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earth's greatest defender

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When the call comes in, he’s sitting in a motel outside Albany.
 
He’d seen the news; he hadn’t known whether to expect the call. Tony isn’t petty, Steve knows. Tony has always put what they do above all else, above their disagreements, their – fallings out. Friends to lovers to enemies.
 
Steve remembers the first time, after DC; Tony had told him, no, this wasn’t going to work. They were never going to be what Steve wanted them to be. He should be happy with the quick, dangerous fucks in supply closets on board the helicarrier, and accept that Tony loved someone else. Still, after insight was done, it was Tony who called him, put that aside. Are you okay? And, you should have called, asshole.
 
He ruminates now that they were lucky. God, by the skin of his teeth. What would have happened if insight had come to pass? If HYDRA had won?
 
Half the population wiped out overnight, who could even imagine it.
 
So the phone is ringing, and Steve gathers himself enough to tear his eyes away from the shitty fuzzy-boxed TV screen with crackling static. He sits himself on the edge of the cheap, thin mattress, stares at a brown stain on the wall. He and Tony would occupy places like these, once. Tony said that was part of the thrill; donning the wig and glasses, putting on whatever hokey disguise to get past check-in.
 
Of course, now he’s with Pepper, and that’s all dust between his fingers.
 
“Hello?” He says, voice hoarse, croaking, raw. He swallows, holds the phone between his hands. It feels too small in his grip. “Tony?”
 
“No,” says someone, voice – haggard, familiar. “Not Tony, Tony’s – he’s gone, in the sky, flew off. Jesus, Cap – “
 
“I’m Steve,” he corrects, automatically. “Bruce?!”
 
“Bruce? Yes, I’m Bruce, I’m – “
 
From the ensuite, he hears Natasha turn off the water tap. She comes out, holding a towel, patting her face dry, listening.
 
“Hold on, slow down. Explain.”
 
“They came,” he’s chattering, frantic. “All of them, him, him, just like Tony said he would – “
 
“He? Who is ‘he’ – “
 
Thanos,” Bruce whispers. “He’s killed half of Asgard. I think he’s killed Thor, Loki, and he’s coming for us Steve, he’s coming for the stones – “
 
The stones. Vision. Fuck, where is Vision? “But Tony,” Steve blurts, despite himself, “is he – not dead, not – “
 
“They took Strange. Stephen Strange he’s a – long story, but he has the time stone and they’ve taken him. Tony went with them, but – Jesus, Steve, I don’t think we’re ever going to see him again – “
 
“Don’t say that,” Steve says weakly. Tony was scared, he knows. Of the dark, of what lay beyond. Ultron, and civil war, it was all just – him trying his best. “When you say, he’s gone – “
 
“Jesus, Steve, he’s gone. He’s not coming back. We’ve lost him, he’s not getting off that ship. Thanos beat hulk, Tony is – there’s no way. Are you understanding? You need to find Vision – “
 
Why does Steve feel numb? Tony isn’t dead. He isn’t dead. He’s alive, somewhere. He’s doing what he does best. He’s – he wouldn’t be –
 
“Wait,” Steve frowns, “how did you get this number?”
 
“Tony had the phone. Carries it with him, I think, I – who cares, Steve? He dropped it when the lizard man tried to break his neck – “
 
Carries it with him. Jesus, he fucking carries it with him --
 
“But he’s alive,” Steve blurts, almost confused. “You make it sound like – “
 
“Steve, listen to me. Forget him, he’s not coming back, and if he is – it doesn’t matter. He’s made his choice,” Bruce’s voice his heavy – maybe he feels loss too. “Right now, all that matters is we’ve lost our best shot at intergalactic defence and the closest thing we have to an expert on infinity stones – “
 
“I – I’ll come,” Steve says, bleary. “Yes, okay, I hear you. Thank you, for calling,” he adds, like that’s necessary. “You’ll make your way to Wakanda. Just – I’ll give you a number, call it, they’ll help you. Tell them I sent you. Tell them – “
 
Bruce is gone.
 
“What did he say?” Natasha asks, hushed.
 
“Get Sam,” Steve croaks. He turns, phone still in hand. “He says – something is coming. It wants the stones. And Tony is gone.”
 
“Gone where?”
 
Steve stares back at the dirty wall. He thinks of Tony laugh, his curls when they would splay out on the flower-printed pillow, his smile. Steve makes no one smile the way Tony smiles at him.
 
“He’s just – gone,” Steve says, simply. “And they don’t think he’s coming back.”
 
 
After, he wonders about what it cost.
 
With Bucky’s ashes crumbled through his fingers, an old gun the only proof he ever existed at all, Steve wonders, what did it cost? That fight, Siberia, the shield through his chest. What did it matter, those petty things they did, when the world has turned to dust?