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Relativistic Heat Conduction

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The art that inspired this fic, by TARDIScrash.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the fic itself:

 

Tony had always expected the end of the world to come complete with a little more warning.  And even though he had expected this—had expected it for a long time, honestly, why did people think Ultron had always scared him so badly?—he hadn’t expected it just then.  He always thought they’d have more time.  They’d all have more time.

 

He could see that for what it had been now, of course, the grossest hubris.  But back then it had just felt like a normal sort of expectation.  That life would continue on.

 

The sky changed first, bright lights sparking far off in the distance.  And then fire, from the sky.  Destruction and the world beginning to change around them as it was bombarded into rubble (he learned later, of course, that that was just the first step of the process—the upgrade).  The Avengers had responded admirably, impressively quickly, as fast a reaction time as he could have ever hoped for—

 

He’d lost the transmission to Natasha and turned to Steve to report that they’d lost communications with the West Coast when the pain hit him.

 

It was as if every neuron in his body had activated at once, kicking into overdrive.  It was pure overload, white noise, and that was even before the screaming static that was his mind turned on him, cut into him, like his body was trying to slice itself apart.  If he screamed, if he fell, Tony had no idea.  Suddenly he was just a mind, and the outside presence trying to break into it, that was tearing him apart cell by cell and synapse by synapse.

 

Ultron, Tony thought, and that thought was absolute terror.  He’s here.

 

The realizations came quick on the heels of each other.  He’s more advanced than I am.

 

He’s trying to rewrite me.  Make me his.

 

If something very similar hadn’t happened once before, Tony doubted he would have been able to respond at all.  As it was, everything seemed to take hours, time screeching past him as he moved incredibly slowly or time itself slowing to meet him, he wasn’t sure.  There was just the tearing, incredible agony as his mind was pulled apart and his own frantic struggle to enact firewalls, to shut himself down, to close the system.  To take himself offline in a very real sense.  Behind his eyes there was white light and lines of code overlaying it in blue-white fire—his own mind was a conflagration and he was lost in it. 

 

But he wasn’t giving in that easily.  He wasn’t going to end up a puppet of a hard-drive with delusions of grandeur and daddy issues. 

 

It was like he was ripping out wires, except the wires were the connections in his head, sparks and then blackness, and all the time the agony rippling through him, growing in intensity with each hard yank.  Until he reached the end, and that should be the last, the last of them, the last of it, and he cut it off, struggling against the pain howling through him, forcing himself to sever it cleanly despite the wrench of it, the emptiness it left in him where there had been a connection, his own mind aching like a phantom limb.

 

And then there was silence, and his mind felt blank, echoing.  He hurt all through himself, but the searing agony was gone, and there was quiet.  He was alone in his head.

 

He wasn’t meant to do this, his body wasn’t quite meant for it, not any longer, so he wasn’t surprised to open his eyes to find himself shaking and sweaty and his mouth tasting of blood and vomit.  He was surprised not to find himself lying in it until he realized that he was no longer in the suit—it was lying scattered around them.  He could feel air against the cold sweat drying stiff in his hair, on the back of his neck.  Slim, strong arms around his waist, holding him up, a tall curving body pressed close against his and a hand on his back, and the scent of familiar shampoo in his nose, perfume, and sweat—a different hand on his face, gloved, leather covering warm strength.

 

“Tony, Tony, are you all right?” Jan was saying in his ear, and the arms tightened around him, slim but larger than normal for her petite frame; she must have grown slightly to catch him.  She pulled him tighter into her; he could feel the line of her body against his side, and she felt warm and smelled like flowers, and he was pretty sure his mind was skipping tracks, there were more important things to focus on, but he didn’t seem to be able to get back to them—Jan was shaking him a very little, still stroking his back, and her fingers came up to move through his hair, tugging it lightly off his forehead.  “Tony, are you there?  Can you hear me?  Come on, handsome, don’t be dead, just don’t be dead.”  Her voice seemed to go in and out, the sound battering against his ears.

 

“He’s breathing.” Steve’s voice.  The hand on his jaw tilted his head back. “Tony.  Can you hear me?  Open your eyes.”

 

“Those were pretty violent convulsions.”  A different voice, further away.  “And we don’t have a lot of time right now.”

 

Time.  Right.  Tony dragged his eyes open.  It took too long; they felt weighted and scratchy against his eyes.  He opened his eyes and looked into clear blue ones—Steve.  Steve’s hand was on his jaw, supporting his head, the other around the back of his skull.  Tony shook his head blearily, trying to clear his vision, and Steve let go of him, a little reluctantly.

 

“Oh, you are in there, thank goodness,” Jan said.  Soft lips brushed against the sweaty tangle of hair covering the crown of his head, and the affection sank into him, warm, as he realized she’d kissed him, lightly. “You really scared us, you jerk.”  Her voice was tight, but still soft and fond.

 

“Tell me I didn’t throw up on you,” Tony said, or tried to say.  It left his lips a slurring mess with most of the consonants missing, but Steve smiled anyway, just a quick, tense quirk of his mouth. 

 

“You did,” he said, “but don’t worry, I think a little vomit’s the least of our worries right now.  Are you back with us, Avenger?”

 

Tony wasn’t sure about that.  But he needed to be, that much was clear.  He groaned, dragged a breath in through his nose, and tried to straighten himself, get his feet under him.  Tried to think, even though his mind was an echo chamber of dull, cauterized pain—“The armor,” he said, straightening up.

 

Steve’s brows drew together, his eyes moving to the armor lying scattered around them.  “I used my override code,” he said with some concern, and there was a question in his voice.  His fingers skimmed down the side of Tony’s neck, turning to run his thumb over Tony’s pulse, the hollow of his throat.

 

“Good,” Tony got out, “great, that’s . . . that’s great.”  And it actually was.  He took a deep breath, trying to think through the slowness clogging his mind.  “Jan, put me down.”

 

“I don’t know,” she said dubiously, arms tightening around him.  “I mean, you just fell a few seconds ago . . . .”

 

Steve, I could us a little help here,” that other voice, from the edge of the roof—they were wedged into a corner of a maintenance structure.  Barnes.  He was shooting in regular, easy motions, as if he’d been doing it for some time, long enough to work up a rhythm, keeping behind cover.  Tony couldn’t see what he was shooting at.  He supposed that was an insignificant detail.  His eyes lingered on the metallic curve of Barnes’ shoulder.  Steve turned toward Barnes immediately as he spoke, shifting his grip on his shield and patting Tony gently on the chest.

 

How long had Tony been out?  They weren’t going to have much time.

 

“Are you sure you can stand?” Jan said, sounding worried.  “You were in convulsions.  You were throwing up blood, Tony.  Maybe you should take another second . . . .”

 

“I can stand,” Tony said, and though his voice could have stood to be a little less breathy, at least it didn’t shake.

 

Steve gave him a concerned look, then nodded at him and slid to cover Barnes, moving his shield up and pulling him back just in time to take a hit for both of them on it.  Tony pulled away from Jan, giving her a smile and a warm brush against her cheek in thanks, wobbling on his feet before he sank to his knees and reached for one of his repulsor gauntlets, pulling it on.  His throat burned from bile and screams he hadn’t heard himself making, and his head ached fiercely, across his temples and around the back of his skull, in his ears.

 

“It’s Ultron,” he said.

 

“We know,” Jan said, zapping something from over Tony’s head.  “There are robot clones of him or something all over the place.  They’re killing everyone.”

 

Well, that was wonderful news.  But that wasn’t the point.  Barnes had turned when he’d spoken, was looking at him, and Tony locked eyes with him.  “That’s not what I mean,” he said.  “Barnes?”

 

“Yeah,” he said, and his voice was just a little low and breathless itself, scared, but steady for all that.  “Yeah, don’t waste any time, right?”

 

“Buck, what—”  Steve said.  Barnes turned and gave him a lopsided little half-smile, then set down his sidearm and, remarkably calmly, ripped off his mechanical arm at the shoulder, digging his fingers into it and tearing in a way that rent the air with a horrendous metallic whine.  It left him hunched over his stomach and gasping in pain, but he tossed the arm to Tony all the same.

 

Tony didn’t wait to try and catch it, just brought the repulsor up and vaporized the thing in mid-air.  Sure, maybe he was showing off a little, but he didn’t want to see the guy turn into a mindless Ultron bot in front of his eyes, either, and he remembered all too well that the arm could move on its own.  No reason to waste time getting rid of the thing, just in case that speed would save Barnes from that fate.

 

Steve caught Barnes around the chest before he fell over, tugged him forward to rest against his shoulder, still covering them both with the shield.  “Bucky?” he said, ducking his chin down into his hair to speak into his ear.  The man in question made a pained noise, but he was straightening up a moment later.  Jan had shrunk down and was still blasting Ultron robots from above them, zipping up in order to do it, then landing back in cover.  Tony hoped she’d be able to keep them clear long enough for him to turn every piece of technology in their immediate radius into slag.

 

“Ultron, Steve,” Tony said, and swallowed, setting his jaw.  He turned the repulsor on the first piece of his armor.

 

---

 

Steve’s arm felt like a ton of lead across his shoulders, and Tony was stumbling under his weight, legs shaking, his arm stretched painfully across Steve’s broad, sturdy back (badly bruised now, and torn, his skin alarmingly cold where his armor had been ripped away).  It would never have been easy to carry him, not when so much of his substantial weight was resting solely on Tony’s back and arms, but it might have been easier if his own body didn’t feel shaky, still, almost fevered, his bones liquid and his muscles turned to mush.  His head ached so badly he could barely see.  But he didn’t have a choice.  Steve’s feet were barely stumbling forward, his head down, and Tony didn’t want the rest of them to see him like that, stumbling blindly.  Maybe that was stupid, to worry about something like that now, but it still seemed somehow inordinately important.  With his head tucked against Tony’s neck and their shoulders together, it might have looked like Steve was half-carrying him.  Or he hoped so.  He could feel the rough rasp of Steve’s breathing, the warmth of his skin, but he could smell little other than the reek of sewage and the blood that still clung to the inside of his own nose and mouth, and his own heartbeat seemed ludicrously loud in his ears, almost drowning out the sound of distant explosions.

 

Tony’s feet slipped in the filth covering the bottom of the tunnels, slick with an oily film, and his arm slipped around Steve’s waist.  The jolting wrench on his shoulder nearly made Tony drop him, and he had to slow down, lever Steve up again carefully so he didn’t just go tumbling forward and land them both in the reek.

 

You can do this, Stark, he told himself viciously, hauling Steve back up even as sweat trickled down into his eyes despite the chill of the sewer tunnels.  It’s just physics.  Leverage.  You’re the best engineer in the world, and you have to carry him, so fucking figure out how.

 

It felt impossible.  His arms burned, air tearing in his chest, but he swallowed and pulled Steve’s arm closer around his shoulders, trying to square them under his weight even though it was likely impossible, trying to pull Steve upright.  He thought Steve was still conscious—his eyes were open, but unseeing, dull and blank, even as the underarmor that covered Tony’s head scraped sweaty across his cheek and his breath gasped heavily in his throat—but he wasn’t responding, wasn’t helping him out much.  He shifted his arms around him, trying for a different angle to let him bear up more easily under Steve’s weight.  All that strength, muscle and bone, felt like it was crushing him under it without Steve even realizing, and it seemed fitting—all those years he’d been able to lift Tony up, and now when Tony tried to carry him Steve’s strength in its collapse was crushing him.

 

No time for self-pity; even the fact that he was dwelling on himself in a situation like this was pathetic.  This was the least he could do, the very least, too little, and too late, but he could do this, whatever else he’d failed at, he could carry Steve this far.  He knew that if he let Steve go one of the others would take him, someone stronger, like Luke or Jennifer, but he couldn’t do that, not to Steve, couldn’t reveal his weakness to the others.  Instead Tony gritted his teeth, set his jaw, and struggled forward again, holding Steve’s arm clamped tight over the back of his neck. 

 

At least Steve’s feet were still moving.  He hadn’t entirely given up, then.  His breathing was thick and snuffling against Tony’s neck, gasping and dragging oddly, and Tony rubbed his fingers along Steve’s side with what little energy he had to spare.  “We’re almost there,” he said, dragged the words out of his raw throat.  He didn’t know if that was true, but surely it couldn’t be too much farther.  “Everyone’ll be safe.  We’ll get them there, Steve.”  Everyone except the people who had already died.  No, he couldn’t think about that.  He couldn’t.

 

Steve’s breath caught and Tony kept talking, feeling his heart leap into his throat with a ragged jolt of hope at even that small response.  “We’ll get them there, and we’ll figure out what to do next,” he said.  “There’s some analog tech in that stuff I scrounged, I’ll go through it.  Work up a scanner, figure out what happened, try to find others.”  It felt like so little, sounded so paltry.  A hopeless stopgap in the face of disaster.  All he could do play with his tinkertoys while others died and Manhattan burned.  His voice died away abruptly.  His jaw ached with a dull, steady throb, and it twinged as he worked it.

 

Steve didn’t really respond, but his feet firmed under him a bit, taking more of his weight.  More of his weight than Tony had expected, for sure.  He used the opportunity to expand his chest, put his shoulders back and draw in a deep breath.  They kept going.

 

He wasn’t sure how long they walked.  He would have been, once; he had an almost impeccable sense of time, but that had fragmented and slipped away like so many other things over the course of this single day, like the lives of their friends, like the futures he had envisioned and dreamed of, and now there was just this, the steady slog of their feet through sewer slime and the drag and wrench of Steve’s nearly immovable weight at his side.  His tired legs burned, and his arms were past pain and into numbness.  He felt shaky and sweaty and weak.  The explosions from the surface had stopped now.  Did the silence mean that it was over—that there was in fact no further resistance, that Ultron was truly in control?

 

Maybe he just couldn’t hear them, he told himself, in the eerie silence that had fallen.  Maybe they were too far from them now, underground.

 

He doubted it, and the silence was worse than anything that had come before.

 

If he turned his head just right, he could still catch a whiff of soap and Steve’s simple minty aftershave, and the incongruity of it made his breath thicken up in his throat.  For a moment he thought the rasp of it over the flesh torn raw inside his throat was going to have him choking on his own tongue, hardly able to breathe, but he managed to swallow past it.

 

Steve was still breathing.  They were still moving.  He concentrated on that until he realized they were deep enough that no scan would reach them based on his earlier calculations, generously padded because he refused to risk any more lives, any at all, and he called the halt.

 

Steve lifted his head and stared at him blankly.  “Yeah?” Tony asked, unable to keep his hope entirely out of his voice.  “This spot look good to you, Cap?”

 

There was a brief moment, and then Steve sighed, eyes flicking down, and his chin dipped downward with them.  “Good,” he said, and his voice sounded hoarse, rough, a little disbelieving—Tony wasn’t sure if that was an agreement or not.  Steve just turned away, surveying the dripping walls, the curved dark struts of the tunnels.

 

Tony winced at the sight of his back, burned and torn, the raw red places where the burns were still fresh and angry.  He would have to get something to put on that.  But at least that was more life in Steve than he’d seen in the trek there, that was something.

 

Steve wandered over to where Luke and Wolverine were carrying in the first of the boxes, and Tony watched him go with that same thickness in this throat as he took the box and walked mechanically back to shove it up against the wall.

 

Right.  Work.

 

He lost track of time again, setting up bunks, shifting boxes, and he was working on trying to figure out the power capabilities of these tunnels, rewiring the electrical lines, when Sharon Carter came and found him.  She pressed a medical kit into his hands and he stared at her blankly, feeling slow and stupid because he couldn’t for the life of him imagine how he was going to use it to increase the electrical yield.

 

She jerked her head at Steve, still stacking boxes seemingly on automatic pilot, and Tony stared at her even more blankly.  There was silence for a moment, before she exhaled noisily, impatiently, and snapped, “Oh, will you just go and put something on his back before he gets infected,” before she turned on her heel and walked away.

 

Sharon and Steve had been strained for a while, ever since they’d been going to get married and then inexplicably, as far as Tony was concerned, hadn’t gotten married, but Tony couldn’t imagine that Steve would rather have Tony tending to him, of all people—the man who had lived while everyone else (everyone Steve would have preferred) had died.

 

But she was right.  He raised his eyes and looked at Steve from across the room, really looked at him.  His uniform was hanging off of him in tatters, half-healed burns scattered across the flesh along with those that were still raw, pink and puckered and blistered, long cuts and scratches and bruises marring the skin around them.  Steve didn’t seem to notice, but he was grunting as he turned away from setting down one box, and he flinched as if tender, in pain, as he straightened to his full height and the skin pulled taut over his shoulders.

 

Steve needed those burns tended to.  And if no one else was going to do it—Tony looked around the room once more, but everyone else seemed busy, talking in low voices as they set up their rudimentary attempts at livable conditions or sorted what little supplies they had.  People looked at Steve, but warily, fearfully, looking to him to lead them.

 

Tony had so much work to do, work that he needed to do, that he had to do because it was the least he could do now that the worst had happened to so many of them, now that the end had come (not the end, Stark, don’t think like that), but this—he couldn’t turn away from this.  Steve needed him.  He swallowed thickly, almost coughed again as his jaw flared back into pain, and clutched the medical kit tightly in both hands as he crossed the room to where Steve worked.

 

Steve didn’t turn at the sound of his approach, though Tony was careful to make noise, dragging his feet loudly across the floor until he was standing there.  Steve just bent to lift another box.

 

Tony just stood there for a moment, not certain what to do, not certain if he should touch Steve, or where—before he got frustrated with himself for being so pathetic and shoved the medical kit under one arm, reaching up to lay a gentle, tentative hand on Steve’s shoulder, careful not to press too hard.

 

Steve jumped—not visibly, but Tony felt the tremor through his body under his hand—and then stilled.

 

“Hey,” Tony said, and his voice sounded ridiculously hoarse.  He coughed, cleared his throat, and it spasmed into pain—shit, that had been a mistake.  He swallowed, fighting the coughs down, then tried again.  “Someone needs to take a look at your back.”

 

“I’m fine,” Steve said, dully.  He still didn’t turn to look at Tony.

 

“We have the supplies,” Tony said.  He didn’t say at least, we do for now.  “You’re not going to be fine if you don’t take care of yourself.”

 

Steve sighed, and his hands stilled on the box he’d just lifted.  He stared straight ahead and said nothing.

 

“We need you strong, Steve,” Tony said, and Steve’s head bowed, and a wrench of guilt twisted in Tony’s stomach.  But after a moment, Steve nodded and let Tony draw him behind the boxes so the others wouldn’t see them—bad for morale for the team to see their leader getting looked after, and they both knew it.  There wasn’t much privacy available, but Tony could do what he could.  He grabbed a blanket and spread it on the ground before he nudged Steve to sit down on it, and Steve just sank onto it with a low sigh, brought his knees up and buried his head in his arms.

 

Tony just knelt there for a moment, medical kit half-open in his hands, taken aback at the pure hopelessness of the position, the way Steve had curled in on himself.  He hadn’t expected—

 

Which was completely unfair.  Of course Steve was grieving, he told himself angrily.  Didn’t he deserve to be as hurt by this, as devastated by everything that had happened, as any of them?  Worse—he’d made the calls, he had to feel responsible, even if they’d been the right ones, there’d just been nothing any of them could do.  It was selfish, unforgivably selfish, of him to just expect strength from Steve so that he could lean on him.  Steve deserved to lean on someone else sometimes, too, didn’t he?  Tony swallowed.

 

“Aren’t you going to do it?” Steve asked, voice low, quiet.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said.  “Yeah.  Sorry.”  He opened the medical kit and pulled out the disinfectant, pouring it onto a pad before he began to dab at the cuts and burned patches of Steve’s skin.  Steve’s shoulders tightened, and his breath left him in a low hiss, but other than that he didn’t react.  “Sorry,” Tony said again.

 

“’s fine,” Steve said.  “You know I heal quick.  There’s no real need for this.”

 

Tony sighed and looked down at his hands, the absorbent pad in one already stained with Steve’s blood.  “Well, let me do it anyway,” he said, and his voice sounded horribly hoarse.

 

Steve didn’t respond, but he didn’t move to get up or pull away, either, so Tony bit his lip and returned to the task.

 

That was the last time they spoke about it—Tony kept trying, telling Steve what he was doing at each step of the process, as he covered his back in antiseptic salve, bandaged the worst of the burns, but Steve didn’t speak again, didn’t so much as lift his head.  When Tony finished, he just sat there for a moment, not certain what to do.  “Is there anything else you need a hand with?” he finally tried after a moment.  Is there anything else I can do?

 

“No,” Steve said, and lifted his hands.  He removed Tony’s from his shoulders, lightly but inexorably.  “I’m fine.”  He got to his feet, slowly, like it was a strain, and then, to Tony’s surprise, laid one hand on the top of Tony’s head where he still knelt, looking up at him.  “Thanks,” he said, and walked away.

 

What did you expect, Stark? Tony asked himself spitefully as he gathered the used pieces of the medical kit and sorted them into what to throw out and what was still usable, carefully capping the bottles.  That you could fix him like a broken transistor?

 

Stupid.  So damn stupid.  But at least Steve had gotten some medical attention.  That was something. 

 

Enough dwelling on it.  So he was useless.  Had he really expected his presence would make some sort of difference to Steve?  Would help him?  He was an idiot.

 

But what else was new?  Tony shook his head at himself and pushed himself to his feet.  He had work to do.

 

---

 

Steve had known it was bad from the beginning, but it continually surprised him how much worse things kept getting.  No matter what he did, or tried to do, all their efforts seemed to end in failure.  It was hard to hold onto any hope at all, and when Tony had gone down that morning, he’d been so sure that they’d lost him—he hadn’t let himself think that, of course, not then, but seeing Tony open his eyes and look up at him still aware and himself had been one of the only good moments in the whole day, and one he hadn’t realized he’d hardly dared hope for until it happened.

 

It was impossible to describe the cold creeping fear that had gone through him when Bucky had torn off his arm, when Tony had destroyed it.  The idea that the tech in the prosthesis might make Bucky vulnerable as well as Tony wasn’t something that had even occurred to him, and the idea that he might lose Bucky now, to a monster inside his head—he couldn’t take it.  But he’d allowed himself to believe—believe that Bucky and Tony had been quick enough, that the danger from that quarter was past.

 

As it turned out, that stupid, misplaced hope was the stupidest call he’d made all day.  And there had been some doozies.

 

He didn't realize what was happening at first, just that Bucky had stopped in his tracks, where he was running up ahead, taking point, like he always had, despite the lack of one arm.  Knowing Bucky was ahead of him had always been reassuring, familiar—Bucky had never let him down, and just the knowledge that he wasn’t running into a situation blind, that Bucky would give him any heads-up that he needed, had always made him feel better about any situation.  It still did.

 

When Bucky stopped, he thought at first he’d seen something.  “Buck?” he said, concerned, and stepped forward.  “What is it?”

 

“Oh, God,” Bucky said, his voice low and strangled, and Steve still thought he’d seen something, something awful, because that tone of shocked horror was one he’d heard before, back when, the first time they’d stumbled on a mass grave at a concentration camp.  He started forward with more speed, afraid that Bucky had seen something awful ahead of them.  “No,” Bucky said, and Steve sped up, and then Bucky was whirling turning on him, shouting, his face screwed up.  “No!” he shouted, and his face was screwed up, furious, as he waved Steve back.  “Stay back, Steve—get back.”

 

Steve stopped automatically.  “What is it?” he asked again, urgently.  “Is something coming?”

 

“You could say that,” Bucky said on a strangled, choking little laugh, and waved him back again.  “Look,” he said, and he was backing away, slowly, edging away from Steve without taking his eyes off him.  “Say—if Natasha’s still alive, and you find her.”  He shook his head, his lips quirking a little.  “What am I saying?  Of course she is.  You tell her thank you from me.”

 

“What?” Steve burst out.  That sounded an awful lot like a goodbye, that sounded like—

 

“Steve,” Bucky said, and smiled, quick and wry and lopsided.  “Take care, you hear me?”  He gave Steve a quick two-fingered salute, still smiling, holding eye contact, and then turned on his heel, tossing his gun to one side and reaching for his belt.

 

Everything seemed to happen very fast after that.  Steve thought he shouted at him, gasping wretchedly, “Bucky, no, don’t you dare,” and started forward, and Bucky started to run. 

 

There was a grenade in Bucky’s hand, and he pulled the pin with his teeth, and shouted, “Stay back,” and then there were arms around Steve, a firm hold keeping him from rushing forward, others wrestling his shield out of his grip.  Bucky spat out the pin of the grenade and waved his arm at the robots circling above him.  “Come and get it, you overgrown vacuum cleaners,” he yelled, and they dove down at him, firing, and Steve fought the arms holding him as hard as he could because no, no, not this again, this couldn’t be happening again, Bucky was not going to die on Steve for the third time, he was going to be safe, he was going to be all right, Tony had saved him, Tony had seen the problem and they’d taken care of it, he was going to be all right—if Steve could just get to him, make him see, they’d fix this, they’d find a way—

 

“Steve, stop.”  Tony’s voice in his ear.  Tony’s arms holding him back, tight around his chest.  “I know, I know, but there’s nothing you can do.  It’s—it’s just too late.  It’s better this way.”

 

The explosion threw them all backward.  Steve screamed, shouted no, scrambled to his feet, ran forward—all he could see was the smoking crater where Bucky had been a moment ago, all he could think that maybe if he got close enough he’d see that he’d survived somehow, that maybe he’d been flung free by the explosion, maybe—it had happened once before, and he’d thought Bucky was dead then, and abandoned him, he wasn’t going to do that again.  But Tony scrambled up after him, and then his arms were around him again, dragging him back, and they were wrestling, Tony tugging him back, and even though he wasn’t nearly strong enough to hold Steve, to really stop him, he wouldn’t let go.  And then Jan was there in front of him, grown to twice her normal size, holding him with both hands on his shoulders and her elbows against his chest.  She wouldn’t move out of his way even when he snarled at her.  “Stop it, Steve,” she gasped, and reached out, grasped his head with both hands.  There were tears in her eyes.  “He’s gone, he’s already gone.  You have to stop.”

 

Steve wrenched away, from both of them, and heard Tony curse.  Jan reached for him again, cried, “Steve, no!”  Steve swung away from her, turned around to face Tony, hauled his fist back, and punched Tony in the jaw.

 

Not as hard as he could.  He wasn’t that far gone.  But hard enough that Tony landed on his back, Steve standing over him and breathing hard.  He could hardly see—his eyesight was oddly blurred, and his face felt hot.  “Better this way?” he got out.

 

“Better that you didn’t have to kill him.”  Tony coughed, and rolled over to lie on his back.

 

“Bucky is dead,” Steve said, and he could hear how broken it sounded.  Jan put her hand on his shoulder and he shook it off, ignoring the wounded sound she made.  “How?” he ground out, growled at Tony even as he picked himself up, staggered up to his feet.  “How could you have let this happen?”  He looked wildly back at Jan, then turned back to Tony.  “Why him?  Why not you?  You have tech in your head, too—why him and not you?  I don’t understand.  I thought you’d—you’d fixed him.”

 

Tony met his gaze.  “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

 

“More of them are coming!” Jan’s voice was wild, insistent, and Steve took his shield from her as he turned to face them.

 

---

 

“Steve.”  It was his name.  Tony’s voice.  Did someone need him?  Steve blinked, dragged his head up to look at him.

 

But no, Tony just knelt down in front of him and handed him something.  Steve took it, automatically, then looked down at it, frowning.  It looked like a glass of water.

 

“I finally got the water supply set up,” Tony said, and he sounded a little sheepish, a little shamefaced.  “Drink it.  You probably need it, burns leave you dehydrated.”

 

“Someone else . . .” Steve started.  He could go without water a long time.

 

“There’s plenty where that came from,” Tony said, cutting him off.  “The supply’s steady.”  He pushed it into his hands, holding it there until Steve curled his fingers around it.  “Drink it, Steve.”

 

Steve sighed, looked down at the water.  The cup was cracked.  There was a chip out of the top.  He wondered where it had come from.  He drank.

 

“How’s the back?” Tony asked after he’d downed most of the cup.  Steve shrugged.

 

“’s fine,” he said.  He had a vague recollection he’d said the exact same thing before.  He sighed.  It was true; what else was there to say?  Tony just nodded, looked at him quietly.  He looked old, Steve thought.  “We’re done setting up,” he said after a moment, wondering why he felt like he needed to explain himself.

 

“I noticed,” Tony said.  He reached out and touched Steve’s shoulder, barely brushing his fingers against it before he let his fingers fall again.  There was something in his face, something sad and soft.

 

“Some of the others went out to get supplies,” Steve told him.  He felt a bit like he was reporting, even though he was supposed to be in charge—but Tony had already told him what he’d been doing.  He handed Tony the cup again.  “Thanks for the water,” he said belatedly.

 

“Sure,” Tony said softly.  He looked down at Steve’s hand on the glass and covered it with his, just for a moment, before he took the cup and set it aside, looking away as he set it down.

 

The movement brought Steve’s attention to the swelling bruise all along one side of Tony’s jaw, purpling and red.  It was bad—he could see the marks of his knuckles, darker smudges where they’d impacted with Tony’s skin.

 

“Is that broken?” he asked abruptly.  No.  It couldn’t be.  Tony had been talking.  He reached out, turned Tony’s head to the side.  He could only see so much of his jaw, most of it was covered by the armor’s undersuit, but what he could see was bad enough.

 

His stomach twisted.  His fault.  His work.  He shouldn’t have lashed out like that, no matter what.  He ran his fingers along the swell of the bruise, rested his thumb against it, feeling the heat of the damaged skin, the bristly softness of Tony’s facial hair.  “I’m sorry,” he said, and swallowed.  “For that.”

 

Tony shrugged, looking down.  “You were upset,” he said.  “I could have stood to have more . . . tact.  I’m sorry, too.”

 

Steve scowled.  That wasn’t any kind of an excuse.  There was no kind of excuse to knock someone around like that, let alone a friend, let alone Tony.  And to do it without any kind of apology, to just leave it, for hours . . . he didn’t know what to say.  It was just wrong, and he shouldn’t have done it.  “I shouldn’t have hit you,” he said, finally, and rubbed his thumb along Tony’s jaw again, gently so as not to aggravate the pain of the bruises.  “Let me apologize.”

 

“Okay,” Tony said.  He gave a small, crooked smile that looked forced.  “Thanks for the apology.”

 

Steve sighed, but nodded and drew his hand away.  He set it down with the other one in his lap, linked them together, and looked down at them.

 

Tony exhaled noisily.  “I’m sorry, too,” he said.

 

Steve looked up at him, scowling in confusion.  “What for?” he asked.

 

Tony shrugged.  His eyes were dark, hooded.  “For not saving him,” he said.  “For . . . you know.”  He shrugged again.

 

Steve didn’t know.  Well, he knew what he meant by the first part, just not the second.  But the first was enough to close his throat all over again, bring the blurring heat back to his eyes, and he dropped his head, looking down at his lap, thinking blankly that it was too late, but at least he shouldn’t—he wouldn’t cry in front of Tony now.  He had that much control.  “It’s more than that,” he said, and his voice sounded scratchy.  Hoarse.  Horribly wet.  “Everyone—everyone we’ve lost.”  Not just Bucky.  Jan.  Thor.  He couldn’t think about it.  He squeezed his eyes shut.  “The civilian death toll—it must be—I mean, Washington alone—”

 

“Stop,” Tony said.  He reached out and put both hands on the sides of Steve’s neck.  “Stop,” he said again, not breaking eye contact, and his voice was vivid, sincere.  “You can’t keep doing that.  It’ll kill you, Steve.  And I . . .” he swallowed.  “The least I can do is.  Is not let that happen.”

 

“We couldn’t do anything,” Steve said dully.  “All of us—all our training, our powers, all our hope, and when it really came down to it, we—we failed them.  We failed everyone.”  His voice died, choked in his throat.  “I failed them,” he said, and he wanted to be able to say it louder, he wanted to, but he just couldn’t.

 

“No, Steve,” Tony sounded frantic, but Steve’s vision had blurred again, and he couldn’t see him.  “No.  That’s not what happened.  It wasn’t your fault.  There wasn’t anything you could have done.  It was—it was already too late for us.”

 

“I failed them,” Steve said again.  “Tony, I failed them all.  How many people are dead?  How many?”  He swallowed, tried to breathe, looked at Tony desperately, or at least, the blur he knew was Tony, blinking desperately and trying to even his voice.  “You always know the math.  Tell me.”

 

“God, no,” Tony said.  He pulled away.  “I am not going to give you a number to torture yourself over.”

 

“So you do know,” Steve said dully, nearly whispered.  “Or at least you have an idea.  I can’t imagine it.  I try but I can’t imagine.  Manhattan, Washington, how many more cities—is it everywhere?”  What was Bucky or Jan compared to millions—billions—of people?

 

They were gone and it was his fault.

 

“I have absolutely no idea,” Tony said firmly, “and I’m not going to speculate.  Even if I did know, that’s not information you need for any reason.  Cut off from tech like this I’m just as disconnected from everything as you, anyway.  So I’m going to need you to calm down and breathe for me, okay?”  He put one hand under Steve’s chin and tilted his head up, holding him steadily.  “We need to handle ourselves before we can help anyone,” he said, eyes vivid and sincere, his mouth intense and set.

 

Steve nodded.  Tony was right.  He gulped in air, abruptly ashamed.  He was making a fool of himself.  He was supposed to be the strong one for everyone, and here he was, falling to pieces.

 

Captain America.  It had never felt more like some kind of cruel joke.

 

It wasn’t funny.

 

But who else was there?

 

Most of them were dead.

 

He needed to handle himself.  Like Tony had said.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  In.  Out.  Opened his eyes when they felt clear, and took Tony’s hands in his, squeezed them lightly, then pulled them away.  “I’m all right,” he said.

 

Tony’s fingers curled around his and tightened, warm against his hands where he refused to let go, and he looked at him worriedly.  “I know that’s not true,” he said with a harsh laugh.  “I’m not all right, either.”

 

“I’ll be all right,” Steve said, a little annoyed.  What did Tony want from him?  He pulled his hands away with a jerk.

 

“That’s the spirit,” Tony said, but it sounded dull, dead.  It was the sort of thing he might have said what felt like a hundred years ago, back in the original mansion, but it left his lips like it was in a foreign language. 

 

And abruptly Steve could see it, Tony in his old armor, before he was Tony to Steve at all, when he was just Iron Man, just Shellhead, patting him on the back after a moment of melancholy.  Jan’s bright smile—she’d be trying to cheer him up, too.  Thor.  Hank.

 

Hank.  God.

 

He looked at Tony now—his bruised jaw, the dark circles around his eyes, how tired he looked, how old, his face sad and hollow.

 

He looked down at his hands again.

 

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when Tony shifted over, put his back against the wall beside him, and tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling.

 

He wasn’t sure how long they sat there, either, without speaking.  He didn’t look at Tony.  He didn’t know if Tony looked at him.

 

---

 

There was so much to do.  It surprised Tony a little, actually, how much—there was so little left that you’d have thought there wasn’t much to handle, but the scarcity of their resources just made the logistics of the whole thing even harder to figure out. The others had organized their meager food supplies already, by type and how long they were likely to keep (they’d have to go out and gather more, and Tony wasn’t sure how to handle that, maybe in teams, so that no one person was in too much danger).  A few teams had already gone out, finding what they could in the sewer system and any buildings they could access through it; that was how they’d gathered the bedding they had now.  But they needed fuel, and he wasn’t sure there was adequate ventilation for a fire.  They did have some old camp stoves, but not much propane.  Still, he felt like the others could use some hot food, and most of their canned food would really benefit from being heated.  Tony’s head was aching even worse than it had that morning, and it throbbed longingly at the thought of hot coffee, even terrible coffee, but he pushed it to the back of his mind and rubbed at his temple with one hand as he tried to make his eyes focus on the list of supplies in front of him, trying to figure out what could be used as fuel—for the stoves, for any portable heating elements he could work up, for any vehicles they might want to use, if that ever came up.  He couldn’t imagine wanting to use a Quinjet now that Ultron ruled the skies, but the fuel might be usable for something else.  His eyes were blurring, but he was by far the most qualified to figure it out, and he wanted to finish this before he let himself sleep.

 

He kept thinking about Pepper.  She’d been so good at this.  She would have had everything organized, everything under control, in about four seconds flat, and then she would have made them all coffee.

 

He needed not to think about her, though, he . . . couldn’t.  The thought made him want to scream, and . . . and they couldn’t afford for him to have a breakdown.  Not right now.

 

Not ever, really, but especially not right now.  Seeing Tony Stark sobbing over a clipboard was just not something any of them needed in their lives, anyway.

 

He had to keep going.

 

He was surprised when the lists were drawn out of his hands, and looked up to see Susan Richards straightening them in her hands as she crouched down in front of him, then sank down to sit on the concrete across from him with a sigh, crossing her legs in front of her.  “My back is killing me,” she said, with a slight smile in his direction.  “I know, it’s a hell of a thing to think of, but I can’t seem to ignore it.”

 

“I have what I guess you’d call a killer headache,” Tony said in response, with rueful bitterness, after a moment.  “If you’ll pardon that irony.  I was, uh.”  He gestured lamely at the lists in her hands.

 

“I know,” she said.  “But I think they’ll keep.  Why don’t you go and get some rest?”

 

“I can finish up with this,” Tony said, shrugging.  He didn’t want to say that he didn’t want to sleep yet.  He didn’t want to slow down—didn’t want to give himself time to think while his mind was still aware enough to spin back over everything that had happened that day and present it for his analysis.  It always did, that was just how his mind worked, but after everything that had happened . . . .  He was barely holding it together as it was; he thought that that might actually drive him crazy.

 

“Tony, you’re so tired you’re practically looking at me cross-eyed,” Sue said.

 

“Oh,” he muttered, and reached up to rub his eyes with one hand, blinking them into focus.  “Am I?”

 

She smiled at him, a little sadly.  “Get some sleep,” she said.

 

“Do you think Dr. Strange could use a spell to cloak us from Ultron’s presence?” he asked, and sighed at the very thought of depending on something he understood so little, because it didn’t make any kind of sense. “I hate magic.”

 

“You can ask him tomorrow,” Sue said.  She patted his knee with one hand.  “Did you hear what I said?  You’re no good to us if you fall to pieces from exhaustion.”

 

“I’m not much good already, without the suit and any kind of tech,” Tony said on a bitter laugh that came out sounding rather hoarse.  He rubbed at his forehead with one hand.  “This is the least I can do.”

 

Sue squeezed his knee lightly.  “You know that’s not true,” she said.  “Or you should.  You’re probably the smartest man alive right now.”

 

Tony’s stomach turned over, his chest tightening painfully.  “Sue . . . .” he said.  He didn’t know what to say.  I’m so sorry for your loss didn’t quite cut it, but he tried anyway.  “I’m . . . so sorry about Reed and the others, I—you know I’d have—”

 

“Of course I know,” she said, shaking her head at him with that same sad smile.  “The point is, you have a lot more going for you than tech and the suit.”

 

Tony sighed.  “Yeah,” he said, unconvinced.  He felt utterly useless.  “Maybe.”  

 

“You should sleep,” she said, then hesitated a moment, straightening the papers in her hands again.  He raised his eyebrows at her.  “You’ve been talking to Steve, haven’t you?” she said finally.

 

Tony hesitated.  “Yes,” he finally said.  Because it was true.  But if anything had felt worse than useless, that had.  He swallowed thickly.  Seeing those tears in Steve’s eyes, knowing there was nothing, absolutely nothing he could do to help, he’d felt like the lowest form of life on the planet, not counting synthetic mass murdering self-replicating robotic systems.  After he’d failed him earlier—he could have saved Barnes, somehow, he should have, if he’d been able to see it, if he’d just realized what was happening—Bucky was—had been—Steve’s oldest friend.  Steve had said . . . Steve would have preferred it that way, after all, he’d said as much.  That Tony should have died in Barnes’ place.  At least he’d seemed to have accepted Tony’s apology for how it hadn’t happened that way, but he hadn’t argued with it, either. 

 

And why should he?  The failure had been Tony’s.  He wasn’t sure how he could possibly have saved the guy, but how did that help?  That just wasn’t good enough, just showed how badly he’d failed.  And because of that failure another good man was dead, one they hadn’t had to lose.  (Tony didn’t want to think about what must have happened to everyone else with prosthetics.  It didn’t bear imagining.)  Besides, Bucky had been Steve’s best friend.  Steve had mourned him for years, when he’d thought he was dead after waking up from the ice; he’d always used to talk about how Bucky could always find something to say or do to take Steve’s mind off the war, when he’d first woken up in this time, and whatever Barnes had thought about himself, from where Tony was sitting that hadn’t changed.  At least he was someone Steve actually liked, rather than someone he seemed to fight with whenever there was a crisis.

 

Poor brave kid.  Fuck.  He hadn’t deserved that, going out like that.  No one did, of course.  But still, Tony’s throat felt tight.  He swallowed past it, took a deep breath.  “I did,” he said.  “Talk to him.  Earlier.  Why do you ask?”

 

“Well,” Sue said, and sighed.  “He hasn’t . . . said much to any of the rest of us.  But he has to get some sleep too, you know that.  And I was thinking . . .” she looked down, and sighed.  “I suppose I got too used to him being strong,” she said.  “But he’s been so . . . so quiet.”  She shivered a little.

 

“He’s been through a lot,” Tony said, sharply.  “It’s understandable.”

 

“I know!” Sue said quickly.  “I know.  That’s not what I meant.  But you know him better than I do.  You’ve always been close.”

 

“Haha,” Tony said bitterly.

 

“Stop that,” Sue told him.  “It’s true.  Whatever fights you’ve had, it’s still true.  And out of those of us left, you probably know him the best.  God knows he hasn’t been talking to any of us the way the others are saying he talked to you.”

 

That was right—Sue had been out with the small team they’d sent back onto the surface, trying to find some sort of supplies.  “What about Sharon?” Tony asked.

 

“She told me to talk to you,” Sue said with a sigh.  “That the last time she tried to help him with something like this it did more harm than good.”

 

“That makes two of us,” Tony said.

 

“So that’s it?” Sue asked, her face tightening in lines of anger.  She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned forward.  “You’ve just decided, then? You’re not even going to give it a shot?”

 

Sue was right, Tony realized. 

 

Sitting here, dwelling on his failures, his inadequacies—it was selfish.  And it would be worse than selfish to avoid Steve simply because he hadn’t been able to help him on his first try.  After what had happened, how could a few measly words and some hand-holding actually have helped, anyway?  The idea of it was moronic.  They, all of them, they needed to stick together now—there was no time for his stupidly bruised feelings, no time for him to give Steve space just in case Steve didn’t want to see him.  They had to look out for each other.  He needed to look out for Steve.  He’d decided that, already, hours ago—had it only been hours?  Was he seriously going to give up that easily?  On Steve, of all people?  Even at the best of times it would be cruel to leave Steve alone with his pain, the kind of guilt he was bearing up under—which Tony knew, quite intimately, after seeing him nearly crumble under it earlier.  He couldn’t abandon Steve now.  His efforts might not be welcome or even very useful, but he had to try.  He had to.  If he didn’t . . . if they lost him now . . . .

 

He had to do better this time.  He had to find the right words, the right combination of sympathy and encouragement, of strength, that Steve could lean on, that would get him moving forward again.  Because if Steve couldn’t find the strength to keep going, none of them would.  And while it wasn’t fair to put that burden on Steve, Tony couldn’t find a way around it.  All of them looked to him.  It was second nature by now.  And if the others saw Captain America falter and stumble and lose hope . . . he wasn’t sure if any of them would keep going.  It wasn’t fair to Steve.  Not at all.  But it was horribly, painfully, true.

 

So he’d just have to be strong enough for Steve to lean on.  That was what it came down to.  He couldn’t take that burden off his shoulders, no.  But he could help him carry it, at least.  If he couldn’t do anything else, he could do that.  Even if Steve was furious with him—even if Steve hated him—but he could have pushed him away earlier, but he hadn’t.  Tony took hope from that.

 

Of course, Steve might just be too listless, too hopeless, to bother telling Tony to get out of his face and leave him the hell alone.  Maybe he really was pushing himself in where he wasn’t needed or wanted, where he’d just be making things worse.  But what if Steve needed him?  It wasn’t worth taking that chance.  If Steve didn’t want him around, he was going to have to tell him to go.

 

He took a deep breath.  “You’re right,” he said.  Sue’s head came up in surprise, and she smiled a little.

 

“Do you think so?” she asked.

 

“Yeah.”  Tony sighed.  “Well, I’ll talk to him, at least.”  He pushed himself to his feet.  “No promises.”

 

“That’s all any of us can say,” she said, and took the hand he offered her when she moved to rise to her feet as well, pressing the other one against her back with a groan.

 

Tony supposed that was true.  “You get some rest, too, Sue,” he said lowly.  She nodded and smiled half-heartedly at him, touching his shoulder, before she moved away.

 

Tony turned back toward the piles of bedding some of the others were laying out on cots and camp beds.  They’d been talking about bunkbeds earlier, but they’d only managed to get a few of them set up so far.  Some of the others were sitting in their bunks, but no one seemed in a great hurry to go to bed.  Tony was sure they were all dreading it.  The conscious mind was bad enough.

 

Tony was certainly dreading it.

 

Steve was still sitting against the wall, where Tony had left him earlier that day.  A piece of his broken shield was in his hands, but Tony didn’t think he was really even looking at it.  He was just . . . sitting there.

 

Seeing him there, like that, unmoving, head down, was one of the most terrifying things Tony had ever seen, and that included all five hundred seemingly innocuous typed pages of the original bill of the Superhuman Registration Act.  He crossed the tunnel, wincing as his feet splashed through the run-off in the center, skirted the boxes, and went down on his knees beside him.  It was instinctive, not to loom over him—it felt wrong, dishonest when he knew he was the smaller man, like he was taking an advantage he had no right to.  He laid one hand on Steve’s shoulder, avoiding the still healing burns, the tender places, and squeezed.  “Hey,” he said, keeping his voice low, soft.  “Getting late.”

 

Steve didn’t move.

 

Tony tried again.  “They’ve set up the bunks,” he said.  “Do you want to try getting some rest?”

 

Steve set the piece of his shield aside, but didn’t respond otherwise.  Tony pulled his hand away, and a tremor went through Steve’s body, shivering down his spine.  Tony swallowed.  “Do you want me to back off?” he asked.

 

Steve moved at that, shook his head, then looked away, over at the side of the tunnel where there was a repetitive drip, drip, drip noise.  Tony made a face at it—probably a leaking pipe, he’d have to see about doing something about that, later—then turned back to Steve, daring to settle one hand on the back of his neck.

 

Steve sighed, and ducked his head under the touch, his shoulders loosening, sliding back, and then down.  Tony moved his hand up, stroking his fingers through the short hair at Steve’s hairline, then up over the back of his skull.  Steve felt horribly cold beneath his hand, his skin chill, little shivers running through him under Tony’s fingers, his jaw tight and clenched and his teeth ground together as if to keep them at bay.

 

Steve didn’t want him to back off.

 

Hell, he was so cold.  Tony sat there for a moment, at a loss, still lightly stroking the back of Steve’s neck because he’d seemed to like that and trying to think what to do, how to convince Steve to get some rest, or at least lie down and let his body start to recover, if nothing else.  His lethargy and quietness and now the coldness of him scared Tony; it seemed pretty obvious Steve was in some sort of state of shock, but Tony didn’t know what to do for him.  Warm him up, maybe.  That was what they said to do for shock.  Steve had always hated being cold.  But there weren’t many ways to do that available to them.

 

It was a stupid idea, but just maybe . . . . “I don’t suppose you’d want to share a bunk,” he blurted.  “There aren’t that many of them, and we could free up some bedding for someone else—pool what we have, it’d be warmer, and it’d be good to share, you know, body heat, and all that.  And we probably both need to get some rest; I know how you feel, I don’t want to either, but staying up isn’t going to do any of us any favors.  And—”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, low and rough, on a sigh.  “Sure.”

 

Tony hesitated a moment, suddenly wrong-footed.  He hadn’t actually been expecting Steve to agree.  “Yeah?” he asked.  Asking him if he was really sure would be ridiculous, he told himself.

 

Steve nodded.

 

Well, that was an affirmative answer if he’d ever seen one, Tony supposed.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay.  C’mon, honey.”  He slid his arm down to tug at Steve’s elbow.  “Come to bed.”

 

Where had that come from, Jesus.

 

But it made Steve snort a little, not quite a laugh, but not . . . not one, either.  “Jeez, Tony,” he said, but he sounded at least a little amused, and he cooperated, moving to get his feet under him as Tony tugged.

 

Tony let go of his elbow as soon as he was on his feet, but he did let his hand hover at the small of Steve’s back, ready to support him if he stumbled without, he hoped, being too obvious about it.  But Steve didn’t; he kept his feet well enough, if wearily, until he sank down on the edge of the nearest bunk and glanced around, even as he pulled off his cowl, then followed it with his uniform top, baring his broad chest to the air.  It was covered in fading bruises and healing scrapes, which meant it must have been badly bruised earlier in the day—the thought made Tony wince.

 

“This all right?” Tony asked Steve, and knelt in front of him, reaching for his boots.  The floor, damp and concrete, was cold under his knees.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, then, “Tony, what are you doing?”  He sounded disbelieving and more than a little annoyed.

 

Annoyance was better than dullness, Tony told himself.  Infinitely better.  “Getting your boots off,” he said.  “It’ll just take a second.”  He tugged off the first one, then pulled Steve’s sweat-soaked, damp sock after it.  One perk of being in the sewer—he could barely smell it.  Of course, Steve had never sweated as much as most people did, anyway.   Still, the sock was unpleasantly damp, as was the foot it left.  “You’re going to need some new socks,” he said.  Normally he’d have left them on, to keep Steve’s feet warm, but wet socks weren’t going to do him any good in that department.

 

“I can do that,” Steve said.

 

“So can I,” Tony said, and repeated the same process on the other foot, quickly, before Steve could protest too much.  Bending down would probably pull unpleasantly on Steve’s still-healing back, anyway.  He set the boots aside.  “Look.  There.  All finished.”  He looked up at Steve, half clothed and shivering in the cold air, his shoulders hunched in as he frowned down at Tony, doing his best not to look like he was shivering.  “I’ll be right back,” he said, got to his feet, and went off to the pile of clothes they’d collected, gathering up an oversized sweatshirt and pair of sweatpants, along with a second blanket.  He came back and handed them to Steve, politely turning his back when Steve turned his to start peeling off his uniform pants.  He’d seen it all before; they’d all seen each other naked by now, but it seemed . . . important, somehow, to grant him that little bit of privacy, that semblance of personal modesty.  Steve had never cared much, but it was the principle of the thing.  Or something like that.  Even so, he half expected Steve to call him on it—mention that everyone could see him if they really wanted to look, or that Tony had seen him naked before.

 

“I’m done,” was all Steve said. 

 

Apparently that little bit of banter, that normality, had been too much to hope for—but what had Tony expected?  Nothing was normal anymore.  Nothing was going to be normal ever again. 

 

He turned back around and watched as Steve lay down in the narrow bunk, having to struggle a bit to fit, curl his legs up.  Steve hunched his shoulders, put his head down in a way Tony was coming to recognize.   The bunk was much too small for him, but there was nothing to be done about that.  At least the sweatshirt seemed to fit him.  That was something.

 

When he’d finished settling himself in, Tony was left standing there, staring down at him. 

 

Well, this was awkward.  He knew he should just lie down himself, fit himself in against Steve’s back, but . . . it suddenly seemed terribly intimate.  But hadn’t that been the point?  To share some of his body heat, his own physical warmth with Steve?  To provide what comfort he could through his body, if he couldn’t figure out how to offer it any other way?  He shook his head at himself and shook the second blanket out over Steve, then sat down on the bed beside him.

 

His head still ached, throbbing with a steady beat in time with his pulse, around his ears and across his forehead, at the base of his skull.  It had been a constant, all day.  Tony was starting to wonder if the ache would ever dissipate.  Perhaps that was just how it was going to be, now.  He hadn’t been gentle, when cutting off the connections, shutting Ultron out.  He could very easily have damaged something permanently.  

 

That thought should have scared him.  In another life, it would have.  He knew that.  But he felt nothing except a sort of dull resignation.

 

For a moment, he just sat there.  He didn’t move to lie down at Steve’s back.  He just stared off into the darkness of the tunnels for a moment, logging the darkness of the tunnels, a few low conversations between the others as they crawled into their own makeshift beds, the drip of that leaking pipe, the ache of his head.  Hardly anyone spoke.  The tunnels were hushed, nearly silent.  Steve was quiet behind him, breathing low and even, not moving.  It felt a little bit like some kind of vigil, like moving too fast and breaking the hush would be somehow wrong.

 

So many people dead.  So many.  He still couldn’t believe it.  He wondered if any civilians had survived at all.

 

What kind of hope for average people was there when Ultron had taken down the Hulk? 

 

A few, maybe, had survived.  Hiding.  Like they were.

 

That morning he’d rolled out of bed around seven, his own bed, with the expensive high thread count cotton sheets, and had two cups of coffee and played around with new designs for the suit.  He’d been planning for a business meeting, been going to call Pepper later that afternoon, that evening he’d been hoping to spend with the team, if he didn’t have anything else to do, see if Steve wanted to spar, watch a movie, maybe, afterward, if any of the others were up for it. 

 

It felt like a hundred years ago, now.  An entirely different life.  That weekend, the one still coming up, he’d been going to talk to Rhodey, surprise him with the new armor he’d been working on for him.  It still wasn’t even Friday yet, he realized with some shock.

 

Didn’t matter now.  Rhodey was better off without it, without anything Tony had ever made, without any tech at all, if he was still alive.  He might not be.  They might both be dead.  They probably were.  It was likely.  Statistically probable.  Most likely everyone he knew who wasn’t inside this tunnel was dead.  Everyone who had ever worked for him.

 

Pain inside his head, Ultron’s code racing through his veins like wildfire.  More fire, from the sky.  New York melting around him—it didn’t seem real, none of it did.  It seemed like a bad dream—a lot like bad dreams he’d actually had, to be honest.  Tech out of control and people, all of them, dying.  Jan.  Oh, Jan.  Thor.  Jessica.  Barnes.  Hulk.  Jessica Jones and the baby, Luke had said.  Tony didn’t want to think about it.  God.  Pepper.  Jarvis.  Jarvis was gone for sure, they’d watched as the mansion was destroyed, burned to rubble, and no one, nothing could have survived that—

 

His friends had been burned to ash in front of him and he’d just stood there, stood there and let it happen—he hadn’t stopped this, it had finally happened, the end of the world, and how was he still alive, why, when he hadn’t stopped this, had let a little piece of malignant code that was smarter than anyone on earth destroy all of human civilization—

 

He heard himself make a sound, a wavering gasp, embarrassingly high and distressed, and shoved his fist against his mouth to shut himself up.  The others would hear, Steve would hear, and he needed to—he was going to be strong for him, that was the whole point of all this.  He couldn’t see anything in front of him, though his eyes weren’t closed, it was as if all he could see was the last several hours, playing out in 3-D surround sound, either that or a gray sort of fuzz. 

 

He was breathing too fast. 

 

No, he couldn’t do this.  He didn’t have time for it.  Not now.  Maybe not ever.  Maybe there would never be time.  He needed to be strong.  For all of them, for Steve, so he could be strong for everyone, because they didn’t need Tony, not really, but they did need Steve.  He might have failed to stop this, might have failed to save even a single person, might have seen this coming and done nothing, nothing to protect everyone, or at least not enough, even though he was the tech guy, he was the guy who handled stuff like this.  But this he could do.  He could be strong.

 

He stopped his breathing, just for a second, let it out slow and even.  Steve was still there, curled up behind him, probably asleep.  Tony hoped he was asleep, hoped he hadn’t heard that embarrassing little whimper, that proof of his weakness.  No, don’t think about that, thinking about Steve brought it all back, the panic, the desperation—Instead he focused his mind on Fermat’s Last Theorem, on how far he’d gotten on the proof he’d been working on for what felt like half his life the last time he’d thought about it.

 

The numbers saved him.  He could feel his breathing evening out as he focused on the math.  Elementary arithmetic.

 

He blinked, and the tunnel came back into focus, and he almost, almost lost it again, because this was all there was, wasn’t it?  There wasn’t going to be anything else.  This was it, this stinking, cold, damp tunnel with the walls curving in above them, the boxes they’d scavenged, the bunks, and their numbers would keep dwindling, they’d die slowly down here, one by one, not even fighting, hiding in the dark like rats.

 

It wasn’t going to be like that, he told himself.  How dare he lose hope that easily?  They hardly knew anything yet.  Maybe tomorrow they would learn something new.  Maybe he’d have some sort of useful idea, something to do with himself that would actually help.  Even if nothing changed, nothing happened, they had to keep fighting.  He took a deep breath, scrubbed his hands over his eyes, and blew it out.

 

He turned, lay down beside Steve.  There was no point in him changing into anything else, really, and to be honest, he didn’t know if he could stand the thought of taking the undersuit off and losing that last little bit of preparation for the worst that could happen, that was all too likely to happen at any moment.  He hoped the light of it didn’t bother Steve too much.  To fit on the bunk, he had to turn onto his side, bring his own knees up, and after a moment he pressed in close against Steve’s back, careful not to press too hard on anywhere he might be sore or in pain.  Body heat, he told himself.  That was why he’d suggested sharing, wasn’t it?  Steve’s breathing was even, but then, it had been even for hours.  It wasn’t necessarily a good sign, or a sign of sleep, but it wasn’t a bad sign either, surely.  Tony pulled the blankets up closer around them, then, feeling painfully intrusive, worming himself in where he wasn’t wanted like some kind of groping pervert, slid his arm around Steve’s waist, carefully not pressing too heavily on his back.  Steve didn’t react.  Tony thought he’d almost rather have had his arm slapped away.  He sucked in a breath that shook humiliatingly and pressed his forehead between Steve’s shoulder blades, feeling selfish for taking that little bit of comfort for himself, from Steve, without his knowledge or permission, but unable to pull himself away.

 

He fell asleep that way, a few hours later, listening to the sound of Steve’s breathing.

 

Once he got there, his sleep was about what he had expected, uneasy and messy, broken up by nightmares.  For most of the night, he wasn’t sure if he was sleeping or awake, but he did wake gasping and shaking into clarity four times, and each time he tried to hide his gasps in the soft skin at the back of Steve’s neck, warm against his lips even as it grew damp with his sloppy breath, until he could master himself.  Sleep in between the nightmares (Rhodey vaporized by Ultron’s robots, Pepper dying crushed by debris, Jan, blasted and falling, Carol yelling in fury as the robots overwhelmed her, pulled her apart, Steve running forward into the explosion where Barnes had stood a moment before and dying in a searing flash of light, Jarvis falling as the mansion burned) was fragmentary and felt like drudgery, like hard work.  Steve woke him up twice more during the night, once with a tiny choking gasp that left his broad shoulders shaking against Tony’s chest, another with a low cry of a name Tony didn’t catch.  Each time he stroked Steve’s chest, murmured softly to him, trying to soothe him back into easy sleep and hoping it wasn’t obvious how badly his own breaths were shaking.  When he opened his eyes the next morning it felt like he hadn’t rested at all, the low ache he was already accustomed to settled in the back of his skull like it would never leave.

 

He sighed and pushed himself up, loosening his arms around Steve to do so.  Up and at ‘em, Stark, he told himself.  Time to face the day.  He was surprised to find Steve still lying there, because he’d always been an early riser, but then he remembered the haze that had fallen over him yesterday, his weary lethargy, and the surprise was replaced with a deep sense of exhaustion.

 

At least Steve was easy enough to rouse, though still quiet and verbally unresponsive.  Once he sat up, Tony pulled the sweatshirt off, over his head, and removed the bandages to check on the still healing burns, smooth disinfectant and salve over them again before he replaced the bandages.  Steve muttered a low thank you and pulled his uniform shirt back on.

 

Tony got up and was relieved when Steve followed him without urging, and then he was faced with what to do.  He wasn’t certain which it was, if there was too much to do, or too little.

 

But the alternative to working was thinking.  Better to busy himself somehow than let himself dwell on what had happened.  He couldn’t afford another moment of weakness, of panic, like the one he’d had the night before.

 

Tony got to work.

 

The hours seemed endless.  At first Tony constantly checked the news, what little news he could get, in between his work trying to make the sewer quarters as livable as he could, but when every hour just brought more deaths, he stopped.  Anyone who had tried to get a message out to others had been killed.  A few more heroes limped in that second day, though—Clint, banged up and bruised, his eyes wide and shell-shocked despite the way he snapped at them, Emma Frost and Storm leaning on each other—and he thought he might cry when he saw them at first, because he hadn’t expected it, hadn’t expected anything—he had to take a moment, stumbled away and took a few deep breaths and tried to force back the overwhelming thickness in his throat, the trembling weakness of his relief.

 

Others had survived.  It wasn’t just them.  There was hope, of a sort.  They might not be alone.  All the people they hadn’t heard from—they might be alive.  There was at least a chance.

 

It was incredible how much easier it felt to breathe after that.  Tony knew that nothing had actually changed, knew it all too well.  But things felt different, and honestly, and this point, he was willing to take what he could get, even if it was just something that made his hands shake less while he was rewiring a heating element.

 

The way Steve had looked at Clint when he stumbled in, the emotion in his eyes despite his blank face, the way he’d clasped Clint’s shoulder and struggled for words as if his throat felt thick—it had been a relief, of sorts.  And it was true that after that Steve had been a bit more involved, giving orders and some advice, sending the others out on supply and reconnaissance missions.  But it hadn’t helped as much as Tony had hoped it would. Steve’s gaze was still abstracted and too often lit upon nothing, and if he stayed still for too long he’d begin to shiver.  He didn’t eat, not unless Tony or one of the others put food in his hands, and Tony had taken to leaving him cups of water throughout the day.  His burns healed quickly, but then Tony was left looking at the unscarred, flawless skin of his back through his shredded uniform, and it felt wrong, somehow, when Steve’s eyes were so wounded, so distant, to see him so perfectly uninjured and whole.  And if there was nothing to do, Steve would return to that place by the wall and just sit there, still and quiet.

 

They continued to share a bunk.  Tony felt guilty for how much comfort he took from it, because Steve continued be stolid and still, to lie unresponsive in his arms unless he woke shaking and gasping from his sleep.  (Once, just once, he pressed his face into Tony’s hand when he did and closed his eyes, still breathing unsteadily, and Tony’s heart twisted painfully, leapt into his throat and caught, and he held him close, until Steve’s breath evened out and he seemed to slide back into sleep.)  But pressing close to Steve’s warm back was still inexpressibly comforting, and when Tony woke with tears in his eyes and a few of them soaked into the hood of the sweatshirt Steve was still wearing to bed (but only because Tony made sure of it, that Steve changed into something warm every night, but Tony wasn’t thinking about that, he was just doing it, making sure Steve was taken care of, because someone needed to, and the others couldn’t know, not how bad it was)—well, no one else had to know that.  Not even Steve.  He knew it was wrong, that in a way he was taking advantage of Steve’s presence, and under the pretense of looking out for him, and it made him feel sick, guilty and selfish, to take anything from it for himself—but he couldn’t seem to stop.  Their position remained a constant—Steve on his side, face tucked into the pillow, and Tony pressed up against his back, partly because there was no other way they would fit in the bunk together without it being uncomfortably intimate.  He got used to feeling the chill of Steve’s bare feet between his even through his undersuit, the rise and fall of his chest under his palm and the warm patch of skin at the back of his neck where Tony rested his cheek while he slept, and they centered him when he woke up from a nightmare and didn’t know where he was, afraid that Ultron had succeeded in taking him over, rewriting his code.

 

Because they’d discovered that Ultron was quite capable of that sort of control, even over people who had no technological enhancements whatsoever.  It just reinforced how doomed Barnes had been from the beginning, really, but every time they heard of another one, Tony just felt that sick sense of guilt deepen in his stomach, that he had survived despite his brain being a computer, had had the chance to fight Ultron back, when so many normal, innocent people had fallen prey to the machine’s control.

 

Everything he’d done his whole life, with his whole life, had it just put his friends in more danger in the end?  Rhodey, Pepper—had they even survived the initial attack?  Surrounded by his tech, like everyone at Resilient—they probably hadn’t lasted ten minutes.  The thought was a wrenching, searing pain.  Had they been taken over, or had they just been gunned down immediately?

 

He’d put firewalls up against Ultron, so many safeguards, after that last debacle where Ultron had taken his body and he’d been turned into a woman and—well.  But he should have worked harder, made sure everyone was safe.  The fact that he hadn’t—he could have stopped all this.  He could have . . . but he hadn’t.

 

Everyone who was dead (Jarvis, Rhodey, Pepper, because surely they were dead, surely there was no hope), that was because of him.

 

He threw himself into building a scanner, writing the code carefully, tweaking and retweaking to make certain it was as secure and unobtrusive as he could make it, to figure out if Ultron had been able to get a hold on someone, to tell if they were clean.  It took him two days of near-constant work, but when it was done, it was a relief that at least they would know.

 

That at least he’d done something useful since this whole thing had started.  That at least he was good for this much.  Even if he was too late to stop it, at least he could detect it.  That was something.

 

Steve had gone out with Clint to do reconnaissance the day he finished the scanner.  Tony hadn’t liked the idea.  He wasn’t at all sure that Steve would be focused on the actual recon, on his surroundings, he wasn’t sure that he was going out for the information or simply to get away, and that that lack of focus, the way his eyes slid into blankness sometimes, would make him an easy target.  He worried, too, that some sort of Ultron bot would get a foothold in their heads, so he was glad that he finished the scanner before he returned.  He knew being scanned was uncomfortable, but both Clint and Steve submitted to it easily enough.  Steve was pale, shaky.  He pushed past Tony and headed deeper into the tunnels without another word, and when Tony moved to go after him, Clint grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back.

 

“What the hell, Clint?” he snarled, pulling away.

 

“Give him a second,” Clint said.  “It was . . . it’s rough out there.”

 

“I know that,” Tony snapped, frustrated.

 

“He took it hard,” Clint said.  “Give him some time.”  He patted Tony on the shoulder, squeezed a little, then shook his head and took off in the other direction, back toward the bunks.

 

Tony stood there, just a moment, and felt utterly and completely useless.

 

He shook his head at himself, swore violently, and then took a deep breath.  He followed after Clint.  Hey, if he thought Steve needed some alone time, who was Tony to argue?  Steve was probably desperate to get away from Tony’s oppressive presence for a while.  Hell, Tony was probably just a reminder of everything that had happened that first awful day, at this point.  It would probably be good for Steve to get away from him.  But he told himself that if Steve wasn’t back inside of two hours, he’d go after him.

 

He wasn’t back inside of two hours.  Tony spent the time fixing that persistently leaking pipe, but he couldn’t help the habit he’d apparently acquiring of checking for Steve, on him, every ten minutes.  It was almost a relief to start off in search of him.  He told Sue where he was going—there was no reason to be unduly reckless.  That way if something happened to Tony, they would know Steve was out there and he could still get found.

 

Tony hadn’t explored the tunnels that much himself, though he’d spent a decent amount of time crawling up into the nearest accessible houses to cannibalize their wires and whatever tech was simple enough to be safe from Ultron.  He knew enough to find his way around, though, if he didn’t have to go too far.  But Steve wasn’t in any of the tunnels he knew well, and so eventually he resorted to exploring them one by one.  It was exhausting, full of endless walking, tension at every sound, and a great deal of backtracking, though at least he could still hold a map in his head and didn’t end up going in circles.  He refused to go back until he’d found Steve, and didn’t want to think about what would happen if Steve had already gone back and Tony stubbornly stayed in the tunnels, looking for him, anyway.  He felt like enough of a useless idiot already.

 

Still, he couldn’t help spinning scenarios in his head, especially as it grew fuzzier with exhaustion.  His muscles began to burn, and his head started to throb with ever-increasing regularity.  When he finally did find Steve at the end of a blocked passage, shifting rubble evenly and stoically, he almost didn’t feel anything at first but a vague sense of relief that now he could stop moving, and he just stood there, staring at his back, for a long moment.  He was aware that there was something he should be saying, doing, but he couldn’t seem to summon the mental energy to figure out what it was.

 

Finally, just because he knew he couldn’t keep standing there, he started forward.  “Do you need a hand with that?” he asked.

 

Steve lifted his head and stilled, then, slowly, turned around, rubbing one hand across his eyes as if to clear them from dripping sweat.  “Tony?” he said.

 

“’s me,” Tony agreed, and tried very hard not to limp on his sore feet as he crossed the tunnel and stopped a few steps away from Steve.  “You didn’t come back,” he finally offered, lamely.

 

“So you came looking for me,” Steve said.

 

Tony wondered what the next stunningly obvious thing to come out of his own mouth was going to be.  “Yep,” he said.

 

And there it was.

 

Give the man a medal.

 

Or maybe give it to Steve, for not rolling his eyes at that.  Though maybe he was just too tired and lethargic to care, still.  Steve looked tired, his face collapsed in the same heavy lines it had been for days, but there was something in his eyes—it wasn’t the fractured agony that had been there right after he came back in.  Something had changed.  Tony wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

 

“I must have stayed away too long,” Steve said, after a moment.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“Few hours,” Tony agreed.

 

Steve winced.  “Too long,” he agreed.  “Sorry.”

 

“No big deal,” Tony said.  Could this conversation get any more inane?  And Steve definitely didn’t need to apologize.  He sighed.  “Look, are you okay?”  He couldn’t help it; he stepped forward, laid his hand on Steve’s shoulder, like the touch could push any more apologies out of Steve’s head entirely.  He felt a little sweaty, very solid under his hand.

 

“A little tired,” Steve said, and sighed himself.

 

“Do you want to sit down?” Tony asked, and told himself that he wasn’t just asking because he was a little shaky on his feet, and his muscles felt like liquid polymer ready to be poured into a mold.

 

“Why not?” Steve asked, and sat down on a flat concrete slab in the pile of rubble.  Tony hesitated, and Steve patted the place beside him.

 

Well, that was an invitation if Tony had ever seen one.  He sat.  The concrete slab was surprisingly stable.  He resisted the urge to lean into Steve, even though it was nearly irresistible.  Sharing a bed didn’t give him any right to invade Steve’s space otherwise.  He couldn’t get carried away.

 

They sat there in silence for a moment.  Tony thought about proximity detectors for Ultron patrols.  He wanted to build some, but he hadn’t quite figured out how— they’d sure be helpful he could manage it.  He wasn’t sure what Steve thought about—his eyes were forward, even, his gaze abstracted.  Eventually, he said, his voice even, “It’s bad out there.”

 

Tony hesitated.  It was.  There was no way around that.  He sighed, brought his hands up and linked them, resting his forehead on them.  “Yeah,” he agreed.  “It is.”  He sighed, took a deep breath and tried not to let it get caught, hitch, on its way down his throat.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“Mm?” there was a note of surprise in Steve’s voice, and Tony could feel him turn to look at him, though he didn’t look up, didn’t look back.  “Tony, what—”

 

He swallowed again.  “I’m the tech guy,” he explained.  “I shielded myself from Ultron the last time we tangled—some, though I guess it was just enough.  I should have seen this coming.  I should have prepared, should have protected everyone.”  He hunched down a little further; he couldn’t help it.  God, this hurt, the shame of it curdling in his belly, burning the back of his throat.  “This is all my fault,” he whispered.

 

“What?” Steve said.  A warm handed landed roughly on his back.  “Tony, no, how could this be your fault?”

 

“Tech guy,” Tony said.  “Evil computer?  Tech.  Everyone dead.  Seems like a pretty easy equation to me.”

 

“Well, you’re wrong,” Steve said.  He still sounded shocked, like this entire conversation had come as a surprise to him.

 

“Trust me,” Tony said bitterly.  “I’ve done the math on this one.  I’m not wrong.”

 

“I—” Steve said, and then stopped.  He sighed, and his hand moved away, and for a second Tony thought that was it, and was almost relieved, despite the sick twist in his stomach, that Steve had accepted it.  Maybe that would take the burden off of him, maybe he’d realize that this was Tony’s fault, not his.  Even if he didn’t want to be around Tony anymore after that, maybe it would help . . . and then his hand returned to Tony’s back, stroked up in a clumsy, rough rubbing motion.  “I don’t think you’re taking all the variables into account,” he said stiffly, hesitantly.

 

“It’s my job, Steve,” Tony told him.  “It’s my job to think of everything.  I’m the futurist.  I’m supposed to see this stuff coming.  And I didn’t.”  He raised his head and rounded on Steve, knocking his arm away.  “And you’d better not be about to tell me that it can’t all be my fault because it’s yours, because you know whose fault it isn’t?  Yeah.  That’d be you.  You can stop thinking that.  Just because you lead us doesn’t mean this sort of thing comes down to you.”  He ended shaking, exhausted and surprised by his own tirade.  He looked away, not wanting to look Steve in the face any longer.

 

There was a moment of silence, and then Steve gave a brief, bitter ha of a laugh.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I guess we’ve both been wallowing in it a little, huh?”

 

Maybe Steve had been, a little, but Tony wasn’t going to say that.  “Hey,” he said loyally, “it was rough on all of us.”

 

Steve smiled a little, though it didn’t look happy; Tony could see it out of the corner of his eyes.  “It was rough on you, too,” Steve said.  His hand came up to rest on the back of Tony’s neck and squeeze, steady and strong.  “And whatever you want to think, it wasn’t all your fault, Avenger.  I don’t know if you can believe that, but you’re going to try.  That’s an order.”

 

It was the most Steve had sounded like Steve since all of this had happened, since the first attacks.  It was that, coupled with the simple affection—the touch, the squeeze to the back of his neck—Steve hadn’t, before, he hadn’t done anything but passively accept what comfort Tony attempted to offer, and it was pathetic, it was, but it undid something inside of him, busted through some dam that had barely been holding up before.  Tony started to shake.  He tried to stop it, he did—tried to think about something else, tried to hold it back, but he had to drop his face more firmly into his hands to hide his expression, and then a soft, wet gasp escaped him and he knew Steve could hear it and what had he even been playing at, to try to comfort him when he was this selfish, when he fell apart at the first hint of Steve caring about him—of course Steve cared; he was his friend, and Tony was being pathetic, he had to be strong, had to be strong and help Steve, get him through this—

 

“Tony?” Steve said, and he couldn’t answer, he just shook his head, tightly, and turned away.  “Tony!” Steve said again.  It sounded to Tony’s ears as if he was very far away.

 

He took a deep breath.  He couldn’t fall apart now.  He couldn’t.  He firmed his jaw.  Thought about the chemical makeup of diesel versus propane.  He sat up.

 

“I’m right here,” he said.

 

“I’m right here, too,” Steve said.  “Is there some sort of problem with my face?”

 

“Huh?” Tony asked, twisting around to look at him.  “What—no, of course not, your face is—” he looked at it, strong jaw, pale stubble only just starting to show, blue blue eyes with very blond eyelashes.  Perfect? his mind suggested.  Even now, Steve was perfect.  “Fine,” he said stupidly, instead.

 

“Well, you haven’t been looking at it,” Steve said.  “C’mere.”  He slung an arm around Tony’s back and pulled him in.

 

Tony couldn’t help it.  He moved with Steve’s arm.  Steve’s chest was still as sturdy and strong as ever, and he let Steve pull him into it.  Steve didn’t feel quite so cold anymore.  Tony leaned into him, and then moved his arms around him in return, curled them around his waist and up along his back so he could hold him close, stroke his hands down his spine.  Steve felt warmer.  More alive.  That was good, right?  That was good.  “I’m here,” he whispered to Steve, even though he was the one being hugged and he knew it was ridiculous.

 

“Hey, yeah,” Steve said, soft, into his hair.  His arm tightened around his back.  “Yeah, you are.”

 

“I’m sorry it’s me,” Tony said wretchedly.  He ducked down, rested his forehead on Steve’s shoulder, and struggled to swallow.  “I’m sorry it’s me and not Barnes.  If I could have switched with him I would have.  I’m sorry I didn’t save him.  I’m really sorry.”

 

“What?” Steve said.  “Oh, God, Tony, no.  It’s not—don’t—what’s going on in that head of yours?”

 

“It’s okay,” Tony said.  “You said.  I know.  You don’t have to be nice about it.  I get it.  I’m just sorry, that’s all.”  He sighed.  “Really . . . really sorry.”  He felt a little like he might be about to cry again and fought it back, took a deep breath despite how sick and tight his throat felt.

 

He was really tired.

 

“Damn it,” Steve said, tight and angry-sounding.

 

“It’s okay,” Tony told him.  “You don’t have to feel guilty.”  He rubbed his side, soothingly, hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder and tried to firm his jaw, breathe past the lump in his throat.  “I get it, and everything.  It’s really okay.”

 

“Hell,” Steve said, vehemently.  He pulled back and grabbed at Tony’s face with both hands, and Tony winced when his fingers dug into the nearly healed bruise there, he couldn’t help it, and then everything went very still.

 

“You don’t get it at all,” Steve said deliberately, after a moment, and how much that hurt shocked Tony, actually, after everything that had happened he wouldn’t have thought words could hurt that much—and then Steve’s fingers smoothed, a little clumsily but so very carefully, over the bruised side of his jaw, and the fingers of the other hand curled under his chin and tilted his head up, and he started to realize he might have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick here.  “You really don’t get it,” Steve said, his voice low and rough, and then he leaned forward, and his lips brushed softly, lightly, against Tony’s forehead.

 

“Oh,” Tony said, and he hated, hated, how small and lost and wounded he’d sounded, and there really were tears starting in his eyes now; he squeezed them shut and turned his face away.  “Sorry.  I didn’t mean . . . I just . . . thought . . . wow, I’m so stupid, I’m sorry about all this.”

 

“No,” Steve said.  “I’m the one who’s stupid.  I hadn’t thought that you . . . that you were thinking that.  I’m sorry.”

 

Tony shook his head.  “Don’t . . . don’t be,” he managed to husk out.

 

“I’m going to be,” Steve said, his jaw firming.  “I—I hurt you.  And you . . . you’ve been so great, and I . . . and you . . . I was grateful, Tony,” he burst out, suddenly, and Tony stared at him.  “Don’t you see?  What would I have done if I had lost both you and Bucky at once?  It didn’t seem fair to lose one of you and keep the other, but I was glad, Tony, I—I’m so glad.”

 

“Oh,” Tony said again.  He wasn’t quite sure what to do.  “I’m sorry anyway,” he said.  It seemed important that Steve know that.

 

“Okay,” Steve sighed.  He got his arm around Tony’s back again, and Tony let him pull him against his side, leaned into him, just a little.

 

They sat there for a while, and then Steve turned and pressed a kiss to the top of Tony’s head, surprising him enough that he jerked a little.   “I guess we should head back,” he said.

 

They probably should.  “Yeah,” Tony sighed.  He got to his feet, trying not to wince or groan as his weight settled back onto weary muscles, then offered Steve his hand.  Steve took it and used it to help haul himself to his feet.  After a moment they headed back toward what passed for a camp, not touching, but walking close together.

 

---

 

It was a noise that had woken Steve.  He blinked his eyes open into the darkness of the tunnels and listened, at once afraid that one of Ultron’s robots had found its way down here, or worse—but all was quiet and still except for the breathing of the others around them, the noises they made in their sleep.

 

Tony’s hand came up, slapped at Steve’s chest, clutched restlessly at the fabric of the loose sweatshirt he was wearing.  He groaned in his sleep, shoulders shifting against Steve’s.  He was shaking, tense, and as Steve lay there, he gave a low cry and clutched at Steve tighter.

 

Steve knew what had woken him now.  He rolled carefully in the bed, turning in Tony’s arms while trying not to unbalance either of them, push Tony off the narrow bunk or fall off himself, until he ended up face to face with Tony. 

 

It didn’t surprise him that Tony was having a nightmare—which became more obvious as Steve looked at him and saw the way his face was scrunched up, the way he twitched and flinched in his sleep.  Steve had nightmares almost every time he tried to sleep.  He supposed it wouldn’t be any different for Tony, and the fact that he hadn’t thought of that until just now shamed him.  Tony had been there every time he’d woken from one of his own to soothe him back into sleep, to hold him while he struggled with the reality he’d woken into.

 

He reached out and ran his hand hesitantly over Tony’s arm, feeling awkward and clumsy, but not wanting to startle him too badly.  Eventually he curled his arm around him, behind the back of his head, and ducked his head down close to his.  “Tony,” he whispered.  “Easy, Tony, it’s just a dream.”

 

Tony flinched.  His hands came up against Steve, flailing, struggling.  Steve didn’t bother to push them away, just slid closer.  “Tony,” he said again, very close to Tony’s ear.  “Shhh.  Easy.  Easy.”  He let his fingers run lightly over the back of Tony’s head, over the undersuit, wistfully missing the dark tousle of hair he knew lay under it.  “C’mon, Shellhead,” he said as Tony just lay there and trembled, making low, awful sounds under his breath (no, he said, nononono, and Steve just wanted to pull him close), cradling his palm against the curve of Tony’s skull, rubbing lightly through the undersuit, “it’s okay, I’ve got you.”  It wasn’t okay, but Steve did have him.  That had to count for something, right?  He remembered how much it had helped to have Tony’s arms around him when he woke, and his throat felt tight.

 

Tony snapped awake; Steve felt it, the awareness, the tenseness in his muscles, the way he heaved for breath.  He jerked in Steve’s arms, struggled briefly, then subsided, his brow creased so that Steve could see it in the low light his undersuit gave off, glowing even through their two blankets and over the shape of his head.  “Steve?” he said, low, and his obvious confusion cut at Steve with guilt.

 

“You were having a nightmare,” Steve told him.  “You okay?”

 

“Mmm,” Tony said.  Steve brushed his thumb against the back of Tony’s neck, and like he had before in the tunnel, at the hint of affection Tony seemed to struggle, his face crumbling before he ducked it down, rested his forehead against Steve’s shoulder and struggled to breathe evenly.  He crossed his arms across his chest and hunched his shoulders, huddling in.  “Sorry,” Tony said, and his voice was awful, broken and all over the place breathy.  Steve curled his arm more firmly around his shoulders and Tony trembled like a livewire.  “Didn’t mean to wake you.  Sorry.  I can.  I’m.  ‘m fine.  Are you—you okay.  You okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” Steve whispered, his throat thick.  He wasn’t the one who’d just woken up from a nightmare, after all.

 

“Oh,” Tony whispered.  “Oh, good.”  He relaxed a little.  “That’s good.”

 

Steve pulled him closer, hesitantly, and was glad when Tony came without struggling, letting his cheek rest against Steve’s shoulder.  He felt . . . thin beneath Steve’s arm—he’d always been sturdily muscled, but lean, and the extra flesh that had padded his body before was missing now, so that Steve could feel the bones of his shoulders, the firm whipcord muscle of his back, all too clearly.  A moment passed.

 

“I miss seeing your hair,” Steve finally blurted in a whisper, and immediately felt foolish, felt himself flush.

 

“Um,” Tony said.  He blinked up at Steve, his brow creasing again.  “What?”

 

Well, he was in it now, Steve figured, no backing out of it.  He squared his shoulders.  “Your hair,” he repeated, and brushed his fingertips against the base of Tony’s skull, the nape of his neck, to back up what he was talking about.  “It’s under the . . . and I miss it.  I miss seeing it.  I . . . wanted to.  During your nightmare.  Uh.”  No, that was definitely too much.  He closed his mouth.

 

Tony looked at him a moment more, then raised one hand and pushed the undersuit back, off his head, pulled it down the back of his neck.  Immediately, sweaty dark hair tumbled onto his forehead, spilled out over the back of his neck.  Tony seemed to be holding his breath.

 

Steve raised his hand and sank his fingers into it, running them along Tony’s hairline.  Tony’s dark hair was stiff with sweat that had dried into spikes except where it was damp and clung to his fingers in twisting little curls.  Steve curled his fingers in it, smoothed them out and began to stroke.

 

Tony exhaled shakily.  “What’s that about, Cap?” he muttered, but he edged a little closer, letting his face rest almost trustingly in the hollow of Steve’s throat.

 

“Thanks,” Steve said, twisting the strands around his fingers, watching them curl.

 

Tony shook his head.  “Nah,” he said.  “If it calms you down?  Does it?  You can do whatever you want.”  He gestured at himself a little with one hand.  “Go to town.”

 

Steve frowned, scratched lightly at Tony’s scalp with his fingers and felt better when Tony sighed and tense muscles in his shoulders relaxed.  “Does it calm you down?” he asked.

 

Tony hesitated, shifted uncomfortably, then sighed.  “Yeah,” he whispered haltingly.  “Feels . . . nice.”

 

“Mmm,” Steve said, pleased.  “Good.”

 

“You don't have to . . .” Tony started.

 

“Okay,” Steve said, and didn’t stop.  Tony made a surprised little sound, then subsided, lying rather limply in his arms as Steve stroked his fingers through his hair, cradled the back of his head in his palm.

 

“Really?” Tony said after a moment.  His voice still sounded husky.  “My hair?”

 

“I’ve always liked your hair,” Steve said after a moment.  What was the harm in admitting it now, something as innocent as that?  “Especially when it was longer, and when you took the helmet off it would . . .” He ruffled it up, so that with the sweat in it it stuck in weird shapes.  “Stand up,” he finished.

 

“Really?” Tony murmured.  He lifted one hand, as if to repair the damage Steve was doing, and then apparently thought better of it and lowered it again, letting him.  “You like it long?  It gets all curly.”

 

“I know,” Steve told him.  “Ringlets, even.  I like it.”

 

“Looks stupid as hell,” Tony muttered.

 

“Shh,” Steve said, grinning a little and curling one short piece of hair around his finger.  “I like it.”

 

Tony was smiling a little, too, a little quirk at the corner of his mouth.  “It’s my hair,” he pointed out mildly.  “But fine.  You’re the artist.”

 

“Exactly,” Steve said with satisfaction, and refrained from mentioning how, well, artistic he’d always found the rest of Tony’s body, though he couldn’t help running his other hand into the dip of his back, exploring the curve with his fingers.  Even this thin and worn, Tony’s body was still a beautiful thing.  Tony sighed and shifted against him.

 

“This isn’t awkward for you?” he murmured after a moment.  “Face to face like this?”

 

It took Steve a moment to respond, but then he realized Tony was getting tense again, and he tried to soothe him by stroking his fingers along the curve of his back, running his fingers through his hair.  “No,” he said.  “This is fine.  It’s . . . more real like this.”

 

Somehow, Tony must have known what he meant, because he just sighed and rested his head on Steve’s shoulder.  “Yeah,” he said.  “It is.”

 

Steve stroked Tony’s hair until he felt him relax, ease into sleep, then curled both arms around him and let himself fall back asleep that way.  It felt good to rest his cheek against Tony’s stiff, sweaty hair, feel the huff of his breath warm against his throat.

 

---

 

Tony felt strange waking up pressed to Steve’s chest.  It took him a moment to realize that it was at least partly because he was half-hard, his dick showing the first signs of life since the attack where Steve’s thigh had pressed innocently against his groin in his sleep.  He felt a sudden jolt of mortification, then guilt, a solid, stomach-turning presence, crept through him.  Oh, God, no.  Come on.  Really?  Really?  This was going to be the thing that made his libido remember it had ever existed?  Just the simple touch of Steve’s body, for comfort, and he couldn’t help but get something sexual out of it.  He’d just been comforting him over a stupid dream, and Tony’s body had apparently gone straight to fantasyland.

 

God damn it, Stark, how low could you really be?  Pretty damn low, apparently.  At least the sick feeling of mortification killed the erection, that was something.

 

He shook it off, pulled his undersuit back up over his head and woke Steve with a hand gentle against the back of his neck.  Steve smiled at him once he’d blinked the sleep out of his eyes, and Tony . . . didn't know what to do with that.  He smiled back, almost helplessly, and trailed his fingers along Steve’s cheek before he remembered what to do with himself, got up, and got back to work.

 

He shouldn’t have done that.  He knew better than that.  The last thing Steve needed to deal with were his messy, unresolved feelings for him.  The very last thing he should be doing was to take advantage of Steve’s affection, and whatever guilt he might feel the nightmare he’d witnessed, or the way Tony had stupidly mistaken what Steve had said after Barnes had died, or . . . any of it.

 

He needed to be more careful.  He was sharing a bunk with Steve for Steve’s sake, not for his own.  He needed to remember that.

 

He didn’t have too many things he had to remember anymore—no benefits, no meetings.  No people spread out over the world who he cared for and wanted to take care of, just a few people, right here.  It should be easy enough to remember not to be a selfish, predatory asshole who took advantage of the one man he was trying his best to support.

 

Should be.  He was Tony Stark, after all.

 

He tried not to look at Steve during the day, feeling too guilty, ashamed of the way he had reacted simply because Steve had been kind to him, because Tony had demanded his comfort for a nightmare.  Like Steve didn’t have enough of those himself, and Tony had let Steve look after him?  Selfish.  Stupid and selfish.  Tony knew logically that asleep he couldn’t have known to hide the nightmare from Steve, obviously, but he was still frustrated with himself for having it, for letting him see.  Even more frustrated because his body had apparently taken that as tacit permission to perv out on the man in his bed.  Just because you’re used to going to bed with people you’re having sex with, doesn’t mean you have blatant permission for lust now, Tony told himself harshly.  Get a handle on it, Stark.  The last thing he wanted to do was to make Steve feel awkward because he couldn’t stop himself from getting hard next to him at night.

 

He’d dared to hope for some sort of . . . turning point wasn’t exactly it, because that implied there was some destination in mind, some sort of recovery, and they all knew that wasn’t true, but some sort of difference in Steve.  And there was, to a certain extent—he seemed more alert, there was more awareness in his eyes.  Even if he continued to spend long hours sitting by the wall, he was taking more of an interest in what happened in the world outside, and even if news made his face go grave and sad, the harsh lines of guilt etch ever deeper, his shoulders sag, at least he was listening, at least he was interested.  Tony couldn’t shield him; he knew that, and Steve wouldn’t want him to.  This was what he had wanted, to get Steve back in it.  All he could do was support him if he wavered.

 

He realized what he’d really wanted was the old Steve back, and that had been stupid.  He was dead, just like the old Tony was dead, the Tony who had died with Jarvis, and Pepper, and Rhodey.  This was as close as he was ever going to get.  He needed to stop waiting for Steve to be something he couldn’t be.  At least Steve was looking at him again.  That was something.  Along with the others—this was that they had now.

 

The next time they sent a mission out, Tony volunteered to go along.  He was tired of hanging back, holing up in the tunnels.  Sure, he knew he was next to useless without the suit, but a lot of them weren’t at their best, and he wasn’t going to stay there, safe and protected just because he was weak, while the others risked themselves.  He knew tech—knew what would be safe to salvage, what they couldn’t risk, and he knew where to look for it.  He went out with Jen and spent the whole time trying to flirt with her, to cheer her up.  He wasn’t sure if it worked, or if they were both trying so hard to seem cheerful for the other person’s sake that it pushed the forced joviality up further and further.  As he ran and dodged Ultron bots, his feet and knees skidding on concrete and arms full of electrical components from Best Buy, he spared a moment to consider that there was an element of the absurd in the whole thing, right before Jen grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him up into her arms to get him out of the way of an incoming attack.

 

“Thanks for the save,” Tony gasped.  “Does that make you my knight in shining armor?”

 

“Guess so, though I can think of prettier damsels in distress,” Jen said with a tired smile.  “Your knee all right?”  She patted the injured area gingerly.

 

“Does that mean you don’t think I’m pretty?” Tony asked, but his heart wasn’t in it.  It was the expected response, that was all.  It still got a smile out of her (she told him she wouldn’t dream of boosting his ego), and after that he convinced her they needed to swing by his lab.

 

It was a risk, he knew it, but it had been driving him crazy.  At the very least he wanted to destroy it himself.  He hadn’t told the others he wanted to check it out, because he knew perfectly well what they would have said, and if they’d forbidden him to go, well, he wouldn’t have.  But, like they said, it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission, and well, if he were dead, he wouldn’t have to ask for either.  He wasn’t stupid or reckless enough to go on his own, though, but Jen was willing to be convinced.  Tony figured she was going a little stir-crazy holed up in the tunnels, too.

 

Ultron had left Avengers Tower mostly intact, a broken shell of what it used to be.  Tony wasn’t sure why, whether it was meant as a hub around which to center more of his quasi-organic growing nanotech structures, or as a symbol for the beaten people of New York, or what.  He did know that seeing it like that hurt, twisted something painful up inside of him and left a lump in his throat.  He’d built this building to be his home, and then it had become the home for the best people he had ever known, and it hadn’t been what he’d envisioned, but it had been an honor—what was his had always been the Avengers’, he’d made no secret of that.  It had never been the original mansion (and nothing had ever felt like home quite in the same way that old mansion had come to), but it had been his, and then theirs.  Now it was no one’s.  He squared his shoulders, put his chin down, and told himself to be ready for it to be worse once they got inside.

 

It was.  Much worse.  The paintings hung off the walls, scattered across the floor, and in the living room Tony found himself falling to his knees to pick up a photograph.  It was him with the Avengers and Jarvis in the mansion.  A million years ago.  Looking at it, at his own young, smiling face, Steve’s arm around his shoulders, Jan posing for the camera, Natasha beside them—was this while one of them had been leader?—he suddenly felt dizzy, and it took him a moment to realize he was swaying, that the tearing pain that had lanced through him had only been in his heart.  He sighed, folded it up, and put it carefully into the undersuit, one of the inside pockets he’d put into it.

 

He had things to do.

 

Jen was polite enough not to talk to him as he picked through the remains of what had been his home, or maybe she just didn’t know what to say.  Tony kept an eye out for any sign of approaching robots and tried not to let his hands shake too badly.  His knee still hurt from earlier, but walking was working out the aches.

 

And then he was stepping into the workshop, careful where he put his feet—the soles of the underarmor were resilient, but there was only a thin layer of metal fibers between him and any shards of glass or other sharp metallic objects that might be littering the floor.  And there were plenty of those.

 

He kept his shoulders square, looked around, assessing the damage.  The robots must have made a few passes; most everything was smoking and useless, and he could see holes that had come through the outside walls.  He picked his way over to the computer consoles and pushed off tangles of dead wiring to clear them.

 

For most people, the computers would probably be unworkable at this point.  But, well, he wasn’t most people.  It took him a few minutes and some tinkering—and rather inelegant tinkering, at that, forcibly rewiring and reworking—but he got them up and running again.

 

The first thing he did was call Rhodey.  Then Pepper.  There was no answer.

 

Tony wiped his wet eyes on the shoulder of his underarmor, took a deep breath (stupid, stupid, he'd known better than that, he'd known they were dead, known better than to hope), and downloaded everything he could get from the databases into the portable drive he’d brought with him.  He had an old laptop back in the tunnels, one that was little more than a tablet he’d hooked up to the innards of a laptop from the nineties.  It ran on DOS.  It was perfect.  Its very existence was an insult to Ultron’s being.  It should be able to read the data all right, and if Ultron tapped into it, he couldn’t use it for anything else.  But he wouldn’t tap into it.  He’d find tech that simplistic insulting.

 

The download started, Tony stepped back and looked around the workshop.  The ruins of the work he’d dedicated his life to stared him in the face.  The future.  What a joke.  Wires swung emptily from the ceiling.  Computer screens stood dark and dead, consoles shattered across the floor.  There was a soldering iron on the floor, bits and pieces of ideas he’d had for the armor that he’d been working out with hard metal before he integrated them into the suit designs melted into scrap.

 

Something glassy and metallic caught his eye and he bent to pick it up.

 

It was . . . it was a key to a time-travel device.  One of Reed’s.

 

He hadn’t remembered this existed.

 

Tony stared at it for a long moment, until Jen asked him what he was looking at, and he realized the download was finished.

 

“I don’t know,” he said.  “An idea, maybe.  If I start babbling ‘submit or perish,’ put your fist through my head.”

 

“Can do,” she said.  “You want to get out of here?”

 

He pocketed the device, slipped it in next to his skin, and reached for the flash drive.  The information was all downloaded now.  “Sure,” he said.  “Let’s head out.”  He keyed one last code into the console, and turned to go.

 

He followed Jen out of the ruins of the last place he already knew would ever feel like his home, and whispered a goodbye to the walls, the windows, and ruined frame of the building while he did.

 

They were back underground by the time the self-destruct hit, and the city shook.  He blinked the stinging, persistent tears out of his eyes and hoped to God it had taken out at least a few of Ultron’s robots.

 

“Oh, my God, Tony, was that—” Jen started.

 

“Don’t tell me you just—” was Clint’s contribution.

 

“What the fuck, man?” Luke demanded.

 

“Tony, you didn’t,” Sue said.

 

Steve shouted at him, grabbed him by the shoulders and yelled in his face.  Tony had a feeling he was grinning vaguely at the animation in Steve’s face, the fury, even as Steve called him stupid, and reckless—it gave away that there were still a few of them left, it would draw closer scrutiny, surveillance, surely Ultron had already picked the tower over (Tony thought he saw tears gleam for a moment, unshed, in Steve’s eyes at that, too, for a moment, before his jaw firmed and he looked to the side, eyelids pressing down once, firmly, and they were gone).  Steve turned back to him and said, calm and firm, “It wasn’t a decision you should have made unilaterally.  You should have consulted us.”

 

“It was my building,” Tony said.

 

Steve’s jaw worked.  “It was the home of the Avengers,” he said, and Tony nodded, agreeing.

 

“Yes,” he said, acknowledging the point, hanging his head to let them see it.  “It was.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t want it . . . to stay there.  To let Ultron co-opt it, turn it into a—a symbol.”

 

Steve pressed his shoulder, squeezed, a gesture of understanding, and Clint sighed, heavily, swore, and turned away.

 

“You shouldn’t have been there at all,” Steve was saying.  “Going out that far—that place could have been dangerous, heavily watched, could have been crawling with Ultron’s robots.  You’re vulnerable without the suit, Tony.”  He put both hands on either side of Tony’s head, cupped them just over his ears, over the undersuit, and tilted his head up.  “Your brain is . . . a, a hard-drive,” he said, stumbling with it a little, even still.  “What if they’d gotten you?”

 

“They didn’t,” Tony said, shrugging, studying Steve’s face, the emotions struggling across it just beneath his tight control.

 

Steve’s jaw flexed, the muscles in it jumping.  “They could have,” he said.

 

“Sure, they could have,” Tony said.  “But I have firewalls up that no one else would be able to put in place.  At this point I’m probably the least vulnerable to Ultron of any person on the planet.  And I know, I know, I’m weak and yeah, pretty much useless without the suit.  I’m just one . . . middle-aged human male in average shape.  I get that.  But I’m not just going to sit back here on my ass because there’s nothing special about me.  None of the rest of you are doing it, and I’m better qualified than most of you to assess the kind of threat technology is going to pose.”

 

Steve looked frustrated.  “That wasn’t what I meant,” he said.

 

“Okay?” Tony said.  “Look.  I’m tired.  Can I . . . ?” he gestured in the direction of the bunk.  “Unless you want to yell at me more.  In which case, go for it.”

 

“No,” Steve said, nearly whispered.  He dropped his hands.  “I don’t want to yell.”

 

“Sorry about the Tower,” Tony told him sincerely.  He looked around at all the others.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s all right, Tony, “ Monica said.  Her face was set, hard.  “I wouldn’t want them to have it, either.”

 

“Neither would I,” Sue said.

 

“It’s a waste,” Emma murmured.

 

“A fucking waste, and a big damn stupid gesture,” Luke said.  Danny put a hand on his shoulder.

 

Well, if Tony lived his life in search of Luke Cage’s approval, he would be a sad, unfulfilled man.  He supposed he had to be content with the response he’d gotten.

 

He hadn’t expected them to be happy.  He wasn’t, either.  It still hurt to think about.  But that was that, he supposed.  “Okay, then,” he said.  “If you’re all done, I have some new tech to play with.”  He wanted to see if he could get that Ultron proximity detector up and working.

 

They were apparently all done, because no one stopped him.

 

Steve came and found him later, while he was sitting on the bed.  He was pretending like he was tinkering with the pieces of the detector, but in reality he was just . . . sitting, and trying not to think about dead people’s faces, empty houses and the people he’d seen peering out of broken windows.  He’d shouted at them at first, called out to them, promised to try and help.  Some of them had ducked away.  When some of them had shot back at them, he’d stopped.

 

He kept thinking about Rhodey, about how he was a survivor, had seen him and Pepper in so many of those people, but he’d known . . . had known it wasn’t them.

 

He knew they were dead.  He needed to stop his stupid heart from hoping, because every time, it just hurt worse.  And that was stupid.  He knew better.

 

Steve sat down beside him.  “I’m sorry I shouted at you,” he said in a low voice.

 

Tony shrugged.  “You’re right,” he said.  “I’m one of the weakest we’ve got left.  It was a risk.  Reckless, like you said.”

 

Steve sighed, heavily.  “I’m sorry,” he said, slow and deliberate, “that I shouted.”

 

“Okay,” Tony said.  “Thanks.”  He didn’t look up.  “But you know, I was glad you did.  Nice to hear you giving me a hard time again.  Like old times.”

 

“I don’t want those to be the old times we remember,” Steve said in a low voice.

 

They sat there in silence for a moment, before Tony gave in, set the pieces down, and raised his head.  “Neither do I,” he said.  “But you’ve never been one to let me get away with anything.  And I . . . I like that.  About you.  I . . . need that.  And maybe I deserved to be reamed out a little.”

 

“You didn’t,” Steve said, instantly and positively.  His face softened a little, his mouth turning rueful.  “You . . . scared me,” he said.  He reached out, curled his hand around the arch of Tony’s foot and squeezed, gently.  “So I yelled at you.”

 

Tony had a feeling his expression had turned utterly embarrassing—it felt tight, all over the place and emotional, his smile crooked and wobbly.  “I don’t mind it,” he said.  “You know, my feet are really gross.”

 

“So are my hands,” Steve said, and stroked his thumb down the bottom of Tony’s foot.

 

“Not that gross,” Tony said.  “But okay.  They’re your hands.”  He sighed.  “I’m sorry about the Tower,” he said.

 

Steve sighed.  His eyes were fixed on Tony’s foot and his own hand.  “It was just . . .” he said, and swallowed.  “It was my home, too,” he said finally.  “But it was yours first.  If anyone had the right . . . it was you.  I guess . . .” he shook his head, and his shoulders slumped.  “I guess there’s not much of the team left.”

 

Tony sighed.  “No,” he said, after a moment.  “There’s not.”  They sat there a moment longer, and then Tony got up.  “Bed?” he said.

 

Steve nodded, gave a forced little smile, and reached for his sweatshirt at the end of the bed.  Tony stood and went to put the unfinished detector away.

 

They slept in the same position that night, Tony curled up against Steve’s back, his knees behind Steve’s.  Steve pulled Tony’s arm close, though, cupped his hands around Tony’s and held them tightly to his chest.  It was easier to fall asleep like that, and his hands felt warm.

 

Steve woke him out of a dream of wandering through the wreckage of the mansion—or was it the Tower?  Each room looked different from the last, like his memories of the ruins of the mansion after Wanda’s breakdown, the destruction of the Tower after his battle with the Hulk, after the battle with the Serpent.  Jarvis watched him go through each room as he tried to shift the rubble until he was straining and sweating but didn’t offer to help.  Tony didn’t grudge him the lack of it—there was blood dripping out of his mouth and down over one eye, and his legs were clearly broken.  Steve’s shuddering gasp woke him, and for a moment he didn’t know where he was, before the steady beat that had lulled him into sleep, that he’d been counting somewhere in the back of his mind, brought him back to where he was—Steve’s pulse.  It felt very fast under his fingers, now, and he could hear Steve’s breathing, too loud and rasping in his throat, heavy and hoarse and gasping. Steve’s shoulders shook, then curled forward, hunching inward as he huddled in on himself, bowing his head to his chest.

 

“Steve?” Tony whispered, careful to keep his voice low.  He laid one hand on his arm, and when Steve didn’t flinch, didn’t really even move, stroked it down over the muscle of his biceps and forearm before wrapping his arm around his front, pressing himself to Steve’s back, as close as he could, as if he could press himself into him, push himself into Steve and lend Steve what was left of his own strength that way.  Steve felt cold, and Tony knew he wasn’t much warmer, but maybe what little warmth his body was holding onto would help.

 

Steve had always been the warm one, though—his body was like a furnace, producing excess heat from the rapid processes of his increased metabolism.  Now he felt so cold all the time, and what was Tony supposed to do about that?  He still pressed close, up against Steve’s broad chilled back.  Steve was shaking, all over, fine tremors cascading through him, jittering under Tony’s hands.  Tony held him tighter.  “Steve,” he said again, whispered it into the back of his neck, really, found his hands and curled his fingers around them.  “Shh,” he whispered.  “Shhh.  It’s just a dream.”  He stroked his fingers down over the backs of Steve’s hands, his sturdy wrists.  “It’s Tony.  Can you hear me?  I’ve got you.”

 

Steve jerked, Tony could feel it all through him, and then blew his breath out slowly.  He brought his head down, pressed it against his wrists.  He was still shaking.  “Tony?” he said.  His voice sounded breathless, wrecked.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, a little hesitantly, hoping that wouldn’t bring Steve unpleasantly back to where he was, what had happened.  “Yeah, it’s me.”  He rubbed one hand against Steve’s chest, trying to soothe.

 

Steve grabbed at his wrist, so hard it hurt, his fingers digging in.  Tony didn’t make a sound as he clung to it, all the same.  “Tony,” he said again, that same breathless shaking note in his voice, wild and questioning.

 

“I’m here, I’m here,” Tony said, as reassuring as he could manage.  “I’ve got you, big guy.”  He tucked his forehead into the curve of the back of Steve’s neck, then turned to lay his cheek there.  “I’m right here,” he said again, stroking his free hand against Steve’s chest through the sweatshirt.

 

Steve made a horrible, miserable little frustrated noise and hunched down, clutching Tony’s arm to his chest.  “I’m sorry,” he said, thick and choked.

 

“No,” Tony whispered against his neck.  “Don’t be sorry.  It’s okay.”

 

Steve took a deep, rasping, husky breath, blew it out, then another.  He continued to shake.

 

Whatever that nightmare had been, it must have left one hell of an aftertaste.  It didn’t feel like Steve was calming at all.  Tony frowned, shifted a little, pulling free—just enough to move, but Steve gasped and clutched at his hands again, desperately, like he was going to leave.  “Shh, shh, just moving around,” Tony whispered, even as he resettled higher up so that he could rest his cheek against Steve’s hair, brush a kiss there, wrap both arms around Steve’s chest under the heavy, solid weight of his big arms.  “See?  I’m not going anywhere.”

 

“Sorry,” Steve gasped again.  “I just.  The Tower, and, and I shouldn’t.  I shouldn’t have yelled.”

 

What?  “Well,” Tony said, whispering the words into the soft skin behind Steve’s ear, because they felt too dumb to say any louder, too hopeless, but maybe Steve needed the fantasies that had kept Tony going through the day, too, stupid and pointless as they were, “I’ve got some ideas about the Tower, actually.”  Steve made a questioning noise, but his shivers were starting to still.  “How I’m going to rebuild,” Tony explained, feeling like the biggest moron on the planet, because rebuilding, how could they, when New York was gone?  “Floor plans.  And I think we need to have more secure facilities, underground maybe?  A bunker, you think?  I’m going to go totally green this time.  Sustainable energy.  Bigger living floors so people can go in and out whenever.  Maybe some . . . some more automated tech to run the house so that Jarvis doesn’t have to do everything; he’s not getting any younger.  Bigger gym for you and the other workout obsessed freaks, more martial arts equipment.  I don’t know, I like the big windows.  Do you like the big windows?”

 

“Mmhm,” Steve said, low.  “I like the view.”  He was still shaking, his voice a trembling rasp over the words, but his back had relaxed, a little, no longer all stony solid muscle, locked up and steel-rigid with tension.

 

“Then it’s a deal,” Tony told him.  He brushed his lips against the side of Steve’s head, where the wing on his cowl would normally rest if he had it on.  “It’s a deal, Winghead,” he whispered against his hair.

 

“A deal,” Steve said shakily.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said.  “I’d never break a deal with Captain America.  We’ll get it done.”

 

Steve gave a hoarse little laugh and trembled again.  “I dreamed . . .” he whispered.

 

“You don’t have to talk about it,” Tony assured him.

 

Steve shook his head. “ I dreamed,” he said, slow and labored, his voice still rough, as if it hurt even to think about, “that we lost you.  When—when Ultron overrode your suit.  We could hear the feedback—the way you screamed.”  His voice dropped even lower, almost subvocal, barely audible.  “I thought you were dead,” he said.  “And in my dream you were.”

 

Oh.  That was what Steve had been dreaming about?  That was . . . Tony frowned.  That didn’t . . . seem to fit.  “I’m sorry,” he apologized uselessly, too late, after the fact.  “All my failsafes were off.  You weren’t supposed to hear that, to be able to—”

 

Steve’s hand clamped down tight on Tony’s, digging in so hard it did actually hurt, and his voice was still a whisper, so as not to wake any of the others, but intense, furious, when he spoke again.  “That’s not the point,” he hissed.  “Are you seriously going to apologize for letting me hear you scream?  Damn it, Tony.”

 

Tony blinked.  “When there’s nothing you can do, do I think I want you torturing yourself over it?” he asked.  “It gave you nightmares,” he pointed out, though he still couldn’t quite believe it.

 

Steve’s fingers dug into his wrist.  “I would have had those anyway,” he gritted out.  “Believe me.”

 

Right, right, yeah, he hadn’t meant to imply that all Steve dreamed about was him, how stupid and selfish could you get, of course Steve dreamed about all of them, he’d just meant that he wanted to spare Steve that one shock.  Tony blew his breath out.  “Yeah, right, of course,” he said hoarsely.

 

“It’s worse,” Steve said, harsh and grating and still in that low, hissing whisper, and he sounded like his whole chest hurt, oh God, “when I know you’re screaming and I can’t hear it, and I have to . . .” he faltered “. . . to imagine.”  He held Tony’s hands tighter, hunched down over them.  “That’s the worst,” he muttered.

 

“Um,” Tony said.  “Sorry?  I mean, I don’t scream that often, do I?”

 

“Not often at all,” Steve whispered, and hell, what was Tony doing wrong, he still sounded like he might cry, this was awful.  Tony thought about promising he’d scream less, but it seemed pointless—he was hardly aware of screaming at all, which meant it happened when he was so far gone he wasn’t in conscious control.  And with Ultron in control, screaming might be pretty likely in everyone’s near future.

 

He thought about Steve screaming in agony and felt sick to his stomach, a horrible chill sense of vertigo sweeping through him, and he hid his shudder in the back of Steve’s neck.

 

“I’m okay,” he whispered.  “I came through it just fine.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve breathed, and his hands relaxed a little.

 

“I’m right here,” Tony said, as soothingly as he could, into Steve’s ear, pulling his hands free.  Steve’s hands curled loosely where they had been, but he let him.  Tony stroked both hands down over Steve’s chest, feeling oddly dizzy, jittery and lightheaded, like he was about to crawl out of his skin, as he smoothed them down over Steve’s belly, then tucked them underneath his sweatshirt, palms to his bare skin.  Steve sucked in his breath, shuddered, and Tony stroked him again, murmuring soothing noises into the back of his neck.  “Let me,” he whispered, and Steve gasped, his breath hitching, but didn’t move as Tony skimmed his hands down over his pelvis, letting his palms linger over the glorious engineering of his hip bones, and slide them into his sweatpants.  He closed his hand around the heat of Steve’s cock.  It was only a little hard but at the touch jerked, almost leapt up into his palm, hot against his skin.  Steve made a little moaning sound and shook, and his knees came up, his toes curling where Tony could feel them against his legs.  “I’m right here,” Tony whispered against the back of his neck, “I’ve got you,” and Steve let out his breath in another low moan, this one mostly a long sigh, and relaxed.

 

Tony couldn’t believe he was doing this—he had to close his eyes and take deep breaths, press his forehead into the back of Steve’s neck to steady himself.  Steve’s cock was big and his skin was smooth and soft and so, so warm under his hand, and Tony stroked him lightly with his fingers for a while before he had the presence of mind and steadiness to turn his head and bring his other hand up to his mouth.  He licked it wet and sloppy, then spat into it and brought it down to replace the hand he had around Steve’s length now.  With the slickness it was a better slide, and Tony settled into a rhythm, moving his other hand away.  He wasn’t sure how long it took—a while, and he ended up bringing his knee up between Steve’s legs and pressing it to his erection to give him better friction, something to grind down against—but then Steve’s own precome started helping slick him up.   Steve covered his face with both arms, turned it toward the pillow, but he was making these gaspy little sounds and tiny little grunts of effort.  He didn’t move to stop Tony, breathing in heavy gasps between the noises he was making.  Tony tried very hard not to jab his elbow anywhere sensitive, like into Steve’s thigh or stomach.  The position was awkward, not very comfortable, but he concentrated on the warm soft-firm feeling of the skin of Steve’s cock, the weight of it in his hand, Steve’s shuddering breaths, instead of anything else, and just hoped Steve wasn’t feeling Tony’s weight sprawled across him too much.

 

He tried every trick he knew, stroked the skin behind Steve’s balls, pulled on him lightly, brushed his thumb over his tip, and eventually Steve shuddered and came on a soft exhale of breath that Tony told himself firmly didn’t sound at all like his own name.  He cupped his hand over Steve’s cock to keep the come from getting everywhere and when it became obvious that wasn’t going to be enough, got his other hand down there to help swipe up the remainder.

 

Steve was gasping and limp against the pillow, his eyes closed.  Tony brought one hand up to his mouth and swiped his tongue over it, cleaning up.  More efficient and sanitary than wiping it on the blanket, after all.  (Jesus, Steve had come a lot.)  Under different circumstances, this was something he might have done for his own pleasure, to get a reaction from his partner or make it a show.  Now he was mostly interested in getting his hands clean as fast as he could.  He wiped his damp hands down his forearms with a mental note to clean himself up more thoroughly the next morning and then was forced to put his head back against the pillow and realize that the only thing he could taste was Steve Rogers’ come.

 

There were worse things, he thought, and the thought almost, almost made him laugh a little to himself, half-giddy and maybe a little hysterical.  He’d just gotten Steve off.  The thought almost didn’t seem real.

 

“Tony?” Steve said.  He sounded groggy, searching.  Almost automatically, Tony’s arms slid around him, fitting his body to Steve’s back, and he could feel it as Steve relaxed.  He dared to press his lips to the back of Steve’s neck, and Steve sighed.  His hand came up, searchingly, and found Tony’s, and then dragged it close against his chest again.

 

“Feel good?” Tony whispered against the back of Steve’s neck.  Hell, he’d hoped it had felt good.  Steve was relaxed, though, at least, and that was something, the last of the tremors gone from his body.

 

“Kiss me again,” Steve whispered, and so Tony did, pressing his lips against the pulse point in Steve’s neck, trembling and worshipfully soft.  He felt like saying that Steve didn’t have to ask, that he’d cover him in kisses if he wanted.  Instead he just drew back and pressed another kiss to the back of Steve’s neck.  Steve didn’t seem quite aware, so Tony just pulled him close and pressed kisses along his jaw, and Steve sighed and relaxed, his whole body unspooling slowly under Tony’s, going limp against the bed.

 

“Tony,” Steve sighed, “oh, gosh.  Oh, hell.”

 

It was possibly the most adorable thing anyone had ever said right after Tony had gotten him off, and Tony had to brush another kiss against the base of his ear for it.  “Is that good profanity?” he whispered.  It sounded good.

 

“Mmm,” Steve said, which sounded like an agreement.  He pulled Tony a little closer.  Tony gave in and let himself be plastered all along Steve’s back, resting his cheek against the back of Steve’s neck and holding him close.  Steve felt languid and relaxed and warm in his arms, and Tony closed his eyes and thought about how his skin tasted like salt and sweat and like something that was very much just Steve.  His body was very big and warm under Tony’s, and Tony knew he himself was achingly hard and wanting, but it seemed somehow distant; he felt like this was enough right here.  He didn’t need anything in return, he didn’t want anything.  This was just for Steve.  But lying here wrapped up in his afterglow was good for Tony, too.  He stayed very still and tried not to wriggle his hips at all, despite the way his instincts screamed at him to roll them forward, press his cock against the warm solidity of Steve’s hip, the curve of his ass.  The last thing he wanted was to give away how sweaty and hard he was, the jumpy sparks of desire hot and flashing under his skin.

 

He sighed, told himself to cool it, and pressed his forehead to the back of Steve’s neck, just enjoying the simple relaxation of his body under his hands.  Stroking his side, feeling that easy slump, the looseness in Steve’s muscles, made something tight and hot clench up in Tony’s throat.  He leaned his forehead a little closer and closed his eyes.

 

Steve squeezed his hand a little more, then curled his fingers around it, brought it up to his lips.  Tony’s chest squeezed tight, lurched unsteadily, and he almost forgot how to breathe.  “Tony,” Steve said, and at the fervent warmth even in that whisper, something hot and ashamed clawed up the back of Tony’s neck, heated his cheeks.

 

“Take it . . .” he had to clear his throat a little, “take it easy, big guy,” he murmured, trying to pull his hand free.  Steve let him, but rolled over instead, propping himself up on one elbow, and before Tony could react, draw away, he was right there, all big and warm and wrapping his hand around the back of Tony’s neck.

 

“Hey,” he said, and brushed a soft kiss against Tony’s cheek, along the arch of his cheekbone, down over his lips to his chin.  The warm chapped brush of his lips seemed to send fire through Tony’s nerve endings, and he gasped for breath.  He meant to raise his hands, get them under Steve’s shoulders and push him back and away, he really did, but for some reason his hands just lay limply against the pillow, curling into helpless fists, clenching and unclenching.

 

“Steve,” he gasped, almost strangled, and Steve brushed his lips across Tony’s, searing with their soft, simple tenderness.  Tony could hardly breathe.  He could taste Steve’s breath, and his gentleness felt like tongues of fire against Tony’s lips.  “Steve,” he said again, choking on the words even as Steve turned his head, gently nudged his way into a firmer kiss.

 

Steve shifted so that their lips pressed together, firm, perfect, and stopped Tony’s mouth.  Tony couldn’t help it.  His eyes closed, he went limp under that kiss.  Just for a moment.

 

Steve just kissed him.  It felt incredible, pure and perfect and wonderful in a way Tony had forgotten things could feel, or must have, because it felt unfamiliar.  New.  Perfect.

 

And then Tony came back to himself, reached up and caught at Steve’s cheeks, his jaw, levering him back and away as gently as he could.  He was gasping unreasonably hard as Steve’s lips left his, and his hands were trembling, but maybe—maybe Steve wouldn’t notice.

 

Ha.  Because that was likely.

 

“It’s okay,” he whispered.  “I’m okay.  You don’t have to.”

 

Steve frowned at him.  “Tony . . .” he started, and Tony just shook his head, and no, it was not frantically.

 

“I’m okay,” he said again, in a low, insistent whisper.  “That was for you.  I did it for you.  I don’t need anything.  I’m good.”

 

Steve’s eyebrows climbed into his hairline.  “Then what about this?” he asked, and his hand unerringly went straight to Tony’s dick, palming it through the fabric of his undersuit, and his big warm fingers curled around it and squeezed, the heel of his palm warm and heavy against the base of Tony’s cock, and Tony had to stuff his hand in his mouth and bite down not to make a really embarrassing noise.

 

“Ah,” he said.  “Ah, that’s just—I mean.”  He pulled his hand out of his mouth, rubbed it across his forehead, stared desperately up at the bunk above them like not meeting Steve’s eyes would somehow erase that warm solid pressure on his dick.  “It’s not a big deal.”  How was he supposed to have done this, then—was it even physically possible for him to have his hand on Steve Rogers’ dick and not feel it in his own, the thrill of that under his skin?  Clearly he should have found some way to kill the desire, his own libido—he’d distracted him, and this was supposed to be for Steve.  Damn it, damn it.  He squeezed his eyes shut, but that just made him think of Steve’s strong, sturdy frame under his own, the gasping little sounds he’d made, the warmth of Steve’s hand around his dick, which made him ache even hotter.  His breathing juddered in his throat.

 

He’d just wanted to relax Steve so he could sleep.  But clearly he hadn’t thought that one through—hadn’t taken his own desire for Steve into account.  So in the end, he’d just made it about him again.  Way to fly in without a plan, Shellhead, he thought.  Great thinking ahead there.

 

“It was for you, that’s all,” he finally managed.  He cleared his throat a little, but kept his voice soft, a whisper.  “I don’t need anything.”

 

“Tony,” Steve said, and his voice was strange, fond and impatient and a little sad.  His other hand stroked down the side of Tony’s throat, over the metallic pieces of the undersuit.  Tony shook his head.

 

“It’s okay,” he said, trying to grin, reached up with both hands and curled them against Steve’s jaw, reached up and pressed a gentle—friendly, he hoped, bright and bracing—kiss against his cheek.  “Did it feel good?”

 

Steve sighed, and his unfairly long, gorgeous blond eyelashes flicked down over his eyes.  “Sure did,” he said.

 

“Great,” Tony said, relieved.  “Sorry about the, um, the hard-on, it’s just.”  He shrugged, awkwardly, not sure how to explain it.  I just seem to find it impossible to be pressed up to you and not get hard?  I’ve been in some horrible mixture of lust and love with you what feels like half my life sometimes and curling up around you while I got you off was just too much for my self-control, sorry about that, old buddy?  “Happens, you know?”

 

Steve was looking at him, and he looked very tired again, suddenly.  “So that was all this was?” he whispered.  “Just another selfless gesture, huh?”  He trailed his fingers along Tony’s erection and Tony almost bit off his tongue, couldn’t hold back the grunt that escaped him.  “Careful, you’ll make me think you think I’m hideous and you’re only doing this out of the goodness of your heart.”

 

Tony’s breath whooshed out of him, leaving his chest feeling hollow and aching.  The guilt clawed its way up out of the hole that was left, pulling his chest down after it until it felt like it was collapsing in on itself, humiliation hot all over his body. “You’re so far from hideous it’s ridiculous,” he whispered on a hitching little laugh, turning his face away miserably.  “This was . . . it’s all damn selfish, Steve.”  He bit his lip, furious at himself.  “All of this—pushing myself in at you like this, sleeping in the same bed, I like it, I wanted it, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have, I shouldn’t take advantage, I know, but I . . . and this was the most selfish of all of it . . . so no, it’s not selfless at all.  I want you so bad, I just . . . “ he closed his eyes, ashamed and hollow.  “I just wanted you to feel good,” he whispered.

 

“It worked,” Steve said.  His hand was rubbing Tony’s hip now, gently kneading at the flesh under the undersuit, and while that was better than his dick for Tony’s peace of mind, sure, it still sent shivery little waves of feeling through him, made him feel hot and breathless and a lot like overheated liquid polymer.

 

“Well, that’s good,” Tony said without opening his eyes.  His throat still felt thick and tight with misery, but he was holding it together pretty well, he thought.

 

“So you don’t think I’m hideous,” Steve said.

 

Tony sighed and tried not to let the hysterical laugh that wanted to escape him at that break free.  “You’re so fucking beautiful it hurts,” he said, wretched and wrenching, and it was nothing but the truth, and that stabbed right into his guts, saying it out loud like that.

 

“Hm,” Steve said.  “Okay.”  Tony dared to look at him, baffled, and was even more confused to find him smiling at him, a little crookedly.  “C’mere, Shellhead,” Steve said, and he sounded so damn fond, and then he had his hand around the back of Tony’s neck and he was pulling him into another kiss.  Tony made a muffled sound of protest, but Steve was really kissing him, coaxing his mouth open and pushing inside bright and hot, and his arm was all the way around Tony’s back, his thumb stroking deliberately up Tony’s spine and his elbow locked into place at his sacrum, and clearly this kiss was supposed to mean something, and Tony just didn’t . . . quite know what to do with that, and after a second he just didn’t fucking care anymore, he just sank his fingers into Steve’s hair and kissed him for all he was worth, gave him every piece of energy he had left, because if he could do anything, maybe he could kiss where they were and what had happened right out of Steve’s head, give him something really worth remembering, and hell, he had the chance, he was going to give it his best shot.

 

When Steve let him go, he couldn’t do much but slump back against the pillow and gasp for air.  Steve just framed his face in his big hands and brushed another soft kiss against his lips, gasping himself.  He pressed their foreheads together, and they just lay there for a moment, breathing into each other’s mouths.  Tony’s fingers curled, stroked through Steve’s hair, again and again.  “It makes me happy to make you feel good, too,” Steve whispered finally.  “I want to.  C’mon, Tony, let me?”

 

How was he supposed to say no to that?  It was impossible; it just wasn’t in him.  Tony gave a long wavering breath.  “Okay,” he breathed, and Steve kissed him again, and his chest felt impossibly tight, full up with weird warm not-quite-pain, not humiliated-warm, but emotion-warm.  Almost too much.  Tony was shaking as Steve smoothed his hands down his sides, nuzzled soft, sweet little kisses against the side of his jaw.  He kissed the undersuit behind his ear like he was kissing the sensitive skin there, trailed his mouth up over it to Tony’s temple.  Tony’s mouth fell open, he was gasping for breath, he might have moaned, and then Steve’s mouth covered his again, muffling the sound in wet, soft heat.  Steve’s hands patted down over his groin, a long, slow pass over his erection that had Tony shaking, squirming under him.  Steve’s hands caught at his hips, pressed him back down into the bed, and then felt at him again, and Tony locked his throat against a desperate noise.  What was Steve doing?  Steve’s warm fingers groped him again, and then Steve pulled away from the kiss to nuzzle against his jaw, his throat.

 

“So, how does this thing come off?” he asked, fingers smoothing the undersuit over the crease of Tony’s thigh.  “Is there a codeword or something?”

 

Oh.  Right.  “There’s a . . . a panel,” Tony whispered, breathless, and yeah, it’d be easier that way, wouldn’t it, less messy, better all around.  He reached down, fiddled with the edges until it was open and he could feel the air on his dick and—and oh, wow, Steve’s hand, that was a lot warmer than air, strong and hard and callused and he squeezed and Tony moaned back in his throat, and thank God Steve kissed him right then or everyone would have heard it.  As it was, the sound just vibrated along Steve’s teeth. 

 

Steve kissed him until it had gone its way, then curled his fingers around the back of Tony’s neck and pulled away from his mouth to whisper, “Thanks,” against the corner of his lips.

 

“No problem,” Tony whispered disbelievingly, because really, what was he supposed to say, and Steve was pulling at him, long, easy strokes, and well, this wasn’t going to last long, however he might want to stay in the moment, to savor it, Steve around him, on top of him, the scent of him, his strength and his warmth—he moaned again, shut his mouth desperately against it, trying to keep quiet, but then Steve’s mouth was on his again, swallowing the sound, fingers of his other hand coming back to curl around the back of his head, rub against the vulnerable places at the back of his neck.  Steve didn’t try to shush him, didn’t remind Tony to be quiet, but somehow his mouth was always on Tony’s for the noises he couldn’t keep back, capturing them against his own lips and tongue.

 

Tony had been right, it didn’t last.  A few more seconds and he was coming, and everything . . . sort of slid sideways and fuzzed out with the pleasure, bright and warm and Steve . . . Steve kissing his mouth, soft, gentle slide of lips and tongue against his as he panted, delicately pulling back.

 

He dragged his eyes back into focus with an effort.  Steve was looking around for something, sheepish and shamefaced, holding his wet hand in front of him.  He was just reaching for the sheet when Tony cleared his throat, muttered, “Let me get that for you,” and reached for his hand, brought it up to his own mouth and put his lips to it to start to lick up his own come off of Steve’s broad, worn palm in as businesslike a manner as he could.  Might as well clean up after them completely, after all.

 

“Um,” Steve said, and he flushed, and Tony couldn’t help it, he grinned a little, pressing his mouth to Steve’s finger, curling his tongue around the nail.  He winked at him, and Steve flushed a little more, barely visible in the darkness, and then he was settling his weight on top of him, reaching up with his other hand to brush his fingers along Tony’s cheek.  “You’re something else, you know that?” he said, voice still low.

 

Tony didn’t know quite what to make of that.  He pressed his face in against Steve’s palm, cast his eyes down as he licked and sucked against the rough calluses of Steve’s skin.  “Sure,” he said finally.  “So’re you.”

 

Steve smiled a little, and brushed his lips against his forehead, just looking at him, as Tony finished with his hand, then, feeling self-conscious, skimmed his lips against Steve’s fingers in a kiss and let it go to tuck himself back into his undersuit.  Steve let him, then reached up to brace his palm against Tony’s neck, fingers against his jaw.  “Give me a kiss good night,” he said, still in that low, quiet whisper.

 

“Even though I just . . .” Tony shrugged and screwed his mouth to the side, trying to remind Steve that he’d just spent a quality few minutes licking up his own come.  “Kinda awkward.  Or . . . gross, maybe?”

 

Steve just swiped his thumb along his lower lip in a way that made it tingle.  “I don’t care,” he whispered.  His mouth tilted wryly.  “And I saw the whole thing, you know.  Just kiss me.”

 

“Okay,” Tony whispered.  He put his hands on his shoulders, wriggled forward a little, and kissed him, just as requested—it was no hardship, after all, far from it.  He made it firm, and good, warm with a little slip of heat, of tongue, a nice kiss to go to sleep on.  Steve seemed to think so; he sighed, and his arms went around Tony’s back and pulled him close, squeezing him a little.

 

“Good night,” he said, and closed his eyes.  Tony sighed, watched as those thick blond lashes settled over his cheeks, then had to swallow hard against the lump in his throat.  He curled his arm around Steve’s back, rested his hand between his shoulder blades, palm flat, and settled his fingers against the side of his neck, curling them in, letting his thumb brush back and forth over Steve’s pulse.

 

Steve pulled him closer, in against his shoulder, unexpectedly, so that Tony’s face smushed into the soft place between the hood of his sweatshirt and his neck.  “Stop thinking, genius,” Steve said, sounding sleepy, into his ear.  He rubbed his knuckles against the back of his neck.  “Just sleep.”

 

That probably wouldn’t be hard.  Tony’s body felt languid and warm, lethargic, his mind slow with the lassitude of pleasure.  Steve’s body felt good against his own, really, unbelievably good.  “You first,” he muttered.

 

Steve huffed out a laugh.  “Good night, Tony,” he said, and then pressed his palm warm over the back of Tony’s neck, and Tony just couldn’t help it; everything in him sort of eased out, calmed down and relaxed.  Tony gritted his teeth stubbornly, though, reached out and slipped both hands up under Steve’s sweatshirt, against his warm, slightly sweaty skin, then took a breath, opened his mouth and pressed a gentle kiss against Steve’s neck, another against the inside of his jaw, slow and soothing, stroking at his sides, his back, with both hands as he did.

 

“You first,” he whispered again.

 

“Long as you stay right here,” Steve said.  He yawned, and curled close, and then his arms were relaxing around Tony, his body loosening up.  Tony stroked his back, counted the beats of his heart, and let his body fall into synch with Steve’s. 

 

“You bet,” he whispered, yawned, pushed his face into the cloth at Steve’s neck, and then fell asleep before he knew it.

 

---

 

Steve had always risen early, and after boot camp and the serum, he’d been up before seven every morning without fail.  He didn’t know if that had changed since the attacks—being in the darkness of the tunnels had left his sense of time utterly skewed—but Tony had been the one to rouse him the first morning they’d been there in the tunnels, after the first attacks, and that had continued, forming into a pattern that left Steve rather frustrated with himself.  He didn’t know why he was so lethargic, why it had been so difficult for him to wake in the mornings, though he appreciated Tony for not commenting on it, for getting him up and moving, even in the bad first couple of days when he’d hardly been aware of anything but the crushing guilt, the loss, lost in a numb haze.  He knew it must have been hard on Tony, was impressed by how he’d kept Steve going, now that he was more aware of himself, how he’d kept the others together and kept Steve from crumbling and still found the time to outfit their makeshift base with clean water and heat and design ways to detect Ultron out of what little old tech they’d scrounged together.

 

And that morning, too, it was Tony’s hand on the back of his neck, cool in the undersuit, that woke Steve, two fingers gently skimming up over the curve of his skull and ruffling up his hair.  “Up and at ‘em, Cap,” Tony said, and when Steve sat up and worked his arm back to stretch it out, he found Tony already standing in front of him, handing him a cup of what was probably the warm sludge that passed for coffee.

 

“Good morning,” Steve said, blinking sleep out of his eyes as he took it.  It was warm, if nothing else, and he’d gotten used to coffee this bad long ago.  “Thanks.”

 

“You good?” Tony asked, the same question he asked every morning.

 

He looked tired, Steve thought, inhaling the scent of the coffee.  Even coffee this bad made him feel more alert, steadier, somehow.  He wrapped his hands around the small tin cup, appreciating its warmth, as he gave Tony another look.  Big dark smudges under his eyes, new lines carved deep around his mouth, but his eyes were bright, at least.

 

Steve was struck with a sudden, vivid memory of the way Tony’s mouth had felt under his own the night before, sweet and yielding, the helpless arch of his body at the moment of climax.  He felt his cheeks flush and looked down at his coffee.

 

“Up and at ‘em, right?” he asked pointlessly.

 

“Lots of evil robots to fight today,” Tony said, “same as always.”

 

“That bad, huh?” Steve sighed, and looked up to see Tony grin, tired and strained, but still a grin.

 

“Quoting Star Wars at me, huh, Cap?” he said.

 

“It’s not my fault,” Steve said, and was rewarded with an even broader smile.  “You showed them to me, after all,” he pointed out.

 

“Yeah, a million years ago,” Tony said, and sighed, but his shoulders definitely looked squarer when he went off to talk with the others, and his chin was up.

 

Maybe Steve wasn’t just a drain on Tony’s strength, after all.

 

Steve set about changing, pulling the sweatshirt off over his head.  Maybe nothing had to change between them.  (Damn, Tony was beautiful.  Stop thinking about it, Rogers.  Just . . . go with it.  See what Tony wanted to do.  Maybe he’d just been helping Steve out.  Guys did.  Steve had, with Sam, before, some of the other guys had, during the war.  And the fact that Steve wanted more with Tony was just . . . but he remembered the way Tony had looked at him in the flickering light from his own undersuit, his eyes wide and endless and almost surprised, the pupils blown deep and dark with vast depths of feeling, the way he’d held to Steve and shuddered beneath his touch, and he wondered.)

 

Steve went out again, that day.  He knew he needed a plan—Tony hadn’t said anything about one, but the others, the way they looked at him—and it was his job, his role.  He was the leader, he knew it.  He needed to lead them.  The others counted on him.  And the people of Earth, any of them who were left, they counted on all of them.  They couldn’t keep doing this, hiding away.  Something had to change, sooner or later.

 

He just didn’t know what, yet.  He didn’t want to act before they were ready, not again.  They had done that last time, and lost too many of their best.  It was still a grinding, crushing ache inside of him to think of it.

 

His fault.  His responsibility.

 

He wouldn’t make that mistake again.  It needed to be decisive, final.  One quick strike.  They wouldn’t get a second shot.  They needed to make it count.  So he needed to be sure.

 

And that meant information.  He had an idea that they needed ways out of the city; that was what he was looking for.  He took Luke with him, and Valkyrie, but Tony walked with them to the edge of the tunnels, where they let out into Central Park.  He didn’t say that he was worried in so many words, but he was full of advice, talking a mile a minute, half of it inane babble, his hands flying through nervous gestures as he talked, so full of anxious energy Steve was surprised he wasn’t shaking.

 

He got it.  He’d felt the same way when Tony had went out—and the knowledge that he’d gone all the way to Avengers Tower, willingly exposed himself to the tech and the computers inside it, hadn’t . . . hadn’t helped.  He couldn’t promise Tony that they’d come back, though—none of them could promise that, and he knew Tony wouldn’t expect it.

 

“Take care,” Tony finally said, and he sounded like his throat was aching.  “All of you, okay?  Keep an eye on each other.”

 

“Jesus, we will, Mom,” Luke grumbled.

 

Tony smiled a little at that, and, impulsively, Steve reached out, squeezed the back of his neck.  “I’ll bring you back an evil robot head,” he said.

 

“Don't you dare,” Tony said, his eyes darkening with concern, but his lips were twitching, a little, despite himself, Steve could see them.  He brushed his fingers along Tony’s jaw, just once, allowing himself the indulgence, just to feel the shape of it under his fingers, and turned to head out, gesturing for the others to follow him.

 

“Aww, you shouldn’t have,” Tony drawled as Steve dumped the inert robot head in his lap several hours later.

 

“Is it dangerous?” he asked.  “It didn’t set off any of your detectors, and the scanner said we were clean.  I yanked all the wires out,” he added, a little embarrassed at what felt like a pointless gesture now.  Had he just been showing off?

 

Tony frowned at it a moment, his eyes going blank in a way that Steve had once associated with his use of Extremis, though he’d said the connections were severed.  He turned it over, looking at it carefully.  “No,” he said after a moment.  “I think it’s inert.  I . . . this’ll be useful, though.  Did you kill it?”

 

“Yes,” Steve said.  It had taken all three of them, but they’d managed it, in the end.

 

“Cool,” Tony said.  He smiled up at Steve a little, then his eyes sharpened, and his expression sobered.  “You okay?” he asked.

 

Steve sighed and shrugged.  He knew he owed Tony an explanation, but it was hard to explain.  His chest ached.  He felt bruised all over, tired and old, his heart seamed with scar tissue that hurt like old wounds in the cold.  He cast his eyes over toward the wall of the tunnel.  “Central Park,” he said, finally.  “It’s . . . New York.”  He sighed, let his shoulders slump, and shook his head.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said.  “Yeah.”  He got to his feet, tossing the disembodied robot head in Daisy Johnson’s general direction with a, “Hey, Agent Quake, catch,” and turned back to Steve.  “C’mon,” he said, and turned toward the tunnels.  Steve followed, half automatically.

 

He instinctively registered Tony’s movements as they moved deeper into the tunnels, away from the others, turned a corner so the others couldn’t see, and Tony turned toward him; he saw it coming and a million ways to counter his movements if he’d wanted to, but he let it happen, didn’t resist as Tony pushed him up against the tunnel wall and covered Steve’s mouth with his own.  He opened his mouth for the kiss, let Tony slide his tongue into his mouth, hot and welcome, bright sparks of sensation following it as he mapped every inch of Steve’s mouth, hands dragging down his chest before one came up to curl against the side of Steve’s neck, warm and steadying, thumb against his jaw as he held him gently for the kiss.  Steve exhaled and it shook, and his hands came up to clutch at Tony’s shoulders.  Tony didn’t brush him away, rolled his hips against Steve’s, and Steve gasped, helplessly, let the tide of sensation sweep him along with gratitude.  After a bit Tony pulled Steve’s head against his neck and urged Steve’s hips into a rhythm against his, rubbing up against the heat and pressure at Tony’s own groin, and it felt so good, so, so incredibly good that Steve just let himself.  Once he got going, into the rhythm, he didn’t think he could have stopped, and he just hide his face against Tony’s neck, gasping into his jaw as Tony’s fingers at his waistband got his pants open and shoved them down about his thighs, drawing him out.  “There you go,” Tony murmured, “that’s it, sugar,” and Steve shuddered, and Tony’s hand cupped his ass and squeezed, pressing him forward, and he murmured, low and husky, “Go on, Steve, that’s it,” and sensation spiraled through Steve, higher and higher, as he jerked and rubbed against Tony, and Tony just held him there, urging him to move, rolling his own hips against Steve’s in slow, easy, undulating motions that felt like heaven.

 

Steve didn’t even realize he’d come until long moments after, when he realized he was gasping wetly against Tony’s neck, a patch of the undersuit that was sloppy and slick with his breath and saliva, and Tony was murmuring softly in his ear and stroking his hair as Steve’s hips slowed.

 

It took him a long time, but finally Steve managed to clutch at Tony with both hands, press a kiss against his jaw, and mumble, “Did you?”

 

“Come again?” Tony said, and damn it, Steve could hear that he was smirking.

 

“Did you come, Tony?” he said, more loudly.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Tony said on a fervent sigh, and when Steve reached for him, trailed his fingers down over Tony’s groin, he could feel that the panel Tony had showed him the night before was open, the wetness there, and when he glanced down, he could see Tony’s spent cock peeking out from between the folds of the undersuit.

 

“Okay,” he sighed and rested his forehead against Tony’s neck again, reaching down all the same to draw his fingers soft along his shaft.  Tony gasped breathlessly, and squirmed a little, but let Steve explore him.  After a moment Steve cupped his hand around Tony’s hip and sighed, content for the moment just to stand there while Tony’s fingers played with his hair, traveled down his back and stroked down his spine.

 

They should get back to the others, he thought.  He didn’t want to move.  He sighed and nuzzled closer, pressing his face against Tony’s neck, into the hollow of his throat.

 

“What is this, Tony?” Steve asked, finally.

 

“Hmm, feels like sex,” Tony said, and Steve knew him being flip when he heard it.  “Yeah, I really think it might be sex, Cap.”

 

“Tony,” he said with a sigh.  “Don’t do that.  You know what I meant.”

 

Tony sighed, and his fingers carded deliberately through Steve’s hair before he spoke again.  “What do you want it to be?” he asked.

 

Steve couldn’t help it; he gave a little disbelieving huff of a laugh at that.  He wasn’t sure what to say.  Tony dodging the question didn’t make that any easier.  “Well, it’s nice,” he said.  It was the first thing that came into his head, but, well, it was true.

 

He could feel Tony’s smile against his forehead.  “Good,” he said.

 

“But . . .” Steve let his brows draw together, tried to think through the slow thick molasses of his mind, pleasure-dazed and sluggish.  “What about you?”

 

“You know me,” Tony said lightly.  His fingers skimmed down Steve’s back.  “Always ready for it.”

 

That—that hurt.  Steve lifted his head, struggled back—and then Tony must have gotten a look at his face, because his fingers were warm on the back of Steve’s neck again, and he was pressing a kiss to his cheek.

 

“Hey, hey, no,” Tony whispered.  “Come back.  Shh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

 

“Are you?” Steve bit out, stung, knowing it was too harsh, too open, but just reacting now—too raw to do anything else, Tony had left him stripped down to nothing but feeling and reaction and now—he couldn’t help it.  He knew it wasn’t true, that he wasn’t just a warm body to Tony, and that was what hurt the most, that he would lie to him when they were like this, now, of all times.

 

“I really am,” Tony said, and his voice was bitter, burned and raw.  “Listen, Steve, that—that wasn’t true.”

 

“I know that,” Steve said sourly.

 

Tony hesitated, froze.  “Oh,” he said.

 

“At least respect me enough to tell me how you really feel,” Steve said, his throat aching.

 

“It’s not,” Tony stopped, looked away.  His throat worked.  “It’s not about respect,” he said finally, and his voice sounded like his throat was very tight.  He was trembling, now.

 

“Isn’t it?” Steve asked.

 

“Of course I respect you,” Tony said.  He looked down, his shoulders hunched up around his ears.

 

Steve abruptly felt like a bully.  He sighed, closed his eyes for a moment and told himself firmly to let go of the hurt, to think, opened them again.  He reached up for Tony’s jaw, rested his fingertips against it.  “So what is it about?” he asked in a low voice, trying not to sound demanding.

 

Tony shrugged, met his eyes.  The corner of his mouth tugged wryly, but his eyes looked wet, devastated.  “Selfishness,” he said.  His throat worked, his breath hitched.  “Look.  Do you—do you want this?  Because if you do, you can have it.  Don’t worry about that.”

 

“That’s not,” Steve said deliberately, keeping his eyes on Tony’s, “what I’m worried about.”

 

Tony’s face twisted.  He looked anguished.  He looked away.  “Steve,” he said, thickly.  “Can we just . . . can’t we just . . .” he gestured at the two of them.  “Do this?  Isn’t this enough?”

 

“Is it what you want?” Steve pressed, feeling awful for doing it, but he had to know.  He had to.  He couldn’t take advantage of some screwed up urge on Tony’s part to selflessly submit to whatever Steve wanted, or anything like that.

 

“Of course it’s what I want!” Tony snarled at him, rounding on him, his eyes flashing.  “You made me say it, happy now?  Everyone knows I’ve wanted you for years.  Yes, this is selfish.  Yes, I want you.  Is that what you wanted to hear?  Jesus, Steve, what do you want from me!  To admit that I’m making it all about me, again?  Well, I am, so there you go, congratulations.”

 

“I didn’t know that,” Steve said dumbly.  The shock of that confession was so great it hit him like a blow, leaving him stunned and reeling and unable to say anything else, to even reach for any other thought.

 

Tony froze.  His eyes went wide, and his hand, raised to gesture wildly, slowly dropped.  “Um,” he said.  His tongue came out to moisten his lips, almost nervously.

 

Steve took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, set his back against the tunnel wall, getting a bit of his equilibrium back, though he still felt shaky, breathless, like the ground had abruptly been yanked out from beneath him.  He reached forward, put one hand on either side of Tony’s jaw, and leaned their foreheads together.  “Tony,” he said seriously.  “I just want to be sure I’m not taking advantage of you, and your—your generosity.  That’s all.  That’s all, okay?”

 

Tony gave a harsh, rueful little laugh and looked down.  “You’re not taking advantage of me,” he said roughly.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, on a rough little laugh of his own.  “I got that.  Now c’mere.”  He gathered Tony close against his chest, and miracle of miracles, Tony let him, let himself be folded in against him and held there, let his head tuck down and in against his neck. 

 

They stood there for a moment, and slowly Tony stopped trembling.  His shoulders squared up again, settled.  Steve felt his own breathing begin to ease, to even out.

 

He felt like he could probably have held Tony close like this for years, just this, in and of itself.  He rested his cheek against the top of Tony’s head and let himself just . . . settle.  After a moment Tony moved, and Steve felt a moment of foolish alarm, that he might want to move away, even though he knew that was inevitable—but then Tony just swiped at Steve’s dick with his hand, wiped it off on his own hip, then tucked Steve’s dick back into his underwear, pulled up and fastened his trousers, easy and efficient.  He closed up his own undersuit, then stepped back in and let himself settle close into Steve’s arms again, and, well, yes, that was probably better, though Steve refused to let himself blush.  Tony’s body felt warm, thrumming with energy against his, almost too much—Steve was oddly reminded of a hummingbird, if one that was solidly muscled under his hands and almost as tall as he was.

 

“Does everyone really know that?” he asked finally.  It seemed almost impossible.  He wasn’t that out of the loop, was he?  “What you said.  Before.”

 

“Oh, great,” Tony said on a sigh.  “Me and my big mouth.  Remind me why I even talk and don’t just communicate through a system of elaborate codes, again?”

 

“Because that would drive you crazy,” Steve said, smiling a little.

 

“That’s true,” Tony sighed again.  “All right.  Well.  As far as I know, mind you, most people, me included, thought you knew all about my embarrassing little crush on you and had decided to let me down so incredibly easily the inevitable breaking of my poor stupid heart would be undetectable on the Richter scale.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said.  He frowned, and gave in to the sudden urge to hold Tony closer.  “People thought I wouldn’t be interested in you?” he said, incredulous and a little offended.   He pulled back and gave Tony a firm look.  “You thought I wouldn’t be interested in you?  Jeez, Tony.  Why the hell wouldn’t I be?”

 

Tony stared at him.  “Well,” he said.  “Embarrassment of riches, um, I mean, really.  How do I answer that question?  Have you met me?”

 

Steve raised his eyebrows at him.  “Are you trying to make me mad at you?” he asked mildly.

 

It had been meant to be teasing, a gentle admonishment to get Tony to stop focusing on the bad about himself.  Steve hadn’t meant it to make Tony’s mouth get all tight and miserable, his shoulders tightening up again as he flushed and looked down.  “Sorry,” Tony said tightly.  “Sorry.  It’s just, I—I’m not good relationship material?  It’s not just me who thinks this, I mean, everyone agrees and thought that I . . . well, you know, that you’d think so too, and we . . . .  And we fight all the time, and I’m . . . difficult and a, a, real pain in the ass, and there was that little time we tried to kill each other, and I’m just a really bad boyfriend, everyone knows it, and—”

 

“I think you’ve been pretty great so far,” Steve said, and kissed him again, because clearly that was the only way he was going to stop the upsetting flow of words.

 

“Mmmph,” Tony said, and then he was kissing back, intense and hot, practically surging to meet Steve, sucking on his tongue, and Steve ran his hands up his back, held him close as he tried to kiss all of that, everything Tony had just said, right out of Tony’s mind, and he knew, knew it wasn’t going to be possible, but—

 

“Am I,” Tony panted against his jaw between kisses.  “Am I your—”

 

“If it’s up to me,” Steve told him firmly, “yes.  If you object—” he kissed him again “—now would be a pretty good time to bring it up.”

 

“No,” Tony said, his arms tangling around Steve’s neck, “no, I don’t object, can I call you honey flower petal sweetie muffin—”

 

“Do you really want to?” Steve asked, bemused and a little baffled, after another kiss, and was rewarded when Tony dropped his head onto Steve’s shoulder, shaking and sweaty, and started to laugh.

 

“No,” he said, between snorts of laughter.  “No, not really.”  Steve wasn’t quite sure what he should make of his laughter—he sounded a little overwrought, like he was juggling too many emotions at once and had to let them out somehow, but it didn’t hurt anything, and it was . . . good to hear him laughing again.  He pressed a kiss against Tony’s temple, let his lips trail over the glowing surface of the undersuit.

 

Tony stilled, his breath gasping and hitching a little.  Steve rubbed the back of his head, roughly.  They stayed there for a moment, and then Tony sighed, and let his breath out, and straightened up, tilted his head, and brought his lips to Steve’s in a firm, heady kiss.  His eyes were closed, lips slightly parted.  Steve opened his, leaned into him, and Tony slid their mouths together, deepened the kiss.

 

If one thing was definitely not in question, it was that Tony knew how to kiss.  He could, Steve was finding out rapidly and quite intimately, kiss like nobody’s business.  He felt a little out-classed, but Tony didn’t seem to have a problem with that, just pushed Steve’s head back against the wall of the tunnel and kissed the breath and all thoughts that weren’t about the heat of his mouth, the slick warmth of his tongue, the touch of his lips, entirely out of Steve’s head.

 

Steve touched his hands to the lean curve of Tony’s back, felt the graceful arch under his palms, and wished they’d done this years ago, when they’d still had their lives.  When they’d still had a chance.  For a moment, he closed his eyes and tried to pretend that they had, concentrated on the brush of Tony’s facial hair, the clever slickness of his mouth, pretended like Tony had pushed him up against the wall of the mansion and taken his faceplate off and pushed back Steve’s cowl and proceeded to kiss the living daylights out of him.  Shellhead? he would have said, and laughed with delight and shock to have his suspicions confirmed—Tony? I mean.  Mr. Stark?  It was you all along?

 

Or maybe later, after he’d known who Tony was, while they were sparring, Tony would have done something clever and tricky like he did sometimes, gotten Steve up against the wall, and his eyes would grow heavy-lidded and hazy with desire, and he’d lean in, and Steve would almost flip him on his back, but he’d be so curious about what he was going to do—be aching for the kiss before Tony gave it to him—

 

Or one night on the couch, after the others were asleep because it had been a boring movie, Tony would have rolled his head over, and given Steve that smirky little smile he’d always loved so much, and instead of making a teasing comment or something, he’d reach out and curl his fingers against Steve’s neck, fingertips brushing the nape of his neck, and he’d lean in and press their lips together, and his mouth would taste like popcorn—

 

Tony with his shirt off and Steve sitting there, hands clenched into fists as Tony fiddled with the cables, put a belt between his teeth as calmly as if he did it every day because he did, and then handed the cable for Steve to plug in and he had to watch as Tony’s back arched and his head snapped back in agony, and instead of listening to Tony laugh afterward and toss off a quip, he leaned in and took his head in his hands and told him how much it hurt him that Tony had to deal with this and Tony’s eyes went soft and he leaned in and their lips touched—

 

Tony in the hospital, smiling at him from a hospital bed, leaning up to kiss him when Steve thanked him for saving his life, again, something dark and nameless in his eyes—

 

Tony pushing him up against the wall after yet another party, tasting like sparkling cider and laughing because Steve’s company was so much more fun than yet another round of charming investors—

 

Tony with his arm around Steve’s waist clad in firm, vibrating metal as wind rushed past them, leaning in, the faceplate sliding back just before his lips met Steve’s—

 

They’d had a thousand chances, and he wanted them all.  Wanted to have lived them all, rather than this, but this was all, this was all they got.  And if he squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on Tony’s mouth, his breath, the warmth of his body—

 

He almost managed to believe it for a while.  Just for a little while.  And then something rustled in the darkness at the far end of the tunnel, and Tony jerked back, spun to face it, both hands coming up in a familiar pose, wrists back and cocked, and Steve realized he was reaching for his shield himself, and . . . his stomach hurt.

 

He reached out, closed one hand around Tony’s wrist, and pulled it down.  Tony’s eyes were wide, staring, a little wild, and flicked over to Steve as he panted.

 

“Just a rat,” Steve said, tiredly.

 

“Oh,” Tony said, after a moment, with a forced little laugh.  He lowered his hands.  “Oh.  Startled me, I guess.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said.  “Me too.”  He looked at Tony for a moment, seeing him, the weariness stamped across his face, the wet tenderness of his well-kissed mouth, the way the glowing undersuit cast shadows across his lined, exhausted features.  He brought his hand up, brushed his fingers back across his cheek.  Tony sighed, ducked his head down, touched his lips to Steve’s palm in a brief, light kiss.  “Let’s head back,” Steve said.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said.  “Yeah.”

 

Steve put his hand in the small of Tony’s back.  They headed back together.

 

It wasn’t really like any relationship Steve had had before.  Not a lot really changed, except that now, sometimes, at night, when everyone else might be asleep, Tony would reach over Steve’s hip and get a hand around his dick while he tried to bite back his gasps and moans until he spilled himself helplessly over Tony’s hand, or after a nightmare Steve would turn over and bury his face in Tony’s shoulder and just hold him close (except for the times when he needed the reassurance of his body, the reality and warmth of him, and they would just press against each other, rolling their hips until they reached completion from the friction and warmth alone).  He learned that Tony helplessly made noise during sex, gasps and low moans and breathy sounds, unless his mouth was stopped with kisses, that he mumbled when he was close, the sharp little gasping grunt when he came, learned what he could have already guessed—that his mouth and hands were hot and knowing and made Steve see stars, pushed the breath right out of him and left him limp and gasping.

 

He learned that when he woke up from nightmares, Tony’s arms around him, close and warm and real, made him feel protected, alive, his breath damp and warm in his hair, on the back of his neck, made the tearing ache in his chest and the chill around him, the ice crackling in the air, feel less present, less like his reality.

 

Tony liked to use kisses to say he was sorry, liked to touch Steve’s hair and leave his fingers against his neck, behind his ear, across his wrist, to count his pulse.  If he was tired, he would lean his head on Steve’s shoulder.  Other than that, Tony as Steve’s boyfriend wasn’t that different from Tony as Steve’s friend.

 

Steve liked that.  More than that, it was what he needed.  He couldn’t have lost Tony as Steve’s friend.  Not now.  But Tony who shared his bed, who would take him off down the tunnels and kiss and hold him and stroke him to completion, he was someone Steve hadn’t realized he’d needed.  Maybe things would have been different between them if everything else had been different, if they’d done this in a different time, before the end of the world, before they’d lost everything.  Maybe they could have done things, then, gone out on dates, spent time in one of Tony’s overlarge beds or ridiculous bathrooms just luxuriating in each other.  Gone to Coney Island.  Gone on dates, gone to the places they each liked to eat with each other.  But Steve felt like maybe their relationship would have still centered around the same things it always had, bagels and sparring and arguing and joking and Steve teasing Tony and Tony teasing Steve back, and then the other way around.

 

But he wanted to spend time with Tony in a real bed.  He wanted to take him out for a date and hold his hand.  He wanted a couch to hold him on, and movies to watch, and to toss him onto the mat and watch him get up again, still eager for more and ready to go.  He wanted the others to tease them about Cap and Iron Man getting together, but he couldn’t think about that, because it hurt too much.

 

He tried very, very hard not to think about what Bucky would have said.  (Or Sam.  Or Jan.)

 

He asked Tony, what he would have wanted to do most, if they had gotten this all worked out, gotten together, before all this had happened.  Before Ultron had turned their lives into a sick, sad joke.

 

Tony smiled, sad and crooked.  “I think I’d like to take you out on a real date,” he said.  “You know, someplace nice.  Put a suit on you.”  He brushed his fingers against Steve’s chin.  “Spoil you like you deserve.  You deserve to be spoiled shamelessly.  And everyone would see you on my arm, and I’d show you off and spend a flat million dollars on you all at once, and you—yeah, you’d do that, the thing you’re doing now, the ‘oh, Tony, you can’t spend a million dollars on me, good Lord, you sybarite,’ that face.  And then we’d go back home and we’d make love, and I’d blow your mind.”

 

“You don’t need a million dollars to blow my mind,” Steve muttered, and Tony nudged him in the ribs and reached for another wire for the device he was rewiring.

 

“You flatterer,” he said.  “Don’t you know I’m a sure thing?”

 

“I don’t like to assume,” Steve told him, and kissed the back of his neck, daring.  He was rewarded by the pleased way Tony flushed up and ducked his head.

 

“Well?” Tony asked, after a moment and Steve had slid both arms around his waist, putting his own clipboard with his attempts at mapping a way out of the city aside for the moment.  “What’s yours?”

 

“My what?” Steve asked.

 

Tony turned in his arms, let his arm brush up against Steve’s side.  “What you’d have wanted to do most if we’d pulled our heads out of our asses before a contrary piece of code decided to blow up the world,” he said, very wry.

 

“It’s not as involved as yours,” Steve admitted.

 

“I bet you’d like to draw me naked,” Tony said.

 

Steve blushed and frowned at him.  “That, too,” he said.  “I’d like to see you naked, to start.”

 

Tony shrugged.  “You’ve seen it all before.”

 

That was true.  But not recently.  And not to touch.  Though Steve supposed that wouldn’t be very conducive to drawing.

 

“I told you,” he said, “I miss your hair.”

 

Tony smiled a little.  “That’s it?” he said.  “Hair?  I never realized you had this thing for my hair, Steve.”

 

Steve shook his head at him.  “Not just that,” he said.  “I just . . .” he was blushing again.  Damn it.  “Spending time with you,” he said.  “A real bed.  Getting some hot dogs together.  Baseball, I don’t know.”  He looked down and shrugged.  “Your date sounds nice, too,” he admitted.

 

When he looked up, Tony was looking at him, his eyes soft.  “I would spend all the time with you that you wanted,” he said in a quiet voice.

 

“No you wouldn’t,” Steve told him, his throat tight and aching.  “You’d blow me off for some interesting circuitry and the newest big idea.”

 

Tony scrunched up his nose and smiled ruefully.  “You know all my faults and want to date me anyway,” he said.  “How did that happen?”

 

“I know your good points, too,” Steve said simply.  He did want to date Tony.  He wished he could.

 

“Is that so,” Tony muttered.

 

Steve sighed.  “What are you working on?” he asked.  He expected Tony to tell him it was . . . an improvement to his Ultron robot detector, something like that.  Instead, Tony stilled and frowned down at his hands.

 

“I don’t quite know,” he said.  “It’s . . . it’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, actually.”

 

“Oh?” Steve asked, giving another look to the device in Tony’s hands as Tony turned it over, again and again.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, but hesitated another minute.  He reached inside his jumpsuit and drew something out, held it in his hand, a small device that glittered oddly against the dark fabric of the undersuit over his fingers.  “Do you know what this is?” he asked, rubbing at it idly with his thumb.

 

“I have no idea,” Steve said honestly.

 

“It’s the central control unit for a time machine Reed built,” Tony said.  “I built a time machine once, you know.  It worked, too.  Not for what I built it for, but . . . .”  He trailed off.

 

“Where did that come from?” Steve asked, baffled.

 

“Uh,” Tony said.  “The Tower.  I’d been working on it with Reed off and on for a . . . for a while.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said.  Had this been why Tony had gone back there?

 

Tony seemed to take that as invitation to explain further.  “We’re done, Steve,” he said earnestly.  “Even if we do find a way to kill Ultron, we’ve . . . we’ve lost.  He’s reshaped the world, we don’t even know if it will be viable for human life long-term after this.  I’m betting it won’t be.  And then there’s . . .” he looked down, took a deep breath, and closed his fist over the device in his hand “. . . all the people we’ve lost, everyone who’s died.  We can’t continue like this.  But there’s no way in hell I’m going to give up and let that damn runaway toaster get away with it.”

 

“So . . . time travel?” Steve looked dubiously at the device in Tony’s hand.  He swallowed, thinking about going back in time.

 

Just a chance to see the others again . . . to see everything the way it had been.

 

“Maybe we get Ultron,” Tony said, “maybe we don’t.  Either way, we can’t go on like this.”  He turned to Steve.  “I know you’re working on a plan,” he said earnestly.  “And now that we know this is coming, I think we have to fight to the end here.  Take him out, somehow, once and for all.  For good.  But we need a failsafe.  We need to prevent this from ever happening at all.”

 

“Can we do that?” Steve asked.  “If we go back in time, won’t all this just happen all over again?”

 

Tony sighed.  “I don’t know,” he said, and looked down at the device again.  “There has to be some way.  I just haven’t figured it out yet.  At least . . .” he hesitated . . . “at least we would know he was coming.”

 

“We knew he was coming before,” Steve sighed.  “You always warned us he’d come back.”

 

“But we weren’t ready,” Tony argued, then shook his head, and his shoulders slumped.  “No,” he said.  “You’re right.  We need more than that.  We need some way to fix this.  To make it right, not just . . . a stopgap.  We can’t let it turn into some kind of sick cycle of time paradoxes.”

 

Steve hadn’t even thought of that possibility.  “We’re not giving up,” he said, and made himself lift his chin, look at Tony straight on.  “You’re going to figure that out.”  He pointed at the device.  “And we’re going to get that damn runaway toaster.”

 

Tony’s breath caught, and then his chin came up, too.  “Right,” he said.  “You got it.  We won’t let him get away with this.”

 

“And you’re right,” Steve said.  “We’re heroes.  We . . . we have to find some way to save them.”  He sighed, looked down.  “Save everyone,” he said in a quieter voice, thinking of all the civilians—all the senseless death.  All the innocents who had died.  So many.  “We can’t lose.  There’s too much at stake.”

 

“If nothing else,” Tony said, “we can make a plan, warn ourselves, in the past.  Be ready.  If everything else fails.  If we can’t beat him here.  A time machine gives us options, Steve.  And we . . .” he gave a wry little smile, a shake of his head.  “We really, really need more options.”

 

They did.  “All right,” Steve said, and sighed, nodded.  Decisively, he thought.  Look decisive.  Be a leader. Be Tony’s leader again.  He raised his head.  “Give us some options, Iron Man.”

 

Tony smiled a little, and Steve knew that look.  “You bet, Cap,” he said.  His jaw firmed, and his eyes already looked determined.  “You bet I will.”

 

Steve knew Tony Stark, so he should have expected it, seen it coming.  In a way, he guessed he had.  It sure didn’t surprise him when Tony insisted that he had to go out of the tunnels again, to the Baxter Building, of all places, to get the components he needed for his time machine.  But that didn’t mean he had to like it.  Tony was one of the most vulnerable people they had left, and they both knew it.  Without the suit, one good hit from one of the robots could easily take him out, and with just his fists, or even a gun, how was he supposed to fight one of them off?  He was in good shape and a fast runner, but Steve could barely outrun one of them, and that was with the serum.  Tony had been sitting here and working and walking the same few feet of tunnel space for days, and Steve knew quite intimately that he’d lost muscle, how thin he felt under his hands.

 

He didn’t want to lose him.  Not him, too.  And he knew it was unnecessary, and over-protective, and just flat-out inappropriate, but he didn’t want Tony to risk himself.  Not like that.  He wanted to keep him safe.

 

If he lost him, now . . . he knew it wasn’t good, wasn’t . . . right.  But Tony had been the one thing . . . the one thing that had made any of this bearable.  Losing him . . . Steve couldn’t.  Do it.  There was something broken inside him, that had broken the day almost everyone he knew had died, the day he’d stood with his shield up and it had shattered around him and he realized that he’d allowed untold millions of civilians to be killed.  And he wouldn’t give up.  He knew he wouldn’t.  He couldn’t.  But the guilt . . . the guilt was what had paralyzed him, had pulled him down with its cold fingers until he felt like he was back under the ice, frozen and drifting.  So many dead.  So many that he’d failed.  Tony had kept him from that—Tony had pulled him out of the ice for the second time, and kept him steady.  If he failed Tony, now . . . if he lost him, Tony’s warm hands and breath, Tony’s steadiness and belief and his refusal to stop moving . . . .

 

If he said that, any of it, he knew Tony would have lost his temper.  He knew he had no right to keep him back, safe out of it, out of the field.  Tony was as much a hero as any of them, and he had the right to make his own decisions.  But Tony was reckless, he had always been reckless, and Steve knew he was tired, and clumsy, and the Baxter Building had been crawling with the robots the last time they’d seen it, and it was far.

 

He’d told Tony to come up with ideas, though.  And this was what Tony had come up with.  And Steve trusted him, he did.  But it was so bad out there, and Tony . . . .

 

“Just . . . be careful,” Steve said.

 

“Careful isn’t really an option, Cap,” Tony said.

 

“Yes,” Steve said, “it is, and you’re gonna be.”

 

“Or what, you’ll ground me?” Tony’s mouth was very wry.  Steve sighed.

 

“C’mon, Tony,” he said, and looked around at the others—none of them were watching.  He took a step forward, brushed his fingers against Tony’s jaw, tilting his head down close to his.  “Just . . . watch yourself out there.”

 

Tony’s mouth was tight.  “Why do I get the big production lecture?” he asked.  “I know what I’m doing, Steve.”

 

“I know you do,” Steve said.

 

“I’ve been an Avenger longer than Clint has, and he’s just as normal a person as I am, and you don’t read him the whole damn text of the riot act whenever he goes out,” Tony said, his jaw setting mutinously.

 

“Tony,” Steve muttered.  He could have said that Tony wasn’t as agile, didn’t have Clint’s aim, that it wasn’t that he was less tough in his head, but he wasn’t built for the same sort of physical activity—and he’d spent more than half his life ill, and Steve couldn’t shake the fear that his heart would give out on him, even now, even though he knew perfectly well that now Tony’s heart was fine.  But he knew Tony Stark, and he knew that that would go down with him like a lead balloon, and besides, it wouldn’t have been entirely fair, so instead he simply told him the truth.  The real truth, however it made him flush.  “Have you ever considered that maybe that’s because I'm not sleeping with Clint?”

 

Tony’s face relaxed a little at that, at least, and his smile got a little looser, and more genuine.  “There is that,” he said, and leaned in, brushed a quick, barely-there kiss along Steve’s jaw.

 

“So I,” and damn it, now he was stumbling over himself, thick-tongued and awkward, “so I worry, and just . . . just take care of yourself out there, you hear me?”

 

Tony looked at him a moment, his eyes dark, then brushed his own mouth with his thumb before he pressed that thumb to Steve’s, tracing it gently over the bow of Steve’s lower lip.  “I’ll do my best,” he said, “to come back to you.  You have my word, babe.  Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Steve said, feeling very warm in the cheeks, his lips tingling, but his throat still felt thick and choked, and his chest hurt.  “Okay.”

 

“I’m going out with Sue,” Tony told him, but his eyes were softer now.  “We’ll watch out for each other.  It’s not the end of the world, big guy.  Well, it is, but it’s not going to happen right this second.”

 

“Watch each other’s backs,” Steve said, swallowing hard.  “And keep an eye out.  You hear?”

 

“Will do, Cap,” Tony said, and tossed him a little salute.

 

Steve let them go.  But as Tony walked down the tunnel, Sue beside him, all he could see was Bucky, turning his back one last time.

 

He shuddered, hugged his arms to his chest, and turned away.

 

He needed to be stronger.  People were counting on him.

 

---

 

“So,” Tony said, looking at Sue’s back.  Her shoulders were very straight, and square, and her spine looked rigid.  She was looking determinedly straight ahead.  “Are you going to be all right, here?”

 

“I’m fine,” she said.  Her voice was very even.  Tight, but even.  “Why wouldn’t I be?”  Her hands clenched into fists at her sides, though.  Tony considered laying a hand on her shoulder.  He wasn’t sure it would be appreciated.  How did you comfort someone for something like that?  Her family had been killed around her, and the world was ending, and now they were going back to the place where it had happened, her home, to get pieces of a time machine because the world was so fucked that they couldn’t figure out anything else to do.  It wasn’t the sort of situation where a few pats on the shoulder were going to do much.

 

“Uh,” Tony said, and concentrated on where he was putting his feet.  There was so much rubble in the street that it was difficult to walk—the soles of the undersuit were tough and solid, but flexible, which meant that though stepping on the pieces of wreckage didn’t hurt, it was tricky to keep his balance.  Wreckage swung above them.  Broken windows glared like jagged teeth, and the sunlight of the day just made it all feel more jarring, more garish and harsh.  Tony’s head hurt in the light after so much time spent in the tunnels, but then, his head hurt all the time, anyway, this was just a slightly sharper pain than normal.  “I know this can’t be easy,” he tried, blinking to clear his watering eyes.

 

Sue sighed.  “No,” she said.  “Of course it isn’t.  But I’d rather do this than sit around and wait.”  Tony couldn’t blame her for that.  “And it would make me feel better, I guess, if something Reed made helped you get rid of Ultron in the end,” she said finally.

 

Tony could understand that, too.  This time he did reach out and rest a hand on her shoulder.  “We’re not going to give up,” he promised.

 

“I didn’t think you were,” Sue told him.

 

“You didn’t?” he said in some surprise.

 

“I’ve never known you to give up,” she said, looking at him now.

 

Tony shrugged and looked away.  “There’s a first time for everything,” he said.

 

“Well, apparently this isn’t it,” she said.  “Because you have a plan.”  She gave him a look.  “You do have a plan, don’t you?”

 

“Excuse me,” Tony said, stung.  “I’d hardly send us both out into this much danger for no reason, would I?”

 

“That’s what I thought,” Sue said.  She sounded satisfied.

 

Tony wished she wouldn’t.  The idea of her having faith in him after he’d failed to see this coming, failed them all this badly—failed to save so many people—made his skin crawl.  But he supposed he’d asked for that.  He’d set himself up as the guy with an idea, he always had.  Now he had to pull himself together and see if he could manage to live up to that.  It was too late, maybe, to win the first round, but that didn’t mean he was allowed to give up.

 

There was too much at stake.  Too much to lose.  This could give them a chance—a real chance.  What’s more, it could give all the people they’d already lost the chance they couldn’t have any other way.  Which meant they had to try.  Had to at least give it a shot.

 

Tony wasn’t going to let that damn robot win.  It might very well be the last thing he did, but . . . it wasn’t such a bad way to die, was it?  Not a bad legacy, saving the human race.

 

Haha.  He was getting ahead of himself.  Besides, it wouldn’t just be him.  He wasn’t alone in this.  He never had been.  This was about all of them.  If they did actually beat Ultron, they’d do it together.  Jesus, stop making it all about yourself, Stark.  Not that that was anything new, was it?

 

He sighed and looked up at the street ahead of them, casting his gaze around for any robots—it looked clear, so that was good—and then cast his gaze back down to watch where he was going.  Sue’s feet were soft on the rubble beside him.

 

He wondered what attracted the Ultron bots.  Did they just do random patrols?  Or were certain actions more likely to alert them?  Were they attracted to motion, or was it something else?  He wondered if the only reason they didn’t turn on each other was because of being tied to each other in some way.  Did they have a hive mind?  Identify-friend-foe protocols?  Most of the intelligences Ultron had made had had some sort of sense of each other, been tied together.  Maybe the robots were a self-replicating system, much like Ultron himself.  They sure as hell looked like him.  How else could he have come up with so many of the things?  And how had he made so many of them without anyone noticing, anyway?

 

Well, whatever attracted them, it wasn’t attracting them now, which he supposed he should be glad of, since he sure didn’t know what the hell he would do if they came upon them now.  Hope Sue was quick on the trigger with the invisibility, he supposed.  Which she was, of course, he knew he could trust her to keep them both safe.  But it was probably better if they were able to get to the building before exhausting themselves, considering how difficult things would no doubt become once they got there.

 

It was exhausting enough just crossing the city.  It was surprising to realize how much you’d taken fast transport for granted.  And then you no longer had it and you were trudging across New York City and you realized you’d been walking the same mile or so of tunnel every day for how long now and you started to curse every atrophied muscle you’d ever had.  It was embarrassing, was what it was.  Tony gritted his teeth and pushed through it, shoving the discomfort to the back of his mind.  He needed to be up for some kind of action once they got there, after all.  He was just going to have to deal with it.  At least what was left of Extremis in his cells kept his muscles from atrophying too badly.  He’d redesigned his body for maximum efficiency, after all.  So that was something.  Hopefully it would be enough.  He didn’t want to be the burden here.  He kept talking to keep his mind off the dragging whine of his body—it was a nervous reflex, and part of him knew he was probably being obnoxious, rambling on about circuitry and flight trajectories, but he couldn’t stop himself.  Finally, Sue asked him to be quiet, and so he started biting the inside of his lips to keep it back.  “Sorry,” he said, with his best grin, to make up for it.  “Bad habit.”

 

“I know,” she said, smiling slightly.  “But please.”

 

“Say no more,” he said.  “Or actually, that would be me.  Shutting my mouth starting now, I swear.”

 

At least that got her to smile a little more—hey, he was good for something.  And considering the trip they were on, he took it as a personal achievement.  They completed the rest of the trek to the Baxter Building in silence.

 

The building was a burned-out wreck of itself.  Tony was a little surprised by how bad it was.  He’d known it was bad.  But he supposed that hadn’t quite sunk in.  It was crumbling, large sections of it blown clean off, leaving the rooms inside visible.  Furniture had been tossed out to lie all over the ground around it, along with sections of rebar and insulation, electrical wiring.  Dust was layered thick on everything he could see as they slowly made their way inside, the windows all blown out with gaping darkness inside.  There was a bit of flickering light from various electrical cables, but Tony was wary of getting too close to any of them.  The light of his undersuit cast a blue glow over everything that even he thought looked a little eerie.  Luckily he wasn’t aiming to be a ninja or anything.  Sue made a soft sound as they crept inside, and he looked over at her, but her jaw was set, and there was determination flashing in her eyes.

 

“Let’s do this,” she said.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Tony agreed.  It was about time they did something to take the fight to Ultron to a change, after all, wasn’t it?  Even if that thing was just climbing up the wreckage of what used to be a home for some of the best people he’d ever met, a center for the future and science, a stronghold of heroism.  And now it was nothing more than a burnt out husk.

 

It was surreal to be picking through wreckage of a building he’d known so well and yet not owned, not lived in himself.  Somehow it was different from the pain of going through the Mansion, through the Tower—less sharp, maybe, but even more bizarre for all that.  It didn’t stop his throat and twist at his chest the way returning to the Mansion after its destruction always had, didn’t make humiliating heat sting at his eyes the way it had as he turned his back on the rubble of the Tower.  But seeing places where he’d sat to talk to Reed, tables where he’d eaten dinner as a guest torn and shredded . . . he hadn’t been prepared for how much of a wrench it gave him, the bizarre feeling of displacement it left, like he was seeing two different things at once.

 

He knew how it must feel for Sue, but he didn’t want to intrude on that grief.  That was hers.  If she wanted his sympathy, she had it—but she had to know that.  She was focused on what they were here for, and he wasn’t going to insult her by demanding they stop and talk about feelings she probably had no desire to plumb the depths of right then, especially since they really couldn’t afford to.

 

He asked Sue where she thought they should be headed.  It was her place, after all, and even though he knew where he’d spent time hashing things out with Reed and pouring over new theories, she’d know better where Reed had actually stored the tech.  But she agreed with him that the Omega Room was the place they should try for first.  Of course it was near the top of the building, because that was how these things went.

 

He was pretty worried about the structural integrity of the place, especially as they got higher.  It was hard enough scrambling up over stairs and from support pylon to support pylon (Sue’s force-fields were already coming in handy), but he was worried about how the building might be holding up around them, too.  A lot of the structural support had been damaged, and he could see the scoring and breaks in the load-bearing walls, even apart from the simple fact that huge portions of the walls, floors, and ceilings were missing.  Tony trailed his fingers along the wall, noticing how they sank into the dust, trying to get a feel for how badly it had been damaged.  “Is there a service stairway around here someplace?” he asked.

 

Sue turned to look back at him.  “Yes,” she said, and nodded behind them.  “Over that way.  Why?”

 

“Because I’m pretty sure the floor over on that side of the building isn’t going to hold us,” Tony said.  “I’d rather save the falling and going splat for our encounters with death robots, if you know what I mean.”

 

Sue shook her head at him.  “No one’s going splat,” she said, but she did turn back and lead the way in the direction of the service stairwell.  The staircase wasn’t really much better—and dark as hell—but at least Tony wasn’t afraid of its imminent collapse.  He took the lead here, the light from the undersuit at least letting them see where they were putting their feet.  He’d brought a flashlight, but something in him resisted using it until they absolutely had to.  After all, batteries weren’t exactly easy to come by these days.

 

They reached the next floor and looked around for the next set of stairs.  They had only a little warning before it happened—an entire section of floor creaked, started to crumble, and then fell away.  Tony realized it was happening a moment before it actually started to disintegrate, got his feet under him, and lunged at Sue, who gasped, fell back under his weight—and barely caught them with a force field.  They were still both sliding toward the edge, but Tony flung out one hand, grabbed hold of the concrete flooring, and dragged himself up onto it, holding Sue around the waist with his other hand.  Luckily, she wasn’t half as heavy as some of the others would have been—if she’d been Luke Cage, say, there was no way he’d have been to catch her with one hand; the pull of mass alone would have made it impossible.

 

“It’s all right,” she said a moment later, gasping.  “I’ve got us, sorry.”  He let go of her, and found that they were safely pillowed on a flat surface.   “I didn’t want to push too hard against the . . .” she said, and waved at the crumbling floor below them.

 

“Yeah,” he said, “no, don’t want to stress it.  Gotcha.  No big deal.”  He panted, still catching his breath.  He eyed the concrete floor next to them, wanting to be sure it wasn’t going to crumble under his weight and start the process all over again.  But it seemed fine, and when he rolled over onto his back on top of it, nothing gave way.  “Okay,” he said.  “Great.  This is . . . great.  Solid.  Awesome.  Let’s not do that again, though.”

 

“No guarantees,” Sue said, as she followed him, the force field dissipating behind her.

 

“How many more floors?” he asked, pushing himself up.

 

She made a face.  “About ten.”

 

“You made this building too big,” he told her.

 

“That’s pretty rich,” she said, smiling a little, “coming from you, Mr. Stark.”

 

“Don’t talk to me about that,” he said.  “That’s not fair.”

 

“I think it is,” she said, picking herself up.

 

“Sins of my youth,” he said.  “Products of an ego run wild.”

 

“That’s true,” she said.

 

“Stop smirking at me,” he told her, and got to his feet.  His head throbbed, and his shoulders ached, but all in all, could have been worse.  “So . . . headed up?”

 

“After you,” she told him.

 

“Ladies first,” he told her.

 

It was inevitable, he figured, that the floor would collapse on them at least once.  He wasn’t eager for it to happen again, though, so he kept an even closer eye on the floor and walls after that.  At least it kept him from concentrating on anything else, like the fact that they were picking through Sue’s home for spare parts.  There was fallen debris all over the stairs, holes in the walls where rooms had spilled their contents into the stairwell, and whenever they came across anything that wasn’t utterly in pieces, Tony stopped long enough to look it over.  He had brought a pack along, and he did pick through whatever stray pieces of tech they found that he thought might not be too dangerous, picking them up if they were small enough not to weigh him down.  They still had to leap a lot of holes in the floor, unless they were big enough to use a force field to cover them, and by the time they reached the floor they were aiming for, they were both sweaty and tired.

 

“When the robots first attacked,” Sue said, and trailed off, as they approached the room in question.  “We were here,” she finally said.  “There might be a lot of damage.”

 

Tony shrugged.  “No different from anywhere else,” he said.  “I don’t necessarily need the parts in perfect condition.  Anything is better than nothing.”

 

“There might not be anything,” Sue insisted.  “What do we do then?”

 

“Go back and be glad of the exercise?” Tony asked.  “Come on, Sue.  We agreed.  We have to give it a shot, right?  If there’s nothing, there’s nothing.”

 

She sighed.  “You’re right, of course,” she said.  “I’m sorry.  I just . . . I hope there’s something you can use.”  She gave him a tight, forced smile, and then stepped forward, leading the way into the room itself.

 

Tony immediately wished he’d been a little more diplomatic—Ben, Johnny, and Reed had died here.  God, Stark, learn a little tact in your old age.  But it was too late for that now.  He followed her in.

 

The room looked a lot different than it had the last time he’d seen it, even apart from the gigantic holes punched through the roof.  Parts of the ceiling were crumbling, hanging by rebar.  The machines were broken and dead, crumpled like tinfoil.  There were blast marks in the floor, along the walls, craters in the floor.  Broken exercise equipment lay in one corner, dishes and pans scattered all along the floor.  They must have fallen from the floors above.  Lab equipment littered the room, more debris from higher floors.  Tony looked up through the holes in the roof and realized that there wasn’t really any point to going higher, anyway—the higher floors had been blasted even more badly, and probably anything up there that was still usable had already fallen down here.  Even if it hadn’t, going up any higher would just be asking to fall their deaths, which wasn’t exactly the goal he’d had in mind for this little trip.

 

There were pieces of clothing, broken furniture.  He tried not to think about that too deeply as he moved into the room and got to work.

 

He worked as quickly as he could, but it was slow going.  He was familiar with a lot of Reed’s tech, for one thing, but it still wasn’t always immediately accessible, even to him.  Seeing it in pieces didn’t exactly help with that.  He was looking for a very few specific components, but finding them required thoroughness, and thoroughness meant he spent a lot of time picking at wires with his fingers and fiddling with the screwdriver he’d brought along.  Sue helped, but it still took a frustratingly long time.

 

There were pieces of Ultron robots littered around.  Sue shied away from them, turned her eyes away, glared at him with a shocked look on her face when he started toward one of them, rolled it over and looked at it.

 

He gave her an apologetic shrug—he got it, he really did, but they were never going to beat Ultron until they figured out how these things worked.  Until they had a way in.  And his thoughts earlier had given him an idea, that he might be able to disrupt their systems—if he had a better sense of what made them tick, if they had a hive mind, for example, he might have a shot at it.  He hadn’t had a chance this good to look at one of them before.

 

He spent some time going over them, even though he knew they had to hurry.  The systems started to look awfully familiar, and not just because he’d dealt with Ultron before—and then, with a weird nauseating sense of realization, he knew why.  He’d had Ultron in his head before, not just at the start of all this, trying to rewrite his systems, but before that, back before the Skrulls had invaded.  If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could feel the connections, ghostly traces of the same systems, the code he’d used to write the firewalls that kept Ultron out of him this time.  Being close to the Ultron bot was making something in the back of his head hum; it put his teeth on edge.  Resonating in proximity?  That gave him an idea.  He opened up the back of its head.  If there was a cluster of wires that served as a transmitter to the others—he yanked on a likely group of them.

 

The humming stopped.

 

So, they did have a hive mind of sorts.  He wondered if he could tap into that somehow, confuse them—get them to target each other.  They certainly hadn’t had that much luck fighting them so far.  If he could scramble the signal they used to recognize each other . . . .  He shifted forward so he could get a closer look at the robot’s hardware.  If he’d still been able to link up remotely . . . but just the thought of it made his persistent headache flare up, and anyway, he hadn’t been able to do that for a long time now.

 

He knew they weren’t going to have much time here, but this was important.  He worked as quickly as he could, stripping it down to its component parts and wiring them back together with some of the bits and pieces of things he could scrounge from Reed’s tech and consoles.  He packed more of the same pieces away.  It was better to be safe than sorry, after all.  He might need them again.  He wasn’t sure how many times he’d have a chance to use a device like this.

 

That done, he went back to looking for the parts he’d need for a time machine.  He rubbed at his forehead, still throbbing, and thought about the Time Gem.  That would sure come in handy about now.  But that was pointless.  There wasn’t going to be any Infinity Gauntlet to save them this time.

 

“Tony, are you about ready to go?” Sue asked.  “We’ve been here in this room almost two hours.  I don’t like staying in one place for so long.  It seems like asking for trouble.”

 

She was right, of course.  They’d been here far too long.  And she couldn’t be enjoying this, either, sitting in the remains of what had been the panic room created to protect her and her family, the room where most of them had fought to their deaths.  He’d better wrap this up, even if only for her sake.

 

“Yeah,” he said, pulling the last of the components into his bag.  “I’m about ready to go.  Just give me a few more seconds, and we can be out of here and back before you know it.”

 

“Make sure you get what you need,” she said, but she did look eager to be out of there.  Her face was pained.  Tony was sorry to have done this to her, but he certainly wouldn’t have been able to do this without her, and she was right, he needed to be sure he had everything before they left.  He turned the flashlight down, reaching for the device he’d made earlier, tinkering with it a bit more—he just wanted to make sure it would—

 

“Tony, get down!” Sue shouted.  Tony dropped automatically, one hand clutching the device to his chest.  He could hear the whining buzz of the Ultron robots above them and rolled onto his shoulder just in time to see the lasers pass right over their heads, slicing a hot, vivid line into the consoles behind them.  Sue was holding out her hands, shielding them both with a force field.  There were three of the big ones, coming down through the holes in the roof.

 

Oh, boy, here it comes, he thought, and sure enough, a moment later, there it was, in the harsh, buzzing electronic tones of Ultron: “SUBMIT OR PERISH.

 

“Kinky as ever,” Tony gasped.  The light of the lasers flickered over them through the dark room, intersecting with the wild light of the flashlight he was still holding in his other hand.  Sue glared at him, and he just smiled ruefully at her, shrugging one shoulder, and held up the device significantly, jerking his chin to the side.  It was going to get a field test a lot sooner than he’d envisioned, but there you had it.  The lasers weren’t hitting them, but they were burning into the consoles and the floor on their other side—flooring that hadn’t been all that stable to begin with.

 

Sue nodded, and Tony tensed, getting ready to move as much as he could in that position, getting the device in his hand ready.  A moment later she flung herself to the side, and he threw it, active, into the air.

 

It released a quick, ear-piercing noise, a ramping up whine that ratcheted into the shriek of electronic feedback, then flashed with red-orange light.  A moment later it exploded.  Tony just lay there on his back for a moment, not wanting to move and maybe give them something to latch onto while they were confused, using one arm to shield his face from the explosion.

 

“SUB-MIT,” one of them ground out.  “OR PERISH.  PERISH.”  Another laser swept out—cutting through the floor, and Tony scrambled to his feet now, yelled at Sue for her to move, go, go—and swept across the other Ultron bot diagonally, cutting it neatly in half before it went through the head.  Tony was still moving when it began to fall, realized he was standing right under it and threw himself forward—

 

It neatly blew out the outside wall as it clipped the side, then exploded.  Tony hit on his shoulder, hard, did his best to grab hold, reaching for something to anchor him—his fingers slid along rough concrete, hooked into the wires of a console and held.  His shoulder wrenched painfully.  His fingers began to slip, he scrabbled desperately for another handhold, then was blown free, the shockwave smacking him back like someone swatting at a fly.  He must have blacked out for a moment, but when he blinked and his eyes opened he was in free fall, wind buffeting him as it rushed past his face.  He had just a moment to think that blown up by his own tech was a really, really obnoxiously fitting way to go, and another moment to desperately miss Bleeding Edge and Extremis or anything that would have saved him as easily as a thought—

 

And then Sue was there, her slim body smacking into his with a thud that knocked him roughly back against the surprisingly smooth, solid surface that was suddenly beneath him.  He looked down to see the ground still rushing up at them, despite the force field his shoulders and back rested solidly against.  It was alarmingly bright out in the air after the darkness of the building.  The pack he had brought was sliding down above him, even though he’d lost hold of it as he fell, and he caught it, snagging it with his fingers in the strap as it slid past him.  “Wow, nice save,” he gasped as her arms slid under his.

 

“Hold on tight,” she said, and he held tightly to her, tightening his fingers in her jumpsuit, and watched as they slid out of sight.


They had a surprisingly soft landing, after all of it, though there was still a bit of a jolt.  They slid down off the force field and landed in an invisible pile of limbs in one of the piles of debris close to the Tower.  Tony landed on his back with an oof, Sue on top of him.  Maybe it would be better to stay still a second, he thought—didn’t want the robots to figure out where they’d gone—and then he realized that Sue was shaking.  He thought she might be laughing, but she was definitely making some sort of hysterical noise.

 

“Sue,” he said.  “Sue.”  He put both arms around her and pulled her into his shoulder as she gasped, fighting for breath, ran one hand up until he could trace it along the back of her neck and sink it into her invisible hair.  It was dirty, greasy and slick against his fingers.  Her breath felt very warm against his neck.  He was pretty sure she was crying.  “We made it,” he said.  “It’s okay.  We’re okay.”

 

“There’s just—there was already so little left and now—it.  It exploded,” she gasped against his neck.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry, I’ll be all right.  That was brilliant, Tony.  But it’s just—Reed made that—room to.  To protect us and.”

 

“Shh,” Tony told her.  “It’s okay.  It’s okay, Sue.”  He held her tighter.  “We’re not in a big rush.  “It’s okay.”  He lay on his back, invisible, watching his own fingers flicker into view and then out again as Sue shook and sobbed into his shoulder.  There was another explosion in the Baxter Building, then another, and then everything was still.

 

At least they had what they came for.  He stroked the back of Sue’s neck, turned his forehead to rest it against her hair.

 

---

 

It was a few hours later when they limped back to the tunnels, as they had to spend some time ducking into abandoned buildings to avoid more Ultron patrols, and both of were determined to be as careful as they could so as not to lead any of them back toward the tunnels.  Finally, they decided to use a different entrance than the one in Central Park and slipped into an old subway station.  There was more wading through muck that way, but at least it kept most of the walking underground.  The pack was heavy against Tony’s shoulders, and his shoulder throbbed, but it was a welcome ache.  They’d got what they’d gone out for, and he’d managed to turn the Ultron robots on each other for a change.  That was something.  (He felt like there was something else about it, nagging at the back of his mind, something he was missing, something deeper and even more important, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, trace the patterns back to whatever he was looking for.)  Sue had eventually shrugged his arm off her shoulders, insisting she was all right with a forced, determined smile, and Tony knew about how that sort of smile felt—he wasn’t going to be the one to shatter that determination for her, so he nodded and accepted it, and they continued on.

 

That brought them through the tunnels the back way, something Tony only really thought about when they reached the main areas again and it occurred to him.  Sue gave him a look, he looked back, and they stepped forward into the central area with the bunks.  Tony had left the scanner with Emma, and she immediately stepped up to run it over them, congratulating them on making it back in one piece and with something to show for it.

 

Tony was already looking for Steve, an automatic reflex by this point that he couldn’t seem to shake.  He found him sitting on a bunk toward the other entrance, with Logan.  They had been sitting, and talking, cards scattered across the bed between them.  As Tony watched, Steve nodded to Logan and stood, making his way across the room toward them.

 

“Clean?” he asked Emma as he approached, and she nodded.

 

“Yes,” she said.  “Of Ultron’s influence, anyway, which is the best any of us can say.”

 

“True enough,” Tony muttered.

 

“And are you all right?” Steve asked Sue.  “I’m sorry we had to send you back to your home like that.  I know it can’t have been easy.”  His face was grave, sorrowful, and he radiated as much sincerity as ever.

 

“It wasn’t,” she said, her voice raw and a little honest.  “But I’m all right.”  She smiled at Steve.  “Thank you.”

 

“Thank you,” he said.  “For going.”

 

“The least I could do,” she said, and laid one hand on Steve’s arm, then turned away, heading for the others.

 

Steve turned to Tony.  “How’d it go?” he asked.

 

Suddenly, Tony was at a loss for words.  He swallowed, his throat dry.  Steve’s eyes seemed very blue.  “Fine,” he said, finally.  “It went fine.  Oh.  We blew up a few Ultron bots.  I didn’t get a head, though.  That can be your thing.”

 

“And you’re all right?” Steve insisted, his arm making its way to Tony’s shoulder, where it settled, and he squeezed.  Tony desperately didn’t want to wince, but he couldn’t keep back a slight jerk, and concern filled Steve’s eyes, tension winding tight in his shoulders.  “Are you hurt?” he asked, already patting his hand down over Tony’s back.

 

Tony caught his wrists.  “I’m fine,” he said.  He gave Steve his best reassuring smile.  “I’m fine.  Just a little bruised, that’s all.”

 

“A little bruised?” Steve said.  Tony had a feeling that in a second Steve was going to start stripping him down in front of everyone, and not in a sexy way at all, just to get a good look at how badly injured he was.

 

It wasn’t something that was high on his personal fantasies list.  “It’s okay,” he said.  “I’m fine.  Honest.  We got what we went out for.  It’s all good.”

 

Steve’s jaw was tight, set and working.  “I’ve heard that before,” he muttered.

 

Tony sighed, rolled his eyes.  “Okay, fine, you want a play by play?” he asked.

 

“Please,” Steve said flatly, and crossed his arms across his chest.

 

Tony blinked at him, at the set of his shoulders, his jaw, the flexed muscles in his arms.  That was a Cap pose if he’d ever seen one.  It was that, more than anything else, that got the words out of him.  He hadn’t seen that in a while.  It was damn good to see it again.

 

“I’d been thinking about how they communicate to each other, how they detect us, on the way there,” Tony told him.  “I figured they must have some kind of hive mind.  So while I was looking for the components I needed, I took a look at some of the pieces of . . . well, Ultron, lying around.  There were three of them, eventually, and it was a good thing I’d been tinkering—I think I’ve found a way to jam their signals, Steve.  I just don’t know how many of them it’ll work on at a time.  Anyway, there was an explosion, or several, and I ended up maybe falling out of the building, but Sue was on top of it, and, well, me, so it was all good.”  He leaned forward, brushed his fingers lightly against Steve’s jaw, curled them back against his hair.  “I told you I’d come back to you,” he said.

 

“You said you’d try,” Steve said.  His voice shook a little, and he looked down, though his jaw was tight, bunched and stoic.

 

“I did try,” Tony told him.  “And I did a pretty good job, right?  See, all one piece.”

 

“You fell out of the Baxter Building?” Steve bit out in a low, tight whisper.

 

“And I’m fine,” Tony said, insistently, bringing the conversation back around to the most important point.  Steve put his hands on his hips and exhaled noisily.  “Steve, look at me,” he said.  “I’m fine, all right?”

 

Steve nodded, dragging his chin up.  He sighed.  “You said you turned them against each other,” he said, after a moment.

 

Tony nodded.  “I have the components to build the device I used again,” he said, and patted the pack under his arm.  “I don’t want to use it too much—they might start adapting if we do.  And I don’t have the resources to make many more of them.”

 

“Still,” Steve said.  “That’s . . . well, it’s a hope.  It’s more than we had before.  Good work, Tony.”

 

Tony made a face.  He’d have done better to been prepared.  To have stopped Ultron in the first place.  “Better than nothing, I guess,” he said.

 

“A lot better,” Steve said, and it was his turn to sound insistent.  Tony shrugged.

 

“I’m working on it,” he said.  “We’ll see.”

 

“I’m sure we will,” Steve said.  He was giving Tony a strange look.  His eyes looked very soft, but his lips were oddly tight.

 

“What’s up?” Tony asked.

 

“I’m just . . . glad you came back,” Steve said quietly, not breaking eye contact.  It was . . . intense.  Made Tony feel a little dizzy.

 

“I kept an eye out,” he said, stupidly.

 

He didn’t say what he was thinking.  That he couldn’t afford to die, not yet.  Steve still needed him.  And they hadn’t beaten Ultron yet.

 

“Well,” Steve said.  “Good job, Avenger.”

 

Tony couldn’t keep looking at him like this; it was too much, with that look in his eyes, all the emotion brimming there, making them bright.  He was going to do something stupid, like snap and kiss him full on the mouth in front of everyone, or faint, or something.  “So,” he said.  “Tech.  To look at.”

 

Steve’s mouth did a strange thing, twisted, wobbled a little, before it smoothed out again.

 

“And you . . . have a card game?” Tony tried, looking at Logan over Steve’s shoulder, still sitting on the bed.

 

“Yeah, I’m winning,” Steve said, and his lips quirked slightly, though the smile didn’t even come close to reaching his eyes.

 

That was still something.  More like it, anyway.  “Go get ‘em, tiger,” Tony told him.

 

Steve huffed out a little breath of a laugh.  “I told you,” he said.  “Blow me off for some interesting circuitry.”

 

Tony felt his own smile turn rueful, and his cheeks felt a little hot, now.  Oops.  “Well, I’ll make it up to you tonight,” he said.

 

“Is that a fact?” Steve asked.

 

“Wait and see,” Tony told him, and he couldn’t help it, he raised one hand, brushed his thumb against Steve’s lips again, quickly.   Steve ducked his head, looking down so those stupidly long blond eyelashes fell across his eyes, and pressed his lips to Tony’s thumb in a soft kiss.

 

It tingled all the way down his thumb into his palm like a jolt of fire, despite the softness of the touch of Steve’s lips.  Tony swallowed, and it felt thick in his throat.

 

“All right,” Steve breathed, and reached up with one hand to curl it around Tony’s wrist and squeeze, briefly, as Tony moved his hand away, his thumb stroking down over Tony’s pulse.  “Later.”

 

“Okay,” Tony said, and cursed himself for sounding all breathless and weird.  It was stupid, but he couldn’t seem to help it.  “Later.”  They couldn’t do this, not in front of all of the rest of them.  Though he wasn’t even quite sure what they were doing.  Or how a relationship between them was even supposed to work.  Or what this was.  They still needed to be a little more private about it than this, surely.

 

Steve smiled at him a little, and it was only after he’d watched him go that Tony realized that he was just standing there, watching him walk away.  He couldn’t be any more obvious if he’d hired a skywriter.  He shook his head at himself and got to work.

 

Steve was the one who came and got him when it was time to go to bed that night.  Tony blinked in surprise, rubbed fingers stained with oil and grease across his forehead, then made a face, even as Steve’s hand settled gently onto his shoulder.  “Hey there,” Steve said.  “Get a lot of work done?”

 

“I’m a mess, aren’t I?” Tony said, ruefully, looking at the oil all over his hands.

 

“Little bit,” Steve said, a smile tugging just very slightly at one corner of his mouth.  “You could always strip down,” he said.  His fingers wandered down over Tony’s spine, skimming over each vertebra with touches that felt soft through the undersuit.  “Let me clean you up.”

 

They’d just been wiping themselves down when they could, cleaning up as much as possible, since there wasn’t really any way to bathe.  If they’d had more privacy, Tony would definitely have taken Steve up on that offer, but he figured the others didn’t really need to see what passed for their leadership with their hands all over each other.  “Steven Rogers, are you propositioning me?” he asked, doing his best to make it teasing.

 

Steve flushed a bit.  “I just want to get you out of that,” he said, nodding at Tony’s undersuit.  His fingers came up, brushed over the curve of his skull.

 

“Right,” Tony said, nodding.  “Your fetish for my hair.”

 

“Tony,” Steve said, flushing and smiling a little sheepishly, looking down.  “It’s not just that.”

 

“Look,” Tony said, and took advantage of the hand Steve had offered him to get to his feet, this time.  “You get changed and head to bed, and I’ll clean all this stuff off me and be right there.”

 

“All right,” Steve said, with a sigh.  “Fine.”  He brushed at a bit of grease on Tony’s cheek with his thumb, rubbed it off, then drew his hand back.  “I’ll see you.”

 

Tony hurried through cleaning up, wiping himself down quickly and efficiently before he pulled the undersuit back on and went to find Steve, though he left the section that usually covered his hair down around his neck while it dried.  When he sat down beside Steve, already in sweatshirt and pants, on the bed, his hand, somewhat predictably, immediately gravitated toward Tony’s hair, burying itself in the soft, damp tousle of it, his fingers curling into it, his thumb resting just over Tony’s ear.

 

“It’s not that, huh?” Tony said, smiling wryly at Steve.

 

“Not just that, I said,” Steve said, smiling that little sheepish smile again, but he didn’t remove his hand from Tony’s hair.

 

It felt good.  Scratch that, it felt amazing—Steve being the one to come and get him, Steve smiling, even lightly teasing him back . . . Tony hadn’t dared hope for this much ever again, and he wasn’t quite certain what to do with it now that he had it.  His chest felt very tight, and that persistent thickness and ache was back in his throat.  He wasn’t sure it would last, but it was still . . . it was good.

 

“Well,” he said, casting his gaze down at his hands to hide his embarrassing moment of emotion, “what is mine is yours.  Fetishize away.”

 

Steve sighed.  “I don’t have a fetish for your hair, Tony,” he said.  But his fingers were still curling in it.

 

“Aww,” Tony said, teasing again, or trying to, though he was still looking down, across the room, “and I had such big dreams, too, Rogers.”

 

“Fine,” Steve said, and ruffled his hair, fingers moving up to stroke it back from his face.  “Fine.  You win.  I have a fetish.  If that’s what you want to call it.”

 

Tony smirked at him.  It felt strange on his face.  He sighed.  “So,” he said.  “Talking to Logan, huh?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, after a moment.  His hand stilled on the back of Tony’s neck.  He looked away.  “I talked to everyone,” he said.  “I felt like I should.  Be there for them.  You know.  Be a leader.  But Logan . . . we . . .” he faltered.  “He knew Bucky, too,” he said, finally.

 

Tony didn’t quite know what to say to that, felt inadequate in the face of Steve’s grief, like he always had.  He let his hand move onto Steve’s knee and squeeze.  Steve sighed, and dropped his hand to cover Tony’s, and they sat there for a second.  Steve was looking down at their hands.  Tony swallowed.

 

“So,” Steve said, “tell me about your idea.”

 

“Which?” Tony asked.  “I have more than one.”

 

“The time machine,” Steve said.

 

“To tell you the truth, it’s not really a time machine,” Tony admitted.  “Not how you’d usually think of one, anyway.  It’s more like a time reverser.  Or, well, sort of.”

 

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Steve said.  He was still looking down at their hands.  “What does that mean for us, then?” He looked up, peered at Tony questioning.  He looked tired.  His hair was falling down into his eyes, short as it was.  Tony gave into the urge to push it back, tracing his fingers over Steve’s forehead.  Steve sighed and leaned into the touch.  It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Steve that they’d talk about it in the morning, to lie back and get some rest.  But Steve wanted to talk; he wasn’t going to insult him like that.

 

“As far as I can tell, it means we have more than once chance at taking out Ultron,” Tony said.  “Either that, or we take out Ultron and rewind time and tell them this happened and just hope we can give them a shot at taking him out for good.  Or it can function to send one person back, but by doing that it erases the timeline they came from.  And that person wouldn’t have long in the past, either.  The transference would be unstable.  They’d start to phase out of existence.”

 

“That doesn’t sound good,” Steve murmured.

 

Tony sighed.  “It’s not,” he said.  “Which is why going back in time is a desperation tactic.  Options, like I said.  But I want to know that we can take Ultron out for sure before we do anything else.”

 

There was a moment of silence before Steve said it.  “Can we?” he asked.

 

Tony shrugged.  “I have some ideas,” he said.  “Let me get back to you on them.  I need a few more days.”  He needed time to figure out what exactly that nagging sequence of numbers, that pattern in the back of his head, was trying to tell him.

 

“I can give you a few more days,” Steve said.  He stroked his hand down over Tony’s neck, over the hollow of his throat.  “You’ll figure it out.”

 

“I’d better,” Tony said with a wry, bitter little laugh.  “I’d better.”

 

“We won’t give up,” Steve said.  “We . . . we have to win.  We can’t let this be it.”  His jaw firmed.  “We survived for a reason.  We’re going to make that count.”

 

“That’s the spirit, Cap,” Tony said.  He felt tired.  His shoulder ached.  His head hurt.  He hunched them inward, then straightened up again, made himself smile at Steve.

 

Steve looked at him a moment, smiled a little back, though his brow was furrowed.  Tony hoped whatever was troubling him, it wasn’t anything he’d done.  That was the last thing he wanted.  “Bed?” he tried.

 

Steve nodded.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Bed.”

 

“How do you want to—” Tony nodded at their narrow bunk.

 

“Usual position is fine,” Steve said.  He shrugged a little.  “I like it.”  He looked down, spoke more quietly.  “Your arms around me.”

 

“Okay, then,” Tony said.  Huh.  That was a bit of a surprise.  He was glad Steve liked it, though.  That was good.  “Then we’ll do that.”

 

Steve smiled at him a little, then laid down, curling his knees up, the way he had to in order to fit himself into the bunk.  Tony laid down beside him, pressed his face into the back of Steve’s neck, pulled the blankets up around them, before curling his arms around Steve’s waist.  Steve sighed, and Tony could feel it as tension bled out of his back and shoulders.  He pressed closer.

 

“Weren’t you going to . . .” Steve muttered, very low.  “Um, you said.”

 

“Later,” Tony murmured into the back of his neck.  He stroked his hand down over Steve’s chest.  “Wait till everyone’s asleep.”  This was the first time they’d actually talked about the whole having sex thing.  It felt a little surreal.

 

“Mmm,” Steve agreed.  He took Tony’s hand, curled his fingers around it.  His thumb stroked down the inside of Tony’s wrist.  He had a thing for that, Tony reflected.  Hand against Tony’s pulse, on the inside of his wrist.  But he wasn’t complaining.  “Okay,” Steve said, after a moment.  “I . . . uh.  Clint was giving me a hard time about it.  Said I . . . we make . . . noise.”  His ears were turning a little red.

 

Oh, damn.  Though that blush was fairly adorable, Tony had to admit.  “That’s probably mostly me,” he admitted, apologetic, brushing his lips over the back of Steve’s neck.  “You’re pretty quiet.  Does that . . .” he hesitated “. . . bother you?  That they know?”

 

“Hell no,” Steve said firmly.  “Of course it doesn’t.  It’s just . . .” he blushed a little pinker, down the back of his neck.  “Embarrassing,” he muttered.

 

“Sorry,” Tony said.

 

“Don’t be,” Steve replied, quickly.  “I like the . . .” he shrugged, turned to partly bury his face in the pillow.  “Noises.”

 

Tony raised his eyebrows at him.  “Do you,” he said, grinning against the back of his neck.

 

Steve was turning steadily redder.  “Yes,” he said.  “’Course.  It’s.”  He shrugged.  “I dunno.  I like ‘em.”

 

“Embarrassing, though,” Tony said, teasing now.

 

“Well, yeah, but.”  Steve shrugged, and Tony took pity on him.

 

“So you don’t mind,” he said, just wanting to be sure.

 

“Of course not,” Steve said, his voice quiet again.

 

“All right,” Tony said, and brushed another kiss against that warm little patch of skin under his lips.  “Then later.”

 

“Okay,” Steve said.  “Yeah.  You get some sleep.”

 

“Mm,” Tony said.  He normally would have argued, but Steve’s thumb stroking rhythmically down his wrist was oddly soothing, and he was tired, feeling blurry and disjointed already, his mind slow to make connections.  His head ached.  “Don’t let me sleep too long, then,” he said, and turned to pillow his cheek against the spot between Steve’s shoulder blades and the hood of his sweatshirt.

 

If Steve made a response, he didn’t hear it, already asleep, both arms curled around Steve’s waist.

 

He woke, if a bit slow and bleary, at a movement from Steve.  It felt like no time had passed at all, but it was much darker in the tunnel, and quiet—he could hear nothing but the sleep-even breathing of the others.  Steve shifted and subsided with a quiet sigh.  He was still holding Tony’s hand curled against his chest. 

 

Tony lifted his head, hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder to press his face in against the side of his neck.  “Hey,” he whispered, soft against Steve’s ear.  “So, you awake?”

 

“Mmm,” Steve said, rubbed his thumb against the inside of Tony’s palm.  “Sleep well?”

 

“Like a rock,” Tony said, a bit bemused by that.  It certainly wasn’t typical for him these days—he didn’t think he’d slept that deeply, without dreams, of people dying, civilians cut down in the streets, of Rhodey, of Pepper, of Jarvis, of Jan, since before Ultron had attacked.  He nuzzled his lips against Steve’s ear and was rewarded with a little shudder all through Steve’s body.  “How long was I out?”

 

“Few hours,” Steve murmured.

 

Tony was already moving his hands down over Steve’s chest.  “And is everyone asleep?” he whispered against Steve’s ear.

 

“Think so,” Steve’s answering whisper was little more than breath, even and quiet, but something about it still sounded eager.  Or maybe that was just Tony’s imagination, but either way, he figured he’d made him wait long enough.  He got his hands down far enough to unlace the drawstring of Steve’s sweats, and he knew he didn’t imagine the shuddery tremor that worked its way through his body this time.

 

“Sorry about the wait,” Tony murmured softly, trailing his lips down along Steve’s jaw, feeling the rough scrape of stubble against the sensitive skin of his mouth.  That was a new thing—for him, with Steve, any of it, but not necessarily bad.  He couldn’t imagine anything bad about kissing Steve.  Anywhere.  Steve sucked in his breath, gasped a little as Tony dug his nails into the skin of his stomach and scraped them downwards, light and teasing.

 

Okay, don’t get distracted here, Stark.  He had things to do.  He pushed Steve’s sweatpants down to his knees, Steve lifting his hips helpfully to let him.  Steve’s thighs were pale even in the dim light as Tony looked down at them, stroking one hand over his hip and down.  “Thighs together, babe,” he whispered against the whorl of Steve’s ear, nudging with one hand on the thick muscle to punctuate his point.  Steve obeyed, pressing them together from groin to knee, even though he lifted his head, slight confusion in his eyes.  “Shh,” Tony said, “just go with it,” and Steve nodded and dropped his head back down against the pillow.

 

It was such a simple display of trust that it twinged a little at something in Tony’s chest, but he pushed it to the back of his mind even as he fumbled at his own undersuit, getting it open and drawing out his dick.  He licked one hand slick, then reached out to get his hand on Steve’s dick, warm and heavy, and stroke it slick and dripping, then slid that hand between Steve’s thighs.  He jumped a little, but Tony kissed the back of his neck, and he subsided again, trembling.  Tony rubbed at his own dick a little, rough and businesslike, pulling himself into hardness, then pressed up against Steve’s back, slid himself between the slick, hot, tight channel of Steve’s thighs, reached down to take Steve’s dick in his hand.  It was hot and tight and just slick enough for him to slide against him, and he heard the noise leave his lips and buried his face in Steve’s shoulder to keep it back, opened his mouth and bit down on the cloth at the shoulder of Steve’s sweatshirt.  He heard Steve gasp, faintly, and moved his hand to rub gently along Steve’s dick.  It took him a moment, one that he spent stroking Steve with long, easy movements until he was trembling, before he finally managed to murmur, “Is this okay?”

 

“I didn’t,” Steve said, his voice very low, rumbling in his chest again, then, “oh.  Tony.  Please.”  He pushed his face into the pillow, shaking.

 

“We can do it the other way around if you’d rather that,” Tony whispered against his ear.

 

“No,” Steve rasped out.  “This is . . . this is good.”  He lifted his head, looked back at Tony, even reaching back for him with one hand to grip at his hip and tug him forward.  “Go ahead,” he whispered.

 

“All right,” Tony said, making sure that his cock slid firm against Steve’s groin, pushed against his balls, as he slid back, then forward again.  Steve gave another gasp, a louder one when Tony repeated the movement but this time gave Steve’s dick a long, easy pull at the same time.

 

Tony had to bury his face in Steve’s shoulder again, stop his mouth with the cloth of Steve’s sweatshirt hood or risk moaning far too brokenly and loud to deny after the fact.  Steve’s thighs were warm and heavy and firm and tight against his dick, and the slickness mingled with slippery sweat, the friction of his skin, felt absolutely amazing.  Steve himself smelled like sweat and desire and was hot and trembling under his hands, and his dick was rock-hard against his palm and leaking all over his fingers.  When he squeezed a little, rubbed his palm over the head, then brought his hand back down to tug at his balls, Steve made a little noise and buried his face in his crossed arms.

 

He hadn’t realized this would do so much for Steve; he’d been thinking they’d do something that would be great for Steve after, because that’s how they’d been doing this, taking it in turns, that then he could work Steve up slow and blow his mind afterward without Tony’s own pesky desire for him getting in the way.  This was a little unexpected, but he . . . he could work with this, he could definitely work with this.  He rocked between Steve’s thighs, slow, back and forth, feeling the shudder and twitch of his body, the heat of his groin and the sensitive smoothness of his inner thighs, and Steve just squeezed his thighs together tighter and gasped, twitching into Tony’s pulls on his dick.

 

Tony knew he wasn’t going to last that long, not with the hot pressure of those muscular thighs clamped down around his dick and Steve’s shuddery little full body tremors every time he slid between them.  He still surprised himself by how fast he came, and barely got his hand up to catch most of the come in time.  He used it to slick Steve’s dick, get that slippery slide, still gasping into Steve’s shoulder, lightheaded and floating a little with the pleasure but mostly aware of one thing—that Steve still needed to come.  But he didn’t last, either, Tony’s come slick hand on his dick, sliding up once, then back down, and then he was coming with a surprised little oof of air, and Tony barely got both hands down in time to prevent it from making too bad a mess.

 

It took a few minutes for Tony to come back to himself and do anything other than just lie there and gasp against Steve’s back, even to remember to lick the stuff off his hands.  He could still feel Steve sticky under his hands when he patted at him (Steve gasped, shuddering again, at the touch, and Tony rubbed his cheek against the back of his head to soothe him, murmuring softly—probably oversensitive) and so he sat up and found the edge of the sheet to wipe him down.  He cleaned between his thighs while he was at it, which left Steve all trembly and shaky and breathless all over again, wiped his own hands, then tucked it discreetly back under the mattress before he pulled up Steve’s sweatpants.  He retied them and nudged Steve around to face him and Steve came willingly, pressed his face into Tony’s shoulder and wrapped both arms tight around him.

 

“Hey,” Tony said fondly, very low, rubbing the backs of his fingers along Steve’s stubbled jaw.  Apparently he’d found a few of Steve’s buttons there.  Which was good, it was . . . definitely very good.  Steve made a soft sound and pressed his face closer into Tony’s neck, his arms going even tighter around him.  “Shh,” Tony said, quietly, and rubbed the pads of his fingers down the back of Steve’s neck.  “So that was good?”

 

“Mmm,” Steve said.  “Very—very good.  I.  Tony.  Wow.”

 

Tony smiled.  “Good,” he said.  “Worth the wait?”

 

Steve just sighed in a satisfied sort of way that clearly meant yes, his hands skimming down warm over Tony’s back.  “Oh, yeah,” he said finally.

 

“Cool,” Tony said, and let himself press the firm little kisses he wanted to along the strong curve of Steve’s jaw.  They just lay there for a moment, Steve sighing as Tony kissed his way up to the soft skin at the hinge of his jaw, Steve’s hands rubbing in wide, easy circles over Tony’s back.  After a moment, he reached up and laid one big, warm hand over Tony’s shoulder, then unexpectedly pushed it in, kneading gently.  Tony gasped, then groaned as there was a moment of grinding pain and then suddenly the ache eased immeasurably.  “Wow,” he mumbled.  “What did you do?”

 

Steve smiled a little, he could feel it against his neck, even as his fingers dug in and massaged the aching places and left them feeling much, much better.  “Pushed hard,” he said.

 

“Mmm,” Tony sighed, stretched a little, and curled his arms around Steve again.  As always, he felt very warm, but it was cold in the tunnels, even sharing their small bunk, and he didn’t mind it, not Steve’s warmth.  It was nice to feel it again, not the shocky chill that had consumed him the first few days.  Steve’s hands flexed over his back as he stretched, and then he burrowed his face closer against Tony’s neck.  Tony curled one hand around the back of his head, stroking his fingers absently through his hair.

 

“If you do reverse time,” Steve said after a moment, breathed it, against his neck, then stopped.  His hand traced down the slope of Tony’s spine.  “We’ll . . . we’ll never have had this, will we?  I’ll . . . I’ll never have had this.  Had.  Had you.”

 

Tony swallowed.  Well, that was a bucket of cold water out of nowhere.  And of course it was true, but he hadn’t thought that . . . would matter so much.  Not to Steve, and not compared to everything else.  He swallowed again, struggled to get a deep breath.  “Steve, you could have had me any time you wanted,” he murmured.  “Had this.  Any time at all.”

 

Steve’s arms tightened around him, and he suddenly pressed his face in closer against Tony’s neck, his jaw, his breath hitching.  “Oh, Tony,” he said, and his voice sounded raspy, rough.  “I’m so . . . I’m so sorry.  We missed out on so much.”

 

Tony swallowed again, slowly, deliberately drew his fingers through Steve’s hair, tousling it.  “No, we didn’t, Winghead,” he whispered.  “We were together.  We had each other.  All that time.  Didn’t we?”  Aside from the time they’d spent fighting, and that . . . that did hurt.  Even now.  But it was past, and they’d spent more time together than they had tearing themselves apart.  Surely that was what mattered now.

 

“Oh,” Steve said, a choked, shocked, wounded little noise, like that had taken him by surprise.  “Yes.  We did.”  He pulled Tony closer, so close it hurt, but hell, Tony wasn’t complaining.  He just slid his arm along Steve’s back, elbow against the dip of his spine and palm spread out over the space between his shoulder blades.

 

“You’ve always had me,” he murmured again, just because it was true enough to bear repeating.

 

“Always,” Steve said, aching and still choked.  “You were the first . . . the first thing I heard when I came out of the ice.”

 

“So shh,” Tony whispered.  “All you have to do—all you ever had to do—is ask.”

 

Steve’s hands knotted up into fists against his back, fingers digging into his undersuit, and his forehead bowed forward, pressed into Tony’s shoulder.  “You know I’ve always been here for you, too,” he murmured.

 

Tony blinked, a little surprised.  “Yeah,” he murmured.  “Of course.  Of course I know that.”

 

“I don’t know if you do,” Steve breathed.  “Did.  But always, Tony.  Always.  I always wanted to be.”

 

Tony could think of too many things to say to that, like Are you sure? and maybe you shouldn’t have been, but instead he just swallowed them and the wave of rising emotion in his throat and pressed his face tight into Steve’s hair.  Because he believed that Steve was being honest, and that meant more than Steve probably even realized it could.

 

They stayed there, like that, a moment.  Tony rubbed Steve’s back, aimlessly.  It was true.  It had always been true.  Been like this, between them.  And lying here, now, like this, bodies loose and relaxed, sated and easy and warm, curled into each other, it was good, but there were other good things, more good things, about their real lives, their lives before, and he knew Steve felt that way, too.  He was just . . . sentimental.

 

With Steve there for him, he didn’t need anything else, didn’t need this part of it.  Even if they lost this, he’d still have Steve.  Wouldn’t he?  That was more than he’d ever needed all on its own.

 

He moved his other hand down, curled it around to clasp Steve’s neck.  “Besides,” he said, a little rueful, because it hadn’t happened, had it?  “Then I could take you on a real date.”

 

Steve gave a little hoarse gasp of a laugh at that.  “Sure,” he said.  “Anything you wanted.”

 

“Nah,” Tony said.  “Anything you wanted.”  He brushed a soft kiss against Steve’s forehead, just over one eyebrow.

 

Steve sighed, and his body began to unwind, relax against Tony’s.  He drew both hands down along Tony’s sides.  “It’s a decent plan,” he said, finally.  “If we can’t get Ultron any other way.  A second chance.  It’s better than nothing.”

 

“With warning, we could have countermeasures in place,” Tony murmured.

 

“I’ll make a plan,” Steve mumbled.  “Get Ultron.  Not giving up.  When we have no other choice . . . then you go into the past.  Fix . . . fix this before it starts.”

 

Tony’s throat felt thick.  “Yeah,” he said.  “That.  You got it.”

 

“Kiss me again,” Steve murmured.

 

And so Tony did.

 

They heard about Peter the next day, through the news reports Tony did his best to scan.  That he was alive, that he was being held by lowlifes who were planning to sell him to Ultron.  And then Clint and Steve had a shouting match because Clint wanted to go out after him, and when Luke and Emma weighed in on Steve’s side of it Clint walked out, and Luke and Tony had to hold Steve back, physically, from going after him, and to be honest the whole day just sucked out loud.  Tony ended up spending most of it sitting on a crate next to Steve while he sat by the wall, taking apart old tech and rewiring it, spreading the pieces out around him, alternately cursing Clint and praying to a god Tony didn’t even believe in that he wouldn’t be killed.

 

Halfway through the day, his headache flared up, throbbing horribly above his eye socket, in the back of his head, and he sank his head into his hands, curled in on himself, closed his eyes and tried not to focus on the spots of light dancing across the blackness of his vision, trying to breathe evenly and not throw up all over Steve, because he might be forgiving about shit like that, but really, that was just gross.

 

Lines of code, throbbing in front of his eyes. He slipped, the heel of his hand digging painfully into his eye before he straightened up with a jolt.  The fuzziness in his vision disappeared as he blinked, and he rubbed one hand across his eyes, then his mouth.

 

And looked directly into concerned blue eyes.  “Tony?” Steve said insistently, in the tone of voice of someone who had been saying the same thing for quite some time.  He reached out, laid his gloved hands gently against Tony’s jaw and tilted his head up.  “Are you with me, Avenger?”

 

“I’m here,” Tony gasped.

 

“Are you all right?” Steve asked.  “Do you need to be scanned?”

 

“No, I’m fine, I—” Tony blinked at him, drew in a deep, shaking breath.  “I’ve got it,” he muttered.

 

“What?” Steve asked.

 

“I’ve got it,” Tony told him.  He pushed his hands away, reached for the notepad he’d left on the crate beside him with hands shaking in eagerness, and began to jot down the code racing through his mind, lines and lines of it unspooling easily now.  He’d had Ultron in his head, after all.  He’d seen the code.  He was connected to him.  He had a way in.  The Skrulls had used a virus to cripple Extremis.

 

He knew how they’d done it, he just hadn’t been able to fix it.

 

It all seemed so damn easy suddenly.  So simple.  He’d known there was something he was missing.  Something important.  The connections in the code.  The way he could tap into them.  All it had taken was looking at them from another angle.

 

From inside his own head.

 

After a moment he heard Steve move away, sit down again, but he didn’t pay any attention, already caught up in tech, ideas, lines of code.  This was more than a way to confuse them, make them fire on each other, this was a way into their network.  A back door.  The only problem was that he could no longer reach out with the computer that was his own mind, that he was incapable of establishing an uplink under his own power any longer—and even if he hadn’t been before, he’d willingly cut off those capabilities, damaged them irreparably.  His head ached constantly now, and he knew that was because of the damage he’d done to himself.  But if he could jury-rig something, some work around, patch the connections through his own brain—he was certain he could make it work.

 

He looked down at Steve, curled into himself with his arms linked around his knees.  That would mean that Tony couldn’t be the one to use the time travel device, of course.  He’d need to be linked into Ultron’s network.  But there was no other way to beat him.  A self-replicating virus, like Ultron himself.  It was the only way.

 

If only they had a real way in, one that would work.  There was an obvious answer, of course, but he’d . . . .

 

“Do you have something?” Steve asked, looking up at him from the shield of his arms.

 

“I might,” Tony said, then abruptly frustrated shrugged, sighed.  “I don’t know.  It might not amount to anything in the end.  I just don’t know.”

 

“It will,” Steve said, and gave him a forced, sturdy smile.  “If I know you at all, it will.”

 

Tony couldn’t help it, he returned that smile.  “You need to stop having so much faith in me,” he murmured.

 

“I will if you’ll do the same for me,” Steve said, and, well.

 

Steve wasn’t a tactical expert for nothing, was he?


“You win,” Tony muttered.

 

Steve smiled and leaned his head back against his arm, staring off into space.  Tony went back to his code, scrubbing his hands back over his head and rubbing irritably at that persistent ache in his temple.

 

He wasn’t sure how much later it was when a commotion in the tunnels outside brought Tony to his feet.  Agent Johnson came running into the room a moment later, relaying a message that they needed Tony and the Ultron detection scanner right away.  He looked down at Steve, but Steve didn’t move.

 

Damn it.  He’d thought he was getting better, too.

 

Tony followed Agent—Quake, they were calling her Quake—into the tunnels.

 

---

 

Steve knew he was relying on Tony too much, with the kind of certainty that felt ground into his bones.   He needed to stop.  But he couldn’t help the fact that just Tony sitting there, close enough that he could stretch out one leg and tap the toe of his boot against his ankle and just know he was there, was immeasurably steadying, comforting.

 

He didn’t want to make Tony feel responsible for him, though.  No more than he already did.  He’d leaned so much on him already, when Tony was grieving, too, Tony was suffering—he’d seen him rubbing his head—and yet there was always the demand to help Steve, to bear up under his weight.  And there was a lot of weight to bear up under.  He knew it.  Even as he sat there, Tony smiled, looked up from his work, and patted his knee, squeezing gently, before he went back to it.

 

Steve swallowed past the lump in his throat.  Even the fact that Tony was sitting there, beside him.  They’d always spent plenty of time in each other’s pockets before, but he knew perfectly well why it was now.  Tony was worried about him.  He didn’t want to leave him on his own, especially not after the fight with Clint that had cut him more deeply than he wanted to show.  But he thought Tony had seen how badly it had affected him.

 

Well, probably everyone had seen, as much as he’d tried to keep it under wraps.  And now here he was, sitting by the wall.  Though that probably wasn’t much of a surprise either, by this point.

 

Clint was going to get killed, and it was going to be Steve’s fault.  Fault for refusing to save Peter, for not wanting to risk any of them, and then not sending anyone after Clint.  But they had to conserve their strength.  They couldn’t risk it.  But he was going to die, and it was going to be Steve’s fault.  Just like Bucky.  Just like Jan.  Just like Thor.  Just like a million civilians, all the civilians, all the people Tony still wouldn’t give him a number for.

 

All his fault.  For being weak.  For not being a better leader.  A leader for those people who could have saved them.  He should have saved them.

 

And now, a leader people would listen to.  Everyone had seen Clint turn on his heel and walk away, and Steve had been left standing there, powerless, helpless, feeble and useless.  He’d made his call, but it was the cowardly one.

 

To conserve strength.  To protect those who remained.  But for what.  A slow death?  He clenched his fists, worked his hands in their gloves, rotating them at the wrists.  He didn’t look up.

 

Tony was willing to sacrifice everything, even their nascent, budding relationship, what little they had, to save the rest.  Steve had been the one to hesitate, to cling to these dark days of sharing the same bunk, shared warmth and space and skin, Tony’s mouth on his, Tony’s arms around him.  But Tony was right.  They’d always had each other, in the ways that really mattered.  And everyone else’s lives were more important.  All those people.

 

But there he went all over again.  He kept relying on Tony.  Even now, he was relying on Tony for a plan.  And if he knew anything about Tony Stark’s plans—well, they were good ideas.  They were, without fail, brilliant.  And they were also dangerous and terrifying because Tony never seemed to care much about himself when he made them.  Or maybe that wasn’t it, because Steve knew Tony factored himself, his own abilities and actions, into his plans, he just put a terrifyingly low priority on his own wellbeing.

 

But what did that even mean, now?  What was Tony’s wellbeing?  He was thin and ill and tired and grieving, like they all were.  They were all slowly dying.  Tony along with the rest of them.  Maybe Tony was the only one brave enough to admit it, to come right out and say that this was unfeasible.  That they had to do something, because they couldn’t give up.

 

Steve couldn’t let him bear that, all of that burden on his own.  He was the leader.  That was his job, his responsibility.  To make the plans, make the calls.  And yet here he sat, pointlessly going over Ultron’s capabilities and weaknesses in his mind, reviewing every moment, every angle, of the battles with the robots they’d had before, and coming up empty and blank.

 

They didn’t even know where Ultron was.  Some tactical assault he’d be able to plan when he didn’t even have the first idea of where to look.

 

You’d think Captain America would have been able to prevent the world from ending.

 

You’d think.

 

People probably had thought.  Well, the more fools them, then.

 

Feeling sorry for himself.  Steve breathed out a wet, bitter little laugh into his arms.  All he could do was sit here and feel sorry for himself, apparently.  Forget trying to plan.  He was supposed to be coming up with something, but all he could produce was more guilt, more self-recriminations.  Which were all very well and good, but they wouldn’t save anyone, would they?  Surely he’d wasted enough time on that, on all of it.  Going through the motions.  Leaning on Tony, taking willingly as much as he was willing to give, of his time, of his body, of his humor and strength.  And meanwhile he’d managed to what?  Talk to the others.  Try to inspire them, try to keep them fighting, keep them together (God only knew how well that had worked; Steve himself doubted he’d have been convinced).  Kill a few robots.  Find a few ways out of New York (for what purpose, he still wasn’t sure, but he kept looking for them).  Move a hell of a lot of boxes and rubble.

 

Was he the one holding them all back?  Was Clint right?  Was his lack of leadership just keeping them trapped down here, dying by inches, while people died and suffered without their help?

 

Of course Clint was right.

 

Meanwhile Tony came up with plans, worked as hard as he could, and all Steve could manage to do was rag on him for risking himself.

 

Tony’s sharp, ragged gasp cut into his thoughts, and he looked up to see him hunched into himself, covering his eyes with his hands.  Steve rose immediately to his knees, shifted forward, trying to get a better look at him—was something wrong?  Please, not Ultron, not Ultron—not Tony.  Not another one of them, not Tony.  “Tony?” he tried.  There was no response.  “Tony!”  He tried to keep his voice quiet, but make it snap, make it commanding.  “Tony, look at me.  Iron Man.  Look at me, Avenger.”

 

Tony groaned, hunched forward even further, digging his hands into his eyes.  Steve reached forward, not certain what to do, how to help him—even what was wrong.  He didn’t think Tony was even hearing him.  “Tony,” he said, and now he could hear how soft his voice had gone, how pleading.  “Tony, come on.”


Tony just groaned again, low and grinding.  His head sagged forward, both hands tight over his eyes now.  Steve swallowed.  “Tony,” he said, low, desperately coaxing, swallowed again, his throat dry, “sweetheart.  Look at me, please?”

 

Tony slipped, jerked forward, then startled.  The heel of his hand dug into his eye, and then he sat up, shaking his head and blinking.  His face looked ravaged, exhausted, as he swiped his palm across his eyes, then his mouth, worked his jaw, then looked up.

 

“Tony?” Steve said, insistently, questioning, peering into his eyes, trying to find awareness there, to be certain it was Tony looking back at him.  He reached out, laid both hands against Tony’s jaw, gentle, tilted his head up to get a better look.  “Are you with me, Avenger?”

 

“I’m here,” Tony gasped.  His voice was hoarse, rough and shattered.

 

“Are you all right?” Steve asked, demanding, and trying not to let his fingers brush along Tony’s jaw, caressing the way they so desperately wanted.  “Do you need to be scanned?”

 

“No, I’m fine, I—” Tony blinked at him, drew in a deep, shaking breath.  “I’ve got it,” he muttered.

 

“What?” Steve asked, confused.  Got what?

 

“I’ve got it,” Tony told him.  He pushed Steve’s hands away, already reaching for the notepad beside him, then hunched down over it.  When Steve reached for his shoulder, he just pushed his arm away.

 

Steve knew he didn’t mean anything by it, and certainly didn’t intend to hurt him, so he just sat back on his heels and watched him.  Tony kept grimacing, rubbing at his temple and he worked.  Was that good?  Was that normal?  Maybe they should get him scanned after all.

 

And maybe he just had another headache.  He had a lot of them, these days.  Besides, he clearly had an idea, a plan.  That was good.  Tony’s obviously worsening headaches weren’t good, but this energy, this focus, that was good.  Steve should leave him to it.  But he couldn’t help it, he let his hand rest on Tony’s shoulder, linger over his back, before he moved away.

 

He wished he had an idea like that.  For something that would help.  Something that would save them.

 

Well, he should stop whimpering about it and think of one, then, shouldn’t he?

 

But he still hadn’t, by the time Clint came back.  He actually had no idea how much time had passed.  It had faded out again, slid into the gray haziness that seemed to fill his thoughts whenever he let it.  He’d been sitting there for a long time, he knew, hours.  He’d talked to Tony a bit.  Some time ago.  The tunnel wall was cold against his bare back.  Cold enough that the urge to shiver kept skittering along his spine, though he could still control it.  He kept thinking about those fights on the first day.  How outclassed they’d been (how he’d sent the others up against a force they couldn’t have hoped to defeat and had to watch as they died around him and known it was his fault, that he had failed them, that he should have known, shouldn’t have wasted their lives like that, should have sold them more dearly, should have, should have)—they couldn’t do that again.  Couldn’t afford to.  They needed a plan, they needed to be smart about this. 

 

He barely noticed when Tony got his feet, when he left, he could hear the others scuffling, shouting at each other, but when he raised his head, no one motioned to him, no one called for him or even met his eyes, so he dropped it again, back into his crossed arms.  They must have it under control, then.  They didn’t need him to sit there and look over them with his arms crossed like a useless school principal. 

 

Steve thought about his shield breaking, the way Jan had screamed.

 

He concentrated on breathing evenly, that seemed important.  Couldn’t let them see him cry, after all.  Tony was right.  Tony had been right.  Couldn’t let them see him break.

 

If you’re going to break, do it on your own time, Rogers.  And do it later.  People still need you.

 

Then there were voices again, louder, arguing.  Clint’s voice, very loud, “And I’m not going to let what happened change the value of my life.  And shame on the rest of you, shame on you for giving up.”

 

He hadn’t thought he’d hear that voice again.  He’d thought Clint had gone.  Thought he was dead.  Would be dead.

 

But he’d saved Peter, he must have, or he wouldn’t have come back.  He’d come back.

 

Yet another way Steve had failed them all.  He hadn’t believed.  He’d been afraid.  Afraid to lose him.  Clint had been right.  He’d been a coward.

 

A leader believed in his team, had to, but he hadn’t.  He hadn’t.  He’d lost faith.

 

No one gave up,” Jen was arguing, but then, Clint’s voice, firing back.

 

“What do you call this?”

 

Tony’s voice, low.  “We have no plan.”

 

“And whose fault is that?”  Steve knew if he looked up, he’d see Clint looking at him.

 

And that was right.  He was right to.  It was his fault.  It was all his fault.  His failure.  He was the one they needed, and he hadn’t been here for them.  Hadn’t lead them.  Hadn’t taken responsibility, hadn’t stood up, hadn’t done anything.

 

Tony’s voice again, loyal, protective, full of anger and a helpless, steady faith that made Steve’s chest hurt.  “He’s working on it.”  How dare you, that voice said.

 

Steve wondered how Tony could manage that faith.  He knew better than any of them how badly off Steve really was, after all.  How badly he’d failed them all.  How badly he’d failed Tony, how completely he’d leaned on him.

 

“Is that what you call it?”

 

“What did you just say?” Tony’s voice, low and dangerous.  “What the fuck, Barton, he’s trying.  Do you want to be in charge?”

 

“Well, maybe, I should be, if he’s just going to sit over there—”

 

“Maybe you should sit down and shut up, maybe that’s what you should do.  Maybe you should listen to Captain America, Avenger.”

 

“Maybe if I’d done that, Parker over here would be robot food.”

 

“And maybe your snide accusations are just pushing it a step too far, when all he’s done is try to protect us all.  He’s gone out there more than any of the rest of us, including you.  How dare you, Hawkeye, how dare you.”

 

“Stark, stand the fuck down.”  Logan.  But Logan shouldn’t have to be saying it.  Not when Clint was right.

 

Steve lifted his head, blinked, looked for Tony, shook his head.  “Stand down, Iron Man,” he said, cleared his throat.  “It’s all right.”

 

Tony turned on his heel, turned anguished, angry eyes on him.  “It’s not all right,” he said.  “Steve, how can you—this is not your fault.”  The words were furious, each punctuated with a snap of his voice, shaking with emphasis.  It was clear that Tony entirely believed them.

 

He was also wrong.

 

“It’s all right, Tony,” Steve said again, tiredly.  “Leave it.  We don’t—” his voice hitched, and he had to clear it, clear his throat, but he ignored the humiliation of that, just forged ahead “—we don’t fight amongst ourselves.”  He turned to Clint, nodded at him.  “Good job, Hawkeye,” he said.  Turned to Peter.  “It’s good to see you alive, Spider-Man.  I’m sorry none of the rest of us came for you.”

 

Peter said something back, Clint didn’t.  Steve held everyone’s gaze in turn, a while longer, then looked away again.

 

Their conversation continued.  He hoped Tony wasn’t too angry at Clint.  He didn’t deserve that.  Not when he’d been right all along.

 

He put his head back down.

 

He kept listening, though.  They were talking about things he needed to pay attention to.  Important things, that he couldn’t afford to ignore.

 

And then Peter said that they’d been going to sell him to Ultron—Clint had said something about that, too, hadn’t he?—and Steve started to think.

 

Never mind why Ultron wanted them.  Probably revenge.  That sounded like him—and Ultron was more than cautious enough to want to carefully remove every single person who had ever been instrumental in his defeat before.  Whatever it was, that gave them a way in.

 

That gave them a chance, if nothing else, to gather information.  It would be dangerous.  It would be horribly dangerous.  Especially considering how little any of them could stand up to even one of the Ultron robots.  And Ultron might just want to kill them.  It might be a death sentence.  More than likely, it was.

 

But Clint had been right.  He was just . . . he was just clinging to all of them, hoarding them close.  And that wasn’t who they were, wasn’t what they did.  They were heroes.  There were people out there, people they had a duty to, every last one of them.  This was a shot, the best shot they’d had.

 

They had to take it.  If anything, more information would help them.

 

And they couldn’t stay in the city.  They needed to keep moving.  Hunkering down in one base like this was just asking the enemy to find them, for one thing.  Moving targets were harder to hit.  He’d fought by that principle his whole life.

 

Get in, get information, get out, meet up somewhere else, just in case interrogation got the location of this base out of their operative.

 

Well, it was a plan.

 

Clint was right about him, had been entirely right.  He’d been . . . well, shirking.  Moping, whatever you wanted to call it, it was pathetic.  He certainly hadn’t been making a plan.

 

But he had one now.  He just had to hope it would be good enough.  And even if it wasn’t—he was their leader.  He was their captain.  They needed him to have a plan, to make the decisions, to call the shots.

 

To stand up.

 

“But we’re going to do something . . . right?” Peter was saying.  Steve could hear the uncertainty in his voice, the disbelief.

 

“Survive,” Tony said, grim and weary.  He sounded exhausted.  So exhausted.  Steve couldn’t keep leaning on him like this.  He really couldn’t.

 

“Tony, survive is not something,” Peter replied.

 

Steve got his feet under him, pushed himself up.  He’d start with that.  With standing up.

 

“No, it’s not . . .” he said.  He took a deep breath, straightened up, even though he felt himself lurch, felt ungainly and awkward.  But still, he was standing.  Step one.  “But that’s because we didn’t have a plan.  Until now.”

 

They talked it over—the others were quick to volunteer, but eventually it was decided that Luke Cage and Jennifer should be the ones.   Steve had expected as much.  Luke was eager, angry, reckless, burning with rage and grief after the deaths of his wife and daughter, and Jen was going stir-crazy, desperate to get out and actually do something.  But they were the strongest they had, and the most likely to survive an assault from Ultron’s forces, so Steve couldn’t argue.  They set up a rendezvous point in the Savage Land—though they hardly needed to, if he was still alive, which Steve was willing to bet he was, Ka-Zar would find them anyway—and then it was Steve’s job to get the others ready to go, to get out of the city.

 

Tony was needed to help dismantle and pack away what little they could take with them, but even so, he sought Steve out, cornered him away from the others, down a side tunnel.  “Are you all right?” he said, stopped him when he nodded shortly and turned to go with both hands on his shoulders.  “Oh, no, you don’t get out of it that easily, Cap,” he said.  “Look at me.”  Steve turned his head away, ignored his insistent voice, tried to shrug him off, and Tony’s hands tightened, but his voice grew softer, warm and a little rough.  “Look at me, baby.”

 

Steve sighed, and turned, looked at him, let Tony put both hands against his jaw.

 

“Are you okay?” Tony said, deliberately, not breaking eye contact with him.

 

“I’ll be fine,” Steve said.

 

“Be fine, huh?” Tony said.  He brushed his fingers along behind Steve’s ear, over the cowl.  “That doesn’t sound so good to me.  That stuff, that stuff that Clint said . . .”

 

Steve shook his head.  “Leave it,” he said, tiredly.

 

“You know that was uncalled for, right?” Tony asked.

 

“It wasn’t,” Steve said, and shook his head.  “Just leave it.”

 

“He was being a jackass,” Tony said.  His mouth quirked, sad and wry.  “You’re doing fine.  You’re doing great.  You know that, right?”

 

“Just have to keep moving,” Steve said, and sighed.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, something odd, obscure and distant, in his eyes.  “Just have to keep moving.”  His fingers came up, rubbed gently against Steve’s cheek.  “Steve,” he said.  “We’ll get him.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, and nodded.  “We will.”

 

Tony’s knuckles made another caressing slide over Steve’s cheek, followed by the pads of his fingers.  “Give me a kiss before we get back to work,” he said.  He closed his eyes, tilted his face up, even as Steve ducked his head down toward him so that his breath feathered over Tony’s lips. “Go on,” Tony murmured, “lay one on me.”

 

Steve shook his head at him, but it was hard not to smile at that, even harder not to lean forward, put one hand in the center of Tony’s back and bend him down over it to press a hot, wet, searing kiss into his mouth.  Their fantasies about dating, about romance, none of that would ever come true, but he could give both of them this, couldn’t he, this one silly fantasy, and kiss Tony like they were both in a film.

 

Tony gasped in surprise, one hand flailing up to the back of Steve's head, then he arched up into it, moaned, let himself be bent backward, his mouth softening, eager, under Steve’s as he leaned up into it, brought his head down as he kissed him fiercely, passionately back.

 

It was a long time before Steve pulled away, and when he did, Tony grinned at him, his eyes bright and his mouth wet and swollen.  “That was something else,” he said, breathless.

 

Again, Steve was helpless against smiling back.  “It was,” he said.  “You’re something else.”

 

“You’re bad for my ego,” Tony said, still gasping.  “Ahaha.  Okay.  Work.  Working.  I.”  He grinned at Steve, shaking his head.  “You’re a menace.”

 

“You said a kiss,” Steve told him.

 

“I’m not complaining,” Tony said.  “Oh, no.  Not at all.”  He leaned in, took Steve’s head in his hands, and kissed him soundly.  He pulled away slowly, lips lingering over Steve’s and his eyes heavy-lidded, half-closed.  “Work,” he said then, and pulled back, blinked, licked his lips.  He shook his head, gave Steve a little half-smile, then waved and trotted away.

 

Steve smiled to himself and turned to do his own share of the packing.  That had been a success, anyway.

 

He’d made Tony smile.  That was something.

 

They didn’t spend long getting everything packed up, they couldn’t afford to.  Tony packed up his tech, everything he’d been working on, and after the others had filled canteens with water, dismantled the rig he’d done on the pipes, and converted the space heaters to be more portable.  Steve made sure everyone’s packs were suited to what they could carry, and slung Tony’s pack of tech over his own shoulder after he shrugged into the leather jacket one of them had found for him.  Tony could carry their bedding and food.  He didn’t need the heavy stuff.

 

He was sure he was going to hear all about it later, but he didn’t care.

 

And then, in an hour, they were ready, and moving.  It was strange to leave the tunnels behind, the place that had been their one refuge in a world turned suddenly hostile, and he felt naked, exposed, as he headed up the rear of the group, like there was a laser sight trained on the middle of his back, an Ultron robot leering down at him before it blew him to pieces.  He felt horribly naked without his shield, vulnerable.  His arm felt too light.  He’d put the shards of his shield in his pack—she was still vibranium, he’d thought the old girl might help somehow, maybe help Tony—but there was still no comforting weight on his arm, and it made him feel bare.  “Move out, people,” Steve said, and they moved out, Storm lifting them into the air.

 

It was a long trip to the Savage Land.  Steve estimated a little over a week.  They should be able to replenish their water on the way, but he wasn’t sure about food.  They had enough provisions for a week, at least.

 

He hadn’t been expecting the nuclear blast as they left New York.  Hadn’t been expecting—the understatement, maybe, of the year.  He’d expected it about as much as he’d expected getting frozen in an ice cube for half the 20th century.  He thought he kept moving by rote, must have done, because he was still moving forward, the others hadn’t left him behind, but all he could think was that that was it.  That was all.  New York was gone.  The others kept talking, but he felt like something had been ripped out from behind his sternum, empty, detached.

 

New York, obliterated.  Anyone who had been left there—anyone alive, civilians, all those people—

 

His home, the streets he’d always known, the ones he’d had to learn again, Lady Liberty, Central Park, even ruined as it was, Grand Central Station—the Met, all that art—all that human achievement, the Chrysler Building, the little things—Georgio was probably already dead, but his pizza shop, the bagel place he’d gone to every morning on his run, Times Square—

 

He hoped that if he was weeping, no one looked, no one saw.  He hoped his eyes were dry, but he couldn’t be sure.

 

He took someone’s hand, watched as they turned invisible, and told himself that he had a job to do.  Bringing up the rear.

 

Captain.  You’re their captain.  If you fall apart, it’s over.  You can’t fall apart.  Don’t forget, Rogers.  Don’t forget that.

 

He raised his chin.  His eyes were dry.  He kept going.

 

It was strange to be out of the immediate destruction.  They landed in Florida.  Miami.  They told everyone they saw on the ground to leave the city, the same message broadcast by the authorities, to leave any major city, any major human settlement.  After they landed, Steve ordered Storm to rest and Logan to stay with her while the rest of them volunteered their efforts to emergency services.

 

It was a long while later, and everything had fuzzed out again, this time into a grinding ache of weariness and the need to work, to help, that he felt someone taking his arms, pulling at him gently, as he finished helping the latest group of people into a truck out of town.  He blinked, unfocused.  Slowly, he realized that someone was speaking to him.  “. . . done enough, Captain,” the chief of police was saying.

 

Tony was rubbing his hands slowly up over his arms.  “Steve,” he said, very low.  “Steve.  You with me, here, Cap?”

 

“Yes,” Steve said, blankly.  He was right here.  Wasn’t that obvious?

 

“We’re good here, officer,” Tony said.  “Right, Steve?”

 

Steve nodded at the chief of police.  “Do you need us for anything else?” he asked.

 

“No, sir,” the woman said.  “Thank you, for your help.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve said.  “Thanks, Iron Man,” he said, a little belatedly.

 

“No problem at all, Cap,” Tony said, and nodded deliberately at the car some distance away, nudging Steve along with one hand on his back.  “Are we ready to head back?” he asked, said, really, meaningfully.

 

“Yes,” Steve tried, and Tony nodded, so that was right.  “Yes,” he said again.  “Let’s go, Shellhead.”

 

It took the walk to the car for his awareness to come back entirely.  “Do you think we did enough?” he asked Tony, worriedly.  “I can still work.  There’s still so much to do.  So much we can help with.  I need to . . . .”

 

“You need to lie down,” Tony muttered.  “We did enough, Steve.  Okay?  We’re done here.”

 

There was still so much more to do.  But—“We need to focus on the mission,” Steve said.  “No good to anyone if we wear ourselves out here.”  He looked helplessly back at the police station as Tony pushed him into the car, crawled in next to him, all the same.  So many people still in the city.

 

“That’s right,” Tony said, drawing his attention back to him.  “That’s right.”

 

Mission.  Right.  “Sorry,” Steve said, again, belatedly.  “Lost focus.  I don’t know what—”

 

“You’re too tired to think straight and you’re out of it,” Tony told him.  “You don’t do this whole tired thing very often.  So what we’re going to do is go back to the apartment these people very generously provided for us, and you’re going to take a shower, and then you’re going to sleep, and when you wake up tomorrow, you’re going to feel better, and your head’s going to be clear.”

 

“Is it?” Steve asked, wearily, suddenly disoriented, feeling unmoored and very lost, like he was drowning in a sea of gray.

 

“Sure is, sweetheart,” Tony said, his voice low, but very reassuring for all that.  “Don’t worry.  Here, come on.  Close your eyes.”  He pulled the cowl off of Steve’s head, ran his fingers through his hair, guided his head down to his shoulder.  “There you go,” he said.  “That’s it.”

 

“Wake me when we get there,” Steve mumbled.  “I have to . . . lead.  Orders.  For the others.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, sighing, “yeah, I’ll wake you.  I’ve got you.”  His hand was at the back of Steve’s neck, stroking, reassuring.  “Close your eyes now, okay?”

 

Steve did, sighed, let himself rest against Tony, lean into him.  He only woke up when Tony gently shook him awake, stroked his hair out of his eyes again and helped him push himself upright.  Steve shook his head, disoriented.

 

“Apartment,” Tony said helpfully, softly.  “Stopping for the night.  Going to the Savage Land.”

 

Right.  Steve fumbled with the car door, got it open, surprised by how weary he felt, every muscle in his body aching a little with strain.  He knew the serum would take care of it and he’d feel fine by morning—it had every other time he’d gotten this badly burned out—but it was still strange to be sleepy-fumbling and exhausted, barely able to lift his feet.  By the time he pushed in the door, he was feeling a little bit more aware.  He talked to the others coherently enough, he thought, checked in on Storm and Logan—she assured him that she would be rested enough to fly them tomorrow without a problem, but that she might not be able to get them entirely to the Savage Land.  He talked to each of the others, and then was left staring at the table in the kitchen of the apartment and feeling disoriented, fuzzy and confused.  It was all very surreal—the deepening twilight, the kitchen.  After the tunnels, it didn’t feel possible or real at all.

 

This city would no doubt be destroyed by Ultron, too, unless they did something to stop it.  He stared out at the turquoise blue of the harbor and felt dizzy.  His eyes hurt.  He looked down at the table, dragged his fingers along it, then pulled off his glove, did the same thing.  It was real, it felt . . . real.

 

He was breathing too hard, too fast, he realized.  Hyperventilating.  His knees buckled, and he caught himself on his knuckles against the table.

 

“Steve?” Tony’s voice, at the door.  He needed to—Steve sucked in his breath, held it in his nose, blew it back out.  “So you are in here,” Tony said.

 

Steve tried to say something, to respond, but he thought he just made a noncommittal sound.  He hoped it at least had been noncommittal.

 

“Okay,” Tony said, “yeah.  Let’s get you into the shower, okay?”  He got Steve by the shoulder, turned him around, and then Steve was looking dizzily into Tony’s face, his concerned blue eyes.  “Whoa, okay,” Tony said, “take it easy.  Breathe, okay?”

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered.  “I tried to be stronger.  I tried.  I don’t want to burden you.  Don’t let me burden you.”

 

“You idiot,” Tony said, and his voice was low, intense.  “You’re not a burden.  You hear me?”

 

Steve shook his head, miserably, trying to compress his lips into a straight line, not to let his emotion show on his face.

 

“You’re just tired,” Tony told him.  “Okay?  Really, really tired.  It’s been a long and pretty damn awful day.”

 

Is that what this was?  Was that why he was feeling like this?  “I want to be the one to take care of you,” Steve said, helplessly, sadly.

 

“Okay, then, we’ll shower together,” Tony said.  He put his hand in the middle of Steve’s back again, and pushed him lightly but inexorably toward the door.  “Okay, Cap?  Move your gorgeous ass.  Go on.”

 

Steve’s head was clearing a little by the time they got to the bathroom, at least enough for him to be aware of how embarrassing he’d just been.  Flushing a little, he set about taking off his clothes, peering under his lashes at Tony, because he’d woken up enough to realize that if nothing else, showering together meant he was going to get to see Tony naked.  Finally.

 

In another life, he could imagine Tony turning it into a show, teasing and sensuous.  Tony had always seemed very . . . aware of his body to Steve, and what sorts of attention, of interest, it could induce in others.  As it was, Tony just stripped down efficiently, not even looking back at Steve.

 

Steve could still see him, though, and that was more than enough.  He was thin, too thin; Steve could count his vertebrae, and his arms and legs looked skinny, his whole body lean and drawn and pale.  But he was still beautiful to look at, curves and angles gloriously put together.  Steve wanted to touch him.

 

Tony just fiddled with the water, pulled the shower curtain, making sure it was warm and falling from the showerhead, then crossed to Steve and put one hand on his shoulder.  “You with me?” he said, then peered at him a little more closely.  “Hey,” he said, drawling the syllable, sounding pleased.  “You were looking.”

 

Steve blushed, helplessly.  “Yes,” he said.  “Sure was.”

 

“Like what you see?” Tony asked, taking Steve’s hands and guiding them to his waist.  Steve settled them there eagerly, taking the opportunity to stroke them up along Tony’s sides, over the warm smooth skin of his back.

 

“’Course,” Steve said, a little hoarsely.  “Like it a lot.”

 

“You are so damn adorable sometimes,” Tony said, his eyes laughing.  Steve made a face at him.

 

“Adorable?” he said.  “Really?”

 

“Really,” Tony said, and leaned in, kissed him, soft and deep.

 

“I say I think you’re sexy and you say I’m adorable,” Steve said, when Tony pulled away, dragging his teeth over his bottom lip so that Steve shivered, the feeling sending little sparks down his spine.  “I’m standing here naked right in front of you.”

 

“A fact that is not lost on me at all, believe me,” Tony said.  “Into the shower, Winghead.  Go.”

 

“You just want to look at my rear,” Steve said fuzzily.

 

“You caught me,” Tony said, laughing.  “I admit it.  You don’t want to deprive me, do you?”

 

“I want to look at yours,” Steve said, and blushed again.  Damn, what was coming out of his mouth?  Couldn’t he stop his mouth somehow?

 

“You do realize that my undersuit does not actually leave much to the imagination, right?” Tony said, “You’ve been looking at it.”  But he did turn and get into the shower, pulling Steve after him by the wrist.

 

Steve watched him move, appreciatively, and only once Tony was positioning him under the spray did he think to say, “It’s different when you’re naked.”

 

And then wondered why the hell he’d said that again.

 

“Is it?” Tony asked, still grinning.  “Well, then, I defer to your visual expertise.  You’re the artist.”

 

“You draw,” Steve said.

 

“Not nudes,” Tony said, smirking.  “Technical drawings.”  His hands skimmed up into Steve’s hair, pushed him back further under the spray, and it cascaded down over Steve’s shoulders, hot, scalding hot, and anything else Steve might have thought to say was entirely gone on a shuddering groan at how good it felt.  Tony’s hands at his shoulders steadied him, but Steve still had to grab hard at Tony’s waist just to keep his knees from giving out from under him.

 

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Steve sighed.  Tony chuckled, but Steve didn’t care.  Didn’t care at all.  Between Tony standing naked in front of him and the warm spray pounding down on his back, it was difficult to care about anything else whatsoever. Tony’s hands skimmed up into his hair and he reached past him for some shampoo, and Steve got absorbed in the play of his muscles in his arm, shoulder, and chest. 

 

Tony looped his arms over Steve’s shoulders and rubbed his hands together, then murmured, “Close your eyes, big guy.”  Steve sighed—Tony was standing right there, naked, in front of him!—but did it anyway.  His knees almost buckled again when Tony started massaging the shampoo into his hair, and he must have groaned again or something, because Tony whispered, “Shh, shh,” and his arms went tighter around him.  He tipped Steve’s head back, rinsed the shampoo out of his hair, combing his fingers through it lightly, then reached for the shampoo again, lathered up his hands, and repeated the process.  “There,” he said, and kissed Steve lightly, brushing the heel of his hand against each of Steve’s eyes, “open ‘em.”

 

Steve did so eagerly, blinking the water out of them, to see Tony smile again.  “Wanna shave?” Tony asked.

 

Steve shook his head, thinking of how long it would take.  “Just sleep,” he said, already drinking in his fill of Tony’s naked body again.

 

“Okay,” Tony said.  “Yeah, I get you.”  His fingers skimmed down over Steve’s back, then he reached for the soap.

 

Steve kept nodding off, but he insisted on washing Tony’s hair in return, and he was grateful when Tony let him, glad of the chance to sink his fingers into the dark strands, massage the shampoo into them and rinse it out, rubbing his fingers against his scalp.  Tony sighed, his head tilting back willingly into it.  Steve rubbed his thumb against his temple and thought about Tony’s headaches.  “Head feel all right?” he asked, low.

 

“A lot better than usual right now,” Tony said, groaning as Steve dug his fingers into the back of his neck.  “Holy fuck.  That.  Right there.  Wow.”

 

Steve smiled and nuzzled a kiss into the side of Tony’s jaw, against his neck, still rubbing at the nape of it.  He moved him back a little further under the hot water and watched the lines of pain dissipate around his eyes as he groaned and twitched under Steve’s fingers.  That was nice.  That was good.  Steve brushed his thumb against Tony’s rough, stubbled cheek, and Tony sighed and turned his head to brush his lips against the pad of it without opening his eyes.  “You must be tired,” he mumbled.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said.  He figured there was no point to denying it now.  He still felt oddly fuzzy and blurred, though the strained ache in his muscles had reacted to the hot water and eased into something still achey but oddly pleasant.

 

“Mmm,” Tony said, and sighed after a moment, blinking his eyes back open.  “Almost done, then?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said.  He really was tired.  He kept opening his eyes and not remembering when he’d closed them, and he was just aware enough to know that that was dangerous.

 

“Okay,” Tony said.  “Let’s get you out of here and into bed.”

 

“Mm,” Steve agreed.  He tried to be helpful as they stepped out of the shower, but he didn’t remember much of Tony getting him out of it, it was all a blur of steam and Tony rubbing at his hair with a towel as he sat on the lip of the bathtub, then coaxing him to his feet and him trying to walk in a straight line.  Tony must have gotten some clothes on him at some point, because when Steve fell into bed he was dressed in something loose-fitting, clean, and warm, and in a welcome change, when Tony slid into bed behind him, he was wearing loose clothes, too, something that felt like a t-shirt and boxer shorts.

 

Tony slid an arm around him, tucking his hand up under the edge of the sweatshirt he was wearing to skim along skin to his stomach, and Steve was just aware enough to roll his head back and push his shoulder down so he could reach back and ruffle Tony’s hair.

 

“But you don’t have a fetish, right?” Tony teased, breath warm and soft against Steve’s ear.

 

“Fetish for you, maybe,” Steve mumbled, and then he was asleep.

 

Tony had been right.  Steve did feel a lot better the next morning.  For the first time since the first attacks, he woke up before Tony did.  He blinked, surprised to feel morning sun on his face, then opened his eyes, pushed himself up, only to feel the loose, sleep-heavy slump of Tony’s body against his and twist around to look down at him.

 

Steve sitting up had pushed him onto his back, where he lay sprawled, one arm across his chest where it had been curled around Steve.  His hair lay spread out across the pillow, and Steve just looked at him there for a moment, morning sun across his face, thick-lashed eyelids heavy against his cheeks and his beard really starting to look scruffy now, the neat shape of the goatee and mustache obscured by stubble.  The t-shirt he was wearing was rather tight on him and had ridden up, and his boxers had ridden down, leaving a swath of skin bare.  Steve could see the trail of hair leading down into his boxers, the jut and gentle curves of his hipbones.  He bit his lip.

 

Tony sighed, rolled over onto his side, his hand twitching, searching for something.   Steve caught it, pulled it up to his chest, and leaned down to press a kiss against Tony’s temple, nosing into his soft, tangled hair.  “Wake up, Shellhead,” he whispered.  “Morning.”

 

Tony’s eyes blinked open on a jolt, and he looked up at Steve, bleary-eyed and fuzzy.  “Steve?” he said.

 

“That’s me,” Steve said, feeling suddenly a little sheepish at how ridiculously affectionate that wake-up call had been.

 

Tony rolled onto his back and stretched.  “Up and at ‘em, right?” he yawned.

 

“That’s right,” Steve said.  He sighed, thinking about everything they had to do, feeling the weight of his responsibility settling onto his shoulders again so vividly he hunched them forward instinctively.

 

Tony’s hand settled onto his back, stroked upward.  “Easy there, Steve,” he said.

 

“I just . . .” Steve sighed.  Anything he could think of to say sounded like the most reprehensible kind of whining.  He stared down at his feet, bare against the floor.

 

“I know,” Tony said.  “Easy.  We’ll get there, right?”

 

“Right,” Steve said, and straightened his shoulders.  “Right.”  He turned back to look at Tony, now sitting up in bed, his arms folded across knees still covered by the sheet.  He reached out and brushed his fingers along Tony’s temple again, just along his hairline.  “How’s the head?”

 

Tony sighed.  “Been better,” he said, and pushed back the sheets, climbed out of bed to stand up and stretch again.  “Been worse.”

 

“How long has it been hurting you like that?” Steve asked.

 

“Since I sliced Ultron right out of it with a blowtorch,” Tony said, “or at least, might as well have been a blowtorch, considering how much precision I used.”  He tapped the side of his head with a knuckle.  “I’m fucked up in here, Steve.  It was messy.  It’s okay.  Nothing anyone can do about it anyway.”

 

Steve felt sick to his stomach.  “Tony,” he said, horrified, “it’s been like that all this time?  Are you sure there’s nothing you—anyone—can do?”

 

“It’s better,” Tony said deliberately, “than being used against everyone I love and then dying horribly.”  He rested his hands on his hips and turned back to Steve, cocking his head questioningly, challengingly.  “Wouldn’t you say?”

 

Steve looked down at his own hands.  Big, strong, and mostly useless, these days.  He balled them up into fists and jammed them under his arms.  “I guess so,” he said.  “I’m sorry.  The thought that you’ve been hurting like that all this time . . . you should have said something.”

 

“No, I shouldn’t have,” Tony said.  “There was nothing anyone could do—there still isn’t—and you felt badly enough.  Why would I give you one more thing to beat yourself up over?”

 

“Maybe I should beat myself up over these things,” Steve muttered.

 

“No,” Tony said.  “You shouldn’t.  Come on, baby doll, time for breakfast.”

 

Steve sighed, got to his feet, looked out the window.  Early morning sunshine, sparkling over the harbor.  Boats already out at sea—good, he hoped their owners were taking their advice and leaving the city.  He looked back at Tony, waiting for him by the door, and then he made up his mind all at once, set his jaw, and rounded the bed quickly to come close to Tony, sank his hand into his hair, against his neck.  “Sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t mean to . . . turn everything into that.”

 

“No problem,” Tony said, his expression a bit bemused.

 

“Good morning,” Steve whispered, and kissed him.  It started soft, but he curled his hand around the back of Tony’s neck, held him still as he pushed more insistently into his mouth, tilting his head back.

 

“Mmph,” Tony said, sounding a little surprised, and then he leaned into the kiss, his mouth softened, even as he blinked, wide-eyed, and then his hands came up, palms sliding over Steve’s back, along his shoulder blades, as he pressed up into Steve’s mouth.  When Steve pulled away, Tony was looking at him soft-eyed and warm, his mouth tender and well-kissed, and he swayed a little into him.  “Hey,” he said.

 

“Hey,” Steve said, and brushed his thumb over Tony’s wet, swollen lower lip.  “Now we can get breakfast.”

 

“Do you have a to-do list or something?” Tony muttered.  “Make Tony see stars, get eggs, go to the Savage Land?”

 

“Something like that,” Steve said, smiling, a little self-conscious.  “I just wanted to give you a better good morning than . . . that.”

 

“Well, you did,” Tony said.  “Consider that particular mission accomplished.”

 

“We do have to get to the Savage Land,” Steve said.  “Come on.”

 

“Lead on, Cap,” Tony said, and laid his hand at the small of Steve’s back again.  It felt good.

 

They left Miami later that morning.  Steve was pleased, though, that they hadn’t had to use up any of their provisions yet.  He did get to hear about his choice to take Tony’s heavy pack that morning, but he was able to convince Tony to let him carry it, though it was a near thing.  Storm flew them as far as the Dominican Republic, and they camped on the beach.  It was strange, the roar of the surf, the smell of the fire.  Steve almost couldn’t smell the stench of the tunnels anymore.  The sand was white, and Tony convinced him to take off his boots and wade up to his ankles.  He slept that night with Tony tucked into his side, smelling like salt and smoke.  Tony spent most of that night shuddering in nightmares of his own, tears caught under his eyelashes and the names of people he loved on his lips, while Steve stroked the back of his head and tried to soothe him, watching the sparks fly up into the deep velvet blueness of the night sky.  He could see fires burning, far away.  He fell asleep with his face tucked in against Tony’s shoulder, both arms around him this time.

 

The next day they ended up in Venezuela, and when Storm staggered, tired, Logan immediately turned to Steve and told him with a snarl in his voice that she couldn’t fly them any further.  Steve agreed, and decided with Storm that from that point on she would save her strength to actually fly them to the Savage Land when they got as close as they could by land.

 

And then they started to walk.  They took as many back roads as they could, but they still found themselves stopping frequently, warning people to stay away from the cities, out of densely populated areas, to stock up on supplies while they still could and if they had any way to take refuge underground to do it.  They weren’t sure when Ultron would reach this part of the world, but it was better they prepare as best they could and then wait than the other way around.  Caracas was already a burning pile of rubble.  Steve couldn’t figure out why they’d been hit until he realized from the people they talked to on their way that Caracas had been home to a fairly high profile superhero team, one that had been reported in the media, at least.

 

The realization stopped his heart in his throat.  Just the thought, that it might have been them that drew Ultron to wherever they were—“Was it our fault?” he asked Tony desperately that night.  “That New York was the place he hit first and hardest?  The place he reshaped in his image?”

 

“He would have come after us anyway,” Tony told him, eyes grave.  “Don’t kid yourself.  We’re the only threat to him.  We’ve taken him out before, and we know how we did it.  He wanted to kill us all and kill us fast.”

 

“Still,” Steve said.  He couldn’t put it into words, why the thought horrified him so deeply, except that they were supposed to protect people—supposed to protect them, not put them in danger.  Tony’s eyes softened, and he just pulled him forward into a kiss and made it too hard for him to think about that any longer.

 

He saw Tony rubbing his forehead again later than night and ran his thumb down the back of his neck, massaging gently until Tony let his breath out in an oof and melted into their bedroll, going flat and his eyes closing.  Steve sighed.  He worried about Tony, and he wished he could help more.  Even just a little more.

 

Tony spent as much time as he could each day working on the tech he’d brought along with them, and he told Steve privately that he was getting closer.  To what, Steve still wasn’t sure, but he knew Tony would explain everything once he finished it.  What worried Steve more was how tired he was, how ill he seemed.  He hadn’t noticed it so much in the tunnels, but out of them and subjected to the hard physical labor of their trek across South America in the direction of the Savage Land, the toll the persistent headaches had taken was more obvious, most clearly in the way there were times when Tony clearly couldn’t see for the pain and stared straight ahead, only a muscle twitching in his jaw and the blankness in his eyes betraying how much agony he was in, and only Steve’s arm around his shoulders kept him moving.

 

They had never talked about their physical relationship in front of the others, but Steve was sure it was obvious by now.  He couldn’t find it in himself to care.  If they had opinions on it, that was fair enough, but if this was it—he wasn’t going to spend what time they had wondering about what Emma Frost thought about the way he thought about Tony.  He was sure the whole thing was old news to her, anyway.

 

“You’re right,” she told him at one point, and he just shrugged ruefully and tightened his arm around Tony’s shoulders.

 

“About what?” Tony asked suspiciously.  “It’s incredibly obnoxious to make statements like that, Frost.  It’s rude.  Are you trying to make me suspicious?  Because it’s working.”

 

Steve is right,” she said.  “Not everything is about you, Mr. Stark.”

 

“I’m fairly certain I resent that,” Tony told Steve.

 

Steve just smiled and pressed a kiss against the undersuit covering the top of his head.

 

With the use of whatever vehicles they could borrow, they made good time, even if they did have to rely on Storm again to bypass the Amazon.  “I don’t want to fight any mutated fire ants,” Peter sighed.

 

“What about pink dolphins?” Clint suggested.

 

“Dolphins aren’t evil,” Peter said, sounding surprised, and for the entire flight, Peter and Clint argued about the evilness or lack thereof of dolphins, even as the deep green of the trees passed by under their feet.

 

Steve wondered what Namor would have thought.

 

But other than that, they traveled mostly on foot or by truck or car.  Steve was glad of it.  They were all tired, and he wanted to keep their strength up—the Savage Land wasn’t exactly a forgiving place, and he doubted that the robot apocalypse that had befallen the rest of the world would have changed that much.  He was also glad because even though Tony spent most of the hours working, it was easier on him with his persistent headaches, and because Steve often found him slumped down in the back seat of whatever their transportation was at any given moment, head rolled to one side and propped on one fist as he slept, work scattered across his lap.

 

They received word that Austin and Miami had been destroyed by Ultron.  Bogota was the next city whose destruction they got word of, though Steve was sure Central America hadn’t been spared, either.  Every fiber of Steve’s body itched to go back and fight.  It was the only the knowledge that the path they were on was the only one that could possibly help—that going back would just mean hiding like rats in tunnels again, unable to strike a real blow against their enemy—that kept him from doing so.

 

And then there they were, in the Savage Land, Tony tired and bleary-eyed from another headache, but still with him—all of them still there.  They’d made it.  The damage was bad—gigantic craters scattered across the landscape, smoking ruins—but nothing that seemed like Ultron had truly made it here.  They found a ruin quinjet, and it was hard for Steve to even look at it.  It reminded him too much of . . . of better times.  Of home, and the others.  But Steve checked for all of them, congratulated Storm on her hard work, and then, sure enough, there Ka-Zar was to meet them.

 

He said he knew where they needed to go, which Steve admitted he’d been hoping for.  He was grateful that Ka-Zar hadn’t decided to take against them because of what Ultron had done—he easily could have.  But instead he seemed willing enough to guide them to wherever it was he thought they needed to be.  Clint spent some time discussing things with Ka-Zar, but he didn’t seem overly willing to talk, simply answering that the failure of their civilization was what had happened here.  Clint argued that that was a little harsh, but Steve had to admit that he agreed, and said as much.

 

Their civilization had failed.  How else would you describe what had happened?  They’d built something advanced enough, terrible enough, to destroy them.

 

After that, they walked in silence.  Steve rested his hand on the back of Tony’s shoulder for a while, feeling the sweaty warmth of him even through his undersuit, though it usually wicked that away, kept him mostly cool and dry under Steve’s hand.  But the Savage Land was enough to strain any cooling system, Steve supposed.  He kept his hand on his shoulder for some time.  It was comforting for him, too.  Eventually he moved away, but he still kept an eye on Tony, walking with his head down.  He looked like he was lost in thought.

 

Finally, Ka-Zar stopped them, in front of a small collection of huts with elaborate architecture, surrounded by a palisade wall.  “Is this all that’s left of your—?” Clint started.

 

“Yes,” Ka-Zar said brusquely.  “What you seek is in there.”  He pointed toward one of them.

 

Steve was stepping forward when Emma suddenly stumbled, cried out, her hand going to her forehead.  “No!” she said.  “S-Stop.”

 

“What is it?” Pietro asked.

 

“It’s—”

 

She stopped, but Logan finished for her.  “It’s Cage,” he said.  The way he was standing was a fighting stance, his shoulders up and his head down.  “Cage is in there.”

 

“He . . . he survived a nuclear blast,” Emma said.  She had both hands on her temples now, her eyes closed.

 

“He’s dying,” Logan said, cutting straight to the point, blunt as ever.

 

“You—you don’t want to go in there,” Emma said.  She looked at Steve, as if to convince him.  “He piloted a plane, even though he doesn’t know how, and flew it all the way here.  He crashed miles outside of this land and crawled all the way here.”

 

Danny Rand swore, violently, somewhere behind him.  Steve was pretty sure he heard him hit something, heard Clint talk to him.

 

Steve swallowed, forced himself through the guilt to ask the question, kept his voice even.  “And She-Hulk?”  He had to know if he’d sent both of them to their deaths.

 

Emma didn’t answer.  “He knows Ultron’s secret,” she said instead.  “The reason we can’t get to Ultron is because he—he isn’t here.”

 

What? Steve thought, but Clint had already said it for him.  “What?”

 

“He is punishing us from the future,” Emma said.  Her hand was outstretched now, maybe that helped her focus.  “He is using the Vision as a conduit.”

 

“The Vision?” Tony broke in.  “Our Vision?  Damn it.  That explains a lot.”  Steve cast a glance over at him, but he was looking at Emma and scowling.

 

Steve cast his eyes back over to the hut Ka-Zar had indicated.

 

“He’s—he just . . .” Logan trailed off, bowed his head, as if he didn’t know what he wanted to say.  His voice was rough.

 

“He—he should’ve died in the blast,” Emma was saying.  “He wouldn’t let go until he told us what we needed to do next.”

 

“Which is?” Logan, still gruff.

 

“We go get Ultron.”

 

But that was a new voice.  Steve turned toward it in surprise.  Natasha.

 

And Red Hulk, and . . . Moon Knight?  All right.  He’d take it.  Natasha didn’t look good—her eye was scarred badly, it seemed—but she was alive.

 

“And we wipe even the idea of him out of existence,” Red Hulk growled.

 

“And God bless Nick Fury, because we know just how to do it,” Natasha finished.

 

Steve nodded at each of them.  “Red Hulk, Moon Knight,” he said.  “Natasha.”

 

“Steve,” she said, her voice softening.  “All of you.  It’s . . .” she took a deep breath.  “Good to see you.”  Her eyes were sweeping over them, scanning.  Steve knew who she was looking for, who she wouldn’t find.  And he knew she’d know the likelihood of finding him among them, too.

 

It didn’t help at all with the tearing feeling of loss, the grief and guilt when he saw the look in her eyes.

 

“How’s that?” he asked.  He owed it to her not to look away.

 

“He has a secret bunker, here,” she said.  “He’s prepared for something exactly like this.”

 

“And if Ultron’s in the future . . .” Tony broke in.  He and Steve exchanged a glance.

 

“Hold on,” Steve said. He knew his voice was quiet. “There’s something I need to do first. Before we go any further.” He’d sent a soldier out into the field. The least he could do was take his report. Say goodbye.

 

“Steve, don’t,” Emma said.

 

“It’s my responsibility,” Steve told her.  “Ka-Zar?”  He turned toward the man in question.

 

Ka-Zar just nodded and led him in the direction of the hut.

 

“Steve,” Tony said, but Steve didn’t look back.

 

It was dark inside the hut, and it stank, smelled like rotting and death.  There wasn’t much left of Luke, and he couldn’t really speak, words bubbling in his lungs, in his ruined throat and lips.  He could see the death on him.  Steve steeled himself and ignored it, took Luke’s hand and squeezed and told him that he’d done well, that he was a hero, that he’d made it possible for them to get Ultron, that they would.  It didn’t matter if it was true or not.  It was what Luke needed to hear, what he deserved to hear.  He sat with him for a long time, until his eyes closed, and he thought he slept.  It felt like an eternity.  For a while he thought he might never leave, that this stinking hut with the flies and the smell of death was it, was everything.  His penance for getting this man killed—for all of it.  “Goodbye,” he whispered.  “You did well.  And you were always a hero.”

 

And then he stumbled outside, stood there for a long moment, trying to straighten his back, lift his chin—and then turned, fell to his knees, and threw up.

 

He stayed there for a long time, retching emptily whenever he tried to get up.  Eventually he sank his head into his hands and just stayed there, on his knees, until his head was no longer swimming.  He realized, belatedly, that Ka-Zar was standing over him.  “He will die tonight,” Ka-Zar said.

 

“I hope what I said helped,” Steve said.  His own voice sounded rough, unrecognizable.  “Is there . . .” he still could smell burnt flesh and death on himself.  “Water?”

 

Ka-Zar pointed again.  Steve stumbled to his feet, managing to keep his stomach in place this time, and thanked him.

 

His face was unreadable.  “You are a good captain,” he said, finally.

 

Steve thought he might weep.  He felt the furthest thing from it.  “I’m trying,” he finally said.

 

Ka-Zar didn’t speak again, and Steve let himself go in search of the water he’d promised.  He found Daniel Rand on the way.  He must have been waiting for him.  “Luke,” he said, starting forward.  “Can I—I want to sit with him.”

 

“It’s not . . . it’s not pretty,” Steve cautioned uselessly, and just saw Danny’s jaw firm and clench.

 

“I don’t care about that,” he said.  “I’m going.  Thank you, Captain.”

 

“No,” Steve murmured, a moment after he’d gone.  “Thank you.”

 

There was a steaming pool, that the people he asked led him to without much argument, probably agreeing that he stank and needed to wash it off quick.  There was a waterfall that fed into it, and Steve didn’t bother to take off his clothes, he walked right under it as he was.

 

Under the crushing weight of the water, no one could see it if he wept, after all.

 

Eventually, when he could no longer smell any of it on himself, he slogged his way out of the pool and stripped, though the wet leather clung to him stubbornly and it seemed to take years to get it off him.  When he was naked, he stepped back into the water and did his best to wash with the soap they had provided.  He didn’t know how long he took there.  His mind felt sluggish and heavy with grief.  He couldn’t stop thinking about them all—Jennifer, Luke, Jan.  Thor.  Bucky.

 

He splashed water on his face, again and again, trying to bring himself out of it.  Finally he rubbed at his eyes and gave up, climbed out of the pool, and then didn’t know what to do with himself.  His clothes were wet.

 

He sat on a nearby rock and shivered.

 

“I thought you’d come and find me, sooner or later, so I decided to save you the trouble and come and find you.”  Natasha’s voice, and then there she was.  She handed him a change of clothes—a loose tunic, and trousers, but that was fine—and he shrugged into them gratefully.

 

“Thank you,” he said, for both the clothes and the consideration of seeking him out herself for this talk.  She was right—he had been going to find her.  “We don’t have to do this now.”

 

“Sooner is better than later, I think,” she said.  She took a seat on the rock beside him.

 

She was probably right about that, too.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, to start.  She was looking straight ahead, her hands clasped in her lap.  He could see the scarring over her eye very clearly from this angle.  “I—we did our best.  Bucky did his best.   And you know as well as I do that that's something else.   He fought.”

 

“But he was doomed from the start,” she said.  Her voice was very even, blank.  Calm.  “The arm.  They wired it into his central nervous system.”

 

Steve hesitated, swallowed.  “Yes,” he said.  “He knew it was coming before any of the rest of us.”

 

“He killed himself,” she said.

 

Steve’s throat felt tight.  “Yes,” he said.  “He used a grenade.  Blew himself and about four of the big ones up at once.”

 

“You were there?” she said, turning to look at him.  Red hair slid, tangled over her face.

 

Steve nodded.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said.  She reached out, took his hand, laced their fingers.  Squeezed.

 

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else,” Steve choked out.  He squeezed her hand back.

 

“Thank you,” she said.  “For being there, when I couldn’t be.”

 

Steve nodded, bowed his head.  Her fingers were so small, you forgot how deadly they could be.  “Of course,” he said, and he could hear the tears in his own voice.  He took a moment, a deep breath, and lifted his head again.

 

“He told me to tell you,” he said.  “He said.  To thank you.  To tell you thank you from him.”

 

Natasha pulled her hand free, stood up.  She murmured something in Russian.  Her voice sounded choked.  Her shoulders trembled.  Steve thought she was crying.  When he stood up and put his hand on her shoulder, he could see the tears sliding slowly down her face, though she didn’t make a sound, and her face was set, still.

 

She didn’t pull away from his hand.  They stood there for a long time.

 

“Thank you,” she said, finally, and patted his hand.  “Thank you.”  She blinked.  He could see her clearing away the tears.  He turned, put his arms around her, and for a moment, she leaned into him.

 

“Thank you,” Steve murmured.  “For being with him.”  He cleared his throat.  “For knowing him in a way I—I couldn’t.”  And for being someone who did, he thought, disjointedly.  For being someone I can grieve with.

 

She hugged him, tightly, her arms surprisingly strong.  Her hands smoothed over his back, and for a moment, she hid her face in his shoulder.

 

“You’ve delivered your message,” she said, after another moment had passed, then pulled back, wiped at her face with both hands.  “Now go to Stark before he goes out of his mind with worry, and talk to him, and for God’s sake make love to him, all right?”

 

Steve blinked at her, a little surprised.  “I . . .” he said.  He hadn’t expected that.  He hadn’t realized Natasha knew about him and Tony, though he supposed he should have; she was good at things like this.

 

She just shook her head at him.  “You two aren’t subtle,” she said, “and even if you had been, the way Tony’s been fretting himself sick over you would have given it away.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said.  “Is he all right?” he asked, suddenly concerned.

 

“You should go ask him that,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes a little.

 

“Are you . . .” Steve looked at her closely, trying to see if she was all right herself, but it was hard to tell.  She had her equanimity back at least, her tear-streaked face calm again.

 

“I’d like to be alone for a little while, Steve,” she said quietly.

 

“All right,” he said.  He stroked one hand through her hair, impulsively.  “Take care, Natasha.”

 

“You too, Steve,” she said, still quietly.  She squeezed his hand, then moved away.  “Tony’s with the others on the east side of the village,” she called out, already sitting down on the rock he’d been using.

 

Steve sighed and turned away, going in search of him—the east side, she had said. In the end, it wasn’t that hard to find.  Tony was sitting with the others, but he looked up when he saw Steve coming and came to meet him.  “Steve?” he said, and yes, his face was concerned, lined with worry.  He looked tired, unutterably weary, and worried, his mouth tight and distressed.

 

“Sorry,” Steve said.  He reached out, cupped the back of Tony’s head in his hand and drew him close, and just stood there, for a moment.  He was real.  He was here, alive under his hand.  He shifted his hand until he could feel Tony’s pulse just under his ear and just listened to it.  His eyes closed.

 

Tony’s hand came up to settle onto his shoulder.  “Steve?” he said again.

 

Steve sighed, dragged his eyes open.  “I’m sorry I worried you,” he managed, finally.

 

“Hey,” Tony said, with a wry smile.  “It’s fine.”  He moved his hand down, brushing over Steve’s chest.  Where the star on his uniform would normally be, Steve though.  “Are you okay, though?”

 

“I’m all right,” Steve sighed.

 

Tony raised his eyebrows at him.

 

“I’ve been better,” he admitted.

 

“I bet,” Tony said.  “All right, Captain, can you do the thing where you talk to the troops tonight, or is that a no?”

 

Steve raised his head, squared his shoulders.  “I can,” he said.  “I have to.”

 

“Hey, no,” Tony said.  “You don’t have to.”

 

“I do,” Steve said, with a weary smile at him.  Because he did.  They needed to . . . hear from him.  That they had a plan, that they would get Ultron, that they knew what to do.  They needed to hear that from him.  “Can you just . . . wait for me?”

 

“Sure thing,” Tony said quietly.  He squeezed Steve’s shoulder, then set one hand at the back of his head and leaned forward, resting their foreheads together.  “You can do this, babe,” he said.

 

“Yeah,” Steve breathed.  Tony’s eyes were very blue.  Electric.  Somehow he felt stronger already.  He shifted his shoulders, straightened up, and gave him a stronger smile.  “Okay.”

 

“Okay,” Tony said, smiling back, bravely, and squeezed his shoulder bracingly.  “You go out there and knock ‘em dead.”

 

Steve nodded and started for the others, while Tony turned and waved a little, heading back into the hut behind them. 

 

Steve sat down next to Monica.

 

He spent the next hour or so talking to the others, convincing them that there was hope, that they’d get Ultron, putting the fighting spirit into them as much as he could.  He clapped them on the shoulder a lot.  He kept trying to smile, but it felt weak and unconvincing, so he stopped.  Probably better to just be honest.  Encourage them that way.  He could tell them that they still had a chance without smiling.

 

When he stood up, giving them his best attempt at a real grin, Logan looked up and said with a completely straight face, “Hope you’re gonna screw Stark’s brains out tonight, Cap.”

 

Steve coughed, a little.  He could feel himself turning red.  “Excuse me?” he said.

 

Logan shrugged.  “Might not get another chance,” he muttered, already looking back down.

 

Well, he supposed that was that, then.  Steve looked around at the others, wondering what they thought of that—but they weren’t reacting much.  Steve could feel himself blushing, but none of the others seemed that surprised.  Had they all already known?  He supposed they must have.  Like Natasha had said, they apparently weren’t all that subtle.

 

“Oh,” he said.  “Right.  I’ll, um, I’ll tell him you said that.”

 

Logan snorted, sounding amused.

 

“Right,” Steve said again, and turned around and headed for the hut where he knew Tony was waiting for him.

 

He stepped inside, closed the door, and Tony looked up from where he was sitting on the floor.  There was bedding laid out on the other side of the room, but he was surrounded by tech, pieces of Ultron robots.  “Steve,” he said, smiling, and got to his feet, wiping greasy hands down the sides of his undersuit.  Steve closed the door behind him, and then Tony was on him, kissing him, both hands on his shoulders, then moving up warmly to cup the sides of his neck as he licked his way into his mouth.

 

“Mmph,” Steve said, a little startled, but not at all badly.  He reached up, wrapped his arms around Tony’s back, leaned into him with eagerness.  Tony kissed him even more thoroughly, both fierce and somehow sweet, exploring every inch of his mouth, his lips, with slow determination.  When he finally pulled away, Steve’s knees felt weak, and Tony just turned his head, began to kiss along Steve’s jaw to his ear, down his throat.  Steve shivered as Tony’s stubble scraped across his skin.

 

“Mmm,” Tony said, and trailed his tongue along his throat.  Steve couldn’t help it, he gasped.

 

“Tony,” he said breathlessly.

 

“Yes, honey?” Tony asked, biting lightly at the sensitive skin of Steve’s jaw.

 

Steve felt like maybe he needed to sit down.  “I think they all know about us,” he said, instead, taking Tony’s face in his hands so he could press kisses of his own into his mouth.

 

“Mmm,” Tony said, and grinned, a wry little smirk against Steve’s mouth.  “Good.  Then we don’t have to worry about making noise.”

 

“Tony,” Steve said, knowing he was blushing faintly.  He settled his hands at Tony’s back, tracing them down over his spine, again feeling the reassuring shape of him, the give and flex of his muscles solid under his hands.  “What are you working on?”

 

“Stuff we can talk about in a second,” Tony said, and nuzzled kisses against the tender skin at the front of Steve’s throat.  Steve had to admit it felt nice, the simple pleasure, the simmering tingle under his skin as Tony nipped and explored.  He let Tony coax him down onto the bedding and crawl over him, let him work his hands under his tunic and stroke over his bare skin, one kiss turning into another, then another, mouths growing wet and soft as they kissed again and again.  When Tony stopped, finally, still stroking his fingers softly, evenly over Steve’s chest, he felt warm all through, and the horrors of the day didn’t feel quite so immediate.  His shoulders had even stopped hurting.  He reached up, ran the backs of his fingers along Tony’s cheek, then tugged at the undersuit over his head.

 

Tony gave him another wry little smile, but he reached up and pushed it back, letting his hair fall over his forehead in short little tangled spikes.  Steve reached up, curled his fingers through them before brushing it back off his forehead.

 

“So,” Tony said, trailing his fingers down over Steve’s neck, along his shoulder to his arm, then down to take Steve’s hand in his.  He squeezed, a little.  “Ultron is in the future, huh?”

 

Steve nodded.  “That’s what they said,” he agreed.

 

Tony’s eyes sparked, and he looked satisfied.  “I knew it,” he told him.  “I knew he wasn’t here, wasn’t using someplace on Earth for a staging ground.”  And then his face turned tired, and sad, and he shrugged.  “I mean, not that that would have helped much,” he said.  “But at least that explains why we didn’t see him coming.”

 

It did, at that.  It was cold comfort, at best, but it was something.  They hadn’t failed as egregiously as they might have.  There’d been reasons they’d been so entirely blind.  “Yeah,” Steve said, wearily.  “It does.”

 

“Natasha and the others seem pretty convinced Nick has a plan to deal with him,” Tony said, still rubbing Steve’s hand with his thumb.  It felt good, and Steve wasn’t in any hurry to stop him.  “I’m betting that plan’s going to involve time travel, too.  Which means, I guess, that like I said—we get two shots at this.  But you know what Ultron being in the future means, Steve?”  That spark was back in his eyes.  It was a little feverish, a little manic, but that glitter was inspiring, too.  Seeing it there lit something inside of Steve, too.  Made him feel stronger, braver, more determined.  Like he could actually do this.  Made the ache in his heart and the lump in his throat less vivid, less immediate, less real.

 

“That it’s trickier to plan a tactical assault without knowing where he’s coming from?” Steve asked.

 

“Well, that, too,” Tony said, “but Steve, don't you see?  He’s attacking us from a different timestream.  And that means when we kill him, in the future, when we do that, this is done.  If we reverse time, it’s still done.  He’s safely done, dead, in his pocket universe.  And when we reverse time, he’ll still be dead, and he can’t come back.  Can’t attack us again.  We’ll have beaten him.  And then we reverse time, and he can’t attack, all this can’t just repeat itself—because he’ll be dead. We can use the tactic he used against us on him.”

 

Steve felt the first stirrings of something that could almost be hope.  He shoved himself up on his elbows.  “Really?” he said.  “Can we really . . . would it work like that?”

 

Tony grinned at him and sat back on his heels.  “Yes, and yes,” he said.  “We can, really, and it will.  I’ve done about a thousand theoretical models, looked at it from every angle I can think of, and it will.” 

 

That was good enough for Steve.  That was more than good enough.  He trusted Tony’s mind in a way he never could have trusted his own read on something like time travel, something so theoretically complex.  If Tony said that that was how it would work, it would.  You could take that to the bank.  He knew that.

 

Tony sobered, grin fading.  “We just have to make sure we can take him out, or all of this will be hypothetical.”

 

“And we haven’t even been able to touch him,” Steve said, looking down.  He blew his breath out in a long sigh.  “How are we ever going to—he’s going to be entrenched, dug in.  If he’s in the future . . . if he’s doing this from the future, he’ll be ready.  He’ll have had years to prepare.”

 

“I have a few thoughts about that,” Tony said.  “That’s another thing I’ve been working on.”

 

“You just have all the answers,” Steve said, smiling up at him.  He reached up to rest his hands on the curve of his waist, against his back.

 

“You’re not going to like it,” Tony warned, and his face was so serious, so grave . . . Steve felt his face begin to fall, a coldness growing in his chest.  His hands tightened despite himself.

 

“What?” he asked.  “What is it?”

 

“It’s me,” Tony said, simply.  He reached down, set his hands over Steve’s.  “The answer is me.  Or rather, my brain.  I’ve had Ultron inside me before, see.  He rewrote me once, and I made sure to write firewalls to protect myself, to keep him out; that’s how I was able to resist him this time.  But I’m still . . .” he made a face “. . . part of their network.  I’ve tested and retested that, too.  They read me as one of them, at least at first.  The Ultron robots.  And it’s . . . what the Skrulls did to me, I can do it to him.  I wrote a virus.  It will . . . erase him.  It’s self-replicating.  It will erase him everywhere he’s ever uploaded himself.  Ever linked up to.  But there’s . . . there’s a big risk to me.”  He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, closed his eyes.  “A big risk.  I’m not going to lie to you, Steve.  It’s more likely than not that I won’t survive it.  My mind is already damaged, and . . . I’ve had to find ways to work around that.  To form a functional uplink again at all is . . . probably not something a doctor would recommend, we’ll just put it that way.  And he’s going to try to keep me out.  He’s not gonna be gentle.  It’ll be electronic warfare, but in my head, it’s . . . there’s a really high likelihood that even if I survive, I’ll be a drooling moron.”

 

Steve just lay there, looking up at him for a long moment.  Tony looked down at him.  He bit his lip, worrying it between his teeth.  His eyes were dark, mostly pupil, worried, but also determined.

 

Steve closed his eyes, opened them again.  He could feel that he was shaking.  Slowly, he reached up, brushed his fingers deliberately against Tony’s jaw, curled his hand there.  “I’d still love you, you know,” he said.  His voice was trembling, but he didn’t seem to be able to do anything about that.

 

Tony turned his face into the curve of Steve’s hand, pressed his mouth down against his fingers.  He took a deep breath, and then he shook his head.  “Getting ahead of myself,” he explained, straightening up again, turning back to Steve.  “Because the virus has one drawback—it’s going to leave the original platform mostly intact, just without uplink capability, like a . . . like a really lame laptop.”  His mouth twisted in a wry, bitter smile.  “Or like, you know, me, with Extremis.  So what you’re going to have to do is kill the damn thing.  And wipe Ultron out for good.”

 

“How close are you going to have to be to Ultron to use this virus?” Steve asked.  “I . . .” he took a deep breath.  “I haven’t okayed this plan yet.  I just want to know my options here.”

 

Tony shrugged.  “Closer is better,” he said.  “As close as I can get.  I need to get to a terminal and punch in that way.”

 

“So we need a strike team,” Steve said.

 

“Pretty much, yeah,” Tony agreed.

 

“It’s a suicide mission,” Steve said slowly.

 

“No,” Tony said, shaking his head.  “No.  Because someone . . . someone has to survive long enough to use the time travel device.  To turn back time.  To make it so that none of this ever happened.”  He reached down, took Steve’s chin in his hand, looked straight into his eyes.  “I want that to be you, Steve,” he said.  “I want to know that you at least got to go back and see things the way they were.  That you can tell them what happened here.  Warn them, because even if it doesn’t happen again, even if it can’t, they need to know.  They need to know to make sure that they don’t make the same mistakes we did.”  He bowed his head, moved his hands to rest, curled into fists, on Steve’s shoulders.  “I need to know that I at least saved you,” he said, his voice choked and broken.  His shoulders shook.

 

“So I have to watch you die?” Steve asked, horrified by the thought.  “Tony . . . .”

 

“Hey, maybe it won’t happen that way,” Tony said.  But he wasn’t looking at Steve, and Tony had never been very good at lying to him.  The lie was obvious.  “Either way, I want you to use it.  To turn back time.  To save everyone.  All of them.  In New York and Washington and Miami and Seattle and London and . . . all those people, Steve.”  He took a deep, shaking breath.  “All those people.  And Jan and Bucky and Carol and Rhodey and Pepper and Thor . . . you’ve gotta do that for me.  If I go out taking Ultron with me . . . you have to save them.”  He looked at him, desperately, a little smile playing at the corner of his mouth.  “You’re the one person I can trust to see it done.”

 

“That’s not fair,” Steve whispered, his throat aching.  His chest felt tight.  He tilted his head back and stared up at the ceiling.

 

But he knew, he knew Tony was right.  He wanted to.  He wanted to see it done.  He closed his eyes.

 

“You’re right,” he said.  He threw his arm over his face, sucked in a breath that nearly turned into a sob.  “You’re right.  And that means I . . . I have to . . .”  He flung his arm aside, glared up at Tony.  “I have to watch you die?”

 

“Or as good as,” Tony said, looking gravely, sadly down at him.  “I’m sorry, Steve,” he whispered.  “I can’t come up with another way, not one that would work.  I don’t want to just . . . to just throw all our lives away.  I won’t.  We have to be sure, and . . . I wouldn’t do this, not if there was any other way.  You know that, right?  I wouldn’t do that to you.  Not now.”

 

“I know,” Steve said bitterly.  “It’s always like that with you.  There’s never any other way.  You have to kill yourself, stop your heart, delete your brain.  For the rest of us.”

 

He could see the hurt flash across Tony’s face, profound hurt, before he ducked his head down, steeled his features, his hand coming up to his chest and clenching into a fist.  “There isn’t,” he said, voice flat, but his jaw was tight, and Steve could see the wounded way his shoulders had hunched up.  “Of course, there’s everyone dying pointlessly.  We can always try that instead.  Because it worked so well the first time.”

 

That comment, what Steve had said, had been below the belt.  Unworthy of him.  Steve had known it even as he’d said it.  But what Tony had said hurt, too, dug icy fingers right into Steve’s chest and wrenched, with all the guilt he had stored up, all the recriminations, the knowledge of his own responsibility.  A lump bunched up in his throat, and he was a little shocked at the raw, icy pain of it.

 

He took a deep breath, looked up at the ceiling, counted to ten.  Tried to unclench his jaw.  Tried to restrain the anger, the urge to lash out in response to being hurt.

 

“I’m sorry,” it was Tony’s voice, sounded shocked, contrite, even trembling a little.  “Hell, I’m sorry, Steve, I—I shouldn’t have said that.  I really shouldn’t have.”  His fingers reached out, traced down over Steve’s cheek, lightly, as if he half expected them to be knocked away.  “It really wasn’t your fault.  We didn’t know.  No one knew.  Look at me, baby.”  His voice broke.  “I’m sorry.”

 

And here they were again, digging into each other, Steve thought.  And Tony, the first to apologize.  He forced his fingers to unclench, ran them up Tony’s back again, looked back at him.  “I’m sorry, too,” he forced himself to say evenly.  “I shouldn’t have said that.  It was low, and it was uncalled for, and it was hurtful.  C’mere.”  He pulled Tony down toward him.

 

“What I said was worse,” Tony said, resisting.  “I’m really . . . I’m sorry, Cap.”

 

“Shush,” Steve said.  “It’s done with.  It’s over.  Forget it.”  He took Tony’s head in his hands, kissed him.

 

Tony resisted at first, then leaned into it with a low noise, opening his mouth and pressing into him.  They kissed for a long time, drinking each other in.  Steve tried to memorize this, the brush of Tony’s facial hair, the firm, strong pressure of his lips, the warmth of his tongue and the taste of his breath, the little trembling movements of him.

 

Eventually Tony pulled away, rolled onto his back beside him.  Steve kept his arm tucked around his shoulders, but let him go, let him stare up at the ceiling.

 

“Well, that was super mature,” he said after a moment, and Steve couldn’t help but smile a bit.

 

“Very,” he agreed. “On both our parts.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, letting his breath out on a little rueful laugh.

 

Eventually Steve sighed. “You’re right,” he says.  “Your plan, it’s . . . it’s the first real chance we’ve had.”

 

“One life,” Tony said.  “One . . . mind.  Against billions.”

 

“You’re right,” Steve said, “Iron Man.”  He rolled over, turned to face him, reached out to curl his hand against his neck, just under his jaw.  It was a familiar position by now, familiar to hold him like that.  Tony looked up at him, blue eyes questioning. Bright and brilliant and intelligent.  Steve blew his breath out, his throat aching.  “I’ve never told you enough,” he said, “how brave I think you are.  How much I admire your intelligence and your strength, the way you . . . you always look ahead, to the future, and see things none of the rest of us can, your creativity and your determination.”

 

Tony started to color, to shake his head and turn away, his mouth tugging wryly to one side.  “No different from the rest of you,” he started to say, but Steve wasn’t finished, caught his jaw with one hand and pulled it back around.

 

“Maybe not your bravery,” he said, “but your brilliance, the way you think about problems, the way you look for solutions that aren’t clean, or pretty, but you find them, the way you never stop looking for the greatest good for the greatest number of people?  That’s you, Tony.”  He took a deep breath.  “That’s all you.  You’re one of the most amazing men I’ve ever had the privilege to know.  And if you do die to do this, to take out Ultron, I just want you to know one thing, Iron Man.  It was an honor.”

 

“I . . .” Tony looked at Steve, searchingly, his eyes wide and confused.  He looked completely baffled, shocked, more than a little thunderstruck and maybe overcome.  He blinked, swallowed, and his throat clicked.  “I . . . thank you?  That sounds so stupid, I . . . what do you say when the best person you’ve ever known tells you that you’re . . .” he made a face, rueful, self-deprecating.  “Thanks, Steve,” he said.  “I—I just—I don’t know what to say.  Wow, I must sound like such an idiot, I just—”

 

“Don’t know what to say?” Steve said, smiling softly, a little sadly, to himself, and leaned in to kiss him, pushing him down on his back, bracing his arm on the bedding beside his head.  Tony made an eager, desperate noise and arched up into it, curling his arms around his head and kissing him fervently.

 

He rubbed his hands down Tony’s sides, then pulled away, kissing along his cheek, down the side of his throat.  “It’s not every day I get one over on Iron Man,” he murmured, curling one hand around Tony’s thigh, hitching it up against his own side.  “I’ll take it.”

 

Tony laughed, sounding a little overwrought.  He tipped his head back against the pillow, though his hands clenched tightly around Steve’s shoulders.  “You must know how amazing you are,” he said, thickly, his teeth gritted and his tone fierce like he had to struggle to get it out.  “How brave and strong you are, how much of an inspiration, how much I . . . I admire you.  If we’re saying . . . if we’re saying these things, I have to say that.  I’m better at doing everything next to you.  You keep me on . . . on the right path.  You’re my rudder, Steve.”  He leaned up, clutching him close, fiercely, at the same time he gasped, rolled his hips up into him, bit lightly at his ear, the soft skin of his neck.

 

Steve took a deep breath, had to swallow.  His own cheeks felt a little pink.  He’d always known that Tony admired him, cared deeply for him, but he’d never . . . he pressed their lips back together, maybe a little too avidly, ardently, licking back into Tony’s mouth, and Tony moaned, arched up against him.

 

After a moment Steve pulled back, holding Tony’s head steady with one hand, the other still running up and down his thigh.  “If we’re going to do this,” he said, “strip down?  For me?”

 

Tony gave that crooked little smile again and tugged at the laces of Steve's tunic.  “Okay,” he said, “well, the same goes for you.”

 

They undressed in silence, but they kept sneaking glances at each other—it felt odd, slow and almost worshipful, when they came back together.  Steve pressed Tony back into the bedding so he could have a chance to run his hands down over his chest, press his fingers into all the places he'd learned were sensitive, and see Tony arch up beneath him, his head tip back and his eyes falling heavy and closed, without any of him covered by anything.  He palmed his hips, traced his hands down his legs.

 

And then Tony was getting a leg under him, twisting Steve down into the bed, and it was a throw that Steve had taught him, and he couldn’t help it, he laughed a little, delighted that Tony had got one over on him, as Tony leaned in to kiss him, grinning a little himself as he ran his hands over Steve’s chest, down his legs.  One hand came up to cup the side of Steve’s face and he tilted his head into the kiss, their lips meeting firmly, soundly, then pulling apart, only to meet again.

 

Tony made Steve come twice, and for the first time, Steve didn’t let Tony push him away after he’d had one climax, either; he brought him to another, hand between his legs, until Tony was shaking, crying out, his head tipped back.  Afterward, they lay curled together, Tony’s head on Steve’s chest, for a long time, and talked about little things, things they remembered, good times in the past, baseball and the sale of the Dodgers and who should be on the next team of Avengers.  Steve kept his hands moving over Tony’s body, slow and simple, rubbed at the back of his neck in the way that made it hurt less, and Tony didn’t push him away, but when Steve was starting to slow down, to get tired, Tony nudged him around, wrapped both arms around him, and laid his head against the back of Steve’s neck, between his shoulders.

 

They fell asleep like that, and Steve felt safe, Tony’s hand resting flat over his heart.  He knew Tony was listening to his heartbeat, counting it probably, and he was glad.  Maybe Tony felt safe that way, too.

 

---

 

Tony dreamt about Pepper that night.  He often did.  It was so normal, felt so normal, just teasing her while she tried to get him to do his paperwork, that he woke half-bleary, not sure where he was.  But then he felt Steve in his arms, the heat of morning in the Savage Land, and he knew.  Steve’s bare skin was very warm under his cheek, against his skin, grounding, and Tony couldn’t help the urge to press his lips against it, to taste it against his tongue.

 

Tony woke Steve up with a blowjob that morning, mostly because he’d always wanted to, and hell, he wasn’t going to get another chance, at least not if everything went according to plan.  And to see the pleasure flush creeping up Steve’s chest and into his cheeks, the surprise on his face, when he startled awake, the taste of him when he came—yeah, it wasn’t something he’d have wanted to die without experiencing at least once.  Steve insisted on getting him off after, of course, pushed him onto his back and sucked him gently to completion, and Tony just curled his fingers in his hair, stroking them through it, because well, he couldn’t exactly complain about Steve’s sense of fair play, could he?

 

Tony knew the others knew perfectly well what they’d been doing, so he gave them his best self-satisfied grin the next morning.  Steve just looked faintly embarrassed.  They set off bright and early.  Tony used the time to review what he was going to do—to make sure the patches he’d made in his head, the work-arounds, were holding and ready to go.  His head hurt, and he felt awfully warm, but that had become a constant over the last few days, his bodily systems straining to accommodate the alterations.  It should still be okay. 

 

And then he had nothing to do but think.  About the Vision.  About how easy they’d made it for Ultron. About how badly they’d failed.

 

It was a hell of a head trip to be dwelling on.

 

Steve’s hand on his shoulder was a welcome weight, though, steadying.  And then they found Nick Fury’s secret bunker (of course he had one, of course, a secret bunker in the Savage Land, classic Fury), and Tony was right about him having a plan, because he had Doom’s time platform, which was really ridiculously perfect.  And he also had a version of Tony’s Mark II armor, which was basically the best—even if the thing about Tony giving it to him drunk was absolute and total bull.  He’d never have just handed one of his suits over to Fury like that, no matter how drunk he was—and if he’d been drunk, he’d probably have tried to punch Fury out rather than let him take it or something equally embarrassing.  Fury had probably sneaked it past him while he was drunk.  But Tony didn’t feel like calling him on it, because the armor was beautiful and gorgeous and wonderful and right there and just about the most amazing thing he’d ever seen in his life for the above reasons.  He kind of couldn’t keep his hands off it.

 

It was good to be heading into battle in the armor again.  Really good.  He felt . . . well, he felt ready.  Suited up and ready to go.  Kind of . . . at home?

 

“Hey there, Shellhead,” Steve said, when he had the armor rolled on and had just settled the helmet over his head, and knocked his knuckles against it, smiling, and Tony had to swallow the lump in his throat as he reached out to flick his fingers against the wing on the side of Steve’s cowl, because now he felt really at home.

 

“Right back atcha, Winghead,” he said, and then Fury cleared his throat.  Loudly.

 

“Jesus, you two,” he said.  “Knock it off, yer embarrassin’ me.”

 

Steve frowned a little, and Tony scowled at him.  “Get a life, Fury,” he said.

 

“Hardehar,” Fury said.  “Your sense of humor is second to none, really, Stark, you ever tried to make any money as a comedian?  No?  Well, no wonder.  I thought you had a plan?”

 

So they ran through it one more time, and while the others hemmed and hawed a little, what had been obvious to Steve was obvious to the rest of them—it was just about their only chance.  It was definitely the best one they’d had.

 

“I’ll need someone to cover me,” Tony said.  “While I try to hack the system, and Steve takes out the last Ultron platform.”

 

“Me,” Logan said, and stood up.  “You need me.  I can heal.”  He shrugged.  “You’ll need it.”

 

“I should come along, too,” Sue said.  “I can cover you, turn you invisible.”

 

Tony smiled at her.  “You should go with Steve,” he said.  “Get him as close as you can.  Ultron’s going to know I’m there anyway.  Nothing’s going to hide me.”

 

“That’s why you need me,” Logan said, and slid out his claws.

 

“Cap, Tony, Sue, Wolverine, Storm, Photon, Widow, Hulk, Quake, no one else is going, because someone needs to stay behind in case this all goes horribly wrong and everyone dies, which is more likely’n not,” Fury said, proving himself to be the same ray of sunshine as always. 

 

“I want to go,” Danny Rand said, suddenly, from the back.  He’d been quiet, since Luke’s death, hardly speaking, not that he’d ever been particularly talkative before, but now his head was up, his shoulders square.  “I volunteer.”

 

“Iron Fist,” Fury said, sounding surprised.

 

“Let me go,” Danny said, his jaw tight.

 

“Fine, fine, if you’re that eager ta kill yerself, be my guest,” Fury sighed.  “All right, everyone?  Suit up.”

 

With Sue along, everything went well enough.  They were able to slip into the city—Tony kind of couldn’t help himself from marveling at how advanced the tech was, and he knew it was awful, but it was beautiful, and more than that, he needed to get a handle on it, and fast—and Tony was able to tap into the lines of code all around them and follow them to the main hub.  It was all oddly quiet, at first, as they crept invisibly through a city inhabited, it seemed, mainly by robots.  Tony had a feeling there were still humans around.  He also had a feeling he really, really didn’t want to see what had happened to them.

 

And then they were at the main hub, and everything went very quickly.  He looked at Steve, and nodded, and Steve hesitated, just for a second, then gestured for his team to split off.  Before they went, he went back to Tony, gripped him tightly through the armor, by the back of the neck, leaned their foreheads together, just for a moment.

 

Hey, Tony thought, and wished he could say it out loud, but they couldn’t risk speech now.  I love you.  Steve’s breath was fogging up the faceplate of the armor, and his eyes were very blue.  He squeezed them shut, ducked them down, just for a moment, breathing heavily, and Tony got lost in the blond length of his eyelashes against his cheeks, the soft little sad twist of his mouth.  He reached up, brushed his thumb against Steve’s lips, and Steve kissed it, softly, his lips leaving moist traces on the armor, and then he pulled away, and the others followed.

 

And Tony got busy.  He hooked himself up through the RT—it was basically his brain stem now, anyway—and then, with a jolt, he was in, and he stopped seeing anything around him.  There was just him and the streams of data, and Ultron.  He knew Logan was there, keeping guard over him, but it seemed far away, immaterial.

 

Simple exposure to Tony’s systems was enough to release the virus, but he had known from the beginning that that wouldn’t be enough.  He had to break down Ultron’s firewalls, insinuate himself through his network, and he had to do it as fast as he could, faster than Ultron could replicate, with Ultron fighting him every step of the way.  He knew it was going to tax him, going to be just about as much effort as he could give, so he went in ready for a fight.

 

And Ultron gave it to him.  Damn did he ever give it to him.  Tony realized, as if from very far away, that there was sweat dripping down the back of his neck inside the armor, down his face, but he could barely feel it, too busy wiring connections together, writing code as fast as he could think, breaking through the defenses Ultron threw up against him, burning them down as he burned through Ultron’s systems and felt the virus began to do the same, wiping them out of existence.

 

But he felt the first laser hitting him where it cut into his leg.  He heard Logan grunt, and snarl, even as the pain blossomed, radiating up the nerve in his leg, radiant and hot, and knew that he was running out of time, Logan couldn’t keep them off of him forever.

 

But he needed longer, just a little longer.  All he could see now was code, in front of his eyes, and it was like the first days of having Extremis, that heady and fast, except it hurt more, every bit of it was an effort, a struggle to fight off Ultron, to bear up under his assaults.  He felt like he was bleeding out, every bit of code he wrote tugging at something in him, unraveling.  The white hot fire was back, blazing through every inch of him, white light with lines of blue-white code written over it, but this time Tony was writing it, forging it with his mind and his will, pushing it forward, his mind, blood gushing after it.

 

In the end it came down to who was going to be stronger, him or Ultron, and for a moment he didn’t know, Ultron ripped into him, into his mind, and it tore, and it hurt, and he could feel himself wavering.  Felt himself fall to his knees, felt the agony as another laser tore into his arm, but no.  No.  No.

 

 There was no way he was giving up now.  They had this chance, they had this once chance, and he was stronger than this goddamn computer, he was, damn it, he was.

 

Tony stood up and pushed back, ripped back into Ultron himself, gritted his teeth and set himself and overpowered Ultron and wrenched him apart.  He felt it as the virus took, felt it speed through the systems, saw the code start to change before his eyes.

 

He blinked.  When he opened them again, his eyes felt oddly dim, his vision washed out and bleary, gray.  Someone was holding him, holding him up.  He could see wires protruding out of his chest.  Wires.   Weird.   He fumbled at them, and his fingers felt slow, clumsy, too.  Why, did he have to be plugged in again to be charged up?

 

Arms around his back.

 

Everything hurt.  His head hurt a lot.  Oh, yeah.  Ultron.  He almost laughed, and it rasped in his throat.

 

“Stark,” Logan’s voice.  “Stark, are you with me here?  Can you hear me at all?”

 

“Did it,” Tony breathed.  He felt a moment of intense triumph, almost overwhelming, that left him shaking.  “I did it.”

 

“Yeah, you did, all the bots fell apart,” Logan said.  “Listen.  Your pulse is slowing.  Should I be worried about that?”

 

“Dying,” Tony said, on a little hitch of breath.  God, did it ever hurt.

 

“Yeah,” Logan said.  “You are.”

 

“Always part of the plan,” Tony agreed.   He felt very cold.  Cold and slow.  And his head hurt.  He could feel himself slowing down.  His thoughts felt scattered, very far away.  It was hard to reach for them.  But there was something . . . something he really needed to remember.  “Steve,” he breathed.  “Where’s Steve?”  He fumbled with his helmet, but he couldn’t seem to find the release catch.  His fingers just flopped uselessly at his throat.

 

“He’s fightin’ the big robot,” Logan said, then sighed, and swore under his breath as Tony finally figured out the catch and pulled the helmet off.

 

“Really good piece of tech,” Tony told him, looking fondly at the helmet in his hand.  He hugged it to his chest, against the wires.  “Loved this suit.  Shouldn’t, y’know?  Shouldn’t have a favorite kid, but . . . always liked this one.”

 

“That’s nice, Stark,” Logan muttered.

 

“Get me up,” Tony said, clutching at Logan’s shoulder.  “I need to.  I need to see.”  He didn’t remember why, so much, just that Steve was out there, and Steve needed him, and he couldn’t disappoint him.  He didn’t want to disappoint Steve.  Not—not ever.  And he . . . he needed to see him.  He wanted to.

 

“All right,” Logan said, “fine.”  He pushed Tony up, got one arm under him until he was wavering on his feet, then got his other arm around, one palm under his chin, and pushed it up.  “There,” he said.  “You see him?”

 

And there Steve was, ducking under a blow from the last Ultron platform he was fighting, blocking it on the laser shield on his arm, the one that—

 

“Hey,” Tony whispered.  “I made that for him.”  It had been a while ago.  A long . . . a long time ago.

 

His eyes blurred.  Steve flipped backward, braced himself, shouting something at Sue even as she threw up a force field to cover him.

 

Tony let his eyes close.  He thought he might be smiling.

 

---

 

Steve was sweating.  He hadn’t realized how run down, how exhausted he was, until he’d gotten into the middle of this fight.  One of the Ultron robots had gotten in a lucky shot before they’d fallen apart around them, and he was already afraid it would be mortal, but he didn’t pay it any attention as he brought his shield down on the back of the neck of the last Ultron platform, again and again.  And then it’s head was off, and he brought the shield up and down again, because he wasn’t going to let it get up, not after everything, not after what it had done, not after what it had done to all of them—he slammed the shield down again, and again, and again, all he could think about that he finally had a chance to do some damage, that he finally had a chance to strike back, to hurt the damn thing, to really hurt it, for everything it had taken from them, until it could never get up again, never hurt any of them again.  Until it was just a pile of disconnected slag and rubble, and he wasn’t even sure how long he’d been beating on it.

 

There wasn’t much left when he raised his head.  Pain, and sweat in his eyes.  They’d lost almost everyone in the initial assault.  Sue had been one of the last to fall.  He staggered over to her, and checked her pulse, only to find nothing but silence and stillness under his fingers.  She was already going cold.

 

He swallowed the sob that wanted to escape between his teeth, closed her eyes, gently.

 

Tony.  Where was Tony.  He wrenched his head up, looking for him, stumbled down the steps.  His searching eyes found him toward the entrance to the chamber, the hub that they were in, that they’d found.  Logan was holding him, but even as Steve raced toward him, he was laying Tony down, against the floor.  He shook his head at Steve.

 

Steve gritted his teeth, but he didn’t think he kept back the mournful noise that wanted to escape.  Tony was holding his own helmet cradled under his arm.  It was a position that was intimately familiar after years of seeing him pull it off to talk, and in this armor, all Steve could see was years and years ago, in the mansion, when they’d both been young, young and happy.

 

Tony’s face was lax, relaxed, peaceful—he could have been sleeping, except for the blood dripping sluggishly from his nose to gather in his mustache, the smoking wounds in his arm, his back, his leg.  Steve felt his stomach twist, his chest seize up.  Almost by rote, he reached out, pressed his fingers to the pulse point in Tony’s neck.

 

His skin still felt warm, but there was no pulse.

 

Steve rubbed one hand across eyes, dashing the tears away, had to sniff to keep them back and almost choked.  “We did it, Tony,” he whispered.  “You did it.  We got him.  We did it, Shellhead.  After all this, we did, we really did.  He’s gone.”  He leaned forward, cupped one hand beneath Tony’s head.  Tony’s head lolled, loose on his neck.  Steve swallowed, held him steady.  He reached out with his other hand and tucked his fingers under the undersuit to push it back, over his hair.

 

It flopped down over his eyes, just as sweaty and tousled as ever, and Steve ran his fingers back into it, stroked it back from his forehead.  “I’ve got you,” he murmured.  “I’ve got you, Iron Man.  I'm here.”  He gulped back tears.  “I’m here, sweetheart,” he got out, and he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Tony’s slack lips.

 

They were firm beneath his, parted slightly, and Steve could imagine, could imagine that Tony was just holding his breath.  Just for a moment, he could imagine, and he lived in that moment, closed his eyes and pretended that Tony was laughing at him, smiling, that he would open his eyes and curl his hand around the back of Steve’s neck again, would tease him.  Would argue with him.

 

When he opened his eyes again, Tony was still lying there, pale, gray, his hair tangled over his forehead.  Logan blessedly said nothing, just squeezed Steve’s shoulder.

 

Steve couldn’t rest.  Not yet.  He stared down at Tony, his eyesight swimming with the tears, but then he blinked them back, firmed his jaw.  He leaned down, kissed Tony one more time, softly, just to say goodbye, and straightened up.

 

He still had work to do.

 

He went to all of them.  He owed them that much.  Storm.  Monica.  There wasn’t much left of Red Hulk, but Steve went to him, too, rested one hand on the massive red flank and told him that he’d done well.  Danny, who had taken out more than ten of them, and Steve didn’t think he’d ever realized how impressive the Iron Fist really was in action, but then, he’d been fighting like a man possessed, his face frozen in a snarl of rage—but now it was peaceful, serene in death. Daisy.  So young.  Steve rubbed his tears out his eyes and knelt beside Natasha’s body.  Red hair spilled across the strange, shining metal steps, shimmering with their circuitry.  He closed her eyes, then leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her forehead, taking her gun from her nerveless fingers.

 

He hoped she was with Bucky now, wherever they were.  If she wanted to be.

 

He hoped she was wherever she wanted to be.

 

He hoped they understood.  He hoped they all understood.  He’d lead them to this—to their deaths.

 

But they had done it.  Ultron was gone.  And it would be worth it.  It had to be.  Had to be worth it.

 

He had to rub the tears out of his eyes again.  It was starting to get irritating.

 

“Are you all right?” Logan, crouching in front of him.  He nodded at the gaping wound in Steve’s side that stretched all the way around to his back.  “Because that don’t look good, and you don’t smell any too healthy, either.”

 

“Does it matter?” Steve asked, giving Logan a forced, desperate smile.  “I don’t think I am.  No.  But does it really matter?”

 

“You still got a job to do, don’t you?” Logan said.  “I coulda sworn I heard you and Stark say something about resetting time, and man, I gotta say, I like that plan.  I like it a lot.”

 

“Yes,” Steve nodded.  He had a job to do.

 

He couldn’t rest.  Not yet.

 

“I have to go back,” he explained to Logan.  “I have to tell them . . . .” He looked down at Natasha, dead, and his words died in his throat.

 

“Yeah,” Logan said, shortly.  “Ya do.  So why don’t you do that.  All right, Rogers?  You can quit wasting your time around here.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, already drawing out the device, “to leave you here all alone.”

 

“Don’t worry about me,” Logan said.  “You just go and fix this.  Fix it.  Now.”

 

Tony had shown him how to work the device that morning, guiding his fingers through it when they fumbled until it was second nature.  Now it was the work of moments to activate it, twist it on.

 

The world shimmered around him, and then he was falling, and for a moment he felt very, very cold, and struggled, fighting panicked, like he was in the ice again, like he was going to be frozen there again, maybe this time for all time, and he’d never get back, he’d never finish the mission, he’d never save all of them, and he fought forward, screamed and fought it—

 

And then he was stumbling forward, staggering.  He hit his hip hard on a desk and nearly fell, reeled away, and staggered.

 

“Steve?  Steve!”  A familiar set of arms caught him, pulled him close.  A hand closed on the back of his neck.  “Holy fuck, Steve, you’re freezing.  Are you all right?  You’re so cold.  What happened?”

 

Tony’s voice.  Tony’s hand, warm and alive, and—

 

Steve looked up into blue eyes, bright with concern.  A neatly trimmed goatee and mustache, firm, healthy skin.  Hair flopping down into his eyes.  Despite himself, he reached out, pushed it back, then left both hands there, braced against Tony’s face, framing it between them.  His skin felt so warm under Steve’s.  “Tony,” he gasped out.  “Tony.”

 

“Yeah, it’s me,” Tony said, grinning a little uncertainly, like he was trying to play along but wasn’t quite sure where Steve was going with this.  His hand stroked warily down over Steve’s back.  “Are you okay?  I thought for sure you were still upstairs—” he froze.  “Shit,” he said, “you’re bleeding, no wonder you’re so pale, let me—I’ll get a—no, I have medical supplies here, stay right there, I’ll patch you up and then help’ll be here—”  He turned away, and he was about to hit the Avengers alert when Steve caught his wrist.

 

“It’s all right,” he said, slowly.  It seemed to take a great deal of effort to speak.  “It’s all right.  You don’t need to call them.  I have a lot . . . a lot to tell you.”

 

“What?” Tony said.  He was starting to look frantic now, panicked.  “What the hell happened—I could have sworn you were just upstairs, you should have been safe.”

 

“I was,” Steve said.  “I mean.  I mean, I am.  Your Steve is safe.  He’s fine.  I’m not . . . I’m not him.  I’m from the future.”  He didn’t have the energy to worry about how ridiculous that probably sounded.  He waved at the tech on the consoles and tables beside them, beginning to realize that they were in Tony’s workshop in Avengers Tower.

 

As if nothing, none of it, had ever happened.  As if Tony had never destroyed the Tower at all.  He wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cry.

 

“Scan me,” he said.  “Make sure I’m telling the truth.  I know it’ll check out.”

 

Tony gave him a wary look, and he didn’t move too far away, still supporting him, but he did reach over and flick various devices on.  “That’ll take a minute,” he said.  “Why don’t we get you sitting down, get you patched up, in the meantime?”

 

“Are you going to listen to me?” Steve said.  It was important that Tony, that this Tony, listen to him.

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, softly.  “Sure.  Of course.”

 

And Steve blinked at him.  He recognized that tone.  It was the one Tony used when Steve had said something that hurt him, a little, or tugged on the part of Tony that was soft and loving and—

 

And oh.

 

A memory, one he’d held close in his heart ever since it had happened.  Tony’s voice, his breath warm against his cheek, Steve’s own face tucked in against his neck—Steve, you could have had me any time you wanted.  Had this.  Any time at all.

 

“Sit down,” Tony nudging him down, with both hands on his shoulders.  “Before you fall down, God.”  He knelt in front of him, looking up at him with concern, both hands still on his shoulders.  “Steve?  You with me, buddy?”

 

“You need to listen to me,” Steve gasped.  “I have a lot . . . a lot to tell you.”

 

“I’m all ears,” Tony said.  “I promise.”  He sat beside Steve on the bed, then pushed him down, and Steve let him, let him arrange him over his knees, even though he knew the medical care wouldn’t do any good.  He was too badly hurt, and even if he hadn’t been, Tony had said . . . Tony had said it would be unstable.  That he’d start to phase out.

 

He wondered if it would hurt. He didn't think he'd mind so much.

 

But this was nice.  It was nice to lie here with his face in Tony’s lap, Tony warm and breathing under him.  It was . . . really nice.  He thought of Tony lying there, body cooling and limp, blood on his face and lips slack, the smoking wounds, and shuddered.

 

Tony was swearing above him, cursing and frantic.  “Oh, my God,” he said.  “Oh, my God, Steve, we need to get a doctor for you right away, you didn’t say—you didn’t tell me it was this bad—”

 

“I’m all right,” Steve murmured.  “I’m all right.  You’re here.”

 

“What?” Tony sounded just about hysterical now.  “You are not all right, you are so far from all right it isn’t even funny—”  But he was already working, of course, tearing open the medical kit, and Steve felt the sting of antiseptic against his back.

 

“In the future I come from,” he said, even as he gritted his teeth against the pain, grateful for the warmth of Tony’s body against and under him, the smell of him through his tank-top—he smelled good, really good, like motor oil and metal and expensive cologne and bodywash and hair gel and deodorant—“all of us were killed by Ultron.  He hit us fast and hard.  In the first assault we lost New York and Washington and contact with every other major city.  Jan died.”  He swallowed, thickly.  “So did Bucky.  Thor.  Hulk.  A thousand others.”

 

Tony’s hands stilled, and then started moving again, efficient, even if it wouldn’t do any good, cleaning and bandaging.  “I think you’d better keep talking,” he said.

 

So Steve did.  He explained everything.  He said all the things that Tony, his Tony, had told him to say, things he thought he would need to know.  He explained about Ultron being in the future, the tactics they had finally used, Nick Fury in the Savage Land.  He explained about how Ultron had attacked them at first, how Tony had figured it out, had used a virus from his own head to destroy Ultron in the end, hopefully for good.  Everything.  Everything he could think of.  He had barely gotten started when Tony checked his scanners and came back graver, more serious.  He listened to everything Steve said—when he finished bandaging his back he pulled Steve’s head into his lap and sat there, occasionally asking questions, occasionally brushing Steve’s hair off his forehead.

 

Steve liked that.  It was nice.  It reminded him of the way Tony sometimes sat with him.  He knew it was inappropriate to think that kind of thing about this younger, more innocent version of Tony, that they’d never had that kind of relationship.  But he couldn’t stop himself from thinking it, and when Tony reached down and held his hand, he couldn’t help himself from linking their fingers, rubbing his thumb back and forth over Tony’s palm.  It was strange to feel warm, rough skin under his, hard with calluses, instead of the tough fiber of the undersuit.

 

“You can’t let it happen again,” he finally said.  “We agreed.  To—to send me back, when we turned back the clock.  So I could tell you.  So I could warn you.  Just in case.”

 

Tony swallowed.  His eyes were wide, but his mouth tight, his jaw firm, working.  “I hear you,” he said.  “I’ve got it.  I understand.  You’re right.  We can’t—” he swallowed.  “We can’t let that happen.”

 

“No,” Steve agreed.  He felt very cold now.  He reached up, brushed his fingers against Tony’s face.  “I didn’t see you die,” he said.  “But you did.  You killed Ultron, though.  You were amazing.  You were amazing to the . . . to the end.”

 

Tony’s mouth twisted.  “Clearly not amazing enough,” he said.  “If I couldn’t save you.”

 

“Hey,” Steve said, because that wasn’t right, not at all.  “Hey, no.  That’s not what happened.  I’m right here, aren’t I?”  But there was more to it than that.  “You did save me,” he told Tony.  “You saved me again and again, you . . . you held me up.  When I would have fallen.  You were there, to—to put your shoulder under me.  Don’t think you didn’t save me.  You did.”

 

“But you’re dying,” Tony whispered.  His hand came down, his thumb rubbed gently at Steve’s stubbled cheek.

 

“Sure,” Steve agreed easily, because he was.  “But that doesn’t change what happened.”

 

“Let me go and get someone,” Tony said, that frantic light, that energy coming back to his eyes again.  “We can find a way to save you.  To heal you.”

 

“No,” Steve breathed, and shook his head.  “You said . . . you told me I couldn’t stay in this time.  Anyway.  There’d be a . . . a paradox, or . . . I’d start to phase out.  Unstable.  Yeah.  So.  This is better.  I’m here.  With you.  In the Tower.  This is . . . this is fine.”

 

“We can get someone,” Tony insisted.  “Reed, Hank—we’ll figure this out, Steve.”

 

“Your Steve is just upstairs,” Steve told Tony.  “It’s okay.  I’m tired, anyway.”  He smiled up at him.  “I just want to rest.  Really.  Just . . . rest.”  He sighed.  “I’m so tired.”

 

Tony bit his lip, made a small wounded noise, his fingers tightening against Steve’s jaw, but he nodded.  They stayed there, for a moment, just looking at each other.

 

It was getting harder to breathe.  “Listen,” Steve said.  “I . . . there’s something else, I need to talk to you about.  You and I . . . .”

 

Tony nodded.  “Yeah?” he said.  He sounded like he expected another plan they had made.

 

“You and I, together,” Steve tried.  He wasn’t sure how to say it.  It seemed . . . too big, somehow, to put into words.

 

“I told you,” Tony breathed, his eyes going very wide.  He looked a little shellshocked.

 

Steve was so sorry to be laying all of this on him like this.

 

“We were together.  Like . . . like sweethearts, together,” he told him, and he couldn’t keep back the fond little smile that curved his lips at the thought.  “Dates, and all.  Though we never got the chance to go out on a real one.”  He sighed, his thoughts drifting.  “You wanted to,” he told Tony.  “You told me.  Take me out on a date.  On a real date.”

 

“I bet I wanted to spoil you,” Tony said, his voice full of rueful knowledge.  His fingers curled over Steve’s cheek, caressed it, really, gently.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, and smiled, because apparently his Tony and this Tony weren’t that different at all.  “That’s what you said.”  He sighed.  His eyelids felt very heavy. “Tell him,” he said.  “Tell me—I mean Steve, your Steve—tell him how you feel.  I promise . . . I promise,” he said, more clearly, “that he feels the same way.  I want . . . I want my real date.”

 

Tony looked a little surprised.  “Are you sure?” he said, and faltered a little.  “I mean, I get that it was an end of the world thing, and you—you could have anyone.  I wouldn’t want to . . . well, you know.”

 

“I’m sure,” Steve said, and took his shoulders with all of his flagging strength, made himself look straight into Tony’s eyes.  “I know.  He wants you.  But if you don’t say anything, he’ll never realize.  And when he finally does realize, that will hurt him.  That you waited so long.  So tell him.  Tell him and . . . and make him as happy as you made me.”

 

“Happy,” Tony said.  “In an apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by killer robots.”

 

“Yep,” Steve said, falling back.  He smiled up at him.  “Yep, Shellhead.  Happy.”

 

“I think you might be a little crazy,” Tony said, tracing his fingers fondly along Steve’s jaw.

 

“Well,” Steve breathed.  “So’re you.  But you promise?”  He peered up into Tony’s eyes, nervous now, afraid that he wouldn’t, even though Steve had had the chance to tell him, to make sure he knew, after all this.  “You’ll tell him?  How you feel.  Tell him how you feel.”

 

Tony took in a deep, shuddering breath.  “Yes,” he said, sounding harried, and a little scared.  “Okay.  I promise.  I’ll tell him.”

 

“Good,” Steve breathed, and let his eyes close.  “Good.  I—I’m really tired now.”

 

“Hell, I bet,” Tony said, and his voice sounded choked.

 

“Don’t worry,” Steve told him.  “It’ll be okay.  Maybe I’ll even be with him, where I’m going.  Wouldn’t that be something?”

 

“Steve,” Tony said.  He sounded pained.  “I don’t—he didn’t—I don’t believe in God.  I’m an atheist.”

 

“That doesn’t matter,” Steve sighed.  He smiled up at him.  “You’re a hero.  If anyone’ll be in heaven, it’ll be you.”

 

“I don’t know about that,” Tony said, voice rough and choking.  “I really don’t know about that.”

 

Steve shrugged one shoulder.  “I don’t either,” he admitted.  “But I’m willing to lay a pretty good bet.”  He took a long, slow breath.  It hurt.  “Can you do something for me?” he asked.  “It’s kind of strange, I guess.  I’m sorry.”

 

“Anything,” Tony whispered.  “Steve, anything.”

 

“Can I just . . .” Steve gestured, at the bed.  “Can I just lie here, for a while, and rest?  With your arms around me?”  He could feel himself blushing, or at least, he thought he would be if there was enough blood for it left in his body.  He wasn’t sure.  “I know you’re not . . . you’re not the same as him,” he hastened to explain.  “But you . . . you’re here, and he always . . . I always liked that.  I felt safe.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said.  His voice sounded even more choked now, hoarse and husky and breaking.  “Sure thing.”

 

It was a difficult maneuver, with Steve clumsy and in pain, as weak as he was.  He kept tugging at the injuries.  But eventually, Tony got him lying on his side on the little camp bed he kept in his workshop, and lay down behind him, both arms around him.  He rested his cheek hesitantly, awkwardly, against the back of Steve’s neck.  His breath felt so warm that Steve shivered.  “Is this right?” he asked.  “Is this . . . all right?” 

 

His hand smoothed down over Steve’s chest, and his arms were both around him, and he felt warm, so warm.  Tony was tucked in against his back.  “Yes,” he breathed.  “This is perfect.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, “okay.  I’m here.”  He pressed a kiss to the back of Steve’s neck, and his hand settled over his heart.  “I’m here, sweetheart.  Just take it easy.  Don’t worry.  Here, come on.”  He stroked his hand down over Steve’s chest, rubbing softly.  “Easy.  I’m right here.”

 

Steve closed his eyes.  He felt so warm like this.  He could pretend that Tony was still right there, lying with him, in the Savage Land, breath warm against the back of his neck.  He could pretend that he was warm, and safe, and alive, because here he was, he was right here, his breath steady and warm against Steve’s skin.  And then it was almost like he was back there, and Tony was there, and his arms were around him, and they were lying naked in the blankets together.  “We did it, Tony,” Steve murmured, because Tony should know, deserved to know.  “We saved them.  We saved them all.  Just like you said we could.”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, “you did.  You did.”  His voice sounded like it came from a long way away.  Steve smiled, fumbled up and took his hand, squeezed it.

 

“I’m going to rest now,” Steve said.  “I’m just going to . . . to sleep for a while.”  He took a deep breath.  “Thank you, Shellhead.  For everything.  You were great.”  He sighed, breathed out.  Nothing hurt much, anymore.  He felt safe.  Warm, with Tony’s arms around him, and safe.  “You were always great.  You’re . . . you're really something else, you know that?”

 

“You,” Tony’s voice seemed to die, strangled, in his throat.  “You were always . . . you were always the best,” he said, finally.  “The—the best of all of us.”  He took a long, shaking breath, pressed his lips against Steve’s ear, and spoke in a low, hoarse, whisper.  “Listen up, Winghead, okay?  You were right.  I do love you.  I love you, Steve.”

 

Steve smiled at that—it wasn’t like he hadn’t already known, but it was nice to hear it—and then, then he went to sleep.

 

---

 

Steve looked up from his files when he heard Tony walk into the kitchen.  He was a little surprised, he thought Tony would be down in his workshop for hours yet, but it was a pleasant surprise, and he smiled, pleased that Tony had come up for air.  Maybe they could grab a cup of coffee, he thought, and talk for a while.  That’d be nice.  He really wanted a chance to just sit and talk with Tony.  They hadn’t had many.  Not recently, and if they really were going to go bigger, make the Avengers bigger than ever in the wake of all this . . . but he had to admit, he had more personal reasons for wanting to talk to Tony, too.  He just . . . he wanted to spend time with him.  They’d used to sit together all the time, just talking.  They hadn’t had many chances to do that, since he’d come back from the dead, even, not without it being fraught with tension, at least, and Steve . . . Steve missed that.  But now the tension had ebbed, and he felt like they . . . they were themselves again, and he wanted that back, that time spent with Tony.

 

Then he got a look at Tony’s face, and everything else went out of his head.  Tony was white to the lips.  His eyes looked bruised, and his mouth was trembling.  Steve dropped the files immediately, rounded the table to grab him by both shoulders.  “Tony?” he said.  “What is it?  What’s wrong?  Has something happened?”

 

Tony just stared at him, his eyes wide and dilated, black with shock so that Steve could only see a thin ring of blue around them, thick eyelashes standing out very dark against his skin.  He looked shellshocked, Steve thought, frantically, he’d seen soldiers with that thousand-yard stare during the war.

 

“Tony,” he said again, insistently.  He rubbed his hands down over his shoulders, over his arms, chafing them uselessly.  “Look at me.  Look at me, Iron Man.”  Tony just blinked at him.  “Come on, Avenger,” Steve said, a little bit desperate.

 

“I . . . it’s kind of a long story,” Tony said.  He scrubbed a hand back through his hair, looked away.  “I . . . I had a . . . a weird morning.  I’ll . . . I’ll tell you all about it.  Later.”  He took a deep breath.  “Later.”

 

“You don’t look good,” Steve said.  “You look . . . pale.  Look, do you want to sit down?”

 

“I’m . . .” Tony drew in a deep breath.  His eyes were fixed on Steve’s face, almost disconcertingly so.  He wasn’t looking away.  He hadn’t looked away since he came into the room, and even as they stood there, he swayed forward, almost as if he wanted to touch Steve—then stilled himself, pulled back, away.  Their shoulders brushed, though, and Tony let them, and stood there for a moment, sighing heavily.  “I’m okay.  I just . . . I need a minute.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, “okay.”  He lead Tony to the table, got him sitting down, then started to make a pot of coffee.  He kept looking over his shoulder at him, to make sure he was all right.  Tony kept looking back at him, too, and their eyes would meet, and then slide away from each other again.  Tony kept taking deep, shaking breaths, then breathing them back out rather unsteadily.  His eyes kept fixing on Steve, bright and a little feverish, as if he couldn’t get enough of looking at him.

 

When Steve poured Tony his cup of coffee and handed it to him, their fingers brushed.  Steve felt the same thrilling little tingle he always did, always had, that he’d had ever since before he knew Iron Man was Tony Stark, but once he’d found out had been even more electric, the thought that he was touching Iron Man’s bare skin, that he’d started pushing to the back of his head a long time ago.  Tony stared down at the place where their skin was touching for a long time, his fingers wrapping distractedly around the cup of coffee.

 

“Tony?” Steve said again, really starting to be worried now.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said, exhaling in a shaking gasp.  “Yeah, I think I’ll be fine, now.”  He took the coffee, stared down at it for a moment, then looked up at Steve and set it down, deliberately.  “Actually,” he said.  “I have something to tell you.”

 

“Yeah?” Steve asked.  “Sure.  Anything.  Go right ahead.”

 

“Well,” Tony started.  He was steeling himself visibly, Steve noticed, squaring his shoulders.  “It’s like this.”

 

He stood up, sank a hand into the cloth of Steve’s shirt, then pulled him forward and kissed him.

 

And after a moment, Steve put both his arms around him and kissed him back.

 

Tony pulled back, his eyes wide.  “I . . . you . . .” he said, his eyes scanning Steve’s face.  He took in a deep, shaking breath, and then blew it out in a breathless little gasp.  “Yeah?” he said.

 

Steve was aware that he was grinning hugely.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Definitely yeah.”  He cupped both hands around Tony’s neck, pulling him in, leaned their foreheads together, unable to stop the joy welling up inside him from showing on his face—and why should he, he thought, when Tony was starting to smile, too?  “Kiss me again,” he said.

 

And Tony did, his own smile widening as he leaned eagerly into the kiss, opening his mouth against Steve’s, for Steve’s, hot and passionate and wonderful.  Tony’s arms went around him, hands pressed tightly against his back, and Steve leaned into him, linked his arms around his waist, and held him close.  They stood there, for a long time, kissing in the sunshine streaming in through the kitchen windows, high above the city of New York.