His fingers flex, useless and tethered to nothing, a single cuff closed around his left wrist while the other hangs open. An oversight rather than leniency. Director down and the whole world falls apart.
He thinks Tony might have found it funny. He hears the words in Tony's voice, in any case, imagines dark peals of laughter to go with the man he thought Tony to be for months. Every day spent on the run from one tumbledown hideout to another, every hour of sleep he lost devising new ways to slip past his all-seeing eye, every waking moment was an opportunity to chip away at the affection he let grow inside him for years, unchecked. He was ruthless. Had to be, to match all the things Tony did.
It's hard to remember now. Painful, to look for the pieces of himself he'd plucked and torn and left behind, to gather them all in order to muster anything other than anger, something more suitable for the occasion.
Tony is dying. His life is slipping away and Steve wants to be better than this, but he can't quite manage the feat. Tony's war has made a bitter man out of him, a lesser man.
He scrubs a hand down his face and ignores his flesh wounds, now bleeding sluggishly thanks to the serum instead of blooming crimson like the hole in Tony's chest. There's so much blood, Christ. Blood soaking through Tony's bespoke suit, bubbling along the corners of his soft mouth. If he didn't know any better, he could have easily mistaken it as the armor protruding from his bones.
Such a vivid shade of red.
He almost wants to laugh. He wants to yell and feel things break under his hands. This is who he is nowadays, the kind of man he's become. He almost brought the whole city down with him, giving the SHRA ammunition in the process, and the worst of it is that he didn't even notice until he had to be stopped, eyes on Tony the whole time, always on him.
Tony did this.
He could say it and absolve himself of guilt that way. Tony did this. It's got a nice ring to it. Say it, Steve.
Someone out there will. They'll say this is well-deserved, that Tony had it coming. Someone from Steve's own ranks, most likely, and he's glad he doesn't have to hear it. He would have to break their nose. He's afraid he might not stop there.
He clutches his knees until his fingers dig past fabric and into flesh, skirting bone, and then he lets go. His hands are free and he still can't bring himself to reach out for Tony or touch him like he might have once, when they were friends. He would get in the way of the technicians fighting to save his life, clumsy and powerless and emotional. He should get a grip. If it were someone else, he'd say something like Get ahold of yourself, soldier, but he can't rouse himself to action, to anything. He's scared like he hasn't been in a long time.
Steve looks at him. He can't not look at him. His perfect, useless body lies motionless on the stretcher, and Steve doesn't understand why it won't heal. Tony should be opening his eyes about now and straightening the lapels of his jacket, despairing at all the resources that have gone to waste because the trial didn't proceed as it should have—time, taxpayers' money, epinephrine. He should be fixing himself and calling Steve a sore loser on his way out without once bothering to look back at him.
But none of that happens. Instead, his life is hanging by a thread, and Steve has the certainty that Tony's gone and fucking done something to himself again, and he doesn't know what. They've just restarted his heart. His hand is dangling over the siderail, slack, and Steve can't bring himself to touch him. The last time he shook Tony's hand, he brought an electron scrambler as a gift.
The ambulance stops. There's busy traffic ahead.
Someone whispers, "Should we call it?"
"You know we can't."
Steve hears it even though they won't say it, Let this be someone else's mess. They break his ribs trying to keep him here, and Steve says, desperate, "You believed it had to be you. For some reason, you thought it had to be you at the helm. What now? Tony."
Gingerly, he touches his cheek. Concealer rubs on the leather of his gloves, and underneath, Steve finds bruises that should match the jagged edges of Tony's helmet, the blunt force of the shield. His blood goes cold. He thought he understood. He thought he knew. He has nothing left but questions Tony can't answer anymore.
The hospital is close. SHIELD agents, the police, or maybe both will take him away while they have someone else pronounce Tony dead, and he can't leave. He's right where he should be. All the things Tony's done in the name of a now worthless bill have alienated most of the people he would have once called his friends. Who else would be here if not Steve? He can't possibly leave him too.
It happens as predicted. He struggles. He begs. "He wants to make sure Stark's dead, let him," some nobody says, and Steve doesn't spin on his heel and clocks him in the face because time is too precious for that.
He manages to climb into the back of the ambulance, handcuffs once again in place because the serum has done what Extremis wouldn't and there's no reason for him not to go back to a cell. He doesn't have the time to give a speech that will fall on deaf ears, has no time to reproach him anything. Tony can no longer hear him anyway, and if they don't go for the death penalty, Steve will have a lifetime to cycle back to anger as many times as he wants. They only have this. All those years fighting at each other's side and they only have this.
He's escorted away in a daze. He licks his lips and feels flecks of dry blood sticking to his tongue, the taste of Tony's mouth.
"Steve," Sharon says, not for the first time. He notices her only now. She walks one step ahead, and if she's shocked, it doesn't show. She smooths her face into something unreadable, but he knows her. She has plans. Fury has plans. He doesn't know how to tell her that he can't think, that he can barely breathe without feeling like he's choking. Tony's gone.
"Wait," she mouths before she goes, but whatever they're planning has a slimmer chance of succeeding than it did before. Maria will be eager to prove she runs a tighter ship than Tony ever did, and whatever they think Steve's role will be in all of this, he doesn't want it.
It's raining buckets when they land on Ryker's Island. Late summer's weather. Barbecues and fireworks are fading into the rearview, but he remembers them well. Blue, limpid skies over the mansion. Tony's eyes, morning-bright.
He's still soaking wet when the bars materialize in front of him. Rainwater forms small puddles on the floor around his feet. He can hear each drop as it falls, could probably even hear a pin hitting the floor somewhere down the aisle. It's too quiet. The camera on the corner is off and there's only the kid from before. Twenty-two years old. The one who told Steve he should write a book and thought Tony was a joke.
He approaches Steve's cell. He's got a bonafide gun in his hand and blank, dead eyes, and it only takes one look to know this is bigger than him. Tony died for nothing, in all likelihood. Or maybe they meant to get rid of both Tony and him from the start and this is them finishing the job.
He could go ahead and try to kick the gun out of the kid's hands, yank him against the force-field bars until his body armor gives out, secure his fingerprints for the panel that opens the cell. He could get the hell out of here, but he does nothing and lets them win. Let someone else avenge him if they want. He's done.
Come morning, Steve will be a dead man. It will happen right under Maria's nose. Sharon will be late. Half-truths will be told about this thing he'll let happen, but he doesn't care. Tony's dead.
Steve thinks of him at the end of everything. He thinks of how, in another life, Tony would smile and call him Winghead, always soft, as if he were guarding a secret he didn't dare speak out loud; of how Steve would hold tight onto secrets of his own and say, Nobody's called me that like you just did.
The kid cocks the gun now.
All Steve does is wait.