Steve can feel the weight of their eyes on him.
He pulls the door to the roof shut behind him as Clint makes a joke about the guest of honor being late, and Steve gives them all his best apologetic smile.
The room is just a little bit too loud, a little bit too warm. It’s a sharp contrast to the quiet, breezy rooftop that Sharon has dragged him away from. Steve is bone-tired, and his mind is still churning with a headache and questions that have no answer. But Sharon is right, Steve should be here, celebrating his return with people who care about him, not up there alone with his worries.
Every single person in the room has stuck their neck out for him in some way. There’s the group that helped pull him back from wandering in time: Sam and Clint are discussing something on the couch, Natasha is pouring generous glasses of wine for herself and Vision. Hank is here too, though Steve still isn’t used to him in the new Wasp costume. The thought of Jan makes Steve’s heart ache; the party isn’t as crowded as it could have been.
There’s also a sizable crowd who sided with Steve and refused to register -- or who grew to regret it. Luke and Jessica have managed to find a sitter for the night. Logan presses a beer bottle into Steve’s hand as he passes, and Steve finds himself agreeing to a celebratory drinking contest. Later, Steve insists, and half waves to Spiderman and Jess, who are both perched on the wall.
Of course Bucky is there too. His old partner looks vaguely ill-at-ease with such a crowded house. But he sees Steve coming back down from the roof and his eyes light up, a little bit of the stiffness going out of his pose. If Bucky can deal with the horde for his sake, Steve decides he can too. He just hopes the wearied pinch around his eyes isn’t showing.
He’s grateful. He really is. It’s good to see them all again. It’s been two long years. And for some it seems like it’s been longer.
Carol looks like she might cry when he puts a hand on her shoulder. You’re here now, that’s what counts, he tells her.
And Thor. Steve has the wind knocked out of him when Thor manhandles him into a bear-hug.
Steve has friends, he has family. He should be happy, but there’s still a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach that he can’t quite shake.
He slips out of the crowded living room, through a sliding door, and into the empty kitchen. The beer gets stuffed into the fridge -- right now he just wants water -- as Steve glances at the TV sitting on the counter. The Avengers have been low tech ever since they went undercover, or so they tell him. The news is always on somewhere. Steve has just pulled down a glass and flicked the sink on when he sees the report out of the corner of his eye.
He unmutes the TV.
“-- unverified reports of Stark flying erratically over the Baltic Sea. Sources close to H.A.M.M.E.R. wouldn’t comment, but -- ”
Grainy footage plays of a very old Iron Man suit, a classic red and gold model Tony hasn't worn in ages. It’s airborne, but only just, and Steve’s heart twists.
Steve wonders what Tony is doing -- why he’s running. There have been sightings all over the world. Some of the talking heads have even made Tony into a nightly report: where will the suspected Skrull sympathizer turn up next? Steve’s only been back for a few days, and already it’s left a sour taste in his mouth.
Not that that deters Steve from watching the segments.
A smart man would find a good place to hide if he wanted to avoid questions. In his gut, Steve suspects that something is driving Tony from place to place. The fact he’s resorted to vintage armor would have been hint enough.
Old press footage of Osborn rolls next. He’s dressed in the gaudy Iron Patriot armor, reassuring the American people that bringing in Tony Stark remains a top priority for H.A.M.M.E.R.
Steve mutes the blowhard.
He knew before, of course, what the hollowness was. Seeing Tony on the news again tonight just dredges the old feelings up again: the bitterness -- but moreover the regret. He clutches at the lip of the sink so hard that the tile beneath his hands cracks.
When Steve hears the door open he tenses and glances over. It’s just Bucky standing behind him, but Steve sees his eyes slide to the TV set and then the broken countertop.
“Still alright?” he asks.
Frankly, Steve isn't sure.
On the news, Osborn is still prattling on silently, and the caption beneath switches, Vigilantes still operating in New York. Advocates calling for stiffer penalties.
Steve feels his blood boiling with how little has changed. Osborn always was a corrupt snake at heart, though. He may have fooled the world’s leaders for now, but it’s only a matter of time till he’s exposed for what he is.
Bucky, meanwhile, is still watching the subtle twist of emotions on his face, reading him like a book. There’s a little bit of judgement there. But not much. “You look like you want to punch something.”
Not some thing.
“I want in on the next strike against Osborn.”
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Osborn was going to catch up eventually. Tony just wishes he had had more time. Russia wasn’t even his next-to-last stop.
Osborn has him down in the snow. He can barely breathe from the way the twisted paneling on the left side of the suit compresses his ribs. He can smell the coppery tang of blood in his nose, and his left eye is swelling shut. His whole body trembles and twitches, a side effect of the memory erasure and the nerve damage it inflicts.
As Osborn lifts the helmet off, Tony’s sluggish thoughts slow further, grinding to a complete halt.
Is this it?
For several moments Osborn doesn’t say anything. Tony looks up at him, squinting against the glare of the bright sun.
“I want the database,” Osborn says.
There’s so little of him left, and it’s a cruel irony that he remembers enough to know getting the lists cost him nearly everything. Everything that was worthwhile, anyway. There are, at best, perhaps scraps of the SHRA database. Fragments of telephone numbers, a few letters of last names -- Osborn is welcome to the charred remains. He’ll be hard pressed to use any of it. Tony’s Pyhrric victory is, for all purposes, complete.
A vein just beneath Osborn’s receding hairline starts to twitch when it becomes clear his grail is still elusive. “In that case...”
The node in his gauntlet’s palm flares a bright blue color, and every fiber of Tony tenses in anticipation.
Then the gauntlet lowers. “Maybe there’s something else…You aren’t the only thorn in my side these days.” He says it as though Tony’s supposed to be incensed, like Osborn’s been cheating. “Tell me Stark, how would you like to see a long-lost friend again?”
Tony is dragged by two burly men through a dimly lit warehouse.
“Here,” Osborn says, ushering them into a small, confined room. The two H.A.M.M.E.R. agents tie Tony to a cold, metal chair with his arms behind his back.
He’s been stripped of his armor for hours now, left in little more than an undershirt and leggings, his de rigueur dress beneath the armor now. The old red and gold tin can wasn’t much to look at, but it still hurt as they ripped it, piece by piece, from his body. Osborn and his agents took it when they threw him into a windowless hold for transport from Russia to New York.
Even without Extremis, even with his memories scrambled, a glance at the skyline as he was moved from plane to car was enough to tell Tony they had landed in New York. He thinks he’d know the city from the smell alone. He’s home. He’s --
Osborn backhands Tony, aiming for the bruised eye. “Pay attention. This is important.”
Tony doesn’t see how anything important could possibly be coming out of this blowhard’s mouth. Maybe he says as much without realizing it. Maybe Osborn sees his thousand-yard stare. Or maybe Norman Osborn is getting off on the whole thing. Tony runs mental fingers through the rubble of his mind, and he thinks it’s probably the latter. Whatever the cause, Osborn strikes Tony again, ripping Tony’s split lip wide open again.
Tony doesn’t even get a chance to retort. Osborn brings out a small, rectangular device that looks a bit like a digital clock, but with a loop of rope hanging from two of the corners. On one side it’s got a face that lights up, a red digital readout that suddenly displays “2:00:00” as Osborn adjusts something on the side. Then the director runs his finger along a blue wire, trailing his fingertips to the three-pronged connector at the end.
“Bend your head forward,” he says silkily.
Tony keeps his neck stiff.
Without further preamble, Osborn grasps Tony’s neck with his free hand and forces him to tilt his head forward. Tony’s skin prickles with revulsion at the touch, but he goes cold and a tremor shoots through him when Osborn slots the wire into the port at the back of his head.
“We’ve found a few of your bases while tailing you,” Osborn says, by way of explanation, as he drapes the loop of rope over Tony’ head, effectively hanging the display on Tony’s chest.
As the director continues to talk, a horrible suspicion about the device grows in the back of Tony’s mind and fear curls in the pit of his stomach.
“Interesting interface,” Osborn strokes his thumb along the base of the port in Tony's neck, making the hairs there stand on end, like needles jabbing into Tony's skin. “Not quite as clever as you might have thought. But then…you’re not quite as clever now, period. Do you know what it is?”
Osborn waits, a smug smile curling on his thin, bloodless lips, his hands still on Tony. And Tony can’t decide whether Osborn wants to hear Tony say it, or if he wants Tony to admit he doesn’t know -- that in this place and time Osborn is the smartest person in the room.
“It’s a bomb,” Tony says.
“A time bomb.” Osborn gloats over the splitting of a hair. A bomb is a bomb, and it does one thing. When it does it is irrelevant when it’s strapped to Tony’s chest. Once Osborn straightens up to survey Tony and his assistants’ handiwork with the ropes, it’s almost a relief.
Next Osborn forces Tony’s mouth open with two of his fingers and places something metallic on Tony’s tongue. Tony tries to spit it out, but Osborn clamps a hand over his mouth. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
When he stills, Osborn pulls a phone out, flipping it open, and aiming it at Tony. “Smile,” he says.
Tony’s glowers up at him. He’s at a loss. He had no doubt, no illusions, that Osborn would be anything more than a corrupt director. But this is a whole new level of sick. “For your personal collection?” He asks, words slurred by the device in his cheek. “Or do you always choose the model’s pose?”
“Oh, this isn’t for me.” When he sees the confusion on Tony’s face, something hideous and smug blooms on his face and Osborn starts scrolling through his phone. “You don’t know! Well, I suppose that’s not much of a surprise. Most people don’t.”
He turns the phone around so Tony can see a photo and Tony’s heart catches in his throat -- it’s a still, taken from security camera footage somewhere on the Washington Mall during a fight with Red Skull. There are costumes that stir ghostly memories inside of Tony. One in particular, a red, white, and blue uniform, unearths emotions that tug at fractured synapses.
The uniform is old. At least two years old. It isn’t as glossy as the design Bucky took to wearing.
But that’s impossible…
Osborn flips to another photo and turns the phone back to Tony. And in this one the cowl is down. There’s no question who it is.
A moment ago, Tony didn’t care what Osborn did with the last vestiges of him.
Now the need to free himself consumes Tony.
Steve is alive.
To be so close, and yet so far, is cruel. “Please,” he says in a plaintive voice. He thinks he remembers that Osborn likes begging.
There was so much he needed to say to Steve before. The longing and regret have suffused him for two long years, a deep web of emotions and memories, things so entangled with his very being that he would, quite literally, forget how to breathe sooner than he could forget the rage etched into Steve’s face.
Was it worth it? Tony can still hear the betrayal in Steve's voice.
“Please, I have to talk to him. I’ll do anything--”
Osborn holds up a finger, and Tony hears the beeping of a number being dialed. “I know. We all saw you sniveling at the funeral. I wonder how he’ll feel, seeing you again after all these years?”
Tony doesn’t understand at first. Recognition creeps over him as Osborn presses a button and places the phone in his lap.
He’s sent Steve the photo he just took.
Tony tries to access Extremis. In the old days he would have been in the grid within seconds, intercepting the packets, deleting them, or mangling them so that the end message was garbled. But his head feels like it’s being split open when he tries to run the Extremis protocols, and when his vision stops swimming he sees the status has changed to Sent. And just above it is an address.
“So what do you think, Stark?” Osborn doesn’t move to take the phone back. “Tearful reunion? Bitter reconciliation? Or,” his dark eyes glitter, “maybe he won’t come at all.” He reaches down, presses something on the bomb, and Tony can see the numbers begin to tick down. “Either way, you’ll know in roughly an hour.”
Tony blinks, “But the timer--”
This time it’s Osborn’s turn to just laugh.
Of course he would play dirty. Of course he would load the dice in his favor. It’s a trap through and through.
“This,” Osborn reaches for the cable connecting Tony to the bomb, “and the bit, are to make things interesting. If the wire is removed, the bomb detonates. Bite down on the remote in your mouth, and it sends a signal, letting you trigger the bomb at-will once fifteen minutes have elapsed.”
Osborn has designed an escape route for himself so that Tony can’t just detonate it with him in the building. But giving him a choice at all is odd. “Why?”
“The remote? Do you really need me to explain?” Oh, he loves asking Tony that. “It’s a kindness, a way for you to keep Captain America’s blood off of your hands a second time.” Osborn smiles, then makes a show of looking at his watch. “But you’d better decide quickly. I’m sure it won’t take long for him to get here. If he’s coming, that is. I confess, even I’m dying to know that one.”
Osborn shuts the door to the little room, leaving Tony in darkness, bound, and with the weight of the phone still resting in his lap.
Tony is still trying to wrap his head around Steve being alive. It’s surreal. Surely it’s a dream, or a trick -- but then why would Osborn go to all this trouble? If Tony’s honest, he wants to believe Steve is alive, no matter how improbable it is. He wants to believe that at least one of his mistakes may mend.
The clock ticks down, four minutes gone, and Tony struggles to free his hands. But Osborn’s men have tied the ropes tight, and with his arms bound behind the back of the chair Tony doesn’t have any leverage to force the knots loose. He pulls and wiggles, the ropes chafing against his skin as he tries to wrench his hands free, but the angle is wrong for that too.
Despair starts to sink in as the minutes begin to creep past.
If Tony can’t even manage to free his hands, his odds are bad. And even if he could find a way out of the ropes, how is he supposed to defuse a bomb? It was becoming harder and harder to pilot the armor. He'd even bought an audio book about electrical engineering to help with the fundamentals for keeping the armor in working order.
No, Tony realizes, Osborn has orchestrated everything perfectly. Tony can either take the nuclear option or wait.
The timer inches toward the fifteen minute mark and Tony weighs the two choices. Self-preservation says wait. The part of him that has so much more to say to Steve says wait too.
But a darker voice tells him there’s really only one logical decision he can make. It’s a trap, and a deadly one. If he can spare anyone else -- especially Steve -- from getting caught up in Osborn’s machinations, then shouldn’t he?
And that voice also asks him if Steve will even speak to him now, after everything Tony has let happen.
Because it isn’t as if Tony doesn’t have penance to serve. Hank’s words have been forever seared into his mind where that is concerned. You killed Captain America, you killed Janet! But there you are! Who’s next Tony?
Who’s next, indeed.
It certainly won’t be Steve again.
It isn’t as if there’s much left of Tony anyway, that dark part of his mind reminds him. And if he does it, he’ll never have to know if Steve decides to leave him.
Thinking back to the day the shield shattered his faceplate, or after -- Steve calling him sick from a prison cell --
Well, Tony’s not so sure what his old friend will do. Former friend, he corrects himself, heart twisting.
The timer ticks over the fifteen minute mark.
It’s better this way, Tony thinks, closing his eyes, and then he doesn’t allow himself to think anymore. He bites down on the metallic bit in his mouth.
Tony bites down again, this time harder. And then again. But it doesn’t do any good. And then the phone in his lap lights up, starts buzzing with an incoming call, and he sees a picture of Osborn’s smug face. The bastard must know what Tony tried to do.
And now Tony knows the choice was just an illusion.
Tony spits out the metal bit and it clatters to the concrete floor.
It’s going to happen all over again. Steve’s death will be his fault, just like last time. His chest feels tight, and the shaking gets worse.
At least, he thinks, he won’t have to face them all this time.
Last time is another memory buried too deep beneath grief for the machines to have wiped yet. It is a fitting torment that it’s been left when so many happier times have been erased...
Horror floods through Tony as he rushes down bleach-white hallways, following signs for the ER. There’s been no word on Steve’s condition and Tony is angry. He’s the director of SHIELD, he should have been briefed the moment he walked through the door.
There’s a private wing, and it’s currently in lockdown, owing to the patient. When Tony bursts through the waiting room doors Sam is already there in civilian garb -- Rick Jones too. Their glares are dark and accusatory.
But it isn’t until Logan arrives that the unspoken tension in the room is voiced. “What the hell is he doing here?”
And it’s as though an invisible wall has been put up between Tony and the rest of them. People who once called him friend won't even look him in the eye now. He can imagine why well enough.
Here to take him back to prison, Tony? Here to arrest us?
The weight of their stares makes Tony feel as if he has forfeited the right to be concerned for Steve.
Maybe he shouldn’t have come… Steve’s been shot before. And while the bits of footage that Extremis is feeding into his mind are bad, Steve still has the serum. He’s still a super soldier.
When a haggard doctor comes out into the waiting room, Tony is still in blissful denial. But when the doctor draws close to Sam, says something quietly, and the Falcon clamps a hand over his mouth in abject distress, a primal part of Tony knows the worst has happened. The rest of him isn't ready to believe though.
Surely it takes more than bullets to kill a super soldier.
If Tony thinks the waiting room was bad, the funeral is worse. The weight of the wood box on his shoulder seems heavier than it ought to, a million unsaid things piled inside it, a million more from his fellow pallbearers piled on top.
He should have recused himself. But the selfish part of him, the part that never stopped loving Steve in the bad times, wants to be part of saying goodbye -- needs the closure, even though it feels like the gaping wound in his chest will never heal.
At the pulpit, all of the things he should say -- should set right -- freeze in his throat. The eyes in the crowd that meet him are even colder than the ones in the waiting room. He can sense they are all thinking what Tony is asking himself.
And Tony breaks.
What the hell is he doing here?
The clock ticks on. Fifty minutes elapse and the only thing Tony hears is the thud of his heart and angry voices from the past, playing on repeat. He should be happy that no one is coming. He should be relieved.
So why does it feel like his heart is being ripped out of his chest?
And then it happens. He hears the scuffle of footsteps and his name.
It’s like a dream. He thought he'd never hear the solid rumble of that voice again. Tony tries to scream back, but it comes out strangled as his throat starts to close up.
In moments the door is thrown open. The winged cowl gets pushed back with the sweep of a hand, and the face beneath is painfully familiar. Steve hasn’t aged a day. If anything, he seems to stand straighter and move faster.
Osborn would be disappointed, Tony thinks. There’s no hesitation in Steve. He’s at Tony’s side in seconds, cutting through the ropes with the sort of single-minded determination that used to both amaze and scare Tony. And Tony quivers as the warm scent of leather and musk on Steve floods his nose. It’s so familiar, so good, and Tony thought he’d never smell it again
“You came,” Tony says in a daze.
Of course he came.
“Did you expect anything less?”
I don’t think we ever had guidelines on rescuing traitors.
Isn't that what he is in most people’s eyes these days?
Tony opens his mouth and finds he doesn’t know what to say. So he closes it again until Steve reaches for the wire hooked into the base of Tony’s skull, with a darkly muttered, “Jesus, what did he do to you?”
“Don’t,” Tony gets to shaky feet, the cut ropes falling around his feet. “It’s wired to blow if you take it out.”
Steve looks at the timer on the bomb still hanging from Tony’s neck. “Can you defuse it?”
“Don’t know,” Tony confesses, tongue thick. “You and any other Avengers in the building need to get clear. It could go at any time.”
“There’s still over an hour…” Steve frowns. Then, from the stricken look on Tony’s face, he must figure it out. “Traps within traps.”
“You’re the smartest man I know. If anyone can disable that thing, it’s you.”
Tony would let out a hollow, barren laugh, that despite all they’ve been through, he still inspires that sort of confidence from Steve. But, frankly, Tony feels overwhelmed. “Things have changed.”
Steve blinks, and he seems to take Tony in -- really see him for the first time -- the swollen cheek and eye, the caked, dried blood in his ear, how exhausted he looks, and how he’s trembling and he can’t stop. Too much nerve damage.
Maybe, Tony thinks belatedly, he shouldn’t have admitted his shortcomings to Steve so soon. He sees the question from before behind Steve’s blue eyes again -- what did he do to you? Here and now, Tony doesn't have the courage to tell Steve it’s mostly his own handiwork. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Steve’s lantern jaw clenches. He’s decided something.
“Then I’ll do it.”
Steve presses a hand to the comm in his ear. ”Luke, have the team evac the building and clear the block. I found him. Bucky, tell me demolitions hasn’t advanced much in two years.” There’s a pause, and something of a smile ghosts across Steve’s face. “Can you get me a rundown of parts? Copy that. Standby.”
Tony has to resist the impulse to step backwards as Steve draws near, taking the bomb in hand. The wire is short and Steve is so close that Tony can feel the warmth of his breath in the cool room. A tremble goes through him that, for once, isn’t from the mind-wipe machines or pain.
Pity that this should be how they finally meet again.
“You don’t have to do this. You could still walk away,” Tony says, voice ragged. He needs to get Steve out. “There’s no reason…no protocol...” to stay with me, he wants to say, but it dies on the back of his tongue.
Steve slides the the plastic casing off the device and looks up into Tony’s eyes. There’s something wounded behind the blue. “There doesn’t need to be.” He reads off a string of numbers to Bucky, something that might have made sense to Tony once.
Steve frowns at the the blue wire that leads from a small circuit board to the back of Tony’ head. His deft fingers move through the short hairs at the back of Tony’s neck as he tries to see better. “What kind of connector is this?” His touch is the complete opposite of Osborn’s. It’s gentle and warm, reassuring and solid.
“You’re sure that Osborn understands it?”
Tony can practically hear Osborn laughing at him again. “Why?”
“From what Bucky's saying, it’s an unusual rig.”
Tony feels his cheeks start to burn, remembering Osborn’s first trick. Does Osborn have a longer game he’s playing? “Is the whole thing fake?”
Steve tilts his head in thought. “The C-4 is real enough. But your wire isn’t connected to the detonator’s circuit board. At least not directly. “
“Does it have to be?” Steve looks worried when Tony asks that, like he should know the answer. “What is it connected to?” He quickly asks as follow up, as if he’s going to be able to contribute anything.
“I don't know.”
“So it might be nothing,” Tony says, closing his eyes and steadying his breath.
“I didn't say that--”
“No, but maybe you were on to something earlier.” How confident is Tony that Osborn couldn't reverse engineer his tech? At the moment he doesn't feel cocky at all. But he’s also not the same Tony who designed the port. If he has to put his chips on one or the other -- on Osborn lying through his teeth, or Steve having enough time to disarm the bomb -- one feels a whole lot safer.
“I can go from here, Steve,” his fingers tremble as he reaches for the wire. “Get clear of the building. There’s no point in you risking it.” In you paying the price for my bad judgment again, he means.
Steve shakes his head, stubborn as ever. “Not if every second counts.”
Tony feels torn in two.
Steve doesn’t see that he’s the priority here. Steve still doesn’t understand that this whole gambit has him wagering for fool’s gold and playing right into Osborn’s hand -- that he’s too good to just walk away and leave the dying where they’ve fallen. Tony’s fear that he’s wrong wells up inside of him, and with it comes tears. If the both of them are dancing to Osborn’s beat -- if Norman set this up for Tony’s hand to pull the trigger --
“Please,” he chokes. “Please, I can’t be responsible this time.”
Who’s next, Tony? Who’s next?
“For what?” Steve has gone rigid, fixated on Tony and the damning tears prickling in his eyes.
“For your death.”
If Tony is wrong -- if the worst happens -- then at least let me go out a hero. Don’t make me repeat my mistakes.
“Last I checked, you weren’t the one who strapped a bomb to your chest,” Steve says flatly. But there's something fiery behind his eyes now.
He’s still inches away from Tony. And it’s foolish to be thinking about anything other than life and death, but Tony can’t help but want to reach out and touch him. Steve is focused so intently on Tony, waiting for an answer, and Tony is speechless. All his eloquence and wit feels as though it's been erased with the memories. And it’s just more wasted time -- time that could have been used better.
Tony feels as though that encapsulates the sum total of their relationship. He’s always been too afraid to tell Steve what’s really on his mind, buried beneath friendly banter, or left vulnerable when they don’t hold back -- when they let their differences tear into one another.
Even now the words won’t come. Even now that he has a second chance, the very thing he wanted more than anything two hours ago, Tony still can’t find the courage to tell Steve everything he ought to.
Maybe it would have been simpler if Steve had never come.
“Please, go,” Tony whispers, a tear tracing the curve of his scruffy cheek.
And then Steve does the unexpected. He reaches out with his one free hand and pulls Tony closer. It’s an awkward hug with the wires and the bomb held gingerly between them. It’s probably monumentally foolish. And yet...Tony can feel Steve’s heartbeat thudding against his chest, just as wild as his. “I’m with you to the end this time.”
“Later,” Steve assures him, full of confidence, as though there’s no doubt in his mind that Tony is right about the wire.
If he’s not going to leave, then Tony has no choice. Better to do it quickly. He licks his lips and reaches for the wire, tugs--
And then he can’t feel Steve’s arm around him anymore. His world dissolves in pain.
He drifts in and out. The trembling is more pronounced. Worse, every muscle in Tony’s body aches and feels like it’s been lit on fire.
He smells leather and metal, and his cheek burns as it's rubbed raw against the scale of Steve’s uniform. The grip on Tony’s wrist is tight, almost bruising. Tony has just long enough to realize he’s draped over Steve’s shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and that Steve is sprinting down the hall, before he passes out again.
When Tony comes to again, the scale mail is gone, and his face is pressed against a gray sort of scratchy carpet instead. At first he can’t move. It’s dim -- but lighter than the small room was -- and he can hear the whir of wheels coupled with the sensation of moving. With a start, Tony realizes he’s lying on the floor of a van.
He shifts, twisting his head to look over his shoulder, and he sees Steve, an arm braced against one of the metal walls. Steve looks down, seeing the movement, and he smiles.
“Osborn must really hate you.”
“I just assume most people do these days,” Tony winces and breathes out noisily through his nose. “What did he do?”
Steve sways with the movement of the car going around a turn. Tony briefly wonders who’s driving until he hears Clint curse at a pedestrian. “I think it was rigged to electrocute you,” Steve says. “That’s what it looked like, anyway.”
Tony is mildly disappointed that he missed most of Steve dragging him to safety. “Casualties?”
“None. We were the last ones out. Had about ten minutes to spare.”
Tony should relax at hearing that. But if anything, he’s even more on edge. Ten minutes was all that stood between history repeating itself. Ten minutes wouldn’t have been enough for Steve to disarm the bomb -- at least not carefully. If they hadn’t tried to pull the wire...
“Why wouldn’t you go?” There is more frustration in Tony's voice than he would like. His heart feels like it’s open and exposed. From the crease of Steve’s brow, Tony knows he hears the tone too. “You played right into his hand.”
“We got out, Tony.”
“We got out with both of us. If you’d been alone, you would have died. Why don’t you think that matters?”
“Because it doesn’t!” Tony hisses it louder than he intends. The silence that falls after is stiff, and Tony feels he owes Steve an explanation. So he tells him about the database and he tells him about the memory loss.
When Steve finally speaks, it sounds as though his throat is closing up. “How can you think that doing the right thing would lessen your worth in any way? How can you think I’d--” His eyes suddenly seem too bright, and he purses his lips as though something is on the tip of his tongue. But then he looks away, staring hard at the floor.
“Steve…” Tony feels as though he is going on eggshells. But there is something important here -- something promised but not yet said. “Why didn’t you leave? Why did you come at all?”
At first Tony thinks that Steve’s silence means that the shade of camaraderie that passed between them is over.
To his surprise and dismay, Steve shuts his eyes, and his voice becomes soft. “After the shooting..." He grimaces, "I felt what it was like in the back of the ambulance, Tony. I felt what it was like to cling to the last bits of yourself alone. I thought I was dying, and I thought I would never get to tell you...everything. That I was -- that I am -- sorry. I couldn’t leave you to the same.”
The van pulls to a stop outside a nondescript brownstone, and Tony sees Luke open the front door, peering out. The Avengers have found a new hideout, it seems.
The thought of going inside fills Tony with dread. All he can think of is their cold stares, of the night at the ER, of the funeral, of the backs turned on him after the Skrull invasion. He doesn’t belong…hasn’t for a long time now.
And then Steve is helping him up. And it still feels so surreal. “I can’t--” Their world isn’t his world anymore.
“Tony, you gave me a home once,” Steve says gently, pulling Tony away from the dark voice running through his thoughts. His voice is a warm whisper on Tony’s ear. “This once, let me return the favor. Let’s go from the beginning.” Something in the way he says that makes Tony’s heartbeat faster. One of his hands runs through the hair on the back of Tony’s head. “We can figure something out.”
“Okay,” Tony says. If Steve can look at him like that, blue eyes so full of sincerity, then Tony can brave the others. He can use the hope in Steve’s voice as a shield around his heart, if he has to.
“Good.” Whatever Tony might be, the smile the lights up Steve’s face is pure gold. “I’m glad. It hasn’t been the same without you, Tony.”
And Tony thinks that whatever may come, it’s nice to know that that, at least, is reciprocated.
He leans on Steve as they make their way up the steps, and Steve doesn’t seem to mind. Tony still can’t see how he’s deserving of this, but like a starving man, he’ll take whatever morsel is offered.
To new beginnings and second chances, Tony thinks to himself as they cross the door's threshold, side by side.