” Steve said.
“I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?”
“Touche,” Tony said, but when Steve glanced at him again, he was gone.
“Oh, please tell me this is what I think it is.”
Steve set down the cardboard box. “What do you think it is?”
“I think I’m watching the Rogers-Carter household enter the modern era.”
Steve rolled his eyes as he tore the cardboard away. “I’m not sure most history textbooks say ‘TV’ is what defines the modern era. There, you think?”
“Little to the left, maybe,” Tony said. “I took one of these apart when I was a kid, you know. I made the parts into an semi-automatic spitball gun.”
“You were a weird kid,” Steve said, nudging the console to the left. “Back in my day, we would have been happy to have a cardboard box to play with.”
“There he is,” Tony said. “Old Man Cap. You walked uphill both ways in the snow to school too, right?”
“I grew up in Brooklyn, so no, I took the bus,” Steve said. He frowned down at the television set. “Do you think I should have gotten a bigger one?”
“I don’t think the difference between 21 inches and 24 inches is meaningful, no.”
“Don’t be a snob,” Steve said. “This is state of the art technology in 1954. I spent a month’s salary on this thing.”
“That is depressing. I’m depressed,” Tony said, flopping down onto Steve’s couch. “Are you still convinced I’m a hallucination?”
“Yup,” Steve said.
“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind.”
“Considering you are my mind, no.”
“Didn’t think so,” Tony said. “You sure you can handle getting that thing set up, buddy?”
“Well, it seems to have a plug of some sort,” Steve said, crawling out from behind the TV set. “But I used to fly Quinjets and operate time machines, so I think I might be able to figure it out.”
He turned the dials a few times, but nothing happened.
“Can we watch I Love Lucy?” Tony said, leaning forward attentively. “Hang on, let me get a magnifying glass.”
“You can’t act like you’re gonna enjoy watching this thing, Cap. This is torture. I have actually been tortured, multiple times, and honestly, this is worse.”
“It’s not so bad. And anyway,” he said as the back door opened, “it’s not just for me.”
“Right,” Tony said as the click of heels just barely preceded Peggy, whirling around the corner.
“Hi,” Steve said.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Peggy said. “What’s all this? A television?”
“Just out of the box,” Steve said.
“Oh.” Peggy looked slightly perplexed. “I didn’t realize you wanted one.”
Steve shrugged. “I just thought it might be nice.”
“Are they still popular, then, in - no, don’t tell me,” Peggy said quickly.
“I wasn’t going to,” Steve said. He could feel Tony’s eyes boring into him, and he shifted uncomfortably under his gaze.
“Of course not,” Peggy said. She smiled, pressed a quick kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth. “Perhaps we’ll break it in tonight? I’ve got to take a call.”
“Of course,” Steve said. “I’ll make sure it’s all set up before you - ”
But Peggy was already gone, off to shut herself in the spare bedroom with the telephone.
“You guys were a power couple before that was even a thing,” Tony said.
“She’s busy a lot,” Steve said. “Which is great, but it’d be nice to see her once in a while.”
“Being married to a badass has its downsides,” Tony said sympathetically.
“She thinks I might be able to do some work for the SSR, in a few years,” Steve said. “Nothing at HQ, but ops, maybe. Get a group of specialists young enough that they don’t remember my reels, wait until beards come into style, it might be an option.”
“Well, considering she’ll be the director in a decade, I guess you’ll have an in,” Tony said. “Does she know?”
“What, that she’ll be the director?”
“Well, that, but I was more talking about, you know. Everything.”
“The entire future? No. I’m not stupid.”
“Eh, jury’s out,” Tony said. “You took a hell of a risk coming here.”
“Well, I’m known for playing it pretty safe, so I thought I’d mix things up,” Steve said.
One of the hardest things to get used to was not being able to train.
Not that he was training for anything anymore, but he used to count on it to clear his head: the steady pounding of his feet on the pavement, the pull of the tape wrapped around his knuckles, the burn in his lungs when he pushed himself as hard as he could go and then harder. These days, all he could do was sneak out in the middle of the night sometimes and run down to the docks, sprint up and down the pier and shift shipping crates until sweat trickled down his back.
If he was honest, it was probably a stupid risk to take, but if anyone saw him, it would be their word against his; it’s not like there were surveillance cameras everywhere.
And it was easier when Peggy was gone. They were both committed to preserving the timeline, but Steve couldn’t help pushing against the boundaries little bit, testing the limits of what was safe. Peggy didn’t say anything, usually, but Steve could sense her disapproval in the stiffness of her spine when he crawled back into bed.
When Steve let himself in through the back door one hot summer night after one of his forays down to the water, Tony was waiting for him in the kitchen.
“Casual midnight stroll?” the apparition said, leaning against the counter.
“I try to keep my workouts private,” Steve said. “Can’t go around making everybody else feel insecure.”
“And yet nobody ever believed me when I said Captain America was an arrogant douchebag,” Tony said. “So where’s Agent Carter?”
“Out of the country on a mission.”
Steve pressed his lips together. Considering it was coming from his subconscious, this line of questioning wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was irritating. “I don’t know.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“You do know the SSR is a secret organization, right?”
“Yeah, but you’re - you,” Tony said, waving his hands.
“It’s hard to get clearance when you’re supposed to be dead.”
“But she’s got you on a need to know basis?”
Steve stuck his head into the freezer. He’d never say it out loud, but god, he missed central air conditioning. “Do you have a point with all this?”
“I don’t know, do I?” Tony said. “I’m supposed to be your subconscious, after all.”
Steve slammed the freezer shut. “You know, for a hallucination, you can be pretty annoying.”
“Well, I guess it’s an accurate portrayal,” Tony said. “Can I ask you something?”
“Can I stop you?” Steve said wearily.
“Are you happy here?”
Steve looked up sharply. “Of course I am.”
“Good,” Tony said. “That’s - I’m glad to hear that. It’s just that sometimes, I see you, and I think, huh, you know, he doesn’t look that happy, considering he’s a guy who got everything he ever wanted.”
“So what, you’re watching me all the time now?”
“Not all the time,” Tony said. “When you’re in the shower I close my eyes, I promise.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” He puttered around the kitchen, wiping down the clean countertops and rearranging the fruit bowl, and when he turned around, Tony was still there. “What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “Nothing, really. But you can talk to me, if you want. About - anything, really. It’s not like I can tell anybody.”
“Sam would probably say talking to my own hallucinations won’t help me work through my lingering trauma.”
“You miss him, don’t you.”
“You think?” Steve said. He blew out a breath, cocked a hip against the doorframe. “It’s harder, being here. Than I thought it would be.”
Tony considered him. “That makes sense. You gave up a lot. Your friends. Your job. Internet porn.”
Steve snorted. “Yeah, that was a huge sacrifice.”
“But it was worth it, right?” Tony said. “Because of Peggy.”
“I love Peggy,” Steve said. “And I - thought I’d belong here.” He looked out the window, watched the first grey light of dawn trickle in from the east. “But sometimes I think that maybe I don’t belong anywhere anymore. How’s that for analyzing my own subconscious?”
But when Steve looked back, Tony was gone.
Steve wondered, occasionally, how many more years it would be until CT scans were available. Not that he could ever get one, but still.
“Anything interesting in there?”
Steve lowered his newspaper as Tony settled down on the bench at his side. “Honestly, it kind of takes the sting out of the Cold War when you know how it ends.”
“It must be weird, watching it all play out.”
“Not much weirder than skipping it the first time around,” Steve said dryly.
“Do you think you’ll ever jump in and tell everybody what to do?” Tony said. “I mean, don’t you wish you’d called up the president and been like, the Bay of Pigs is a terrible idea!”
“That’s still a few years away,” Steve said.
“Okay, what about the Kennedy assassination?”
“You think I should take a man down for a crime he hasn’t yet committed?”
“What about Vietnam? The Challenger explosion? The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot?”
“You realize if I changed any of those things, I’d be creating a spin-off universe, right?”
“You don’t know that for sure,” Tony said sullenly.
“Bruce said the Ancient One was pretty clear about the risks,” Steve said. “We all agreed we wouldn’t mess with the timeline, so this? This is me not messing with the timeline.”
“I mean, you did go into the past and risk a catastrophic disruption of the flow of the entire 20th century just so you could get laid, but - ”
“I’m sorry, am I getting a lecture from the guy who actually invented time travel?” Steve said archly. “Even for you, that’s pretty - ”
“I invented time travel to save the world, not so you could play house.”
It wasn’t anything Steve hadn’t thought before, but hearing it in Tony’s voice was especially galling. “Fuck you.”
“I just - how can you not do something about any of it?” Tony said, and he sounded angry, almost furious. “All the stupid mistakes, the fighting, the suffering? How can you say that? Do you just not care?”
“Of course I care,” Steve said. “I’d change all kinds of things. I’d start with rooting HYDRA out of the SSR. I’d tell Peggy to get our defenses up and pointed toward the stars, stop Loki in his tracks. I’d get Bucky out of the Soviet Union and stop him from killing your parents - I’d change everything.” Steve sighed and lifted his paper up again. “And that’s why I can’t change anything. This world doesn’t need me meddling with it. It doesn’t need me at all, actually; I’m a trespasser. I’m just trying to keep my head down.”
Tony sat next to him quietly for a while. If Steve had needed any more confirmation that the man beside him was a hallucination, he wouldn’t have needed it anymore; the real Tony Stark had never been silent for so long in his entire life.
“This world is lucky to have you,” Tony said finally.
Steve snorted. “This world doesn’t care one way or another. I learned that a long time ago.”
“Whatever you say, Cap.”
Steve wanted to say something else, it was right there on the tip of his tongue, but in the end he just went back to his paper. It wasn’t good form to talk to a hallucination in public, anyway.
Steve had nightmares.
He’d always had nightmares, and when he was lucky, he’d had someone to wake him up from them. When he was a kid, it was his ma, her cool hand on his forehead and her lips at his ear. When they were on the ground in Germany, Bucky used to nudge him until he jerked awake, and Bucky would laugh at him until he relaxed enough to laugh too. When he was on the run, Nat would slam a door or drop something heavy, and when he emerged from his room Sam would be watching TV, plenty of space cleared on the sofa beside him.
Nowadays, Peggy woke him up sometimes, but Peggy was gone a lot and when she was home she was usually exhausted, so Steve woke himself up, gulping for breath and even more tired than when he’d gone to sleep.
Until one night, when he woke up and Tony was staring right at him.
“Jesus,” he hissed, sitting bolt upright. “What the - ”
“Did you feel me?” Tony said. “You were - it looked a shitty dream, so I was trying to wake you up, I was shaking you and everything, and finally you - ”
“Damn it.” Steve climbed carefully out of bed; Peggy barely shifted, and as he padded out of the bedroom and down the stairs, the apparition followed in his wake.
“It worked!” Tony said as Steve burst into the kitchen and rummaged for something to eat. “I woke you up!”
“No, you didn’t,” Steve grumbled.
But Tony looked thrilled. “Yes, I did. I did! You can feel me. You can see me, you can hear me, and now you can feel me, this is huge, this is - ”
“You didn’t wake me up,” Steve snapped. “I woke myself up. And now I’m talking to myself. Because you’re not real.”
Tony’s face fell, and Steve felt terrible, which was stupid, because Tony was in his head. You couldn’t hurt the feelings of somebody who wasn’t there.
“Didn’t you feel me?” Tony said slowly. “I was - when I touched you, it felt warm. I thought you could - are you sure you didn’t feel me?”
“I’m sure,” Steve said.
“What were you dreaming about?”
“Nothing,” Steve said, which was a lie. He lifted the lid from the nearest jar and grabbed a handful of cookies.
“That’s real healthy,” Tony said.
“Yeah, I’m not interested in your commentary.”
“Because I’m not real?” Tony said snidely.
“Yup,” Steve said.
“If you really think I’m a figment of your imagination,” Tony said, “why do you think your brain picked me?”
“Because you’re dead,” Steve said. He swallowed a mouthful of walnut chocolate chip. “And probably a couple of other reasons.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Oh, I don’t know. The fact that you drove me crazy. All the things that happened between us that I regret. The stupid, pointless crush I had on you probably comes into it somewhere.”
Tony stared at him. “The - what?”
“Sam would probably say something obnoxious, like that it’s my subconscious trying to process grief alongside my unresolved emotional attachment. He’d probably be right, but don’t tell him that.”
“Nobody else can hear me when I talk to them,” Tony said, a little distantly. “Did you really just use the word ‘crush’?”
“Nat called it a hateboner.” Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s funny, this isn’t at all how I pictured you’d react. I’m surprised my subconscious is getting it so wrong.”
“How’d you think I’d react?” Tony asked, sounding genuinely curious.
“Mostly I thought you’d laugh at me,” Steve said.
“You never imagined I’d do something… nicer than that?”
“Once in a while.” Steve smiled. “Sometimes it was a lot nicer.”
“Captain Rogers, I’m appalled,” Tony said. “You had fantasies about me?”
“Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?” Steve said.
And now his subconscious was getting it right: Tony was smirking, leaning closer, his lips parting slightly, and -
Steve winced as the kitchen light flipped on. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I was just - who were you talking to, sweetheart?” Peggy said, blinking at him from the doorway.
“Nobody,” Steve said. “Myself.”
Peggy frowned. “Are you certain?”
“Peg,” Steve said, and took a deep breath. “I just couldn’t sleep, all right? Go back to bed, I’ll be there in a minute.”
Peggy stared at him, unconvinced, and probably annoyed too, if Steve was reading her right. “All right,” she said finally, and after she turned the light off she looked back at him, but Steve just looked down at the countertop until her footsteps had padded back up the stairs.
“You should get up there,” Tony said quietly, and Steve looked up. Tony was still in the corner, watching him.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “I probably should.”
Something in his chest ached. Tony had been gone for years. It shouldn’t hurt this much. It couldn’t hurt this much, Steve thought, and scrubbing a hand over his face he headed for the door.
“Night, Cap,” Tony said.
And against Steve’s better judgment, he replied, “Night, Tony.”
It was, in the end, just another thing to add to the list, long and ever-growing, of Things He Hid From Peggy.
Of course, “an ongoing hallucination of my dead teammate-turned-enemy-turned-friend” wasn’t even that big of a deal, not on a list that included “how to time travel”, “the existence of aliens” and “the entire future”, but it didn’t help.
The problem was that he was hiding a lot of things, and in the end, he realized, so was she. They had a small number of safe topics: Steve talked to Peggy about his job, and the books he was reading, and the rose garden that was ostensibly hers but which he cared for, most of the time, because she was always busy and he wasn’t. They talked about the war, about the people they’d both known, some of whom were dead and the rest of whom they didn’t see anymore, because they all thought Steve was.
He asked her careful questions about work, mindful never to imply that he had knowledge one way or another, but ultimately he could tell she always thought he did, always, even when he didn’t. It was just under the surface: could you have helped? Could you have saved them? What aren’t you telling me?
So he stopped asking.
They didn’t talk about current events, because Steve sometimes accidentally mentioned things that hadn’t happened yet, and occasionally they could laugh it off but mostly they couldn’t. They didn’t talk about Steve’s past, because no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t think of how to explain it; everything had such weight behind it, an entire world Peggy couldn’t imagine and didn’t want to hear about. They didn’t talk about the politics, or her friends, or what was on TV.
Eventually, Steve realized with a growing certainty, they wouldn’t talk about anything at all.
“And then I said honey, if that’s a four pound roast, then I’m a professional golfer!”
There was a beat of silence, and then Peggy laughed, and Steve realized that was his cue: he laughed too. He figured that Bob and Shirley had to be able to tell it was fake, but if the broad smiles on their faces were any sign, they didn’t have a clue.
“Do you golf?” Shirley asked Steve politely when the laughter died down.
“God, no,” Steve said.
Under the table Peggy elbowed him.
“But I should probably learn,” he continued quickly. “You’re a big golfer, Bob?”
“When I can find the time,” Bob said.
“I’m always telling him he should go more often,” Shirley said. “Maybe you two could go together one day!”
Steve, who had recently pretended to burn his tongue to avoid talking to Bob in the breakroom, smiled. “That would be great.”
“So Peggy, what is it you do again?” Bob said. “Steve mentioned you have a job, but he’s never said what it is.”
“I work at the Army base as a clerk,” Peggy said.
“That sounds fascinating,” Shirley said. “I was in a steno pool for a few years before Bob and I got married. Do you meet a lot of important people?”
“A few,” said Peggy, who had recently requested several million dollars of funding directly from the Secretary of Defense. “Shirley, do tell me all about the charity banquet you’re putting together.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” Steve said abruptly, standing up and smiling tightly at Peggy. She smiled back and then turned back to Shirley, and their voices faded away as he wound through the busy restaurant and burst into the restroom.
Steve wasn’t sure what it said about him that he wasn’t even surprised to find Tony there waiting for him.
“So that seems fun,” Tony said.
Steve chuckled weakly. “They’re just so....”
“Old fashioned?” Tony said.
“Not the right word, all things considered, but it’ll do.”
“Better than those neighbors you had over a few weeks ago for drinks,” Tony said. “On top of being catastrophically boring, they were also pretty racist.”
“They weren’t even that bad compared to the average,” Steve said miserably.
“Well, it’s 1955, right? A couple more years and you can start going to civil rights marches. Do you really want to spend time with these people?”
“I want to have friends,” Steve said. “And Peggy deserves to have friends.”
“So you’ll take what you can get,” Tony said. “Man. You used to hang out with actual gods. Aliens. You know a talking raccoon! Bob from accounting has gotta pale in comparison.”
“That’s an understatement.” Steve leaned against the sink, stared into the mirror. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
“You can do this for as long as you want to,” Tony said. “You can do anything. You’ve punched Hitler over 200 times. But you don’t have to do this.”
Steve felt his spine go ramrod straight. “What’s that supposed to mean.”
“It means that you came here, to this time, because for the first time you were doing what you wanted,” Tony said. “But if it’s not what you want anymore… what I’m saying is that you have options, okay?”
“What options?” Steve snapped. “I don’t have options.”
“Hey, I’m just saying,” Tony said, holding up his hands in surrender. “Stand down, soldier. You’re the one who said - ”
“I know what I said,” Steve said shortly. “But I don’t want to hear it from you.”
“Of course you don’t,” Tony said. “I’m just a figment of your imagination. What do I know? Good luck with the double date, Cap.”
Tony disappeared, and Steve stayed at the sink for a while longer, looking into the mirror and wishing he would come back.
Steve slammed the door behind him so hard he heard the window pane crack.
He pressed his lips together and pounded his way down the back steps. Just another thing to add to the list.
The neighborhood was quiet this late, just the occasional car backfire or snick of a window shutting to keep out the mosquitoes, but Steve didn’t hear any of it for blocks over the rushing in his ears and the pounding of his heart. He didn’t hear anything, really, which was why he nearly jumped out of his skin when Tony said, “That sounded pretty terrible.”
The rushing died away, and Steve turned to look at Tony, trudging along behind him with his hands in his pockets.
“Honestly?” Steve said. “It was almost kind of nice to fight. Better than the silence, at least.”
“What started it? You leave your dirty socks on the floor?”
“Something like that,” Steve said.
They walked quietly for several blocks. If Tony had really been there, the silence would have been almost companionable.
“You want to talk about it?” Tony said finally.
Steve chuckled ruefully. “Not really.”
“Well, if you change your mind, I’m here. Not all the time, or anything. Nothing creepy. Just - I’m here. And considering I can’t tell anyone…”
“And it’s not like I have anyone else to talk to,” Steve said.
“Well,” Tony said, “I wasn’t gonna say it, but.”
Steve blew out a breath. They walked another block. Finally, he said, “I used to think about her all the time.”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I know.”
“Every day - I’d think how if it was just possible, I’d walk right back into her life and make it work out the way it was supposed to,” Steve said. “Leave it all behind, live a quiet life, finally get that dance.” He paused at the crest of a hill, gazed out at the city lights. “But maybe this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go at all.”
“There’s no shame in something not working out.”
“So, what,” Steve said. “You think I should just leave her? Go back to 2023 like none of it ever happened?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I don’t have all the answers. But I’m not - she cares about you, right? She wouldn’t want you to stay when you’re so unhappy. And you don’t want to make her unhappy anymore, either. Neither of you deserve that.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Say what? Stuff you know already? If I’m your subconscious, then nothing I’m saying can possibly surprise you,” Tony said.
“Stop,” Steve snapped. “I know I fucked up. I know this isn’t working. I know it, I think it all the time, but hearing it from you - hearing it in his voice, it’s like torture.”
“I’m not trying to torture you,” Tony said. “I’m trying to - I know I’m not doing a very good job, it’s not really my thing, but I’m trying to help you - ”
“Well, I wish you would stop,” Steve said. “In fact, I wish you would leave me alone.”
It would have looked bad to anyone who walked by: Steve, standing in the middle of a dark street, yelling at nothing. But all Steve could see was Tony, staring back at him with those eyes that Steve always thought could see right through him, right down to the five foot nothing kid from Brooklyn who didn’t know anything at all.
“Sure,” Tony said, and he was backing away into the shadows, already fading. “Sure I can, Cap. Sorry about all this. About everything. I’ll, uh - yeah. I’ll leave you alone.”
And the crazy thing about it was that, for a while, he did.
Steve didn’t think that Sam would have anything good to say about fighting off PTSD-induced hallucinations by yelling at them, but hey, you couldn’t argue with results.
“This seat taken?”
Steve looked up, surprised. “Hey.”
“Hi,” Tony said. “Mind if I sit down?”
“Pretty sure I can’t stop you,” Steve said.
Tony lowered himself into the booth across from Steve. “Having a nice night?”
Steve shrugged, grabbed the last french fry and took his time eating it. Tony drummed his fingers on the formica table. A waitress bustled by and didn’t even look at Steve.
“You got new glasses,” Tony said eventually.
“The old ones broke,” Steve said.
“Somebody hit you?”
“I put them down too hard.”
“Well, they’re still working on plastics in 1956.”
“Already? Wow,” Tony said.
“Why are you here?”
“You want an answer that makes sense, or one that doesn’t?”
“Forget it,” Steve said.
He pulled out his wallet and dropped a few crumpled bills on the table, then pushed himself out of the booth and headed for the door. The bell tinkled behind him, and he walked half a mile before he looked up to see Tony trailing along beside him.
“Where are you headed?” Tony asked.
“Right,” Tony said. “I can - if you want, I can go. I just thought I’d - ”
“No,” Steve said. “I mean - you don’t have to go. God, I’m talking to myself in public again.”
“Well, yeah,” Tony said. “But hey, still not rock bottom.”
“Nope,” Tony said. “Rock bottom was that off the rack suit you wore when you testified in front of Congress in 2012. It was tragic. Whole websites went up overnight to protest it. The Dow lost five hundred points - ”
“All right, all right,” Steve said, swallowing a grin.
They walked a few more blocks, and Tony almost ran into him - or would have, if he was corporeal - when Steve stopped and unlocked a door tucked in next to a laundromat.
“What’s this?” Tony said.
Steve started up he steps. “My new place.”
Tony followed him inside. “Oh. I didn’t know.”
“Well, I told you to fuck off a while back, so how could you?” Steve threw his keys down on the table and flopped down onto the fraying sofa. “I thought I’d gotten rid of you, actually.”
“If only it were that easy,” Tony said, settling himself down next to Steve.
Steve sighed and dropped his head back, stared up at the ceiling. There was a water stain in the corner. “I guess it makes sense that you’d come back now.” He chuckled. “At least I have my hallucinations to keep me company.”
“What happened?” Tony asked. “With Peggy.”
“A lot of things,” Steve said. “And nothing. I thought we loved each other enough to get through it.” He closed his eyes. “Maybe we do. I don’t know yet.”
“That’s,” Tony said, and paused before continuing, “shitty. Not exactly surprising. But shitty.”
“Shut up,” Steve sighed, but the worst part of it was that Tony was his subconscious, and that meant he already knew that Tony was right. “It was my fault. I didn’t - I don’t have any friends, I don’t care about my job, I don’t - all I have is her. And that’s too much to put on any one person. I should never have put her in this position.”
“I don’t think Peggy Carter’s ever been in a position she didn’t want to be in.”
“I showed up from the future and asked her to marry me,” Steve said. “What was she supposed to say? We eloped with a justice of the peace and a witness we had to pay for. Every little girl’s dream, right?”
“Carter’s dream was to get you back,” Tony said.
“That was her dream ten years ago,” Steve said. “Now… I don’t know if I know her well enough to know what she dreams about.”
“So, what, you’re staying in this place until you figure it out?”
“I don’t know.” Steve cracked an eye open. Tony was looking at him pensively. “What?”
“No matter where you are in time, it’s like you can’t help but put every goddamn thing on your own shoulders,” Tony said.
“What?” Tony said.
“It’s just funny, hearing that come out of your mouth,” Steve said. “You never would have told me to go easy on myself. If anything, I never took enough blame for you.”
“That’s not true,” Tony said. “I never - well, okay, I probably said that a couple of times.”
“Once in a while.”
Tony smiled ruefully. “I’d apologize, if I thought you’d believe it was really me.”
“It’s a nice idea,” Steve said. “I miss you, you know.”
“Even though I was always such a dick to you?”
“You weren’t always a dick,” Steve said. “A lot of the time, yes, but not always.”
“Well, I had to mask all the flirting somehow.”
Steve laughed hollowly. “Can we not?”
“What?” Tony said.
“Pretend that I’m having that conversation with you,” Steve said, miserably. “I don’t want to do that. Not tonight.”
“Okay, buddy,” Tony said. He leaned back, away from Steve, until he was almost on the other end of the couch. “Whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want is a little complicated,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I know the feeling.”
In the dream, Tony was staring at him.
Steve knew it was a dream. He always knew he was dreaming; ever since the serum, his dreams had a slightly fuzzy quality to them, blurred at the edges and a bit unreal, nothing like the crisp view from his 20/20 eyes. In dreams he thought fast and moved slow, and big band music mixed with holo-screens, and it all made perfect sense until it didn’t.
That’s how he knew this one was a dream: Tony was staring at him, biting his lip and smirking. Steve wanted him closer, and because it was a dream, suddenly he was closer. One of his hands slid under Steve’s shirt, his fingers tracing circles on Steve’s ribs. Steve ran his hands through Tony’s hair, and Tony scratched his nails down Steve’s back, and Steve could feel the firm, warm length of his body, pressed up against Steve’s, so warm it was like fire -
“Steve,” Tony said, and Steve woke up.
Tony was perched on the edge of the bed.
“Why’d you wake me up,” Steve said, annoyed that his brain would pull him out of one dream only to launch him into another.
“Because you said my name,” Tony said. “What were you dreaming about?”
“Nothing.” Steve rolled over, away from Tony, and stared at the beige wall.
“It sounded like it wasn’t a… bad dream,” Tony said.
Steve didn’t say anything. He shifted, his waistband pulled tight around the swollen head of his cock.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed,” Tony said. His voice was quiet and gentle, gentler than Steve could ever remember it being. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have woken you up. I just…” Tony blew out a breath. “I couldn’t help myself.”
“You’re not really here.”
“No,” Tony said. “I guess I’m not.”
Steve closed his eyes, willed himself back to sleep.
“And since I’m not,” Tony said slowly, “you can do whatever you want.”
Steve’s eyes flew open.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Tony said.
Steve chuckled darkly. “You wouldn’t mind.”
“You’re thinking about it,” Tony said. His voice was light, like he was enjoying himself. “You’re thinking about whatever I was doing to you in the dream.”
Steve shifted minutely.
“What was I doing?”
The voice was almost like a hand trailing its way down Steve’s spine.
“Was I touching you?”
Steve breathed in, breathed out.
“Was I, Cap?”
“Yes,” Steve said, quietly.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” Steve could imagine him shifting on the bed behind him, and he reached down and grasped himself, just to relieve some of the pressure. “Where was I touching you?”
“That would be pretty nice,” Tony agreed. “I’d like to get my hands on you. All over you. God, I’ve thought about touching every part of you. All that muscle, strung tight, so tense, just for me.”
Steve gripped himself more tightly.
“I bet I could get you worked up with just my hands. I have pretty amazing hands, I’ve been told. Of course, I could do even better with my mouth.”
Steve groaned. Against his will, he started stroking.
“You like that idea, huh?” Tony said. He sounded like he was close to laughing, like he was amused; it was infuriating. “Maybe you’ve even thought about it before - me on my knees, I mean - ”
“Oh, god,” Steve said, pressing his face into the pillow and working his hand.
“You have thought about it before,” Tony said. “That is interesting. Faster, Steve.”
“You know what I’d do right now? I’d pull every blanket off this bed and just - just look at you. I’d run my mouth all over you. I’d take you all the way into my mouth - I’d swallow you so deep, I want to feel you. I want to make you feel good. Do you feel good?”
“Yes,” Steve whispered, the pressure building. “Yes, I - ”
“Don’t stop,” Tony said. “Imagine you can feel me behind you, and it’s my hand wrapped around you, and all I can think about is you. That’s all there is, just my hand around your cock, and I’m pressing into you from behind, you can tell how bad I want you, I want you, Steve, god, I want you - ”
“Tony,” Steve gasped, and he came, his hips stuttering as he fell over the edge with Tony’s voice in his ear.
When he opened his eyes, Tony was gone.
And when he woke up Steve wasn’t sure when he’d been awake and when he’d been asleep - but really, it didn’t matter much either way.
They didn’t talk about it the next time Tony showed up, which was more proof (not that Steve needed any) that Tony was just a figment of his imagination. The real Tony would never have let him live it down.
At least, that’s what he thought. Steve wasn’t always sure, anymore, if he knew what the real Tony would do. Sometimes, the real Tony seemed at risk of disappearing, fading out of focus underneath this fake Tony that Steve had dreamed up. Steve didn’t want him to disappear; the real Tony had been brilliant, and infuriating, and arrogant, and brave, and not Steve’s at all. This Tony was almost a different person entirely.
But the problem was that, when he was really honest with himself, Steve didn’t want him to disappear either.
“What are you thinking about?”
Steve put his book down on his chest. “Excuse me?”
“You’re reading, but you have the TV on too,” Tony said. “Which means you’re not paying attention to either. So. What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing.” Steve picked his book up and tried to find his place.
Tony settled himself on the floor and leaned against the sofa. “You’re not that good at hiding things, you know. You think you’re good at it, but you’re not.”
“Mm,” Steve said noncommittally, reading the first sentence on the page several times in a row.
“You saw Peggy today.”
Steve tossed his book aside in defeat. “Last night.”
“How’d it go?”
“She asked me if the Soviets launched their satellite so they could bomb us from space.”
“More or less,” Steve said. “I told her not to worry about it. She had some choice words for that.”
“I can imagine she did.”
“Then she asked me if I had any intention of moving back in, and I told her I didn’t know, and she said for someone who knew the whole future I had a hell of a hard time figuring out what I wanted.” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “And then I said that for someone who didn’t want to know the future she sure had a lot of pointed questions, and that was when she stormed out.”
Tony winced. “So it wasn’t exactly a big romantic reunion.”
“I don’t think that was ever in the cards,” Steve said, “but yeah, it could have gone better.”
“So what comes next?”
“What is this, twenty questions?”
“Okay, okay,” Tony said. “You don’t want to talk about it, I get it. So what do you want to do?”
“Well, I was going to pretend to read a book and half-listen to Jack Paar,” Steve said.
“It’s really a thrill a minute lifestyle around here.”
“Just the quiet retirement I was looking for.”
Tony snorted. “I know a little about quiet retirements. They don’t always work out. Too many bad guys just begging to get punched.”
“Is it bad that I kind of miss punching people?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it’s good,” Tony said. “But I’m guessing that’s not the only part you miss.”
“Not even close,” Steve said. “I miss the shield. I miss jumping out of things I probably shouldn’t. Hell, sometimes I even miss your voice in my ear, pissing me off.”
“Well, it’s not hard to miss a voice like mine.”
“God, you’re obnoxious.”
“You love it.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “I guess I do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
“Maybe you just have a good imagination.”
Steve smirked. “I think we can both agree I have a very vivid imagination.”
“Not as vivid as you think,” Tony said. He licked his lips, and Steve couldn’t help but watch. When had he gotten close enough for Steve to think something like that?
Steve leaned closer. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.
Steve had a feeling that if Sam were here, he probably wouldn’t be encouraging Steve to flirt with his hallucination.
So Steve knew it was crazy, knew it was more than crazy, to close your eyes and lean forward and try to kiss a hallucination, but Steve had been crazy for a long time by now, so -
And that’s when his lips met Tony’s.
Tony’s unmistakably real lips.
Steve opened his eyes. “Tony?”
“Oh, finally,” Tony said, and then he disappeared.
For the next eight days, sixteen hours, and thirty seven minutes, Steve waited.
Well, he didn’t just wait. He looked: at home, at work, on the train, walking through the breakfast cereal aisle - always worried if he wasn’t looking, he might miss something, even though Tony had never had an issue making his presence known before. He glanced over his shoulder on the street, kept the TV off so he could hear every sound in his apartment, let the phone ring itself off the hook at the office. When he slept - which he mostly didn’t - he left the light on and a note on top of the blankets: Wake me up.
Before, he thought he was crazy for seeing Tony. Now, he was worried that he’d go crazy if he didn’t.
Steve was unloading a bag of groceries when someone said, “Uh, hi.”
A man with less finely-honed reflexes would have dropped the bottle of milk; as it stood, even Steve bobbled it as he spun around. “So, you’re real.”
“Yup,” Tony said. “Surprise!”
Steve took a deep breath. “How is this possible?”
“It isn’t, really,” Tony said. “But the thing about the Infinity gauntlet is that it kind of changes the meaning of impossible.”
“So,” Steve said, “you’re - ”
“Stuck in the quantum realm,” Tony said. “It was kind of a last minute call, I would have done things a little different, but, you know, I didn’t have time to run the calculations. Clearly, I didn’t quite get it right and ended up sort of, from what I can tell, free floating in spacetime? Way less fun than it sounds, by the way.”
“Why hasn’t anyone gotten you out yet?” Steve said. “If you can talk to us - ”
“So the thing about that is that I can’t,” Tony said. “Nobody else can hear me or see me or, um, anything else with me.”
“Just me?” Steve said, surprised. “Why?”
“True love?” Tony said. “I’m kidding, it’s quantum entanglement. We traveled through the quantum realm together a couple times, probably swapped a few electrons, things get really messy at the subatomic level. Are you freaking out? It’s okay if you want to freak out.”
“I’m not freaking out,” Steve said. “People coming back from the dead isn’t exactly new to me. How do I get you out of the quantum realm?”
“You can’t, probably,” Tony said.
“They got Janet van Dyne out.”
“Different situation,” Tony said. “Based on what I can remember from Hank Pym’s records you need to be able to communicate with the person inside the quantum realm and have access to a pretty massive number of Pym particles. Which won’t be invented for another 15 years.”
Steve nodded. “So I’ll have to go back to the future.”
“Okay, first of all,” Tony said, “I’m so glad I died and then came back to life so I could hear you say those exact words, it was all worth it, and second of all, no, you don’t have to go back to the future. You live here now.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Steve said. “If I can get you out - ”
“You are so predictable, you know that?” Tony said.
Steve stared at him. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You and your long and storied history of self-sacrifice,” Tony said.
“I don’t - ”
“Please, Cap, spare me, everybody knows that when SHIELD found you in the ice, the plane you were in was full of other, slightly smaller planes.”
“Why are you trying to convince me not to help you?”
“We don’t even know it’s possible to help me,” Tony said. “What I did was pretty stupid, and bringing me back might, I don’t know, destabilize the entire spacetime continuum.”
Steve crossed his arms. “It’s funny, you say you’re real, but the Tony Stark I knew never gave up on anything.”
Tony sighed. “Look, I know it’s hard to understand, but I’m okay. I see my kid sometimes, I see Peter and Rhodey. Pepper, too, once in a while. But, you know, it’s been almost ten years in the future too, so. Some ships have sailed.”
“Oh,” Steve said. “That’s - I’m sorry.”
“First of all, I’m dead, so don’t be, and second of all, last time we saw each other you kissed me, so are you really?”
“I kissed you when I thought you weren’t real,” Steve said. “And speaking of things I did when I thought you weren’t real - ”
“If you’re referring to the x-rated version of the pottery scene from Ghost from a few weeks ago, please don’t apologize, it was the best thing that’s happened to me since I died,” Tony said.
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “Tony.”
“Steve,” Tony said. “Seriously. Nothing has to change here. We can keep going exactly like we always have. You tell me about your problems, I give you shit, I disappear and we do it all over again a few weeks later. It’s nice.”
“Nice,” Steve repeated dubiously. “Your standards have clearly fallen.”
“Well, it’s hard to be demanding when you’re dead,” Tony said. “I - look, you’re the only person I’ve talked to in - honestly I don’t know how time works, exactly, but it feels like forever, can we not waste that time talking about something that’s never going to happen?”
“How much time do we have?” Steve said.
“No way to know,” Tony said. “You making dinner?”
“Oh,” Steve said. He looked back at the groceries. “Yeah. Can you eat?”
“Probably better not to risk it,” Tony said. “When I get really small again I might explode. I’m all stocked up on tardigrade meat, anyway.”
“I’m assuming I don’t want to know what that means.”
“You do not,” Tony confirmed. “See? We can be normal. This is normal.”
“Nothing about you has ever been normal,” Steve said, opening the fridge and waiting for Tony’s retort, but when he turned back around Tony was gone.
“So this is nice, did you get a promotion?”
Steve looked up from the file on his desk. “A promotion?”
“Yeah, your office is bigger than last time I saw it,” Tony said, peering out the window. “Great view of the parking lot. What are you driving these days?”
“A ‘57 Chevy Bel Air.”
Tony whistled. “Not bad. You make that kind of money as an insurance broker?”
Steve crossed the office and shut the door gently. “Not really.”
“Captain America,” Tony said, sounding scandalized. “Are you taking financial advantage of your knowledge of the future?”
“I placed a few well-timed wagers,” Steve said carefully. “Las Vegas. All perfectly legal.”
“Except for the part where you know the outcome.”
Steve shrugged. “The house doesn’t know the difference.”
“Is this a mid-life crisis?”
“That’s pretty bold, coming from you.”
“Touche,” Tony said. “How’re things with Peggy?”
Steve stifled a wince. “Pretty much the same.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“What else? Have you seen her? Are you moving back in?”
“This thing where you think I’m going to talk to you like I did before? Not gonna happen,” Steve said.
“Why?” Tony said, exasperated. “What difference does it make? So you spilled your guts to me a few times. Who cares? It’s not like I can tell anyone.”
“It’s not about that.”
“So what is it about?” Tony said, leaning forward. “Seriously, Cap, what is it about being honest that makes you so uncomfortable?”
“I’m always honest.”
“You mean you’re always exactly as honest as you want to be,” Tony said.
Steve sat back, closed his eyes. “Can we not argue?”
“I don’t consider this arguing,” Tony said. “I prefer the term ‘friendly debate.’”
“Some of our friendly debates ended pretty poorly,” Steve pointed out.
“Ancient history,” Tony said. “Or rather, distant future. Whatever.”
“So what do you do when you’re not in 1957 hassling me?” Steve said.
“Science, mostly,” Tony said. “Pushing the limits of what we know about time and space. Oh, I went to Peter’s wedding a couple months ago. He didn’t know I was there, of course. Happy cried the entire time.”
“Mazel tov,” Steve said. “How’s Morgan?”
“Amazing,” Tony said. “A total genius. Better than me in every way. God, I hope she doesn’t want to be a superhero.”
“And everybody else?”
“They get by,” Tony said. “I’m assuming you don’t actually want to know more about the future?”
“Not at all,” Steve said.
“Unless it can win you more money.”
“It was one time.”
“Want me to bring a newspaper from next year back to you? Remind you who won the World Series?”
“It’s a little funny,” Tony said.
“I can’t believe I ever thought you were in my head,” Steve said. “I never could have made up how annoying you are.”
“Title of my sex tape,” Tony said.
If Steve thought he missed Tony when he thought Tony was a hallucination, it was nothing to the way he missed Tony now that he knew Tony was alive.
For some value of alive, Tony said once, and Steve just ignored him.
Steve blinked. “I am now.”
“Sorry,” Tony said, but he didn’t sound it at all. “Didn’t mean to catch you in the middle of the night.”
In the glow of the sodium lights streaming through the threadbare curtain, Steve saw Tony perched on the edge of his bed. “S’okay,” Steve said around a yawn. “You’ve watched me sleep before.”
“Wow, that makes it sound way creepier than it is.”
“That makes it sound exactly as creepy as it is,” Steve mumbled, rearranging his pillow. “What have you been up to?”
“Not much,” Tony said.
“It’s been a couple of weeks.”
“I didn’t realize we had plans.”
“I didn’t realize we could have plans.”
“I guess if we could, I wouldn’t show up unannounced in the middle of the night,” Tony said. “On the other hand, there are some side benefits. Do you always sleep naked?”
“Only when I’m not expecting visitors.”
“I’ll have to show up uninvited more often, then,” Tony said. “Scoot over?”
Steve raised his eyebrows.
“Come on, I never get to lay in a bed,” Tony said. “I sleep on a mattress of what I’m pretty sure is fungus, lemme in.”
Steve, who couldn’t always tell whether Tony was sharing something horrifying about his current way of life or just making it up, scooted back in the single bed until he was nearly pressed against the wall.
Tony slid under the covers and settled himself on half of Steve’s pillow with a contented sigh. “It’s no Tempur-Pedic, but it’ll do.”
“If there’s one thing the future got right, it’s mattresses,” Steve agreed. It was crowded in the bed, the space between them barely a hair’s breadth, but the half of Tony’s face that Steve could see in the dim light looked happy enough.
After a quiet moment, Tony said, “Single bed, huh? Not exactly optimistic.”
“Technically I’m married,” Steve said wryly.
“Well, once they invent no-fault divorce, we’ll see.”
Steve shrugged. “Are you surprised?”
“Not exactly,” Tony said.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Didn’t think so.”
“Are you okay with that?”
“Are you okay about Pepper?” Steve said, and immediately regretted it.
Tony stared at the ceiling. “She’s happy. Morgan’s happy. That’s enough for me.”
Steve laid still while a truck rumbled by outside the window. He thought of all the times Tony had talked to him over the years, the things he’d brushed off, the things he’d ignored. He wondered why Tony had kept coming, why Tony had kept trying.
“When I came back here, I thought I’d be setting things right,” he said finally. “Picking up where I left off, taking it all back. And in some ways I did, but - it turned out there was a whole other set of ‘all’ that I left behind. No matter where I am, there’ll always be something I can’t have.”
“And you’re okay with that.”
“I’m learning to be,” Steve said.
“It’s amazing what we can get used to.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about all the different ways to cook tardigrade meat,” Steve said.
Tony rolled onto his side, propped himself up on his elbow. “I could write a whole book on it. I’m probably the world’s foremost expert, besides Janet van Dyne.”
“Add it to your list of accolades,” Steve said. “Are you okay?”
“At the moment, or like, existentially?” Tony said.
“It comes and goes,” Tony said. “I have, you know, a lot of time to myself. Time to think. So that’s good and bad. Mostly bad, if I’m honest. I don’t know how all of this shakes out for me, in the end. Or even if there is an end. I’m kind of like Schrodinger's cat at the moment, so mostly I’m just trying not to look in the box.”
“It must be tempting,” Steve said. “To find out about the future, I mean.”
“Eh, the past’s not so bad,” Tony said. “Things are simpler. Not so many channels on TV. Less traffic. And there’s this guy whose bed I hang out in sometimes. So, you know.”
“Having just one person to talk could get pretty boring.”
“Yeah, but I got lucky,” Tony said. “Are you going to kiss me again?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, honestly.
“That’s okay,” Tony said. “You should probably go back to sleep.”
“Probably,” Steve said. “You’ll stay?”
“As long as I can,” Tony said, and when Steve slid his hand across the mattress like a careful question, Tony threaded their fingers together and held tight.
“You’re on time,” Steve said.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Tony said. “I told you I’d figured out how to pinpoint days, did you not think I could do it?”
Steve shrugged. “I was 50/50.”
“Such confidence,” Tony said, settling himself at the table across from Steve. “This is a game changer, right? Man, people say dating long distance is tough, but dating from different points in the spacetime continuum, now that’s a challenge. Not that we’re dating. Hanging out. Being friends. Whatever.”
Steve ignored him and pushed a piece of paper across the table. “I have something for you.”
Tony looked down at it. His brow furrowed. When he looked up, Steve couldn’t tell what he was thinking at all. “Your death certificate?”
“It’s all taken care of,” Steve said. “I’m coming back.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Tony said.
“Seriously,” Tony said. “I don’t even want you to do this.”
“I know that too.”
“There are a lot of issues with this plan, you know, starting with the fact that we don’t even - “
“Have you considered the possibility that I’m not just doing this for you?” Steve interrupted.
“I find it hard to believe that you want to leave everything behind again.”
“I’m not just leaving something behind,” Steve said. “I’m going to something.”
“Yeah, and we don’t know what’s going to happen when you get there.”
“Well, I’m famous for being afraid of the unknown,” Steve said.
Tony snorted. “You’re not the only one involved here, buddy.”
“You’re not going to talk me out of this, Tony,” Steve said. “It’s decided. You know how to find me in the future, right?”
“Of course I do,” Tony said. “But - ”
Tony pushed himself back from the table and walked to the window. The sun was shining brightly, but he didn’t have a shadow. Steve wished he hadn’t noticed.
“I just - I’m afraid. Okay? There. I said it.”
“Of what’ll happen if it doesn’t work?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “And what’ll happen if it does.”
Steve stood up and joined Tony at the window. He knocked his shoulder against Tony’s lightly. “So we’ll figure it out when we get there.”
“Your optimism is exhausting,” Tony said.
They watched a car trundle by on the street below. Steve leaned into Tony’s shoulder; after a minute, he realized Tony was leaning back.
“Okay,” Tony said finally.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I mean, can I stop you?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“So, question,” Peter said. “And I really mean this in the nicest way, but has anyone checked to make sure Captain America hasn’t lost his mind?”
“We considered the possibility,” Sam said, crossing his arms.
“Jury’s still out,” Bucky grunted.
“He says he’ll go to therapy if this doesn’t work,” Bruce contributed.
“You’d go to therapy for me? Aw, Cap, I’m touched,” Tony said.
“I won’t have to go,” Steve said, to the room at large. “This is going to work.”
“We think it might work,” Bruce said. “If what Steve’s been… told by Tony... is true, it’s a little different than, you know, anything that’s ever been done in the history of the world.”
“So no pressure,” Bucky said darkly.
“Well, he’s just a ray of sunshine, isn’t he,” Tony said.
“Can it,” Steve said, which, conveniently, served as an answer to both of them.
“Hey, come on, we’ve done World’s First Something plenty of times before, right, gang?” Scott said. “First superhero team, first time travelers, a bunch of you went to space in a ship piloted by a raccoon, I feel like that had to be some kind of first.”
“Bringing somebody out of the quantum realm is a lot harder than going to space,” Bruce said. “Bringing somebody dead out of the quantum realm…”
“He’s right,” Tony said. “This should be impossible. It took Hank Pym thirty years to ge his wife out of here. Then again, he may be smart, but he’s no me.”
“Humble as always,” Steve muttered.
“Are you talking to him?” Peter said eagerly. “Is he here right now?”
Every head in the room whipped to Steve.
“Uh,” Steve said. “Yes. He’s here.”
Scott looked around nervously, like he thought maybe Tony was standing right behind him. “Like, here here? How do we make sure we don’t walk through him?”
“Tell him he’s already walked through me twice,” Tony said.
“We asked for him to be here now, so he could get us the coordinates,” Bruce explained.
“Jeez, I can’t wait until I can see him too,” Peter said. “I have so much to tell him. Wait, has he been, like, watching over us?”
“He’s not a guardian angel,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes.
“I kind of am, though,” Tony said. “Tell Peter I said his vows were sappy even for him.”
“I’m not going to tell him that,” Steve said.
“What’d he say?” Peter said. “Who was he talking to?”
“Nobody,” Steve said. “Hope, how’s it looking?”
“We’re getting there,” Hope said from where she was bent over the console. Across the room, Hank and Janet were doing final checks on the quantum realm ship. “You ready?”
“Now, don’t forget, it’s gonna get weird in there,” Scott said. “I mean really weird. Imagine how weird you think it’s gonna be, and then double that. Did they ever tell you about Alf? Weirder.”
“I once woke up after a 70 year nap,” Steve said. “I know weird.”
Next to him, Tony drummed his fingers on the console. “Everything looks good. The coordinates are right. I should have another ten minutes in this location, at least. Oh, and I’m still against this idea, for the record.”
“Noted,” Steve said. He turned to Tony. “It’s going to work.”
Tony studied him intently, like he was looking for something, and then he shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled, a small, wistful kind of smile. “You’re not afraid of anything, are you.”
“A few things,” Steve said, honestly. “See you soon.”
And then he climbed into the quantum ship and waited.
“Five seconds, Captain,” Hank Pym said into the comms. “Four, three, two - ”
It wasn’t like the other times they’d traveled through the quantum realm. Those had been fast - a flash of light and color and nothingness, and then feet firmly on the ground in a new place and time entirely.
But this - Steve had the impression of everything getting big, and then bigger, nauseatingly so, and the colors all changed into something that wasn’t on the normal spectrum, and then with one last burst of light -
He stopped. The ship was still. Steve opened the hatch. “Tony?” he called out.
There was nothing.
In every direction - nothing. Not just normal nothing, but really, really nothing. Steve walked away from the ship. The landscape, if you could call it that, felt like it went on too long. It was the horizon, Steve realized, or rather the lack thereof. Whatever he was on, it wasn’t a sphere; with eyes like his, he could see in every direction for - well, longer than a person was supposed to.
Tony knew where he was supposed to be. He’d just seen him. They’d talked. Tony was supposed to be here.
Steve clenched his fists. A minute passed. He wished, distantly, that he had the shield.
Where was he? He was supposed to - he had to be -
“Hi,” Tony said.
Steve spun around, and the landscape completely changed, but Steve didn’t really notice, because Tony was standing right in the middle of it. “Hey.”
“So, welcome to the quantum realm,” Tony said. “You want the big tour, or should we just - ? No, yeah, we should probably go.”
“Yeah, I think that’d be best,” Steve said.
They climbed into the quantum ship, and Steve pulled the hatch shut and turned to the controls to send the signal up to the others.
“So this is the part that might not work,” Tony said.
As if Steve could have possibly forgotten. “It’s gonna work.”
“I just,” Tony said, as the countdown started flashing out of the corner of Steve’s eye, but Steve wasn’t looking, because all he wanted to look at was Tony, “yeah, if it doesn’t work, I just want to say - ”
But Steve didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was, so he leaned in and kissed Tony, twisted his hand in Tony’s shirt and held him tight, and when the world started changing around them he closed his eyes and thought, to hell with it. Everything was loud, and bright, and compressed, and the hand Tony put around the back of his neck was gripping too hard and Steve had no plans to let go, and -
There was a sudden, rushing silence.
“Tony?” Bruce said, sounding shocked.
Steve pulled back and opened his eyes.
And from the other seat in the quantum ship, Tony looked right back at him.
There was silence. Finally, Scott said, “Okay, so, I feel like you weren’t telling us the whole story, Cap.”
The room exploded around them: Scott let out a whoop, and Sam catcalled, and everyone rushed toward the ship, and Steve let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
“Welcome back,” he said.
“Yeah,” Tony said, “you, too,” and then he grinned, and Steve - for once - didn’t mind that it made him crazy.