Tony's hands shook.
The truth was, he'd handled the suit, especially its repulsors, in too many situations to count. In every incarnation, he had been the creator and the implementer both. He knew its strengths, its weaknesses, its handicaps. He knew the exact ways in which he had struggled to lessen the impact of said weaknesses, said shortcomings. He rarely missed, even without Friday. With her, misses were nearly unheard of.
Cap held out his hands as he came to a stop before him, clearly coming to the same conclusion.
"Put your hand down, Tony. I didn't come here to fight," Cap said, and Tony saw red.
"Oh? You didn't come here to fight. Well, isn't that good to hear? A nice change of pace from the norm, actually." Cap scowled. Guess that one hurt. "But you know what, Cap? I did come to fight. Did you know you're an enemy of this country?" Without moving his aim from Steve's face, he gestured around them, toward the great green hills of Scotland. "Yeah. You and the other ex-Avengers are considered wanted fugitives. Not just by the hundred seventeen countries this all started with, by the way. Yeah. Now it's one-twenty. Way to go, Cap. You always were an overachiever."
"I don't want to fight you or the UN, Tony," Steve said. "I thought you were the kind of person to hold to your word when you promised to meet me. I see I was wrong."
Steve sounded sad about that. As if he had the right to that emotion after all he'd put Tony through.
That's right. He used you, abused you, and left you for dead. If either of you deserved to feel betrayed, it sure as hell wasn't him.
"Weird how I don't believe you, Cap. Isn't that strange? I mean, you've never beaten me into the ground before or anything."
"You were trying to kill Bucky!"
And that's what it always boils down to, isn't it? Bucky is the only 'friend' Steve has. Why bother with Tony Stark when he has him?
Tony shot at him.
He was almost surprised at his own actions. Steve dodged, of course; he'd come in jeans and a t-shirt, looking almost naked without his shield, but still he moved as if in his usual gear. He might have even been faster without the shield. The shield Tony had brought as a – why had he brought it? What possible motive could he have had?
To rub his face in what he'd lost, Tony thought, finally remembering. To show him what he'd given up when he'd turned on Tony, turned on the world, for his broken pet of a friend.
He ground his teeth together and fired again. Steve had no choice but to dodge once more, dirt exploding like dust into the air. Tony flew high, higher. Friday tried to speak. He ordered her silent once more. "Dear old Bucky," he sneered. "Good of you to keep him away. You say you trust me? Guess not."
"Bucky's asleep again, Tony!" Steve shouted, and Tony didn't know what the man had been expecting, but judging by the look on his face, it hadn't been Tony's laughter.
"How sad," he said, daring to pop open his faceplate. He met Steve's eyes with his own, face to face. "You lost your friend. How miserable you must feel."
Steve's lips thinned. "Tony," he said, and his tone was a warning.
It was a nice place for a fight. He'd chosen well. The grasslands in Scotland were lauded as some of the most beautiful, right up there with New Zealand. While losing such landscapes would be painful, it was better than risking human lives. The nearest village was over fifty miles away. And, well, who didn't appreciate some nice scenery?
He fired again, aiming for Steve's legs. The man barely hopped back from the blast, flying back from the blast. He landed on his ass on the ground, skidding a couple of feet before managing to plant his feet on the ground. Tony flew down then, just enough to show Steve he would not miss again. “Get up. Give me an excuse.”
Steve raised his chin. “I'd thought you better than this, Tony.”
Thought you better? Since when?
“Since when?!” he asked, repeating his thoughts aloud. He found himself revving the repulsor and barely stopped himself. He needn't attack Steve while he was down. The man had come completely unarmed – not even his uniform. He was defenseless.
Like you had been when you'd seen that video.
He hadn't been? He'd been in his armor?
He was forced to retreat as a proximity warning flared across his sensors. An arrow flew past him. He clocked the form of a small piece of tech coming from the same direction. A familiar bit of tech. He started to hack it even as he turned, slamming his faceplate back down even as he made note of Steve's recovered state. “Hawkeye and Falcon. It seems you didn't trust me nearly as much as you claim. Shocker.”
Another arrow, a third, both flew out from the line of a hill. He glared at them, at his sensors that had failed – no. They hadn't failed; the warning of their existence had been sitting on his sensors since he'd scanned the area. Why hadn't he noticed? Had he truly been so obsessed with Steve?
He dodged the arrows, knowing better than to catch them, or even to let them near. He should never have made those EMP arrows for Clint. He had learned better. He would never help anyone else ever again.
He raised his arm, targeting Clint. He sided with Steve. He fought you for no other reason than because he thought Steve a friend while you – you were just his investor.
Not to mention the last words Clint ever said to him. His insult to Rhodey, to who Rhodey was.
He snarled and rose higher, shooting at the archer from his space on the ground, taking the higher position for once. Falcon, of course, rose up to meet him, his little Redwing – Tony's invention, Tony's tech – coming around to fire at him. He shot at it, forcing it off-course, and rolled in the air, matching Falcon's wings with his repulsors. One of them didn't need wings to fly. And they didn't need to steal them, either.
Funny how everyone talked shit about Tony's weapons tech, even as they used it for themselves and stole what he didn't make from others.
Never appreciated. Never loved. Tony Stark, the poorest rich man in the world.
Falcon shot at him. “I didn't think Barton would be right, Stark! I thought you'd never attack Cap, no matter what we saw on him when he came for us in the Raft.”
Never even understood.
“Right. Dear old Cap, back to the rescue.” Not that he hadn't given Cap the location of his friends, or left hints on how anyone might potentially be able to get them out. And of course, Steve had protected his reputation as the best and brightest and neglected to inform the others of how Tony had helped. Hell, Steve might have not even recognized that was what Tony had done. Who would expect Tony to want to help? Who would expect Tony to be horrified by their living conditions? Who would expect anything from him but mass murder? Tony, the Merchant of Death.
Well, he had a job to do, and for once, he was going to enjoy it. Not just Cap, but Falcon and Hawkeye, too. Tony would take them all in. And he would have the rest clamoring for the chance to play hero. A name none of them deserved. He would catch them all, and when Bucky woke up and found his dear little Cap in prison, Tony would have him, too. Only, he wouldn't be making it to the Raft.
Redwing came at him again, turned in the air and fired, taking its place back and to the side while Falcon flew in front of him – defending Steve from Tony's advances. Tony laughed. It felt like glass was cutting into his chest. Glass from the bomb, from the arc reactor. Amazing what such tiny cuts could do.
He hacked into Redwing's programming, the little blip showing on his screens before disappearing again. He directed the thing to attack Falcon and watched the man yelp in surprise. Clint turned to it as Falcon dove away, leaving Steve momentarily defenseless.
Tony stopped an arrow from reaching Redwing and dove around Steve's friends. The man hadn't run, of course; he was too full of himself, wasn't he, to think he would ever get hurt? He wouldn't run. His dear friends would crawl out of the woodwork to protect him, and he would do anything to protect his friends.
Unlike what he would do with Tony – slam his shield into the arc reactor and leave him behind to deal with the clean-up of his mess, his armor and body destroyed. Even T'Challa had left him behind, more concerned with Nemo and Steve to worry about Tony.
Because no one cares about you. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you accept that, the happier you'll be.
Steve lifted his chin again, his lips firm as he looked upon Tony. Looked upon him as he would a villain. Because that's all you've ever been to him.
The pain in his chest cut ever closer to his heart.
“You could always give yourself up, Cap,” he said, and watched the man's lips pull back. Guess not.
“How dare you!” Clint shouted. Three arrows, and Tony knew one of them was just waiting for him to shoot it. He dodged them all, unsurprised to see one of them bang loudly. Friday silently noted the electro-magnetic waves it pulsed out, allowing him to avoid them. Clint shot again as he dodged, and this time, despite seeing it coming, he couldn't avoid it in time. The shock of electricity shot through the armor and through the sensor interface. It zapped from his repulsors up his arms and chest. He screamed in pain and fell.
The ground had only been about twenty meters below, but it reminded him of Rhodey's fall. His screens flickered. He gritted his teeth as he prepared for impact.
Nothing happened. He felt his center of gravity shift, and then he was on the ground, his screens back online. Sam was in front of him, his dark skin chalky, as if he'd just seen a ghost. His hands trembled as he let go of Tony and stepped away.
Tony shot him in the chest.
Two shouts of outrage burst on either side of him. “Repulsors?” he asked. Friday didn't answer – the AI was more passive-aggressive than any human he'd ever met – but she did show him they were online, if only at about half power. Good enough. He launched himself back into the air.
Without Falcon on his tail, he could turn to Clint and Steve. Steve had run over to his dear friend's side – always, always more concerned with everyone else; he worried over dear Bucky and Sam and Natasha and Wanda, but never, ever noticed him. How had Tony ever mistaken anything the man ever did as friendship?
He was alone. He'd had Rhodey, until he'd broken him. He'd had Pepper, until he'd pushed her one step too far. He'd had the Avengers – no. He'd never had the Avengers. And he'd sacrificed Jarvis for an android who called him Mr. Stark.
Alone. Alone. Alone.
His rage was so overwhelming that, for a minute, he couldn't even see. His sensors alone caught the arrow flying his way, and without waiting for him, Friday called up the armor and shot the thing before it could reach him. “Thanks, Friday,” he said. She still didn't speak. “So long as you don't get pissy with me for any of this, you can talk.”
“Well, far be it from me to speak freely, boss,” she said, prim as always. Despite everything, her words made him smile.
Clint had made for the rise of the hill, slowly sloping down to meet up with Steve. Steve, who was checking Sam's vitals and glaring up at Tony. As if he cared – as if he dared care – what anyone thought of him anymore.
For once, he would be exactly what everyone thought he was. He would get his revenge, take control over the cowards who chose themselves over the world. If he was going to be treated like a monster, then he would become monstrous. He would still be doing the right thing, and no one's opinions of him would change.
The glass nearly cut through his veins, his heart itself. The pain was a constant, low-bearing thrum as he whirled the suit around, keeping himself a difficult enough target that Clint would have to carefully plan his next strike.
“Boss, your breathing is harder than usual.”
“Unless it has to do with the fight, Friday, it can wait.”
Great. Even his AI was giving him lip.
He wasn't surprised when Clint finally hit him; the only thing that shocked him was that the man had chosen to use one of Tony's own ice arrows. It locked up his joints, made his suit continue flying in a corkscrew. He nearly threw up before the armor heated through the ice, and when he straightened himself out, the world tilted alarmingly on its side. “Friday, aim for Barton's quiver.”
“We would have to shoot through the man's chest in order to hit.”
“Then do it!”
“You wrote a code ordering me to never fatally harm an Avenger. In my coding, Barton is still recognized as a member. By you, boss.”
He didn't understand. Clint hit him again, this time with an arrow that wrapped itself around his neck – a grappling arrow. He was yanked. His screens flared up with warnings.
“I wouldn't – Barton fought me. Fought us. He insulted Rhodey, said I would break my friends' backs. As if what happened to Rhodey was – as if I would have ever–”
“Nevertheless, boss, you are the only one to have ever worked on my programming, and you made it very clear. I am not to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary – and even then, I am not to kill any Avenger, no matter what.” She paused for a moment. “Do you not remember? You were upset with this decision after the fight in Siberia, but you did not change it.”
"No." That wasn't right. He wanted Steve to pay. He wanted to capture them, to use them as bait. He wanted to kill Bucky.
“Barnes is not on the list.”
Okay. Okay, that made sense. That still made sense. Did he... did he not want Steve and the others to be killed?
Dead. Alive. It doesn't matter. So long as they are out of your hair forever. So long as they can never drag you down again. This is more than just capturing the ex-Avengers for the government. It's more than using them as hostages for Bucky Barnes. It's about making sure none of them can hurt you ever again.
That... was right. That was right. This was about making sure he could be alone without being hurt. Monsters killed their enemies. They... “Wipe that code, Friday.”
“It can only be altered in the laboratory, boss.”
He snarled. Something grabbed him, yanked him down by his feet. He looked down to find Falcon, his wings flared as he tried to haul Tony down. Redwing fired on Falcon, only for Steve to jump up, grab it, and wrench it apart. Tony screamed.
He fired up his repulsors and twisted. The rope on his neck pulled taut, then loosened a bit; Barton tumbled around on the ground as he lost his grip, his progress only halted by Steve, who caught him as he rolled. Falcon held on tenaciously tight, even as Tony twisted him around and around in loops. He had to close his eyes and continue by feel as his vision fuzzed and his balance shifted. He gritted his teeth against the bile that rose in his throat.
Falcon finally let go of him; his vision blurred so badly he could hardly see, but he could make out the target circles on his screens, could see Falcon moving below him, behind him. “Friday,” he started, but had to stop or risk puking all over his faceplate.
“Shoot him down, Friday!”
She complied, at least; he forced his breathing under control, squinted his eyes until he could at least make out what he was supposed to be seeing, even if it swirled a bit at the edges. Falcon dodged Friday's accommodatingly slow attacks. Steve and Clint pulled back a bit, giving Hawkeye the chance to rain arrows upon him yet again. “To hell with this!” Tony snapped, and shot the arrows out of the sky. With Falcon in the air, Barton wouldn't dare use an EMP arrow. Tony's life may not matter to any of them, but Sam's would.
Maybe he'd been wrong all this time. Tony thought he was letting himself be a monster, but he wasn't, was he? He was saving the world from the monsters who pretended to be heroes. He wasn't the bad guy. Even now, his AI had orders not to kill them. Monsters didn't do that, did they? No! Monsters lied, manipulated, beat their best friends. People who trusted them. People who gave them everything.
And Tony had given the Avengers everything.
He fired on Clint and Steve, just enough to force them back and away. Clint shot at him, of course. Thank goodness he'd chosen this place to meet up; Clint had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. His stealth was useless here. He had to rely on his allies to shield him. It made it much easier for Tony to dodge away, to use Falcon's tactics against him. The man's wings were his weakness. “Friday, give me target practice.”
This time, she did what he told her without question. Perhaps even she was starting to realize what it meant when his so-called teammates fought him yet again.
Team? You have never, not once, had a team. Tony Stark not recommended.
“Stark,” Sam called, “it's not too late. We don't need to do this all over again. Just let us go, and we'll forget this ever happened.”
He laughed. It felt dry in the back of his throat, left him so breathless he nearly gasped. “Forget? I'm just supposed to forget?” Falcon acted like some sort of clown bird, acting as distraction as Clint and Steve backed up still further. Trying to create distance? Or trying to escape? “Forget what you did to me? Forget the truth? How nothing I ever did, ever was, could have possibly been good enough for any of you!”
He shot at Clint and Steve, not bothering to aim for the legs, choosing instead to go for the chest. The kill shot. Friday slowed his reaction time, but not enough for Sam to not fall for the trap.
Friendship. How had he ever believed that friends would ever help him? When had it given him anything other than heartache? He thought of Rhodey. Rhodey, who lay crippled at home, struggling through his therapy sessions with only Tony and Pepper and Vision beside him. Rhodey, who had been left behind by the others, only Sam bothering to care about him enough to return. Rhodey, who Barton had mocked.
Rhodey. Rhodey was the only person who had befriended the unrecommended Tony Stark. Everyone else was nothing more than weight.
Falcon made to protect Barton – Barton, of all people – and Tony shot those wings of his before he could realize he'd turned his back on Iron Man.
Falcon shouted, his voice seeming almost surprised. Tony flew close, grabbed the man's wings. Sam punched the suit, the idiot, and fought to get his wings to target Tony once more. He just wrenched the things to shreds. “Struggle and I'll drop you,” he said. Sam glared.
“You're even less of a man than I thought,” Sam said.
“Well, I didn't bother promising to come as a friend this time.”
Sam's glare hardened. “You did hurt him, didn't you? You went to Siberia and you attacked him.”
This is what they think of you. What they will always think of you.
He used Falcon's body as a javelin, throwing him at Clint and Steve. Steve pushed Clint out of the way and reached up, taking Sam's weight onto himself. He grunted loudly and fell back, once again sliding along the grass, likely ruining his shirt and jeans. Tony huffed, barely able to get his breath, his body trembling within the suit. “Friday, turn on the damn heat in here! It's freezing.”
Once again, he was forced to watch as Steve put himself in danger in order to protect a friend. Two friends. It slowed his reaction time. When he finally got himself in motion, it was barely in time to stop Clint's arrow from embedding itself inside Tony's arc reactor.
Once again, they attack your weakness. Once again, they go after what has been taken before. Never mind that you once needed it to survive.
“I should have known,” he said. The words were quiet. Quieter than they should have been, dimmed by the ache blossoming in his chest. “From the start, I should have seen. The Avengers had always gathered around you, hadn't they? I just made the weapons and paid for everything and made everyone look good.” He pulled his arms back. His main repulsor shot a long line from Steve to Clint. Both fell back from the blast, Steve huddled over Sam even as the man fought to get back up and into the fight.
He raised an arm to finish them off, only for one of Clint's arrows to embed itself into his repulsor. He yanked his hand back on instinct, even though it was too late. Sparks spat out from his palm. “Trust Stark to throw a giant temper tantrum and expect us to feel bad about it.”
He pulled the arrow out and threw it to the ground. Falcon picked up a piece of his own destroyed suit and chucked it at him.
Defiant. Arrogant. Self-righteous. To the bitter end, you are nothing but a demon to them.
Tony looked at Steve. The man was glaring at him. He had no doubt that, if he got close enough to the ground, Steve would drag him down and pummel him. Would he stop at the destruction of the reactor this time? Or would he keep going until there was nothing left of him?
The glass cut his heart to ribbons. He could barely breathe for the pain.
“Boss, you're having a–”
“Shut up, Friday! It doesn't matter if I'm sick or dying or lactose intolerant! I'm ending this!”
“Clint, Sam,” Steve said, “stand down.” He stood before Tony, fists raised. He looked just as he had when he'd stood against Tony with blood on his lip. When he'd looked at Tony like Tony was just some two-bit villain, like he was hardly worth the time of day. When he'd said he could fight him all day.
“Yeah, right, Cap,” Clint said. Falcon made some noise of agreement.
“I mean it. Stand down. You shouldn't have followed me to begin with.”
Tony paused then, his mind barely able to comprehend what he was hearing. It didn't make sense. Steve had never trusted Tony. So why would he come meet him without his uniform? Without back-up?
It's a trick. It's always been a trick. Every time you thought you had something, what always ended up being the case?
Stane. Pepper. The Avengers. He'd never truly had anything at all.
He grabbed his head.
“Steve, he's gone nuts!” Sam pointed at Tony, above them all in the sky.
“He hasn't. You coming here made this situation worse. I need you all to trust me.”
Trust him. Trust him? Tony laughed all over again. It came out as little more than gasps, great, heaving ones that still failed to actually gain him any oxygen. “Yes. Trust him. Everyone does. Even me.”
And look what that got you.
“We'll step back, Steve. But we won't leave.” Sam took a step back, showing his intent. Reluctantly, Clint did the same. Steve gave them an unhappy look, but he seemed to know better than to push his will on them. Steve stepped forward, putting his arms out. “Tony. We can talk about this.”
“Talk?” Tony huffed. For a moment, he couldn't even breathe in. His entire chest was on fire. “You want to talk now? More secrets you've been keeping from me, then, I suppose?” He couldn't breathe. Fury boiled in his head, foggy suddenly in the hurt that swallowed him whole.
Hurt doesn't end anything.
“Tony. I know you're hurt. And angry. And you have every right to be. But this isn't going to solve anything. Just come down here and we can talk.”
“Come down. To where you can punch me.” Friday upped the amount of oxygen in the suit. He still couldn't get enough. “Yeah, I don't think so.”
“I won't. Tony, I won't, I swear.”
“Swear.” He couldn't – couldn't breathe. “You swore – you swore we would fight together. You told me I was the one who – who failed the team. I gave you everything.”
Steve grimaced, and for once, it was one of remorse. Tony wanted to feel pleasure. All he felt was pain.
“I'm sorry,” Steve said. The words meant nothing. In the end, Steve had chosen him. And Tony had known he would. No one would ever choose him. “I should have – I should have found another way.”
“What other way?” He raised his hand, the one with the repulsor that still worked. “What other way could it have ended?”
He almost fired. Almost. Then Clint's arrow caught him in the chest, and with a scream, his systems went black. He fell.
One last EMP arrow. With his compromised vision, he hadn't seen the warning in time.
He crashed. He slammed into the armor, banged his head against the metal. He barely felt it. His heart hammered. It was too heavy against his ribs. He could hardly think. His stomach rolled.
Sounds from outside were muffled, constrained by the tight lock of joints. He thought he could hear Steve shouting. Slowly, his screens flickered back on. “Boss? You are unwell. Running scans.”
“Friday.” Friday hadn't left him. He wasn't – he wasn't. Not yet.
Aren't you? Your friend just shot you out of the sky. Steve acted as a distraction to your downfall. And you let him. You trusted him. Again.
He clenched his eyes shut. No. No, he hadn't been – why would he trust again? Hadn't he learned his lesson? Hadn't he learned that he was alone?
He reared up, sending the arc reactor's repulsor blazing across the Scottish hillside. Steve shouted something. Tony didn't bother listening to the words, only to where they originated. Where they went. He followed after them, barely finding something softer than ground before he started punching. He screamed. Raged. With every spare bit of air he found, he spoke, trying to drown out the sounds of Sam and Clint moving to save their dear friend, of grass crunching beneath their bodies – of Steve's silence, growing louder and louder as the moments passed.
“I – always, always – trusted you. I always thought you were my friend. I believed in you.” He felt hands on him, pulling him away. He felt something slam into his shoulder, his neck. His lungs heaved. His left arm went numb, no longer listening to his commands. He redoubled his efforts with his right. “If you told me to jump, I jumped. Only for you. Because I trusted you. Because I loved you.”
He was crying. He could feel it on his face, hear it ping softly on the metal of his faceplate. He lifted it, unable to stand the blackness. Wanting to see Steve's face as he killed him.
Steve was crying, too. With eyes limned in purple.
Even now he manipulates you.
Still. Still, he pulled away, unable to continue.
“Tony? Tony, answer me! Tony!”
Pain. All-consuming, nearly-numbing pain, and a feeling like the world was twisting sideways. Like the arrow of a spinner.
“Mr. Stark is experiencing a heart attack, Captain Rogers. I must attempt to take him to a hospital.”
“A heart attack?!”
“That fucking idiot was so obsessed with revenge that he ignored a heart attack?”
“Mr. Stark's brain waves have been abnormal for 2.6 hours, Mr. Barton. Due to regulation, I have been silenced on the issue by Mr. Stark. Only my predominant code, that I ensure Mr. Stark's survival, allows me to now speak, in the hopes that you will cease your aggressions.”
“We - of course. What do we need to do?”
“Mr. Stark's symptoms began shortly after his brain waves altered. You must find the cause and shut it down.”
“We will. Get him to safety.”
“That is my intention.”
The world shifted again. A cold wind splashed across his face. Then the soft slide of metal on metal, and the wind went away. “Initiating Code Morgan. Scanning for physical ailments. Circulatory malfunction. Respiratory malfunction. Vestibular malfunction...”
Things came and went in waves. He heard sounds. Saw bright lights. Someone spoke to him once, in his ear. Mostly, what he felt were emotions. They burst inside him, swept him up in one, three, ten different directions, all at once, until he was drowning. Each time they came, the shouting got louder. Worse. He would fade, only to awaken, rage and terror fueling him, filling every inch of his skin. And then hurt, betrayal, confusion. And then anger again. And the maddening cycle would continue.
He woke, finally, so exhausted he felt as if he'd been battling non-stop for days. Each limb seemed to weigh a hundred tons. He shifted. Every nerve sparked a complaint, until he was groaning and lying limp once more. A monitor recorded every lazy beat of his heart.
Where was he?
He remembered things in a haze, as if walking through a fog. He'd received a message from Steve asking to meet. It had been encrypted, but that hadn't much mattered. He'd already known where Steve had gone – whose country he'd hidden within – and could guess from there where he might have headed. And it wasn't anything he'd wanted to confirm, anyway. So long as he didn't actively search, he could always tell Ross he didn't know.
He'd agreed to the meeting. He hadn't wanted to call Steve, to ever try to get him to answer a plea for help when the man had chosen to ignore every previous plea he had made. But if Steve was willing to extend that first olive branch, to walk forward and apologize – Tony would never turn away from Steve if he needed help.
He'd taken a flight to Scotland, where they'd agreed to meet. He'd stopped off at the airport, then rented a car to the nearest town. He'd brought Steve's shield, locked in the trunk in a suitcase of his own design. A peace offering. If Steve was in danger, he would need his shield.
He got out of the car. A couple of people had come out to stare; the village was small, and visitors were probably pretty rare. He... He'd spoken with a few of them? And then a young man, no older than twenty-five. The man's eyes...
He'd met with Steve. Hadn't he? He had. And he'd... he'd raised his weapons on him?
He'd been in his armor?
Once more, he tried to stand, this time ignoring the horrible pain in his limbs and chest. He could hardly remember anything that had happened, but he could swear he'd been in a fight. Once he pulled down the sheets, it was confirmed. That many bruises didn't crop up from a roll down a hill. But why? And how? “Friday?” he croaked, only to get caught up in the wires on his arm. He looked over to see a completely normal heart rate monitor. The white room may have looked similar to one of his own, but this was a private room in a public hospital, not his personal suite in his tower. Why the hell had Friday brought him here? How bad were his injuries?
The door slid open. A doctor stepped inside. The man looked up from the clipboard he carried, took one look at Tony, and dropped the clipboard to the floor. “Mr. Stark! Please get back on your bed immediately!”
“What happened?” he growled. Something latent bubbled with him. It made his limbs shake. “Where's my armor?”
“You must rest. The armor, uh, dropped you off, listed your symptoms, and took off again.”
Code Morgan. Friday had overridden his controls in order to save his life. Which meant no threat had remained to fight, or else the code might have been Avalon, and he wouldn't have to worry about his armor, the situation, or anything else.
But then why had she driven the armor away?
His chest was killing him. “What were my symptoms?”
“In a nutshell? You had a heart attack, Mr. Stark.”
He touched his chest, even though the arc reactor and the shrapnel were both long gone. “A heart attack?”
“Apparently you were under some great stress, Mr. Stark,” the man said. Tony knew automatically what the man thought his 'great stress' was. But a heart attack from fighting? That didn't sound right. He only had bruises, not broken bones. He'd been in far worse battles. “And there was a strange complication for quite some time. PET scans showed odd activity in your brain. It disappeared about five hours ago.” The man came to stand next to the bed, his gaze on Tony's legs, as if he could catch and stop any effort to get off the bed. “Do you know anything about that?”
He reached for his head, but stopped before he touched it. As if he could tell what had happened by feeling his temple. A PET scan wouldn't be searching for a damn lump. “I need to find my armor,” he said.
“You need to rest,” the doctor said. “Your heart attack was severe, and clearly stress-induced. That alone would necessitate you rest, even without the strange anomalies in your scans.”
“Great. I've heard your warnings, so bring the release papers. And don't do you usual hour-long wait thing, or I'll just walk to the nurse's office.”
The doctor sighed. “I advise against that.”
The man sounded like he already knew how Tony would respond. It made him smile. “Gotcha. Now–”
He snapped ramrod straight at the sound of that voice. His eyes widened as Steve ran through the open doorway. The man's face was a mess of swollen black and blue splotches. The heart monitor picked up the sudden spike in his heart rate and kindly declared it to the room.
The doctor looked torn between telling Steve not to excite him and ceding the battle of wills over to the soldier.
Steve made the choice for the man, stomping over to Tony's side and daring to place a hand on his shoulder, gently pushing him back down. “You need to rest. Your heart nearly stopped; your lips had turned blue.”
How did Steve know what had happened to him? He paled. “I fought – there was a battle.” Steve grimaced at his words. That damn heart monitor told the room how he felt about that. “I fought you, didn't I?”
“There was a young man named Tavish. He's a meta-human, like Wanda, but born with his powers. He used them on you. Thought it would be funny, he said. Because you always looked so in-control.”
Tony gritted his teeth. “Bullshitting me again, Steve?”
Steve flinched. Actually flinched. Tony felt like an ass. “Yes,” Steve said. “We fought.”
Tony closed his eyes, turned his head. Shame filled him. “Why?”
“We – we thought you had betrayed us. We didn't think.”
“We?” Tony looked back at Steve. “Who – no, it doesn't matter. I ruined any chance at reconciliation.”
“You didn't.” Tony rolled his shoulders back, ready to take responsibility – only for Steve to hold up one hand. “You didn't, Tony. This kid – I said he was like Wanda. He manipulated your emotions.” Something twisted in Tony's gut. “Whatever you felt, he amplified it. Played with your head, made you – he said he'd made you tell him everything, made you think he and you were close friends. Then he sent you out to meet me and – he manipulated you.”
Tony shuddered. “I don't remember,” he said, his voice hoarse. The very idea of someone messing with his head – after the disaster that had been Wanda's own machinations, he couldn't imagine anything good ever coming of it. And here he was, not even remembering what had happened, Steve a patriotic pile of cuts and bruises in front of him, speckles of dirt trailing beneath the sleeve of his shirt. The cloth looked oddly pristine; he had to have gotten a new one after they'd fought. Or perhaps he'd shown to their meeting in his uniform, and these were the underclothes? But he was wearing jeans. Torn, stained jeans. So no. “What happened?”
This time it was Steve who looked away, his lips so tightly pressed together his upper lip disappeared. “I... Sam and Clint followed me. We fought you.”
“Are they hurt?” he asked, his heart beating double-time. The heart monitor nearly lost it. He looked up, expecting the doctor to speak up then. But the man had escaped the room at some point. Smart.
“They're fine. We're all fine.” Steve reached over and grabbed his hand. Tony flinched and stared. Steve simply covered his hand, not trying to link their fingers or anything. Still. Steve had never instigated that kind of touch before. A hand on the shoulder, rarely. Glares, mostly. The damn heart monitor gave him away again. He couldn't believe he was actually fighting down a blush. “Tony. Listen to me.”
He didn't want to. He wanted to leave. But the more his heart pounded, the more his chest ached. He found himself gasping and leaned his head back into the pillows once again – it was either that or pass out.
Steve's hand tightened around his own. “You didn't fail us. An enemy attacked you and we didn't even recognize it. We should have realized it wasn't you.”
“What did I do?” he asked.
“You attacked me while I was unarmed.” He paled. Steve leaned over him before he could sit up again. “Which is something you would never have done in your right mind. We should have – I should have realized. There are so many things I should have realized.”
He didn't want to talk about this. He didn't even want to think about it. “The boy? Where is he? And my armor?”
“Friday took your armor back to your home. Said it was emergency protocol, something about you preferring to be stranded than for the wrong hands to get your tech. The boy has been arrested. Clint and Sam brought him in and left him with Rhodey. They're heading back to wherever they came from, I suppose. They said the boy's been placed in solitary. Unfortunate, but necessary, with his abilities.”
He closed his eyes. Good. That, as least, had gone correctly.
Steve took a deep breath. “Apparently – according to Tavish – your heart attack,” and the man flinched at the very mention of Tony's weak heart, “was likely caused by the stress of you battling against his influence. You were trying to stop yourself.”
He didn't know how to take that. The tone of Steve's voice said the information was important. All it said to him was that, again, he had failed.
“None of us bothered to understand. You were right about that.” At Tony's confused look, Steve said, “you... spoke some things. While in Tavish's grip. Many things. Things I'd needed to hear.” The man snorted. “I guess that's one good thing that came of all of this. I never paid attention to the signs you'd given before. I guess I don't listen unless someone's screaming in my face. Not even then, sometimes.”
Tony paled more and more with each word Steve said. “What did I say?” he whispered.
“You said you were betrayed. And I agree.”
The pillows crunched beneath his head, crackling in his ears. Perhaps that was why he couldn't understand what Steve was saying. “What?”
Steve's palm was hot over his hand. “I agree. I've agreed since – I still can't believe what I did. To you. It's why I gave up my shield. It's why I gave up the fight and left. Why I told the others to go, that I couldn't be their leader.”
Slowly, Tony pulled his hand away. Steve watched the retreat with something like agony in his eyes. But he did not stop him. “What are you saying? What the hell did I say?”
Steve leaned back, recognizing the panic rising in Tony's voice. “You said I betrayed you. That I and the others had never been your friend, had never had your back.” Tony's eyes widened. “I never intended – you were my friend, Tony.” Tony flinched at the word were, and Steve backpedaled. “I wanted to protect Bucky. I was so obsessed with doing so I didn't stop to think about what else I should have been protecting.” He took a deep breath. “Who else.”
“So you decided to try to fix me,” Tony said, his voice so dry his throat felt like it cracked. That was why Steve was here. He didn't know exactly what he'd said, but Steve was painting a simple enough picture. He'd lost his control over the worst of his emotions and had taken them out on Steve – and, apparently, Clint and Sam. No matter how much he focused on Rhodey and Peter and Vision, he couldn't forget the constant ache left in him by the others' actions. How betrayed he felt, how abandoned. How foolish. The very idea of those emotions being pulled out of his control made him sick. He could only imagine what he'd done.
“No, Tony. Not fix. Not even heal.” Steve reached out as if to touch him again, but he pulled back before making contact. It was good he did, Tony told himself. No false hope, no fake connection. No pity for the sake of trying to do the right thing. “But your words showed me I can't hide anymore. I need to make amends.” Steve took a deep breath. “I need to earn forgiveness.”
“You did what you thought was right, Cap,” Tony said, and it was practice alone that made it sound like there was no bitterness in the words.
“I didn't even listen to you, Tony.” Steve ran a hand through his hair, revealing a small speckling of red. At some point, the man must have gone to the hospital bathroom and cleaned the blood off his face and the dirt off his arms. It begged the question as to just how many injuries the man had received during their battle. “And this is more than just the fights between us. This started long before then, and we both know it.”
The secret. That big, dreaded secret. The one that said Steve had never considered him part of the team, let alone a friend.
Steve caught his gaze. He knew Tony had understood what he meant. And Tony couldn't find the words to pretend it was all right. He couldn't shrug it off, no matter how it might smooth the process between them. It would be a lie too cruel to say, even to himself.
Steve looked away first. “The person I most wronged was you. But I wronged the Avengers, as well, in acting like a hypocrite and breaking the team apart in my own self-righteousness. I want – I've wanted, ever since that day – to make it right. I thought staying away would help, but it was just me running away again.”
Tony shook his head. He placed his hand over his chest. “You're a wanted man, Steve.”
“I'll pay that penance.”
Tony's heart rate spiked. “You can't. We need you, Cap.”
Steve nodded, face serious as a stone. “I'll pay that penance, too.”
Tony didn't understand. What penance? What the hell could Steve make up for if he was dead?
Then, slowly, Steve leaned over Tony's head. His blue eyes caught on Tony's and stayed. “I will make this up to you, Tony. I swear it.”
“I don't understand,” he said.
“Tony,” Steve said slowly. “I protected my friend.” Tony flinched. “And in doing so, I nearly killed the man I love.” He stilled. Steve dared to cup the side of his cheek. Those long fingers were so warm. “What else needs to be understood?”
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. “You don't love me.”
There was hurt in those bright eyes. “I'll pay that penance, too.” Steve retreated, pulling back until he was a few steps away from the bed. “I'll be here when you wake. Whatever happens after that, I will accept.”
“I won't,” Tony said. Steve had to know that. No matter what game he was playing now, Steve had to know it was unnecessary. Tony would protect him. “I'll make sure you're safe.”
If possible, Steve looked even more beaten up after Tony's words than before. “Then I will earn your forgiveness for that, as well.”
Tony didn't understand. He wanted to ask more, wanted to demand some sort of explanation. But the doctor chose that moment to come back in, and Steve moved to the wall to let him check Tony over. It wasn't surprising when, only a few minutes after he entered, a lethargy crept over Tony. “He dosed me,” Tony said, glaring at the doctor. The man eyed him warily, but with a set to his jaw that reminded Tony horribly of Steve.
“You'll get that rest I prescribed for you,” the man said. “I trust the Captain will make sure of that?”
Steve nodded. “I will.” Tony glared at him. “You nearly died again. Because of me. Because I was more willing to think of myself than to think of you. I won't be that selfish anymore.” Steve nodded the doctor out of the room, then returned to him. “You need your rest.”
“You'll be arrested,” Tony said. Nevertheless, his eyes fluttered closed.
“I won't,” Steve said, daring to lean his hands on the bed by Tony's side. “I'm retired. And I'm standing by you. For real this time. You won't be alone.”
Won't be alone. Tony let the drugs overtake him. Even if he couldn't let himself believe, he did. He wanted to. He would deal with the pain when he woke. Just as he had over and over again.
Hours later, when he woke up in the night, he turned his head. There, in the dim light, sat Steve Rogers. The man hadn't let him wake alone.