Good lord, I don't think I've ever killed a character so much in all my life O.o Not really sure where this came from but it nagged at me until it was written and well...here you go? Hope you guys like it! :D
Disclaimer: I own nothing =/
Somewhere along the line, the fairytales got it wrong. Sure, they've been dumbed down and Disney-fied for children for nearly a century but whoever came along and decided that pixies and fairies were cute, sassy little sprites that caused mischief and wonder wherever they went was either completely misinformed or delusional as hell. Because they weren't cute and sassy, they looked like Gollum with several rows of sharp, pointy teeth, liquid black eyes, and quicksilver claws that were particularly good at trying to eviscerate anything that got within swiping distance. And they most certainly didn't cause mischief and wonder unless those two terms were somehow interchangeable with terror and chaos. Disney fairies were magical and whimsical and played a crucial role in ensuring the hero succeeded in his quest. These fairies were doing their level best to destroy a greater portion of Times Square and liked to shoot acidic fireballs out of their mouths whenever they deemed the chaos as not nearly chaotic enough. Really the only thing they had in common with their folklore relatives was that they could fly. So no, these fairies weren't cute and adorable, these fairies were dicks, plain and simple.
When they'd gotten the call that morning, Tony had had to bite down on his tongue to keep from laughing in Fury's face. The director had told them with a serious face that fairies were attacking the city and it took every ounce of self control Tony Stark had in him not to call bullshit on the entire ordeal. Fury was serious though, dead serious, and needed them on the ground to help wrangle up the creepy creatures and do damage control while S.H.I.E.L.D worked at reopening the portal that allowed them into this world in the first place.
Should have been easy enough, the orders straight forward and clear. But Tony didn't buy it. There were fairies. In the city. And the Avengers had been called. It felt too stupid to be real, especially since his teammates simply nodded in acceptance of the mission and didn't even bother to question the ludicrousy of it all. Fairies. Pixies. Sprites. No questions? Really? No disbelieving blinks? Not even an 'are you actually serious right now'? Fucking fairies in the city and no one thinks that's even a little bit funny? Jesus, what is the world coming to?
When Tony had asked whether or not the Lost Boys would be showing up to lend a hand, he'd gotten a one-eyed glare from Fury and hard swat on the shoulder from Steve. This was serious, be an adult, Stark, stop acting like a child. Tony rolled his eyes; yeah, fairies in the city is a really serious problem. He'd believe it when he saw it.
But then he did see it, all of it, and realized that the threat had been legitimate after all. Buildings were on fire, people screaming in the street, and the creepy little bastards were absolutely everywhere. It had been less than a month since their defeat of Loki, the trickster god of mischief and general douchebaggery, and Tony had had just about his fill of magic and mayhem for one lifetime. Between the Glow Stick of Destiny and the giant space slugs that drifted in from another dimension, Tony had decided then and there that the next time a magical threat arose in New York City, he was calling in dead. And now there were fairies. What an awful day.
"Looks like they've covered a full block radius," Steve reports, striding forward with his shield slung over one shoulder. He's all suited up, red, white, and freedom, and Tony resists the urge to roll his eyes behind his faceplate. Despite the fact that they had all been instrumental in defeating Loki and his Chitauri minions, Tony and Steve still butted heads on a near daily basis. Steve was all by-the-book and follow-my-orders and Tony was more let's-push-this-button-and-see-what-happens. Both were leaders in their own way and the tension between them both on and off the battlefield was still palpable. Fury had said in passing that he was going to sign them up for couples counseling if they couldn't get their shit together. To this day, Tony has no idea if he was joking or not.
"Fury thinks they can open up another portal in Central Park," Steve continues, sliding his shield off of his shoulder and slipping it over his forearm. "We just need to round these things up and push them that way."
"Fair enough," Tony mumbles, locking in a configuration in his helmet that will help track the little monsters throughout the city. "Does anyone have an industrial size can of Raid?"
Steve rolls his eyes and fixes him with an exasperated half-glare. "I'm serious, Stark. We need a plan of action before we just go running into battle aimlessly."
"Well, while you're busy coming up with a plan, I'm going to take action to make sure more innocent people don't get hurt by these Neverland rejects." He doesn't wait for Steve to respond before he powers his thrusters and shoots into the air. The sensors on his helmet lock onto the signatures of the creatures flitting around the streets and he angles his way to the nearest cluster of them. The readout on his screen numbers them at close to 150, give or take, and they tend to swarm like bees in certain areas.
The first group doesn't expect him and he manages to gain the upperhand easily. Magical or not, they still react negatively to a short burst of electricity and drop to the ground like wounded birds. "Well, well, looks like a little shock therapy is just what the doctor ordered," he mumbles to himself, watching as the fairies twitch and spasm on the ground. "Electricity will do the trick, guys," he informs the others through the com link in his helmet. "Tell Thor to bring the thunder and let's get these little creeps out of here."
"Stark, quit being a hotshot and get back down here," Steve orders through the link, his star-spangled silhouette waving to get his attention from the ground. "That's an order, soldier." Tony flips him the bird instead.
"Sorry Capsicle but my plan is working better than yours," Tony tells him through the link and he can't quite hide the smugness in his voice. Being 'the man with the plan' doesn't account for shit when action is necessary in its place. "You help Clint and Natasha round them up on the ground, Thor and I can handle it up here. Just make sure Hulk doesn't get too excited and accidently step on any of them."
Tony's pride is quickly overturned when he finds himself surrounded by the little creatures, a swarm of black eyes and teeth all around him. They flutter and flit, tiny hands grabbing his arms and legs and hanging onto the suit as he tries to shake them off. They're small and lithe, about the size of toddlers, but they're fast and quickly overpower him in midair. He's not sure how many of them are on him or how many join in but one minute he's in the air and the next he's going down.
He crash lands into a small courtyard behind a building and the little creatures are clawing and biting at him viciously. Sharp, tiny teeth dig grooves into the metal plates covering his arms and legs and long, silver claws tear at the arc reactor in his chest. He tries to shake them off but there are simply too many of them; ten turning into fifteen turning into twenty. He's reminded of that scene from Jurassic Park where the tiny dinos overpower and eat that scientist in the creek bed. What a stupid way to die.
One of the fairies swipes down with a flash of silver claws and catches his arm painfully. The claws tear through the metal like it's no thicker than aluminum and slash his bicep deeply. There's a flash of pain, a slick wetness that fills the inside of the suit covering the rest of his arm, and Tony thinks he really is about to experience death-by-fairy when the shield sails overhead and takes out at least ten of the creatures on top of him. Tony really doesn't know whether he wants to laugh in relief or groan at the fact that he's been saved by Steve (again) and is in for the worst I-told-you-so lecture of his life.
The Captain bursts into the courtyard a split second after his shield does and makes quick work of taking out the remaining fairies with little more than his shield and his fists. Tony is getting to his feet just as the last one falls, his suit scratched and shredded in places and his arm bleeding heavily on one side. He'd been taken down by fairies, tiny, whimsical creatures he thought only existed in books and children's movies. To say his pride was wounded was a bit of an understatement.
"So, I may have underestimated the power of the Fay," he mumbles to Steve's back, reaching up to cup his other hand over his wounded arm.
Steve turns to him then, eyes narrowed beneath the cowl and jaw set tight. "What the hell was that?" He demands, gesturing back toward the street and the area Tony had been taken down in. "You could have gotten yourself killed or worse, someone else. How could you have been so reckless?"
Tony blinks in surprise and feels his own eyes narrow. "I'm reckless? What about you, waiting around to discuss a plan while the city is being destroyed by mythical creatures? Do you really think discussing battle strategy was going to stop them from turning Time Square into rubble?"
"We needed a plan so something like this didn't happen!" Steve growls, motioning to Tony's bloody, injured arm. "God Tony, why is it so hard for you to follow orders?"
"Oh, I can follow orders just fine," Tony counters acidly, glaring at the soldier in front of him. "I just have a problem following yours. We're not your little toy soldiers, Steve. Get that through your head."
"And diving headfirst into a battlefield is a better course of action?" Steve scoffs, crossing his arms over his chest. "I'm sorry, I forgot that you already knew everything about modern warfare."
It's a low blow, one that Steve may or may not be aware that he's even made, but it sets Tony's teeth on edge. "I know a hell of a lot more than you do, Rogers," he growls through clenched teeth. "You've been frozen for the past seventy years so don't act like you can just swoop in and save the day because you have a fancy title in front of your name. You haven't even caught up with all presidents who have been in the White House since you've been unfrozen, let alone the advancements of modern war and destruction. Sure, you fought Nazis and took part in the Great War; we're all very impressed. But I'm here to tell you Steve, you know absolutely nothing about the world you've woken up in and you have no right to come in an act like the leader when you're just as clueless as Thor is about how the world works."
A muscle in Steve's jaw twitches and his eyes narrow even further. "I'm warning you Stark-"
"Oh, you're warning me now?" Tony challenges, stepping closer, getting right into Steve's face. "Well warn away Captain Asshole because I'm done taking your orders. I don't need your by-the-books attitude and all your patriotic bullshit. I don't need you breathing down my neck and criticizing every decision I make. In short, I don't need you, Steve. So take your lectures and condescension to someone who cares."
He turns on his heel before Steve can respond and shoots back up into the sky, aiming for the Tower. His exit isn't as graceful and fluid as he would have hoped for, his suit damaged from the fairy attack, but he manages to regulate his flight path after a few minutes and fly in a straight line. He'll leave the cleanup duty to S.H.I.E.L.D and anyone else unlucky enough to draw that short straw. It's a dick move, he knows, leaving the rest of his teammates like that but he honestly can't put up with another word from Steve today. He's done, he's had enough, he's out. Maybe he'll apologize tomorrow or next week or next month but not today. Today he needs to stay as far away from Steve as possible because if he doesn't it really might come to blows between them. And he can't imagine the publicity would be good if he's seen punching Captain America in the face.
He locks himself in his lab when he gets back to the Tower, cranking up the speakers in the room to drown out all noise that could filter in from outside the door. He blocks all calls and ignores the text messages; he wants to be alone to work in peace for a while. He's not sure when his teammates get back but he hear's Bruce's voice on the other side of the door through the pounding bass of ACDC. He doesn't open the door but he does turn down the music enough to hear the other man tell him to at least make sure the wound on his arm is clean.
Tony almost smiles; whether he would admit to it or not, Bruce was the mother hen of their team. Ever the worrier. Cleaning the wound and getting it stitched had been the first thing Tony did when he got back to the Tower; no sense in being stubborn and getting taken down by an infection. The wound was small but fairly deep, three perfect gashes across his bicep left by sharp fairy claws. The wound hurt and had bled pretty badly but it wasn't serious. A few days of wearing a bandage around his arm and keeping the wound clean and the stitches should be out within a week or so. It'll make a bitchin' scar once it's healed, too.
He keeps the door locked well into the night, working tirelessly on repairing the damage done to his suit. It keeps him occupied and it keeps his mind off of the argument he'd had with Steve earlier in the day. He knew what he said was wrong, his criticisms petty and petulant, but he didn't care at the time. Off the battlefield, Steve wasn't so bad but anytime he put on that suit, he just rubbed Tony all the wrong way. It didn't help the fact that Tony had grown up in Steve's shadow all his life, his father's tireless search for the long lost Captain leading him to neglect his son through much of his childhood. So yeah, Tony lashed out at Steve a lot; years of pent up anger and frustration for a man he'd never met suddenly surging to the surface once Steve came stumbling into the picture. It wasn't fair to Steve but Tony didn't care and he couldn't really control what came out of his mouth sometimes as much as he would have liked.
It's well after midnight when he finally finishes the repairs and slips out of the lab. The hallway is empty and dark, the others either in bed or elsewhere in the Tower but for the moment he's alone. He walks down the hall to his room, slipping through the door and into the bedroom without being seen. Well, almost.
Steve's silhouette appears in the hall just as Tony ducks into his room, pausing mid-step like he wasn't expecting to see the other man in the hallway of his own home. They regard each other in tense silence for several seconds, eyes dark in the hallway. Finally, Steve sighs heavily, his shoulder heaving with the effort, and he levels Tony with a tired look. "We are going to talk about this, Tony," he mumbles quietly, watching the other man's expression carefully. Tony closes the door in his face.
Yes, it's childish but he doesn't care. He doesn't want to talk to Steve and he doesn't want to be around him, not now at least. He strips out of his clothes as he walks across the darkened room and collapses on top of the unmade bed gracelessly. He'll worry about facing Steve tomorrow but for now he just wants to sleep and forget about the disastrous day. It's dark and quiet and Tony feels his eyes begin to flutter as sleep approaches. He moves his injured arm just slightly to take pressure off the wound and feels himself fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Tony jerks awake to the opening guitar riff of For Whom the Bell Tolls, wincing as the stitches in his arm pull tightly. He groans and slaps a hand over his eyes, fumbling blindly for his cell phone. Stupid automatic alarm…
His fingers brush over the smooth surface of the phone and he tries to pick it up but it slips out of his grasp and tumbles to the floor with a muffled thump. "Son of a…" he mumbles, slumping over the side of the bed and snatching the phone from the floor. He turns off the alarm and sighs, blinking up at the blank ceiling above him. Another day in paradise.
He sits up slowly, passing a hand through his wayward hair as he does. His eyes feel dry and strained, too much time behind goggles yesterday while fixing his suit. It will more than likely cause a headache later in the day but he doesn't focus on that for now, he instead focuses on standing and walking across the room to the bathroom. Too much whiskey from the night before makes the toilet a vital necessity and all of his thoughts are trained on that and nothing else.
Mission accomplished, he turns and walks into the shower stall, turning on the water and jumping a bit when the icy spray hits him in the chest. His arm aches and throbs slightly as he tries to lift it to remove the bandages, the movements a bit stiff and measured as the stitches tug against his skin in warning. He manages to get the bandages off with one hand and looks down to examine the healing wound. The scratches are red and painful but they don't look infected so he takes that as a positive sign. He hisses softly when the water hits it but stays there and lets the hot stream wash away the remainder of the dried blood around the wound.
He cuts the shower off and steps out, drying off deftly and pulling on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. No meetings today, no conference calls, no appointments; it's casual Wednesday and he's taking full advantage. It takes a few tries but he manages to re-wrap his injured arm on his own, the bandages slightly uneven and askew but holding tightly all the same. With nothing left to tend to in his room, he walks to the door and steps out into the hallway, aiming for the kitchen. Coffee is the next vital necessity and the only place to get that is the kitchen.
Everyone is already up by the time he makes it to the kitchen, sprawled around the main living room leisurely. Clint and Natasha are sitting at the kitchen table, Natasha skimming through a Sudoku puzzle and Clint working on securing a few new arrow tips to the handful of barren shafts on the table. "Look," Clint begins, looking up from what he's doing to settle his gaze on Natasha. "All I'm saying is that it's not physically possible to scale up the side of the Empire State building without being seen. There are people everywhere, tourists lining the sidewalks below, not to mention the people inside the building itself. You'd have to be invisible to get all the way up there without at least one person seeing you."
"It is possible," Natasha counters smoothly, not bothering to look up from her puzzle. "I've done it. Twice. In broad daylight. And you should really pay attention to what you're doing when you work with razor points. You don't want another mistake like last time."
Clint rolls his eyes and secures the pointed tip to the arrow. "Last time was a freak accident. There's no way that will happen-" He hisses and jerks his hand away, a thin line of blood appearing on the tip of his finger. The blood wells thicker and slides down his finger, large, crimson drops slipping off his fingertip and onto the table. Drip, drip, drip. Clint curses and rolls his eyes, shooting a semi-glare at Natasha's smirk across the table. "I'll be right back," he mutters, standing up and walking to the nearest bathroom to find a bandage.
Tony passes him in the hallway, the assassin muttering another curse as he walks by. "Bandaids are in the bottom cabinet," Tony informs him helpfully, slipping through the dining room and into the kitchen.
Bruce is standing by the oven, the kettle on the burner whistling shrilly. The scientist doesn't seem to notice, his attention directed to the cabinet he's currently rummaging through. "Damn, are we out of earl grey?" He murmurs, more to himself than anyone else. The kettle whistles louder and he moves it off the burner without looking away from the cabinet.
"Don't worry, Brucey, we need to make a grocery run this afternoon anyway. We'll get some then," Tony assures him, stepping behind him to the coffee pot and filling a mug with dark roast.
Steve and Thor are in the living room, the thunder god stretched out on one end of the sofa while the soldier sits on the other side. There's a football game on the television, blue and gold uniforms filling the screen, and Thor is watching it with a perplexed expression on his face. "I fear I still do not understand the concept of this game. The goal is to defeat the man holding the ball? Has he wronged them in some way?"
"Well, not 'defeat' necessarily," Steve amends, glancing up from the newspaper in his lap. "They're just trying to stop him from reaching the goal line and scoring points."
"And if they fail?"
Steve shrugs slightly in response. "They keep going back and forth until one team scores points. Whoever has the most at the end of the game wins."
There's a pileup on the screen and Thor's eyes widen slightly. "By Odin, this is similar to a game I once played with the Warriors Three. Glory and praise for the victor!"
Steve smiles slightly and goes back to reading his paper. He glances up, catching Tony's eye once, and then looks back down. They're still on outs with each other, that much is certain, and now it's simply a battle of wills to see who will crack first. Tony has no intentions of being the first to fall, he can play hardball with the best of them. He turns and starts to walk down the hall when JARVIS's voice cuts him off.
"Excuse me, sir, but Director Fury is attempting to call through to the Tower. Should I allow communication?"
Tony pauses in the hallway, very briefly considering telling JARVIS to block the call and ignore it. He sighs and relents, nodding to the ceiling like the AI can see him. "Let him through, JARVIS."
Almost immediately, Fury's image appears on the TV screen in the living room, his expression just as grave and irritated as it always is. "We need you downtown," the director says without preamble. "There've a series of bank robberies happening all over the city and NYPD can't keep up with all the assaults. Every major bank from here to Brooklyn has been targeted; we need to cut them off at the pass. Assemble your team and meet us at the Bank of America on 42nd." The screen goes dark and Fury disappears, the football game resuming its original programming.
Steve stands fluidly and walks toward the door. "You heard him, guys," he announces to the others standing in the room. "The city needs our help. Let's get down there."
Tony resists the urge to roll his eyes at the ever helpful Captain. Can the city go one day without needing to be saved? He doesn't ever remember needing to save the city this much before. The city needs to stop being such a pushover.
Steve brushes past him on the way to his room, stopping just long enough to glance at the bandages around Tony's arm. "Try not to tear your stitches," he says as he passes, the closest he'll allow himself to get to concern. He slips past Tony without another word and disappears down the hall. Tony does roll his eyes this time because of course Steve could still make him feel like an absolute dick with little more than a sentence. He sighs and downs his coffee in one long gulp, dropping the mug into the sink and walking to his lab to retrieve his suit.
It takes less than ten minutes to get the team assembled and down to the bank on 42nd. S.H.I.E.L.D has the street blocked off in either direction and has armed agents stationed in front of the doors of the bank, the employees already evacuated to a safer location. Almost immediately upon arrival, Steve takes on the duty of team leader and starts announcing a strategy. Tony has to bite his lip to keep from making a smartass remark.
"Alright, we know the last banks were hit here," he says, pointing to three red Xs on a map given to him by a nearby agent. "Which means there are three more that could be targeted next, this one right here," he says, indicating the building behind him. "And these two right here. Widow, I want you and Thor to hold down a perimeter around the Chase bank near Times Square."
Both Avengers nod in understanding and Thor loops an arm around Natasha's waist before shooting off into the air. "Hawkeye," Steve continues, turning his attention to the other assassin in the group. "You and Hulk go keep an eye on HSBC; I know Fury was sending agents that way so you should have plenty of backup."
Clint nods and lets out a startled "oomph" as Hulk grabs him in one giant, green fist and slings him over his shoulder like a ragdoll. Three large steps and the big guy and the archer disappear in the opposite direction.
That just leaves he and Tony left working together; joy of joys. Ever the dutiful soldier, Steve doesn't let their argument from the day before affect his leadership and pushes any personal feelings away in place of smooth professionalism. "This bank is the most likely to get hit first," he says, looking at Tony evenly behind the blue fabric of his cowl. "Your suit is the best chance we have at stopping these guys. Are you ready?"
Tony nods wordlessly and checks to make sure his suit is fully powered. He knows he's not off the hook as far as their verbal spar went yesterday but he does admit, Steve has a point. They can hash that out later, right now they need to figure out how to keep this bank from getting cleaned out.
There's a loud, explosive crash somewhere down the street and three heavily armored vehicles burst into view. They're barreling toward the bank with alarming speed, knocking parked cars out of the way like toys. They slam through the roadblocks, screeching to a halt in front of the bank and opening the doors, the thieves pouring out into the street. Each man is armed with assault rifles and riot gear and they immediately open fire at the agents standing in front of the building. The agents dodge and weave to avoid getting hit and Steve grabs several by the arm and shoves them behind overturned cars for cover.
A handful of the robbers blast out the windows easily and walk into the bank while the others stand guard outside, randomly shooting at anything that moves. There are at least fifteen of them, each armed to the teeth, and there's no way backup will arrive in time to prevent them from taking everything in the bank. They need to move fast and they need to move now.
"Ironman," Steve calls over the sound of gunfire and breaking glass. "Try to melt the tires on their trucks so they can't drive away."
Tony nods and does as he's told, landing behind the row of armored cars and blasting their tires with as much power as he can. He manages to destroy the tires on two of the trucks and is working his way to the third when a bone-jarring blast knocks him to the side. He hits the ground heavily, biting back a wince as the impact jostles his injured arm, and looks down to see the side of his suit dented and smoking. He'd been shot, or at least grazed, by one of the armed men who now has his sights fixed on the fallen hero.
Tony tries to get up but he's still slightly numb from the impact and he's not quite fast enough. The man is almost on top of him, gun leveled with his head, and he knows the next shot won't miss.
"Tony!" There's a flash of silver and a loud thunk as the shield catches the gunman in the side. It's a heavy blow, hard enough to knock the man to the side and to his knees, but not enough to make him drop his gun. The man simply turns, re-aims, and fires twice.
Steve stops in mid-step, staggering slightly from the impact of the bullets. Dark blood blooms outward from the center of his chest, saturating the brilliant white star and turning it crimson.
"No…" Tony's voice shakes as he speaks, his eyes wide as the blood stain spreads faster. "No, no, no!" The blast that hits the man from behind is strong enough to incapacitate him, possibly kill him, but Tony doesn't care. He's on his feet a split second later, spanning the distance between he and Steve in a matter of seconds and catching the Captain as he sinks to the ground.
"Steve," he gasps, his voice hitching in his throat as he speaks. God, there's so much blood. Too much blood. "Oh God...Steve, just hold on, okay? You're going to be fine!"
The Captain is trembling in his arms, teeth clenched and breath shuddering. "Ton-" he struggles to speak, the word breaking off midway through and turning into a cough that leaves his teeth bloody. A glossy river of red trickles from the corner of his mouth.
"Don't talk," Tony tells him, cradling the wounded man in his arms and trying desperately to control the bleeding. There's too much, it's pooling on the ground beneath him, staining the concrete a garish maroon. "Don't try to talk. You're going to be okay...just trust me…" He's not going to be okay, the screen inside his helmet reading out catastrophic blood loss and plummeting blood pressure. He ignores it because it's not true, it can't be true, and presses his hand against the gushing wounds in his chest.
"I need help over here!" He cries to the nearest tangle of agents still entrenched behind overturned cars. They can't move, not with the gunmen still firing at them, and Tony is on his own. "Just hang on, Cap. I'm going to get you some help. We'll get you fixed up in no time."
Steve's eyes begin to flutter weakly behind the cowl, his face a bloodless grey. "Steve," Tony mumbls desperately, cupping the younger man's face between his hands. "Look at me. Come on, look at me, Cap."
Glassy blue eyes manage to focus on him for a split second and the trembling slowly stops. He shudders once, a rattling sound deep in his throat turning into wet gasp, and then goes still, his eyes blank and fixed at the sky above.
Tony feel a cold, sick feeling settle in his chest, heavy and suffocating like a ball of lead. "Steve," he says brokenly, shaking the lifeless man in his arms. "Steve." He shakes him harder, desperate to get some kind of response. Steve continues to hang limp and motionless in his arms, the blood staining his chest dark and shiny in the bright sunlight above.
It's Tony's turn to shake now, his eyes furtively ignoring the flatline on his screen and fixing themselves on the blank stare of the Captain. It's not supposed to be like this, this shouldn't be Steve in his arms, limp and fatally wounded. It's not supposed to be like this. It's not!
His grip tightens on the body in his arms, pulling him close and burying his face in the side of his neck. There's blood in Steve's hair, on his face, in his mouth; there's blood literally everywhere and Tony can feel it on his hands. Tony clenches his eyes shut, struggling to breathe past the dead weight in his arms and the slick feeling of blood on his fingers. It's not real. It's not real. It's not real.
It is real. It's all horribly, terribly real and Steve is dead. He died in his arms, he died trying to protect him. Steve died for him. The world feels bleak and empty around him, like a critical element in the universe suddenly blinked out of existence. He's numb to the core, dead from the inside out, and nothing can change that. He doesn't know how or if the bank robbery is stopped, he doesn't react when the S.H.I.E.L.D agents come and pluck Steve's body away from him and wrap him in a white sheet. He doesn't flinch when the Hulk lets out an enraged roar at the discovery of their dead Captain or even when Thor lights up the sky above them with a lightning storm. He doesn't move when Clint looks at the blood on the ground and all over Tony's suit in stunned disbelief and he stays silent when Natasha slams her hand against the side of his helmet and begins cursing at him viciously in Russian. He doesn't move, he doesn't speak, he simply stands there looking at the puddle of blood at his feet.
They make it back to the Tower at some point but Tony isn't sure how they got there. He doesn't remember leaving 42nd and he doesn't remember who it was that finally pulled him away from the destroyed bank. The news is already filled with headlines about the death of Captain America and the fall of a national icon. Someone threatens to rip the radio out of the helicopter and Tony isn't too sure he isn't the one who says it. He doesn't know who puts their fist through the TV in the living room when they get back to the Tower, the headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen in bold, capital letters. It doesn't help and it doesn't change anything: Steve is dead and he isn't coming back.
The night passes by in a hazy blur, the remaining Avengers drifting around the Tower like phantoms. At some point Clint and Natasha disappear off to one of the training rooms and begin sparring as if their lives depend on it. They attack one another brutally, no holds barred, punching, clawing, kicking at one another like it will somehow make it okay. Natasha ignores the tears in Clint's eyes and he pretends he doesn't hear the hitch in her breath that sounds suspiciously like a sob.
Thor goes up to the roof and locks the door behind him, isolating himself from the others and sitting alone beneath the wide expanse of the sky above. Mjolnir is at his feet, heavy and useless in the aftermath of the battle. He doesn't move for a long time, he simply stares up at the sky like it will somehow yield him the answers he needs. When he disappears into a portal that links back to Asgard, no one bothers to question it.
Bruce locks himself in his room, lights off, no sound, nothing but absolute silence and darkness. He tries to meditate, he tries to make sense of it, he considers praying even though he's sure it won't help anything right now. He finds a tight corner in one side of the room and tucks himself into it, knees pulled up to his chest and fingers tangled painfully into his hair. He tries to make himself small and disappear into the darkness; he tries to drown out the keening growls and snarls that echo endlessly inside his own head.
Tony hides away in his lab with a full bottle of whiskey and a hammer. He doesn't know what he's going to do and he doesn't really care. Something is going to be destroyed in his lab by the end of the night and he's going to let it happen. He goes on autopilot, his hands working without his mind directing them and there's a loud screech and clang of metal on metal that does nothing to drown out the sound of Steve choking on his own blood in his mind.
He works and dismantles for hours, destroying and tearing apart anything he can get his hands on. He blinks through angry tears and curses himself furiously well into the night. He was too late...too fucking late...By the time he finally stops, his fingers are bleeding, the bottle of whiskey is empty, and his suit is nothing but a pile of scrap metal on the floor of his lab. He can't tell where his blood begins and where Steve's blood ends on the surface of the suit but it doesn't matter. Steve's blood is still all over his suit and that means it needs to be destroyed. Simple as that.
He's too drunk to stand up and to be honest he doesn't even want to so he settles with crawling across the floor to press his back against the wall. He's ripped the stitches loose in his arm and there's blood traveling down his bicep, streaking across his forearm to his hand and dripping to the floor. He looks at the torn stitches and the bleeding wound critically like it had somehow personally wronged him. Try not to tear your stitches...wasn't that what Steve had told him this morning? Wasn't that what he'd said when he was alive and well and breathing and not bleeding out in the middle of the street? Tony continues to stare at the broken stitches and feels a hysterical surge of laughter bubble up from his throat. He laughs at the blood streaming down his arm and digs his fingers into it, tearing at the bleeding wound. It hurts like hell and he laughs long and hard and painful and at some point that laugh turns into a sob.
It catches in his throat, midway between a choke and gasp, and he lets out a frustrated growl to get past it. Tears are streaming down his face, hot, bitter tears that feel like acid in his eyes and he lets them fall. His head tilts back and bounces off the wall behind him, shoulders shaking slightly against silent weeping. He slides down the wall and ends up half-curled on his side on the floor. His gaze drifts across the room the scattered remains of his suit and he closes his eyes against the sight. He doesn't want to see it, doesn't want to remember the blood on it and know the reason behind its destruction. He closes his eyes and wills himself to fall into a dreamless sleep.
There's a loud blaring noise close to his ear and he jerks awake sharply. He blinks blearily and looks around the room, taking in the change of decorum carefully. He's not in his lab anymore, he's in his room, in his bed, and his phone is blaring with the automatic alarm. He growls and closes his eyes against the intrusive noise, burying his head beneath the pillow. He doesn't know who moved him from the lab last night but they should have left him there.
A small, selfish part of him wishes that his alcohol induced unconsciousness could have lasted a bit longer so he wouldn't have to face the cruel, bleak reality of the day before him. Steve is dead. Steve died in his arms yesterday. Captain America is no more. He wants to crawl back into his hole of inebriated delirium and stay there.
He can't though, he can't allow himself to be that thoughtless and selfish anymore. He has to take responsibility for his actions and see them through to the end. Arrangements need to be made and they need to retrieve Steve's body so they can give him a proper burial. A hero's burial.
Tony reaches out from under the pillow and tries to grab his phone but it slips from his grasp and tumbles to the floor. "Mother fucker," he grumbles irritably, leaning over the edge of the bed and snatching the phone off the floor and turning off the alarm. It's a sick reminder of yesterday morning, mere hours before Steve was shot to death in front of Tony. He swallows the burning swell of bile in the back of his throat and slings the phone onto the bed.
He walks to the closet to grab a change of clothes and stops as he reaches for a shirt, looking down at his arm in confusion. It's been re-wrapped, clean, sterile bandages looped over the gashes in his arm securely. He frowns and unwraps it, inspecting the wound critically. The stitches are back in place, the torn ones replaced with straight, surgical sutures. The hell? Was he that out of it that someone re-stitched his arm without him noticing? Seriously, how drunk was he last night? And for that matter, why isn't he experiencing a more crippling hangover this morning?
He grabs a shirt and a pair of jeans, still perplexed by the re-dressed injury on his arm, and gets dressed with only half concentration. He doesn't bother with a shower, it's simply more effort than he's willing to give at this point in time. He sighs heavily, mentally bracing himself for whatever is about to come, and steps out into the hallway.
Clint and Natasha are sitting at the dining room table, Natasha jotting down number in a Sudoku puzzle and Clint attaching razor tipped arrows to the blank shafts on the table. Bruce is digging around through the cabinets, the kettle on the stove whistling softly at his side. It's just like the day before, just like yesterday morning, and Tony feels himself freeze in the hallway.
"Look, all I'm saying is that-" Clint begins and Tony feels himself reel back at the conversation topic. Steve is dead. Steve just died yesterday and they're going to sit here and talk about scaling the Empire State building?! Tony can understand denial and different coping mechanisms but this is too much.
"-in broad daylight," Natasha counters from across the table without looking up. "And you should really-"
"The fuck, guys?!" Tony snarls from his place in the hallway, causing both assassins to jump slightly and look up at him. "Are you two really just going to sit here and act like nothing happened?!"
Clint blinks in surprise and looks at Natasha for clarification. Receiving none from her end, he looks back at Tony. "And a good morning to you too, Mr. Stark," Clint replies with a quirked eyebrow. "Mind telling us why you're in such a snippy mood this early-"
He stops and hisses, looking down at the arrowhead between his fingertips. A line of blood seeps from the slice in his finger and drips down onto the tabletop, three perfect drops dotting the flat surface. Clint curses and rolls his eyes dramatically. "I'll be right back," he mutters, standing and walking into the hallway toward the bathroom.
Tony blinks in confusion, the deja vu making him feel lightheaded. He reaches out and catches Clint's arm as he passes, gripping his bicep tightly for some sense of stability. Clint frowns at him curiously. "You alright, Stark? You look like you're going to be sick."
Tony shakes his head and takes a steadying breath. Time to break out of this weird, denial Twilight Zone. "Clint, we need to talk about Steve."
Clint's frown deepens and his eyebrows knit together in confusion. "Steve? What about him? Did you two get into another fight or something?"
"What? No!" Tony shakes his head again, feeling like he's been slapped. "We need to start making arrangements, find a nice Catholic church, request a Goddamn 21 Gun salute for fuck's sake!"
If possible, Clint looks even more confused. "Stark, what the hell are you talking about? Did you hit the bottle too hard last night?"
Tony wants to shake him, hard, to knock some sense into him but he stops instantly when another figure appears in the hallway. "Clint? Everything okay in here?"
Tony feels his heart skip and stop briefly when Steve steps into his line of sight. The Captain is standing there at the mouth of the hallway, looking confused and little disapproving of Tony's behavior but he's there, living, breathing, and alive. Not lifeless and bloody in the middle of the street outside the Bank of America on 42nd. Not cold and limp in Tony's arms. Tony releases Clint's arm and clears the hallway between he and Steve in two short steps. "You're alive…" he says breathlessly, reaching out hesitantly and touching the Captain's shoulder.
Steve's expression mirrors the confusion Clint had shown moments earlier and he peers into Tony's face carefully. "Tony, are you feeling okay?"
A dream. It had all been a dream. A horrible, gut-wrenching dream but a dream nonetheless. He lets out a shaky breath and squeezes Steve's shoulder once to assure himself that he really is there. "Yeah...yeah, I'm okay. I just...I had a weird dream, that's all…"
Steve doesn't seem too convinced, his expression a mixture of concern and confusion. "Maybe you should go lay back down. You don't look so good."
Tony starts to shake his head and insist he's alright but JARVIS's voice cuts through the the hallway overhead, explaining that Fury is attempting to call through and asking permission to allow the call. When Tony doesn't immediately respond, Steve steps in for him. "Go ahead, JARVIS."
Tony is still frozen in the hallway and it takes both Clint and Steve to unroot him from his spot on the floor and bring him into the living room. Thor looks up at him in concern just as the football game on the TV switches from blue and gold players to Director Fury's grave expression. "We need you downtown," Fury explains the second he appears on the screen and Tony feels a sick, slow flip in his stomach. Just like the dream…
He doesn't hear much of the mission, just that banks are being targeted and the Avengers are needed to prevent more robberies. He feels sick and anxious throughout the debriefing, his palms sweating and causing the denim of his jeans to become damp beneath them. Steve casts him a careful glance a few times, frowning in concern at the older man's behavior. When Fury disappears from the screen, he turns to face him fully and fixes him with a level stare.
"Tony, seriously, what's going on with you?" Steve asks, looking the genius up and down carefully. "You look like you've just seen a ghost."
Tony shakes his head, trying to clear away the dizzying sense of deja vu. "I don't know. I...I had this dream last night and now it's happening all over again...like the dream is turning into reality." He shakes his head and looks Steve dead in the eye. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
Steve's expression softens just a bit and he reaches out to pat Tony on the shoulder reassuringly. "I'm sure it's nothing, probably just too much stress. Maybe you should go to bed early tonight? Try to get a good night's sleep?"
The animosity from the day before seems to have bled out sometime in the night and Tony feels himself sag slightly beneath the Captain's hand. "You're right...I guess. Maybe…" He takes a steadying breath and nods, shoving the lingering anxiety to the side and putting on a brave face. It was just a dream, nothing more. Right? "Let's go stop a bank robbery."
The roadblocks are already set up by the time they get there, S.H.I.E.L.D agents out and armed, guarding the doors to the bank. Steve drops into his role of team leader and starts pairing them off in teams of two to cover more area. Tony swallows the thick knot of apprehension in his throat. It was just a dream. Just a weirdly vivid, weirdly accurate dream…
Steve has turned to him now, talking in slow even tones, but Tony doesn't catch it the first time. "What?"
The Captain frowns, blue eyes stormy with concern. "I said your suit is the best chance we have to stopping these guys."
"Oh...right…" Tony nods hesitantly, palms sweating beneath his metal gloves. There's a screech of tires up the street and he whips toward the noise, instinctively taking a step in front of Steve. He looks back over his shoulder at the soldier, the younger man's shoulders already set and ready for the oncoming battle. "Steve, listen, don't try to be a hero today, alright? No matter what happens, promise me you won't do anything stupidly heroic like you always do."
The Captain looks confused at the request. "What do you-?"
"Just promise me!" Tony practically growls, his hands clenching into fists at his side.
Steve doesn't have a chance to respond before the armored trucks swerve through the roadblocks and screech to a halt outside of the bank. The doors open and the robbers swarm out, opening fire on the agents surrounding the bank. The agents scatter like birds and Steve is reaching out and catching a few as they run by, shoving them behind overturned cars for cover.
Tony doesn't wait for Steve's command to destroy the tires, he's already blasting them into oblivion by the time the Captain turns to him. From the corner of his eye, he sees one of the gunman turn toward him and aim, the shot that's going to knock him down and inevitably get Steve killed. He dodges to the side seconds before the round can hit him, rolling up from the ground and firing a blast at the offending gunman. The man drops to the ground, gun sliding out of his hand and across the glass strewn street.
He sees Steve stand up behind the car, eyes fixed on him like he's trying to assess any kind of damage the other man may have sustained. Tony is almost giddy with relief; Steve is still alive and well and just a bit confused. He'll be there tomorrow to be a continuous pain in the ass and that's just perfect in Tony's book.
His relief is short lived and fleeting as something cylindrical and metal sails overhead toward the car where Steve and the other agents are entrenched. Tony recognizes it just a split second too late and the words are ripping out of his throat just as the bomb hits the car.
There's an earth-shaking explosion, the heat staggering and intense enough to be felt through the metal of his suit. The concussive blast knocks him off his feet and sends him sliding across the pavement, slamming him into a parked car painfully. The flames burn hotter and brighter, the gas tank of the destroyed car adding fuel to the fire. Tony struggles to his knees and stares at the wreckage in gut-wrenching disbelief.
There's nothing left...no body, no remains, nothing. The only thing left of the Captain is a heat-warped and dented shield, black ash and soot covering up the star in the center. Tony refuses to believe it, running scan after scan of the wreckage and running to the burning crater where the car had been not seconds before. Everything comes back negative, his frantic dig through the molten metal turning up fruitless. Steve is just...gone. He's gone.
Tony shakes his head numbly. "No...no, no, no...this isn't right…" he mumbles to himself as runs yets another scan of the wreckage. "No, I fixed this! I changed it! He wasn't supposed to die!" He doesn't know who he's yelling at, himself in all probability, but he's so caught up in it that he doesn't realize a handful of agents have surrounded him on either side and are physically pulling him away from the still burning vehicle. He struggles against them, fights back and tries to pull away, but shock and disbelief is making him weak and uncoordinated and they subdue him easily. They drag him away and Tony finally lets himself go limp and be pulled along.
The day ends the same way it did before: they end up back at the Tower, hurt and raw with grief, and everyone disappears off to their own corner to cope. Natasha and Clint go to the training room, Thor leaves for Asgard, Bruce locks himself in his room. Tony locks himself in his lab but this time he doesn't have the bottle of whiskey and a hammer, he has notepad and enough coffee to fuel a small army.
While his team grieves the loss of their Captain, Tony begins working out formulas and equations that directly relate to time paradoxes. This happened before, he's sure of it, now he just needs to figure out how and why. Break the loop and break the cycle: Steve will survive and the paradox will be broken. Tony is nothing if not logical; he doesn't believe in premonitions or visions of the future, he believes in science and science is what's going to fix this. It doesn't stop him from labeling the list of formulas as The Final Destination Theory.
He pulls up every file he can on space/time theory, parallel universes, and time travel. Most of it is theoretical, never tested and never proven, but for every theory there's at least one grain of possibility and he'll use whatever he can get at this point in time. He works late into the night, tirelessly and driven with single-minded purpose. He works until his eyes burn and begin to flutter as he opens another file. He saves his work and his research and keeps working even as exhaustion forces him to sit down and take a break. He'll figure this out, he has to...Steve's life depends on it.
He's not sure what time it is when he finally gives up because the files and screens are so blurry he can't see anymore. He's still sitting at his desk when his eyes slip closed without his approval and refuse to open again. He's already drifting by the time he realizes he's falling asleep and by that time it's too late to do anything about it.
He's not exactly surprised when his wakes up in his bed the next morning, the opening guitar riffs of For Whom the Bell Tolls blaring in his ears. Disoriented, yes. Surprised, no. He grabs his phone, drops it to the floor, curses, and turns off the alarm. He's up and walking across the room to the closet to change clothes before his brain catches up to what he's doing. His arm is re-wrapped and stitches closed, big surprise. He changes and immediately goes to his lab to continue working on his notes from the night before.
At least he would if they were still there. His lab is spotless, files empty and notes gone, like they had never been there in the first place. He searches every cabinet and drawer in the room but they're just gone. He resists the urge to groan. Of course they're gone...the day hasn't happened yet so he hasn't written the notes and done the research. Everything he found from the night before is gone, it never existed because today never happened. God, he hates time loops…
He's out of the lab and walking down the hall toward the kitchen just as Natasha and Clint begin their argument over scaling the Empire State building. "It can be done, Natasha's done it, she has the medals to prove it," Tony mutters as he walks by, effectively cutting off the debate before it can even get started.
Both assassins look at him in stunned confusion for a moment as he passes by. "And Clint, pay attention to what you're doing or you'll slice your finger open." There's a hiss of pain behind him and he sighs quietly. "Just like that."
Bruce is headfirst in the cabinet above the stove, the kettle whistling shrilly beside him. "Damn, are we out of-"
"Yes, we're out of earl grey," Tony cuts him off, grabbing the other scientist by the elbow and hauling him out of the kitchen. "We'll get some later. Top of my to do list. Right now we have a crisis."
He pulls the other man along through the hallway, finally releasing him when they get into the lab. "Okay, double Jeopardy speed round. Tell me everything you know about time loops."
Bruce blinks in confusion, looking between Tony and the door like he's debating how effective it would be to try to make a break for it. "Excuse me?"
"Time loops," Tony repeats, trying his best to be patient and failing miserably. "Time paradoxes. Deja Vu. Groundhog Day. Take your pick as far as terms go, I really don't care. Other than myself, you're the smartest guy I know. So tell me what you know about them."
Bruce still looks confused but he considers the question thoughtfully. "You mean like repeating sequences of time?"
"They don't exist," the other man says with a slight shake of his head. "They're just a theory."
"Nope, that's where you're wrong because they do exist and we're stuck in one right now," Tony counters sharply. "How do you think I knew what Natasha and Clint were talking about before I ever walked into the room? How do you think I knew you were looking for earl grey? Because this has all happened before. Everything that's happened this morning has happened already and it's going to keep happening unless I can find a way to stop it."
"What's going to keep happening?" Bruce asks, dark eyebrows furrowing slightly as he continues to stare at the other man.
Tony sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "In about ten minutes Fury is going to call through and tell us about a series of bank robberies. He's going to ask us for our help and we're going to go down there like the big damn heroes we are and everything is going to go straight to hell in a handbasket." When Bruce still regards him with confusion, he sighs and continues. "Bruce, if we go down there, Steve is going to die."
That gets the other man's attention and he frowns darkly. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about this mission going straight to shit and Steve paying the price for it!" Tony nearly shouts, gesturing wildly with his arms. "Yesterday he got blown to pieces by a pipe bomb. The day before that, he was shot and died in my arms. This has happened before, all of this! And if we don't stop it, Steve is going to die again!"
Bruce's frown deepens and he shakes his head slightly. "How can you be so sure about this?"
Tony balks like he can't fathom how the other man can be so dense. "How can I-? Are you serious?! Bruce, I have never been so sure of anything in my life! You have to believe me. Please."
Bruce still doesn't look convinced but he sighs and passes a hand through his hair absently. "Okay, well, if this bank robbery is going to go down and Steve's going to get killed in the process, I supposed the easiest thing to do would be to make sure he's nowhere near the bank when it gets attacked."
Tony blinks once, twice, three times before he lets out a soft huff. "So...just send him somewhere else?"
The other scientist nods, adjusting the glasses on his nose. "Exactly. If Steve is somewhere else entirely, it should disrupt the cycle enough to break the loop. You said each time he's been killed has been in front of the bank so if he's somewhere else, he should be safe. Right?"
Tony weighs the idea carefully for a moment, thinking hard on the details. Bruce has a point: if Steve is relocated to a different point in the city, he won't be targeted by the armed robbers and their armored trucks. It's as good a plan as any, better than anything he could come up with save chaining Steve to the stove and leaving him there until they got back.
JARVIS's voice cuts through into the lab, informing him that Fury is trying to call through. Tony does his best to ignore the stunned expression on Bruce's face when the message comes through and simply points up at the ceiling in a silent gesture of see, I told you so. He glances at him from the corner of his eye and makes his way toward the main living room. "Let's hope your theory is correct."
They receive their mission and assemble quickly, Steve looking slightly confused and uncomfortable at the intense stares both Tony and Bruce are leveling at him. By the time they reach the roadblocked bank, he's sufficiently weirded out and pulls away as quickly as possible. He starts pairing them off, just as he'd done both times before, and Tony jumps in to offer an alternative suggestion.
"Cap, why don't you go with Hulk and I'll keep Clint here with me?" He suggests, catching the other scientist's eye briefly just before he morphs into his rage fueled alter ego. "I can get a better view above the street and Clint has his fancy new arrows that can take out the bad guys before they ever make it to the front door."
Steve eyes him carefully, seemingly trying to determine whether Tony is being serious or not. Finally he relents with a soft sigh and a nod. "Okay. But if you two need help-"
"We won't," Tony assures him quickly, cutting him off before he can finish. "We'll be fine on our own. Right, Legolas?"
Clint scowls and points an arrow at him threateningly. "Watch it Stark. I'd hate to miss and accidently shoot you in the ass with one of these things."
Tony just waves a hand flippantly at the threat. "Good one, I'm terrified. Now go, get out of here," he insists, catching Hulk's eye once more before the Captain catches on. Whatever still remains of Bruce inside the Hulk's mind understands the unspoken message and the big guy nods once in response. He snags the Captain in one large, green hand and bounds off in the other direction, whisking Steve away from certain death like a knight in furious, green armor.
Tony feels like a weight has been lifted off his chest, a surge of relief washing through him powerful enough to make him momentarily giddy. Steve is safe. Steve is not going to die a horrible, painful death today. All is right in the world.
That is until the armored trucks screech into existence and empty handfuls of heavily armed bank robbers into the street. Clint ducks and dodges to one side, firing several of his arrows and taking out the nearest clump of gunmen closest to the front of the bank. Tony takes out another group and the S.H.I.E.L.D agents move in to take out the remainder. The armored trucks are surrounded and put out of commission and the few remaining robbers are quickly apprehended by the rest of the agents.
It's over before they know it. The bank is saved (if a little structurally unsound thanks to the windows being blown out) and he and Clint and the rest of the agents are alive and well and victorious in the street. Things couldn't have gone better.
The reverberating roar that echoes through the city quickly shatters that illusion and Tony feels his heart sink to his stomach. "No…"
He shoots off into the air, leaving Clint and the other agents behind. He locks in on Hulk's location almost instantly but he can't lock in on Steve's. He feels the same cold, sick feeling settle in his stomach just as it did the day before. This can't be happening. He broke the cycle. He fixed it…
The sight before him is beyond anything he could have imagined. The front of the other bank has been reduced to rubble, large chunks of concrete and foundation jumbled together in haphazard piles. Small fires dot the rubble piles like tiny bonfires and the air is thick with dust and smoke, the smell of burning rubber and ozone filling the street around him. Pipe bombs...the robbers had used pipe bombs in this attack too. Pipe bombs that had destroyed the bank they were attempting to rob.
He'd been so focused on the attack at the Bank of America that he never stopped to think of the possibility that the other banks would be hit at the same time. The bank were being hit in clusters, two and three at a time, the robbers splitting off into groups and striking simultaneously in order to cover more ground. A brilliant plan, really; it's a shame it took him this long to figure it out. The bombs were the same ones from the other bank, probably intended to blast open the vaults once the thieves made it inside; they were too powerful though and the blast had fundamentally weakened the interior of the bank. A collapse was inevitable. And from the furious digging and scraping Hulk was currently engaged it, it wasn't hard to guess that Steve was somewhere beneath all that rubble.
With a lump in his throat, Tony scans the rubble carefully, clenching a fist at his side when the search reveals nothing. No heartbeat, no signs of movement, no signs of life. If Steve is still under there, it's too late to do anything for him.
He steps forward, metal hand reaching out to touch a large, green wrist. "Hulk...stop…" he starts, the words staggering in his throat when that same large, green hand sweeps him backwards across the street like an annoying fly. He tumbles to the ground, landing heavily on one knee and catching himself against a large chunk of rubble. The Hulk meets his eyes for a split second, his expression stretched between fury and desperation. He's not going to give up until he finds Steve, no matter how hopeless the situation is now. Tony nods slightly in acceptance and walks back over to help him with the gruesome task of recovering their teammate's body.
It takes several more minutes of digging to find Steve, Hulk growling and grumbling fitfully in the back of his throat as they continue to remove rubble. Tony says nothing, he just digs. Steve is dead again, after they did so much to ensure it wouldn't happen. He removed him from one deadly scenario and placed him in the middle of another. It wasn't supposed to happen like this...it was supposed to work…
A chunk of concrete the size of a Prius is pulled away and Steve's broken, lifeless body is found underneath. He's covered in blood and dirt and dust, limbs broken and suit ruined. He's dead; Tony doesn't even need a scanner to understand that. He remains silent as Hulk gathers the Captain's broken body into his arms, cradling him carefully against his chest like it will somehow make a difference. There's nothing they can do, it's already too late. Steve is dead and Tony can't figure out how to change it now.
He flinches only slightly when a thunderous roar shakes the ground beneath him. He waits patiently while the Hulk slams his fist into the ground again and again, all while keeping Steve cradled in his arms. He lets him grieve because this is the first time Hulk has seen Steve die and he deserves to be left alone to deal with the loss. This isn't Tony's first time though, it's his third, and he can't even feel grief anymore; he just feels numb.
When S.H.I.E.L.D arrives, it takes a shit ton of persuasion and several sedative darts to get Hulk to release Steve's body over to the agents. He snarls threateningly at them and slams his fist into the ground as a warning as they try to come closer to collect the body. He doesn't want them to touch the Captain, he doesn't want them anywhere close to him. Tony does his best to talk him down, tries to be placating and sympathetic at the same time. It doesn't work, it only make Hulk angrier. When some nameless agent in the crowd plants four tranquilizer darts into Hulk's shoulder, Tony doesn't try to stop him.
He watches passively as the big guy teeters and sways and finally collapses to the ground with an earth-shaking thud. He feels his fist clench once more when the agents step forward, solemn and serious, to collect Steve's body. He turns away when they cover him with a sheet and load him into the back of a waiting car. Another group of agents set to work at gathering the unconscious Hulk from the street and one young agent steps forward to offer them a lift home. Tony nods silently and goes with them.
The rest of team has already been informed, about everything. Shock and disbelief greet him when they re-group and Tony can think of nothing to say in terms of words of comfort. It's a silent ride back to the Tower and Tony racks his brain over and over trying to figure out what went wrong, where did he mess up, why did this happen again?
The night plays out exactly the same way it did the two other times before. Everyone disappears off to their own corners of the Tower and the universe and Tony locks himself in his lab again. He starts working out the same formulas and pulling the same files from the night before, rewriting all the research he'd already done. It's frustrating and more than a little demoralizing because it feels like all the progress he'd made the night before was for nothing; it's gone, disappeared into some unknown void along with the day before. No one remembers the day before except for him, no one has any idea they're stuck in a time loop except for him and it's a burden Tony doesn't want to carry. He needs to figure out a way to stop this, there has to be a way…
He works for hours, saving his research on every medium he can think of. He saves it in the system, he saves it on the computer, he emails it to himself, he save it on flash drives, he even goes so far as to meticulously write down every single thing he's done in an empty notebook and tuck it away in a locked drawer. Deep in the back of his mind he knows it's pointless; once the day resets itself, all the data will be lost and he'll be back to square one.
He tries something else different and attempts to keep himself awake that night. He drinks three full pots of coffee in two hours and washes the coffee down with Red Bull. If the day resets itself when he falls asleep, then maybe staying up all night will break the cycle. Granted, it won't help Steve at all, particularly now, but if he can break the loop, he can at least find a way to prevent Steve from dying over and over again and give him the chance to mourn him properly. It's an extreme measure, one he's not sure will work, but he's reaching the desperation point now and he's willing to try pretty much anything.
It doesn't work. At some point in the night, exhaustion begins to get the better of him and he feels himself nodding as he pours over another file in front of him. He tries to stand up to shake off the weariness, to get more coffee, to do something, but that doesn't work either. His legs give out from under him and he topples to the floor in an uncoordinated heap. He feels weak and shaky all over, unsure whether the shakiness if from the exhaustion or the very real possibility of a caffeine overdose.
He struggles to get up again but his arms lock halfway up and he feels his face smack into the cold tile once more. His eyelids begin to flutter and he fights against sleep as hard as he can but it's not use. His eyes slip shut and he's falling asleep before he can stop himself.
Metallica jerks him out of a sound sleep and he reaches over to the bedside table and slings the phone across the room as hard as he can. For a long minute he just lays there, staring at the ceiling and trying to find the energy to get out of bed. It's the same as before (again), everything is exactly the fucking same. He's getting really sick of this endlessly repetitive day.
The morning goes along in exactly the same way from the arguing assassins to the explanation of football. No one has any recollection of the day before or anything that happened; big surprise, it's still just Tony. Fucking perfect. The call comes in at the same time and they assemble just like they did before. When they reach the bank, Tony insists that Steve should go with Thor this time and get as far away from the other two banks as possible. Steve looks confused like he always does but agrees with the plan and disappears off with the thunder god.
He and Natasha save the bank and Clint and Hulk come out alright on their end but something goes wrong on Steve and Thor's end. In an attempt to short circuit the electrical systems in the thieve's armored vehicles, Thor sent down a bolt of lightning powerful enough to knock out the power grid for one whole block of the city. Unfortunately, the bolt was too powerful and Steve was standing just a bit too close to the point of impact and got electrocuted. He was dead before he ever hit the ground.
Tony can't even bring himself to be surprised by this anymore. He gets back to the Tower that afternoon and drinks until he can't see straight.
The next morning is the same (again) and this time when they split up, he sends Steve off with Clint. He and Hulk have just finished taking out their faction of bank robbers when a panicked, stuttering plea for help comes through the comm link in Tony's helmet. He already knows what's wrong before Clint ever says it and when he gets there, he finds Steve on the ground with an arrow lodged in his throat. It's a freak accident, he has no idea how it happened or what went wrong. Clint had missed (Clint never misses) and struck Steve by accident. The arrow had punched cleanly through both the carotid and the esophagus, leaving Steve to both bleed to death and drown in his own blood at the same time. Lovely.
The morning after that, Steve is paired off with Natasha and it's all Tony can do not to let out a defeated sigh when she calls for assistance. Their bank had been struck too because irony is a cruel, heartless bitch, and Steve had been taken out yet again. A bus. A Goddamn bus had flipped through the air following the first round of explosions from the pipe bombs and Steve had tackled her out of the way to avoid being crushed. Too bad he couldn't avoid the same fate himself. And then, to make it even better, the bus had caught fire with him still trapped beneath. Crushed beneath multi-ton city bus? Check? Incinerated beneath said bus? Double check. Seriously, what the actual fuck?
It quickly becomes clear to Tony that nothing he does during the mission or before it makes a damn bit of difference: Steve is doomed to die one way or the other no matter who he's with or what he's doing. It's like a karmic bitch slap and Tony is way too old to put up with catty, cosmic anomalies for much longer. If Steve leaves the Tower to protect the city that morning, he's destined to die. Fact. So Tony does the only rational thing he can think of. He bans him from coming.
"Hate to do this to you, Cap, but I'm calling the shots today," he tells him one morning just as Fury's face fades from the TV screen and is replaced with the football game. "I'll patch through to Fury and tell him you're taking a sick day. No city to save, no innocents in need of protection, no leaving the Tower for you today. The rest of us will go take out the bad guys all on our own. You, sir, are grounded."
Steve frowns darkly, his eyes stormy with defiance. "Just what the hell do you think you're trying to pull, Stark?"
"I'm pulling rank, Capsicle," Tony counters fluidly, ignoring the way the others are looking between the two of them like kids watching mom and dad have an argument. "You've been a bit sloppy on the battlefield lately. Slow, uncoordinated, I think age is finally catching up with you, gramps."
Steve looks outraged at the insinuation but Tony doesn't back down. "We can't keep our team together and be worried about you at the same time. So I'm putting my foot down and saying you're staying in today. You step one foot outside this Tower and I'll make sure JARVIS locks you in a broom closet for a week, got it?"
The others slip out of the room behind them, silent and quick like a shadow fading. Steve looks around for backup or some kind of assistance but finds none. He turns back to Tony, blue eyes turbulent with hurt and anger. Tony feels like someone is twisting a knife in his stomach.
"Steve, please," he starts, sighing heavily to keep his resolve. "Just trust me on this. I'm doing this for your own good. When I get back, you can rant and rave at me for the rest of the day if that's what makes you happy. If not...well, you'll more than likely forget all of this by tomorrow."
Even as he says it, Tony says a silent prayer that that's not true. He wants this to be the last loop, the last cycle in an endless rotation of days. He wants Steve to be pissed at him tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. He wants him to be mad as hell for a whole week because that means they'll finally be out of this and they can move on from there. One can hope at least.
He pushes past Steve, leaving the younger man standing rigid and furious in the hallway. He can deal with Steve being mad at him for the rest of his life as long as it keeps him safe. "JARVIS, activate protocol X1 Alpha once we leave. No one gets into the Tower and no one gets out until I get back."
"Acknowledged, sir," the AI responds a little guiltily when Steve's shoulder tense even further.
Tony glances over his shoulder one last time, feeling the knife twist a little bit more at the wounded expression on Steve's face. He swallows thickly and shakes his head. "Just stay here, Steve," he mutters as he steps into the hallway and leaves the younger man behind.
No one speaks once they leave the Tower and their Captain behind. The questions are there, right on the tip of their tongues, but Tony doesn't have an answer. He's tried to tell them, he tells them every day but it never helps. They never believe him until the inevitable happens and their team is left without its Captain. So he stays silent and ignores the questioning stares that drill into him from his other teammates.
The attacks happen the same way they always do, the banks hit in simultaneous assaults that leave the S.H.I.E.L.D agents scattered and in need of assistance. It takes a bit more work since they're one member short but they manage to subdue the thieves and defend the banks as much as they can. The agents are busy tucking the criminals away into the back of their cars and Tony dares to hope that this is all finally over and that Steve is still safe and sound back at the Tower. The call that comes through is a sharp, staggering shot of reality though.
There had been a fire at the Tower, chemical, electrical, they're not sure. All they know is that a fire started in the top floors of the Tower and swept through the upper rooms like a fire storm. The few employees who had been in the Tower that morning were all tucked away in the lower levels of the building and weren't affected by the blaze. Terrified because they were essentially locked inside the burning building until Tony got back, yes, but not injured. No, the only ones who would have been hurt in the inferno would have been in the top floors. The same top floors that Tony had left Steve in before they left to stop the bank robberies.
The fire had spread quickly, burning hot and intense and moving faster than it could be stopped. There's very little left of the top three floors of the Tower, the hallways nothing but burned out skeletal shells of their former selves. The flames had spread so quickly that they had destroyed the internal wiring system built in to detect fires in the first place. The sprinkler system was destroyed, the safety protocols glitched from the damage, and the Tower had burned.
Somewhere in the middle of the charred remains of the upper floors of the building, Tony finds Steve's body, what's left of it at least. And there isn't much left. Really the only reason Tony knows it's him is because the remains are vaguely human shaped. It doesn't look like Steve, no blond hair and stunning jaw line. It looks like the burned out remains of a wildfire, black and small and destroyed. He knows it's Steve though, as much as he may hope it isn't.
He'd left him here hoping he would be safe, not realizing that sanctuary would prove to be Steve's death trap. No one gets in or out...that's what the protocol had ensured. The windows had been reinforced both internally and externally to prevent breakage and access to the lower floors had been restricted to prevent Steve from leaving the Tower to help his team. He'd been trapped up here, no salvation except to hope the smoke inhalation would kill him before the flames did. Steve had died horribly once again and Tony couldn't do anything to stop it.
He doesn't remember sitting down but that's how they find him, silent and still in the blackened walls of the hallway, Steve's charred remains stretched out before him. The Tower smells like smoke and burned flesh, the scent heavy enough to make anyone else gag. Tony doesn't feel anything. He sits with his back against the wall, staring blankly at the fire damage all around him. He doesn't remember the rest of the night.
As the days continue to repeat themselves, Tony feels his options begin to wear thinner and thinner. He tries everything he can think of to make sure Steve stays safe but none of it ever works.
He tries tucking him away in the Tower but some kind of disaster always manages to strike, claiming Steve as it's sole casualty. The elevator collapses, there's a gas leak in the hallway, a prototype Tony had tucked away months before decides to malfunction and explode the minute Steve gets close enough to it.
He tries changing up the mission as much as possible, sending Steve off by himself in the complete opposite direction of the banks in the hopes that he'll avoid the conflict altogether. One day he's struck by a speeding car, the next an AC window unit topples out of an apartment building and crushes Steve's skull from it's 12-story plummet. Helping out with the mission doesn't fix the problem either because then Steve suffers getting shot, blown up, and all other manners of gruesome deaths that can be directly related to the robberies themselves.
He tries sending Steve away completely, ostracizing him from both the Tower and the mission at hand. The helicopter that comes to pick Steve up at the Tower and take him to the Helicarrier explodes in mid-air, killing everyone onboard including the Captain. When he forces Steve to take a cab, the car loses control in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and the vehicle and its occupants both disappear into the murky water of the river, neither resurfacing once the car sinks to the bottom of the river. When Steve takes his motorcycle to the opposite end of the city, he's struck and killed by a random motorist not paying attention to the road.
Tony is straight up losing his mind. Nothing works, nothing changes Steve's fate, he can't figure out how to break the cycle. Every single day Steve dies a horrible, gruesome death and every single day Tony is the only one who knows it's going to happen. He does everything he can to stop it but all of it is in vain. Steve always dies and Tony can do nothing but watch.
He's lost track of the days by now, all of them running together into an endless nightmare of death and anguish. When his alarm wakes him up that morning, he doesn't even try to move. He lays there, staring at the slim, black outline of his phone on his bedside table. The alarm goes on and on and Tony swears to a laughably absent God that if he ever gets out of this time loop, he's going to delete every trace of Metallica he owns. Hell, he might even take it one step further and personally visit the band members and ask if they'd mind terribly erasing the song from existence. He's sure it's possible, it has to be...he just has to figure out how to break this cycle first.
He doesn't bother getting out of bed, there's no point when he knows exactly how the day is going to unfold. He lays there, wide awake and staring, for close to half an hour while the world churns on around him. Distantly he can hear voices down the hall, two assassins discussing the probability of scaling the Empire State building in broad daylight. He can almost hear a kettle whistling in the kitchen and the announcer's voices as they commentate on the football game on the TV. He doesn't move when he hears Fury's call come in over the intercom and he doesn't acknowledge JARVIS when he asks if he should authorize the request. He guesses someone does, though, because then he can hear the message from down the hall and the sounds of shuffling as the Avengers bustle around to assemble. Tony doesn't move, he refuses to get out of bed for this again.
He still refuses to move when his door slides open and Steve steps into the room. A healthy, strong, alive Steve Rogers. Not for long, his brain reminds him bitterly. Give it time. The Captain walks over to the bed, already suited up and ready to go, and kneels beside the mattress. "Tony, we have an assignment. Are you coming?"
For a moment he can't speak. He doesn't know what to say and the very energy of opening his mouth to form words seems crippling. He knows what's going to happen and it's everything he can do to keep from having a nervous breakdown right there in front of Steve. He shakes his head slowly and closes his eyes. "I can't do this anymore, Cap. I can't do it again…"
The Captain frowns, the slightly annoyed expression fading from his face and replaced with confused concern. "Can't do what, Tony?"
"This," Tony mumbles, indicating Steve with a small wave of his hand. "It's all the same, it's always the same. I can't do it anymore…"
Steve's frown darkens and he pulls the cowl away from his face. "Tony, what are you talking about?"
Tony sighs and rubs his eyes tiredly. He's told Steve the reason at least a dozen times by now, he's explained this so many times that he feels like it's permanently programmed into his speech patterns by now. He tells them all over and over and it never helps. Why should today be any different?
"You're going to die today, Steve," he says simply, his eyes drifting up to meet the younger man's. "I don't know how and I don't know why but you're going to bite the big one at some point today. This has happened over and over, every day for longer than I care to think about. Every day you die and every day I'm always just a little too late to stop it, one step behind, one miniscule fraction of a second too late. You die and I'm right there, watching, and unable to do anything to stop it."
He shakes his head again and looks down, unable to hold the confused Captain's gaze any longer. "I've done everything, everything I can think of to save you and it never works. I've researched time loops and repetitive reality paradoxes until I could write my own book on the subject. I've tried to change your fate every day for months now and it hasn't helped at all. Nothing I do matters, nothing I do changes anything, and I can't do this anymore."
He closes his eyes and moves a hand to cover them as well. "So I'm sorry Cap...but I'm not going today. I can't watch you die again, knowing there's nothing I can do to stop it. I just...I can't do it again…"
Steve is silent for several seconds, his expression troubled and more than a little confused. When he finally speaks, he's hesitant and a little unsure. "You're really serious about this, aren't you?"
Tony sighs heavily and nods. "I wish I wasn't, Cap...I wish I was pulling some stupid prank on you and that any minute now I would hop out of bed and laugh about how easily you were fooled. But I'm not. I'm serious as a heart attack and I hate it. I would give up anything to change this reality but it never seems to work."
The pained honesty in Tony's expression is evidently enough to convince Steve that he's telling the truth. His expression softens further, concern bleeding into his blue eyes. "Why didn't you tell me about any of this?"
Tony resists the urge to let out a hysterical little laugh. "I did, Steve. I've told you about this so many times I've lost count. I've told everyone I can think of, I've spread the good word of the Final Destination Theory. It never does any good. No matter if you start to believe me or not, it doesn't stop fate from intervening and making sure you end up in the obituaries by the end of the day. I can tell you to be careful all day long, tell you to take extra precautions and try to keep you away from danger but that doesn't stop you from being taken out by something beyond my control like a chunk of blue ice falling from the sky from a plane passing by overhead. That happened last week actually…"
He lets out a slow, exhausted breath, fingers curling unconsciously in the bed sheets. "The point is, I can't do this again. Not again. If I have to watch you die one more time, I think I really might lose what little bit of sanity I have left."
Steve is silent for another minute, taking in the information without a word. Finally, he nods slightly like he's reached some kind of conclusion and reaches out, resting one hand on Tony's shoulder. "Okay, I'll stay here with you then. If you think that would help?"
Tony shrugs slightly, his expression defeated and tired. "I don't know that anything will help at this point, Steve."
"Well, we have to try something, right? Maybe this will help give you peace of mind at least." Steve stands slowly and turns toward the door. "I'll go tell the others you're not feeling well and I'm staying behind to watch over you. If they need help they can call us."
Tony watches him go silently, barely allowing himself to hope that maybe this will work. He's tried everything else, hoped for everything else...maybe this will be the key. Maybe if he keeps Steve within sight range, locked inside the Tower with him for the rest of the day, maybe that will be enough to break the loop. God, he hopes it's enough to break the loop…
When Steve returns a few minutes later, Tony still hasn't moved from the bed. The soldier doesn't seem perturbed by this and simply walks across the room, taking a seat on the other side of the bed and settling back against the headboard. The TV is turned on and the channels skimmed until they land on some history program documenting the American Revolution. If Tony had a single ounce of sass left in him, he'd probably make some kind of smartass comment about the matter. As it stands now, he just keeps his mouth closed and watches the reenactments play out across the screen.
The morning passes by quietly, no tragedies or crises emerging at the Tower. The call comes in close to an hour and a half later that the Avengers had been successful in stopping the bank robberies and would be returning to the Tower as soon as they got the streets cleaned up. Everything is going better than expected and when Steve gives him a reassuring smile, Tony hesitantly returns it.
It's been close to three hours since the call came in and Tony suddenly comes to the realization that he's never had to pee so bad in his life. He stands awkwardly, body stiff and sore from laying in one position for too long, and starts to walk toward the bathroom. He stops and turns back to the bed, his eyes landing on Steve.
The younger man gives him a patient smile at the silent hesitation. "Tony, I'll be fine for a few minutes while you get yourself cleaned up. I doubt anything can happen to me while sitting in the bedroom."
Tony wants to counter that Steve doesn't know that, a whole number of things can happen while he's sitting in the bedroom, but he doesn't. He hesitates for a second more, debating whether or not rupturing a kidney is worth it in the long run. Finally, he can't wait anymore and sighs heavily. "Don't move, alright. I mean it. Do. Not. Move. I'll be out in five minutes, ten tops."
Steve nods in understanding and leans back against the headboard a little more to get into a more comfortable position. Tony watches him for another long minute before finally relenting and closing the door to the bathroom.
He doesn't bother with a shower but he does take the time to comb wet fingers through his hair in the hopes of taming the wild beast that's decided to take up residence on his head. He uses the toilet, splashes his face with cold water, brushes his teeth and generally tries to make himself look more like a functioning human being. It takes seven minutes and eighteen seconds. He times it on his watch, he knows exactly how long it takes.
When he opens the bathroom door, the TV is still on across the room, the Battle of Lexington and Concord playing out across the screen. Steve is still on the bed, back resting against the headboard, arms crossed over his chest, lolled to one side and eyes closed lightly. He looks like he's sleeping, relaxed and at ease in the quiet stillness of the room.
Tony isn't fooled for a second, he knows better and he can feel his heart begin to pound against his ribs as he crosses the room and lays a hand on the Captain's shoulder. Steve's skin is cool beneath his touch, pale and bloodless against his fingertips. The younger man tips to the side lifelessly, his body limp and unresisting when Tony pulls him into his arms. He's not breathing, his heart isn't beating, he's dead and gone already.
The logical part of his brain locks on to the most obvious answer: heart failure. Steve was technically in his 90's by now, it's not a surprise that he would simply pass away in his sleep with no warning. Tony can't bring himself to accept that answer though. Seven minutes. Tony had let him out of his sight for seven fucking minutes.
He cradles Steve in his arms for a long time, feeling his body grow slowly stiffer and more rigid with the slow passage of time. "I told you this was going to happen…" he mumbles to no one in particular. Steve is dead and he's in the room by himself, he has no idea who he's talking to. It doesn't stop him from rambling on. "I told you I couldn't stop it...God, I wanted so much for you to be right...I wanted this to stop. But it won't...it's just going to keep going and going…"
He shakes his head and lowers his chin to rest on the top of Steve's head. "I can't save you Steve...I don't know what else to do…" Steve is getting heavier in his arms, dead weight combining with rigor mortis to make his body that much heavier. Tony refuses to let go.
"Tell me what I should do…" he growls to himself more than anything. He doesn't know if he's talking to God or not; he feels that if there was a God, he would have at least stepped in to offer a sign by now. But no, there have been no signs or points of direction or any kind of divine intervention. Tony figures if there was a God, he's decided to be remarkably absent for several months now. "I can't do this anymore...please...just tell me what I should do."
He closes his eyes and allows his mind to drift, thinking back over the conversation he'd had with Steve earlier that morning. I would give up anything to change this reality but it never seems to work. I've done everything I can think of to keep you safe…
He opens his eyes after a moment, a lightning strike of an idea forming in the back of his mind. He has no idea if it will work, if it will change anything at all, but it's the one thing he hasn't tried. In all the days of watching Steve die, there's only been one thing he hasn't tried to spare him his grisly fate. He looks down at the body in his arms and tightens his hold on the deceased Captain slightly.
"There may be a way out of this yet, Cap," he mutters softly, fingers gripping the cool, stiff flesh beneath his hands. "I think I know what we have to do to break this cycle…" In spite of the body clutched in his arms, he manages to smile; the first real smile he's experienced in months.
He keeps his arms around Steve and leans back against the edge of the bed, tilting his head back against the mattress. "I'll see you in the morning, Cap," he mumbles quietly, closing his eyes and allowing himself to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Metallica's guitar riffs wake him up the next morning, he doesn't throw the phone across the room or break it in half the way he'd done a few days earlier. He reaches over and tries to pick it up, dropping it to the floor with a muffled thud. He lifts it off the floor and turns off the alarm, getting out of bed and walking across the room to his closet. He grabs a change of clothes and goes into the bathroom, taking a shower and getting dressed and going on about his normal routine. Ready to face yet another repetitive day, he steps out into the hallway and walks toward the kitchen.
Clint and Natasha are sitting at the kitchen table, just as they always are, discussing the challenges of scaling the tallest building in New York without being seen. Bruce is looking for earl grey, the kettle whistling softly on the stove, and Steve is explaining the concept of football to Thor in the living room. Tony steps to the side easily when Clint cuts his finger and stumbles past him to get to the bathroom to find a bandaid.
Everything is exactly the same as it's always been, happening the same way it does every morning. Perfect; it needs to stay this way in order for Tony to finally break the the loop. He's sure of it now, more sure than he's been about any of his other attempts, and he has a gut feeling that it will work this time. It has to.
When the call comes in and Fury's face appears on the screen, Tony keeps his face carefully neutral as the director explains the situation. He keeps his expression neutral when Steve turns to him in the living room and tells him not to tear his stitches. He keeps his expression neutral as they all pile into the jet that takes them to the blocked off bank in the middle of the city.
He lets Steve take the lead when it comes to dividing the team, Natasha and Thor, Clint and Hulk, he and Tony. He doesn't try to stop any of them or offer any snarky comments in response to the orders given. Everything needs to play out exactly the same and so far, everything is a mirror image of the way it's been every morning.
Right on time, the armored vehicles come screeching into view, armed robbers hopping out of the open doors and opening fire on the unsuspecting S.H.I.E.L.D agents. There's shattering glass everywhere, the smell of gunpowder and the pop of bullets overhead and it's perfect. It's all going perfectly according to plan.
"Ironman," Steve calls from behind an overturned car. "Try to melt the tires on their trucks so they can't drive away!"
Tony is already ready, he's been ready since he woke up this morning. He obeys Steve's orders and flies over to melt the tires on the first two trucks. He's moving his way to the third one when the bullet hits him from the side, knocking to the ground with the force of impact. It hurts but it's exactly what he expected and he bites back the manic grin doing its best to plaster its way across his face behind his mask. Just a few more seconds…
The gunman levels his rifle on him again and he hears Steve call his name, the shield sailing through the air toward the armed robber. Tony tenses and prepares himself, he only has a split second to make his move.
The shield hits the gunman in the side, knocking him down but not hard enough to make him lose his gun. He turns, levels it at Steve and fires. The bullets hit their mark but it's not Steve they sinks into this time, it's Tony. He'd been waiting for it, anticipating it, preparing for it all morning. The second that shield made impact, he was already up and running across the distance that separated he and Steve. He manages to make himself a human shield just in time for the shots to be fired and the bullets to pierce through both his armor and the arc reactor in the center of his chest.
He coughs and tastes blood but he's smiling as he falls. He can hear Steve shouting his name, strong arms wrapping around him as he sinks to the ground. It doesn't matter, he's broken the cycle, he knows he has, and that's all he cares about. It took him so long to figure it out, too long, but he's finally cracked the code. He's gladly willing to take those bullets, to die today to save Steve the same fate. He's willing to die so Steve doesn't have to because watching him die is probably the worst thing Tony has ever experienced in his life. He welcomes the pain and burn of the bullets in his body with open arms.
The arc reactor is flickering dimly in his chest, blue light fading to nothing but a dull glow that eventually fades completely. Steve is above him, hands pressing over the pierced armor and broken reactor. He looks terrified and desperate, blue eyes brilliant and sharp behind his cowl. But he's alive and whole and safe. Tony could laugh but there's blood in his throat and he doesn't have the lung capacity to breathe right now, let alone laugh.
"Tony, just hang on, okay? You're going to be fine. Just stay with me, got it? Stay with me!" Steve is pleading and desperate, his hands moving from the mortal wound in Tony's chest to remove the helmet covering his face. It clanks to the ground with a metallic thunk and Tony feels fresh air hit his face. It would be a much more enjoyable experience if there weren't two bullets lodged in his chest.
"Tony, hey, look at me," Steve orders, his bloody hands cupping the billionaire's face. He didn't realize his eyes had flickered shut until he's blinking lazily up at the Captain. "I need you to stay awake, understand? Help is on the way, you just have to keep your eyes open for me, okay? Just stay with me."
Tony does smile then, pained and bloody. "I saved you, Cap…" he gasps, a thick bubble of blood gurgling in his throat. "I broke the cycle...I saved you…"
Steve looks confused, shaking his head with incomprehension. "What? What are you talking about, Tony?"
Tony just smiles, his eyes fluttering again. He feels heavy and tired, weighed down like a two ton weight is sitting on his chest. He's happy though, he doesn't know if he's ever felt this happy before. Shame he's dying, really; it figures such strong emotions only happen when you're staring death in the face and saying 'come at me, bro.' "I saved you…" he mumbles again and he really can't keep his eyes open anymore because now, aside from the manic happiness, he's never felt more tired in his life.
His eyes close and he can hear Steve yelling his name above him, shaking him and clinging to him like a lifesaver in a hurricane. He's drifting again, this time to somewhere dark and quiet. Somewhere the light doesn't touch and sound doesn't reach. He's drifting toward a black void and he lets himself be pulled toward it without resistance. Steve's voice fades above him, far away and distant like he's miles away rather than right on top of him.
"Tony! Wake up! Wake up! It's just a dream!"
There are arms around him then, strong and grounding and familiar. He recognizes those arms and he clings to them desperately. When he opens his eyes, he comes face to face with a very frazzled, very worried Steve Rogers. It's probably one of the greatest sights in the world.
"Steve?" He asks, his voice cracking and rough as he struggles to speak. His hands are gripping the younger man's arms tight enough to leave marks but he doesn't care. He hangs on to him like he's afraid that if he loses contact for even a second, Steve will disappear into thin air.
The soldier nods slowly, his arms still wrapped around the billionaire's trembling form. "Yeah, Tony, it's me. Are you back with me, now?"
Tony looks around the room quickly, anxiety replaced with confusion. He's in the hospital wing of the Helicarrier, the wall behind the bed lined with monitors and machines that are all connected to him in some way or another. It takes him a moment to realize that this is the first time in months that he hasn't woken up in his room in the Tower to the sound of Metallica blasting through his phone. This is the first time the morning hasn't repeated itself like a movie continuously being rewound. The memory of it comes back hard and fast like a punch to the stomach and he gasps in realization.
He'd been shot trying to protect Steve. He'd taken the bullets to break the cycle. In order to save Steve and break the time loop, he had to die. He glances down at his chest, expecting to see a thick swath of bandages covering what he thought had been a fatal wound in his chest. They're not there, the skin across his chest whole and undamaged, the arc reactor glowing warmly just as it's always done. That doesn't make any sense...he knows he'd been shot…he'd felt the impact of the bullets. He felt himself die. So how was he here right now, no bullet wounds, intact arc reactor, increasingly worried Steve Rogers hovering beside him?
"You're real…?" He asks hesitantly, his fingers tightening a bit more in the soldier's sleeves. "You're alive?"
Steve frowns slightly, confusion spreading across his features. "I'm-? Yeah, I'm real, Tony. I'm right here. I've been here the whole time."
"I don't understand…" he hears himself mumble and his voice is still croaky and shaking as he speaks. "I don't…what happened?"
Steve frowns a bit more and shakes his head slightly. "Tony, I think you should lay back down for a while-"
"No!" The other man gasps suddenly, catching Steve's wrist in one hand. "Please. Tell me what happened."
The Captain still looks troubled but he sighs and relents to the other man's request. "You know those creatures we fought the other day? The fairies? Well, apparently their claws are filled with a pretty strong venom that causes vivid hallucinations and delusions; S.H.I.E.L.D started referring to it as Wonderland Toxin. It directly affects the fear center of the brain, making the victim experience their worst fears and nightmares. When you got scratched during the fight the other day...well, you got a pretty high dosage of the toxin."
"We didn't know about it at the time," Steve continues, shrugging just slightly as he speaks. "The effects of the venom were delayed for a few hours after the initial injury. JARVIS woke me up in the middle of the night and told me you were running a high fever and hallucinating and we brought you here. You've been pretty much unconscious ever since."
Tony shakes his head slightly, his fingers still gripped around Steve's wrist. He can feel his pulse and focuses on the warm solidity beneath his fingers to ground him. "Ever since…" He shakes his head again, feeling momentarily dizzy. "Ever since when? How long have I been here?"
Steve eyes him carefully, giving serious consideration to whether or not he should call someone in. "Tony, you've been here for almost five days now."
Five days. Almost five days. Roughly 120 hours. He'd been stuck in the time loop for months...120 days, maybe? 120 days where he watched Steve die? Once per hour, one death nearly every hour for the past five days. He suddenly feels sick.
Steve watches him carefully, sees the color drain from his face, feels his fingers tighten around his wrist even more. "Tony, what-?" His eyes widen just slightly and his expression softens. "What did you see?"
Tony doesn't answer, he doesn't want to put it into words because if he does that, there's a chance that he'll fracture whatever thin reality this is and he'll end up right back where he started. He doesn't answer but he turns and grabs a fistful of Steve's shirt and pulls him into a hug so tight it causes the other man to grunt in surprise. Steve goes slightly rigid in his arms because, aside from the occasional punch in the shoulder or jab in the ribs with a pen when he's trying to make a point, Tony is not a touchy-feely person (particularly not with Steve) and doesn't really do the whole physical displays of affection if he can help it. He's clinging to him now though, fingers tangled in the fabric of his shirt and face hidden in the side of Steve's neck.
"Tony-" Steve starts the but the other man just shakes his head against the side of his neck and holds on tighter. Realizing he's not going to get an answer for at least another few minutes, Steve gives in and wraps his arms around Tony's back, holding him securely while the other man continues to cling to him desperately.
Finally, Tony's grip loosens just slightly and he lets out a shaky breath. "You died," he says quietly, his voice barely above a whisper. "You just kept dying over and over and there was nothing I could do to stop it…"
Steve stiffens a bit at the realization and he lets out a slow sigh. "Oh, Tony…" He rubs one hand across the other man's trembling shoulders soothingly and keeps a grounding arm wrapped around him. "I'm not going anywhere," he tells him softly, absolute sincerity in his voice. "It was all just a dream, I promise. None of it was real. Besides, someone has to stick around to keep you out of trouble, right?"
Tony tries to laugh but it comes out as more of a tired huff instead. "That's a full time job, Capsicle."
"We defended the planet from an alien invasion and closed an interstellar portal to another dimension a month ago," Steve informs him drily. "I think I can handle it."
Tony does laugh this time, a soft, breathy chuckle but a laugh all the same. It feels good though, he feels like he hasn't done that in a long time. He sobers quickly and pulls away a bit, his fingers still tangled in Steve's shirt but his body now removed from the embrace.
He steals a glance at the bandages on his arm and looks down, unable to meet Steve's eyes again. Shame replaces his previous anxiety and he shakes his head slowly. "Steve...what I said before...you know, after the fairy fight and good God, that is not a sentence I ever thought I would be stringing together..." He sighs and shakes his head again. "I shouldn't have said that. I shouldn't have lashed out at you. You were right, I was being reckless."
Steve reaches up and squeezes his shoulder lightly. "Well, I probably shouldn't have snapped either. It's just...I lost enough friends during the war, you know? Not too eager to lose anymore." He gives Tony's shoulder one more reassuring squeeze before nodding back to the bed. "And on that note, you should probably lay back down. It's been awkward enough not having your snarkiness around the Tower, the last thing you need is a relapse."
Tony smirks slightly and allows himself to be pushed back against the mattress. "You missed me and you know it."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Steve counters smoothly as he gets the other man tucked back into bed. "Get some rest. I'll be here when you wake up."
Tony nods but he doesn't quite relax enough to fall asleep. Steve's hand is sitting on the mattress beside him and he reaches out and grasps it lightly. Steve says nothing, he just squeezes back in return.
It's only then that Tony feels himself begin to relax into the mattress, the lingering effects of sleep tugging at him keeps his fingers wrapped around Steve's focusing on the feeling of warm skin and the slow, steady pulse beneath his fingertips. Steve is alive and safe, not doomed to die as he had been in his dreams. He's right there beside him, a grounding force to keep the nightmares at bay. Tony feels his eyes growing heavier and for the first time in months, he's not afraid to go to sleep.
When he opens his eyes again several hours later, Steve is still there, alive and well and asleep in the chair beside his bed, his fingers still tangled loosely with Tony's. The billionaire smiles and closes his eyes again.
Thanks for reading guys! :D