The vision of Miles—sweet, shy, innocent Miles, whom Tony taught maths and physics to—killing Steve is burnt behind Tony’s eyelids, but Tony hasn’t really processed anything when he steps forward and plants himself between Miles and Carol.
“Step back,” he says, repulsors aimed straight at her.
“You saw it, Tony,” she says.
“Just like I saw the Hulk killing us all?” Tony asks icily. “He’s a kid. Step back.”
“You know he would’ve attacked us.” Carol shakes her head.
“Ms. Marvel, Nova, get Spider-Man out of here,” he orders, because he’s not blind and he knows that if he can trust anyone to take care of Miles it’s those two. Before Carol can react, Tony fires another blast of energy at her.
Carol clearly remembers she can’t absorb his repulsors energy anymore, and she dodges, but the distraction is enough; Nova flies off faster than Tony can track him, Miles and Kamala with him.
Carol punches Tony, making his head ring, but he barely even notices that. He promised to take care of these kids.
“Are you really blind,” Carol snaps, “you just saw Steve die, need I remind you of the first Superhero Civil War?”
She hits him again, and Tony doesn’t make any move to defend himself. He doesn’t remember it—he remembers learning about it.
Steve shot at the courthouse steps, Steve impaled through his chest, Steve bleeding out, past and future.
Except it’s not.
(Unless, he thinks, unless, and he hates himself for even considering that, and he hates himself for not doing everything he can to save Steve, because what if, what if?)
“I’m still here,” Steve says suddenly. He pulls Carol off Tony. “So maybe you should ask me first.”
“I lost Rhodey,” Carol says. “I won’t—”
“He’s fifteen, Carol,” Steve interjects. “He’s not going to hurt me. If nothing else, I have more experience than that.” He moves past her, offers a hand to Tony. Tony takes it, lets Steve pull him upright again, doesn’t let Steve’s hand go.
“You sent your other teens with him,” Carol says, looking at Tony. “That’s aiding and—”
“Let it go, Carol,” T’Challa speaks up. “You know I agree with you on principle, but let it go now. None of you are thinking straight.”
“I need a promise,” Tony says. “You won’t go after them. They all have homes to return to tonight, Carol, I won’t have them hiding—”
“I can’t make exceptions!” she explodes.
“Carol,” Steve says. “It’s about me, and I don’t want kids arrested in my name.”
Distantly, Tony knows Steve’s just doing what he thinks is right: the way he had in the first war, when he let himself be arrested and led to trial. Tony wonders if Carol’s a better friend than him for trying to save Steve.
“I can’t believe you, Tony,” Carol says. “I thought you at least would do it for Steve.”
Tony freezes, feels as if she read his mind, knows she’s right—knows he can’t agree with her, either.
“You started a war,” Tony says. “Just look around you. God, you can arrest me, if that will make you sleep better. But we can’t—”
“No one’s arresting anyone,” Steve cuts in. He speaks up in his best Captain America voice. “We’re done here. I realise the problem isn’t solved, and we’re going to have to discuss it. We’re going to have to talk. But here, today, we’re done. No one is going to arrest Spider-Man, and no one is going to arrest Iron Man. Inhumans, Iron Man, neither of you are going to fight right now either.” He pauses, looks around at everyone. “I tried to stay out of it. But I will not let you, any of you, make it about me.”
No one dares say a word. Steve nods, seemingly satisfied. “Iron Man,” he says. “Tell Spider-Man, Nova and Ms. Marvel they can all go home safely.”
Tony waits a second, but Carol just stands there, her head low, and she doesn’t protest this time. He connects to the Avengers comms. “Hey, kids,” he says.
“Iron Man?” Kamala sounds like she’s been crying, and Tony’s suddenly even angrier at Ulysses and Carol. He wills himself to calm down. He doesn’t want to scare her.
“Yeah,” he says. “We—situation’s contained. You can go homes. We’ll—we’ll talk at some point, soon. No one will arrest any of you.” He hesitates. “If you need me—if you need anyone adult to talk to, tell me.”
“I should let her arrest me,” Miles says quietly, and Tony freezes.
“No,” he says. “You haven’t done anything, kid. You won’t. It’s profiling. You know that.” God, Tony hates doing it on comms, probably hundreds of kilometres away from them. “Nova, Ms. Marvel. You both know it too, right.”
“Yes,” Nova says quietly.
“Listen to Iron Man,” Sam suddenly says.
“Cap?” Tony frowns. “Where—”
“Hollywood,” Sam answers. “Magik teleported me here—doesn’t matter. Kids, nothing here is your fault. We’ll keep you safe.”
“I’ll ask Stephen to get you,” Tony promises. “Nova, do you need help, too?”
“I can fly back,” Nova says.
“I can get the Quinjet,” Tony tells him. He would prefer it, really, but he’s not sure they really want to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter, right now. It’s been quite a shock.
Talk about understatements.
“No,” Miles says. “Iron Man, can we—stay out a bit longer?”
“As long as you go back to your parents tonight,” Sam says.
“We will,” Kamala says quietly.
“Tony,” Sam says, and Tony realises he switched to the private channel. “How are you holding up?”
A laugh escapes Tony, unbidden. He can’t think about the question, because he knows he’ll break down the moment he really lets himself think about the situation. “Fine,” he says, and adds, “Just—don’t.”
Sam doesn’t say anything again, and Tony finally looks around him. Steve’s still holding him by his wrist, loosely, watching him intently, waiting. “All done,” Tony says. “Leave my kids be, seriously.”
Carol nods, dejected.
“Stephen, Sam-Cap ended up in Hollywood, can you get him back?” Tony asks. “And if that’s all . . . “
“Yes,” Steve answers. He keeps holding Tony while everyone around them slowly leaves. Tony wants nothing else than to go home—not his, Steve’s, with the Tower gone—but he understands while Steve waits.
And maybe it’s better, to stay out in the public some more. Maybe he’ll get his emotions under control. Who is he kidding, really?
“Tony,” Steve says. He sounds tired.
Right. He just saw himself die.
Tony feels laughter bubbling out of him. It’s ridiculous, it’s insane, it’s not happening, it’s—
“Tony,” Steve repeats. “Come on. Tony.”
“I can’t do it,” Tony whispers.
“You can,” Steve tells him. “Let’s go home, Tony.”
Tony lets Steve pull him forward.
Steve locks the door, pulls his cowl off, and looks at Tony expectantly. Ah. Yes. Tony sends the armour command to disassemble almost numbly, and without it support, falls down.
Steve catches him, his arms strong and safe around Tony, and brings them both to the floor gently. “It’s okay,” he says.
“It’s not,” Tony whispers. “I could be killing you right now. Oh my god. Steve. Steve—”
Steve puts a finger to Tony’s mouth, silencing him. “Do you really believe Miles could kill me?”
(But what if something happened. It could be an accident; would it matter if the effect was what Tony’s seen in the vision?)
“I don’t know,” he chokes out. “I—I know he’s scared and I promised to take care of him and I will, but, Steve, what if I’m making a mistake, what if—I failed you once already.”
More than once, he thinks, but Steve doesn’t correct him, just holds him closer. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d do if our positions were reversed right now. If someone showed me a future with you dying—” Steve stops talking, inhales, runs his hand up Tony’s side, and stills it over Tony’s heart. “I couldn’t,” he admits. “But as it is, right now? I’m more objective, Tony. I know that vision was bullshit.”
Tony almost smiles at that, but he can still see Steve’s prone body, and . . . “It’s not exactly that,” he mutters after a while, when he feels like he can speak again. “I know Miles won’t hurt you. Miles won’t hurt anyone. He’s a great kid. They all are.” Tony bites on his lip. “I won’t let anyone touch any of them, Steve. But we saw a masked guy kill you. It could’ve been anyone. It could’ve been a Skrull.” Tony realises he’s shaking. “What if—what if I should so something. What if I won’t be able to save you?”
“Do what, Tony?” Steve asks gently.
Tears stream down Tony’s face. “I have no idea,” he admits, and this is the worst part: that something terrible, unimaginable can happen, and there’s nothing Tony can do.
Because the one certain thing in all of it is: it has nothing to do with Miles.
“I didn’t save Rhodey,” Tony says. “I—I knew Bruce was in danger, and I couldn’t save him either.” He’s still shaking, and Steve’s warm body pressed against his does nothing to calm him down. “I can’t promise I’ll keep you safe.”
Steve kisses his temple. “No,” he agrees. “But you don’t have to, Tony. Keeping me safe isn’t your job. And I will be fine.”
He has died once already and Tony knows he didn’t deal with it, the gap in his memory the only proof he needs; he can’t even think about it happening again, and yet, he has to. He’s a futurist, he should be better than it, dammit, but he’s scared, he’s so very scared, and he tries to think of different scenarios and draws a blank every time.
“I love you,” he says instead, but it’s not enough, his love won’t shield Steve, might only make him a bigger target, and oh god what can Tony do?
“Tony,” Steve says into his ear, infuriatingly calm, reassuringly alive. “You didn’t used to trust his visions at all.”
Tony shakes his head mutely.
“Okay.” Steve takes a deep breathe, lets it out slowly, soft air blowing on Tony’s cheek. “Answer one question, Iron Man.”
Tony turns to face him, and Steve’s all blurry through Tony’s tears. “Yes,” he says, because Tony Stark might be shattering, but Iron Man will always listen to Captain America.
“Imagine you’re fighting a war. And the opposite side has this leader. This wildly capable, powerful leader, who’s a genius and a great tactician, who’s charismatic and who will convince people he’s right. He’s a danger to your case, isn’t he?” Steve tilts his head, continues. “The natural strategy is to take the leader out. Maybe you don’t want to kill him; maybe he’s too hard to be killed.”
“What’s your point, Steve?” Tony asks.
“Listen to me, Iron Man,” Steve orders again. “If you can’t kill him, and you can’t detain him, what would you do?”
“Find a way to destroy him,” Tony mutters. It’s the obvious tactic. Distract him. Make him stop caring. Maybe, maybe make him abandon his ideals.
“Imagine you’re fighting Tony Stark, then,” Steve says, quiet and sure. “How do you go about destroying him?”
Tony closes his eyes.
“It doesn’t mean they won’t kill you,” he whispers. “Carol wouldn’t, but—the Inhumans. They killed my employees to hurt me already. You—”
“Then I’d be dead already,” Steve says, “and you know it. And it sure as hell wouldn’t make you join their side. But this vision, Tony? It’s specifically crafted just for you. And that is how I know it’s fake.”
“Can he even do that,” Tony whispers. He wants to believe Steve desperately. But Steve’s always been a terrible optimist, and Tony—Tony is so lost.
“I don’t know,” Steve says. “But he’s been training, and there are telepaths in the world still. I’m right, Tony. I know I am.”
Tony huffs a laugh. “You always say so.”
“You either accept that or accept that there’s nothing you can do anyway,” Steve says honestly. “Considering all the what if scenarios right now will drive you mad. And I won’t let you do that to yourself.”
Tony feels half-mad already.
“I love you, Tony Stark,” Steve says, wipes Tony’s tears again. “We’ll get through it together. And the thing I said earlier? You’re not responsible for me. But you are for those kids. And they’re counting on you.”
Tony’s a master at putting up masks. But not for Steve, not for a long time; and not since Rhodey’s death, really—everything’s too raw, he doesn’t know how to lie about what; everything’s too real for him.
He knows Steve’s right. He can’t be selfish. He has to get a grip on himself. He managed to calm down when Miles was in danger. He just has to go on.
“I’m with you, Tony,” Steve says. “I’m always with you. You won’t have to do anything alone.”
Tony kisses him, quickly, desperately. “Promise.”
“I do,” Steve says, softly.
He’ll wake up screaming at night; he knows as much, but he’ll get up in the morning. He’ll be there for his kids.
(Miles calls him hours later, asks him to meet, and leaving Steve behind is hard, but Tony doesn’t let it show as he flies to Miles, reassures him, and walks him home.
Ulysses is not a prophet. Rhodey’s dead, and nothing like it will happen again.