Balancing a steaming coffee pot in one hand, a stack of books and handwritten notes in the other, Steve entered in the unlock code to Tony's workshop door, then used a shoulder to nudge it open.
A wall of chugging guitar riffs and screeching blew out at a level that would would've been painful for non-enhanced ears. Steve grit his teeth and pushed his way through.
Tony was flitting around his workbench, dark circles under his eyes, and every movement jerky and uneven in a way Tony got when he'd had too little sleep.
But considering the end of the world was coming, that was to be expected.
Set upon a glass pedestal in the middle of the room was an innocuous looking device. Roughly books size and book shaped, it had two simple switches and a row of LED lights, which were currently unlit. Like everything Tony made, it was as beautiful and elegant as it was deadly.
As Steve watched, Tony stopped his near manic movements and stood in place to stare at the device. If there is an expression on his face, Steve couldn't read it.
Steve cleared his throat.
Tony whipped around, every muscle tense, then relaxed when he saw who it was. He signaled to JARVIS and the music abruptly cut off.
"Hey Cap," Tony said, voice a touch too light. "Wanna see the latest and greatest Stark Industries has to offer?"
Those were Steve's own words from several days earlier, back when Steve still thought he could talk Tony out of this, even if he had to resort to shame. It hadn't worked.
Tentatively, Steve held up the full coffee pot. "I've come with the peace offering."
A peace offering. Even Steve knew that was a bit rich, coming off four days of bitter fighting, the insistence from Steve that there had to be a better way, a different way. Any way.
Now... well, the argument certainly hadn't been forgotten, but Tony seemed to drained to care.
With a noise between a whine and a groan, Tony made grabby hands for the entire coffee pot.
Steve made him wait, then poured out for both.
They sipped the coffee -- Tony's favorite blend -- in silence, and Steve was all too aware this would very likely be the last time they'd have a quiet moment together like this.
Finally, Steve said, "So, it's done then?"
"Pretty much, except for..." Tony flapped a hand towards the device, "a couple diagnostics. But that's just there for back-up. To confirm what I already know. It's done."
"That was fast," Steve said.
"You mean, pretty fast for a dead man walking?" Tony's smile was twisted. Bitter.
Steve's fingers clenched around the mug, and he had to force them to relax before he cracked it.
"I'm not chickening out," Tony blurted. "Don't think you've won."
It took everything Steve had to keep his voice calm. "This was never about winning. It's your life."
Tony looked like he was going to say something, but then, miraculously, stopped himself. He shrugged and ran a hand down his face. "Someone's got to do it, Steve," he said wearily.
"And it has to be you." Steve shifted in place, trying not to fidget. He could feel his heart pick up pace -- it always did that when high metabolism was ridding itself of something or another.
"Really, Cap? Isn't saying I should ask someone else to lay down on the wire a little hypocritical?" Tony didn't wait for an answer, only turned away to tap at a holographic terminal. But that was okay -- he was still sipping the coffee.
Steve remained quiet, watching Tony: how his shoulders slumped with exhaustion-- the same way they'd been since the second invasion.
The second Chitauri invasion hadn't come out of a closable wormhole. They'd levied an entire fleet of ships against Earth, which had only been battled back by the combined efforts of almost every nation. But it had still been Tony who had located the Chitauri's weakness--their hive-like life support system-- and disabled it. He'd saved the day again.
But the Chitauri mothership, which had been loaded with megatons of toxic world-ending weapons, was still whole and parked in an orbit that was degrading every day.
"We've been over this, Steve." And Tony sounded so exhausted, so beaten down, Steve want to reach over and pull him close. And why shouldn't he? They had so little time left. But before he could decide, Tony turned to him and continued, "I can't just… Even if SHIELD hadn't tuned out to be a HYDRA breeding ground, I still wouldn't trust them not to pillage the mothership for new toys. Same with any other country that sends a team up. The Russians are prepping rockets, so are NASA and the European Space Agency. Right now I could reach the mothership with a modified quinjet--or Iron Man. And out of the two--"
"You'd rather die in Iron Man," Steve finished, his voice rough.
Again, Tony's lips quirked in a mirthless smile. "The mothership shields are still intact. They'd just block a signal for remote detonation. Considering all the party tricks the Chitauri threw at us during both invasions, setting a bomb on a timer is asking for trouble. Someone has to stay and make sure works." He paused again, looked Steve straight in the eye and repeated, "We've been over this."
"Maybe I need to hear it again," Steve said, mentally adding, Maybe I have to stall you for as long as possible. "I know your logic works and... and I can't stand it.
There was something vulnerable in Tony's eyes. "Steve--" Then he stopped, swaying slightly and blinking rapidly as if as if his vision had briefly lost focus.
Steve didn't think. He needed to distract Tony, and... well. There was only one surefire way he knew how. So Steve did what he wanted to do for days, months, maybe years at this point. He pulled Tony close, wrapped an arm around his waist and kissed him.
Tony made a surprised sound against his lips, but he didn't pull away. He leaned into Steve, and to his surprise and pleasure, opened to him: hungry and wet and as filled with desperation as Steve was.
Why in the world did I wait? Steve wondered, but he knew. Fear on both their parts. So much lost time...
He slipped a hand behind Tony's head to steady him, and pretended he didn't taste tears as well as coffee on his tongue.
They parted reluctantly, with small soft kisses. Tony leaned against Steve, his eyes half-shut.
"I'm so tired," Tony muttered.
Steve wrapped an arm around his waist, pressing soft kisses down his neck, and hoping Tony didn't notice he was practically holding him up.
"I love you," Steve said.
Tony tensed. "You're only saying that because I'll be dead tomorrow."
"No." With his free hand, Steve touched Tony's jaw and brought his face up. "I'm saying it because I want you to remember it. Okay? Just... whatever happens, I want you to know that this was my choice."
Tony frowned, and Steve could practically see him run the words back over again in his mind. Watching so close, Steve saw the exact moment when it clicked: The slight widening of Tony's eyes as he flicked his gaze to the coffee pot.
Tony tried to pull away but only stumbled, balance gone on weak legs. "Jarvis--"
Steve clapped his hand over Tony's mouth.
Tony tried to fight him but the sedative had already taken too firm of a hold. He punched at Steve with loose fists, practically collapsing where he stood.
"I'm sorry--I'm so sorry," Steve said, his voice breaking, but betrayal burned hot in Tony's eyes.
Tony grabbed a fistful of his Steve's shirt, trying and failing to shake his head, and groaned something behind his hand that might've been, "Steve" and "no" and possibly a few curse words. His eyes, though, were sliding shut and in less than a minute he was limp and unconscious.
Snagging a spare blanket from the nearby couch, Steve folded and placed it under Tony's head as the pillow. He hesitated a moment, then bent and kissed Tony's forehead.
It would take Tony at least eight hours to wake, and by then it would be over.
Steve picked up the detonation device from the pedestal. It felt heavy and cold in his hands.
But when he turned to leave, the door to out from the workshop didn't budge.
"I'm sorry, Captain Rogers," JARVIS said. "This is clearly not what Sir wanted. My parameters will not allow you to leave."
"Your parameters include keeping Tony alive." Steve squared his shoulders. "And you know someone has to be there to detonate the bomb in person." He paused, knowing Tony was going to go back over the video feed again, after he woke. "I know you care for him just as much as I do. I can't let him die while I watch, and I'm willing to bet you can't either... or you would have said something the moment I drugged the coffee."
JARVIS said nothing. The door, however, slid open.
Steve looked over at Tony one last time. There was a crease between his eyebrows, and he wished he had time to kiss it away, make Tony understand that this was Steve's choice.
His throat felt thick. If he stayed here any longer, he might lose his courage. The mothership would fall from the sky and millions would die. What was one life -- one chance at love, stacked up against that?
"Take care of him for me," Steve said.
"I will, Sir."
Steve nodded once, then with the detonation device in hand, walked out and to the stairway to the roof, where the quinjet, and the end of the line, was waiting.