DISCLAIMER: Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man, and The Avengers are the properties of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.

RATING: M (for language, violence, depictions of torture)

INVINCIBLE

25

This time, when the Avengers returned to New York City, there was fanfare. Fanfare and celebration and reverence and euphoria. It was infectious, blasting away doubt and darkness and fear. The media was triumphantly showing clips from the battle somehow caught on camera over and over again, glimpses of heroes courageously fighting against insurmountable odds. Their supporters were frenzied, overjoyed and relieved. Their detractors were now proudly proclaiming that they had really supported the superhero team all along, even though it might have seemed to the contrary before. The government was applauding their resilience, their quick-thinking and bravery. And the grateful citizens of New York were downright beside themselves, filling the streets and shouting and waving and cheering as the SHIELD quinjet flew overhead with Iron Man alongside it. People were gathered outside Stark Tower in a massive crowd, clapping and chanting in a loud wave of elation that seemed to resonate throughout the city. News choppers hovered nearby, eager to catch a shot, as the quinjet set down and the weary heroes stepped onto the helipad. The other Avengers grumbled and rolled their eyes and jogged (or limped, in Barton's case) inside the Tower to avoid it all. Tony thudded to the pad, retracted his helmet, and stood outside, drinking it up, smiling, waving, offering his customary peace symbol. Then he decided he'd had enough of his own bullshit and stepped inside and ran into Pepper's comforting kiss.

They ate quiet a dinner. All of them, gathered around the table. Even Steve, who sat and enjoyed a few slices of pizza and some pasta like he had never been gone at all. There wasn't much conversation. Not about the battle. Not about the hellfire they'd gone through together. Not about Fury's actions. Just silent companionship. Silent understanding. Peace. And when they were finished, they all went their separate ways, bone-weary and sore and stiff, but unburdened.

For the most part.

Tony collapsed into bed, every inch of him aching. Pepper was already there, and he clumsily clambered over to her, laying his head in her lap with a dramatic show of exhaustion. It wasn't much of an exaggeration, though. She wove her fingers through his hair gingerly, smiling. A few minutes crawled away, Pepper tenderly stroking his head, Tony drifting on thoughts that were quiet and peaceful. Even the imminent issue of when (and how) he was going to tell Steve what he'd learned seemed distant and assuming. He knew he should have told him already, but there hadn't been the opportunity. And he was too tired. And he didn't want to ruin this one nice moment. There were tons of excuses, a glorious litany really, when he put his mind to it. He didn't need to figure this out not. He had time. Who said he needed to say anything, anyway?

He'd nearly fallen asleep (for the first time in weeks without tossing and turning and battling insomnia), when Pepper's soft voice filled his head. "You did great," she murmured.

"I know," he murmured back. "I kicked ass."

A lyrical chuckle against his ear. "You did," she confirmed. Her lips sealed over his in a deep, loving kiss, and he was warmer and happier than he'd been in a long time.

The next morning, when the rush of the near-death experience and the high of surviving it began to fade, things that were easy to dismiss the night before weren't now so simple to ignore. The first thought in his head when he opened his eyes was that he needed to tell truth. He needed to tell the truth to Steve. A whirlwind of memory assaulted him as he laid there. The fight in his lab over their plans to repeat Project: Rebirth. Steve's breakdown. Steve convincing himself that the man who'd nearly murdered him hadn't been his best friend. The robotic army. The battle in Central Park. Steve coming back, as strong and commanding as he'd ever been. And what Tony had learned about the Winter Soldier.

The Winter Soldier.

Tony sighed, wanting nothing more than to gather Pepper's sweetly slumbering body in his embrace and go back to sleep. The first light of dawn poked through the blinds in the penthouse, slicing through the comforting cover of darkness, and he couldn't close his eyes again. His mind was already running, and once started, he knew he wouldn't be able to stop it. Kissing Pepper gently, he slid from the bed and took a shower and dressed in some sweat pants and an old sweat-shirt from MIT. Then he went to go find some much-needed coffee and battled his conscience and indecision the entire way there.

As it turned out, the question of when (or, more fundamentally if) he would confront Steve was answered for him. When he stepped into the spacious kitchen, he found a pot of some gourmet blend that Pepper really liked freshly brewed. Glancing around, he quickly spotted the man responsible, the door to the balcony left ajar so it let the cool October air inside. Steve sat outside one of the lounge chairs, a steaming cup cradled in his hands, watching the sunrise warm a gray and lavender sky. Tony sighed, suddenly feeling like a vicious bastard for everything he'd done yesterday. Maybe Steve had come back to the team, but that didn't mean – couldn't mean – everything was resolved. Maybe nothing had been. Maybe he was up this early because he couldn't sleep, or didn't want to sleep, after another nightmare, another stretch of darkness spent reliving the horrors. Everything yesterday had just been a show, a show for the team, for Fury, for the whole goddamn world, and he was just as lost in anguish this morning as he had been every morning since he'd been kidnapped. Then Tony was terrified that nothing had changed as he watched Steve sit completely still and gaze blankly at the New York skyline like he was a million miles away. And he was terrified that Steve hated him. They weren't the best of friends, but Tony had a feeling (and he rarely acknowledged this sort of sentimental crap) that they could be. Would Steve blame him forever for what he'd seen, for what he'd said and done? Tony had thought yesterday that he'd be willing to bear that sort of resentment as long as necessary, but he knew he'd just been deluding himself with a bunch of bullshit. They both deserved better.

He stood at the counter, his cup of coffee idly resting on the sleek surface, for a long time before he mustered the courage to go out there. There was no sense in putting this off. Bruce had been right yesterday morning (had it only been yesterday?) when he'd said it wouldn't be any easier to wait. So he took a deep breath to center himself and strolled out onto the balcony. "Morning," he said casually.

Steve turned. He didn't seem angry at Tony's intrusion. He didn't seem upset at all. Tony took that as an encouraging sign. "You're up early," Rogers commented before taking a sip of his coffee.

Tony settled into another of the chairs beside the captain, trying to ignore how chilly it was. "Couldn't sleep." He didn't want to dread the answer to his next question, but it was impossible, because as simple as it was, it seemingly carried everything. "You?"

Steve squinted a little, looking out over New York. The corner of his lips drew into a small grin, and Tony couldn't help his relief. "Had a good dream."

"Yeah?" Tony's voice sounded shaky with hesitant hope that he was trying to mask. He lifted his mug to his lips. "Blonde or brunette? Or both?"

"Peggy." Steve's tentative little grin grew into a soft smile. He didn't speak for a long moment, watching the sun grow brighter and brighter as it cut through the clouds in the east. The noise from the city below was a distant and quiet hum, the pulse of something sleeping but very much alive. Alive and exuberant, thanks to the Avengers. "Do you think there's such a thing as fate?" he finally asked, looking down at his coffee.

Tony didn't know how to answer that. Honestly, no, he didn't. He believed a man made his own destiny and rose or fell, lived or died, based on his own merits. But he knew Steve believed in God (or had, for most of his life – these last few months might have challenged his faith just a little). And he wanted to tell Steve what he wanted to hear, even if he didn't think it was true. He settled on something in the middle. "Anything's possible."

"I think there is," Steve said with absolute certainty in his voice. "I think things happen for a reason. There has to be a reason. Peggy…" His voice grew quieter, laden with soft sadness. "She was so beautiful. And so smart. She always knew what needed to be done, what needed to be said. She told me something once. Back after Doctor Erskine was killed, SSR wanted to condemn me to life as a lab rat so they could try and recreate the serum, so I went to work for Congress. The government had me touring the country selling war bonds." Tony knew that. He'd seen the footage, the old film reels, the posters and newspaper articles. "It was humiliating at first, but at least I was doing something more productive than just sitting around while scientists ran tests. Got out to Europe with the USO show, and I ran into Peggy out there. She told me I was meant for more." Steve sighed softly. "It was exactly what I needed to hear."

Finally Steve turned and looked at him. "The government had me up there, this symbol of the war effort. The Star-Spangled Man with the Plan. This hero to inspire a nation. But that wasn't who I was. And that wasn't what Erskine or Peggy or your father believed I could be. I didn't have to be the country's symbol. She made me realize… I don't have to be anyone's symbol."

Tony couldn't help but smile at that. "No, you don't."

"I've been pushed around a lot in my life," Steve said, his voice tightening with a bit of anger. "First time I got beat up after school, mom patched me up, held me when I cried. Told me I'd be okay. The second time they jumped me, I didn't cry. And after that, I just picked myself back up no matter how much it hurt, because it was always more important to do the right thing." He sighed. "Why should this be any different?"

"Doesn't have to be," Tony said. "Fury maybe set the stage, but you're the one who put the suit back on."

"Thor said something to me a few days ago. He told me that you can't be made to be strong." Steve held Tony's gaze then. "You have to learn to be." He gave a lopsided smile. "I think he's right."

Tony did, too. Shields and armor didn't matter, when it all came down to it. Shields and armor could be stripped away, broken, shattered. And once those were gone, there was no power, no infallibility. Just vulnerability. And pain and darkness. Afghanistan. The Red Dawn. Betrayal. Getting hurt was unavoidable. But getting back up after, with no protection, bare and broken and bleeding… Getting back up was true strength.

And that sort of power was earned.

Steve's eyes had a hard glint. "They don't get to destroy me."

"They didn't," Tony said. "They won't."

"Not any of us," Steve added, turning to his friend.

They were quiet for a moment as dawn broke out over New York. In the silence, what Tony had come here to do resurfaced in his mind. He was torn, truly torn, and beyond thought. Beyond any sort of reasonable choice. Anything he said now about what he had learned, about what could be true… It didn't seem worth the peace of mind that Steve had found. But he couldn't just let it go. The Winter Soldier could be out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting until he found the next chance to strike at Captain America. "You know it's not going to be easy," he eventually said. "HYDRA will throw everything they have at us. At you. More than ever, they know you're in their way."

Steve grunted softly. "Exactly where I'm supposed to be," he said resolutely.

And then Tony realized. It didn't matter if it was Bucky or not. It didn't matter. Steve Rogers was Captain America. That meant he would fight and protect and do everything he could to stop the evil in the world no matter what it cost him. That was the point behind the only symbol Steve had ever embraced. And if the Avengers ever came across the Winter Soldier, whoever he was, they would defeat him. There was no sense in upsetting the precious balance that had returned to Steve's spirit with unsubstantiated facts and unlikely conjecture. When the time came to face what could be the truth, they would face it together.

"You sure you want to join me?" Steve had no idea how appropriate his question truly was. "If this AIM is anything like the old HYDRA, they play dirty."

"I do excel at pissing people off," Tony answered.

"It's not going to be easy," the other man repeated, offering Tony a little knowing look of his own.

Tony paused a moment. It was there again, the darkness, the hard things he'd faced and done and everything he'd nearly lost. "Yeah," he conceded. "But I'm Howard Stark's son. Standing up against HYDRA sounds like my destiny. My father's legacy."

Steve laughed. "He'd be proud, I think," he said. They were quiet after that, each content with his own thoughts. The city below them was waking, the noise from the streets growing louder and louder as the day descended. Tony sipped his coffee, and it spread heat all down through his throat and chest. It wasn't so bad, this stuff that Pepper liked. It was comforting. "Peggy told me something else, too." Steve's quiet voice cut through his malaise. He focused on the other man again, watching as Steve rubbed his thumbs slowly along the sleek, black porcelain of the rim of his coffee cup. "She told me I should let her go." Steve closed his eyes for a moment and lifted his face to the new day. "I think I'm ready now. To let them go."

He turned and looked over with only openness and heartfelt appreciation. "Thanks, Tony," he said. "You pulled me back."

Warmth radiated through Tony, and he couldn't help but grin. "Anytime, Cap."


The next day, they were ready to try Bruce's plan. There was no way to know when the next crisis could occur, when the next deadly game would begin and threaten the world. So there was no reason to delay, even if Bruce was newly nervous this procedure of his wouldn't work. There was also no other way to test it. It had no chance of success on anyone but Steve. In fact, like so much else of late, Steve faced a trial, an obstacle, that would probably kill anyone else. That left a bitter taste of fear and worry and doubt, one that couldn't be easily washed away. But this had to be done, had to be tried, because without protection from that toxin, Steve couldn't lead them.

And they, like the rest of the world, needed Captain America.

So they gathered in Tony's makeshift genetics lab, where the sleek chamber was waiting. The team stood around Rogers as Bruce had him take off his shirt. The diligent scientist checked over the other man's vitals, but Tony had a feeling he was just trying to delay. He was afraid of making a mistake, and mistakes in this line of work had led to terrible things. But Tony caught Banner's eyes and offered a small, confident nod. There wouldn't be any mistakes. Not this time.

Silently they watched as Bruce inserted a needle attached to a small length of tubing in Steve's forearm and then led Steve over to the chamber. They'd made no effort at idle chit-chat, at distraction from the frightening moments to come. "Why the hell do you all look scared shitless?" Tony demanded as Steve looked hesitantly at the chamber he'd built. "It's got my name on it, so it's gonna work. Hell, they did this once seventy years ago not knowing a fraction of the stuff I know and they managed to get it right."

"Thanks for the pep talk," Steve murmured.

Thor laid a comforting hand on Steve's shoulder. "From the fire came a warrior stronger than any before him," he said with a knowing smile. "This is your fire."

"You can do it, Cap," Clint said from behind him. The archer stood with his arms folded over his chest, and in his eyes there wasn't a shred of doubt. Natasha was beside him, and she gave a small, stern nod.

Steve turned back and looked apprehensively at the chamber. He stood still, his brow furrowed, every line of his body hard and tense. Then he sagged a little in submission. "What the hell," he said, rolling his eyes a little as he glanced at Tony. "Worked the first time, right?" Then he stepped up inside.

Bruce worked his hands together nervously as Steve settled himself. Then he went to the tray of supplies beside the chamber and pulled a few syringes from them, one filled with a bright, blue liquid. Nobody made a sound as he went about injecting each into Steve's arm. He hesitated a moment with the blue one before he gathered his composure enough to go through with it. Steve winced a little, but when he saw Bruce's very obvious trepidation, he offered up a soothing smile. "I'll be okay, doc," he promised.

Banner seemed a little surprised by the comment, but then his face softened, and the relief was clear in his eyes. "I know you will," he said. He attached the IV line, already red with Steve's blood, to a socket in the interior of the chamber. "Ready?" Steve nodded. Bruce looked back over his shoulder. "Go, Tony."

Bruce backed away as the chamber door slowly began to close, the hiss of the hydraulics loud in the silence. Steve shifted a bit nervously as the thick portal slid shut, his eyes drifting over the team. Over Bruce's anxious attempt at comfort with a shaky smile. Over Natasha's firm stare. Over Clint's confident nod and Thor's unwavering gaze. Finally he looked at Tony, who grinned cheekily and jokingly gave him a thumbs-up as he fiddled with the controls. "Firing it up," Tony announced.

The machine operated silently. Bruce came to stand beside Tony, watching the monitors attached to the console. Some were streaming Steve's vital signs as well as a graphical analysis in real time of Steve's DNA as Bruce's serum flooded his cells. There was light building as the chamber flooded with radiation, shown on the video feed. Inside Steve looked about nervously, but then he seemed to draw a few deep breaths to calm himself. Tony watched in satisfaction as the levels of exposure rose. The others observed as well, silent and unsure and astounded, as the light on the video grew brighter and brighter until it became difficult to see Steve at all. "Levels are rising," Tony announced. "Vitals are holding. Shall we proceed, Doctor Banner?"

Bruce carefully examined the read-outs. "Looks like a good infusion. Yeah, go ahead. Just be prepared to cut it off."

Tony pressed his fingers to the touch screen over the sliders for the radiation control and pushed them upward slowly. The levels continued to grow more intense, rapidly reaching amounts that could prove fatal. But they didn't. Aside from slightly elevated heart and respiration rates, Steve was fine. And the cellular analysis was indicating that the serum was beginning to interact with his DNA. Tony waited because even though nothing was going to go wrong he was still nervous. He waited and hesitated. "Sir," JARVIS intoned firmly, "Captain Rogers' vital signs as strong and steady." Tony could have rolled his eyes at the AI's attempt at comfort and encouragement. But he pushed the sliders up further and further, and the light quickly became blinding.

"It's working," Bruce declared excitedly. "Look!"

They all watched, glancing between the solid door of the sealed chamber and the monitors, as the serum fused with Steve's DNA. The radiation levels were nearly at their maximum, and Tony pushed the controls up as high as they would go, as high as he had calculated. The reaction continued a little longer, the illumination nearly unbearable to see but Steve's vitals remaining strong.

And then it was all over, and the machine shut down on its own.

Thor was the first to the chamber, Clint close on his heels. Bruce rounded the edge of the console, rushing to join them. The seal on the door was broken, the locks clicking loose, and the heavy slab slowly slid open. Steve remained inside for a moment, breathing heavily and covered in sweat. The Avengers stood, watching. Waiting. Hoping.

Steve opened his eyes. He blinked a few times, hazy and disoriented. But then he saw Thor and Clint and Bruce. Natasha. Tony. And he staggered down from the chamber. Thor was there to catch him, immediately steadying Steve as he stepped to the floor. Clint grasped his shoulder. "Did it work?" the archer asked worriedly, looking between Steve's flushed face and Bruce. "Did it?"

"I think so," Bruce said, shaking his head in amazement. "I think it did."

"Told you it would," Tony said with a satisfied smirk and relief pounding in his veins.

Steve gasped for a moment more, dazed, sagging slightly against Thor. He eventually caught his breath and straightened to his full stature, the others slowly backing away to give him space. "Are you alright?" Clint asked. "Steve?"

Thor watched Steve intently. "How do you feel?"

Steve caught Tony's eyes. A slow smile spread on his face before he answered, "Invincible."

THE END

And that, as they say, is that. I know people are probably wondering if there will be a sequel to this. Originally when I wrote this last year, I had thought about doing one. But with Captain America: the Winter Soldier out, I'm going to trust the masterminds at Marvel to handle Steve's confrontation with Bucky. The Winter Soldier (and what he did) in this story was more a means to an end, a way to break Steve (and Tony and even the other Avengers) down and rebuild them into something stronger.

Special thanks to E, my incredible beta-reader, for making this story a reality. And special thanks to all of the readers and reviewers; you guys are the reason I write!

Feel free to follow me on Twitter and tumblr (thegraytigress) for story updates, announcements, and discussions!