Hey, young blood,
Doesn't it feel like our time is running out?
Tony sat before his computers, speaking in low tones with Friday. His shoulders were tense, even hunched, his cheeks slightly gaunt, his eyes bruised from the shadows beneath them. Despite having been the one preparing for this alien invasion for the past several years, he looked like the one hit hardest by this revelation.
Steve rubbed at his eyes. They were all tired. The only reason they were still alive at the moment was because of Stark's preparations. His little hideaway bunker, off the grid, made to withstand a Hulk raging out or a god pounding at its vaulted door. No matter how Hulk and Thor bashed against its rounded walls in their impotent fury, they wouldn't give away anyone's positions. Despite how hard they tried.
The truth was, the world was burning out somewhere above them. Thanos and his army were destroying the world. And at that moment, they didn't have the strength or means to stop them. Their first attempt had been a crushing defeat. It was a miracle they were all still alive to think of a second strategy. And the only reason they had even that much was because of Tony.
Tony, who had warned them over and over again of this exact thing happening. Tony, who had dealt with their open scorn over the subject.
Now, Clint, Natasha, and Sam were off discussing something on their own, shooting furtive, narrow-eyed glances Tony's way. Vision sat beside Rhodey, the man grimacing much as he had before they'd all arrived, furious that he'd been delegated to the Vault, as Tony called it, his steady recovery not enough to make it possible for him to suit up properly, despite Tony's modifications. Wanda sat alone, though Scott at least stood beside her, both of them staring off into their own thoughts. And then there were Peter Parker and T'Challa, both of them working on another of Tony's computers, heads pressed together as they sent worried looks Tony's way.
All of them may not have known it, but a stranger could walk into the room and see the lines that had been drawn. Natasha's group sat closest to the door, almost guarding it if not for the way they tilted their bodies inward, as if expecting an attack from within. Scott almost seemed to be guarding Wanda, who stayed away from both Tony and Vision, keeping to the right side of the room, closer to Clint and Natasha than anyone else. Perhaps she didn't realize the move, but she sat before the food and water reserves sunk into the right wall, keeping the others from getting to it without passing her. Thor and Hulk pounded at the left wall of the room, behind Vision. Furthest in stood Peter and T'Challa. The computer systems seemed to be centered on their side, furthest from the door. Just in case someone did get through, Steve realized; Tony would have scant seconds more to react, but seconds might be all they needed. Another precaution, on top of all these other precautions. Ones only Tony had bothered with, because only Tony had thought them necessary.
And then there was Steve, off toward the left side of the door, carefully wedged away from Tony and his team himself. There was a separation between them that couldn't be breached, and the only person seemingly unaware of it was Tony, who stood dead center in the middle of the room, he and his computer stuck in no-man's land. If Tony knew what was happening, he didn't show a single sign of it.
Steve rubbed his head. “Thor. Hulk. Quit pounding on the walls. It's giving me a headache and wasting your stamina.” While it wasn't actually giving him a headache, his words did at least get the two to finally stop. Hulk made his slow way to Natasha's side. Tony didn't stop what he was doing for an instant, but the rest gave him a grateful smile. It also gave him the chance to think clearly, possibly for the first time since things went south.
Thanos' arrival had been anything but subtle. His admirals had arrived first, defeating even Thor and Hulk in mere moments. But while they'd been attempting to gather themselves up for a counterattack, Thanos' fleet of ships had spread across the planet, taking over major city after major city. And before they'd known it, they'd been ordered back by the UN, as nation after nation fell in mere minutes to the invaders. Tony had been the one to order a quick retreat, as Thanos turned his attention to killing them all. Steve feared for the citizens of Adana, its city attacked by Thanos' men as they landed on the Mediterranean outskirts of Turkey.
This had never entered his mind when he'd sent Tony the phone. He'd thought, perhaps some sort of international scandal too big for Tony to legally step into. Another maniac ready to destroy the world, or perhaps another hidden Hydra base they had yet to find. Perhaps Tony would call him for advice; the man had, after all, managed to destroy the Avengers. (Though, Steve thought for a fleeting second, not by himself; his mother had always said that it took two to fight.)
Perhaps stranger even than seeing aliens bursting through the clouds above Turkey was receiving the expected call from Tony, only to hear his guarded question of, “you willing to suit up?”
Perhaps he should have realized it then. Or even when he took his shield back from Tony and found the thing almost too heavy to lift. Really, he should have realized it long before. He hadn't noticed how, when he'd left that note for Tony, there hadn't been much left for the man to salvage. Steve had given Tony the Avengers, the shield, the win – but perhaps he hadn't given half as much as he'd thought. Perhaps because Steve hadn't felt, not once, as if he'd ever really been giving anything up.
Steve covered his mouth and bridged the gap to Tony's side. The murmurs and whispers around the room died down immediately. “How is it?” he asked.
He expected Tony to grimace, to get annoyed with Steve for laying the responsibility on him. Or perhaps a quip about how Steve thought it was, or even a glare and a hiss for him to back off and let Tony do his work. Instead he got a single-shoulder shrug and a flick of Tony's hand, the man's attention barely diverting from whatever he was doing. The flick shot out several different videos and pictures and maps, and suddenly Steve found himself looking up at countless clips, each signifying the number of dead, the level of incursion. It was worse than Steve could have imagined. While they sat trying to figure out their next move, Thanos had already taken over the world. “Will he stop if he finds the gems?” he asked.
Tony snorted. “Has anyone ever stopped when they've received more power?”
Steve's lips thinned. “We need to stop him.”
“Hey, you have a plan, I'm ready to hear it.”
There should have been some heat behind the words, but instead there was only tiredness. As if, at this point, Tony would be willing to take advice from a squid. “Is it that bad?”
Tony waved that same negligent hand again. “Take a look, Cap. Armies are being wiped out by a single admiral alone. People are dying across the globe. The aliens are rounding up those who still live, and Thanos seems to have taken a personal interest in destroying as many national monuments as possible. All to find a single stone that he knows very well is with us. This is all to lure us out. No doubt, when he gets what he wants, he won't bother playing around anymore.”
Steve tensed. “You think this is playing around? They're destroying whole cities.”
“And they're not exactly breaking a sweat, are they?” Steve looked. The few feeds that were still coming in showed that, yes, the admirals seemed to be barely lifting a hand. The foot soldiers under Thanos' command handled everything with little more than a few threats and their standard-issue weaponry. “They look bored to me. Do they look bored to you? And you know this is only to get our attention. To make us come out. Last time we had visitors from outer space, they weren't exactly playing nice like this.”
They'd come for utter annihilation. Steve tapped his foot. “There must be something.”
“I should go,” Vision said, not for the first time.
“The hell you will,” Tony said, as he had several times before.
“No, Vision. A sacrifice play wouldn't mean anything. Tony's right. Once they get what they want, they'll destroy the earth.”
“It would be a helpful distraction. If we could make use of it,” Natasha said. Her gaze was heavy as it met Steve's.
“We're not throwing one of our own into the fire. We'll figure out another way.” He turned back around. “Tony. You've been thinking about this since New York was attacked. You must have some idea of what to do.”
“We already tried my first few ideas. They get much crazier, and much less safe, the further down we go.” Tony didn't bring up how he'd been right, how he'd tried to warn them, how Steve was putting weight on him for an answer after ignoring his concerns for so long.
“They can't be more dangerous than Ultron,” Clint said.
“Or your actions with the Accords,” Sam said.
Tony's hands froze over the keys for a short moment. Steve remembered how things had ended and took a quick look to Vision and Rhodey. Rhodey's glare was fixed on Sam, but Vision stared only at Tony, his brow wrinkled slightly. Their reactions – how they both failed to so much as look at Steve – made him wonder if Tony had even told them about what had happened between them in the end. Why did they not turn a baleful stare his way?
“This next plan involves using the world's satellites to send a focused laser beam Thanos' way. It could destroy the whole planet,” Tony said.
His words were said very calmly. That, at first, was what made Steve stiffen. Their message was what had him opening his mouth to protest. But Scott beat him to it with a laugh. “You're kidding.”
“Of course,” Wanda said. “And you said I was the dangerous one.”
Steve expected Tony to speak in his own defense, as usual. He expected Tony to bring up how it was a plan, and the only one they had, and better than sitting on their asses. He was ready to stomp on any of those excuses, flimsy as they were, for putting the entirety of the human race in jeopardy. But instead Tony said nothing.
Not for the first time since they reunited, Steve felt a frisson of something slide up his spine.
“If we do nothing,” Rhodey said, and Steve could tell the man's teeth were gritted, “then everyone will be dead, anyway.”
“So we do it for them?” Sam asked.
“Enough,” Steve said, alarm bells ringing lowly in the back of his mind. This did not sound like a team. “Obviously, any discussion over the merit of that plan comes after we've exhausted all others. Until then, we'll keep searching for another way.”
Tony kept typing on his computer as if nothing Steve said was important. His fingers flew over the keys despite them still being wrapped in his armor. No doubt Friday was working with him, as well, coordinating that information over the suit's speakers, the faceplate the only thing pulled back. It was with no slight unease that Steve wondered if Tony was still expecting an attack, even with walls strong enough to quell Thor's and Hulk's rampaging. Or if he even thought the attack wouldn’t be from the outside.
“We'd better hurry,” Clint said. His lips were thin as he looked at Tony. “My family's out there.”
“And the Pyms,” Scott said.
“And Bucky,” Steve said, his tone stopping that one before it could really get started, too. “We all have someone on the outside we can't afford to lose.”
“I have another plan,” Tony said. His voice was still steady as ever, though he had yet to crack wise or make any sort of flippant remark. He wasn't even snacking on something or questioning Steve's authority. “It's not much better than the other one, though.” Someone snorted.
“Let's hear it,” Steve said, turning his full gaze once more on Tony.
Tony took a deep breath. “Well, Vision wasn't entirely off...”
The feeling grew steadily stronger the closer they got to enacting Tony's plan. Despite the constant heckling, it had been clear from the outset that everyone would agree to it. Tony acting to keep Thanos occupied, using the little robot army he'd used against Ultron once before while he faced off against the alien by himself. Rhodey had been the only one fighting tooth and nail against the idea. Steve knew why – Rhodey and Tony were close friends, just as he was with Bucky. Steve would never have allowed Bucky to pull this move. But Rhodey and Tony, they were a bit different. If someone told them they needed to sacrifice themselves, or even several innocents, in order to save the world, they would do it. It was something Steve could never accept. It was the only thing that had worked on Rhodey.
Everyone suited up as Tony went through a last-minute systems check. He didn't know how much of that army was left, or if the signal to wake them would even work, what with the damage already done to the tower. But the screen lit green, and Tony finally said, “we're good to go.”
Honestly, it would likely have been a better plan to include Captain Marvel, if they could get in touch with her, or perhaps Doctor Strange, who had the most unorthodox weapon at his disposal. And if not them, then certainly Thor, or even Hulk. But Tony had said something about them needing access to Asgard if necessary, and they needed someone who could reason, someone who wouldn't act on blind rage. By the time Steve worked out that they could easily send Hulk out with Black Widow, or even with Sam flying for support – or even just to send him with Tony and give him some back-up – everyone else had already moved on, accepting the plan as it was.
Tony, standing alone in front of the exit alone, his faceplate moving to cover his face, had never looked so alone.
Rhodey hobbled to his feet and lurched forward. Vision moved to help him, but Rhodey threw up his hand and straightened before making a more sedate move toward Tony. Nevertheless, as soon as Tony realized what Rhodey was doing, he turned and went to meet his friend halfway. Rhodey grabbed Tony's helmet and pulled him close. The man spoke in low tones, almost too low for even Steve to hear. But he did. “Let me go with you."
"Rhodey." Tony sighed. "You and I both know I would just end up worrying about you."
Rhodey grimaced. The fingers on TOny's helmet clenched, the short nails scraping lightly over the metal. "Be careful, Tony. I mean it. This side-taking shit isn't worth it.”
And Tony's response, even lower. Steve missed the first part, but caught the tail end. “...this is how this is going to end. We both knew it.”
“Just because they act like this?” Rhodey hissed.
“They chose their side,” Tony said, and he sounded so tired. “And it's not mine.”
Something almost like panic seared through Rhodey's gaze. It made Steve's back stiffen. “So you'll do this alone?”
“Do you see anyone else standing with me?” Tony asked. And as Steve looked around, he could see. Everyone else was checking the gear, preparing for their own run to Tony's tower and its remaining override controls. Natasha and Steve would be heading to the UN to try to get them to agree to what the others would be trying to do. Thor, Hulk, and Clint would protect Scott, Peter, and T'Challa as they tried to work through the tower's controls, likely severely damaged in the earlier assault, if they were even operational. Vision would be forced to stay with them, defended due to the stone in his forehead.
If the UN didn't agree, T'Challa, Peter, and Scott were on orders to make it happen, anyway.
And during all of this, Tony would be out there alone.
He would die.
Steve's breath caught. He'd been feeling it all this time, but he hadn't understood. He'd felt this before, for himself. For Bucky. Moments where the future spanned out from this one, single moment. Moments where a life was chosen – or discarded. There was a hole gouged from within as he saw everyone else turn from the signs. Some even saw it, faster and clearer than he did – the way Natasha watched the minutiae of Tony's movements as he stepped away from Rhodey. The way Thor gritted his teeth and clenched his fist around his hammer. The way Rhodey made an aborted move for Tony as he stepped back. The way T'Challa nodded at Tony as he moved once more to the exit.
Tony expected to die on this mission.
Steve stormed to Tony and grabbed his shoulder. Tony stilled before tilting his head, showing he was ready to hear Steve's words. His last words to him. His stomach flipped over itself, filled with lead and stole his breath. This was not why he'd given Tony that phone. Hadn't Tony understood that they were more than just allies on a battlefield?
He thought back to those last moments, as he'd dropped his shield and walked away. The moment when Tony pressed him, asked again if he'd known. Perhaps... perhaps Tony never had known. Perhaps they never had been?
“I'll go with you,” he said, and found that lead ball in his gut finally unclench. He breathed. His shoulders steadied. The world stopped tilting on its axis.
Tony turned to him fully. “What?” he asked, as if he thought there was some sort of glitch in his suit's programming.
“I'll come with you. The UN likes Rhodey more than me; his suit may not be capable of full combat, but it can get him to the UN with Natasha. They'll be more likely to listen to him, anyway. He'd US military, and he's part of your Accords Avengers. I'll have your back.”
Something in the room shifted; everyone who had kept to the edges crept a little closer, without ever actually moving their feet. They turned inclusively, no longer pulling away from Tony. From the slight twitch of Iron Man's helmet, he could tell the movement hadn't gone unnoticed by Tony, either. “That's suicide, Cap,” Tony said. “You can't fly. You only have your shield.”
“I've always only had my shield,” he said, feeling the strength come back to him as he realized he was making the right choice. “It's done me just fine.” He squeezed Iron Man's shoulder despite knowing the pressure plates would keep Tony from fully feeling it. The message would be there. “We're a team, even now. You aren't doing this alone.”
Tony didn't move. Steve thought he could almost hear the man's breath, shaky gasps as he understood what Steve was saying.
He was stubborn, and compared to Tony, so stupid. He had a harder time apologizing and admitting he was wrong than a hero should. But Tony seemed to get it. Something in the armor seemed to loosen. It might have been his imagination, but Steve thought Tony was relaxing. Leaning toward him, perhaps for the first time since he'd called. Perhaps since long before then. He'd always wondered why he'd never gotten a call. Perhaps this was why.
His mother had always said it took two to fight. She'd also said it took two to forgive, or else the forgiveness was only abasement.
Tony had called him. But perhaps Steve should have called him instead.
Tony nodded. “All right, Cap.”
Steve smiled. It almost cracked his face. “Good.” He turned to the rest. Natasha's face showed something. He couldn't quite read it; something near pride, something akin to acceptance. T'Challa tilted his head as if recognizing Steve for the first time. Peter shot him a thumbs up.
“I caught that, kid,” Tony said.
Peter shrugged, unabashed.
“All right, everyone. You know your assignments. Let's get to it.” Steve stood beside Iron Man. Something almost felt right. It wasn't like standing with Bucky. That was like standing with a little brother – or older brother, depending on how mature either of them felt like being at the moment. This felt more like standing with – as if he was one side of a coin, and Tony was the other. As if, when they stood together, they measured out one another's flaws. It had been so long since they'd fought on the same side that he'd forgotten this feeling. And now it felt even more poignant, since he'd found he might have lost it entirely.
Five minutes ago, it had felt as if they were reaching some sort of end. As if they were walking the last steps of a road. It may have once more been his imagination, but now he could almost feel the road spreading out before them, bursting from beneath their feet.
He'd made the right decision.
The shield had never felt lighter.