Steve couldn't understand it. He knew, of course, about Tony's penchant for going to extremes, but this was beyond anything he had ever heard of, beyond anything he had ever even dreamed was possible.
"Why didn't…" He looked at each of the Avengers in turn, pinning them with his gaze. His initial shock and horror had given way to a cold rage that he made no attempt to hide. Let them see. Let them know. "Why didn't any of you try to stop him?"
None of them could look him in the eye. He tried to get a hold of his temper. Rationally he knew that there were some people who had tried to stop Tony from following this desperate course. But Tony's so-called friends and teammates? No, they had been too busy blaming him for the Skrull invasion, for the failure of his tech, for all those things he couldn't possibly have known about or be held accountable for.
"We couldn't have stopped him even if we tried," came the feeble response. "You know how he is."
That stopped him cold. Because once upon a time he had thought he knew Tony.
Now? After everything? He honestly couldn't say that anymore.
Still, he knew what he would have done if he had been in their shoes. But none of them had even tried. The Avengers were supposed to be a team, but when someone had targeted one of their own, not one of them had stepped forward to speak up on Tony's behalf. Not one of them had gone to his side. Only Pepper and Rhodey had been there for him, the way they always were. And though they hadn't been able to stop Tony either, at least they had given him their support, as much as possible. Even Maria Hill had gone above and beyond, giving enough of herself that Steve found he could forgive her for trying to have him arrested and starting this whole terrible mess in the first place.
He just wished he knew where they went from here.
It was a couple weeks before he was able to see Tony, before there was even enough of Tony to actually go see. He was nervous, but determined to do the right thing.
Even if he was no longer exactly sure what that was.
The upper half of the bed was angled so that Tony was sitting up. Right now he was asleep, long lashes creating shadows on his sunken cheeks. The weeks on the run had diminished him physically; Steve had never seen him so thin and haggard before. The worst of the bruising and swelling from his injuries had disappeared though, and at least he looked like himself again, not the horribly battered man Steve had first seen through the observation window.
I should have been there, he thought for the hundredth time. Would Tony have been driven to such desperate extremes if Steve had been there to talk him out of it? To show him that there was another way, God there had to be another way?
As if he had spoken the words out loud, Tony stirred. It took him a long time to come fully awake. When he finally focused his eyes and looked at Steve, though, it was with blank incomprehension.
Steve's heart sank.
Then Tony blinked, and recognition flooded his eyes. Memory returned. He smiled. "Steve."
At the sight of that smile, another piece of Steve's heart broke. Of course Tony smiled to see him. He had no memory of the awful war that had torn them apart, and what had happened afterward.
Not yet, at any rate. He would read about it, and probably sooner rather than later, because he was determined to catch up on everything missing from his memory. Everything would change then, and he would be consumed with guilt and blame and self-loathing. Because those things were quintessential Tony Stark, and once he had been given enough time to truly process the events that would forever now be nothing more than facts on a computer screen to him, the emotions would rise up in full force.
And not for the first time, Steve wondered why no one else was questioning the fact that the great Tony Stark, the futurist who was always ten steps ahead of everyone else – why Tony had not made a more recent backup of his brain. Why he wouldn't have done so the very second he first conceived of his terrible plan.
Maybe, though, the others already knew the answer, just as Steve did. Maybe they all knew that Tony had made a deliberate choice. Maybe they all knew what Steve was still trying to come to terms with – that forgetting the pain of the Civil War and the Skrull invasion was the only way Tony was ever going to be able to face any of them again.
For now though, there was just Tony smiling at him, a mere shadow of his former self and so damn innocent that Steve wasn't sure if he could endure staying here a moment longer. But this was his penance for not being there when Tony had needed him, for being at least partly to blame for the seemingly endless cycle of mistrust that had been tearing them apart for far too long. "Was starting to wonder if you were ever going to show up."
"And here I am," Steve said. Gingerly he sat on the edge of the bed, trying not to disturb the mattress too much. The doctors had said Tony wasn't in much pain anymore, but he didn't want to test that theory.
"You look good," Tony said, his gaze moving up and down Steve's body. It was a look he was unfortunately getting used to, a look everyone who saw him for the first time gave him, as they assessed whether he was really Steve Rogers or just another imposter.
"And you're…getting there," he said, and tried on a smile.
Much of Tony's good humor died. "Yeah," he said, and looked down.
There were probably at least three people watching them through the observation window right then, but at that moment Steve didn't care. Everything he wanted to say, everything he should say, was all tangled up in his mind and lodged in his throat as a great sodden lump. All he could manage was to reach out and take Tony's hand.
His eyes still downcast, Tony looked at where their hands touched. A frown line appeared between his brows.
"I want you to promise me," Steve said, his voice thick, "that you'll never do anything like that again."
Tony stared down at their hands for a long moment. "You know I can't promise that," he said. He looked up, but as he did so, he shifted his hand beneath Steve's so he could lace their fingers together. "Whatever it takes, right? To do the right thing?"
And yes, he believed that utterly, but still… Not this. Anything but this.
"But," Tony continued. He forced a smile, making a painfully obvious effort to lighten the tone of their conversation. "Hopefully I won't have to go so far again. That would be nice."
The words were barely out of his mouth before Steve was responding. "You won't ever have to," he said fervently. He squeezed Tony's hand. "I swear."
Had they been alone, he might have said more, might have done more. But he was too aware of how many people were watching them. And he was not fool enough to think that one moment of reunion was enough to wipe out the sins of the past, all the mistakes they had made – both of them – and the pain they had caused each other.
But at least they had a place to start.
For now, it was enough.