Captain Steve Rogers curses between his teeth as he is propelled against a particularly hard brick wall by the explosion that has just rocked Washington DC to its core.
He feels something twist in the wrong direction somewhere in his back but pushes it aside, he'll get to it later, fix it all up. For now, he wipes the blood from his mouth and grabs his shield, cracks his neck. He's on his feet again and his mind goes blank. He is annulling himself in the battle and it feels good, it manages to make him forget all useless preoccupations.
"You're getting slow, Cap."
Steve smiles through fatigue as Tony's voice reaches him through the earpiece.
There's a flash of gold and red: Stark flies into the now disrupted building.
"Careful not to blow your brains out, Stark."
"I got this."
Steve doesn't notice how out of breath he sounds (exhausted, broken, tired. Distant, even.). Or maybe he does, but he just ignores it.
Useless preoccupation, after all.
In battle, it isn't part of the equation.
In battle, all that matters is saving others.
And, possibly, making it out alive.
Steve's mind doesn't register the way Tony seems to react to things happening around him (Nat calling his name, dodging bullets, firing against enemies) a second too late.
These things, the scary things, the things that make him cringe (that makes them all cringe), are for later. For when he can lie in bed and worry like the team leader he is, and think about every little thing that, in the past few months, has seemed to go horribly wrong.
From Tony lying face down in a pool of his own vomit to Tony yelling at Pepper, more aggressive than anyone had ever seen him.
Tony not saying a word for days and Tony partying until he can't think anymore, eyes gleaming with fabricated happiness and an icy cold armor of control.
Tony, Tony, Anthony.
Anthony Stark, master of control and pathos and "everything's all right, I got this".
Tony Stark, who's started drinking himself into a stupor again every night (he knows it's an "again" because both Pepper and Natasha have told him of his old self destructive ways, the alcohol, the frivolous sex. The drugs, even, and hearing this didn't come as a surprise to Steve).
But slip Tony into his Iron Man suit, and he becomes another. He always has. He's still reckless, he's still arrogant, still full of himself. But there's something different.
Protection. Tony Stark feels protected in the middle of all of that technology and metal. He is safe and where he has to be.
Steve's mind doesn't register how there's a sudden, intense, beam of light that hits Tony square in the chest because Tony didn't move out of its way, he sat there and waited for a second that felt like a lifetime.
He's hit right in the chest, and it takes Steve's screaming, hysterical mind (beyond belief but he still hasn't realized it, it's moving a fraction of an instant too slow against the backdrop of how fast his best friend's been hit) far too much time to realize what has just happened.
It's Tony's turn to fly backwards. He hits the ground and skits for a few feet, and he isn't moving.
He isn't moving and everything's happened too fast for anybody to really realize it.
Steve's mouth tastes bitter.
The flight back to the Helicarrier is quiet. Tony has come through, but his eyes are milky and distant and he hasn't spoken to anyone, not even Steve.
He moves slowly. And he's in pain: sharp jabs are clearly running down his back, biting into his neck, clawing at his shoulders.
He hisses as he stands up, but refuses an arm to lean on.
Steve glares at him, and blames him for having nearly gotten killed, again, for the millionth time. Something black and scary tells him Tony wanted to get hit.
He prays he isn't right.
It's three days later, back at the Tower, that Steve explodes. He can't hold it in, and it's been gnawing at his brain, viciously.
"We need to talk."
Tony's curled up in a chair, staring at nowhere in particular.
"Stark!" Steve barks.
Rogers knows he's being ignored. This makes him even more irritated.
"What? What do you want to talk about?"
Stark stands up abruptly and stands in front of Rogers. Moving so quickly makes him flinch, but his eyes are deep and burning nonetheless.
"Washington, by any chance?" he hisses.
"That, and other things."
"Nothing happened, Captain."
"You nearly die-"
"It's our goddamn job."
"I'm not going to stand around watching you kill yourself for sport."
"I never asked for your approval to do anything, Steve."
He hisses his name with such hate and resentment, and it's that that makes Steve snap and ram him against a wall. He's stronger than Tony, and they both know he could break his neck like a twig.
"There's nothing wrong with me."
"A man doesn't push himself so low unless he wants to die."
"I'm Tony Stark. Tony Stark has habits. It's part of the game."
"And it's always the game that matters, isn't it, Mister Stark?"
"Get your hands off of me."
He clutches harder. Tony shuts his eyes, swallows. Suddenly, he looks tired. Exhausted. An old, lonely, sick man.
"Or nothing. Absolutely nothing. Let me go, Steve." he croaks.
The Captain hesitates, but, after a few minutes, complies. Stark collapses on the floor: his breathing's more ragged than ever.
Steve offers a hand to help him up but he refuses, drags himself to his feet on his own. He flinches and moans.
Steve feels his pain as if it were his own.
"You're sick, Tony."
"Go see a doctor."
"I'm fine, Steve."
Tony Stark grabs the bottle he was drinking from, takes a sip, walks out (stumbles) and switches the lights off.
Steve stands for a few minutes on his own, chest still heaving. Darkness envelopes him.
His mouth tastes bitter.