He never expects to see anyone on this road. The pavement under his tires crunches, the gravel harsh and stiff. He has a destination in mind, even in this day and age. He follows the roll of the road, looking in the distance, always keeping a mindful eye on the rear view mirror. The Shadows are quiet, the sun is middling and he's tired. He would like to stop driving.
He peers at the passenger seat, at the box there and frowns. It's more important than his exhaustion, than the mundane dull ache of the road. Of course, it would be less exciting if it was just a few year back, back when they thought beating the Chitauri was the worse of their worries. He chuckles, but it's dry and rasped in his throat. Back then flying a nuke into a worm hole seemed like the biggest and most heroic thing to do. Now it's that damned box.
He steers the car down the long highway, trying to forget the ugly truths laid out before him. The way the road is forgotten, broken, in disrepair. That's life now, in the new age. He peeks at the mirror again, no Shadows, nothing there.
And that's when he hits him.
He twists the wheel to avoid the figure limping along the side of the road. Cursing, he feels the dreaded thump of a body against a moving force and he cringes. Damn. He stops and throws on the brake. He hesitates only a moment, the idea that it might be a Shadow-Eater crosses his mind. But those infected humans aren't usually out this early in the day. Decided then, he rushes out of the car, and runs to see if he's killed the guy. Crumpled before him, the man eases up into a sitting position but curls around his abdomen.
“Hey, you okay?”
He can't make out the face from this angle, but he sees a mass of dirty blonde hair, and a strong jaw. Something coils in his belly as if by instinct his body recognizes the man. He shrugs the feelings off, being under siege all the time will do that to a person. Creeps him out sometimes. He's lost too much to not be haunted.
Getting his head on straight, he crosses over to the guy. There's no blood that he can see, and he takes that as a good sign.
“Are you okay?
“No, you fucker, you just hit me with your car. The damn road is completely empty and you had to fucking hit me.”
He guesses he should be more astonished by the barrage of curse words, but instead he's swallowing back his joy, his excitement of finally finding him. His innate ability to know this man, his beloved is correct. “Steve?”
“Yes, Tony?” Steve squints an eye at him, he's staring into the low hanging sun.
“What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Apparently getting hit by a car,” Steve replies as Tony walks to his side. He offers a hand up, and Steve takes it. He groans on the upswing and needs to bend over and steady himself on the back hood of the car as he works through the pain.
“Shit, I'm sorry,” Tony says.
Steve shakes his head. “Most of it I had before you decided to ram your car into me.”
Tony can see old brushing in his face and that his jeans are torn with old rusty blood stains on them. “What have you been up to Captain America?”
“Sam has the shield, not the Captain anymore,” Steve says.
Tony pats him on the back and says, “Sure, sure. Need a ride?” He wants to sweep him into his arms, he wants to kiss him and forget the clouds on the horizon. He fists his hands, steels himself and doesn't act on his wants and needs.
“Yeah, that'd be great.” Stumbling he tries to make his way to the door. He's doing a half assed job of it.
“You need a hand?”
“That would be great, too,” Steve confesses and Tony shoulders under his arm and guides him to the front of the car.
“Hold on a minute,” Tony says and opens the door. He scoops up the box and gently, almost reverently places it on the back seat. “Hop in.”
Steve sidles into the car with a groan and glances into the back. “That what I think it is?”
“If you think it's an interdimensional portal the yes, if you think it's my lunch, then no,” Tony says.
After Tony rounds the car and gets into the driver’s seat, he keys the ignition.
“You actually did it? You engineered the portal and it's in a shoebox?” Steve says as Tony pulls the car back onto the road.
“Yep, just taking it toward the nest and dropping it in,” Tony says.
“And you think it's going to be that easy.” Steve sucks in a breath. “I thought Rhodes and Danvers were pulling my leg when they told me you would be out here attempting to do this.”
“That why I found you out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Yes that's why you hit me in the middle of nowhere. I caught wind of your damned idea, that you thought it would be a good idea to come out here and do some self-sacrificing shit.” Steve cringes and Tony can see he's hurt in other places that are concealed.
“How long you been looking for me?”
“Six days,” Steve says and lifts up his shirt.
“On foot?” Because where the hell is his motorcycle.
“Loss the cycle the first day. Eaters.” There's an old bandage taped across Steve’s belly, the gauze is brown with old blood and dirt. He peels it away and Tony can see the gaping hole.
“Christ, that's bad.”
"Don't I know it," Steve says and hisses as he adjusts the saturated bandage.
“You just get that?” Tony asks and concentrates on the road. He’s not looking at Steve, he’s not concerned with the fist sized gouge he’s got in his belly. His love isn't turning into an Eater, that is not happening. He squeezes the steering wheel, keeps his eyes on the road.
“Nope,” Steve says and tapes the gauzes back down on his abdomen. He tugs the shirt down and lies back on the headrest, eyes closed. “It’s old, weeks.”
“Shit, the serum not working? How the hell did you get it?”
Steve sighs but doesn’t opens his eyes. “Shadows. Big incursion over in Detroit, tried to stop them, didn’t work out well. One punched its fist right into me.”
“But,” Tony says and swallows down the fear, the rising anxiety. His heart hammers a beat in his chest, hard against his ribcage. “But you’re not like an Eater or anything.”
“Nope, I have not been zombified as Peter puts it,” Steve says and lays a hand over his eyes. “Not yet. It’s the serum. It stops the process. The Shadows hit me, I should be a mindless monster until it devours me from the inside out, but the serum stops it enough that I don’t die – I just have a damned hole in my stomach. For now.”
“Christ,” Tony says and pounds on the steering wheel. “Christ, I told you to stay put. I told you all to stay put. What the hell were you doing so close to a secondary nest?”
“I was trying to save people, Tony,” Steve says. “That’s kind of what I do.”
“As you so aptly put it, Sam’s Captain America now, what the hell? You’re supposed to be leading us, not running around like a foot soldier,” Tony says and swears.
“How am I supposed to ask soldiers to do something I won’t? Face something so insidious as the Shadows?” Steve drops his hands into his lap. “What kind of leader would I be if I didn’t lead the troops into battle?”
“What kind of leader is out on the road in the middle of nowhere?”
“A desperate one?” Steve says. “Besides, I left Fury in charge. He likes to be in charge, he’s good at it.”
"He's good at being an overlord. You really think that’s the best course of action?” Tony asks as he veers toward the exit.
Ignoring Tony’s question, Steve sits up, groans, and then watches as Tony navigates the car toward a desolate township. The place was overrun by the Shadows during the first wave. There's not much left of it. The houses are barren, the streets overgrown with grasses.
“Where are you headed now?”
Tony taps the dashboard clock. “Getting late old man, time to get your sorry ass inside and to bed.”
Steve surveys the area and looks behind them. “Looks clear right now.”
“You know the Shadows like the twilight time the best.” Tony searches the abandoned township. There's the routine gas station, the municipal buildings, the old dingy diner and towards the back there are rows of houses, long ago overrun by the first wave of Shadows.
That first wave no one recognized, they'd thought the small towns and villages across New York State, and Pennsylvania had gone insane. The violence had been captured back then on television feeds and uploaded videos on social media networks. Back then no one knew what was going on. Back then no one knew that the Chitauri weren't the only aliens to find their way to Earth during the Battle of New York.
The Shadows are like a hitchhiking parasite. Theories abound regarding their physicality, their biology, their presence. What is known is that the Tesseract most probably installed them here from a different dimension, they are like an mindless virus, a scourge on humankind. Like monsters from childhood, they look they shadows and they attack in senseless packs with no goal in sight but to eat and multiply. They eat people, by taking them over, by infecting them, making them mindless, and devouring them from the inside out. Steve should be one of them now with the god damned hole in his belly. But the serum is saving him, for now.
The only hope they have is if Tony throws the interdimensional portal in the Shadow’s nest, sucking them back to where they belong – all of them. Even the ones currently infecting people, the parasite should be dragged out of them, should be cleansed away into the tidal wave to the other dimension. Unless they are too far gone. They will have to be eradicated to clean up the world of any lingering infection.
Now that Tony knows Steve is one of their victims, he's more dedicated to do it, to launch the damned grenade toward its target. Even if it kills him.
He glances at Steve, who’s obviously in pain but bearing it well. His companion points to a small grove of trees. They are the only ones not ravaged by the battles. “That looks promising.”
Tony spots the small cottage. It's nothing special, tiny, stone, with small windows. Easily defensible with a fence toward the back. It's away from a water source which is good considering the bastards like to congregate near water.
He turns the car towards the house and drives up the road. The weeds are thick and lash at the fender, the wheels, and the side of the car as he maneuvers the car into the parking space near the cottage. “Think you can get us inside?”
“If it's locked, sure.” Steve opens the car door and climbs out. His movements are still fluid grace, even with the injury. Tony tries to ignore the saliva gathering in his mouth as he watches Steve.
He follows Steve, getting out of the car, retrieving the box, and popping the trunk to pull out his small bag and, of course, what remains of the armor. Not much. The first days of battle the armor held up pretty well, but days turned to weeks, which turned to months and now they are two and a half years into hell and he's stuck with barely functioning partial armor.
He grabs the case and they both go to the front entrance. Steve checks out the handle, tests it and then with a shoulder to the door, opens it. He doesn't demolish it, they need to be able to fix it and lock it tonight.
They both enter, but then Steve steps back out and announces he's going to check the surroundings. Tony nods and follows the hallway into the small shotgun type house where all the rooms are off the main hallways. He finds a kitchen, and then the living room. It's dusty, furniture is overturned but it doesn't look like there was too much of a struggle. Perhaps these are a few of the people who made it to the refugee camps.
When he gets to the bedrooms, his hopes are dashed. He locks the doors and tries not to vomit at the sight. Steve comes back into the house and jimmies the lock to get the door to close securely. Tony checks the door and assesses that Steve’s done an okay job. Still, Steve goes to the living room, finds a bureau and shoves it in front of the door. The windows are shuttered closed with wooden planks. Tony ignores the bedrooms and checks the back door. It's locked but Steve insists on moving a washing machine from the mud room in front of it.
By the time he finishes he's flush and sweating. Tony reaches over and cups his cheek. Cool and clammy.
“That wound still giving you trouble?”
Steve only shakes his head. “Probably the impact from the car, I think it broke a few ribs or at least fractured them.”
"Serum should take care of that?” Tony says as he heads back toward the kitchen. He has some food supplies
“It would if I didn't have the hole in my gut.” Steve falls into one of the cushioned chairs in the living room across from the kitchen.
Tony grabs his canvas bag and throws it onto the kitchen table. The table is only large enough for two chairs and is pushed up against the wall. He digs through the bag, pulling out food supplies. He's not sure he has enough for both of them, considering Steve is a super soldier with a revved up metabolism.
Glancing over at Steve, Tony presses this lips together. He shouldn't worry, but when it comes to Steve - there's no contest. He needs to stop, they parted ways halfway through this current apocalypse. But he can't stop, Tony never could.
“It's good to see you again, even half zombied.”
Steve snickers and gets to his feet; it costs him but he tries to hide it. Steve can't hide anything from Tony. “I missed you too, Shellhead.”
Tony raises an eyebrow and shifts his gaze to the chest plate and single gauntlet he still has of the last remaining working suit. “Not much of a Shellhead these days.”
“Do you think if we'd still had the Iron legion, we'd had a chance?”
Tony bows his head; there's no way to know. It took years after the Chitauri invasion for the world to come to terms that they were actually still under assault and that what was happening wasn't some home grown terrorist germ. Of course, it helped that Thor identified it – eventually when it was brought to his attention. Too late.
“Maybe, I don't know. Killing ma and pa with repulsive fire was never the plan,” Tony says. He's killed too many of civilians due to their conversion to Shadow Eaters. “Plus after Ultron, I didn't have the legion. Was out of the business.”
Steve laughs. “You're always retiring.”
For Steve he would have burned the world down to stay with him, for Steve he would have given anything. But those days are over, time and old enemies defeated them. He picks up the canned chili and asks, “Hungry?”
“I could eat,” Steve answers and rummages through the drawers to find a can opener for Tony. He puts it on the counter, not handing it directly to Tony. That cuts, deeper than Tony would like to admit.
After, Steve fishes out an old pot and then starts playing with the stove. It's a gas burner and luckily seems to be in working order but it doesn't light because it must have an electric pilot. Tony gets out a lighter and it flares to life, blue flames vibrant in the darkening room. “Want to see if there's any logs for the fire?” There’s a fireplace in the living room.
It will be better to have light and heat. The Shadows don't really like the light and the heat, well once people are infected the Eaters shy away from the heat. They are cold like death. He looks at Steve and thinks about his cold, clammy skin.
“You all right?”
Steve crouches near the small wood burning pot belly stove in the tiny living room, with its broken legged couch. “Yeah, I'm good.” And he smiles that golden smile that always melted into Tony like liquid. Loving Steve had been like drifting on a fluidity of drugs, so high and light but with substance. He would never get over it, he'll never love like that again.
He dumps the chili into the pot and, for good measure, he finds another can and adds that to the pot as well. Before the pot warms the gas goes out and no amount of jiggling the knob or playing with the pilot gets it burning again. Checking the tank out back is out since they are barricaded in the house. He frowns at the chili, it can't be warm. Touching the side of the pot, he tests it. They are either eating cold chili or he’s rigging something up on the wood stove in the living room.
“You got that fire burning yet?”
“Just about,” Steve says as he turns on his hunches to face Tony. The fire light glows against his skin as the daylight dies in the distance. Tony forces away the lingering embers of his love for this man, but it has always been a futile battle.
He clears his throat and brings the pot over to the pot belly stove. “Think I can put this on the stove and warm it up. I think the natural gas tank is out.”
“Go ahead,” Steve says and pokes at the fire. He closes the glass door as the flames take hold.
Tony balances the pot on the top of the stove and stirs it. In minutes it begins to bubble and pop. “You want to get some bowls?”
“If I can find them,” Steve says and heads to the kitchen to hunt down a few bowls. While most of the house looks in fairly decent shape, Tony still wonders if they will even be able to find bowls, or spoons considering the state of the bedrooms. He gags a little at the memory, and then Steve returns with two bowls and some spoons to boot.
“Great.” Steve starts to put the bowls to the side, but Tony grabs them. “What the hell?”
Steve doesn’t say anything, only shrugs. He moves away and disappears down the hallway. Tony watches him; there’s a long sense of loss, and he knows they will never return to what they had before the world went to hell. He wonders if Steve cares about him, thinks about him. He knows his nights are consumed by his doubts, his fears of what he did wrong. How he would like to change it, how he cannot change it. Ever.
When Steve returns he’s noticeably paler and he slides into the chair nearest the stove. Hunching over he stretches out his hands to warm them.
“Chili coming up,” Tony says and plops a few scoops into the bowl. He hands it and one of the spoons to Steve, who silently nods in acceptance and thanks. He settles on the chair again, dazed look as he stares at the chili. Tony ladles out some of the chili for himself and then sits down on the couch opposite Steve’s chair.
“You gonna eat it or just stare at it?” Tony asks.
Steve jerks out of his internal reverie and spoons some of the canned chili into his mouth. It’s not a good taste, Tony already knows that. He’s been surviving on canned food for far too long. Gone are the days of five star restaurants and multi-course meals. He sighs and digs in. He knows he has to eat- he needs to eat so that he can continue the fight.
“So, why were you on the road again and what’s up with the hole in your belly?” Tony’s fairly certain he hasn’t truly gotten the whole story from Steve. He knows that Steve’s not the kind to lie, but he’s also the kind who will mask the truth to ensure others are not hurt by it. He doesn’t need to be coddled. Not now, not by Steve.
Steve plays with the food, moving it around in the bowl. “Like I said, I was looking for you. You haven’t been the best undercover agent around you know. You kind of telegraph exactly where you are all the time.”
Tony glances over at the partial armor and shrugs. “It’s what I do.” He narrows his focus on Steve, the man is thinner than before, pale bordering on ashen. “What’s going on? That belly wound, is it the worst of it?”
“What you want more?” Steve says and tastes some of the chili with a grimace. “I want you to give me the portal, Tony. I can do this, you can’t.”
Tony smirks. “Right, you look like you’re half dead already.”
“Exactly,” Steve says and he’s not smiling.
Tony considers Steve and it hits him in the chest, hard and unyielding. “The hole, it’s getting bigger isn’t it?”
“Yeah, when I first got it, it was the size of a golf ball, now it’s the size of a baseball. It hurts like hell and it’s getting worse,” Steve says and places the barely touched food on the broken side table.
“Damn it, Steve,” Tony replies and looks at the chili. It becomes less appetizing. He chucks the bowl to the floor and, for a long moment, cannot even look at Steve. It’s not his own welfare, his own safety he’s thinking about – it’s Steve’s. “How long do you have?” He stares at the dirty carpet with its swirling pattern of colors, paisley and floral intermixed.
“Don’t know, when I left they thought about a month, maybe less.”
“And now, what do you think?” Tony says as he starts to calculate.
“Less, much less,” Steve says. “So now you know you should give me the damned portal and I’ll bring it to the nest.”
He’s silent, he doesn’t answer. Hanging his head, Tony cradles his hands over his neck as if trying for some kind of shelter. The thought of Steve, his childhood hero, his beloved – being infected and consumed from within shatters everything that Tony identifies as worth it. He left Steve, he left the fragmented remains of humanity to find a way out. Now, the one thing, the only person that made this whole fight worth it – is –
“Don’t go there, Tony. It isn’t a nice place,” Steve says and waits as Tony works through it. He knows what’s going on in Tony’s head, Steve always knows. He knows Tony will need to fix this, will need to change the course of events.
He looks up at Steve and the tears burn his eyes. “This wasn’t supposed to happen to you. I left to save-.” He cannot finish.
“You left us because you have a god damned martyr complex, don’t foist that on me,” Steve says and gets to his feet. His legs almost give out under the weight of the pain. He braces himself on the back of the cushioned chair. “I came to find you, to see if you needed a hand before I left this Earth for good.”
“To give me a hand? You didn’t even want to hear about my plan when you were in the hovel we all called home, where the last remnants of humanity fucking try and survive.” Tony says. “You said it was too risky, too dangerous.”
“I said it wasn’t your brightest move, Tony.” Steve doesn’t turn around, and Tony’s glad of it. He cannot handle seeing the disappointment in Steve’s eyes again. It was enough when Tony left.
“What do you know about brilliance, Captain? What do you know about intelligence? You always rush in – how’d you get that hole in your belly? Rush in and not call for help. Like you always do?”
“I tried to save people, I told you that,” Steve says. “It’s nice that you decided to join the fight this late in the game.”
“What the fuck?” Tony says and leaps to his feet. He grasps Steve’s arm and yanks him around to face him. “I’ve been in this since the beginning. I’ve been fighting, trying my best.”
“And it’s been your way or the highway, all the time-.”
“You should talk, Captain You Move, don’t give me that shit,” Tony says. “I’ve been trying since we lost New York, since we lost Paris, and Istanbul, and the whole fucking east coast of China, I have been trying.”
“But it’s always been on your terms, your terms.”
“Yeah, because I’m right.” Tony hates this, they shouldn’t be fighting; they don’t have a lot more left: not of humanity, not of the fight, and not of each other to survive another dragged out battle between them. They’ve argued enough. “You know what, forget it. I’ll be out of here in the morning, you can do what you fucking want.”
The light of anger flickers out in Steve’s eyes. Tony watches it drain away and he tools his expression not to show how much Tony’s words hurt, but that’s how Steve is –ever the stoic bastard. There’s a long pause and then in quiet words Steve says, “At least let me be the one to bring the portal into the nest. I’m dying anyway.”
Tony doesn’t say a word he picks up his bowl of chili and brings it to the kitchen. Tossing it in the sink, he stands there, hands gripping the edge of the counter. He breathes through the anger, the hurt, and the fear until there’s a whisper of a touch – a brush of lips against the nape of his neck.
“Please, Tony, let’s not do this right now,” Steve says. He kisses a line along the crest of Tony’s neck, raising gooseflesh as he goes. Tony should stop it, he needs to pull back and know that they left their relationship in terms that could not be called positive. “Please.”
“Steve,” he says and his voice sounds wretched from him. He can’t not do this, he needs to do this – not fight with Steve, not battle all the ills of their world at war with a mindless infection from outer space – he needs Steve. He always has.
Turning into Steve’s arms is the easiest thing he’s done in ages. Steve wraps him up, embraces him, holds him, and he feels – like he’s finally home. The long journey, the stress, the blood and deaths, the murders he’s had to commit, they all fall away and he’s finally safe, he’s finally where he belongs. He doesn’t mean to cry, and he’s not sure he’s the only one failing at stopping it. But then there are hands on his face, and a mouth on his – taking him away, pulling him, lifting him up and away from the sinking pit in his brain. He wants this more than he wants anything. He doesn’t give a fuck about humanity, he only cares for this man. He’s one goal, his one determination, if he’s to be honest with himself, has always been about saving Steve.
And now, he may not even be able to do that.
But Steve smothers his tears away, takes Tony from the edge of oblivion and shows him something different, something that they once had. In some scramble of motion, he finds himself back in the living room with Steve at his feet, with Steve unbuckling his jeans and mouthing him before he even gets his boxers off – through the fabric – and Tony’s knees give way. But Steve’s hands brace against his hips, keep him steady on his feet. He nuzzles into the fabric and Tony cannot take it, it’s been so long, and he’s hot, unbearably hot.
Fumbling, he gets his shorts down and his dick leaks over Steve’s lips. For a moment, with Steve looking up at him – his eyes crystalline and clear – Tony can almost forget, can almost believe that they will be together again. And then Steve closes his eyes and the illusion disappears. Before Tony can protest, Steve slides his tongue up along his dick, the heaviness nearly toppling Tony over. He takes Tony in whole. Tony finds himself grabbing at Steve’s hair, ripping at it. He cannot stand it, he cannot take it. Steve at his feet, supplicating, submissive. He hates it, all of it.
He shoves with raw, meaningless thrusts into Steve’s mouth until he sees the tears that were once a prayer turn into pain as they streak down Steve’s face. He pounds into Steve, not thinking, not wanting anything but this feeling this moment to continue. Groaning, he sobs out a curse as Steve clenches fingers into his bare ass, probably bruising it. He doesn’t care. He wants to feel something other than the all-encompassing numbness he’s become accustomed to. He fucks, and fucks until he’s spent and crying out his climax as he clutches at Steve’s hair.
In a shattering moment, he falls – not quite finished and his body jerks as he crumples before Steve, the rest of his orgasm a messy line between them. Steve drops with him, cuddles close to him as if they’ve just made love – and Tony knows they haven’t. He’s made love to Steve before, and this wasn’t it. This was cold and nothing, a release of frustrations. And then he realizes Steve hasn’t come off and he should, at the very least, return the favor. He reaches down and tries to return the favor, but he only finds that Steve’s not aroused at all.
It’s feels like a belly punch.
He coughs and tries not to gag. But Steve is there, comforting him. “Shh, it’s not a big deal.”
“Yes, it is,” Tony says and he wants to scream, he wants to stop this. But it just aggravates him more, so much that he wants to fuck Steve in his face again, just to show him how much it does mean, just to show him how fucking wrong it is.
Steve is softly holding him, shushing him all the time the rage fills Tony. “Shush, there’s nothing you can do. I can’t, not anymore.”
“Why?” Tony says and he thinks he hates Steve a little. And why did he want to think a little more.
“The Shadows, though the serum keeps it at bay, it’s infected all of my systems. I can barely eat or drink. I can’t fuck.”
Tony struggles away from him. “What the fuck, why did you do this? Why start this?” Tony’s fingers cannot buckle his pants, they’re shaking too much.
“Because I wanted to feel a little more, one last time. Is that so wrong?” Steve says and answers his own question with his head bowed as he kneels. “I guess, yes, I guess it was.”
Tony can never stay angry at him. He just cannot, and it has always been his failing, his soft spot, his vulnerability. He stretches a hand over, forgetting the drop of his pants. He touches Steve’s face. “Steve.”
“Do you want to know why I volunteered to be the one to find out if you did it? If you succeeded yet? Why I told them it would be me and I left off the leading to Fury?” Steve blinks too rapidly. “Do you want to know? Because I had to touch you one last time, I had to feel one last time. This is all there is for me. This is it.”
“Steve, no, I won’t accept that,” Tony says, because there’s no way this mindless infecting alien parasite is taking down Steve Rogers. It just doesn’t happen. Not like this.
“Let me feel you, again, all of you,” Steve says and his pleas are poignant and perfect and Tony gives it, surrenders to it. Not because it’s the right thing to do, because it isn’t. It’s what he needs to do, it’s what his tormented mind has longed to do all these darkened days. So he takes Steve and he never lets go. He asks Steve to do unendurable things to his body, and, in turn, he does the same to Steve. All the while Steve suffers through it, the pain of his wounds so obvious that Tony hisses and shivers in response. There’s no blessing Steve’s body with Tony’s kisses, because his body is ravaged and torn. But he submits everything to Tony.
His tongue touches Tony in a grace of intimidate hushed reverence. It thrills Tony, but it also humbles him, because this is a funeral mass, a death song. This is Steve saying goodbye and Tony trembles with him. He’s careful as he touches Steve, as he realizes the number of broken bones due to the ever present thing devouring him and impeding the serum’s healing powers. It’s Steve who bends over as the hours pass, it’s Steve who opens up to Tony and begs for him. And when Tony relents, when his needs becomes too overwhelming to crush down, he succumbs to it. He gives himself over to Steve knowing all too well that Steve cannot reciprocate. That Steve cannot enjoy it to the fullest. But Steve keens and moans and throbs a beat on the floor as Tony pushes into him, as he shoves forward and throws himself into the act.
This is not making love, this is a verification of life, a life ending and another dying with it. When Tony spends himself again inside of Steve, he freezes, paralyzed by fear and by joy at the same time.
This is the last touch he will have of Steve. This is all he will have, from this moment forward.
He finishes and they collapses together, Steve curling in on himself around his injured gut. Tony reaches around and feels the damp bandage, the blood flowing from his wound. Steve tries to push him away, but fails.
“How long?” Tony whispers and kisses the rise of Steve’s shoulder, the jagged point of bone where muscles should have been.
“Not long. With the car accident, the serum will be overburdened. Every time I get another bruise, another injury it gets worse. I think the accident will be the end.”
“God,” Tony gasps and realizes he’s the one that caused it to accelerate. “Steve, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, the road was empty, there’s a reason I was out there looking for you, there’s a reason why you hit me, Tony.”
And then the horrible truth bubbles up in front of him like bile in the back of his throat. “You knew I was going to be on that road. You waited for me.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “I was lucky, I got you to hit me at the right time.”
"Jesus," Tony says and the thought destroys him. “You came here to die, didn’t you?” Because he knows what Steve wants him to do – either take the portal into the nest and die or -.
“Yes,” Steve says and draws Tony’s hand to the wet mess on his stomach. “It’s larger now, it’s bleeding now. Either let me have the portal or do it before you leave.”
“Steve,” Tony says and his voice sounds ruined, and his live feels like tattered rags in the wind. “I’m nothing without you.”
“That’s not true, you worked on the portal. You fought and won battles. You’ve been doing this so long,” Steve says and his words falter and die in his throat. “Please.”
“You’ll never make it to the nest. You’ll be dead before then,” Tony says and he only half believes it. There has to be a way to save him, to save the world.
Steve shifts in his arms and turns around. He pulls off the gauze and the horror of the wound comes to light under the warm amber glow of the fire. It’s bigger, so much bigger than a baseball. It’s the size of a football easily. “Damn it.”
“I’ll be an Eater in the next few days,” Steve says and his words are filled with sorrow. “I failed. I miscalculated. I thought with another small injury it would be enough to accelerate the process but not enough to exclude me from taking the portal.”
“You should have left the calculations to me,” Tony says. It’s supposed to be a joke, no one laughs. “We can still win this. I’ll nurse you back to health and then take the portal to the nest.”
Steve smiles and it feels like the flames of the fire, like home. “That’s a nice thought, but you know it’s not going to go that way.”
Tony touches his forehead to Steve’s and then says, “I’ll find some towels. Clean you up.”
He finds his clothes and tugs them on. It takes a strong stomach but Tony finds some blankets and clean towels in one of the trashed rooms. He brings them to Steve, and helps Steve cleanse the wound. It looks inflamed and painful. All the time Tony works, Steve stifles his whimpers and bites his lower lip trying not to make a sound.
He manages to find new bandages but there’s not enough gauze. He uses a small towel and gets it situated over Steve’s abdomen.
“The serum isn’t winning anymore.”
Steve looks at him, his eyes soft. “It never was. It only delayed the inevitable.”
“I wish you would have told me.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“What?” Tony says and it’s like a dare and not a devotion of love.
Steve only shakes his head as he lies on the couch. “We’re done, aren’t we?”
Tony only gathers up the mess and goes to the kitchen to trash it all. With one of the last blankets, he sits on the cushioned chair and listens to the wheezing rasp of Steve’s breathing. It gets worse through the night. He listens to it, to make sure that Steve is still human, not an Eater, not yet. He throws a log on the fire as Steve struggles to draw in the next breath.
“You’ll do it, right?” Steve says and he looks more delirious than awake.
“You know I will,” Tony says but doesn’t meet his eyes.
When morning breaks, Steve’s breathing changes – for the better. It takes Tony a few minutes to realize it, to recognize it. He jumps up and backs away from Steve, checking him at the same time. He wants to be sure the serum hasn’t performed a miracle – and it hasn’t. The deathly ashen shroud of the Eater is upon Steve now. Tony goes to the partial armor, works on the torso and the gauntlet. The arc reactor in the chest piece lights up and the repulsor warms. He steps over to Steve and stares down at him.
His beloved’s eyes are clouded and glossy. His mouth open as if in a final cry. Tony doesn’t dare touch him, or disturb him. He thinks about the portal – how far away he is from the nest. He can probably get there in less than a day, but it will be too late for Steve, he’s too far gone. Once the Shadows are sucked into the portal at the nest, they will have eaten too much of his insides to repair. That’s too much time, even for the serum – if the serum is even working anymore.
He considers if he should use the portal here. Open it up and remove the one Shadow from Steve. He could do it. But the portal won’t work again – it’s a one shot deal. All that work to save one man. If Tony does it, Steve will hate him forever. He can never sacrifice the whole of the world for Steve. Steve would never accept that, that’s not the way Steve works.
He tries to tell himself Steve is too far gone, there’s no way to save him. He wonders if he’s deliberately lying to himself so that he can make the right choice. He’ll make the right choice for Steve.
Tony steps to the side, heaves in a breath, and then turns to face Steve again. “I can’t do this alone. I won’t. I’m going to walk with that portal right into the nest. When I do-.” He cannot voice anymore words. Instead, he triggers the unibeam and it blasts out of his chest – it burns away living and dead matter, it incinerates completely.
Staggering, the beam shuts down and he looks at the remains of what he’s done. He looks at it, long and hard. He memorizes the details, the horror. This is his sin to own.
Turning, he picks up his belongings, the box with their salvation in it and goes to the car. He dumps everything, including the partial armor into the backseat. When he gets in, he glances back at the house. He smells the dew of morning, the crisp air of autumn.
“See you on the other side,” Tony says and drives toward the nest.
By night fall the Shadows will have him.