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Zugzwang

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Now

Steve has a book out in front of him, nestled on a couch in one of the quiet parlors of T’Challa’s palace. The collection of poetry had been a suggestion from T’Challa who had cited meditation on the written word as part of his own warrior’s training, encouraging Steve to consider it. “The mind must be tempered as well as the body. Even more so for one who leads. Your turmoil spills over on them,” he had said, plainly referring to the rest of the Avengers who had taken refuge in Wakanda.  

Dutifully, Steve had tried. But he had been on page eight for the last hour, eyes unfocused, voices swimming through his head: some angry, some hurt, and some soft and empty. Try as he might, the poetry couldn’t penetrate the fog they formed.

It had been a week since Bucky had put himself back on ice, a week since Steve stood in front of his best friend and asked, “What if we can’t find a way to take out what Hydra put in?”

“Then do it while I’m asleep,” Bucky had said, handing Steve his sidearm, “just like Zemo did for the others.”

Steve understood the decision, but that was little enough balm for the part of him that had spent the last two years desperately searching. Steve had regained Bucky, only to lose him again far too soon.

Just like Peggy.

Ironic that Steve had “died” first out of them all. Now he is the last, alone, sworn to keep vigil while Bucky sleeps.

Under different circumstances, Steve wonders if Howard might have been here too. Steve won’t apologize for what he’s done, but guilt still chews at his insides, remembering Tony’s final words as he struggled to his knees, the dying light of the arc reactor fragments spluttering out.

#

One week ago

The edge of the shield cracks through the casing of the arc reactor, a gritty sound like feet crunching on hard packed snow. The higher systems fail immediately: weapons systems, FRIDAY, propulsion power. All gone.

As Steve moves off of him, it takes all of Tony’s strength to twist in the heavy suit. Tony feels like he’s been hit with a truck, but the tide of adrenaline and betrayal help push him on.

“My father made that shield. My father gave it to you.” Tony refuses to let Steve just walk away. He may not have a weapons system online, but he still has words. And if that’s all he has, Tony resolves to use them like knives. “But he doesn’t matter, does he? None of the victims matter to you.”

“He wasn’t in control, Tony.”

“Convenient excuse.”

“I know him.”

“Seventy years is a long time. People change.”

“He was framed.”

“In Vienna,” Tony replies viciously.

Steve’s eyes narrow. He and Tony both know they could argue in circles endlessly. “We’re done here.”

Steve drops the shield, stooping to help Barnes up, and poisonous resentment blossoms in Tony’s shattered chest. Steve is going to walk away and leave Tony with the mangled remains, just like he did with the Accords.

If he had had the helmet on, a warning light would have gone on in the HUD indicating the backup power cells were damaged. If he’d had FRIDAY, her dulcet tones would have called his attention to this. Tony has neither, and in his rage he swings at Steve’s turned back. Most of the power in his punch is from the heft of the gauntlet rather than muscle. Directing the armor at this point is like driving a truck without power steering.

The danger that that heralds clicks in Tony’s brain a second too late because Steve counters Tony’s gauntlet with speed the battered armor can’t match. Then in a split second, Steve clocks Tony with his free hand, knocking him out cold.

#

Now

Steve is startled from his reverie as T’Challa walks into the parlor to hand over a Fedex package. Steve frowns at the “undeliverable” status stamped across the front, tears it open, and sure enough the phone and the letter spill out onto his lap.

The possibility that Tony has returned the package with a tracker strikes Steve, but when T’Challa takes the flip phone for analysis, all indicators of tampering come back negative.

“Perhaps he does not want your help,” T’Challa says, handing the phone back to Steve. “Perhaps you should send it to someone less proud.”

The assessment of Tony, though not wrong, strikes something dissonant in Steve. Tony is proud, true, and maybe Steve has irrevocably lost yet another friend in Tony. It’s a possibility Steve has to live with—one more consequence to carry on his shoulders. So sadly Tony’s refusal of help isn’t what puts up the red flag. Tony is consummately curious—nosy some might even say. Steve can’t imagine him sending back a letter unopened.

“I want to talk to him,” Steve says. “Would you put a call through?”

T’Challa is stony faced. Steve still has difficultly reading the king, but he thinks he sees a glimmer of disapproval in his dark eyes. “With sufficient pretext.”

They meet in T’Challa’s office and call early in the evening—early morning for New York time. They use an old speaker voice setup, audio only, no video. Steve keeps his mouth clamped shut, fist pressed to his lips as the line to the Avengers’ compound rings.

“Hello?” The Vision asks in his usual tone, a mix of faint bewilderment and curiosity.

“Hello,” T’Challa answers, introducing himself, though Steve knows Vision will have already placed the voice. “Is Tony Stark in?”

“No, Your Highness.” A pause follows, and Steve wonders if it’s bred of suspicion. But it turns out to be uncertainty: “I am told the most proper response in this situation is to inquire if you would like to leave a message. However, Mr. Stark has been unaccounted for these past few days.”

“How many days?” T’Challa goes off script with the revelation.

“Since he left the Raft, just after the airport incident.”

“I see.”

“Under the circumstances, would you like to follow formalities and leave a message?”

“No, but mention I called when you see him next.”

T’Challa hangs up the receiver and levels Steve with a stern gaze.  “You said he was alive, Captain. If you’ve been playing me for a fool—”

Steve feels as though the floor has disappeared beneath him. “He was.”

He’d seen Tony breathing—could hear it with his enhanced senses.

Tony hadn’t had the helmet on, and he’d been in rough shape, true. But Steve hadn’t hit him that hard.

…Had he?

#

One week ago

A cold wind wakes Tony and he sees that the gray day has faded to an even darker evening. The air is chillier now too and Tony shivers inside the broken remnants of his suit as the first flurries of a storm begin to swirl above his head.

Blood is dried and brittle on his face, so Tony knows he has been out for quite some time. Never a good thing. Hopefully there’s no permanent damage.

Quietly, Tony resolves that he’s done pulling punches the next time he sees Steve—assuming Ross gives him another chance. Tony is glad he’s been flying dark, off of all communications, because if Ross found out Tony had had the chance to take Steve and Barnes in but let them slip through his fingers again? He’d probably wind up on double secret probation.

As it is, he’ll still have a mess to clean up for missing the thirty-six hour window.

Steve and Barnes are smart, so there’s no doubt that they’re long gone. Tony sighs and tries to sit up, resigned to slinking back home empty handed with his tail between his legs.

Only the suit doesn’t respond. And realization, muddled by his blow to the head, comes back sudden, like the shock of plunging into icy water.

He was on emergency reserve power. He used some of it in his ill-fated last stand against Steve. The rest could have slowly bled away as he lay unconscious. The reserve cells are small, never meant to last long—to stabilize him during an arc reactor reboot, or to power the release mechanisms so that Tony can escape the suit.

Shit.

Maybe flying dark wasn’t such a good idea. Though even if Tony had a comm link live, he has no way to power it. But at least someone would know where he was. As it is, only Sam knows where he’s gone, and he’s extremely unlikely to offer that up to anyone with the means or interest in coming after Tony.

Tony flexes inside the suit, but the metal is cold and lifeless around him. For all his effort, Tony only has mobility from his neck up; he can’t so much as even shift where he lies.

Tony rests his head against the cold cement of the floor, looking out over the valley. Beyond, the snowy mountains are beginning to disappear as the snow flies thicker in the air.

Dimly, Tony recalls forecasts of blizzards.

#

Now

The snow drifts are still piled high in the exposed battlement of the compound. The sun is high in the sky, but it’s pale and weak, and the air is well-below freezing. From the reports, it has been all week.

Steve spots the glint of sunlight on a red and gold glove first. It juts from the snow ominously, and it stops Steve in his tracks, rooting him to the spot.

He’s a coward.

T’Challa is the one who sinks his hands into the pile of snow, unearthing the frozen, battered face. Frost clings to the lashes and the beard, and if it weren’t for that, Tony could almost look like he was asleep. Every fiber of Steve aches for that to be the truth. But of course he knows otherwise.

All of Steve’s fears are confirmed in that moment. He’s saved one friend at the cost of another. And now he’s lost them both.

Steve thought he could shoulder any responsibility, so long as the decision was his.

Turns out, he was wrong.

#

One week ago

Everything is going numb. Inside and out. It’s harder to stay awake, difficult to focus, and Tony knows he’s slipping away.

It isn’t a surprise that he’s facing down death in the Iron Man suit. Probability ranked it pretty high, up there with heart attack, and he knows those numbers are why Pepper left. But he didn’t expect death in the suit to be so cold and quiet. Or lonely. Even during the battle of New York he’d had Steve in his ear right up until he crossed through the wormhole.

He wishes he could snark to someone, anyone, about dying of boredom.

Though in truth, that would be a lie. Tony Stark has plenty on his scattered mind, drawing his thoughts in dozens of directions. Chief among them: what will happen when the Avengers discover that he has died? Maybe it will bring everyone to their senses and unite them, like it did with Phil. Maybe, if Tony is lucky, they’ll see this as the sort of thing Tony was trying to circumvent.

Tony doubts it, but it’s nice to imagine.

If anything, he sees the sanctioned Avengers being shelved. Rhodey will have months of physiotherapy ahead of him. No one else knows who Parker is. And Vision has been quiet and withdrawn since the airport battle—Tony thinks it likely his equation has different variables now (Tony saw how he cradled Wanda). The final sum of the Vision’s formula has almost certainly changed.

Steve has won.

Only, Tony knows Steve. He knows what Steve will think of all this. He knows, deep down, there are no victors here.

An autopsy will show he died hours after Steve hit him. Captain America is bound to be exonerated. But that’s not how Steve’s mind works. He’ll see a link between what he did and what happened, and that will be enough for him to blame himself.

Tony lets out a feeble puff of breath, barely visible in the cold air. He can feel his heart thudding slower, and he knows his core temperature is plunging. He’s getting sleepier, and he knows it won’t be long now.

He wishes he could talk to Steve. He wishes he could leave him a note.

For all that he is still angry that Steve didn’t tell him about his parents, for all that his is hurt Steve could turn his back so completely on him, Tony still cares deeply for him—for all of the people who have left. Words like family get thrown around, but they really were the closest thing Tony had to one. He doesn’t want his death on Steve’s conscience—wouldn’t want it for any of them.

He hopes they will be okay. He worries what Ross will send after Steve and his team in the absence of Tony, and Tony is scared because he won’t be there to run interference.

He just wanted to keep them all safe. They had been in zugzwang. They had had to make a choice, even though neither option was palatable. And Tony had tried so desperately to keep them together. They would have been safer as a whole, rather than this ugly, fragmented thing they had become.

As for Barnes…Tony still hates the man, but lying here in the cold, in his final hours, Tony hopes Steve’s faith hasn’t been misplaced. He hopes that Barnes will rise to the occasion when Ross or the next crisis comes to call. Steve needs someone at his back, and Tony won’t be there any longer.

He wishes he could be.

A splintered, jagged part of him wishes he could have inspired the same sort of loyalty from Steve that Barnes did.

Tony takes one more shallow breath, little more than a sigh, as cold pours into him, replacing spirit with ice.

Barnes had better deserve it. All of it. For Steve’s sake.

It would be such a shame if he wasn’t worth it.