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Scott turns him down flat. “Been a parolee.” He shrugs. “This won’t be that.”

Steve didn’t expect much from that quarter. The guy’s ties to them are thin. But Sam’s gone, off in the northern end of Wakanda scoping out a corrupt neighboring general who has been pressing a little too close to the border. Wanda won’t even look up from the table and Clint is staring at Steve like he’s about to crawl back into the lion’s den with fresh blood smeared all over his body.

“They will chain you up if they don’t shoot you on sight,” Clint says.

“That is our team,” Steve grits out.

“This is our team,” Wanda mumbles.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” Clint quotes, before Steve can respond, “but Stark certainly spells it with an ‘m’ and an ‘e’.”

“It’s not just Tony over there, you know that?” And that’s the end of Clint’s hard sell.

T’Challa’s combat jet gets the two of them stateside faster than sound, faster than anything. Never has an hour and a half taken so long, especially when Sam gets on the comm to find out what the hell he’s doing.

Sam’s right. He shouldn’t go. None of them should go, just to be snatched up and thrown in a hole somewhere. But he couldn’t stay. “Should have come alone.”

“No,” Clint says from the cockpit. The line of his jaw, the only part Steve can see, has been frozen stiff since they took off.

He can’t argue. He can’t think. All he can hear is Tony’s voice, and the death throes of the base they built around him. He doesn’t have a functional suit, and he doesn’t have the shield. They’ll be too late, they’ll get there and the place will be rubble and there will be nothing left to do but dig for bodies—

“Faster,” he mutters, pressing his knuckles against his mouth.

**

They see the compound long before they reach it: a shuddering crimson smudge cupped by rolling terrain. The sun is gone, but the flames light the sky as though a massive city hunkers just behind the hills. The entire forest surrounding the clearing is on fire, great gouts that billow from the trees like flares. The place is in ruins, the skeletons of structures glowing from within, belching smoke in great black heaves. For a second, Steve can’t parse what he’s seeing, until the hulking mechanical behemoth in the center of the mess trundles around. A slender gun goes off along the side of its main turret, sending something small and black zipping through the air. The projectile latches onto the side of the main building like a tick, and the massive gun on top aims a white hot blast straight at the crumbling structure. It’s not normal fire.

“That is no fucking tank that I’ve ever seen,” Clint shouts, “did you see what it—”

“Shoot it,” Steve says.

Clint doesn’t even pause. Four cannons point blank, and the thick armor melts. Clint evades the next fountain of magnesium flame, or something damned similar, then hammers the thing—bristling with armaments and against a least six codes of the Geneva Convention, by Steve’s count—until it splotches black and tarry in the dirt.

No survivors. But Steve’s not looking for survivors there.

“Put us down, now.” He points at the charred helicopter pad by the compound’s tallest building. The asphalt of the main landing pad has buckled, great chunks spearing skyward, and the jets are tumbled end over end in the grass. Something came in from above and strafed the hell out of the long training hangar on its way in. As soon as Clint sets the jet down, Steve jumps from the aft hatch and circles until he can see the smoldering wreck of what looks like two more jets, stuffed into the ground and riddled by familiar repulsor scars. Not Avengers planes.

Someone’s in the smaller ancillary building where the specialty tech facilities are: people in black swarm the perimeter, but don’t seem to be able to get in, though the windows are all blown out and the main doors are a lost cause. They duck continuous fire from a source Steve can’t see.

An almighty groan like a giant beneath the earth draws his eye and Clint’s, and as they turn, a corner of the main building slides like an avalanche to the ground.

The eerie whine-boom of repulsor fire echoes. The ruins are alight in darting blue.

“Get to the other building,” Steve directs as Clint runs down the ramp, quiver on his back and the first arrow already in hand. “Find Nat.”

Clint takes off with a nod and disappears into the smoke. He’s in jeans and a sweater, frayed and comfortable and so out of place Steve feels like crying. A thunderclap goes off to Steve’s right, out of nowhere, sending him to the ground shielding his head. When he can, he looks, but there’s nothing there: no second tank, no jet, not even any standing artillery. And yet, another corner of the building is avalanching down. He can’t explain it until the second booooooooom, this one high in the air, exploding into bright fragments. He looks down and spots blinking red at the base of the structure.

Explosives. Tony is dismantling the explosives shot in by that tank and throwing them out.

Steve runs, aware of how naked he is, how he has no armor and no shield. Nothing between him and whatever he’ll meet around the side of the building. The charge’s latching mechanism has malfunctioned, two legs hanging free. He tears it from its moorings without even thinking about it and hurls it as hard as he can toward the trees. His heart drowns out the explosion, whamming in his ears, and when he rounds the side of the building—

Their perfect, gorgeous oddity that houses the living quarters, the brand new lab, and the meditation patio with its trickling fountains, has had its guts ripped out. The front façade is nothing but an open maw, wires sparking and flames licking up the skeletons of walls. All four stories are blackened and burnt, and there on the outer edge, Iron Man hovers on shaky repulsors, a suit of armor Steve has never seen before shining in the light of a laser torch from one gauntlet.

The relief is quick and stifling. So is the next charge as it goes off right in Tony’s face.

Steve’s shout is devoured as what’s left of the top floor loses traction and topples inward. Tony gets off one good blast, tossing a behemoth of a slab away, but his suit has taken severe hits: Steve can see the fizzing machinery in the darkness. Rubble careens down from above, slamming into the suit with punishing force. The building groans like a dying animal, the shell teetering inward but miraculously arresting before the rest collapses in on itself.

The smoke billows up and out, rushing across Steve with a thud of pressure. When he can see again, he looks up.

With the walls gone, the view is painfully unobstructed.

Not moving.

Tony’s not moving.

He lies on his back across a steel beam, sidelong to Steve, his visible arm and leg splayed outward. Dust billows around him like a veil, sucking away from the red armor in strange eddies. His face plate blows off, startling Steve as it flips end over end onto the broken rocks and steel beams. It means... Steve lunges forward into the wreckage, heaving stone out of the way, heedless of the groaning structure around him. If FRIDAY blew the face plate, the life support system is no longer functioning. He crawls and wriggles through the perilous space, catching his arms on metal and shattered stone, and finally reaches Tony’s side. A huge slab of concrete lies across the new armor. Broken rebar juts from the edges like twisting roots. Rubble cascades down and Steve throws himself to brace above Tony’s head, keeping what he can off of Tony’s face. Everything goes chalky and gray, a desert-dry fog. He can’t even see Tony anymore.

Steve waves it away from his face, holding his shirt up over his mouth. His eyelashes are already caked with dirt, his lips powdered in cement. Finally, he unearths the solid red gleam of the armor and assesses. The heaviest part of the slab is not the section atop Tony, but for the most part, the piece of concrete has remained intact. It slants upward at a shallow angle with Tony as the fulcrum, and there is at least a metric ton of broken concrete weighing down the far end.

He’ll never get this thing fully off Tony, but he might be able to lever it up a little.

Tony’s face keeps vanishing in and out of the murk. Steve gives up trying to clear the air and finds the edge of the slab where it has hammered into Tony’s chest plate. There’s just enough room. He kneels, gets a shoulder underneath and a hand around one of the rebar ends, takes one deep breath full of dust, and heaves.

Nothing happens. Steve continues to push. The seconds tick by, and finally, please god, finally a low grinding signals that the slab is moving. Steve hitches further underneath it, both shoulders this time, and pushes again. Both hands flat on the underside now. One knee down, digging into the mess, one leg bent. Legs, not back. Legs, not back.

With a guttural groan, the slab inches into the air.

There’s no way he’s shifting it anywhere but straight up. If he moves at all, it’ll slam back down and finish that ugly crack Steve can now see jagging across Tony’s chest plate. The arc reactor is dark again. For an instant Steve is lost, snatched back to that frozen chamber in Siberia, the shield cleaving right through the purest blue light he has ever seen, and his own hands, shaking from pain and rage and adrenaline, clamped so hard around the rim that it cuts into his palms.

He chokes. Falters. Falls.

NO.

Sound rushes back in. Steve strains, all his might, and barely keeps the slab aloft. He’s already beginning to shake, but right below him, right there, is Tony.

Tony, taking a great, heaving breath as though it’s his first in minutes.

Can’t think about that.

He looks at Tony’s face, and—

“Tony?”

It’s lost in the roar, sections of the building still coming down. But Tony’s eyes are open. Steve hauls in a breath and struggles through a bout of hacking by the skin of his teeth. The slab remains upright, but he imagines it shivering as his body quakes, vibrating with demonic desire to crash earthward.

He refuses to let it.

More dust. Can’t see Tony again. He can’t see. His blood thumps in his temples, in his ears and into the tips of each finger and toe like it will burst through, and all of a sudden, he can’t stand it, he can’t wait.

“FRI—” Steve coughs out, throat seizing. “FRIDAY, is he alive?”

Her voice echoes oddly, projected outside the open helmet for his benefit. “Yes.”

He doesn’t need a medical analysis to see that the damage is extensive. Tony’s in a bad way. He’s awake, but his eyes are swimming, not focusing on much. His body heaves with each breath, too fast and too shallow, barely letting the air out before he sucks more in. A lung injury, crushed ribcage, maybe even damage to the heart itself. Steve rebalances his stance and drops one hand, has to touch. His fingers crawl over the armor, searching for anything like the old releases and finding nothing.

“Please don’t open the suit,” FRIDAY advises, and Steve hesitates. “It’s keeping the bones of his chest in place.”

Steve has to swallow twice. “Is there anything,” he tries, grasping at whatever’s in reach to brace himself, “anything I can do for him?”

“Mr. Stark has a contingency in place for an occasion like this.”

Relief, as sharp as glass. “What is it?”

FRIDAY answers after a notable pause. “I don’t know that I want to tell you.”

Steve fights the frustration, the burn in his throat that has nothing to do with the particulates in the air. The crushing helplessness of the pit he’s fashioned for himself. Moisture slides down his cheeks: sweat or tears, he has no idea. “Please,” he rasps. Coughs again. “Please, FRIDAY, I know what I—Please. I’m begging you. Help me save him.”

Her silence is endless.

“I have already alerted Natasha Romanoff,” she says at last, “but I will alert her again: Attention Natasha Romanoff. Alert: X. Repeat, attention Natasha Romanoff. Alert: X.”

“Thank you,” he whispers. “Thank… thank you.” And then all Steve can do is crouch there under that block of stone, trembling to his toes, one hand resting on Tony’s chest.

He has never felt so helpless. Not watching Tony chase Bucky up the inside of that icy tower, intent on blasting him to pieces. Not pacing the length of T’Challa’s home, a thousand howling words crowding his tongue and no one to listen. He is acutely aware that he has no idea if the attackers outside have been neutralized. Anyone could come dashing into this wreckage to kill them both and he wouldn’t be able to stop them.

Well. He will get between anyone and Tony until they choke the last breath out of his body.

Tony’s new armor glimmers, reflecting the flickering from a nearby fire. Even in its battered state, Steve can see that this model is beautiful, full of the svelte, powerful arcs and angles he’s come to expect from Tony Stark.

Staying carefully in place, the slab a sneeze away from tottering, he lifts Tony’s hand from amid the rock and metal. Wraps his fingers around Tony’s. Tony’s eyes waver his way, half shut. His body continues to hitch through each breath.

“Hang on, Tony,” Steve whispers. “Listen to my voice.”

Tony’s tongue creeps out to wet his lips. But there’s nothing but dust. His mouth moves. No sound comes out, just the hiss-hup of each breath.

Steve squeezes his hand, the hot metal of the gauntlet giving just a little. Just enough for Tony to feel it. “Stay with me. We’re getting out of this together. I’m not leaving until you do.”

Tony’s eyes drift shut, then snap sluggishly open again. But they stay on Steve’s face. Steve ignores the crumbling building, the heat of the fire to their left, and the shrieking of the metal structure still above, and looks right back.

An eternity later, footsteps crunch through the rubble, and Steve hears new breathing, catching on grunts and curses as its owner pushes through the wreckage toward them. A second later, Natasha, her hair matted with sweat, covered in filth but beautifully whole, drops to a crouch beside him. She fumbles open a canister without a word to Steve, working in silence until the top snaps apart. Tony’s breathing has grown wet and raspy, each inhale a twist in Steve’s guts. It’s hard to see in this light, but the inner curve of Tony’s lips looks shiny and dark. The structure groans and Steve braces, locking each muscle. He can’t feel his arms anymore. His knees feel like they’re pulling apart, and his lower back is a riot of fire.

Natasha carefully withdraws a syringe from the canister and dumps the container on the ground. She flattens to her belly and wiggles under Steve’s arm until she hovers directly over Tony’s face.

Tony doesn’t seem to see her.

“Hold on,” she murmurs into Tony’s ear, and Steve feels like an intruder. Natasha uses the inside of her sleeve to clean a patch of skin on Tony’s neck where the armor has been damaged, then injects the syringe and depresses the plunger. Slowly. It’s agonizing to watch.

“What is it?” Steve gasps when she has withdrawn the needle again. Tony continues to hitch weakly.

“Extremis,” Natasha says. Her eyes remain on Tony’s face.

Steve has no idea what that is. “Can we move him?”

“Not yet.”

The building shudders.

Steve shuts his eyes again and concentrates on his job. One more minute. Just one more.

And then Nat is dragging Tony out by the shoulder plates, violent full-bodied jerks that speak to her panic. More footsteps: Clint is there, coming alongside and hauling Tony free. Steve’s ears begin to ring. He stares down at the ground between his knees as Tony’s thighs slide by, then his shins, then his boots.

“Steve, come on!”

Not yet. If he moves, the whole thing could come down. Not yet.

He counts to twenty, unable to hear their footsteps through the tearing sound in his ears, the blood banging against his temples. When he hits twenty, he takes a deep breath, braces one last time, both hands, and heaves upward with everything he has.

Run.

**

They’re in the underground bunker, the only undamaged part of the compound, and everything is so quiet.

Except that Ross is in the room, yelling.

Steve breathes, in until the pain in his back threatens to crumple him, out until he can’t stand the lack of air anymore. The last hour has been a blur: finding a safe place to go, powering the backup generators. On the phone with Pepper, confirming the ceasefire so she can call in medical personnel and fire suppression crews. It’s the first time Steve has been able to stop and look around.

His arms felt so hot at first that he was surprised they weren’t burning right off his bones. Numbed flesh coming back with a vengeance. He’s done something to his back that makes it hard to sit up, but he cannot lie down with this man in the room. Can’t focus on the crippling sensation in his knees with this kind of threat.

And Tony is out of his sight again. Taken off to medical as soon as they arrived, walking under his own power, but Steve can’t shake the memory of the man crushed underneath him, heaving in soot and smoke like it was the last bit of oxygen on the planet.

“This is a damn disaster!” Ross rounds on him with fire in his eyes. “And you are not supposed to be here! What in god’s name am I supposed to tell the president? That Public Enemy Number One and his lackey just strolled back in on a foreign fighter jet?”

“The Avengers were attacked,” Steve grits out, grimacing against the pain.

“There are no Avengers, Rogers,” Ross spits. “Look around you. The compound is a hole in the ground. Seventy percent of your members are wanted felons. They aren’t even here. I bet you asked them to come and they said no. Didn’t they? What kind of team lets its people be picked off in the night?”

He knows Ross is responsible. Knows it, like a hand fisted around his spine. Who else has access to that sort of prototype tank, or troops with training that can outfox Natasha? Who could get hold of enough firepower to flatten a building protected by Iron Man and Stark security tech? Who else would dare stomp all over human rights like this? This rage is another entity entirely, churning inside him, cycloning ever up and outward. He glares up at the Secretary of State, hurting from sitting upright. “They were attacked and I came,” he snaps. Exhales painfully and forces himself to his feet. He hates being looked down on, especially by this man. “I made Barton come with me. Arrest me; leave him out of it. He was just following orders.”

“What makes you think you have any say over what happens here?” Ross says, stepping up close to him. His voice has dropped, that silky, conversational jabbing that Steve remembers so well from when he brought them the Sokovia Accords and the ultimatum that started all of this. When he thinks back to that day, it’s like he’s looking at an old photograph, a life when the worst thing he knew was the lives he had failed to save in Lagos. How wretched Wanda felt, and how little he could really say to fix anything, for her or for himself. For the people who died.

He could never have imagined then that he would have turned on his teammates. His friends. That they would end up split between continents. That he would fight Tony Stark to within an inch of their lives.

He has no idea where Nat is, or Clint, no idea if Ross has managed to grab one or both of them while he sat here nursing his wounds.

“Your friends are in hot water, Rogers,” Ross goes on. “Barton’s going to jail for a long time. Your buddy Stark has been keeping us off of Romanoff so far while she slithers in and out of here, but this time there’s nowhere to go. The second she next steps foot off this compound, she’s done. And you, well, I think you know what’s going to happen to you.”

The Raft again, if he’s lucky. If not… Well, he has no idea how else they handle enhanced individuals who repeatedly refuse to abide by the Sokovia Accords. But. “This is sovereign territory granted to the Avengers by the United States Congress. Team or not, you can’t remove anyone from this compound against their will.”

“We’ll find a loophole.”

“In a Stark Industries-vetted legal agreement? Good luck with that.”

Ross goes red in the face. His hands clench so tightly his knuckles turn white, and for a second, Steve thinks he might actually come at him.

“You are on borrowed time, Rogers,” Ross hisses at last. “And so is Stark. What happened tonight was inevitable. He has been stonewalling me ever since you blew through the Raft, siccing his lawyers onto the Accords twenty-four-seven, tying the implementation up with paperwork, and openly sheltering a known traitor in Romanoff. You can’t stay here forever. Maybe it won’t be tomorrow or even this month, but I am going to take Stark out with whatever machinery I have to hand, for the good of this country. Then I’m going to lock Romanoff up in a prison so deep and dark that she goes blind, and there’s nothing that you, a domestic and international terrorist, can do about any of it.”

Steve’s shoulders knot. Nat and Tony are his. And he is theirs, body and soul entire, even if they don’t want him anymore. “If you touch her, if you touch him,” he snarls. “Ross, if you ever come after my people again—”

“Not your people, Captain,” Ross sneers, and spits at Steve’s feet. “That was your choice.”

Steve decks him. Knocks him flat.

**

Tony’s lawyers are excellent, but they can’t turn water into wine. Steve has thirty-six hours’ worth of red tape before he’s officially an enemy of the state.

“Hell, no,” Clint snarls, “you are not flying out of here on your own.”

“Clint,” Steve exhales. “Ross could attack again and Nat can’t guard the base alone, not without Tony.” Tony. Last Steve heard, the Extremis had taken, but he’s had a hell of a time getting any information about Extremis itself out of FRIDAY or her systems. All his codes have been locked out and Tony’s not there to provide an override.

That’s assuming, of course, that Tony would.

There’s been a mountain of silence from Tony ever since he got away from the doctors Pepper sent in. He’s barely been in the bunker as far as Steve knows. Steve has spent all his time on the phone to Pepper, setting leviathan wheels in motion at legal for the repatriation of his team.

“I’ll send the others back. They weren’t the ones who busted themselves out of the Raft. From what Pepper tells me, Tony’s already been setting things in place.” And wasn’t that a beautiful punch to the jaw? All their rage at each other, and Tony was still working toward bringing them all home. Steve rubs his forehead. “With Pepper’s influence and T’Challa’s help… I should be able to work something out.”

Clint looks to Natasha, who just looks beaten down. Steve wonders what all has been happening while he’s been off in Wakanda, and feels the bitter bite of too little, too late. But Clint doesn’t argue. For better or for worse, his fight has ballooned back out to encompass his old teammates. Clint Barton will smack Tony Stark to hell and back himself, but woe unto anyone outside their team who tries to do the same, especially using a sneak attack.

“Where the hell is Vision?” he sighs, mostly to himself, but Natasha looks up.

“Finding himself,” she says, no hint of sarcasm. “Dealing with what happened at the airport in Germany. He’s been gone for almost two months.”

“No one’s been able to get hold of him? Are we sure he’s alright?”

Natasha shrugs, but her shoulders have gone tight. “We’re handling it in our own way, Steve. Just like you’re handling it in yours.”

Oh, yeah, he’s handling it alright. His back feels like it’s tearing apart every time he moves, even breathes. Sometimes it feels worse than what he remembers from the Vita-ray transformation. Just sitting upright like this requires constant self control. He’s been to see the doctor, too. They’ve done scans. The most they can tell him this quickly is that he hasn’t broken any bones. Probably wrenched muscle tissue away from where it’s supposed to be, somewhere deep inside. Possible internal bleeding. Those results are still pending, but it doesn’t matter. Once he has them, he’ll have no time to do anything with them.

But Steve has a phone. Even if Tony isn’t carrying his, there’s FRIDAY, and Pepper herself.

You swore you would be there if he needed you. You weren’t.

Tony almost died again. Steve considers it as happening under his watch. The only reason he hasn’t actually spoken to Tony is because he can’t bring himself to try.

“I don’t like this, Steve.” Clint hasn’t let his bow out of his sight since they arrived. He fiddles with it even now, tapping his fingers along the string and worrying the nocks at each end. “We’ll be trapped here. If anything happens on your way out, we won’t be able to get to you.”

“I’ll be alright.” He smiles a little. “I have T’Challa’s jet.”

“Yeah.” Clint eyes him critically, and Steve renews his campaign to hide the extent of his discomfort. He’s flying that jet across the Atlantic himself, damn it. There’ll be no one else to take over if he doesn’t.

“Besides, you won’t be trapped here for long. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get to see your family in a couple days.” It’s hitting Steve’s gut like lead. He has to leave. He’s leaving his family, right here, now, with no idea when he’ll ever see them again. His eyes burn, uncontrollable and all at once.

It’s like that moment in the Siberian compound: he had them, Tony and Bucky, together for one incandescent moment, removed from all the loss. It will be so much worse now, letting them go again.

You have family in Wakanda, too, his mind whispers. But here or there, it’s all in pieces. Wherever he goes now, he’s left someone behind.

**

Colonel James Rhodes arrives by Stark Industries chopper at two o’clock in the morning. Steve stands in the makeshift landing bay, hands clasped behind his back and feet askance in parade rest, but his heart is battering his already sore ribs and there’s an odd whine in his ears. Rhodey drops out of the chopper readily enough, one hand bracing against the door. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt, running shoes. There’s nothing to signify his injuries.

Steve swallows around a dry throat.

Rhodey ducks the chopper blades until it lifts off again. As he moves, it becomes apparent that he’s not as he was. His gait is slower, rougher. As soon as the deafening whump-whump-whump has faded, Steve comes to attention. It’s automatic. It’s the only comfort food he has left. “Colonel Rhodes.”

Rhodey takes his measure without any outward emotion. He extends a hand. “Hi, Steve.”

Steve looks at it, unsure of just about everything. Then Rhodey steps forward, hand still out, and there’s a silky electronic whirr that Steve’s super hearing can’t miss, coming from the vicinity of Rhodey’s hips. It buckles inside Steve all at once, fold upon fold. He doesn’t know what happens to his face, but Rhodey’s eyes go wide.

“James,” Steve manages, hardly a word at all. A plea. Sam told him what happened, but now his mind gives it to him as though he witnessed it himself: Rhodey tumbling end over end toward the earth, Tony’s mad flight to reach him, Sam’s crushing guilt when they were both too late. “Rhodey, I didn’t know. I didn’t…” This man’s life completely changed, because of him. There aren’t words enough. He clenches his hands helplessly, wanting to grab hold of Rhodey, to feel for himself that he’s alive and well. Knowing he doesn’t have the right to touch him. “If I’d seen—”

“You’d have turned around?” Rhodey says it wryly, a squint to his eyes that Steve can’t read.

That day? He doesn’t know. The Steve Rogers from that day feels paper-thin and blown through with holes. Today? Yes. God, yes.

“I am so sorry.” It pours out of him, riding the wave of exhaustion that has been building inside him since the day Peggy died. “It should never have happened.”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Rhodey quirks a smile. He comes up alongside Steve and claps a hand to his shoulder. His touch is calm. Open. “I know, man.”

Steve breathes in, and breathes again. With the chopper safely gone, the crickets in the un-charred grass start to stir again. The breeze tucks at his hair. Guilt still roils. He doubts it’ll ever go away.

“Where is he?” Rhodey asks after a weighted moment.

Steve shakes his head. “Not sure. Hard to track down.”

“He really alright?”

“Yes.” Thank god, yes. “Something called Extremis. FRIDAY won’t tell me much.”

Rhodey’s face tightens. He takes a deep breath and shakes out both arms. “Alright, let’s go see FRIDAY then.”

**

For the third time, Steve raises his hand to knock, then drops it back to his side. He can’t hear anything from the other side of the door. It’s a random room in the bunker that Tony commandeered a day ago. For all he knows, Tony’s not even in there anymore.

He’s left it too long. He’s lifting off in ten minutes. Any longer and he knows he won’t make it out.

He can’t leave without saying something. Even now, Tony is feeding and housing him without Steve asking for anything. Or deserving it. It’s glass in his throat, the ease, the familiarity of something he doesn’t feel he can claim anymore. Standing out here is just making him sicker and sicker.

By now the pain in his back has spread thinner and wider, pulsing up his spine into his chest. He just wants to sleep, but when he tried, he couldn’t stop the torrent of thought from drowning him.

God, he needs Bucky. He needs his oldest friend to tell him what to do. What not to say.

He raises his hand again, but the door opens before he can knock. Steve’s heart slams once against his ribs and the sound in his ears goes briefly dim.

Tony stands there in the Iron Man suit. This one is sleek and gold with red and black highlights curving lovingly around waist, thighs, and shoulders. There’s silver threaded through the plate metal like gossamer thread. There might be a pattern, but Steve can’t concentrate. The lighted eyes of the faceplate stare flatly back at him, twin fires.

Steve swallows audibly in the silence. He wants the hope that flares, as desperate as a guttering candle. But it snuffs as soon as he acknowledges it. The suits are all faceless, soulless without their creator inside them, and perfectly capable of remote piloting. Maybe this isn’t Tony at all.

As if Steve voiced the fear aloud, the faceplate flicks back, revealing Tony Stark’s familiar features. Oh, Tony has always held back. His expression, whether angry or passive or worried, has always vibrated in some small, shivery way. Never stationary, ever alive. It has been months since Steve saw it. For a long, awkward moment, he can’t look away.

“You’re leaving?” Tony asks.

Steve nods, slowly. Not by choice, he wants to say. But what good would it do? Tony’s face is too hard to read, his tone giving nothing away. “Five minutes.”

“Okay, then.” Tony steps fully out of the room, gesturing Steve along before him. Steve looks at him, looks at him again, and gets it, with a cold sunken swoop.

“You can’t,” he manages, and reaches out before he can think better of it. When he catches Tony’s arm, Tony freezes, dead still. They stare at each other. Steve slowly takes his hand away.

“You can’t leave the base.” His own voice sounds thin and reedy to him. “Ross has already threatened to come after you if you leave Avengers airspace.”

Tony doesn’t say anything for a second. “Come after me, yes. Catch me?” He puffs his disdain between his teeth. Steve almost—almost—smiles.

“Tony,” he says, but Tony waves him off.

“He’ll never see me coming.”

His former teammate meets his eyes, just for a second, and Steve can’t look away.

He can’t walk away from this. Can’t leave Tony again.

Tony snaps the faceplate down, breaking the spell. All of Steve’s aches and pains come rushing back at once. He sways, catches himself on the wall. Tony, busy running checks on his suit, doesn’t notice.

“Head south.” Tony’s familiar voice is canned tightly within the suit’s mechanics, making the wretched burn in Steve’s chest all the worse. He feels overly hot all of a sudden, dizzy and overwhelmed.

It passes.

“My buddies will head north,” Tony is saying.

“Your buddies?”

Tony just tilts his head and walks down the hall toward the half-wrecked hangar where T’Challa’s jet has been stashed. The suit makes a comforting series of whirrs and clicks as he moves, pneumonic hisses and metal chirps. Steve follows as though beckoned.

Clint’s on the far end of the hangar, still looking unhappy, but he remains silent, only uncrossing his arms to lift a hand in Steve’s direction. Natasha is nowhere to be seen, but Rhodey nods at Steve, moving toward them from the nose of the jet. “Cockpit’s prepped for you.”

Steve nods his thanks. He can feel Tony standing at his back. If he opens his mouth at all now, he’ll lose his ability to get into that plane and leave them.

As it is, he doesn’t remember climbing inside, just that suddenly he’s strapped in, grateful beyond belief for the seatback to sag against, and watching his own hands perform the last tasks for takeoff as if they belong to someone else. Outside, Tony’s boot repulsors ignite, lifting him gracefully off the hangar floor.

“Ready?” Tony says over the comm.

Steve gives him a thumbs up.

A second later, the makeshift lab Steve had found Tony in explodes, a flurry of gold and silver, green, blue, bronze, black and gleaming red. Six separate suits launch skyward, fanning out like the Blue Angels and gunning straight south for the line of trees. Steve counts to three, then pushes the throttle forward. T’Challa’s jet lifts with a purr, blasting out of the hangar just as weapons’ fire erupts in the air beyond the treeline. Steve stays low, under the radar, skating across the blackened lawn, rising only to clear the rubble of their former housing. In the corner of his eye, a slash of red, black, and gold paces the jet.

Steve risks a glance: Tony is flying on his back, looking behind.

The firefight continues, showering the forest in brilliant sparks. The unmanned suits zip in and out of cover, blasting, strafing, heaving out smoke in great obscuring tufts. One of the trees goes up in a flash, obliterating Steve’s night vision. He turns forward until he clears the smoldering compound, keeping low well beyond the boundary, well after he knows the suit beside him has drawn off, and then he looks back, still blinking spots out of his eyes.

Behind him, he sees Tony hovering above the trees, the armor growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

~fin~