“He was a good man,” Steve Rogers says quietly. He is staring at his hands, the words catching in his throat. The tiny letters on the paper mean nothing, he can't read them. “He was a genius, ahead of his time, selfless when he wanted to be, but he knew how to be a pain in everyone's ass.”
A collective sobbing laugh ripples through the crowd. The most sickening noise Steve has ever heard.
“He was a good friend,” Steve presses on, trying to keep his focus, but he loses it. He was more than a good friend, and the words seem hollow to him now. After days practicing in the mirror, he doesn't feel right about the speech coming from his lips. Friend is such a lacking word for how much he meant. Above it all, Steve can't think of another word, and he seeks out a friendly face in the assembly.
Pepper is in the front row, looking exquisite in all black, her fiery hair cascading loosely down her back. Steve holds her gaze, watching tears slide down her cheeks even as a smile lifts her face. It doesn't touch her eyes, the way her smiles usually light the talented woman up like a Christmas tree on December twenty-fifth. The smile is hollow and forced, but Steve swallows the lump in his throat and presses on anyway.
“I first met Tony Stark in the Avengers Initiative, but I knew his father, Howard. They were quite similar, but they both would deny it if you told them. His Iron Man suit was a technological marvel, his energy solutions were at the very front of the race. He was a great man, taken from us far before his time, and he will be missed.” Steve feels everything inside, the way it bubbles and pops and everything seems to be breaking, but he covers it in apathy to get through this, to give Tony his last respects, to make the man proud, because more than anything, Steve only wants to see Tony smile again.
He steps down from the platform, his eyes sweeping the casket, the hole in the ground. For all his pomp and splendor, Tony Stark wanted to be buried like everyone else, next to his family. It was such a humble last request that Steve hadn't believed his ears. Thinking about Tony puts a sharp, throbbing pain in Steve's chest, and he tries to close off his heart to the hurt.
When he sits beside Pepper, she squeezes his hand, her tears telling him what she can't say. She's known, for a while actually, and she has kept her mouth shut. Tony Stark was his own personal sun, and any who got too close were sucked into his orbit for better or worse. It was hard not to love Tony. Under everything he put on the outside, under the Iron Man suit, under his father's snarky attitude, under all the layers he wore to distract anyone from the real him, there was something splendid. Pepper and Steve knew the real Tony like no one else did. Pepper didn't complain when she noticed her eccentric billionaire flirting with America's posterboy for superhuman strength. Likewise, she didn't step down when the flirting turned to something more, because Pepper was always there for Tony in ways that no one else could hope to come close to.
Steve squeezes her hand back, swallowing the tears threatening to spill over. If nothing else through all this, they will have each other.
The rest of the service is a blur. Steve doesn't speak, only nods in acknowledgment as people parade by to pay their final respects to a man who gave his life for everything. Agent Phil Coulson limps by, a hand on Steve's shoulder for support, his face pale and haunted, whispering words of sympathy, but Steve doesn't hear the dead man. Coulson shakes his head sadly, stepping away, leaning on Clint Barton as they leave. Banner drops a bag of blueberries in the grave, jaw set, his eyes dead. Natasha sails through on her graceful heels, a picture of beauty despite her mourning blacks. Her respects are quiet and unassuming, standing still beside the grave for precious moments before vanishing with the rest of those leaving. Thor is not present for the service, claiming Midgard traditions make him uncomfortable. No one pressed it. Nick Fury is missing, and has been for three days, but no one says anything. When the final bits of SHIELD personnel file by, Steve finds an empty folding chair and sits down hard.
Pepper sits beside him, her tear-streaked face gazing up at the sky.
“I'll make him pay,” Steve says through clenched teeth.
“You all will,” Pepper answers quietly, her voice on the breaking edge of a sob.
Steve feels fear grip him as a tear slides down his cheek, and he steadies his voice as he growls, “I'll rip out Loki's heart.”
It was raining.
Outside, the heavens pounded against the glass of Stark Tower, or formerly known as Stark Tower and presently used for the Avengers Initiative, of which Tony demanded everyone to be moved in to keep an eye on them. It was a clever ruse that almost passed under Pepper's nose undetected, but she was smart, there was no denying that. The longer Tony spent in the lab, the more Pepper catered to his needs. She was devoted, as loyal as anyone could be to an eccentric billionaire playboy. Steve loved that about her, and it almost made him feel bad for going behind her back.
He was never a stealthy person, so when he slipped into the lab at quarter past three that night, Tony looked up from the device on the table. Bags under his eyes, three days of beard taking back his face, haunted eyes. A bottle of Crown Royal sat on the table beside his work, but Steve couldn't tell if it was already that empty, or if Tony had been working at it recently.
“You could try being more quiet,” Tony said offhand.
“You've been in here for two days, Tony, go to sleep.”
“Cant,” the man replied, tapping the work on the table. He turned away, rummaging through what Steve identified as an old vacuum cleaner.
“Pepper is waiting for you,” Steve pressed.
“I don't want Pepper.”
Steve couldn't fake the shock on his face. When Tony turned around with a wire in his hands, he snorted, a stupid smile on his face. Steve found his voice. “Yes you do.”
“Well, sure, but not right now,” Tony said, tinkering with the device, bent over the table with the delicate work. “What are you here for? Wait, don't tell me,” he straightened up, tapping a wrench against his workbench as he stared the Captain down. “Let's see, you wanted a good conversation? No, I think Pepper sent you.”
“No. I sent me. I'm worried about you.”
“Don't be. I'm fine. Dandy. So why don't you go get some sleep, Cap?”
Steve took a deep breath. “I can't sleep.”
Tony looked genuinely intrigued, his eyes bright, suddenly all attention on Steve. “And why's that?”
“I keep thinking about you.”
Steve wakes with a start. His sheets are soaked in sweat and he realizes there are tears on his face. Wiping them away quickly, he gets out of bed and pads to the closet to get a fresh change of clothes. He passes Banner on his way to the shower, but they don't speak. Steve looks away to avoid the question lingering on everyone's lips, Why is Cap so distressed?
The night before, the day they buried Tony Stark, they went to the Shawarma joint for a bite, despite the entire crew having thought it quite dull the first time. It was after that, when they'd picked at their food for a bit with no appetite, that Steve suggested the bar. He can't get drunk, but he can try. When he asked for the best whiskey on the highest shelf, the bartender had poured him a shot and slid it over, and he had laughed and grabbed the bottle and chugged .
His shower is quick and to the point, in and out because running water makes him think of Tony and everything today needs to not be about Tony. They have a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. Steve runs a comb through his lengthening hair, slips into his clean clothes, and steps out of the bathroom and into Hawkeye.
Clint staggers from the unexpected collision, eyebrows quirking up. “Everything okay?”
“Good. Fury is back. He has intel on Loki.”
Steve judges Clint for a beat, as if trying to decide the level of excitement he should show for this information. He settles for anger, and tosses his dirty clothes into the corner of the bathroom. “What are we waiting for?” he growls, stalking to the main room.
Fury is waiting with everyone else. Thor is standing beside him, observing his fellows curiously as is his fashion. Pale and gaunt, Agent Coulson sits in a round chair, looking for all the world like he might break at any second. His recovery from his faked death hit a few bumps along the way and he's been out of the field ever since. Natasha is standing beside the window, looking out, arms crossed over her chest, closed off from the rest of the team, but her attention is nowhere else but on Fury. Banner is mixing drinks behind the bar – a habit he's been in to since Tony's death. Clint and Steve stand at the bottom of the stairs, and when Fury realizes neither of them are moving past that spot, he puts his hands behind his back.
All eyes are on the man.
“It has come to my attention that Loki is after something,” Fury announces in his booming, authoritative voice. “It is apparently something that was left here a few hundred years ago. Quite frankly, we don't know a damn thing about it, except that we don't want Loki getting his hands on it.”
Steve shifts uncomfortably.
“And with what happened last week, I know you all want revenge.”
Only Thor doesn't grumble or nod in agreement. The God of Thunder looks down in shame. He has, twenty times now, tried to apologize for his brother's actions. Steve had punched him full on in the face and walked away shaking his bruised hand. After a few days, Thor stopped apologizing and vanished altogether. Apparently he was out playing recon with Fury.
“This isn't the time for it,” Fury says, and the atmosphere in the room goes chilly. “That's what Loki wants. He's playing us like a fiddle. So if you can't put your personal feelings on the back burner, I'm gonna have to ask you to sit this one out.”
Fury's eye fixes on Steve, as if that enigmatic man knows exactly what he's talking about.
Steve sets his jaw, squares his shoulders, and steps forward. “I'm a soldier,” he answers, both the spoken and unspoken request.
Fury's gaze lingers for a moment longer than necessary. “That's what I thought. Now, the rest of you, Thor knows where Loki is. You'll be leaving in fifteen minutes. Do not fuck this up.”
“You only have one chance,” Thor adds. “Loki will know we are coming.”
“The bastard always does,” Clint grumbles, glancing to Agent Coulson.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Steve rests his head against the wall of the jet. Sitting beside him for future use is his parachute. Apparently, of all the harebrained ideas Fury has had, jumping out of a jet over the suspected Loki-Hotspot won the whole damn pig at the county fair. Meanwhile, Natasha and Clint are setting up on the ground, where their stealth will come in far more handy than falling out of the sky. Steve sighs deeply, staring up at the ceiling as the engines hum gently beneath his feet. Thor sits across from him, toying with the chute curiously.
“Stop that,” Steve commands. Realizing how harsh he sounds, he softens his voice. “You don't want to damage it before a jump.”
“This fabric,” Thor says, holding it up without tugging any of the strings. “What is its purpose?”
Steve grunts, not quite a laugh but not the sound of dismissal. “Keeping you from being a pancake on impact,” he answers.
“Pancake,” Thor repeats. “The nourishing breakfast you made for me.” It isn't a question, he's proud of himself for remembering such trivial Midgard information.
“That's right,” Steve says, closing his eyes.
A long pause stills in the air.
“Loki will have defenses,” Thor says, oddly showing human restraint in speaking.
“He will be hard to reach,” Thor presses.
Another long pause fills the cabin, and Steve opens his eyes to look at Thor.
“You cared for Stark very much,” Thor says slowly. “I likewise care for my brother very much. I know he has done very bad things, and I cannot forgive him for what he has taken, but he is my brother. I will not allow harm to come to him.”
Steve's shoulders lift, his jaw clenches, his eyes meet the God of Thunder's. “I'm going to kill him.”
Thor stares back, fire burning behind his brilliant eyes. “I do not think you will,” he says steadily.
“You might want to think about that again.”
“I will take Loki back to Asgard, I will place him under heavy guard.”
Steve scoffs. “That didn't work so well the first time. And this time?” He shakes his head. “It is personal.”
Thor doesn't have anything to say, but he does not look away.
Steve rests his head against the wall again, closing his eyes. “It would be nice if they would turn up the music.”
On demand, the music fills the cabin from the floor to the ceiling, and Steve wishes he hadn't asked.
“What are you listening to?” Tony demanded, aghast. He reached over Steve's shoulder, pressing himself against the larger man as he tried to grab the record from the player.
Steve pressed back, keeping Tony's fingers just out of reach. “It's called jazz,” he said smartly. “You should listen to it sometime.”
“I'm listening to it now, and I want it to stop.”
“ Really listen to it,” Steve insisted with a laugh.
“I don't think I want to,” Tony said, trying to get around Steve to turn off the ancient record player and its static speakers.
Steve got to his feet fluidly, catching Tony's wrists and placing one of the man's hands on his hip, laughter in his eyes. “Come on, Tony,” he said playfully, leading the reluctant man in a hesitant dance step. “It does have charm.”
“Oh, because I lack charm, and really could use more,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. He didn't pull away, a silly grin plastered to his face. “You're impossible, you know.”
“Impossible is such a broad word,” Steve said in protest.
“It fits you.”
Steve laughed, stepping widely to force Tony into a more natural dance rhythm. “I'm just a super soldier out of a test tub.”
“Impossible,” Tony dismissed.
“That's what everyone said.”
The record stopped playing, the scratch of the needle twirling round and round playing over the speakers. Steve abruptly let go of Tony's hands, tapping him lightly on the nose with a single finger. He lifted the record from the player, sliding it back into its case and pulling another from the small stack beside the player. With all the care of a mother with her newborn, Steve placed the record on the turntable, setting the needle gently on the surface.
“Where did you find that thing anyway?” Tony asked. “Shouldn't it be in a museum next to all the other really old crap?”
“Fury found it for me,” Steve answered, turning around as the music began to play. Sweeping Tony's hands back into his, he resumed the lead in the dance.
“What are you –“
“Shhh, listen,” Steve interrupted, touching their noses together. Slowly, the music began to swell, the beat lively and active, begging to be danced to, and Steve intended to indulge it. “Kay Kyser,” he said quietly, his swaying steps gaining a bounce.
"Bless you," Tony responded.
"Cute," Steve said. "The song is by Kay Kyser."
“Some old dead chick?” Tony asked, growing more amused with every new step.
“Dude, actually. Well, he was alive when I was around, so I guess he's pretty dead now,” Steve answered. “But that isn't the point, listen.”
The man's voice came over the speakers, sweet and low, the right amount of static accenting the beat, the rhythm. Steve let himself whistle along, the ecstasy of happiness plastered to his face.
“You look absolutely ridiculous,” Tony told hm.
“ You're the dream that dreamers want to dream about ,” Steve sang, smiling at Tony's shocked face. “ You're the breath of spring that lovers gab about, are mad about. ”
Surprisingly, Tony didn't pull away, he didn't have a snarky remark, he didn't brush it off. His face split into a grin, a true laugh ringing from his lips. Before Steve could start a new verse, Tony kissed him. “You are impossible,” he mumbled against Steve's lips.
The song is Who Wouldn't Love You by Kay Kyser. I'm very happy for your comments and time, thank you so much. Would anyone be interested in the complete playlist I use while writing?
“We're getting you drunk,” Tony said, leaving little room for argument.
That wasn't to say Steve wouldn't try. “I can't get drunk,” he argued. “Don't you think I've tried?”
“You've never had me on your team,” Tony said, as if it explained everything. He took down a bottle from the shelf behind his bar, glancing over the label before setting it aside to look at another. Six bottles failed to pass his inspection, until he came to a squat green bottle with no label. “Ah, here we go. Try this.”
“What is it?” Steve asked skeptically.
“Nevermind that, drink up, the whole thing,” Tony encouraged, pushing the bottle closer.
Steve took the bottle with caution, as if it might bite or spontaneously combust. Which, in the case of Tony's liquor, probably wasn't a farfetched concern. He looked to Tony for approval before lifting the bottle to his lips and drinking. The liquid burned his throat like cold fire, sweeping down to his stomach in a chilling rush. His eyes watered as he chugged the alcohol, dropping the bottle to the bar when it was empty. He wiped a hand across his lips, eyebrows quirking up.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Absinthe,” Tony responded eagerly, sitting across from him, elbows on the bar, chin in his hands. “I didn't think you'd drink the whole bottle in one go, good on you. Give it a minute now, and tell me how you feel.”
Steve and Tony sat in silence for what seemed, to Tony, several hours. In reality, the three minutes that passed by were barely the blink of an eye. But Tony, being Tony, jumped to his feet and announced loudly, “Stand up, walk around!”
Steve got from his chair, standing as tall and straight as any other day. “Nothing, I feel fine,” he said.
“Oh,” Tony said, the disappointment clear in his tone. “Well, you're lucky I'm rich. That bottle wasn't cheap, you know.”
“I warned you.”
“We'll just have to try something else,” Tony said simply. “JARVIS, I'm going to need a few figures from you.”
“What would those be, sir?”
Tony grinned. “Just a few percentages.”
Somehow, Steve didn't see it turning out well.
“We're over the drop,” the pilot says, the crackle of the radio tinting his voice. “Are you two ready?”
“I have been ready,” Thor answers, and Steve notices the Demi-God's parachute is finally attached.
“Remember to pull the cord when you're free of the plane,” Steve cautions.
“I remember the training,” Thor answers.
“Then lets go,” Steve says, getting to his feet. He shrugs the parachute pack over his shoulders, buckling and cinching the straps where they need it and testing the cord to make sure everything was in its proper place. He doesn't feel particularly like dying today, or anytime soon for that matter. At least not until he exacts his revenge on Loki. After that, all bets are off and in a few cases, placed firmly on hibernating in the ice for another seventy years. It seemed to work the first time.
The hatch opens, spilling into the vast expanse of dark sky beneath them. There's more above them, and on every side, but Steve concentrates on the space below him. The dense tree covering, the river to the north – or is it the south? Once he gets on the ground, his bearings will return. He gives hand-motion instructions to Thor, who motions back that he understands as well as roars it over the sound of the engines. The lungs on that man.
Steve Rogers takes a deep breath, then steps off the back of the plane.
The sensation of falling is much like freedom, except the destination isn't a heightened state of mind. He drinks it in for several heart-stopping moments, letting the air rush past him, watching the cloud formations illuminated by the moon, looking out across the land below him. When he pulls the cord, the parachute ejects, catching the wind and jerking him to a slower speed.
Maybe he miscalculated the drop, because steering his chute into the correct clearing is more of a challenge than Fury made it sound. He lands moments before Thor thunders into the ground, literally destroying the stones beneath his feet in a six-foot radius. Steve doesn't say anything about it, instead helping Thor remove the parachute and standing still so Thor can remove his. This done, they stash the useless fabric behind a low brick wall.
After his first attempt at taking over Earth, Loki decided on a smaller attack. He started in the backwater civilizations, posing as a God, and it seemed he was doing the same thing here. Dense forest surrounds the ancient temple, nature having long ago decided to take back what was hers.
“Loki sure knows how to choose hideouts,” Steve comments.
“These temples are much like those in Asgard. Loki feels at home here,” Thor explains.
“I don't want him to feel at home.” I want him dead. But Steve doesn't say it, because he can't risk a fight with Thor again.
Clint's voice is in his ear, over the com. “Steve? Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Barton. What's the situation?”
“Loki has men at every possible entrance to the city.”
“We're already in the city,” Steve replies.
Natasha picks up the slack. “So am I. The guards aren't that smart.”
“I can't see Loki,” Clint says. “I'm guessing he's at the top of the temple. It makes the most sense.”
“Already on it,” Natasha says.
Steve and Thor waste no time in moving through the city. Clint keeps them informed, warning them of patrols going their way, and more than once Steve has to refrain from asking where Clint is that he can see everything. There is a good reason the man is called Hawkeye. Steve stops beside a crumbling wall, flattening himself to it. Thor follows his lead without question not because he has been told to, but because somewhere along the lines he learned that rushing into things gets people killed.
“Two guards coming your way, Cap,” Clint says. “Should I take them out?”
“You have a clear shot?” Steve whispers.
Where on earth are you? Steve wants to ask. Instead, he nods. “Do it.”
A whistle slices through the air, another following it shortly. Two thuds less than ten yards away give Steve the chills, and he turns around the corner to see two men laying dead on the ground. He would have remorse for killing them, but today is different. He lost something dear to him, and he's going to reach the one responsible at any cost.
“Cap,” Clint says slowly.
“What is it?”
Tony returned an hour later holding a glass of clear liquid. He swished it around for a few moments before pressing it into Steve's hands. “I made something for you,” he said cheerfully.
“Sir, that mixture hasn't been tested,” JARVIS warned.
“He'll be fine,” Tony dismissed with a wave of his hand.
Steve regarded the glass with skepticism. “If JARVIS says...”
“He doesn't know what he's talking about. You'll be fine. Take a drink.”
Maybe Tony regretted the mixture, but if he did, Steve never heard of it. Within twenty minutes of drinking the glass, Steve was sitting on the floor with tears in his eyes. The alcohol washed through him, taking hold of his senses and rendering him as drunk as any man on a bender. Steve felt a hiccup rise in his chest, coming out as a pathetic groan. He couldn't remember the last time he felt this drunk. He couldn't remember the last time he hadn't been sitting on the floor, either, so he didn't hold much stock in either memory. What stock he held was in the memories he'd been holding back since becoming an Avenger.
“He just slipped through my fingers,” Steve mumbled, tears welling in his eyes. “Just like that, and I couldn't do a damn thing.”
“Hey,” Tony said, squatting in front of Steve. “Stop beating yourself up, he knew what he was getting himself into.”
Steve hiccuped, and a fresh wave of tears streaked down his face. “He was so scared, Tony.”
Tony let out an exaggerated sigh, shifting to sit beside Steve. He put an arm over the crying mess and pulled him close to his chest, holding him tightly. Steve hiccuped, tried to get himself under control, and ultimately gave in to the sobs forcing themselves from his throat. His fingers clenched Tony's shirt, he pulled his knees close, curling into Tony's embrace.
Tony rested his chin on Steve's head. “You really are just a big baby, aren't you?”
“Where is he?” Steve asks.
“He just walked out of the temple, east side. He's... he's just standing there.”
Steve looks to Thor, who grinds his teeth together and keeps his face expressionless. His gaze sweeps up the temple stairs, coming to rest on the very top. “Let us know if he moves,” Steve says.
“Should I take the shot?”
“No,” Thor answers quickly.
Steve glares at him.
“We do not want Loki to know we are here,” the Thunder God adds.
“Alright, standing down,” Clint says. “You're free to move forward, the next guard pair is still a fair distance off.”
“Just doing what I do best, Cap.”
Clint talks them through the motions until they enter the temple, where even Hawkeye's sight is useless. Steve's breath comes in quiet bursts, his heart beating loud in his ears. Beside him, Thor moves as quietly as possible, but the armor and his breathing is so loud in Steve's ears he thinks they minds as well be marching in with a drummer boy at their heels. Clint tells them he's going to be out of radio communication for a few minutes while he gets situated in a better nest, but lets them know that Loki still stands outside the temple. This offered Clint several opportunities to make sunset jokes, to which Natasha told him to stuff a sock in it or she would personally sew his lips shut.
Despite everything roiling and dark and angry inside himself, Steve still smiled at the pair.
Thor finds the stairs before Steve does, maybe because Asgardian temples and the ancient Mayan ruins have a lot in common. With no reluctance, Steve lets Thor lead the way up the inside stairs. Strangely enough, where the outside stairs go straight up the side with no turns, the inside stairs twist and turn, sometimes spilling them into a large room where they need to hunt the next set down before climbing them. It is all very exhausting, and Steve can see why the Trickster God had chosen this place to hunker down. Anyone who made it to the temple, past the guards, would also have to climb countless stairs to reach him.
Steve is determined not to let Loki win in any way, even something as small as being tired. So he grits his teeth against the beating of his heart and the screaming of his lungs, lifting each leg with purpose and focusing on anything but the burning muscles asking him if he might want to stop for a quick breather. Thor doesn't seem to be having the same problems. Each step has as much energy behind it as the last. Being a God must be nice, Steve reflects.
Just when things were seeming to be too easy, something had to give. Thor steps from the stairs, and something larger than either of them takes the God out in one hit. Thor flies through the room, hitting the stone wall with enough force to shake down debris from the ceiling. Steve moves quicker, having enough warning that they are under attack to properly function. The metal golem slams it's fist into the stairs where Steve had been, and the nimble soldier dances around behind him, aiming smart blows with his shield to any point that appears weaker than the others. The vibranium shield pings uselessly off the armor, and Steve backs up to formulate a new plan. The golem does no such thing. The joints of its body begin shifting, turning around in an alien smoothness that – no matter how many times Steve sees such things – still sends a shiver of discomfort down his spine.
“Look out!” Thor calls.
He lifts his hammer from the floor and flings it, sending it sailing into the golem's head. The metal sentry jerks with the blow, staggering to the side, as the hammer makes its return blow, clipping the golem's shoulder. Thor catches the hammer and rushes forward.
Steve notices, for the first time, that the golem is hollow. Where there should be a face, there is only darkness. It fascinates him, as most anything so futuristic does, and he goes slack staring into the space beyond space. A thing that shouldn't exist, but clearly does right in front of him.
“Do not gaze into the guardian's visage!” Thor shouted, turning to look at Steve in time to notice it is too late.
Thor slams Mjölnir into the ground at his feet, sending cracks splitting out from the impact. One reaches Steve as the other reaches the golem, and with a thundering step, the golem crashes into the weak spot in the floor. With half its leg stuck in a hole, the rest of the body twists, attempting to unstick itself. Steve stumbles forward, the spell broken, and picks up his shield just as their opponent realizes that being stuck doesn't necessarily mean he has no moves left.
Light flickers in the empty shell of armor, flames rolling inside, and the golem straightens its body, one knee to the floor. Steve ducks behind his shield, pulling his body together as the blast of fire shoots from the golem's mask in a boiling torrent. Tendrils of scorching flames erupt around the shield, Steve breaks into a sweat, his grip growing slick. The belching golem doesn't seem to be relenting any time soon, and Steve isn't sure how much longer he will be able to hold the shield. The edges were turning a molten shade of red even as he watches, and the grips are are becoming warm to the touch.
By some fate of the Gods (because, by now, Steve has given in to the fact that one God was a lonely creator and had welcomed more into his heavenly bosom) the flame gutters out, and Steve chances a peek over his shield.
Thor is behind the golem, his hammer swinging in a powerful arc to shudder off the thing's helmet. It grunts, a strangely ethereal noise, and begins shifting body parts to face Thor without physically turning around. As it does so, a slot opens beneath its chest, exposing a dull red pulse. Steve keeps his eyes on it, getting to his feet and being careful not to touch the outside his rapidly cooling – but incredibly hot to the touch – shield. Before he can reach the weak point, the armor clinks back into place and Thor rolls to the side to dodge another blast of fire. Steve leaps forward, brining the shield down on the golem's back, the sound ringing through the stone room, and for the first time, Steve feels minute vibrations trickle through the shield. He doesn't dwell on it. Thor is hollering, the golem is twisting around, and Steve is backing away from the fire he knows will come.
But it doesn't. Thor's hammer swings into the weak point, crushing the golem's torso, sending the metal crashing to the floor, pieces scattering as the flames gather into a tight ball over the ruined body. For a moment, everything is still. Then the fire fans out in every direction, licking up the walls and around Steve's entire body, the touch warm but not overly so. Then it vanishes into thin air, leaving the pair breathing heavily but otherwise unharmed.
“That was very close,” Thor says.
“Yeah, nice shot.”
“Thank you for offering yourself as a distraction.”
“Of course,” Steve says, waving his hand as if it is nothing, that people jump in front of giant metal golems all the time.
Clint's voice breaks his radio silence. “Cap, Loki is moving.”
“Time to pay him a little visit,” Steve says gruffly.
“Listen, I can't find a good nest. I'm not going to be any use out here. All I can do is make sure Loki doesn't get any backup,” Clint says.
“That's perfect, Barton. Keep an eye peeled.” Steve turns to Thor, who has a grim expression set across his face. “Don't get in my way.”
Thor doesn't respond to the threat.
He's a God.
“When this is over, you and I have to seriously reevaluate our vacation choices,” Tony said, speeding over Steve's head in his Iron Man suit.
“I seem to remember this wasn't supposed to be a vacation,” Steve responded, taking out a man with the flat of his shield.
“I seem to remember Fury saying this was a beach mission.”
“Look, we get the bad guy, bring him to SHIELD, and go on a real vacation, how about that?”
“I'll have to check my schedule,” Tony responded sarcastically.
With Iron Man up in the air, Steve plowed through the meager resources the drug-lord thought to hire. He had to hand it to the man, though. The goons he was swinging at were trained in basic combat, and their body armor was state-of-the-art high-tech stuff. Almost like the bulletproof material Tony was trying to design for the Hulk. Except, getting the Hulk into clothing was a lot like trying to pet an alligator, so Tony had given up after the second hospitalization. Everyone was thankful for that.
Fury may have said Breach, and Tony may have heard Beach, but for once they were both right. The house was located on a beach in Cuba, and the breach was getting into the drug-lord's den of inequity to pull him out of power. Steve, more than anyone, wanted to do this. He knew what men were like firsthand when they had that much power. Tony was reluctant to agree, except that he didn't want Steve running around in the stars and stripes without some serious firepower to back him up, especially in a country that, historically, wasn't friendly with America. And there they were, Steve knocking goons left and right, and Tony blasting their weapons to bits.
A regular army of two.
Steve ducked a blow from a short man with crazy eyes, bringing his shield up to clip the man's jaw and send him backwards. The next man to attack him came from the side, and he felt the blow to his leg, sending him to one knee. The attacker, thinking he had taken down the invincible Captain America, reached in for a heavy punch, with too much force and momentum to send him any other direction. Steve gripped the man's wrist, twisted, and slammed him onto his back in the dust.
The third man turned tail and ran.
“Tony, there's a runner,” Steve said, abandoning the chase before it began. His eyes were on the prize, sitting just inside the elaborate home overlooking the beautiful waves of the Pacific ocean.
“Leave him,” Tony answered. “He's small change compared to whats-his-face.”
“Eduardo Mandez,” Steve corrected.
“You know, you need to stop that. No one else on this team corrects me.”
“No one else on this team kisses that mouth every night, either,” Steve shot back.
“Oh, you're getting good at that, I might have to put some ice on it when we get home. Until then, get your head in the game, Cap.”
“It's already there,” Steve said, grinning stupidly. Maybe being on a two-person team with his lover wasn't the best idea in the world, but he liked to keep work and play separate. He wouldn't have slipped between Tony Stark's sheets in the first place if he couldn't differentiate from sex and work Tony.
Iron Man lands beside him, the gold mask reflecting the sunlight. “Ready?” Tony asked.
Steve nodded, kicking in the door. Green smoke billowed out, obscuring their vision, and Steve began coughing violently. Warm metal hands gripped him under the arms, and suddenly he was flying out of the smoke, into fresh air where his lungs didn't burn with the acrid substance. Coughing and sputtering, he tried to see through the tears at the corner of his eyes.
“What's going on?”
“I don't know,” Tony answered. “JARVIS, run a test on the smoke.”
Steve didn't hear the reply, but he felt Tony's gauntlets grip tighter.
“Tony, what is it?”
“We've got company.”
“I'm assuming not of the good variety?”
Tony seemed not to hear him, because he launched into a tirade of orders as he lowered Steve and himself to the ground some distance from the smoky building.“JARVIS, contact SHIELD immediately, have them pull Barton and Romanov from Bosnia and put them back in New York. Find Thor and bring him here. Lock down Stark tower, do not let Pepper leave.” He paused, listened to JARVIS, and let Steve go once safely on the ground. “I don't care if she has a meeting, she can video conference them. I made her an entire room for that thing. Just lock her in, and don't let her override your protocol!”
Iron Man's mask slid up, revealing Tony's pale face, sweat covering his brow.
“Loki,” Steve said sullenly.
“Yeah, I was surprised, too.”
“But here? What does he want with a drug dealer?”
“Bag of cats,” Tony answered. Then, suddenly getting the I-have-an-idea look, he turned away from Steve to address someone who wasn't even there. “Banner! Hey, big guy, have a question for you. How do you feel about tinkering with thermonuclear astrophysics again? I'm going to need a power boost to the Arc-reactor and I don't have the time to crunch numbers myself.”
Tony must have received a fairly positive response, because when he turned back to Steve he was grinning.
“If Loki is here, why hasn't he struck yet?” Steve asked warily.
“Not sure. Lets find out,” Tony said, striding forward as the mask lowered with a distinct clack. He disappeared into the green haze of smoke, swallowed up.
Steve watched, barely on the edge of his metaphorical seat. Suddenly, the smoke began rolling, twisting and changing color into a purple mess, and Tony skidded out of it on his back, sparks flying off the Iron Man suit as he came to a stop several yards away from Steve.
“Are you okay?” Steve shouted, running to his fallen comrade.
“Loki packs a mean punch. Don't go in there,” Tony answered, pulling himself to his feet. “Don't know why he's staying in there, but I don't like that smoke.”
Steve didn't answer, because he was hoping SHIELD would come in any second now to save the day. More importantly, he was waiting for Thor to crash down from the heavens with his mighty hammer and take Loki away again. As long as Loki wasn't there, that was all that Steve wanted at that point.
Smoke swirled and parted as Loki stepped out of the house, resplendent in his flashing armor, the two golden curved horns rising above those cold eyes. He didn't speak, not at first, just stared the two down. Then a cold, marked grin split his face. “Just the pair of you?” he asked quietly. “That seems bold.”
“Thor is on his way, Loki,” Tony threatened.
“No,” Loki answered, shaking his head. “Thor is otherwise busy. I fear he will be here to pick the pieces up, but he will undoubtedly miss the battle.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Familiar static cracks over the line. It is neither Hawkeye or Natasha that contacts them, but Bruce Banner. Steve and Thor exchange glances, listening carefully. Strangely, the really-smart-person that is Banner was the one who took Tony's death the hardest on the outside. He was the other guy for three straight days, and almost broke through the special room Tony designed to keep the Hulk contained. When Banner came back to them, he was ravenous, eating everything Clint could put in front of him, until he remembered Tony and nearly had another episode. Except (as Banner put it) the other guy was so exhausted from his three-day temper-tantrum that he didn't have the energy to come back out so soon.
Banner's voice is soothing and familiar. What he says is not. “Stark-Tech isn't exactly jungle friendly,” he continues, sounding pensive. “The damp is giving me all kinds of signals. I can't even tell where Barton is.”
“I'm sitting in the ugliest tree I have ever seen,” Clint answers sulkily.
“Aesthetics aside, are you safe?” Banner asks.
“For the moment. I had to take down a few goons. Are they even human?”
“No,” Thor answers, and his voice booms off the stone walls a little too loud for Steve's comfort.
“Then I don't feel bad for killing them,” Clint says smugly.
Banner clears his throat. “Natasha is somewhere inside that temple with you and Thor. And, can I just ask, why am I on information duty?”
There is a long pause over the comm before someone answers.
“Because we didn't think it would be a healthy decision to let you hulk out again so soon,” Natasha says for everyone who is too wary to say anything.
“I figured. Well, I have all of you on my map, except Barton, so I guess the plan can move to stage two.”
Thor frowns at Steve.
“There was a stage one?” he asks cautiously.
“Stage one was the 'getting there' part,” Banner says. “Stage two is where Stark-Tech comes in. Steve, you have the weapon?”
Thor's face twists into one of anger. “When was this decided?”
Steve blinks in the face of an angry God, placid. He meets Thor's glare with an even look and says, “When Loki killed Tony.”
Thor doesn't have anything to say to that, and Steve leaves it there.
The pair move further up the temple, Banner in their ears, telling them when Natasha moves, and where she is. They have no signal on Loki, other than Barton's eyes, and they keep in close contact with the archer. It seems a lifetime before Steve is stopping behind Thor, and the God of Thunder is holding up his hammer. A breath of silence passes, shifting uncomfortably between them.
“Loki is beyond this door.”
“Does he know we're here?”
“In all likelihood he has known since we stepped foot in this temple.”
Steve doesn't like that answer.
“Steve, watch out!”
It was too late of a warning. Steve felt like a thousand pounds as he turned, spotting Loki behind him. Inwardly, he cursed, while outwardly he tired to lift his shield against the blow. Loki caught him off-guard, shield half up, and he slammed into the dirt as the Loki standing before him dematerialized into nothing. Gritting his teeth, Steve pulled himself up.
“Which Loki is the real one?” he demanded.
“I'm working on it,” Banner's voice crackled over the communicator. “We're still trying to find Thor, something is interfering with the system.”
“Does it matter which Loki is the real one?” Tony asked, voice strained. “They all hit like girls.”
Steve would like to object, but he didn't have time. Iron Man, hovering over the battle, was taking out Loki-duplicates with repulsor blasts, only to have more appear where the others were. Steve realized the mistake of focusing on the fake copies too late. He watched in horror as a tendril of light zig-zagged up from the ground to strike Iron Man in the chest. Tony screamed over the comm, a noise Steve had never heard before that sent the hair on the back of his neck on edge and had his stomach doing flips. The light from the suit flickered, a repulsor blast slammed into the ground far from any target, and then everything sped up.
Tony fell from the sky, crashing through the roof of the bungalow into the boiling smoke. Steve slammed his shield into the duplicates, and they vanished with little fight. Ahead, the smoke sucked back into the bungalow in a rush, leaving it clear.
Steve wasn't the only one screaming Tony's name, Banner was frantic, and seconds later Banner's voice was a solid boom in the comm. Steve ripped the device from his ear, unable to listen to Hulk's rage. He had a dim thought of what Tony would do to Banner when they got back, when he found out the Hulk had smashed his precious lab to bits, but it was just a dim light in the back of his neon head screaming 'Tony's in trouble.' On top of it all was the pressing fear that Tony might not make it back to revoke blueberry privileges for Banner.
Steve crashed through the door, stumbling around a pile of debris from the roof caving in, jumping over a body. In the center of the wreckage, the crimson and gold of his lover's armor caught his eye like a bright blinking beacon. Tony writhed on the floor, pulling at the Iron Man suit, his groans both terrified and pained. Steve didn't know what to do, so he grabbed the mask of the suit, ripping the plate off with a grunt. The metal touching his skin sizzled and popped, and he dropped it immediately.
“The suit!” Tony gasped, wide, terrified eyes staring up at Steve.
Steve didn't need to be urged. He grabbed the pieces he could, watching as the metal seemed to melt and sizzle before his eyes, feeling the burning in his fingertips. He helped Tony to his feet, and the man jettisoned the rest of his armor, sweat rolling down his face. His hair matted down to his skull, blood dribbled out his nose, and one of his eyes were completely red. Steve ran his hands down Tony's face, down his body, searching for any signs of broken or damaged areas. Tony was notorious for failing to report injury. The last time they'd gone out to stop a bad guy from taking over New York, Tony had failed to mention the three cracked ribs and the two broken fingers until two weeks later when they 'hadn't gone away on their own.' This time, Steve wasn't going to let him get away with it.
“I'm fine,” he grunted, still shaking.
“You sure?” Steve asked, running a tender hand over a sweltering red sore along Tony's arm.
Tony jerked away. “Fine, where's Loki? Is Banner still on the line?”
“I'm afraid Banner is otherwise tied up with the big guy,” Steve said cautiously. “I don't know where Loki is.”
The information on Loki seemed to be old-hat to the billionaire, and he threw up his hands in exasperation. “Hulking out in my lab? Great, I hope he gets himself under control before he breaks the Mark VIII,” Tony growled, looking more concerned than he was angry at Banner's transformation. He pulled away from Steve's careful hands, taking a few steps on his own before stumbling and falling to his knees. A thick cough ripped through his lungs as he covered his mouth, shoulders heaving with the strain of the cough. Blood dripped from his lips, falling to his fingers and slicking his palm. Steve saw, as he reached under Tony's arms to pick him up, and held back the hiss of concern. “I'm sure that's normal,” Tony said quickly.
“Are your communications up?” Steve asked.
“What happened to yours?”
“Hulk isn't exactly something I want in my ear.”
“Fair enough. The Iron Man suit is powerless. Whatever hit me nearly shorted out the arc-reactor.”
Tony doesn't say it, but Steve knows that if the arc-reactor had shorted, they would be in more trouble than they were now.
The door opens before Thor touches it, swinging open into the exceedingly grand temple beyond. Pillars rise to the ceiling, with large window-like openings facing in each cardinal direction. Thor steps through the door hesitantly, and Steve follows suit. Standing at the far end of the cavernous room, facing away from them, his hands behind his back, is Loki. The God of Mischief. The person responsible for Tony's death. The thought nearly makes Steve's blood boil.
“Ah, Thor,” Loki says, though he doesn't turn to face his guests. “I was wondering when you would come for me.”
“Loki, stop this madness,” Thor commands, voice booming through the empty room.
“I'm afraid not, big brother,” Loki says distastefully, turning around to face them. “Just the two of you? Did we not talk of this last time, foolish Soldier?”
Steve bites his anger. “We're not here to play games, Loki.”
“Of course not,” the trickster God says with a dramatic sigh. “You're here for revenge, which is all very well. You realize you've fallen into my plans exactly?”
“Loki, do not be foolish! I do not wish to hurt you-”
The floor beneath Thor's feet churns and twists as a stone golem grabs the Thunder God's ankle, pulling him down. Thor slams Mjölnir into the stone creature's face, and it relinquishes grip on him long enough for Steve to slam his shield into the headpiece. The stone golem shudders, crumbling beneath Steve's attack, and Thor gives him a look of thanks.
“Brother, you will always try to save me, wont you?” Loki asks, shaking his head. “You are so very predictable.”
Steve lifts his shield from the crumbled mess of stone, brushing dust off with a flick of his hand. “Loki, no more games. Fight me one-on-one, a fair fight.”
“Fair?” Loki asks, stepping closer, the pair of them closing distance between each other. “Do you think to tell me what I should do?”
“A fair fight, against a mortal,” Steve says, circling Loki, keeping his guard up. “You didn't have a problem fighting Tony.”
“Ah, the Man of Iron. As I recall, he was much weaker than you,” Loki answers with a devilish grin.
“Good,” Tony said sarcastically. “We have no communications, a crazy God is running lose in Cuba, and we're supposed to hold our own until his brother gets here to take care of him?”
“It isn't ideal-”
“Damn right it isn't ideal!” Tony snapped. “Whatever was in that smoke melted the suit. I'm exposed out here and I don't like it. ”
Steve walked close to Tony, his hands kept out to catch his lover should he stumble and fall again. Tony, meanwhile, was having none of it, cursing this and that and trying to swat at a bird foolish enough to fly by. After their ordeal confronting Loki head-on, the trickster god had disappeared into the ether. They hadn't seen hide nor hair of Loki since leaving the ruined bungalow twenty minutes ago, and Steve was beginning to feel like it was an elaborate trap. Tony, on the other hand, was convinced he'd run away and made a show of being brave for Steve. The blood steadily dripping from his nose debunked any attempt at bravery for Steve, who just wanted to get out of Cuba and back to Stark Tower.
As if sensing Steve's discomfort, Tony wiped the back of his hand across his nose, adding another red smear to his already blood-soaked skin. “You'd think by now it would stop,” he grumbled. “Just another reason I hate nature.”
A crack sounded beside them, and a small palm teetered dangerously before falling towards them in a graceful, slow arc. Steve grabbed Tony, pulling him back from the danger by his waist. The palm slammed into the earth directly where they had been standing a moment before.
“Another reason! Trees fall over for no reason. Homicidal trees, Steve.”
Steve's first blow lands on Loki's shoulder. The God looks genuinely surprised at the outburst, failing to completely block the attack. Their faces are close, and Steve can see the glaze over Loki's eyes, the lack of any emotion that Steve can readily read. It is discomforting, giving him a chill down his spine, but Steve pushes it to the side to reach over the shield. His fist glances off Loki's face, and the trickster grunts, backing off as Steve steps back.
“You're fast,” Loki comments.
“Good, you know your place.”
Steve chances a glance at Thor, but the God of Thunder is lost beneath the increasing number of stone golems Loki is conjuring out of the floor, the walls, even a pillar. The structural stability of the temple is falling to pieces every second they stay, but Steve will see this through to the end. Has to. Thor is busy with the golems, and that leaves him a wide shot to take at Loki, if he can get close enough. Steve wipes the sweat from his brow, shifting his grip on his shield. He's never thought about how to kill a God, only that it needed to be done to avenge Tony. He's never even thought of how atrocious his acts might be, only that Tony's death was so senseless, so pointless, that he needed to get revenge on the one responsible.
“Not tired already, are you?” Loki asks smoothly.
“Not likely,” Steve replies, circling around Loki.
“You're not going to ask me why? You're not going to question my logic?”
Steve grinds his teeth together, eyes focusing on Loki's snide smirk. “And let you talk me in circles? I'm not Thor, I wont grant you pardon for what you have done.”
“You don't even know why, do you?”
Steve shoves his morbid interest beneath the rage of being played by this murderer. “No.”
“As a soldier, I didn't think you would,” Loki answers, shifting his hands curiously. A spear slides into being, neatly resting in his open palms. “Thor has the ridiculous notion that we are brothers, and somewhere in that thick, blonde-haired skull of his, he loves me and will forgive all trespasses on my part. You know this is true?”
Steve's fingers curl around the shield, eying his opportunity shots as they slip by.
“I've killed hundreds of your precious humans. What makes this one any different? Why is his death any different than your precious Phil?”
“Phil isn't dead.”
Loki's mask of superiority slips for a fraction of a second, his eyes darting to Thor. When the mask comes back, his gaze returns to Steve in time to lift the spear defensively. Steve's shield comes down hard on the shaft of the spear, and he lets it go as soon as Loki staggers. Giving no time for retaliation, Steve slams his fist into Loki's chest, sending the God back with the force. Loki has time to drop the spear, which vanishes before it touches the floor, and slide his hands over eachother. He vanishes as well, and Steve stumbles forward with the momentum. He whirls around, facing Loki, who is lifting his spear from thin air.
“Very rude to interrupt while someone is talking,” Loki says with a shake of his head.
“I'm not here to talk,” Steve answers gruffly.
“You're here to listen,” Loki reminds him. “There is a reason I killed the Man of Iron.”
I've decided to extend this one more chapter because I got to this point and simply couldn't complete it in a timely manner, as you've probably noticed. Apologies for making you wait and for the relatively unresolved and ambiguous ending to this chapter.
This is the final chapter. I hope so much that you find it to your satisfaction. I believe it turned out better than I had hoped, but one never knows what one's readers would like to hear. Please, enjoy, and again, sorry for such a darn long wait. I am so glad to have you readers and reviewers, you made my writing experience on this particular project so much better. - xoxo
Breathing time was cut short and the riddle as to where Loki went was quickly solved when a gold tipped spear flew through the trees. As the palm kicked up dust on the ground, the spear bedded itself between Tony and Steve's feet. Tony grabbed the shaft, wrenching it from the sandy soil with a grunt. He glanced at Steve for a split second, turning in time to catch the glint of green and gold as Loki flung himself at them. The surprise attack held true to its name, and Tony stumbled back with a yell and loud cussing. Steve leaned forward to meet the Demi-God, and with a bare flick of his elegantly slender wrist, Loki sent the super soldier flying through the trees.
"Man of Iron," Loki said softly, his eyes tracing Tony's body as the billionaire shifted grip on the spear. "You won't need that, you know. There are precious few things you will need where you are going."
“You're full of talk,” Tony growled. “You know we kicked your ass from here to Asgard last time you were here.”
“Last time,” Loki said, playing with the sound of it on his tongue. “There were more of you last time, I seem to recall.”
Steve pulled himself to his feet, picking debris from his hair. “Thor is on his way,” he called.
“Yes, I seem to remember you saying that some time ago. Where is my brother, I wonder? Could be be otherwise engaged?” Loki asked curiously, a finger delicately touching his lips, a glint behind his cold eyes.
“It doesn't matter, you know,” Tony said, feeling the spear in his hands. “You're the bad guy, this doesn't end well for you, unless you forgot already, in which case I would be thrilled to give you a refresher course.”
“With what, Man of Iron? I see no armor to protect you, no technology to assist you. What are you before me, but an insect to be crushed?”
Steve lifted his shield from the ground, swinging it at Loki in a fluid motion. The shield whipped by Loki's head, grazing his hair as he shifted to avoid it. Steve's fist collided with the demi-god's face. Loki shifted with the impact, gritting his teeth. His hands connected forcefully with Steve's abs, and Captain America again crashed backwards, his shield making the return trip and embedding itself six inches into the trunk of a palm above his head. Loki ignored Tony, for now, stalking after Steve. Kneeling on the ground, chest heaving, Steve looked up as Loki's boot slammed into his face, sending him onto his back.
Dimly, he heard Tony's enraged shout. Loki's attention strayed for a second, and Steve kicked his feet out, catching Loki's boot and making him stumble. Tony lunged forward with the spear, aiming for any part of Loki that he could get to. Loki gained his feet, and his hand darted out lighting-fast to grab the shaft of the spear. He ripped it from Tony's hands, grabbing the back of Tony's head with the forward momentum and slamming his knee into his face. The Man of Iron collapsed to the forest floor, and Loki turned around in time to block a hard right from Steve. The left took Loki full in the ribs, causing the demi-god to flinch, but only just. The moment gave Steve the chance to slam his fist under Loki's jaw, staggering him back. Loki shook his head, wiping a hand across his lips as he retreated a fair distance, enough to escape the reach of Captain America.
Steve stepped cautiously over Tony, getting between his unarmed lover and the current threat. “Stark, talk to me,” he said quietly.
“I'd love to,” Tony groaned, a liquid bubbling cracking his voice. He lifted himself to his hands and knees, breathing heavily, but couldn't pull himself any further.
“Thor is on his way,” Steve repeated, though for who he couldn't tell.
“He sure is taking his merry time,” Tony replied thickly.
Loki looked at the spear in his grip, then to Steve. “Step aside,” he said calmly. A drop of blood pooled at the corner of his lips.
“No,” Steve answered.
“This is far above you, Soldier. I advise you to step aside while you are still breathing.” Loki paused, rolling his shoulders. “I am not afraid to make you step aside.”
Steve stepped forward, eyes darting to his shield embedded in the trunk of the palm, calculating the time he would need to get to it. Loki followed his gaze, a smirk on his face. Steve let his attention linger on the shield, careful to trace the steps required. He had to be precise. He grit his teeth, balled his fists. With a silent prayer, he rushed Loki. Taken by surprise, Loki dodged the blow, backing off every punch Steve tried to plant on him. Their feet moved quickly in the dirt and sand, kicking up dead leaves and discarded shells, sand slipping in the cracks of their clothing, the shifting ground slowing their dangerous dance. Loki ducked a blow and lashed out with the spear, grazing Steve's side, slicing his suit and drawing blood.
“So the Soldier bleeds like any other man,” Loki breathes heavily, moving nimbly away from Steve's next hit.
“So do you,” Steve answered, shifting his body to grab Loki's shoulder. The demigod's face lifted in surprise as Steve heaved him against the tree, his dark hair barely touching the bottom of the shield. Steve grabbed the edges of the shield and ripped it out of the tree, holding it between them and ramming Loki with the flat of the shield.
Loki grunted, a grin passing his lips as blood dribbled freely to his chin. “You overestimate yourself.”
The Loki pinned to the tree vanished in a green haze.
Steve collapsed against the trunk, pushed himself back to his feet, but couldn't move fast enough. Loki's laugh behind him sent chills down his spine, and Tony's angry string of cuss words hit home. Steve gripped his shield tightly, turning, and with the momentum, released the shield at Loki's face out of anger, watched it spin painfully slow towards its mark. Tony was on his knees, Loki's boney white fingers twisted in the fabric of his shirt, holding him up. Blood ran from his nose, dripped wholly through his beard, from his chin, pooled from his mouth, slid down his chipped and broken teeth. Black and purple bruises blossomed across the left half of his face, swelling his eye near shut. Sweat and blood plastered his hair to his forehead, but his brown eyes stared in defiance at Loki's sneer.
The shield moved a fraction too slow, the spear moved a fraction too fast, and it was over before Steve could fight it. Tony hitched as the blade slid through his chest, out of his back, blood dripping like hot wax down the length of the shaft, trickling down his back and chest, sticking his shirt to his skin. The shield cracked into Loki as he vanished again, letting it clatter harmlessly to the ground. Laughter rang from the trees as Steve willed his legs to move.
Tony swayed. Steve fell to his knees beside his lover, one arm around his shoulders and the other reaching for the spear, snapping it off as close to Tony's chest as possible. Panic gripped the soldier, straight to his core, the panic of the situation and the panic of who it was. Crimson life slicked his fingers as he gripped the spear, fear of the unknown in his eyes. There was nothing, nothing at all, holding the wound together. The gaping hole in Tony's shirt, beside the flickering arc-reactor, begged for attention, something to stop the bleeding. Steve ripped the fabric from his chest, grabbing Tony's hand in his own bloodied ones, putting the fabric and Tony's hand over the hole, around the shaft of the spear.
“Hold tight,” Steve said, his voice shaking. “I'm going to pull it out, you need to hold that there, alright, Tony?”
Tony's deep brown eyes were dilated, his blinking owlish and far away as he tried to understand. Steve put his forehead against Tony's temple, gripped the spear, and whispered, “I love you.” Tony didn't have the energy to scream, bit back by the pain and the blood loss, as the shaft of the spear exited through his back. The entirety of Tony Stark's strength slipped from him as he slumped into Steve's arms with small shallow breaths. Steve balled the rest of the fabric into the gaping hole, despair beginning to creep into the corners of his mind, darkening his thoughts, chilling his bones and stiffening his fingers. Moving was a chore, with every ragged breath Tony took, his fear only grew.
“Tony, Tony, baby, put pressure on it,” Steve said, pressing his hand over Tony's, trying to stop the flood as life desperately tried to escape the one good thing that happened to him since waking up after a seventy year slumber. “Hey, listen, they're on their way, okay? Banner would have told them. Clint and Tasha wont leave us out here, they'll come get us, and Thor is on his way, too. Listen, stay with me, Stark, don't fall asleep.”
“Steve...” Tony struggled to speak, his voice barely a whisper, lips a glossy crimson. A rattling breath interrupted him. “You're too much of an optimist.”
Steve didn't respond, pressed his forehead to Tony's, their noses touching, sharing their panicked, short breathing.
“I don't want anything big, okay? Keep...” Tony coughed, and a shiver ran through his whole body. “I want to be buried by my father.”
Steve's eyes flickered open. “Don't talk like that,” he ordered, holding Tony's flickering gaze.
“I'll talk how I want,” Tony responded.
Overhead, lighting cracked across the sky.
“If the Man of Iron were not killed, how would I manage any of this?” Loki asks, gesturing to the ceiling. “Do you see? Do you realize what I have done?”
Steve looks, noticing for the first time the extensive system of wires and panels on the ceiling of the temple. “Is that...”
“There are things I learned about you Midgardian ants while I was here,” Loki says smoothly. “You honor your dead before your battles are won. If I killed your centerpiece, Soldier, I would buy myself time.”
“Time for what? Do you mean to open the portal without the tesseract?” Steve asks.
“Certainly not. I have the tesseract,” Loki answers, shifting his hands over each other and producing the cube's home. He smiles wickedly at Steve's face. “Does it frighten you?”
“No more than anything else I've seen in the last year,” Steve admits, looking to Thor. The stone golems reassemble themselves after every swing the demigod makes, and fighting his way out of them is looking like an impossibility. The comm is unusually quiet in his ear. “I have something you might be interested in,” he says.
“And what might that be?” Loki questions, mock amusement playing on his pale face.
“A little weapon Tony was working on. We haven't tested it yet. Sound familiar? We don't know what it does.”
“An admirable try, I must admit, though I see no large weapon with you,” Loki says with a sneer, fear beginning to creep into his face.
“What's the matter?” Steve asks. “Afraid that the ants are going to fight back again? Afraid that killing someone only made things worse for you? Unlike your brother, I have no intentions of letting you live.”
“A valiant notion,” Loki says. “Wholly unnecessary. The tesseract will open the portal and my new army will come through. I won them myself, Soldier, I think you might approve.”
Steve gathers his shield, lunging forward. Loki's hands shift, and the tesseract vanishes again, replacing itself with the spear. Steve's shield meets the spear, clanging off each other as the pair press and fight for the higher ground. Thor rumbles out a warcry behind them, somewhere to the left. Things are spinning out of control, and Steve can feel the vibrations through the shield that can't vibrate. It shakes through his arm, into his shoulder and through his chest, rattling apart his lungs and his heart and the deep ache that has been there since Tony's death. Feeding off the anger, Steve backs off suddenly, spinning lightly on his feet to smash the shield into Loki's side with shattering force. The demigod tries to twist as he falls, to get back to his feet, but Steve brings the shield down again, crashing over Loki's shoulders, sending him to the floor on his back, shock on his face as a bead of blood leaks from the corner of his lip, bringing a fresh sense of rage to Steve's motions.
Thor breaks apart another stone golem, some of the shards sliding across the floor. An angry scream rips through the temple, the air suddenly feeling as live as a power line.
Steve smashes his shield into Loki, falling to his knees, letting the shield slide to the side as his fists smash into Loki's face again and again. His knuckles are bloody when he stops, breathing heavily, knees pinning Loki to the stone floor of the temple. Chest heaving, Steve reaches for the shield, lifting it with one hand and flipping it over. He grips the edge with both hands on either side, tugging with all his strength. The vibranium peels apart like a banana, revealing a long, thin metal device, sharp and and shaped like a spear at the end.
“Secret weapon,” Steve says, trying to catch his breath.
“I am a God,” Loki growls, green eyes watching carefully.
“And I'm pissed off,” Steve answers grimly.
Lighting cracked, and thunder roared over the suddenly dark skies, clouds roiling in the sudden storm. A streak of light smashed to earth, and from the billowing sand and dust stepped Thor. He took in the scene in under a breath, coming to Steve and Tony's side immediately. He didn't, at first, understand completely. The blood was everywhere, soaked into the sand, spread across Tony's clothing, smeared up and down Steve's arms, in his hair, along his side. A long silence passed, with Steve's face pressed against Tony's messy brunette hair, both kneeling in the sand, Steve with his arms around Tony, still as the grave. Finally, Steve looked up, to Thor, but couldn't find words to say.
There were no words to say.
Steve laid Tony's body on the sand, pressing his lips to Tony's forehead, not caring, before getting to his feet. His side ached, and as he turned, the thin scab reopened, allowing blood to pool out again.
“Where were you?” he asked darkly.
“I could not get through, Loki was blocking me with one of his tricks,” Thor answered, unusually reserved.
Steve was shaking. “Loki killed him, Thor. Loki killed him, and it was his plan the whole time. Why? What for?”
“I do not know.”
“Is someone on their way?”
Thor seemed thankful for the new question. He nodded solemnly.
“Where is Loki?”
“He has left Midgard.”
“He'll be back,” Steve grunted, easing himself to the sand. He sat heavily, beside Tony's body, willing himself not to look, not to think, just to be the soldier who brought every man home. He didn't know what he was going to say to Pepper. He didn't know if he wanted to say anything to anyone. What he really wanted, more than anything, what he really wanted, that he could have, was as much distance between him and everyone on the team.
He wasn't likely to get it. They had work to do.
Thor's voice booms across the temple, vibrating off the stone. “Steve, no!”
Steve doesn't turn to see the demigod, doesn't turn to see that Thor is no longer buried beneath stone golems. The weapon is gripped in his hands, directly over Loki's heart – if he has one at all. What Steve does do is hold his position, eyes locking with Loki's. The silence is pregnant with unresolved tension.
“Steve, do not do this! Allow me to bring my brother to Asgard. I will see to it that he is put in the highest security we have!” Thor pleads, his voice coming closer. He's done with demands, he knows the situation, he knows demands will get him nowhere. He knows that Steve means to kill, and he is trying to stop it the only way he knows how.
Steve's resolve wavers, Loki closes his eyes, as if sending a silent prayer. Hands shaking, Steve slams the weapon down and closes his eyes. Thor screams. Loki twitches beneath his knees. Steve can hear Thor's screams, a string of curses and inarticulate anger seething behind his blonde beard. Thor's footsteps echo across the temple, halting and shaky. Loki stirs between his knees, a light move, a disbelieving move. Steve opens his eyes, meeting Loki's. He doesn't speak, he drops the weapon beside Loki's head, pushes himself to his feet. He slides the shield across his back, walking away.
Thor doesn't stop him. Natasha is standing in the doorway, her face pale. She doesn't stop him. Barton doesn't stop him, not with an arrow and not with words. Banner no doubt knows he is walking away, but he, too, keeps his silence. Outside the temple, the guardians Loki employed were laying in crumbling heaps all around. Steve steps over all of these. He doesn’t take his radio comm out of his ear. He doesn't attempt to silence the chatter behind him, He doesn't listen.
It will be six months before he comes back to S.H.I.E.L.D., when a new threat requires his presence. He will be unshaven, disheveled, and broken, but he will find his way home. He will return to the Avengers, return to Stark Tower, and he will heal. Pepper will be glad for his return.
Until then, Captain America remains off of S.H.I.E.L.D's radar until such a time as he sees fit to return to duty.