Steve has to leave Tony’s body behind.
He thinks about Tony’s eyes before Steve put them out as he hotwires a car, bleeding on the seat. He throws most of his uniform in a dumpster behind a 7/11 in Ohio and aches, wants to dig it back out, wants to hold it because Tony’s hands made it and Steve has made sure that Tony’s hands will never make anything again.
He realizes he’s still holding it on the bus to Chicago. It’s cutting into his hand. He squeezes it harder, watches the blood run down his wrist.
He buys a t-shirt that says South Bend is for Lovers in Indiana at a rest-stop packed with people leaving, going north, furniture and gas canisters tied to the tops of their cars. He steals a duffle bag out of some trucker’s cab, stuffs his shield into it and dresses himself in fresh-smelling flannel. He grips his own hands to stop them from shaking and checks his burns in the mirror and washes his face with bathroom soap and the backs of his hands and walks back into the parking lot and hotwires a Volvo that looks like it’s on its last legs.
He breaks down on the side of I-80.
The woman who rolls her tractor-trailer to a halt on the side of the road leers at him, looks at him and his baseball cap and his bad grooming and smirks. “Where you goin,’ handsome,” she asks.
Steve tells her Texas and she tells him he doesn’t wanna go there since that whole blowout with those goddamn superheroes.
He slides down in his seat as much as he can, being the hulking monster he is. There’s not much on the radio except the local stations, Steve’s seen to that. They’re saying he’s dead. They’re saying things like crater and shadows and nuclear blast. New York is under martial law. They say that the recovery effort is ongoing. They interview some guy from Brooklyn who watched the skyscrapers fall like dominoes across the river and he says they should hang that SOB Steve Rogers.
Steve looks at his hands and thinks that’s about right. He clutches the other thing in his stolen bag, feels it slice into his palm, feels it cut him. Feels it like a second heartbeat.
“I think that Captain America must have had his reasons,” his driver confides.
“Not me,” Steve says, and looks out the window in case he starts crying again. “I think he oughta burn.”
- - -
Tony cried a lot. He must have had tricks – now it’s just a thousand and one things Steve will never get to ask him about. It’s probably why he kept that damn faceplate on for so long. It’s probably why he always wore sunglasses in public, in private, inside. He was crying when Steve killed him.
Steve leans over the workbench and blinks and blinks and blinks. His tears fall into the bare particle board and he drops what he’s holding.
He does not have Tony’s tricks, and there is no one to see him, and it should have been him bleeding into the asphalt.
The world is burning up there, and Steve gets to be down here in Tony’s subterranean armory because Tony never took away his access codes.
Steve hitchhiked across the country to get here, hiked 15 miles through the desert with Tony’s blood still on his shirt. With his own wounds still bleeding, with a repulsor burn searing on his face, stinging with the salt of his own tears.
Steve wipes furiously at his face and picks the screwdriver up again.
Tony has a little HAM radio down here. Steve’s fussed with it. There’s hardly anything left, but someone with their own little rig in some trailer somewhere is playing ABBA and Steve listens to Gimme Gimme Gimme that while he tries to solder his shield back together and not think about the body count or the craters or the bombed-out buildings or the friends they don’t have anymore –
They did that.
They did it in Seattle, where Tony threw him into the Needle and broke his pelvis and three of his ribs. They did it in the gulf and destroyed a Roxxon oil rig. They did it in South Bend, where they set off a fault line when Steve blocked the unibeam with his shield. They did it in Chicago a few hours later where Steve disabled his armor and threw him into Lake Michigan and hoped he wouldn’t crawl out, and Steve thinks that that’s when he decided he didn’t care if Tony lived or died.
There’s none of that man, here. Steve touches his things, his sketchbooks, his lonely bedroom piled with books and drawings and a burner phone on the nightstand with one number programmed into it. He drifts around the complex like a visitor in the last museum on earth and wonders why none of Tony’s hundreds of suits have broken their watch to beat him into the concrete floor.
On the third day, Steve finds a secret room by putting his fist through a steel-plated wall, and in that secret room, he finds a pedestal like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, and in the center of the pedestal, he finds a glowing yellow gem.
- - -
He lies in Tony’s bed and tries to be capable of feeling anger but all he can think about is the way Tony’s hand felt when he first pulled him up, when he first said, Hi, I’m Tony , and smiled like his whole world had been put right.
He spends the night in a miserable half-sleep, clutching Tony’s pillow and seeing his throat slice open in a clean line and watching the look of shock stick on his face.
He thinks about it. It wouldn’t take much.
- - -
Steve closes his hand around the Reality Gem and thinks: Let me see what Tony saw.
- - -
The first thing Steve learns about Tony is that Tony loved him.
Not puppy love, not a crush, not lust that would evaporate if they’d ever actually gotten together, a deep, soul-bruising thing, untouched by time and strife and conflict. Seeing it through Tony’s eyes makes the signs clear, brings all of it into alignment, Tony’s quiet self-deprecation, Tony’s alcohol habit he could never quite shake, Tony’s unassailable ego.
Steve gets to feel the way tony felt when Steve yelled at him, the hours of self-doubt and self-loathing that followed, the self-flagellation he was doing when no one could see, the relentless pound of I have to be better, I can be better than this after every failure, perceived or no. Tony was a builder. Tony was a bottler whose grief came frequently, in deep cascading waves, and he was able to feel it and bury it and build something to stave it off for a little longer.
Steve gets to experience his resignation. He doesn’t love you, Stark , told to an untouched glass of whiskey. You’re not even in the same league.
Steve is so overwhelmed with what he has snuffed out from the world that he sets charges and sits on the floor for half a day with a detonator in his hands, crying.
What would Steve do, he hears in Tony’s voice, on a loop, like Tony’s world ran according to Steve’s stupid human failures, like Steve was his north star. But Tony had thoughts beyond this small blue world, Tony’s mind worked in ways Steve had never before dreamt of: Tony’s world didn’t consist of negative space, Tony filled in the space, Tony had a plan for everything, Tony had a bum heart and a chip on his shoulder the size of that iceberg Steve came out of and he came out shrewd and sad and kind.
Tony was a builder.
- - -
He has watched Tony do this, he has held him in the basement away from the prying eyes of their team, watched his mouth ask how am I supposed to do this again , watched him wipe his eyes and turn his gaze to the future and twist metal into his own kind of art.
Steve wanders through the suits, with an objective, this time, tries not to think of it as a mausoleum. Tries to think of it as a gift. He tries his access code, just for shits and giggles, and three hundred suits simultaneously set their stance wide and open for him.
Disassemble , he says, and it rings hollow off the high ceiling, off the railings and the grated floor, and it feels like he is alone with a mass grave.
- - -
Steve decides that he will never show his face again, that’s most important.
A machine shop isn’t so different from an artists’ studio, not with the Reality Gem in his pocket and a pencil in his hand. He thinks about all the times he did this on his own, sulking, hiding, avoiding responsibility. He threw tantrums. Nomad. The Captain. He wasted so much time.
He snaps the pencil in half and clutches at his hair until his sobs subside again, and then starts anew.
He is going to spend the rest of his life being accountable for this.
He doesn’t have Tony’s wild spark, but he has seen it. He has felt it, for a brief moment. He can do what needs to be done.
He spreads his plans over Tony’s drafting table and aches.
- - -
He sews. Tony thinks of everything. This place must be old, from before he got the enhancile. He runs blue mesh through the machine and tries not to think about where Tony got it, why Tony kept it here. There’s silver, too, red. Five different types of Kevlar. He finds a note written in Tony’s handwriting at the bottom of the bin of fabric and ruins a bolt of red satin pressing it to his face, trying to smell Tony on it.
He understands why Tony wore a mask, now. He harvests a lot of plating from the Silver Centurion – less to paint, modular plates. Some of these he’s never seen, but they come in every color, no luxury spared. Steve unscrews gauntlets and picks out tiny repulsors and stays up late into the night looking for cans of blue paint.
Tony kept so many things for him – shield prototypes, something that looks like it’s made of light and bounces off the wall when he throws it even though it’s a hologram. He takes that one, he’s going to use it. He isn’t sure he can ever use his again. It sits where he dropped his bag just inside the entrance door. It’s still got Tony’s blood on it.
He trots up to get it and slams it down on the workbench.
He runs new gloves, new boots through Tony’s AutoCAD software. They come out in that bolt of crimson Kevlar-silk, soft enough to slip through palm-sized repulsors, thin enough he imagines he would be able to feel the life leaving a body.
- - -
The jagged thing from Tony’s chest is last.
He’s harvested ten of them from the skeletons in the hangar, anyway. They’re all the same, with minor modifications. He’s set one into the middle of his shield, he’s put them in his palms. Any of them could power his suit for a lifetime. Somehow it feels like a travesty to use the one he ripped out of Tony’s chest as a power source.
No, the one he ripped out of Tony’s body is going into his.
He’s been thinking about it, these past days. How it would be, to walk around with a gaping hole in his chest and Tony’s thrumming heart next to his own.
Practical. Steve’s suit isn’t a closed environment. His helmet is just a helmet. He needs something that runs directly into his brainstem, something that lets him use the shield as an extension of his body.
He sits on the edge of the surgical chair and laughs out a low wail.
Hypocrite, he thinks, as he shaves the back of his neck. Machine, he thinks, and places a tiny piece of metal right above his C7 vertebra. It crawls into his skin and then there’s a searing pain and then nothing. He’s cracked the granite where he’s been holding it. Monster, he thinks.
These are all things Steve said to Tony before he killed Tony.
He pulls off his shirt and puts the thing on an industrial magnet while he slathers iodine over his bare chest. He wonders if Tony did this, if he shot himself up with that fucking virus in a basement thinking he was gonna die.
He looks at the thing, carefully cut, carefully cleaned, glowing with bright blue light.
He drags over a surgical tray. He puts mirrors in clamps so he can see what he’s doing. He goes through Tony’s medicine cabinet one last time. Tony doesn’t have any painkillers. He opens the cabinets under the sink and finds bottles and bottles of alcohol, untouched, unopened.
He puts his belt between his teeth. He closes his eyes and imagines what Tony was feeling when Steve took thirty seconds to watch him choke to death on his own blood: agony, fear. The certainty that if you die, you’re going to die alone because the person you loved is killing you.
He imagines that clean, red line his shield cut through Tony’s throat and puts the scalpel to his own chest.
- - -
The thing in his chest lights up his brain. He can summon his shield to his hand in his sleep, now. He feels like a god. He has certainly paid for it with blood.
He puts on his uniform for the last time. His eyes glow white; they light up the eyeslits in his helmet. He sees the universe as Tony must have seen it. He pulls on his soft clothes and straps his freshly-painted armor over his body, compels the exo-spine to latch into his nervous system via his spine. He expects constant pain to make him penitent. He puts that star on over his second heart, the thing that powers the implant in his neck, the thing that sat in Tony’s chest.
He wears less armor than he needs. His weapons are sparse.
He holds the Reality Gem in his gloved hand, his shield strapped onto his arm.
“Take me somewhere I can atone,” he tells it.
Take me to him , he thinks.