Three shots echoed loudly, and Captain America, no, Steve Rogers fell to the ground, cradled by Sharon and the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.
He knew he was dying, and he knew she was lying to make him feel better. He spared a thought for Tony, trusting that it couldn't have been him, before he drifted off.
He woke up in the ambulance again, briefly - a blood drip connected to his arm. His mind was hazy, and when some EMT put a cup of some liquid to his lips, he didn't think it over, he just drank it. The drink had a metallic, kinda familiar taste, but Steve couldn't concentrate on that. He could almost feel his heart slowing and that shouldn't be possible.
"You'll live," the doctor observing him said. "You'll live, Steve," he repeated. That was a lie, because Steve realized he was dying; and maybe it was for the best, for Tony to have his chance at building the world; maybe he'd actually manage it, if he didn't have to fight even his friends... Steve started to close his eyes.
"Steve!" Sharon called. He tried to smile weakly at her, but even the emergency lights seemed too bright and he closed his eyes again.
"Oh, he will live, Agent Carter," was the last thing he heard.
He woke up, many times, and he couldn't move for any of them.
He woke up, once, in what must have been a morgue, still tasting the weird drink on his tongue, and almost had a mild panic attack, because the serum had kept him alive once already, and he didn't need the repetition, not really. Then a man who turned out to be Tony Stark, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. went in and broke down in front of what he must have believed to be Steve's corpse. Steve was unable to do anything but listen, listen to every word, every sob, every muffled cry and scream of desperation, every last whisper. He learnt the answer to his question, and he'd sacrifice a lot to to never have asked it, and even more to be able to punch Tony in the face and hug him tight, later.
"It wasn't worth it," Tony said, and what he didn't say spoke all the louder.
He woke up again in what he thought to be his coffin, and almost had another panic attack. He remembered the doctor's words, or maybe a promise, or a threat, and maybe what the man had given him reacted with the serum in a weird way... Jan and Hank and Tony were there, and he could only hear their pulse, beating steadily in their veins, until Tony read his obituary and Steve was left with the words 'my rudder', back in the cold Atlantic water.
He wasn't even worried about drowning again.
He woke up, many times.
Once he got over being terrified each time it happened, he started thinking. He wanted to concentrate on his condition and what happened to him and if that was that doctor in the ambulance or the serum or something else entirely, again, but he couldn't; his thoughts relentlessly strayed to Tony, and in the end he gave up and thought of him. Of the man he was prepared to kill who later sobbed over Steve's own dead body; of that same man giving him a quiet, private funeral - and being right in thinking that was what Steve would have wanted. If he'd been dead, that was.
Of the man whispering, "it wasn't worth it", and crying.
Of how everything became immediately obvious and of how stupid they both were.
Of how nothing would have changed, even if Steve had understood it all before.
Of how nothing possibly could be right again, but he had to try and make it so anyway.
Of how Tony betrayed him, thinking he did it to protect him, and how that made Steve so angry he couldn't find the words for it if he tried.
Of how Tony compared himself to King Pyrrhus, and Steve still wasn't sure if he wanted to laugh at Tony for talking to soldiers like that or cry because it was accurate and it broke Steve's heart to realize it.
Of Tony, and Tony, and Tony, and how could he ever have called him Stark...?
He woke up, many times, before he could move.
He was in a coffin on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and he couldn't breathe.
– that wasn't a correct statement.
He was in a coffin on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, he could breathe with what little air was left in the coffin and he didn't need to do it.
His senses felt different. His hearing was much better, for once, but he'd already noticed that during his moments of consciousness, but now, now he could hear water currents, and fish changing them, and what could have been a ship on the surface.
He suspected he was stronger, too. He tried to break the coffin and it cracked a little, even though Tony must have made sure it was unbreakable, so Steve stopped trying to harm it for the time being. The only source of light was the distant surface of the ocean, but when he moved a little and looked down at himself, he could see all the details of his uniform, every scale on the mail, all the unwashed blood, and suddenly felt an intense hunger.
He knew all the legends. More than the legends, if the classified records he came by were any indication. He was an Avenger. He knew this stuff. He'd already undergone one complete body change, from a weak boy into the man who was supposed to be perfect.
He was hungry, like he'd never been before.
He refused to touch his tongue to his teeth.
He just lay there, and tried not to think too much, to maybe catch some sleep and ignore the hunger.
It turned out he couldn't sleep anymore, and the light didn't really change, so he wasn't sure how long it had been before the hunger won and he punched a hole in the coffin, without thinking, and then quickly enlarged it enough to swim out of.
He really didn't need to breathe. The water over his face didn't bother him. The speed of his movements came with a surprise, though.
He spotted some kind of large fish that he didn't recognize in the distance and swam in its direction. He shouldn't have been able to catch up, but he did, caught it and without thinking, instinctively, sunk his teeth into its body. Its blood mixed with water and tasted weird and wasn't what he needed at all.
The hunger didn't get worse for the time being, at least.
He swam beneath the surface all the way to New York and refused to think of how long that must have taken and how he wasn't tired at all and how he must have looked by now. He waited for the sun to set – he'd emerged a few times, during daylight, and those hadn't been pleasant experiences – and crawled out at the shore of Hudson.
It was night, and he was stronger, could see better, hear better, move quicker – and he'd been a skilled agent before that.
And he had just one thought in his head.
He realized he was passing people who didn't notice him, people full of blood, but no matter how hungry he was, he realized he'd never bite them, he wouldn't be able to, so he went on, in the shadows, until he reached Aven – Stark Tower.
The automatic security system accepted his code and retina scan – he refused to think of what it meant, Tony not changing his access – and he was let in. No one saw him as he moved towards the elevator and further, to where his room used to be.
Where his room still was, he found, as clearly noone had touched the things inside since Steve had done it for the last time, before Stamford. Refusing to think about that either, Steve wondered how long it would take for Tony to notice him, and decided to take a shower. He couldn't see his reflection in the mirrors in the bathroom, but was at a point where he didn't much think of it.
He cleaned himself of all the dirt he had accumulated during his swim, then dressed himself in the spare uniform that still was in his wardrobe, and listened.
There were people in the Tower, of course. No one he knew, though, just night shift office workers and probably Tony's staff. All of them wonderfully warm and full of life, full of blood.
Steve shook his head against the temptation and waited.
Tony came home almost at sunrise.
He'd always had terrible timing.
He was in the full Iron Man suit, repulsors aimed straight at Steve. "I'll give you one warning," his metallic voice sounded in the room. Steve rolled his eyes and stood up from his armchair.
"Steve," Iron Man's voice almost whispered. He took half a step back before he stopped himself and fired at him. "I know you're not real," he said, sharply, and looked around after Steve had dodged the repulsor blast. Steve was tired of talking to that metal mask. He jumped at Iron Man, planning on surprising him with his new abilities, and it worked. He punched him in the jaw and managed to crack the faceplate open, tearing it off with brutal strength.
"Look me in the eyes and tell me I'm not real," he growled, one hand holding Tony's still armoured chin tightly. Tony tried to move and couldn't, and finally looked at Steve. He laughed hysterically.
"Bad joke, whoever you are. He had azure eyes," Tony said, something in his voice breaking, but he held his eyes steady after that. Steve frowned. What could possibly...
Of course. He must have red eyes now. Wonderful.
"That's in the past, Tony," he said. "And yes, I had blue eyes. Nice of you to remember." He hesitated. "And you had no right to do anything of what you did, no right. Even if it wasn't worth it," he quoted at Tony, and saw the understanding dawning in his eyes. Tony was a genius, of course he'd figure it out.
"Steve? How, who..." he started asking and shook his head, blinking away tears. "Steve. I thought you died, I --" the parts of his armour fell away from him and he fell to his knees, only Steve's arm around his waist holding him upright.
"Maybe you should have checked," he answered, angrily, and that wasn't fair, Tony was to blame for a lot of things, but not that, and Tony still violently flinched away.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and Steve had heard that voice once already and wished to never hear it again. He kissed him to shut him up, full of anger, and Tony didn't respond, but didn't push him away, either, his lips warm under Steve's, and Steve had his hand under his chin, over his neck; Tony's underarmour was quickly hiding back inside his bones - because he trusted him, or didn't want to have anything connected with weapons on himself, or because he was so far gone, it wasn't important - and Tony's naked neck was just next to Steve, and Tony was beautiful and too attractive for his own good, too trusting right now, in their position Steve could smell his unique scent, a little metallic, just a little weirdly sweet, and Steve had been fighting this hunger for way too long and only just realized he was losing, that there hadn't been any other possible outcome from the beginning.
Tony was tempting, yes, always had been, but it wouldn't have changed anything now if he hadn't, because Steve could sense the blood in his veins too, temptation connected with that, and that – that wasn't something he could fight.
He embraced him tightly, leant over him, and bit his teeth into his carotid artery (dangerous, some part of his brain whispered, but he didn't care); and he drank, finally, and Tony didn't even try to fight him, even melted against him. Steve couldn't compare the taste to anything he'd ever drunk before. His terrible hunger started to disappear, slowly, too slowly, but the blood, Tony's blood, was enchanting. It was attraction liquidized, and life, and it was cold as fire and hot as ice, it was a sensation too fantastic to be described, and it was addictive - if Tony had felt half like that, when he'd been drinking, just how the hell had he stopped? Tony started to slide out of his embrace, almost boneless, weak, and Steve realized with a jolt that he was on the verge of killing him, draining him dry. He forced himself to push him away, and jumped to the far wall.
He barely noticed his shadow scatter around the wall like bats before it became normal again.
Tony collapsed in a heap to the ground, naked. Blood still dripped from his neck, but slower now; if Steve left him like that, he would probably live.
His breathing was shallow, his eyes were wide, almost black. There were traces of tears on his cheeks and Steve averted his eyes.
"Wait," Tony whispered, as Steve was turning to go.
"I've almost killed you," Steve answered shakily. Again.
Tony shook his head. “It's not...” He didn't finish the sentence, and maybe that was for the best, because his eyes started to look as empty as his voice sounded.
"If you leave now, who else are you going to attack?" Tony asked after a second, and pushed himself up. The Extremis must have already started patching him up, he shouldn't be able to do that on his own.
Attack, Steve repeated in his head, disgusted with himself. That wasn't who he was. He didn't attack helpless people, he was supposed to help them. He moved to the window.
"No, Steve, wait, don't leave," Tony almost begged. Steve hesitated, looked back. Tony was standing unsteadily now, swaying on his feet. He wouldn't be able to stay on his legs like that for long, Steve thought, and before he could rethink it, he was next to Tony, supporting him. Tony leant against him with no fear at all on his face. Extremis or no, he must have been half-conscious from blood loss.
Steve should leave, but Tony had a point. Up until now, he'd managed to stop himself from attacking people because he was obsessed with confronting Tony. They hadn't done much 'confronting', but still, now... Now he could jump an innocence woman and kill her, because he couldn't stop himself, and then never ever forgive himself.
He was having a hard time forgiving himself for what he had just done to Tony, already. Maybe he could stay and try to help. Stay, because Tony was obviously trying to help him, and he – he needed that. Now.
"Steve," Tony whispered. "You were dead. Or you weren't, as I see. Stay. I know we had differences last time we talked..." he said, his voice shaking, "but stay. Please. Just for the day. Stay, and talk to me, because if you don't want to be friends again, I understand that, but there's your... condition to consider."
Tony, always the futurist, already planning, even half-conscious, even after his one time best friend had almost dried him of his blood. Tony, endearing and infuriating and responsible for all this mess that Steve wasn't even halfway ready to forgive him for.
He had a point, though... and he totally missed another.
"I've heard what you said over my body, Tony," he reminded him quietly. "And just now I kissed you, and I didn't do that for your blood. Think about that before you ask me if we can be friends again.” He hesitated.
Should he stay? He needed help, but, as close to Tony's neck as he'd been, he couldn't have stopped himself. But he'd been hungry then, very hungry, in a way he'd been starving for months. Maybe... maybe he wouldn't harm Tony like that again.
“And... I'll stay, for now,” he said. He could do at least that much.
Tony looked at him without understanding, his eyes half-closed, and he really was on the verge of losing consciousness, only his will and maybe some help from Extremis keeping him awake.
"I'll stay," Steve repeated. Tony nodded at that, and would have fallen down if it weren't for Steve's arms around him.
Steve carried him to his bed and tucked in, and later, when Tony slept, forced himself to bandage the twin cuts on his neck.
It wouldn't work, not with the two of them, not like they were now, but after everything, they had to give it a try.
Because he could say it himself: it wasn't the serum. Or if it was, if it reacted with whatever he had drunk in the ambulance, then maybe only the man who gave him that drink could say. Or maybe he was a vampire, straight and simple.
But who was better at solving problems with Steve than Tony?