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a moment in time

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They kept repeating he'd be all right, but as far as he knew, he shouldn't be looking down on his own body. A body that was, in fact, shot. And probably had bled out already. He didn't feel pain, he didn't feel anything really – he was just looking at his own face, paler than he remembered from the mirror, with blood at his mouth. He reached out before he could stop himself.

His hand was translucent.

He watched as it went right through his own jaw.

The medics started to reanimate him. He doubted it would work and watched with a sort of cold, clinical interest as charged paddles were pressed to his body, again, and again; and he didn't feel a thing.

Ghosts didn't exist. He'd heard Strange talking about souls, but nothing like this. Nothing like he was experiencing now.

Ghosts. Where did it come from? But – that was it, right? He was looking at his own body. How else could he explain this?

He thought he was too calm, but he couldn't really start to worry about what was going on with him. Facts, he'd like to know the facts, but he was dimly aware he shouldn't be that technical about it. First things first, though.

He knew who had killed him. He'd seen her eyes. He knew it wasn't really her.

He hoped it wasn't on Tony's orders... No. He knew that as he knew Tony. Even at the worst... Tony would never kill him. That wasn't Tony.

At the worst, it took six men to stop Steve from bringing the shield down, one last time, to finish it. It took six men to stop him from killing Tony.

What the hell had he been thinking? He knew the answer. He hadn't been thinking, he'd only been angry. He'd been almost like Hulk. Worse. He took a deep breath – a habit, clearly, since as he did it he noticed he didn't have to breathe anymore – thought of it again. Someone shot him. Sharon killed him, but she wasn't in her right mind. He died – he was dead, and he'd become a ghost. That was his basic information.

He could deal with that.

He should see what Tony was doing. He trusted him, but... The last few months were challenging. But if Steve had any chance of finding out what happened – Tony was one of the most intelligent, resourceful men in the world.

He had to leave the ambulance. Flying was certainly an option, he was sort of floating even now, and his hand had just gone through his body, but... He left the car easily enough, saw the street around them – close to the Court, still, the traffic must have been hellish. He tried to move further – and he couldn't. He couldn't take a step more.

Was it his body anchoring him? Because if yes, he really didn't want to be buried with it, forever. He felt suddenly, inexplicably tired. He closed his eyes. Everyone needed sleep, right?

Wrong, he discovered some time later. He had stopped paying any attention to the outside world, but he hadn't been asleep. It was more like lethargy.

He looked around himself. His body was lying on a cold slab. His shield rested over his chest, and his cowl was off. He was alone here, and judging by the adventure in the ambulance, he couldn't even leave the room.

Someone walked in, very quietly, with hesitation. He sat down on the single chair, removed his helmet.

It was a surprise to see Tony that exhausted.

Tony opened his mouth as if to say something. Steve didn't know if he wanted to be here. Hear more of his excuses and accusations. They'd went over it enough times.

But then Tony started speaking, in quiet, slow words, and Steve found himself unable not to listen. Tony's voice started breaking, and Steve felt lost. He expected him angry, maybe, not – not that.

Not crying. Not that much despair in every sob wracking his body. Not that much sorrow, visible in every tear, choking him, not allowing him to speak, when he tried to say, one thing I can't live with... has happened. Not the heartbreaking defeat sounding in his words, when he whispered, it wasn't worth it.

It didn't make sense. Steve'd died when they were enemies. Tony shouldn't care that much. But... They'd been fighting each other for a much shorter time than had been friends, and while Steve'd thought it didn't mean much to Tony, he'd clearly been wrong. The man Steve saw before him was a man in mourning. A broken man mourning a friend.

Steve wanted to embrace him, to comfort him, but couldn't. His hand would just go through. Like Vision's hand, when he'd disabled Tony's armour on Steve's orders.

If he'd listened – could they have avoided all that?

Steve didn't want to think of it. Tony didn't leave – he was crying, silently, looking at Steve's body. Steve had never wanted to see him that defeated. He was a coward. He couldn't look at it. He left the room, and a few steps outside he froze, exhausted again, falling into this not-sleep.

When he not-woke up again, Tony was still there, though the place was different.

Of course Tony was there. Tony, who seemed not to have taken Steve being dead very well. Steve could stop joking.

Tony, who looked like he was wondering why he hadn't yet committed suicide. And maybe he'd be better off like that, too, Steve noticed, horrified at himself.

Steve looked around. Arctic. Where they first found him. And his body was there, in a coffin. Jan and Hank were there as well. So this was his burial? Fitting. But he didn't plan to spend who knew how much time underwater.

"Can you hear me?” he said, facing the other Avengers, and didn't get a reply.

He couldn't worry about it more, because Tony was near him, Tony with the same, grief-stricken expression, Tony who looked as if he'd rather be dead. He was watching Steve's body, his whole posture tense. Steve stepped up and hugged him, hard as he could, taking care not to put his hands through him.

Something weird happened, like an electric shock, but he ignored it. Tony was more important (he'd always been), and Tony was very clearly contemplating jumping into the water behind Steve's body, falling away in the glass coffin. But Steve wasn't forced to follow it.

Jan said something and Tony nodded, and then he seemed to give up. He fell to his knees. Steve was at his side immediately, and he embraced him from behind as tight as he could, praying at least Extremis would notice him, but nothing happened. Tony was there, crying his eyes out, over Steve, alone.

“How am I supposed to go on without you?” he whispered, this familiar sound of self-hatred in his voice. Steve knew Tony was capable of anything.

He was kneeling just at the edge of the icy cold water.

Steve couldn't do anything. Tony was crying, desperate sobs that Steve didn't want to hear, but he needed to be here and make sure Tony was all right, even if he didn't know how.

“I can't go on without you, Steve,” Tony whispered.

“You have to, Tony,” Steve said sadly. He couldn't stay silent. “If not for yourself, then for the world.”

“But you'd never forgive me that, would you?” Tony sighed. “I have to make sure you – your death wasn't for nothing. I have to make it count. I don't...” He bowed his head. “I know you can't hear me and I keep talking to you, and isn't that the definition of madness? Maybe I am mad, and you're alive. I'd like that, Steve, I...” Tony looked up, at the cold, dark sky. “It killed me to fight you. Maybe it's me who's dead, really, and this is hell. I'd like that too.”

“No!” Steve shook his head, horrified. He stood in front of Tony, willing him to see him, to listen, but of course, Tony couldn't see him. His eyes were red and his face completely wet with tears. Steve almost instinctively reached out to wipe them from under Tony's eyes.

Tony shivered, suddenly, took a step away. He looked around. “Maybe I'm going crazy,” he repeated once more, quietly. “Good bye, Cap,” he said, looking at the water one last time, and activated his armour.

Steve went after him without thinking.

 

***

 

It was Tony, now. His anchor in the living world. He shouldn't be surprised. It'd always been Tony, ever since the ice.

But then – then it was Steve who needed help, and Tony had done everything he could, in both of his identities. Now Steve could just stand and watch. He'd say it killed him to do it, but he was dead anyway. So he watched.

Watched Tony trying to kill himself by a super-villain of the week. Watched Tony hurting himself, putting his hand through a mirror or a glass. Watched Tony staring at the bottles of expensive alcohol before pouring them away. Watched Tony hiding in the armour, huddling in the corner, his head in his hands. He was silent, and Steve didn't really want to know what he was thinking of.

It was voyeuristic, it felt wrong, but Steve couldn't walk away. He didn't even dare look away, too afraid Tony'd be gone when he looked the next time. Sometimes Steve wondered if this was hell. Seeing Tony in this state and being unable to do anything.

He didn't know what to feel when Tony'd bought his first Avengers ID card. When he'd given the shield to Bucky; the worst and the best idea he might have had.

He had to watch, but he couldn't anymore. It hurt to much. It made him realise things better hidden.

He couldn't face them.

Tony was talking to Maya. This, their discussions in the lab – even if they hurt him, they were the only moments when he seemed alive.

Steve had no right to, but he pressed his lips to Tony's hair, and then walked away, waiting for the apathy to overcome him. Maybe he wouldn't open his eyes again.

 

***

 

Tony was tearing off his armour.

“No!” Steve shouted, instinctively, and jumped in front of him, but it didn't help, of course. Black mass of – he'd no idea what it was – jumped straight through him and at Tony. Steve heard a horrifying scream.

What was happening? Why, why did he leave Tony, again? He would've done anything to go back in time. He never could.

Tony was still screaming, and Steve couldn't hide from it. It went on and on and on, until the black mass disappeared and Tony stood there, unscathed. He took one look around and promptly passed out.

Steve couldn't leave him any more.

 

***

 

Tony mourned Sal. He mourned Maya. He mourned very single agent that died under his command. Steve, still.

Hulk came back to Earth and Steve wished he could shake Tony and ask what the hell he was thinking, if the answer wasn't so obvious.

Could he ever stop and ask for help? Could he stop making those decisions fucking them all up?

Obviously, no. Not when he was still ready to take it all upon himself, and then break the mirror, because he couldn't stand his reflection.

Steve wanted to hit him and hug him and never let him go, but he only could watch as Hulk turned out to be the only sane person among them. Steve wondered how he himself didn't go mad, stopped in this world, not allowed death.

Tony was exhausted beyond all belief, and still refusing to sleep. Steve sometimes stood before him and said, “Tony, enough, go to sleep, your work will still be here – Tony, let me make you dinner – Tony, just lie down, please,” but Tony'd never heard. Of course he'd never heard. Steve wasn't really there.

One day, Tony went to sleep. Steve sat at the edge of his bed and ran his fingers through Tony's hair, even though he knew he shouldn't and that Tony didn't feel it anyway. He hated how helpless he was. Tony woke up, suddenly – he usually did, haunted by nightmares all the time – but something was different. He was staring at the balcony with horror.

It was empty.

Steve caught Tony by his arms, but his hands just went through, and he saw Tony fighting someone who wasn't there – who was still capable of leaving a very real bruises on Tony's body – screaming and crying, and listening to his words, Steve understood. He thought he was fighting Steve. Or rather, that Steve was there to hurt him. Steve wanted to sob. Tony stopped moving, knelt in the middle of the room, and Steve went to him, dropped to his knees near him.

 "Tony.” Nothing, but it didn't matter. “Tony, I'd never hurt you. I don't hate you.”

 Tony was blinking. He looked through him... At him.

 “If you're another hallucination,” he said, half-crying, “I'd rather you just beat me up.”

 “Tony, no,” Steve said, horrified. He reached forward. Tony flinched, but then stopped himself, so Steve touched his face, gently.

 “Your hands feel like ice,” Tony whispered. “Am I dead?”

 “No.”

 “Are you back?” The hope in his voice broke Steve's heart. He forced himself to shake his head.

 “Then how...?” Tony whispered, looking down.

 “I don't know,” Steve said. “I don't know why you can see me now and couldn't before. I'm sorry, Tony.”

 Tony laughed and there wasn't a hint of amusement in it. “You're sorry. I killed you, I killed you, and...” he broke off.

 Steve couldn't do it anymore. He lunged forward and hugged Tony, pressed him into his chest as hard as he could. “You didn't kill me. I don't hate you. I never had.”

 A quiet sob escaped his lips. “How can you...?”

 “I heard your – explanations,” Steve admitted. “But even without them – I've never hated you, Tony. Stop punishing yourself.”

 “I love you,” Tony whispered in a broken voice. “And you're dead.”

 “I know,” Steve said quietly. “I'm sorry I never said anything. I'm so, so sorry.”

 “Steve...?” Tony's voice changed. He was more desperate now, and Steve tried to bring him closer to himself, but couldn't. No, he thought. No yet.

 “I don't hate you. I loved you,” he said, and judging by Tony's face he'd heard it, but then he looked around with a heartbroken expression, absolutely lost.

 “Steve? Steve! Steve, please, don't leave me again, Steve...”

 He fell down and cried, and Steve felt he might've just made it worse.

 

***

 

The man, ex-SHIELD agent, said it was all Tony's fault.

Tony stepped forward. “Then kill me,” he said.

SHIELD agents shouted at him to back off, but he waved them off. “I know what I'm doing,” he said on the comms.

Steve watched in horror. He tried to shove Tony away and fell through him.

“Tony!”

Tony let his armour fall to the ground. Steve wanted to yell at the agents – it was so obvious Tony didn't have a plan, but they'd learnt to trust him, and... Steve closed his eyes, putting himself in front of Tony, as if it could help.

The man fired.

The bullet went straight through Tony's heart.