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“They will come for you, and then you will all die.”

Doom’s masked face is a silvery-green blur in front of Steve’s eyes.

He’s cold and everything hurts – most of his weight rests on his wrists, and it’s like his arms are being pulled out of their sockets, but he can’t do anything, he’s just too tired and everything feels heavy. And hurts. Breathing hurts. Thinking hurts.

He knows they will come for him, of course they will. The Avengers look after their own. And they’ll be okay. They have to be.

“You’re wrong,” he growls at Doom, his voice coming through far weaker than he’d like, but at least he’s still defiant. That can never be taken from him. “They’ll figure it out.”

“They’ll try, and they’ll fail. But I’m benevolent, and I’ll let you spend your last moments with them.”




Sweet merciful fuck.

Clint has never seen Captain America look this bad.

Sure, out of all the Avengers, Steve is the one who most often gets beat up, because he’s always quick to throw himself into a melee, trusting his super-soldier physique to withstand almost anything. Tony has his armor, and Clint and Natasha are more careful, both because of their training and their lack of superpowers. Thor and Hulk aren’t exactly human and can take far more punishment with barely a scratch to show for it. But Steve, he’ll just take hit after hit and get up again, often ending up looking just as bruised as you’d expect – and the next day, you can barely tell he’s been in a fight.

This is different, though.

When Cap went missing on the covert mission he was on with Clint and Nat, they felt sorry for the captors, convinced that he would punch his way out of whatever containment they’d set up. He didn’t. A full day went by without one word from him.

Tony was furious when they told him. He was able to get Steve’s exact location within the hour thanks to a tracker he’d insisted on placing in their costumes. It took another few hours for him and Bruce to pick Clint and Nat up with the Quinjet, and off they went on this rescue mission, to storm an actual castle in the notorious nation of Latveria.

Yeah, that weirdo villain dictator Doom was behind the Cap-napping, and clearly, he’s planned it well, because Steve hasn’t escaped. By the looks of it, he hasn’t even put up much of a fight. They must’ve drugged him somehow.

It’s like a scene from a B-movie. Steve is chained to the stone wall by his wrists, and that seems to be the only thing keeping him upright. He’s been stripped bare from the waist up, revealing a shocking amount of bruising on his torso. His chin rests against his chest, suggesting that he’s either unconscious or just too hurt and tired to hold his head up.

Barely past the doorway to the hall-like dungeon, Clint is still too far from Steve to get an accurate idea of how badly off he is, or if he’s even breathing. He has to be, though. He’s not dead. There would be no point in posting guards around him if that was case.

Clint is busy shooting arrows at the group of thugs trying to secure their prisoner, so he’s still not all that close to Steve when Iron Man flies into the room, and without stopping, goes on to shoot off the chains tying Steve to the wall. Steve collapses bonelessly to the floor, and Tony swoops down to pick him up.

“I have him,” Tony announces tersely on the comms. “Let’s move out.” Not even the slightest attempt at humor, and no wonder. Clint can just imagine how concerned Tony is right now, considering how worried Clint feels himself. It’s one thing to worry for a teammate, another thing entirely when said teammate is also your partner.

Clint shoots one last arrow into the room – an exploding one, because there’s no need to watch out for Steve anymore – and runs out without looking back. There are screams behind him. Good.

Nat joins him from another room as he’s running through the tunnel towards the surface and the awaiting Quinjet.

“No sign of Doom?” he asks her.

“None. If he ever was here, he’s either long gone or hiding away like a coward,” she spits out. “How’s Cap?”

“Don’t really know, but he looked bad,” Clint says truthfully.

“I’m sure he’s going to be fine. The serum has worked miracles plenty of times before,” Nat says, not a hint of doubt in her voice.

The doorway is right in front of them now, a dozen steps away, and they’ve only shot down two more bad guys on the way. It’s been like that all along – minimal resistance when they barged in, not too many guards deeper in the complex, and not a single bot.

“Is it just me, or did this actually feel almost too easy?” Clint notes aloud.

Nat casts a glance at him and nods. “I’ve got the exact same feeling. I don’t like it. Something’s not right here.”

“What’s taking you so long?” Tony calls out impatiently through their earpieces. “Hurry up, Spy Kids, we haven’t got all day.”

“Almost there, Stark. Want us to move faster, you need to make us jet packs,” Clint replies.

They sprint up the stairs as fast as they can, through the courtyard, dodging the occasional sloppy gunshot, and finally into the awaiting Quinjet. The ramp begins to rise as soon as their feet touch it, and they take off the second it has closed behind them.




They’ve come for him, just like he knew they would, and the cold stone of the castle whirls past him as he’s held tightly against the ever familiar red and gold of Tony’s armor, which he would recognize even if he couldn’t see at all.

Then Bruce is there, too, sounding calm and soothing, and it should be okay. Steve just wants to close his eyes and rest, though he probably couldn’t if he wanted to, because he’s still hurting too much, and because they’re all in danger.

The rumbling sound around him that he feels as well as hears – engines starting – is very familiar. Bruce asks if he knows where he is, and he looks around, and though everything is blurred, sure, he does know. The Quinjet. Something’s not right about that. No, he shouldn’t be here, none of them should. It’s not safe. That’s what Doom said.

“It’s a trap,” he tries to tell Bruce, but Bruce doesn’t listen.

Then there’s an oxygen mask over his face, and for a while, that’s all he can think of, how it’s so nice to almost get enough air again.




“Bruce, I’m coming in. I’ve got Steve, but he’s in a bad way. Open the ramp,” Tony calls out.

Bruce gets up from where he’d been sitting – by said ramp, ready to rush out in case any of those henchmen of Doom’s that have been sighted close to the Quinjet start getting too friendly. He hits the switch to open it, keeping an eye out for the enemies, and glances over his shoulder at his first aid supplies. He’s as prepared as he can be, as someone who isn’t an actual medic and who’s in a high-tech aircraft instead of an emergency room.

Half a minute later, Iron Man dashes in, and gently places the battered Captain America on the bed Bruce has set up. Steve lets out a muffled groan, and blinks at Bruce with glazed eyes, like he has trouble focusing, or believing what he’s seeing.

Tony pulls off his helmet as Bruce crouches next to Steve. “The readings I’ve got say he’s not breathing quite right,” Tony notes. “Cool skin, heart rate up, I’m thinking shock, probably from internal injuries since I’m not seeing that much blood. And he’s not exactly unconscious but seems really out of it. Could be a head injury.”

For someone who doesn’t know Tony as well as Bruce does, he might seem overly calm about the situation. To Bruce, though, it’s clear that he’s already a step beyond panicking. He’s so unsettled by Steve being in such terrible shape that he’s running on autopilot, not thinking about anything except for the practical details, because that’s all he can do.

“Okay. We should probably get him to the nearest friendly hospital. That’s in Budapest, about fifteen minutes away. I’ll take care of him. You get us there,” Bruce says, trying to sound as reassuring as he can.

“Yeah, I can do that,” Tony replies mechanically, and stomps over to the pilot’s chair, still wearing the rest of his suit. While Bruce focuses his attention on Steve, he hears Tony urge on Clint and Natasha over the radio.

Steve has obviously been beat up repeatedly – to result in so much visible bruising that hasn’t even begun to heal yet, he must’ve been hit so hard and so many times that the thought is sickening. Bruce realizes his hands have curled into fists, his nails digging into his palms. Stop it. He has to calm down. Doom and his goons definitely deserve to have a rampaging Hulk descend on them, but Steve needs him more right now.

He forces his hands to unclench, and takes hold of Steve’s shoulder. “Steve? Do you know who I am?”

“Yes, Bruce,” Steve intones. He sounds winded, and his eyes still don’t quite seem to focus. The bruises mottling his face definitely support Tony’s first assessment of a head injury.

Right around this time, Natasha and Clint run in, and the Quinjet takes off instantly. Tony is obviously being as quick as he can about it, and it’s a little rough, but Bruce ignores the rattling supplies and the tilting floor. He grabs the side of the bed with one hand and places the other against the floor to hold his balance.

Steve seems to have noticed the change in his surroundings. He’s turning his head, eyes roaming over the Quinjet cabin. The movement makes him grimace with discomfort.

“Steve? Do you know where you are?” Bruce asks, raising his voice to make it audible over the sound of the engines.

“Uh,” Steve begins. Then, his eyes go wide, aimed at Bruce’s direction again. “Oh, no. No, it’s a trap!”

Steve tries to sit up, but Bruce presses him down by the shoulder, and he actually falls back without resisting. “Look, it’s okay, Cap,” Bruce says soothingly. “We got you out of there, you’re in the Quinjet. Relax and let us take care of you.”

“No! Trap,“ Steve tries once more, his voice fainter. He’s definitely having trouble breathing. Bruce picks up the oxygen mask he’s already got out earlier, and presses it over Steve’s mouth. Steve’s eyes close as he draws in deeper breaths.

The floor has leveled off, and the aircraft steadies as they approach cruising altitude.

Bruce grabs Steve’s wrist to take his pulse – rapid, thready, and clammy skin. Shock seems a likely diagnosis. Add to that the fact that his blood pressure checks out low, it’s pretty much a certain one. Another cursory glance at Steve’s injuries confirms that there’s no obvious external bleeding that could be easily dealt with. Damn. Bruce picks up a blanket, pulls it up to Steve’s chest, and starts setting up an IV.

“Anything we can do?” Natasha asks from just behind him.

“Not right now,” Bruce replies. “Go and see if Tony needs help in navigation, you’ve been to Budapest before, right?”

“Oh, yes, we have,” Clint groans.

They move away, leaving Bruce to do what he can to stabilize Steve, and then move on to assessing his injuries in more detail.

He isn’t paying much attention to the background noise of the three other Avengers talking to one another. With the hum of the engines working at full tilt, it would be difficult to hear anyway – until Tony’s voice breaks through, loud enough that Bruce turns to look.

“No, no, no, this is not happening!” Tony shouts. He’s standing up, still wearing most of his armor, his bare hands gripping the back of the pilot’s seat. Next to him, Natasha has her arms crossed, looking grave, and Clint has grabbed his chin thoughtfully.

“Tony? What’s going on?” Bruce calls out.

“We have a bomb onboard,” Natasha replies.




They’ve got it, now, Steve realizes. He doesn’t even need to make sense of the words, the sharp tones say it clearly enough. The others know that Doom tricked them. Steve was bait and a diversion, and it worked.

He wants to help, but what can he do? Really, it takes effort just to keep his eyes open and breathe. And even if it didn’t, what does he know about defusing bombs? His solution would be to throw himself at it. Probably everyone in the Quinjet knows more than he does – Clint with his exploding arrows, Natasha with her assassin training, Bruce with his gamma research, and Tony, well, this is exactly the sort of thing he’s good at.

Tony’s hovering close by Steve’s face, and Steve isn’t too worried about what’s going to happen. It’s a reassuring thought in the middle of the panicky feeling of being unable to catch his breath, or to focus on what anyone’s saying for more than a few words at a time, that his life is very much in their hands. Out of all the people in the world, these are the ones he trusts most. His team. His Tony.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be okay. They’re in this together.




“Dearest Avengers,” Victor von Doom announces. His metal-covered face has just appeared on the screen in front of Natasha, Clint and Tony. “I am calling to let you know that I have just activated a bomb that’s been attached to your precious aircraft. And no, Stark, you’re not going to defuse it. You think you’re smart, but I am smarter. Try to exit the Quinjet, and it will explode. Slow down your airspeed, and it will also explode. Try to land – you get the drift. Enjoy your flight. It will be your last.”

The screen goes blank, and the three Avengers stare at it for a few beats of stunned silence.

Natasha did think it felt too easy.

“Is he telling the truth?” she asks, glancing at Tony, who's still frowning at the screen.

“Doom could be bluffing,” Clint offers.

Natasha doesn't think he is. She can't figure out what such an attempt to intimidate them would gain him. No, it's far more likely that he's telling the truth and that this was a set-up all along.

Tony pokes at a few buttons, going through sets of numbers on the screen. “There is an inexplicable change in weight,” he says tightly. “JARVIS? Can you tell if the Quinjet has been tampered with?”

“Several proximity alerts were triggered while we were on the ground, it is possible that it was. Sir, if you had not skipped the usual pre-flight checks, we would have found out earlier,” the AI replies. “Running diagnostics now.”

“Stark! You skipped the pre-flight checklist?” Natasha groans.

“There was no time! We were in a hurry, we still are. You saw how Steve is.”

Natasha understands the sentiment, shares it, even, but what Tony did was clearly a bad move. “I’m sure that’s exactly what Doom was counting on,” she remarks.

“It shouldn’t be that easy to tamper with the Quinjet anyway, right?” Clint prompts.

“No. There are security measures, but he may have figured out a way around them,” Tony admits, his lips turned into a grimace. “Doom is smart. Not smarter than me, that’s exaggerating, but very smart anyway.”

“I can confirm that there is an unknown object attached to the hull, close to the landing gear,” JARVIS announces

“Ah, shit,” Tony says, quietly at first, but then, he's on his feet, shouting, “No, no, no. This is not happening!”

“Tony? What’s going on?” Bruce calls from the other end of the aircraft.

“We have a bomb onboard,” Natasha replies, keeping her calm. She isn't overly worried yet. They’ve worked their way out of worse situations.

“JARVIS, you have the wheel. Hold this cruising speed and altitude, no matter what,” Tony says and heads towards Steve and Bruce. Natasha and Clint follow.

Tony clanks down onto his armored knees next to Steve, and places a gentle hand on his cheek. Steve opens his eyes a crack and peers up at Tony. He isn't looking any better than the last time Natasha saw him – his breathing is fast and shaky despite the oxygen mask.

“How is he, Bruce?” Natasha asks, keeping back to give Tony more space.

Bruce rubs at his neck, looking uncomfortable. “Could be better. I’m counting four broken ribs on one side, two on the other, and I’m pretty sure he has a hemothorax – he’s bleeding into his chest. I’m hoping his head injuries don’t include anything worse than a concussion, but there’s no way to know for sure, especially when he's so out of it that I think he must've been drugged as well.”

Tony grabs hold of Steve’s hand between both of his, and Steve lets out a sound that might be either an attempt at a comment or just a groan.

“How long can he go on like this?” Clint asks Bruce, subdued.

“I have no idea,” Bruce shrugs helplessly. “Steve is amazingly resilient, but the serum can only do so much. All it does is to accelerate normal healing. If any of his injuries require surgery, that’s not enough. For starters, that blood definitely needs to be drained out.”

“Can’t you do it?” Natasha suggests. She’s seen similar maneuvers performed in the field before.

Bruce grimaces. “If it seems like he’s actually going to suffocate on the spot, I may have to try. As long as that’s not the case, I’m not going to risk it. I could end up making things worse.”

“We’re going to figure this out before you have to,” Tony says, his eyes still on Steve, his voice determined. “It’s going to be okay,” he adds to Steve, brushing stray hairs off his forehead.

Steve has closed his eyes again, eyes squeezed tight against whatever pain he's going through. For all her skills in interpreting people, Natasha has to admit she can't tell whether he's actually following the conversation.

“Steve knew about the bomb,” Bruce says thoughtfully. “He was trying to tell me it’s a trap. I thought he was being confused.”

“It wouldn’t have changed anything,” Natasha says. “We were already airborne.”

“How do you think the bomb is set up?” Bruce asks.

Tony stands up and turns to face the others, his face dead serious. “It must be rigged to the doors in some way, set to blow if they’re opened, and there’s definitely an accelerometer in there since Doom said changes in speed would set it off. Most likely an altimeter, too. It’s probably a simple but robust system, not actually connected to the Quinjet’s, to make sure it’s not possible to hack it.”

“Can’t help but notice there’s a lot of assumptions and probablys in there,” Clint says.

“Well, what the hell do you expect?” Tony grumbles, spreading his arms and glaring at Clint. “I'm a genius, but I'm not clairvoyant! I haven’t seen it any more than you have. I’m just guessing here.”

“Are there any cameras we could use to get a look at it?” Natasha suggests.

“Strangely enough, the cameras on the underside of the Quinjet are designed for looking at things other than the ‘jet itself. And people tell me I’m self-centered,” Tony replies sardonically. “So, no, we can't get visual on the bomb without opening a hatch and setting it off.”

The solution seems quite obvious to Natasha. “So, we can’t open any of the existing doors. That means we need to make a new one.”

Tony raises his eyebrows. “Well, yeah. That might be an option. It could also kill us all, since we don’t know how the bomb is wired. Not to mention we’d be stuck in a Quinjet with a hole in it. It’s a pretty terrible idea, really.”

“Couldn’t we just make a hole and evacuate through it?” Clint suggests.

“Again, yes, possibly, or then we might end up setting it off, because we just don’t know enough,” Tony says, exasperated.

“I – wouldn’t really want to put Steve through that,” Bruce adds. Although he doesn’t spell it out in so many words, the implication is clear: he’s not sure Steve would make it. “Anyway, you don’t need to make a big hole to see it, or to take it apart. You could do it like keyhole surgery. If you just made a hole the size of your hand, would you be able reach it?”

“Hmm,” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “Maybe. That might actually work. Best idea so far. I’ll have to think about this some more, and check the schematics. In the meantime, get oxygen masks for everyone. If we do start making holes in the Quinjet, the air’s going to get very thin in here.”




The angry and worried tones have given way to something more determined. They’re working on it. They’re going to solve it. Steve doesn’t need to think about what-ifs. It’s a fact. Tony will figure this out, somehow. He always does.

What does occur to him is that although they can certainly deal with the situation, it might not mean that Steve’s going to make it himself.

Breathing is getting more and more difficult, and it’s not just the constant pain of broken ribs – that’s something he’s intimately familiar with thanks to the many other times he’s broken them – it’s worse, something else is wrong, and he can tell it’s bad.

It feels like he’s fading. It takes all that fighting spirit he’s always had, all the tenacity that’s not Captain America but Steve Rogers, that stubborn kid from Brooklyn who will never give up, to hold on, and not give in to the temptation of just closing his eyes and letting go.




The gauntlet modification he’s working on is such a simple task Tony can’t keep his mind from wandering, and when it does, he always ends up in the same place. Thinking that it’s all his fault.

Well, okay, not all of it. Doom can take most of the blame. He’s the supervillain behind the whole thing, after all, and Tony is going to make him regret ever laying a hand on Steve. As soon as they’re out of this mess. Maybe a slice of the blame is on Natasha and Clint, too, because they managed to lose Steve, and how that could ever happen, Tony can’t understand, no matter how many times they tell him the story. Steve isn’t exactly hard to notice. And to wait a full day before even telling him – that’s not okay.

Still, if Tony had just stopped to think without panicking, if he’d run the pre-flight diagnostics, if he’d checked with JARVIS and found out that the proximity alerts came with a couple of glitches in the surveillance – if he’d made better security systems to begin with – shit. Yeah. His fault.

They could all die, and that’s his fault.

“Tony, it’s not your fault,” Natasha says from right behind him, like she’s reading his mind, and Tony can’t suppress the little jolt of surprise. This time, though, he’s not even sure if she sneaked up on him as usual, or if he was just too preoccupied.

“It kind of is,” he tells her.

“No, really, it’s not, and blaming yourself isn’t going to help us get out of the situation. So. Let’s nip that in the bud, and keep it productive. Tell me what you’ve got.”

“Okay, right,” Tony says, and tries to pull himself together. She’s right, of course. “What Bruce suggested was actually a pretty good idea. So, give me another, uh, five minutes, and I’ve rigged a camera to the gauntlet. Then, I’m going to make a hand-sized hole in the floor, right there,” he points a finger roughly in the correct direction, slightly closer to Steve’s bed than the cockpit, “and then it’s just a simple matter of, you know, defusing the bomb. Piece of cake.”

“How risky is this going to be?”

“Well, you know, the usual. Might kill us all,” Tony says. It comes through sounding high-pitched and nervous. “Other than that, quite safe. I’m not going to do anything drastic right away. I just want see it.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll leave you to it. Just, remember. Not your fault.”

“Right.”

It doesn’t even take him five minutes to finish the gauntlet, more like two, and then he has a handy extra eye in his hand. Should’ve thought of that earlier, it actually makes a lot of sense. Might make it a fixed feature in the next iteration.

He heads over to where the others are. Bruce walks up to meet him before he reaches Steve, and places a hand on his armored shoulder.

“Tony, I’m not going to lie to you. He’s getting worse,” Bruce says. “Whatever we’re going to do, we’ve got to do it fast.”

“I will. I just want to see him first.” To say goodbye, Tony doesn’t say aloud, but it’s what he’s thinking, anyway.

Bruce was right to give him the forewarning. Steve does look worse. Whatever little color there was on his face, it’s now gone. His eyes are open, but there’s a panicked look in them as he struggles to draw breath. When Tony kneels next to him, he doesn’t even seem to notice.

This would probably be the time to pick some last words. To confess his love and all that. Not that Steve doesn’t know, of course he does. Besides, to do that would imply that Tony actually thinks there’s a good chance they’re going to die. He doesn’t. Though there’s this uncomfortable tight feeling at the back of his throat and tears trying to break through at the corners of his eyes. They’ll be fine. Steve’s survived seventy years in the ice, of course he’s going to make it through this. And Tony’s defused dozens of bombs in his time. What’s one more?

“Hold on. Just a little longer. I’m going to fix this,” he tells Steve.

He presses a slow kiss on Steve’s forehead, stands up, and puts on his helmet.

“One last thing, guys. Before I start, get parachutes,” Tony commands, and it’s such a relief to have his voice come through the suit, steady and metallic. “If I tell you to evacuate, go for it.”

“What about Steve?” Bruce asks.

“I’ll take care of him,” Tony says, hoping it won’t come to that.

Looking at the schematics through the HUD, he locates the exact position he picked on the floor. Right there, and he should be able to easily cut through all the layers of the hull without damaging any wiring or plumbing.

“Everyone ready?” he checks, and gets a thumbs-up from the three other Avengers who’re still standing. “Here we go, then.”

Since the hole he’s making is small and he’s cutting it slowly, the loss of cabin pressure is gradual. JARVIS can easily compensate for any fluctuations it might cause in their trajectory. Unless the sensors in the bomb are extremely sensitive, it shouldn’t be set off by this – and he doesn’t think Doom would’ve set them up like that. Wouldn’t want it to be triggered accidentally. Nevertheless, he’s holding his breath as he finishes the cut, magnetizes his gauntlet and pulls the circular piece of hull in. He hands it to Clint, who happens to be closest, and grabs it with raised eyebrows.

“What? I can put that back later. Don’t lose it,” Tony tells him.

There’s really no showy way to do this, so the next thing he does, Tony settles face down on the floor, and, looking at the video feed on the HUD, lowers his armored hand out through the little window he’s made.

He doesn’t see the device yet, but he’s scanning for other things – any signs of a motion detector, mostly. He’s not picking up anything. He wasn’t really expecting to. Surely Doom wouldn’t want something like a passing bird to set it off. That would be embarrassing for everyone involved. Except the bird, possibly.

A little lower, and he can actually see it. It’s every bit as ugly as he expected, no finesse at all, just a featureless metallic box. The shell hasn’t been shielded against his scans, so he can locate the main components easily. He doesn’t recognize the signature that the payload is giving off. Must be something Doom’s concocted himself. Which means he can’t estimate the blast radius. Better not have it blow up, then.

Next, he needs to open it. Sure, he told Natasha he’d just take a look, but they’re really running out of time, so he might as well get on with it. There’s the obvious plate right there. And there’s the obvious pressure trigger beneath it, because of course it’s going to be booby trapped. Well, that he can deal with easily. If he just zaps it right there, it should be fine –

And it is. No boom. So far so good.

He’s just about removed the plate to actually get on with the defusing business when JARVIS alerts him that there’s an incoming message, and Doom’s featureless mask takes over the video feed for the second time.

“Oh, you just had to try, didn’t you, Stark? I knew you would. That’s why I added a little bonus feature for you. Congratulations. You’ve activated a five-minute timer, which you can do absolutely nothing about. Try to tamper with the wiring, and your time will be up that much sooner. But look on the bright side: you get to share your last minutes with your beloved team. I won’t be hearing from you again. Goodbye.”


5:00:00



He’s having an asthma attack.

The bullies that beat him up left him lying on the ground in this alley and they probably didn’t care whether he’s going to die, and he might, because he’s suffocating.

It’s like the hand that was crushing his windpipe is still there, and another one pressed over his bloodied mouth and nose, he can’t get enough air no matter how hard he struggles.

He’s not going to give up. Not going to give up. Not going to. No.

At times like this, he sure feels like it, but no. He won’t. Never.

If only Bucky were here. But no, wait, Bucky’s not – Bucky’s gone, he’s not there anymore, is he?

Tony. Tony should be here.

Tony?

Help.


4:00:00



“Okay, guys, don’t panic, I’ve got this,” Tony says over the comms.

Clint is watching his last minutes tick away. Their last minutes. Any last words, Barton? Last thoughts? Come on, make it clever! Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies – nope. Seriously, nothing?

He’s crushing the circular piece of Quinjet hull between fingers so hard he thinks he might leave dents in it even though he doesn’t even have superpowers. This isn’t how he thought it was going to end.

Shit, stop thinking like that, they’ve still got time. Tony’s on it.

Positive thinking. Sure. Clint’s never been the best at that. Not like Cap – who’s probably not feeling all that positive right now, either.

Steve is looking like he’s not getting any air, oxygen mask or no. He’s struggling against Bruce’s hold, like he has no idea where he is anymore, eyes darting wildly but not seeing a thing.

“So, I can’t touch the timer, but I’m pretty sure I can disable everything else,” Tony’s telling them. “Just give me a minute. Okay, hah, great choice of words, yeah, I’ve got four. I can do this in four. Here we go. Altimeter first.”


3:00:00



Steve’s obviously not getting enough oxygen, he’s getting cyanotic – was Bruce right with his diagnosis, is this a hemothorax? Steve is bleeding from somewhere, that’s for sure, but from where? He might have other internal injuries, it could be a pneumothorax instead – or all of the above. Bruce is not an expert in these things, he’s not an EMT, and he’s sure as hell not a surgeon. Still, he’s got to do something or Steve’s not going to make it, no matter what – but if he ends up actually causing a pneumothorax…

This is Steve, though. He’s got his super-soldier physique to back him up, as beat up as he is. They just need to get the Quinjet down and get him to a hospital and he can pull through.

“There. Altimeter offline. Accelerometer next,” Tony announces.

Bruce isn’t quite sure what Tony’s game plan is, because it doesn’t matter if he disables the sensors if the timer’s going to set the device off in less than three minutes anyway. Why didn’t he start with the doors, give them a chance to evacuate? Of course, it might’ve been too late if the blast radius is too large for that.

The worst thing is, Bruce is pretty sure he’s going to make it himself, no matter what. The Other Guy won’t let him die. Tony might make it, too, if he took off right now at top speed. He’s fast, and he’s got his armor. But the others – if it goes off, there’s very little hope for them.

If it goes off, nothing really matters anymore. So, better prepare for the other alternative.

If there’s to be any hope for Steve, Bruce has got to do something. He starts going through his supplies.


2:00:00



The worst thing is feeling so powerless. There’s nothing she can do but observe. Listen to Tony’s commentary as he works on the device, and watch Bruce’s expression grow more and more desperate as Steve’s slipping away.

Natasha has spent her entire life struggling to regain control from people who took it from her, and now, in the moments that might be her last, it’s been wrenched from her once more.

She still won’t give in to fear, though. She’s going down with her head held high, with the team that she’s proud of. There are worse ways to go.

Besides, there’s still the slim chance that they’ll make it.

“Aaand accelerometer offline. One more thing left to do.”

What are you up to, Stark?

She glances at him again, and sees him get up from where he was lying on the floor. He aims both gauntlets close to his feet, and shoots laser beams out of them, straight through the floor, cutting a curved line – a bigger circle. Oh. Of course.

Natasha pulls aside the oxygen mask to shout at him, “Stark, no! That’s a terrible plan. You don’t need to do that. You can defuse it as it is, we know you can, go on! You still have time.”

“I’m not going to risk it.”


1:00:00



There’s no need to go slow with this one. Tony makes the cut in a matter of seconds, stopping just before it’s all the way through.

“JARVIS, you know what to do. Take care of them,” he says. “Catch you later, Avengers.”

As potential last words go, those aren’t too bad.

In a rather acrobatic move, he puts his hands against the Iron Man-sized circle he’s cut, kicks up his boots, and fires the thrusters with everything he’s got, pushing the piece of hull and the bomb attached to it away from the Quinjet at top speed.

It doesn’t go off instantly, so at least he got something right.

A minute left on the timer. Plenty of time to think as he’s rushing through the air, climbing higher and further away from the people he cares about. No matter what Doom said, there has to be a way to stop the timer or to defuse this, but he’s going to get as far from them as he can before he tries anything. Away from the team. Away from Steve. Just in case. They will make it, even if he doesn’t.






The last thing Steve sort of remembers, the last thing that was on his mind right before he passed out, is Tony leaving. He doesn’t really know what happened, he didn’t see it, but he knows Tony did something, that he solved the situation, and that he’s gone.

That’s also the first thing he thinks of when he wakes up.

He opens his eyes to see his team gathered around his hospital bed – Bruce, Clint, Natasha – but –

“Hello, Captain,” Natasha greets him, a small smile on her lips. “How are you feeling?”

He’s feeling a lot better. He’s still got an oxygen mask on, but he can breathe just fine. The suffocating feeling is gone. He’s also hurting a lot less, which means he must be on massive doses of painkillers, knowing how fast he burns through them. But none of that really matters.

“Is Tony –“ Steve begins, his voice muffled by the plastic over his mouth.

He sees the others exchange glances that tell him all he needs to know.

“No,” he says before anyone’s answered. “No, no!”

“I’m so sorry, Steve,” Natasha says, stepping closer to take his hand, and the look in her eyes is as devastated as he’s feeling.

“There was an explosion,” Bruce says, in a stilted voice. “The device detonated, at a safe distance from us, but Tony – JARVIS lost contact with him.”

“He couldn’t defuse it. He’s gone,” Clint says tonelessly, his arms crossed, not looking at Steve but staring intently at the wall across the room.

“No,” Steve repeats, shaking his head, and now he does feel like he can’t get air, once again. None of the punches that Doom and his underlings threw at him hurt half this much.

You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, he remembers himself saying, a lifetime ago, when he didn’t know Tony. Since then, he’s learned how wrong he was, and he’s seen Tony do things like this so many times, but this – no. It’s wrong. He wasn’t ready. He thought he might die. He thought they might all die. But that everyone else might live while Tony was gone, no. That was not an option.

“Steve, you need to keep breathing,” Bruce says, with a worried edge to his voice.

Natasha squeezes his bicep, so tight that it hurts a little, cutting through his thoughts. “Come on, soldier. Hang in there. We’re all here for you.”

“Did you find him? The suit? Did you see his –“ Steve manages to choke out.

At the edge of Steve’s vision, Clint is shaking his head. “No, not yet.”

“It’s only been a few hours,” Natasha tells him. “You’re just out of surgery.”

“You need to find him. Maybe he’s not gone. He might be out there. Somewhere. Hurt.”

“We – might not be able to find anything,” Bruce says, looking at the floor. “If he was holding the device when it went off…”

“No, he’s right,” Natasha says, letting go of Steve’s arm, her face taking on that steely look she gets on missions. “We should try, anyway. The Quinjet isn’t exactly airworthy right now, but we can figure something out. Contact SHIELD. Work with locals. We’re on it. Clint, let’s go. Bruce, you stay with him. And you rest while you wait, Cap. Take care of yourself.”

She heads out of the room with determined steps, Clint hurrying after her. Steve knows well what happened there: Natasha is glad to have something to do. She needs the distraction. He only wishes he could participate, too.

Bruce sits down next to Steve, sighs, and rests his chin on his hands. “It was close, you know, with you. We almost lost you, too. You stopped breathing. A few minutes later would’ve been too late. If you were anyone else but you, it would definitely have been too late.”

“Lucky me,” Steve says flatly. “As usual.”

He keeps coming back when others don’t. It’s not right. He wants to believe what he said himself. That maybe they’re just wrong and Tony’s made it, through some miracle or the other. But what are the chances? If he were okay, if he could’ve done so, he would’ve let them know already.

He’d like to close his eyes and go back to a drugged sleep, wake up and find this was just a nightmare, but now that he’s awake, it’s not easy.

So, he waits. Staring at a wall, staring at his closed eyelids, at Bruce who puts him through some neurological tests which he passes with flying colors, at the disbelief on the face of the nurse who comes to check on him and sees how fast the bruises are fading and the incisions healing. He doesn’t need the oxygen mask anymore. A day, maybe two and he’ll walk out of here, no worse for wear.

But there are other wounds that he’s carrying that will never heal. Yet another loss. He’s already taken so many, he should be getting used to it by now.

Bruce heads out at some point, to check in with Natasha and Clint.

Steve counts that there are fifty-seven little cracks in the white walls around him, and he can see four hundred and seventy-two floor tiles.

He has finally almost managed to fall asleep again when someone opens the door. He turns to look, and thinks he must be asleep, after all, because it’s Tony.

Tony’s looking a little worse for wear: there are bruises on his face, and traces of hastily cleaned blood. But it can’t be a dream, because Steve would not have the imagination to dream up the shirt Tony’s wearing – white, with long puff sleeves and brightly colored flower embroidery on the front.

“Aren’t you happy to see me?” Tony says, raising his eyebrows, grinning and spreading his arms, the sleeves flaring showily.

Steve realizes he’s staring with wide eyes and his mouth slightly open, and though there’s still a monitor beeping in the background, he’s pretty sure his heart has just stopped.

“Tony,” he says, when he finds his voice again. “Are you really here?”

Tony walks up to Steve, sits on his bed and goes straight for a kiss. It’s desperate and hungry, and Steve leans into it with everything he’s got. He puts his arms around Tony, who definitely feels real, the fabric of his ridiculous shirt beneath Steve’s fingers and the familiar tickle of his beard against Steve’s chin, his nose pressed right next to Steve’s, his lips a little chapped. Tangible and real.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Tony says, their mouths still almost touching, leaning his forehead against Steve’s.

“Hey, that’s my line,” Steve says, and pulls back a little to look at Tony’s face, which must be more bruised than Steve’s now. “Tony, how can you be here? Everyone was sure you were – they told me the bomb went off.”

“Agh, yes, twist the knife in the wound. Metaphorically, of course,” Tony says, grimacing. “Yeah, I failed. Couldn’t stop it. Damn Doom.”

“But you made it, that’s what matters. Tell me how.“

“I had ten seconds left on the timer when I realized I couldn’t do it, and I just threw it away and flew in the opposite direction at top speed. Got caught in the blast, took some serious damage. Shorted out the comms. I could steer just enough to slow myself down a little and land in a lake.”

“Your armor?”

“It’s sitting in the bottom silt, probably past repair. I’ll have to go and fish it out. Can’t leave it lying around for anyone to find.”

“And this stylish costume?”

“Traditional,” Tony says, running a finger over the embroidery. “It’s growing on me. I think I’m going to keep it. See, I ran into this farmer when I crawled out of the lake. Very friendly, but didn’t own a single computer, hence me not contacting you earlier. Sorry about that. This shirt was the only thing he had that wasn’t ten sizes too big for me. Probably hasn’t been used in thirty years.”

“I thought I could smell mothballs.”

“Nah, I’m pretty sure that’s just disinfectant.”

Steve chuckles, and pulls Tony into another kiss, one that’s much longer, slower and gentler than the first.

They’re still at it when the other Avengers file into the room.

Bruce stops in his tracks. “Uh, maybe we should come back,” he says, eyeing the door furtively.

“It’s fine, Bruce, they’ve still got clothes on,” Natasha says with a crooked grin.

“Don’t mind us,” Clint tells Tony and Steve. “We can wait.”

Tony breaks the kiss to beam at the trio by the door. “A little voyeuristic streak, Barton?”

“It’s not every day you see two dead guys make out,” Clint returns.