"Captain, there is no one here," Panther says quietly.
He's right, and Steve knows he's right, but he has to try one more time. He owes it to Tony. "Look again," he orders.
"We were here last month," Hank says. "It's the same place as before."
"I know," Steve says. "And I'm telling you to look again."
They comb the building one more time. Panther activates the lenses that allow him to see in infrared. Wasp and Ant-Man duck into tiny spaces where no one else can go. Above on the roof, Hawkeye keeps watch on the perimeter, ensuring no one has come or gone.
At last Steve has to accept the inevitable. He reaches up to the comm in his ear. "Tony? There's no one here."
"No," Tony says immediately. His voice is tight with pain and determination. "They're there. I know they are."
"We've checked three times," Steve says.
"We're coming back," Steve says.
"I see them," Tony insists.
Steve looks at his team. They're tired and discouraged. If he were alone, he might continue the search, even though he knows it's pointless. But he can't do that to them. They've never once said no to these missions, never once complained.
All around him, the building is empty. Shattered chairs litter the floor along with a broken table, evidence of when they were here fighting Whirlwind and his cronies. There is a huge man-shaped dent in the far wall, and a hole in the ceiling, plaster dust crunching underfoot.
Three weeks ago, this was the site of a major battle. Tonight, there is no one here except themselves.
"Steve…" Tony is desperate, pleading.
"We're going home," Steve says.
Back at Avengers Mansion, Hulk greets them with a displeased scowl; he hates being on Tony duty. "Took you long enough."
Steve makes sure to thank him, then heads down to the assembly hall. Tony's been locked out of the armor and the computers, but he still takes refuge down here, in this room where he was once a part of them.
Tonight Tony is sitting on the floor at the base of the holographic table, tucked under the projecting tabletop, his knees drawn up to his chest. He looks up as Steve approaches. He's wearing a T-shirt and sweat pants that are too big for him because of how much weight he's lost. His eyes are red-rimmed with pain and exhaustion. If things were different, it could almost be cute, like he's just an overgrown kid who stayed up too late at night. But there is nothing cute about what has happened to Tony. Nothing at all.
The lights are dim in here; too much light hurts Tony's eyes now. Steve crouches down beside him, looking him over quickly to see if anything has changed in the three hours since he left on his wasted mission. "How are you doing?" he asks quietly.
"I'm sorry," Tony says. "I thought…"
"It's okay," Steve says. "It's always good to check these things and be sure."
Tony nods miserably. Steve wonders if he realized on his own that he already sent them to that building, or if Hulk told him.
"Why don't we go upstairs," Steve suggests. "You need to get some sleep."
"I can't," Tony says. He looks utterly wretched, his hair falling into his eyes, bare feet tucked in toward his body.
"They're getting worse, aren't they?" Steve asks gently. "The visions."
Tony doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. He just bows his head and closes his eyes.
"Come on," Steve says. He aches to see Tony this way, but there is nothing he can do. There is nothing any of them can do, until they find the Enchantress and make her put this right again.
Tony goes with him without protest, leaning on him heavily as they walk through the assembly hall toward the elevator. He walks slowly, his eyes closed, trusting Steve to guide him. When he first got the visions, he was almost proud of his new ability, pleased to show off in front of the other Avengers. But it's been a long time since that was true, and now Steve is the only one he lets get close enough to help him.
Steve isn't sure what he's done to deserve that dubious honor, but he is determined to keep it. He refuses to let Tony suffer this alone.
Upstairs, Tony's bedroom is dark and cool. There are clothes strewn all about the bed, which looks unused. Steve dumps all the clothes onto the floor to be sorted out later, and helps Tony lie down. He gently removes the comm from Tony's ear and sets it on the nightstand. "Do you want a pill?" he asks.
Usually Tony says no. Tonight, though, he nods, and Steve's heart sinks.
"Okay," Steve says. He finds the bottle on the dresser, knocked over and almost hidden beneath a balled-up pair of socks. He dumps one of the pills into his palm and goes into the bathroom. It's just as messy in here, with bottles of shampoo and hair gel and cologne scattered all over. He pours a cup of water, returns to the bedroom.
Tony is curled up beneath the covers, one hand gripping the pillow tightly. His jaw is set, his eyes squeezed shut. After a vision he suffers from excruciating headaches for hours. In the beginning they weren't so bad, but nowadays the visions are coming so frequently that often he doesn't have time to recover from the previous one before the next one is upon him.
"Here you go," he says. He helps Tony fumble with the cup, watches him swallow the pill and drink all the water. He sets the cup on the nightstand beside the comm and a pile of neckties.
"Can you stay please," Tony whispers.
"Of course," Steve says. He sits on the edge of the bed. He sweeps Tony's hair back off his forehead, then uses his first two fingers to rub gentle circles on Tony's temple, doing what he can to ease the pain of the headache.
Mercifully it doesn't take long for the pill to kick in and start working. Within a short time, Tony is asleep, his body finally relaxed, although the lines of strain remain on his face.
Steve sighs and sits back, and wonders what the hell he's going to do.
Two Months Ago
"All right, team. I want this scum out of my house right now," Tony said.
The Masters of Evil fought dirty, but the Avengers were united, fighting as one even though individual battles raged throughout the assembly hall. And though at first both sides seemed evenly matched, it wasn't long before the Avengers began to get the upper hand.
Tony had just finished dispatching the Crimson Dynamo. He spared a moment to look around, wanting to see who needed his help the most. Cap and Zemo were dueling. Hawkeye and Black Panther were dodging blasts from the Enchantress. Ant-Man was grappling with Power Man. Wasp constantly fired at the Executioner as she flew circles about his head, trying to distract him. Thor had been grabbed from behind by Abomination, who had picked him up and seemed about to use him like a baseball bat against the Hulk.
"Thor!" Jan shouted. She reversed direction, flew away from the Executioner.
Tony looked, and saw the Enchantress levelling a blast at Thor. Momentarily helpless, actually dangling in Abomination's grip, Thor could do nothing.
Tony reacted without thinking. He was already in flight. It was the easiest thing in the world to put himself in the path of that blast.
Green light enveloped him. It didn't hurt. The HUD went completely blank, though, and the armor went dead all around him. He knew he was falling, but all he could see was that wash of green. Then he blinked, and he could see again.
It was the strangest thing, though. Tony lay on the floor where he had fallen and stared. All around him the battle still raged – and yet he was part of it.
Uncomprehending, he lay there, watching himself. Everything looked strange, almost like a film on fast-forward. He watched as Steve vanquished Zemo, Hulk took out the Executioner, Hank dealt with Simon. And Iron Man was there at every turn with a timely repulsor blast, or deflecting a blow, doing whatever was necessary to give an Avenger the time they needed to deal their own coup de grace.
"Iron Man! Are you all right?"
The comms sounded in his ear, and just like that, the HUD was back online. The armor was his to control again. Without hesitating, Tony rose up in flight and rejoined the battle.
And it went exactly as he had seen it. Every blow, every leap, every fallen enemy. In the end, when the Enchantress opened the portals that allowed the Masters of Evil to make their escape, only Tony let them go without trying to stop them – because he had already seen them do it.
"What was that all about?" Clint demanded.
"Is anyone hurt?" Steve asked.
Tony lowered the faceplate and turned to his teammates. "Um," he said. "I think something happened."
No one believed him at first. Even Steve was skeptical. "You're a futurist, Tony, and a good strategist. And we've fought the Masters before. It makes sense that you would be able to predict the outcome of the battle."
"Plus you'd just had your brains rattled," Clint put in helpfully.
They were so convincing that Tony found himself wondering if what he thought had happened had really happened. Maybe they were right. Maybe he was just that good.
Six hours later, though, they all found out the truth.
It came on him with no warning. They were still cleaning up the damage from the fight, and he was in the suit to make the heavy lifting easier. Fortunately he was standing up when the vision hit, or he would have taken another nasty fall. As it was, the images hit him with the force of a truck, and he doubled over, crying out and clutching at his head.
All his senses were assaulted at once. He saw the narrow apartment, the yellow light cast by a bare bulb. He heard the sound of traffic and shouting in the back alley. He smelled garbage and rotting food and motor oil. He tasted peppermint gum and the salt of sweat.
In front of him lay a set of plans. Blueprints. A hand, his own (not his) touched them, trembling with eagerness. Photographs of an armored truck. A printed list of timetables and streets.
And in the window, smudged with dirt and with one cracked pane of glass, a face.
And then…nothing. For an endless time he drifted, free from the vision, free from reality. He panicked, reached out, tried to grab hold of something to anchor himself. Anything. Anything…
With a loud roar, reality came rushing back. He gasped and flailed, felt one wildly reaching hand strike something. A person exclaimed in pain. Hands touched his shoulders. A voice said his name.
Tony looked around frantically. He was on his knees somehow, in the middle of the assembly hall. The Avengers were all clustered around him – except for Hank, who was nursing a bloody nose, and Hulk, who stood back with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
"What happened?" Clint demanded. "What was that all about?"
"I saw it," Tony said. The vision was still crystal clear in his head.
"Saw what?" Steve asked. He looked wary, like he didn't want to hear the answer to his question.
"Chemistro," Tony said. "He needs money for his new armor. He's going to rob a bank." He looked up at the Avengers. "And I know which one."
With Tony finally asleep, Steve gets up. He gathers up the clothes that are scattered all over and heads for the laundry. He can only guess at what happened in here; the way things are thrown around, Tony was probably looking for something, tossing shirts and socks and neckties every which way in his haste. What he was looking for doesn't even matter. It was probably something that he hasn't owned in ten years, something his splintering mind latched onto and wouldn't let go of.
Jan is in the large living room, watching TV. Clint is with her. Both of them look up right away when Steve walks in, and he knows they weren't really watching whatever's on the screen, but waiting on him. "How is he?" Jan asks anxiously.
"The same," Steve says. He looks down. That's not really true, though, and he knows it. Day by day, Tony is getting worse. The visions are taking more of a toll on him. The headaches last for a terrifyingly long time and seem to be more painful these days.
The spell that was meant for Thor is slowly but surely killing him.
Speaking of which… "Have we heard anything from Thor?"
"Not yet," Jan says.
Steve nods. It's not what he was hoping for, but it is what he expected, unfortunately. It's been almost a month since Thor left them, returning to Asgard in the hope of finding the Enchantress and bringing her back here so she could break the spell on Tony. In all that time, they haven't received any news.
"T'Challa went back to the embassy," Clint says. "He got a call from someone there, they think they might know a way to help Tony. Some kind of plant that only grows in Wakanda."
It probably won't work, just like every other remedy they've tried, but Steve is grateful to T'Challa anyway. He has never stopped trying to help.
He isn't the only one. Hank has spent weeks in his lab trying to synthesize some kind of natural antidote to the spell. Early on he seemed to have some success, and for nearly twenty-four hours the mood in the mansion was one of cautious optimism while everyone tried not to stare at Tony and wait for him to suddenly double over and grab at his head. Tony himself was peevish and touchy that day, annoyed with everyone watching over him and acting so concerned.
Unfortunately, their fears were confirmed the next morning when Tony suffered another vision and the worst headache yet. Steve carried him upstairs himself then, Tony lying loose in his arms, his face pressed to Steve's chest in order to blot out the light that hurt his eyes.
"How much longer are we going to do this?" Clint asks.
"Do what?" Steve replies. He's already braced for pushback. In truth he's actually surprised it took this long for this moment to come.
"We can't keep going out there," Clint says. "This is the third time he's sent us somewhere we've already been."
"And how many times have we caught criminals in the act?" Steve replies. "How many people have we saved?"
That's the root of the problem, he thinks sadly. All Tony wants is to help people. When he first got the visions, they seemed like the perfect solution. Instead they're slowly driving Tony crazy as his determination to help is twisted and turned against him.
"We can't take the chance," he says. "If we don't check it out and someone is hurt because we let a criminal go free… I don't know about you, but I could never forgive myself for that."
He doesn't like to think how Tony would react if he ever found out such a thing happened.
"We keep going," Jan says. She looks troubled, but Steve knows she's got his back. She's been friends with Tony for years, traveling in the same social circles as him, running into him at the same parties and charity functions. It hurts her that she can't do anything now to help him.
"All right," Clint says. "I'm just saying."
"Keep that kind of talk to yourself," Steve says. He doesn't want to hear it.
It took Tony two weeks to realize that his newfound gift was not a blessing, but a curse. In that time he helped the Avengers foil several nefarious schemes by various criminals in the city. They captured no less than four escaped supervillains and returned them to the Raft. Nick Fury and SHIELD were delighted with their progress, and Tony felt like he was finally able to really contribute the way he had always wanted.
But then the headaches started. They came upon him after the visions, ugly and painful, and no over-the-counter medication could alleviate that pain. The first one laid him low for only half an hour, but they got progressively worse over time. By the end of the third week, he was forced to lie down in a dark room for nearly three hours after each vision.
That was also when he stopped being able to go out with the Avengers on their missions. He had known this day was coming for over a week, wondering how much longer he would be able to hide the fact that he was in pain from them. His reaction times were slowed down and during the last few outings he had had no choice but to let JARVIS handle the suit more often than it was under his own control.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. He had thought the visions were designed to let him do more, let the Avengers accomplish more. Instead he was forced to accept that while the Avengers might be doing more, he would not be including himself among them.
The last straw came during a raid on a HYDRA cell. Tony was taking point, guiding the Avengers through the labyrinthine underground lair. Thanks to his vision, they had surprise on their side, and they had elected to use that fact and attack from a position of stealth rather than a full-out frontal assault.
Everything went okay at first. He was hurting badly, but still able to hide it from them, speaking only when he had to, letting the armor carry him forward on autopilot. It wasn't until they encountered the first HYDRA soldiers and the fight began that he realized he was in trouble. He could barely focus his eyes enough to see anything, and he had to let the suit's targeting system handle things. The sounds of battle were hideously amplified in his aching skull, and he ordered JARVIS to mute everything.
And still he might have been okay, except that he didn't hear when Clint called out for everyone to duck as he fired an explosive arrow into a stack of munitions. The blast wave caught Tony and flung him backward like a rag doll. He struck the wall and slid down in a heap, and could not get back up again no matter how hard he tried.
Afterward, T'Challa was the first one to reach him and undo the catch that released the faceplate from the armor. But it was Steve who asked, "What happened, Tony?"
And it was to Steve whom he made his confession. "I can't."
Back at the mansion, Thor explained that it was the nature of the spell. "It was designed for an Asgardian. Me."
"So what can we do?" Steve asked. He had never succumbed to the belief that this was a good thing, unlike Clint and Hulk, who had been delighted to have their very own personal fortune teller in their midst. Clint had gone so far as to ask him what lottery numbers to play, and only stopped when Tony had threatened to have JARVIS turn his showers icy cold every day.
"We must find the Enchantress," Thor said somberly. "She is the only one who can break the spell."
"Yeah?" Tony said. He was slumped on the couch, his head still aching. Worse, though, was the blow to his pride. He couldn't believe it had come to this, having to take himself off the team while the rest of them stood around discussing his fate. "What are you going to do? Knock on Zemo's door and ask if the Enchantress can come out and play?"
Thor didn't take offense. He had been slinking around the mansion looking oddly guilty of late, and Tony thought unkindly that Thor probably figured such sarcasm was only his due. "I do not think Amora remains on Midgard," he said. "I must return to Asgard, and seek her there."
"Do what you need to do," Steve said. "Let us know if there's anything we can do to help."
"There is not," Thor replied. "I must do this alone."
So Thor left and two hours later, Tony was on the floor, shaking all over from the aftermath of a vision showing him a new A.I.M. hideout by the river. Hulk stayed behind with him that day, carrying him effortlessly up the stairs and depositing him on the bed with surprising gentleness. By then he was in the grip of another headache, unable to do much of anything except lie there very still and try not to move.
Hulk didn't stick around. Tony lay in bed and waited for the comm in his ear to activate. Sometimes the Avengers needed more guidance on where to go and what to expect. Sometimes he just needed to hear their voices, to know that they were safe, even if he couldn't be part of them anymore.
And if he waited to hear one voice in particular, telling him that he had done well, that they had succeeded at their mission, well, that was nobody else's business.
Being a superhero is dangerous. Steve knows this. Given what they do every day, he knows they're extremely lucky that none of them have been seriously injured before, or worse.
He also knows that until a couple months ago, he would have considered Tony to be nearly indestructible. And why not? Tony has amazing armor and shields, and massive firepower literally at his fingertips. He has the money to build anything he puts his mind to – and that mind is incredible, able to conceive and implement ideas that no one else will even think of for years to come.
Now Tony can literally see things that no one else can. And it's killing him.
Steve hates feeling helpless, hates not knowing what to do. He hates that it's come to this, Tony so weak, growing ever more unable to distinguish between reality and what he sees inside his head. It's Tony's great heart that got him into this terrible situation in the first place, when he leaped in front of that spell blast from the Enchantress, trying to save his friend and teammate. It's that great heart that only made things worse in the days and weeks afterward, when he wracked his brain and tried to squeeze every last bit of information from the visions that he could, in order to keep the Avengers safe and save people's lives.
And now that heart, so damaged, so courageous, is in danger of giving out for good.
He's in the training room, running the obstacle course for the fourth time that day. The threats he faces each time are random, computer-generated, never the same twice. It forces him to pay attention, to keep his head in the game.
He jumps over a gaping chasm in the floor, drops to his knees and bends backward, sliding forward on his knees so a spinning net goes flying past him. Then he's up on his feet again, weaving between squibs that shoot at him from the walls, using the shield to deflect some of them.
I'm sorry I'm no good to you anymore, or that I can't go out there with you. You can all stay here, though. I hope you'll stay here. But I understand if you want to leave. I wouldn't blame you for it.
Tony's words echo in his head. Spoken just this morning as they sat in the kitchen, Steve eating breakfast, Tony pale and drawn, his hands shaking as he cradled a cup of coffee.
What kind of talk is that? I don't want to hear that. No one's going anywhere.
He wishes he had said more. Regret fills him, weights his step. He's just a little too slow as the missiles start to fire, and one explodes close enough to knock him into the wall.
Dazed, he surges to his feet, gets the shield up. Another missile explodes on the curved surface, and he's slammed into the wall again.
"Enough!" he shouts. "JARVIS, shut down the course." This is pointless. He's not concentrating, and he's only going to get himself hurt.
"Very well, Captain." The gaps in the floor slide shut. Rocket launchers retract back into the walls and ceiling. Steve stays where he is, though, halfway down the obstacle course, staring at the smooth surface of the wall.
He's thinking about what Tony said. About what it really means.
And he's suddenly angry. It isn't right. Tony Stark is a good man. And yet apparently he thinks so little of himself that he believes Steve and the Avengers will abandon him now that he isn't able to suit up alongside them. Steve doesn't know where he learned to believe that, but it makes something in his chest ache just to think about it.
The whole business makes him angry. Not just angry, but furious. It isn't right, damnit. He can't lose Tony.
The pain in his chest expands to fill his entire body. It hurts even to breathe. The thought of losing Tony is more than he can bear. It's unacceptable, unfathomable, unbelievable.
Driving need for action rises within him. He has to do something. He has to get out there and save Tony. Whatever it takes, he will do it without question.
And that's when Steve understands that what he thought he felt for Tony isn't even close to the truth. Because the truth is too painful, too bewildering, too overwhelming.
Because the horrible truth is that he's just figuring this all out now – and it might be too late.
Tony is on the roof.
It's not even noon yet but already it's hot and sticky out; it's supposed to rain later and cool things down. He doesn't mind the humidity. These days he gets out so infrequently that he's willing to sweat a little if it means enjoying the (relatively) fresh air. It's cloudy out, but he's still got thick sunglasses on, protecting his eyes. The ever-constant pain in his head is currently at low ebb. All things considered, he feels pretty good.
For how long, though, is the question. He's still nursing the tail end of his last headache. The visions come upon him without any kind of warning, and these days they're coming more frequently. He never knows when he'll suddenly find himself ensnared by one, all five senses assaulted simultaneously. One morning he got one while he was in the shower, and he came back to reality to find himself curled up on the tile, choking and spluttering as water poured down on him. Another time he was at work on a new suit, and when he collapsed forward he landed on the keyboard, triggering a series of commands with JARVIS that turned the mansion's defense systems against the Avengers to deadly effect for several harrowing minutes, before T'Challa was able to get into the network and abort the whole thing.
That charming incident is why he's not allowed on the computers anymore. Losing Iron Man was bad, but losing his work is even worse. He feels adrift, without purpose. It's like he's lost entire, vital pieces of himself. All he has left now are the visions. And as much as he hates them, and the crippling headaches that follow, he clings to them. They're the only way he can help now. The only way he can carry his weight around here.
And he has to do better. He knows he screwed up yesterday, that what he thought was a vision was in fact a…what? Hallucination? Memory? Dream? He doesn't even know anymore. But it's happened before and it will happen again unless he gets control of himself. He can't afford to be weak, to fuck up like this.
Tony sighs. He never would have guessed, when he put the Avengers together, that he himself would end up being the weak link. And he hates it, hates that everyone treats him like he's made of glass, speaking softly around him and cutting themselves off in mid-sentence if he walks in while they're talking about Avengers missions. He hates that they've all seen him down on the floor, clutching at his head and moaning in pain. He hates that he needs help getting up the stairs sometimes, or even just getting into bed.
If he had his way, he wouldn't need any of them. Not the Avengers, not Pepper, not even Rhodey, who is away on a field exercise and who has better things to do than baby-sit a head case like Tony Stark anyway.
But he does need them, much as he hates to admit it. And although Jan is the one he's known the longest, Steve is the only one he will let help him.
It's simple enough. Before this, before the visions and the headaches and the loss, one by one, of his dreams about his role with the Avengers, he harbored thoughts of a future with Steve. Nothing too detailed, of course, because he's a futurist and it's job to see possible futures, not hopeless pipe dreams. But still. He thought about it. Of course he did.
But now those futures have gone up in smoke. There is no chance that he and Steve will ever be more than teammates – and maybe not even that, if things keep up as they are. Steve has seen just how useless he is, and how little he has to give. Steve has finally seen the truth about him.
So why not let Steve help? It's not like it can make things any worse. And at least he can trust Steve not to let him fall down the stairs, or mock him behind his back. There is a palpable sense of safety and security that surrounds Steve like a mystical aura, almost. Tony can't explain it, but he feels it whenever he's close to Steve. Sometimes he can feel it even when he's just thinking about Steve, the way he is now.
We'll figure it out, Tony. That's what Steve says. Sounding every time like he's perfectly confident of it, too.
Tony wishes he could share in that confidence. They've already tried everything they could think of. They tore the city apart looking for Zemo or any of the other Masters of Evil, trying to find the Enchantress. Thor has been gone for weeks in Asgard, hunting her. Hank has been hard at work in the lab, and even Hulk permitted Bruce to come out long enough to try his hand at finding a chemical solution. T'Challa has tried Wakandan natural remedies. And when Clint, of all people, put out discreet feelers about magical problems, Power Man and Iron Fist came forward with the location of the Sorcerer Supreme, a man Tony hadn't even known existed until then. But even all of Stephen Strange's power wasn't enough to break the spell, and he had been forced to concede defeat.
What does that leave them? A whole fat lot of nothing, as far as Tony is concerned. Unless Thor returns soon with Amora in tow, he doesn't really see much of a happy ending for himself. It would be different if they were dealing with science, with cold, hard facts. But this is magic, and in spite of everything Tony has seen and experienced since he became an Avenger, he still has a hard time believing in such a thing.
Even when it's killing him.
He sighs. He should go in. He's tempting fate by remaining out here alone. Eventually someone will come looking for him – they don't like to leave him alone for too long in case a vision strikes and he's unable to tell them what he saw. He'd rather go in now, on his own terms, than be shepherded in by someone who only means well.
He makes his way inside, a bit unsteadily, carrying his sunglasses by one earpiece. He skipped breakfast this morning and went right for the coffee, but lunch is looking like a distinct possibility. Lately the pain from the headaches has been bad enough to make him nauseous, but so far he hasn't actually thrown up from it. Hopefully that trend will continue.
In a house full of superheroes, the kitchen is rarely empty and today is no exception. Tony checks himself in the doorway, but it's only Steve standing at the counter, carefully cutting sandwiches in half with a bread knife. "Hey," he says.
Steve looks up and smiles. "Tony. I was just making us some lunch."
Tony blinks. He counts five sandwiches on the counter, all neatly cut in half. "Uh," he says.
"I know it looks like a lot," Steve says. He looks almost abashed, that stubborn curl of hair hanging over his forehead. "But I didn't know what you would want, so I just made one of everything."
That's awfully sweet of him, and so Tony is instantly suspicious. "And you'll just eat the rest?"
Now Steve definitely looks embarrassed. "I can eat a lot. You know that."
He does know that, and suddenly Tony isn't in the mood to tease Steve anymore. It requires too much energy for one thing. For another, he really is hungry, and he'd rather just sit down and eat.
He enters the kitchen and heads for the fridge. He can feel Steve's gaze on him as he walks past, and he bristles instinctively, hating the unspoken concern, like he can't be trusted to even walk across the kitchen without falling over. Which, to be fair, has happened at least once since he started having visions.
Still, it sucks and he hates it, and he flings the refrigerator door open with far more violence than is necessary. Bottles of ketchup and salad dressing rattle in the shelves set in the door. The light from the fridge washes over his face, cold and far too bright, making him wince as he reaches inside for a can of soda.
"I wanted to run something by you," Steve says. There is a small thump as he sets the plate of sandwiches down on the kitchen table.
For a brief moment Tony contemplates throwing the can of Coke at Steve's head. Steve is the only one who does this, who acts like he's still leader of the Avengers. Most of the time he's grateful for the pretense, but today it rubs him the wrong way. He's not their leader anymore, and they all know it. He's not even an Avenger. Why bother acting like he is?
"I want to try Zemo again," Steve says. "I really think he's the key to finding the Enchantress."
Zemo. Again. And what exactly can they do differently this time? What does Steve think he can offer Zemo to make him tell them where the Enchantress is?
His thoughts must show on his face, because Steve says, "I'm not giving up on this, Tony. We'll find a way."
He wants to believe that. He really does. Gripping the Coke can tightly, he sits at the table across from Steve.
"Tony?" Steve says his name gently, but insistently. "We will find a way."
Sudden tears sting his eyes, weak, stupid, humiliating. He nods quickly, not daring to close his eyes in case that makes the tears fall.
He can't deal with this. Steve's kindness is too much. Bad enough that this is the most he can ever expect from Steve because they're never going to be real friends, or anything more. But a part of him, small and horrible, almost wishes that the visions won't go away, that he can keep them. Because if this is all he's ever going to get, these random kindnesses from Steve and those strong arms helping him up the stairs and into bed, then he's going to hold onto it all as tightly as he can. Because losing the visions means losing Steve, too, and that's the one thing he's not prepared to do.
"So," Steve says. "We find Zemo. We go in and—"
"No," Tony says.
Steve blinks in surprise. "No?"
"No," Tony repeats. He can't let them do it. Endangering themselves, fighting off Zemo and Abomination and whoever else remains of the Masters of Evil. And for what? He isn't worth it, and Steve of all people should know that.
He can't say any of that, though, so he says, "It's too risky. It's too… You can't…" And damnit, he can hear the treacherous wobble in his voice, and the tears are back and damnit.
"You're not thinking clearly, Tony," Steve says, once again in that quiet voice, so kind and understanding. He wants to get up and flee – well, at least walk away with dignity – but it's kind of late for that, so he sits there and stares fixedly at the tabletop and tries to will himself to turn to stone. "I know you've been through a lot lately, and I can't even imagine what you must be feeling right now. But we're Avengers. We're family. We don't give up on each other."
Give me a vision now, please. The most awful things, I don’t care. Anything, so I don't have to listen to this one more second.
"And I'm not giving up on you," Steve says. He stands up and leans forward so he can put a hand, warm and reassuring, on Tony's shoulder.
It's a gesture he makes a lot. He did it before the visions, but he does it even more frequently now. In the past Tony appreciated it because it made him feel good to know he had Steve's approval, and because he quietly thrilled beneath that touch.
Now though he just sits there and he bows his head and he wonders uselessly, helplessly, how he will ever survive without it.
"Tony," Steve says, and there's something, some note in his voice that Tony has never heard before. If he didn't know any better he would say that Steve actually sounds uncertain, like he's afraid to continue because he doesn't know how to say what he wants to say. Which is ridiculous because Steve is the most self-assured person Tony has ever met; he is never at a loss for words.
"Tony," Steve tries again, and Tony looks up at him, wondering what exactly is going on here. "I wanted…" Steve stands up straight, dropping his arm back to his side. He takes a deep breath. "I mean—"
And that, of course, is when the vision strikes.
Seven of them, slithering tails and hissing, scales sliding over pitted stone floors, resentment and jealousy (I could be a better leader), dripping water and the smell of sewage, rattle of a train and the bitter taste of frustration.
But what, what do they want, what are they here for, and he pushes harder, deeper into the images, forcing the disjointed fragments to become something whole, and a spike of pain sinks into his skull, and he pushes again, because he needs to know, he needs to know—
Dripping water and the smell of sewage, rattling trains and barely concealed resentment, hostility hissing over sliding scales, you are a fool to trust Madame Viper, and King Cobra puffs himself up tall.
And it's still not enough, damnit, what are they doing what do they want where are they going, and Tony pushes at the vision, and the pain explodes in his head –
Slithering tales and hissing, discontent and shuffling, dripping water and the hot taste of blood, bright and metallic. You are a fool to trust Madame Viper. I don't care what she promises. Attack SHIELD and there won't be a single rock to hide under in this city.
The vision splinters into a million slivers of glass. They slice through him, cutting him to ribbons, and Tony comes back to himself to the sight of dark red blood dripping onto his fingers. It makes no sense at first – he's still in the subway with the Serpent Society, isn't he? – but then he hears Steve saying his name, and reality crashes down.
He's on the kitchen floor, on his hands and knees. His nose is bleeding, and the headache is settling in with record speed, black pain circling above his head like squawking vultures just looking for prey to tear apart.
Steve's hands are on his shoulders, preventing him from pitching forward onto his face. "Are you okay?"
He's about as far from okay as it's possible to be, but right now that doesn't matter. "They're going to attack the helicarrier," he whispers. It's the best he can do. "The Serpent Society. HYDRA is bankrolling them. They're in the subway. Near Port Authority."
"You're bleeding," Steve says. He sounds upset.
What does it matter? He's sending the Avengers into danger – again.
Sending Steve into danger.
"Did you hear me," he mutters.
"I heard," Steve says. He lets go of Tony's right shoulder so he can pull out his Avengers ID card. "Avengers, assemble." Then his hand is back, warm and strong. "Can you get up?"
That's a stupid question. Of course he can…'t.
Steve helps him to his feet. Presses a dishcloth soaked in warm water to his nose and upper lip. Gently tilts his head back. The headache is loose and wild in his skull, pain throbbing with every beat of his heart. The lights of the kitchen are agonizingly bright. When the other Avengers arrive, all speaking at once wanting to know what's happening, he flinches back from their too-loud questions.
"Go," says a calm voice. "I will stay with him."
"No," Tony gasps. He doesn't want T'Challa's help. He wants Steve.
But Steve is already gone, off to save the world yet again. Without him. And all Tony has left is the pain.
They find the Serpent Society right where Tony said they would. It's not a tough battle, but it's long – these guys don't know when to give up. But eventually most of the gang members are subdued and SHIELD is on the way to arrest them, and Steve is able to tap his comm and say, "Tony? We got 'em. We're on our way back."
There is no reply. Which either means Tony did not wear a comm this time, or else that he's passed out or otherwise physically unable to respond.
Still, he tries again. "Tony? Can you hear me?"
And finally the comm bursts to life. But it's not Tony's voice he hears. It's T'Challa's.
"He is here, Captain. And he is all right. But I think you should return quickly."
They make it back to the mansion in record time – they all heard T'Challa's last message and they're all worried. The minute they walk in, though, Steve understands why T'Challa urged haste.
Thor is back.
Immediately Steve's hopes rise. He knows he shouldn't let them, but he can't help it. Even the fact that Thor is alone, without the Enchantress by his side, can't diminish that first wild bloom of hope.
"I have found the Enchantress," Thor says.
Jan lets out a little whoop of delight. Clint nods, pleased. Hulk looks grumpy as ever. Only Hank meets Steve's eyes, concerned by what Thor means.
"Where's Tony?" Steve asks. Tony should be here to hear the news. Good or bad, he has a right to know.
"Upstairs, resting," T'Challa says. His cowl is pushed back, revealing his expression, more somber than usual. "The headache is bad today."
It won't be that way for much longer, Steve tells himself, and hopes that he's right.
"So, out with it," Clint says to Thor. "Where is she?"
Thor speaks to all of them, but he looks at Steve as he says, "Amora is a prisoner in Niflheim. Her jailor is Hela, daughter of Loki."
No one speaks at first. Steve feels his hopes sink to the pit of his stomach. Then Hulk harrumphs and Clint says, "Wait, run that by us again," trying to defuse the tension with humor, and Jan looks distraught, and it's almost more than Steve can bear.
Whoever Hela is, she must be very powerful to imprison the Enchantress. And Steve has the distinct feeling that Niflheim is not anywhere on Earth. Their work is cut out for them, an impossible task he has no idea how to even begin to approach. Might as well try to climb Mount Everest with one hand tied behind his back.
He thinks about Tony – what am I going to tell him? – and he's suddenly stricken with shame. What is he doing, giving up before he even begins? What kind of man is he to accept defeat without even trying? How can he ever hope to win Tony if he won't even try for him?
He lifts his chin, straightens his spine. He looks at Thor. "That doesn't sound good. I assume you have a plan?"
Thor nods. "Aye. But you will not like it."
Steve already knows he won't. But he also already knows that he's going to do it anyway.
Because this is Tony they're talking about.
Tony's bedroom is dark, thanks to the thick blackout shades that are pulled over the windows. Outside it's getting cloudy as the rain rolls in, but it's still plenty bright out. Not so in here, where the darkness is full of pain, pressing close and making Steve feel almost claustrophobic.
He stands near the doorway at first, letting his eyes adjust. He can hear Tony breathing before he can see him, the quiet, tightly controlled breathing of someone who is in a great deal of pain and trying to be silent about it. Then his night vision kicks in and he sees Tony, a lump beneath the covers, clutching at the pillow with one hand, his eyes squeezed shut.
Keeping his voice low, he says, "Tony?"
Tony's breath catches. His hand bears down on the pillow. But he says, "Steve?"
"Yeah," Steve says. He starts forward. "We found them. No one was hurt. King Cobra got away, but we got the rest of them."
Tony makes a faint sound that might be encouragement.
Steve stops in front of the bed. Even in the poor lighting, he can see how deathly pale Tony is. He knows, even without asking, that Tony has refused to take his medication because he was waiting for the Avengers to return first.
He should make Tony take one of his pills in the hope that it's not too late and he can get some sleep. But the news that they might soon be able to remove the curse of his visions trumps the need for sleep.
"Has anyone told you that Thor is back?" he asks.
Tony makes that sound again. This time it sounds more emphatic, a low not-quite-groan in the back of his throat.
Steve perches on the edge of the bed; there isn't much room for his bulk, but he manages it anyway. He reaches out and pushes a thick lock of hair off Tony's forehead. It falls down almost immediately, and he has to do it again. He's always liked that, he realizes, the way Tony's hair refuses to fall into place, stubbornly defying his attempts at slicking it back, combing it down, and otherwise making it cooperate.
He clasps his hands in his lap, unsettled by these thoughts. He can't afford to let them take over his mind right now. He has bigger problems than worrying about how he's going to let Tony know that he'd like them to be more than friends.
"He found the Enchantress," he says.
Tony tries to open his eyes when he hears that, but he can't do more than squint painfully into the darkness before he gives up with a low, pained noise.
"She's imprisoned in one of the Nine Realms," Steve says. "A place called Niflheim."
Tony's brow furrows. Steve doesn't know if that means he's never heard of the place, or if he knows exactly what it is.
"Thor managed to speak with her briefly before she was forced to flee," he continues. "He struck a deal with her. If we help her escape, she'll remove the spell on you."
Tony doesn't react at first, and Steve wonders if he even heard. Then Tony stirs, forcing his eyes open again and trying to rise – and he realizes that what he thought was apathy was just a quiet moment while Tony gathered his strength.
"No," he says quickly. "Don't." He puts out one hand, ready to physically stop Tony if necessary, but fortunately it doesn't come to that. For one wavering instant Tony is braced on one elbow, grimly determined to get up, but then the pain overcomes him and he can't go any further. He whimpers once, then collapses back onto the bed, his face screwed up with pain.
"It's okay," Steve says. "We'll wait until—" He stops right there, though. Because if he says, until you're ready, then Tony will insist that he's ready to go now.
"—until we've prepared our plan of attack," he finishes. "There's still time. You just rest, Tony."
The control Tony displayed when Steve first walked in is all but gone. He's practically gasping now, feet moving restlessly beneath the covers. It hurts to see him suffering so badly, and Steve almost wishes they could go now. Since his moment of discovery in the training room, he's felt that new sense of urgency surging through him. Even now, when he's sitting still, it courses through him, making him feel almost shaky, like he's trembling all over.
He takes a deep breath and forces himself to remember why he came in here. "The Enchantress was working with Loki," he says. He doesn’t know if Tony's listening to him, or even comprehending what he's saying, but he learned early on that when it comes to matters of intellect, to always give Tony the benefit of the doubt. That amazing mind operates on a level far above most people, capable of making connections and coming up with ideas that are pure genius. There is no reason to think he isn't listening now. He might not be able to help with strategy, but he deserves to know what they're getting themselves into.
And if nothing else, maybe it will give him something to think about, something to take his mind off the pain.
"Thor wasn't exactly talking, but it sounds like things are pretty bad in Asgard," Steve continues. Reading between the lines, it seems obvious to him that very soon the Avengers are going to have to make a trip there.
"Apparently Loki is angry now with the Enchantress. We don't know why. But he had her imprisoned in Niflheim. Her jailer is a powerful sorceress in her own right. The Executioner can't get to her, and even Thor barely made it out of there." From what Steve can gather, they will need the Enchantress's power to get them out of Niflheim and back to Earth – but she won't be able to do that until they free her from Hela's power.
"It's going to be a tough fight," he says. Tony will probably not be able to help much, and they'll be short one man, because Hank is staying behind to deal with any threats that might arise while they're gone. Still, he has no doubt that they will succeed.
He breathes in. "But we can do it."
Of course they can. And not just because it's Tony's life at stake. They can do it because they are the Avengers. Because this is what they do.
He wonders if Tony should come in the suit for this. If it's worth the risk of him getting another vision in order to have his firepower and flight abilities. There will be no standing on the sidelines for this battle, no hanging on the fringes, unobserved and unharmed. Even if he can't fight, the armor will provide protection and hopefully keep him safe.
Not that it kept him safe from the Enchantress's spell.
"Steve…" He looks down and sees Tony gazing up at him. "If I don't…get a chance to…" Each word clearly costs him, but he is obviously determined to forge on.
And Steve can't bear it. He doesn't want to hear this. Not when there's finally hope. "I don't want to hear that kind of talk," he says firmly. "We're going to win, Tony. You're going to be all right."
"No, but—" Tony starts.
Steve reaches out and places his fingertips over Tony's mouth. "No."
It's a mistake, he realizes that right away. He's never touched Tony so intimately before. Tony's breath is warm on his fingers, and his mustache is surprisingly soft. Worse, far worse, he suddenly wants to know how it would feel if it were his lips there instead of his fingers.
Tony's eyes are wide and shocked. For a fleeting second Steve lets himself imagine that Tony is feeling the same thing he is, wanting the same thing he is. Then reason reasserts itself and he knows that Tony is probably just stunned that Steve would stop him so boldly, refusing him this simple thing when he's hurting so badly.
He yanks his hand back and stands up. "Try to rest," he says. He's floundering, in way over his head. He needs to get out of here quickly, before he says or does something he's going to regret. This is neither the time nor the place. Tony is in no condition to deal with anything right now, and to touch him again, even with kindness this time, would be taking advantage of him.
It's a tactical retreat, that's all. Or that's what he tells himself. He's almost at the door when he says, "Have JARVIS call me if you need me."
It's too dark in here; he can't see Tony's expression anymore. He waits for a moment, but Tony says nothing.
Steve lets himself out and closes the door behind him. He's got a battle to plan, strategy to map out, information to learn. But he lingers in the hall for a moment, feeling oddly light-headed. He watches his hand rise toward his face, almost as though it belongs to someone else, and presses his fingertips to his mouth.
He knows he can't really still feel the warmth of Tony's lips. But he pretends he can, anyway.
Niflheim looks pretty much exactly the way Tony expects it to. Dreary light, dull sky, cracked earth. Back on Earth it's mid-morning, but here there is no sun in the sky, as though the concepts of night and day don't even exist. And in the realm of the dead, who's to say that isn't exactly how it is.
In other words, Niflheim is definitely not a vacation getaway.
The fact that they're fighting for their lives plays a part in that, though. Just a little bit.
Not that Tony is doing much fighting. The journey here took out the suit. It's in pieces on the ground, useless and scattered. All he's got left is one gauntlet still encasing his right hand and the undersuit, which feels like it might as well be made of paper. He designed it well and he knows it can withstand a couple hits, but that's about all the protection it offers.
Without the suit or any weapons, all he can do to make himself useful is call out warnings to the other Avengers when they are about to fall under a new attack. Fortunately, no one seems to be focused on him right now, although Tony makes sure to stay on the move, creeping around the fringes of the battle in order to make himself less of a target.
Niflheim itself might be ugly to look upon, but Hela is majestic and beautiful, although less so now that hate twists her features. She is cloaked and wearing a fantastic helm adorned with jagged black horns. Despite her slender figure, she easily wields an enormous sword, using it to keep both Thor and Hulk at bay. The other Avengers are not faring much better. Wasp is trapped inside a bubble, blasting away furiously at her transparent prison, anger and disgust written all over her face. Panther and Hawkeye weave and dodge all over the place, drawing Hela's shadowy soldiers away from where they guard the Enchantress's magical prison.
Cap – Steve – is making his way through the throng, pushing forward toward the Enchantress. He's surrounded by shadows, and he is a constant blur in motion, mindful of what Thor told them. Don't let them touch you. You will be tainted by Hela's power then, and she will be able to claim your soul.
The Enchantress stands near a stone column. She is not physically bound, but there is a definite aura shimmering about her, easily visible in the gloomy light. She looks out at the battle with barely concealed fury; she must hate needing to be rescued by mortals. Even now she watches Steve's progress grimly, her hands balled into fists at her side.
Tony feels frustrated and powerless. And so the vision hits him with more force than usual.
The images cut through him like a knife, agonizing and sharp. He hears himself cry out, then he's clutching at his face, the gauntlet pressing painfully to his eyes as though he can block out the sight if only he tries hard enough.
It's like that first vision all over again. He sees them fighting. Not as they are now, but at some point in the not-too-distant future. Wasp has freed herself from the bubble and is blasting away at Hela. Thor is bleeding from a great wound from that evil sword. Hawkeye is down, Panther crouched protectively over him, vibranium claws unsheathed as shadows close in around them. Hulk is almost lost from view, shadows swarming all over him as he roars and swats at them.
The noise is deafening: shouts and grunts and evil hisses and stinger blasts and metal upon stone. He swallows, gags on the taste and reek of blood, earth, magic.
But he forces himself past all that, past the bolt of agony in his head, past the fear of battle and death. To find the one person he needs to see.
Steve stands in front of Amora. His shield is lost, on the ground near where Hawkeye lies. He turns as a shadow falls over him. Not one of the hel-creatures, but Hela herself, her mighty sword raised high.
She strikes. Blood flies, spatters on the stone column beside the Enchantress. Steve falls, and Tony screams in anguish.
The vision disintegrates. Tony is on his knees, blood running from his nose, the pain already tearing mercilessly into his skull. Maybe it's this realm amplifying everything. Maybe it's just finally the end.
He looks up and already he sees the pieces of the future falling into place. Thor is on one knee, bleeding, staring transfixed at something only he can see – one of Hela's illusions. Wasp bursts free of her prison and flies toward Hela, fists raised. Hela shifts her sword to one hand and unleashes a barrage of energy bolts toward Panther and Hawkeye.
Steve, seeing this, lets his shield fly. It deflects some of the bolts, but one still strikes Clint and lays him out flat. The shield, with nothing to bounce off of, lands in the dust and remains there.
Hulk roars and starts to charge to Steve's aid. Immediately the shadows swarm about him, dragging him down, burying him in a living mass of darkness.
Hela turns toward Steve. A thin smile splits her face.
Tony sees it all. It's a moment in time frozen forever. Dull light gleams off the sword. Steve is just becoming aware of the threat and starting to turn, but already he is too late.
Steve is about to die, and there is nothing anyone can do. No one else can help. No one else is close enough, or capable. They are fighting for their lives.
Fighting for him.
What a fool he is for not seeing this coming. For not knowing that this was always how it was going to end.
And what has this all been for, if he can't see what he has to do now, this one last moment of clarity and insight? What has he wanted all this time, with every searing vision, with every mission he sent the Avengers on?
There is no fanfare. Tony does not call out. He just reaches down with the gauntlet and pries the cover off the arc reactor.
White power pours from the device. Tony is hurled backward by the blast that erupts from his chest. The arc reactor's energy strikes Hela's hand and wrist, and she snarls and drops the sword.
As Tony lands heavily on his back on the hard earth, he watches Steve pick up the fallen sword and run Hela through.
And then he's lying still, staring up at the colorless sky.
He gasps for breath, struggling for each tiny wisp of air. Pain spears his chest, brighter and sharper than the agony in his head. All around him the battle continues to rage, but the sounds are dull, unimportant.
"Tony!" Steve's agonized cry splits the day.
He can't see anything, can't even turn his head. He doesn't want to die like this, lost and alone, but he doesn't seem to have much choice in the matter.
Something blue streaks past his vision. Then Steve is there, dropping to one knee beside him. He holds the cover of the arc reactor in one hand.
Tony has never seen a more beautiful sight.
Steve doesn't waste time on speaking. He just slams the cover home, securing the arc reactor and bringing with it such immense relief that Tony groans aloud. The crushing pain in his chest backs off, and he's able to breathe again; oxygen has never tasted so sweet.
"Oh Tony," Steve says, and there it is again, one more thing he never saw coming. But it's all right there, shining in those two words. And it's there, gleaming brightly in the way Steve picks him up off the ground and cradles him close, wrapping two strong arms about him and holding him. It's there in the star on Steve's chest, the shaky undernote in Steve's breathing, the way Steve's chin nestles on top of his hair.
He doesn't care that everyone else is watching. He knows he will care, if this goes on too long, but for now, nothing else matters but this moment. He has no idea what has become of Hela and her shadow minions, or the Enchantress. He doesn't even care about the terrible pain battering the inside of his skull. The only thing that matters is that Steve is safe, Steve is alive, and Steve is holding him.
"We have upheld our end of the bargain," Thor says from somewhere on his left. "Now it is your turn."
"Very well," the Enchantress says, her voice dripping with lofty disdain.
Green light envelops Tony. It's like being hit with the spell the first time. For a moment it's all he can see – and then the light clears and he finds himself looking at the mansion.
He's confused at first. Did the Enchantress teleport them home too? Then he sees the two figures on the roof, and he realizes what this is.
They stand there under the sunset, both of them still suited up for battle. He has the faceplate up, and Steve's cowl is pushed back. They're talking quietly, but they are smiling. And during a pause in the conversation, Tony leans in quickly and kisses Steve. In response, Steve puts both hands on his armored hips and pulls him closer.
The vision dissolves. He sees the great foyer in the mansion, full of Avengers. Standing with the Avengers he knows now are a blond woman wearing a mask. An android in green and yellow. Two Hulks, one male, one female. A brother and sister, one in red, one with silver hair.
Then that vision is whisked away, too. Other images take its place. Spaceships and alien planets, a shining Citadel on what can only be Asgard, a horrible green face with pointed ears and chin folds staring down at him, the armor flying toward him on remote pilot, a man awash in purple, snow falling outside and a warm kitchen full of Avengers chatting and laughing, an enormous man-shaped thing intent on eating the planet.
And Steve, always Steve. Beside him on the roof beneath the sunset. Sweaty and kissing him in the training room. A hand briefly touching his back as they step out to speak with the press. Sharing a plate of food, candlelight casting shadows on the small table. Looking down at him with love and laughter, the sheets hanging off the edge of the bed and puddled on the floor.
Then it all disappears. Steve, the Avengers, those bright images of the future. All gone in a spray of green light.
Tony just lies there for a moment, trying to process it all. He feels a little bit like he just got thrown into a wall – an unfortunately all-too common experience in his line of work. He feels stunned, literally unable to move, his shell-shocked brain struggling to make sense out of what just happened to him.
"Did it work?" Jan asks anxiously.
"Tony?" Steve's voice is pitched low, a courtesy for his throbbing headache.
But there is no need for it. With wonder and gratitude, he realizes that the pain in his head is gone. For the first time since he was hit by the spell, he feels truly clear in his own mind.
He looks up, and Steve is right there, still holding him close, the side of his face pressed to the star on Steve's chest. He feels embarrassment now, dull shame creeping over him for his weakness, for letting them all see him this way. He stirs, and Steve lets go of him.
The Avengers have all gathered around. There is no sign of the shadow soldiers. Hela is nowhere in sight either, but the cloak that gives her so much power and her sword remain on the ground where they fell. The blade of the sword is dark with drying blood.
The Enchantress stands apart from them all, her arms crossed. She looks haughtily down at Tony, awaiting his judgment.
He stands up, Steve following suit beside him. He looks at Amora. "It worked," he says.
The faintest smile touches the Enchantress's mouth. "As if there were any doubt," she says.
"Oh, we had doubts," Clint says dourly. He's holding the back of his head gingerly, his face tight with pain, but he doesn't look to be too badly hurt.
"Are you all right?" Steve asks quietly.
Tony turns toward hm. Already the images he saw in that final vision are starting to fade. He can remember some of them – a man of purple, that alien planet, the woman Avenger with the mask – but the others are swiftly bleeding out, like ink caught in the rain. There's still a chance he can consciously remember them and help the Avengers prepare for the future, but that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.
He tries anyway. But what he strives to hold onto, what he clings to with all his might, are those other, selfish visions. The ones of Steve. Sunset on the roof, stolen kisses in the middle of the day, unabashedly romantic cuddles in bed.
Even if he can never remember the details, he hopes he can remember the feelings they evoked. The knowledge that there are happy days ahead for them.
Later, although incredibly enough still the same day, they sit in the living room and talk. Tony doesn't know where the other Avengers are, and for the time being he doesn't care. There are things he has to say now, while Steve is sitting here on the couch, separated from him by the mere space of two cushions.
Things he has to say while he still can.
"This isn't over," Steve says. "Loki cannot remain in Asgard."
"I still can't believe we're letting the Enchantress help us with that," Tony says. "She says she can find these Norn stones to take us there, and what…we just believe her?"
"I believe she genuinely cares for Thor," Steve says. "And Asgard is her home."
"And I believe she genuinely wants revenge on Loki," Tony says. He is not about to let any notions of romance or sentiment cloud the issue here.
Steve smiles a little. "You might be right on that."
"Of course I'm right," Tony says.
Silence falls between them. It's a bit uneasy, awkward and heavy. Tony shifts his weight a little and swallows hard. This is it then. He's up.
"You don't have to say it," Steve says quickly, cutting him off. "You would have done the same for any of us," he adds. He too has turned slightly so he can face Tony.
This is true, but it isn't the point. "I wouldn't have made it through without you," Tony says. That's a hard thing to admit, but he has to be honest with himself here. That future the Enchantress showed him is never going to come true, and he has to accept that. This is the last chance he's going to have to speak so freely and openly to Steve. He has to make this count.
Steve shakes his head. "You would have. You're the strongest person I know, Tony."
And that is definitely not true. It also hits a little too close to home, reminding him painfully of why he has to have this conversation in the first place. To hide that pain, he smiles lightly. "Don't let Hulk hear you say that."
Steve doesn't look amused. "There's more to strength than just muscles."
Another painful truth. Tony is about to say as much, when Steve says, seemingly out of the blue, "I read once that the heart is the strongest muscle there is."
Tony just blinks in surprise. He's not sure what he's supposed to say to that.
"And I learned something during all this," Steve says. He suddenly seems unsure of himself; he looks down and clears his throat. Tony has only seen him look like this once before. It was that day in the kitchen, when it seemed like Steve was about to tell him something previously held in secret, before the untimely arrival of another vision. The sight of that look on Steve's face makes his heart start to pound in anticipation. "Something about myself. And…and you."
It can't be. It's impossible. And yet…
For one shining moment, Tony lets himself feel overwhelming happiness. This is everything he ever wanted
But he can't have it, and he knows that. So he shoves that joy down deep inside himself, down where it can't affect him. He can't let this go any further. And he absolutely cannot let Steve say whatever it is he intends to say next.
"Don't do this," he says, at the same time Steve says, "If I ever lost you…"
They both stop. Now Steve is the one to look startled. But he is still determined, and while Tony is inwardly writhing in shame and humiliation, he is the first one to recover. "Why shouldn't I?" he says. "I thought you felt the same."
Tony wants to sink into the couch and just die. So Steve knew all along. Just one more thing he never saw coming.
In a way, though, that makes it easier for him to do what he has to do.
He looks Steve in the eye. Keeps his voice formal, polite. He's had long years of practice in business. He knows how to do this. "Then you know why we can't do this."
"No," Steve says. "I don't." He sounds almost angry, and Tony knows he's deeply hurt and trying hard not to show it.
"You've seen…" He sighs. "You know what a liability I am to the team. There's no coming back from that. And so I appreciate everything you did for me, but it means that—"
Steve's eyes widen in comprehension. "No," he says. "No, Tony. It doesn't mean that at all."
"Yes, it does," Tony says. In spite of everything he has seen, he will not be swayed on this. He knows the truth, even if Steve won't admit it.
Stubborn as ever, Steve plows on. "My first week here, you saw me sitting by the pool, crying for everyone I had lost. And you didn't let that change anything between us."
Tony can't quite hide his shock. He remembers that day clear as a bell, as much as he wishes he didn't. It's the only time he's ever seen Steve cry, and it unnerves him to think about it. "I…I don't know what you're talking about."
"I know you saw me," Steve says. "But you pretended that you didn't. You went back inside and you let me grieve. And then later you came out and you brought me that art book, the one you said you found in the library. You acted like nothing had happened, like you didn't see how red my eyes were from crying."
He's caught red-handed, so there's no point in denying it. "I didn't want you to feel uncomfortable," Tony admits.
"And you didn't think it made me weak?" Steve asks. "Or any less of a man?"
"Of course not," Tony says indignantly. "You had every right to be—" He stops then, neatly trapped by his own response.
"And this is no different," Steve says. "You were in pain. We thought you were dying, Tony. I don't hold that against you, and you shouldn't either."
Steve moves closer to him. He smells clean, like soap and aftershave. It's the closest they've been when there wasn't some kind of emergency involved. That aura of safety that always surrounds Steve washes over him. It's not just security he feels, though. His skin prickles all over with heat and longing brought on by Steve's nearness.
And it's no good. He's weak and selfish and a coward, but he wants this. He's always wanted Steve. That is one truth he will never able to deny. And maybe he doesn't deserve this, and maybe the visions lied, but there is only one way he will ever know.
"I'm not good at this kind of thing," Steve says. "But—"
"Don't," Tony says, almost begging. He raises his hand and presses his fingers to Steve's mouth.
Steve's eyes get very wide. Tony knows he's thinking about yesterday, when he did this very same thing.
But that was then, and this is now, and anyway, Tony is a futurist. He's got the memories to prove it. He leans in and he kisses Steve, just a light press of his lips to Steve's lips. "Okay," he says.
Steve looks poleaxed. If he were a cartoon, little bluebirds would be singing and circling over his head right now. "Okay?" he repeats. He sounds as dazed as he looks.
Tony laughs. He can't help it. "Okay," he says. He knows he's got a lot to prove, both to Steve and the Avengers, but he can do it. He's good at that kind of thing. And he won't be doing it alone. He'll have Steve at his side. That makes all the difference in the world.
"Can I…?" Faint color reddens Steve's cheeks.
Smiling, Tony says, "You don't ever need to ask." They kiss again, and this time it is deep and sweet, and Tony sees at last what an idiot he was to deny himself this, to think that he could avoid his fate just because he was scared of it.
He thinks about the visions in his head, the memories of those things that haven't even happened yet in his future with Steve.
He's pretty sure he sees how to get there.