A/N: This contains spoilers for the end of Civil War and for Secret Invasion #8. It also contains references to masturbation. It's also chock-full of slash, tragedy, and character death, so if that's not your thing, you know what to do. I don't own The Avengers or Sandman, which belong to Marvel and DC, respectively.
And my mistake is much too late
But your mistake was trusting
That out of grief, a goodness comes
- 'Beauty Is Within Us' by Scott Matthews
There is a voice, and the sound of wings.
Steve opens his eyes as he feels the sharp stab of the bullets fade.
The woman- girl- above him looks like a refugee from a punk and a goth club colliding, her inky-black hair wild, a silver symbol glinting against the darkness of her shirt. He blinks, and for a moment there are great shadowed wings rising behind her, encompassing the world.
"Hello, Steve," the girl says as he struggles to his feet, and all of a sudden the knowledge of who- what- she is slams into Steve like someone's clocked him over the head with a brick, piercing straight through the screams around him and the shouting of reporters and the strange notion that now he is dead.
"Hey," he says, and turns in time to see them load him into the waiting ambulance. His hand dangles off the side of the gurney, limp and pale and blood-spattered, his throat an open gash still leaking. "I- I can't go-"
Death crosses her arms, cocks her hip out, studies him with eyes that hold all the secrets of the universe. "You don't get a choice."
"I need to, I need to make this better, make this right-" and then he hears, with some sense he never knew he possessed, the sound of a scream rattling within metal-filled bones. The sound pulls at him, like it always has.
"Tony," he whispers, and turns, as if to go, but Death reaches out and blocks him, her pale arm gleaming against the sudden dinginess of the world around them.
"Anthony Stark has already been chosen," Death says, and the sadness in her eyes mirrors all the sadness he saw in the eyes of the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen.
"He can't die-" Steve whirls, shroud fluttering, clenches his fists as something boils up inside him. "He's not yours!"
Death throws her head back and laughs. It sounds like the tinkling of chimes. "Not by me, idiot!"
Steve is obviously completely out of his element, and he swallows.
She sobers, unfolds her arms, and Steve catches a glimpse of Sharon's blood-streaked face behind her, her eyes wide and white, her mouth a red howl of pain. But then his attention is pulled back to Death as she says, her voice soft, "Although it might go better for him if it was me."
The ambulance pulls away, lights flashing, and the screaming from the crowd turns to sobs. A short, squat woman with gray skin crouches naked above the splatter of blood where Steve died, and the largest rats Steve has ever seen- larger than the tenement rats of his childhood- swarm about her feet. She smiles with jagged teeth. Death nods in her direction. "Tony's hers, now."
"And who is she?"
The jagged-toothed woman meets his eyes and does not smile. She tears at her skin with a hooked ring and answers with a misty, deadened voice that carries the end of all hope,
Bile rises in Steve's throat as he watches blood puddle on the steps. But he won't- can't- let Tony be alone, can't let him be taken by Despair with no one beside him.
"I have to stay. I have to help him-"
"You cannot-" Despair begins, but she quiets as Death glances in her direction. Steve feels power crackle across his skin, and even the Sentry's power was nothing- nothing at all- like this. Death looks him up and down, reaches out, and tweaks the blue shroud with the star above his chest.
"I like it; it suits you. Bit overly patriotic, but what can you do?"
Steve bristles- she's not listening. But then she smiles, the curve of her lips holding an ocean of tears.
"I cannot give you life, or tangible form. And if you stay, I cannot promise you it will do good, and not harm. But I can bind you to Anthony Stark, and delay your ascent until he accompanies you." She cocks her head. "But really: why stay to watch him fall, when you can't do anything about it?"
Steve doesn't know what to say, except-
"Because even with all he's done, he's still the man who was my best friend, and I won't- I can't- leave him alone, like this."
Death reaches out and almost cups his cheek, her hand hovering an inch from his skin, and he feels the power in her being slither across his skin, cold and tingling like the ocean depths. She regards him with eyes that suddenly- uncomfortably- remind Steve of his mother's as he last saw them, filled with tears.
"You're a good man, Steve Rogers," and she smiles, and then she is gone in the sound of wings.
Steve finds himself in a holding room, standing beside his body. He hadn't realized the toll that the Civil War had taken; hadn't noticed the circles beneath his eyes or the harsh pallor of his skin.
Wishes for a moment that-
He hears the clunking of iron boots, and for a moment he feels the sudden, ridiculous urge to hide, but then remembers that he is-
The sound grows louder, and the door slides open.
Tony stands, framed in the doorway, and wrenches the helmet off, and his eyes are bruised and tormented in a way that they weren't even when Steve had stood over him in the street, and saw Tony practically begging him to kill him. Hadn't been able to do it then, couldn't do it now, even though the shield is so close, blood-spattered, covering the torn wounds. He reaches for the shield even though he knows what's going to happen, and his fingers pass through it without so much as a whisper of feeling.
Well. So much for that.
Tony takes two staggering steps into the room and falls onto a bench in a roll of thunder, rolls the helmet between his gauntleted hands, and stares through Steve with eyes that are twin seas of grief.
Steve reaches for him, hopeless, hand sinking through Tony's chest and out the back, and the sight is so sickening, so evocative of death, that he wrenches his arm out, stumbles back, and-
And then Tony begins talking to Steve as if he is there, and Steve, who thought that nothing could be crueler than watching his world fall apart around him, suddenly understands the meaning of irony.
And the words spill from his lips in a torrent of despair, and for a moment Steve sees a rat scuttle between Tony's armored feet.
He is paralyzed. He cannot move as Tony finally explains everything- everything that he should have known, have understood.
Helpless to move before the force of the utterly broken love in every syllable.
And he understands.
Can't even muster the energy to be angry, only feels a deep sadness embrace him at the sight of Tony, inventive, stubborn, beautiful Tony, who hated himself enough to sacrifice his soul to save the rest of them-
And failed for all his trying.
"And you couldn't tell me?!" he screams into the room full of death, and Tony continues, his face contorted with grief that Steve can understand, for the pain in his chest mirrors it.
"You didn't- you didn't have to do this-"
And he stops as Tony shudders, his voice hoarse and aching, as he speaks of the one thing- the one thing he should have told him-
Raw, half-formed words linger in the air between them, and Steve understands all that is left unspoken.
"It wasn't worth it."
And Tony collapses, fitful, terrible, bone-breaking sobs wracking him, the sounds all the more terrible for their quietness, as if there is no one Tony could ever reveal this grief to.
Bitter love swells inside him, and every moment that he had been too blind to see, to understand for all their complexity, rushes before his eyes in a sped-up film reel of life.
Steve crouches, shroud pooling on the floor in blue-black puddles, wraps intangible arms around Tony's trembling shoulders.
And with every shuddering sob that wrenches itself out of Tony's body, Steve whispers all the words that he could not say against Tony's ear, into the silence of his absent heartbeat-
I love you
I love you
Oh god I love you
And no matter how many times he whispers them, they will never reach the ears of the person who needs them most.
Steve is at the memorial, and it's difficult to resist the urge to shift from foot to foot at the sight of the ridiculous statue and all the mourners in Arlington, a wave of black across the grass. He stands beside Tony at the edge of the stage, the Catholic priest at the podium opening the service.
Replicas of his medals sit in a Plexiglass case beneath the podium, glinting bronze and silver and gold, and all those medals mean nothing anymore, for he wasn't strong enough or smart enough to keep Tony from hating himself so much that he could do this.
The people that supported Registration are here, and somehow it's relieving that the others- Luke, Peter- aren't here, that he doesn't have to see their grief.
Because Tony has more than enough for all of them.
Tony slouches up to the podium, and Steve, with senses even better than they were in life, can hear a woman titter to her husband about how ill-fitting his suit is.
Ill-fitting because it rests not on muscle but on bone straining against skin.
It amazes him that no one can see what Tony has become, that no one wants to see or wants to help, or even care.
Tony swallows, stares out across the mourners, and almost- almost- speaks.
The tension in the air stretches thin as a wire.
One of the Fantastic Four- Johnny, maybe?- mutters, "Do you think he's drunk?"
No, he's not, and for a sickening moment Steve wishes that Tony was, that Tony wouldn't have to stand and stare down into a pit of grief without even alcohol to numb the pain.
Tears streak over stubbled cheeks as Tony mutters, almost inaudible,
"It wasn't- it wasn't supposed to be this way."
A wave of discomfort ripples through the crowd, but not a one of them sees Steve as he steps forward, almost brushes tears away with his thumb, slings an arm without form around Tony's shoulders and paces him, step by halting step, as they make their slow way off the platform.
Someone gives the eulogy, but he doesn't hear it.
Can't hear it over the sound of Tony breaking apart beneath hands that can't even grab the pieces.
After the funeral in the Artic- Steve doesn't really know what to think about his body being consigned back to the depths; he wasn't even in the Navy, but then he had never really thought about where he wanted to be buried, and the ocean seems as good a place as any- the Quinjet lands. Jan and Hank are leaning against each other in the back.
Tony stands from the pilot's seat and leaves the plane, the other two following.
"So… we'll see you, then?" Hank says, scratching at the back of his head.
"Sure," Tony says, pulling off the helmet. His beard is damp from melting ice. He tries to smile, "We can get together for dinner sometime; Jarvis can make his macaroni and cheese."
"Sounds good," Jan says, and then they all stand there, staring at the walls or the floor or their helmet but not at each other, and Steve speaks.
"Talk to each other, damn it!"
But they don't hear him, the first family he ever had in this new world broken beyond repair.
Hank makes an excuse about needing to get back to the lab- "Bet you know how that feels, huh, Tony?"- and Tony nods, a thick laugh shredding out of his throat.
Tony hasn't been to the lab since Steve died.
And Steve can't remember the last time he saw Tony laughing.
Hank and Jan leave. Tony sags, the armor flying off, and he stumbles over to the elevator, and Steve hovers by him, unable to grab him, to bear him up when everything comes crashing in. Tony slumps against the wall and stares down at the floor, the crumpled piece of paper with the most heartbreaking eulogy Steve has ever heard clenched in one bruised fist.
The doors slide open in the living room, the room echoing with all that used to happen here and will never happen again. Steve imagines he can see Peter crawling on the ceiling, water balloons resting on his chest, or Luke and Logan guzzling beer as they argue over watching football or hockey.
Tony pauses, then collapses onto the couch, the paper fluttering to the floor.
He doesn't cry, as if he's locked all the grief away into himself, to fester and brood and poison him.
"Tony," Steve says helplessly, and he leans forward and rests his cheek against Tony's back, the cloth of his shroud sinking into Tony's skin.
For a moment Steve thinks that he's going to go mad, faced with the prospect of fifty years on earth , unable to touch or communicate or do anything, but then he looks at Tony, curled on the couch in a fetal position, ribs and spine pressing against pale skin as if to escape-
And Steve realizes, as he stares into Tony's dull eyes, that it won't be long before Death is back, this time for both of them.
After the invasion, Jan is gone, and Thor hates him, and Norman Osborn has taken his company and his technology and his freedom, and Steve doesn't even know how Tony is still walking around.
Tony's under house-arrest in a house in Malibu, with a robot named Dummy and an AI named Jarvis after the butler, which Osborn gutted of all its personality, for company. They've implanted a chip in him so he can't use the Extremis, and they've stripped his lab of anything potentially dangerous, which turned out to be almost everything.
But they leave an old suit of armor with him, locked up, in case they need him to fight or die for them.
If Steve were alive, were tangible, he would have no qualms about beating Osborn into a bloody pulp.
Tony didn't even fight the ransacking of his lab- just stood there dully and watched as agents carried out armloads of stuff, the remnants of a life that was once happy.
The days are long.
Tony flips through the channels he's allowed, pauses on one for maybe fifteen minutes before he's off again. Steve sits on the couch beside him and watches, provides commentary that Tony won't ever hear. Tony gets proficient at cooking with limited ingredients, although most of what he cooks goes into the trash.
Weight falls off him, until his watch rattles on his wrist.
He spends most of his time sleeping on the couch with Dummy shut down beside him like a faithful dog, waking every night at eleven when Jarvis' alarm goes off to drag himself to bed.
While he sleeps, Steve sits out in the living room and watches television- Tony leaves it on every night, to feel like there is somebody in the house beside him.
One night there is a sound from Tony's room, not quite a sob, and he rises and drifts down the hallway, and leans around the doorframe.
Tony is naked, his legs tangled in his sheets, and Steve turns away, the longing burning thick in his chest. Tony brings himself off in mechanical motions, staring blankly at the ceiling, biting down on his hand to muffle the noise even though there is no one to hear it, and somehow the fact that Tony can't even find- doesn't think he deserves to have- pleasure in this, this simple act, tears Steve to pieces.
He should be in that bed with him. He should be pressing him down into the sheets and kissing the hollow of his collarbone, should be running his hand down that flexing arm, should feel those legs around his waist, pulling him up and in-
Tony's breathing stutters, there is a groan, and then a splintering moan of "Steve," makes him turn, just in time to see Tony bury his face in his bleeding hand and sob, twisting the sheets in his other hand until they rip, shoulders shaking until it seems like they will fall apart into chunks of ash and grief.
He raises his head and there is nothing in his eyes.
Whatever spark animated Tony Stark is dimming, and Steve can't even feel grief for the loss.
Peter and MJ visit Tony in house arrest. Steve hovers in the corner, and watches as Tony sits on the couch across from them and stares blankly at a point above Peter's left shoulder as if it's a new engine prototype. MJ looks uncomfortable, and even Peter looked shocked when he first saw how emaciated Tony's become, at the lack of life in his eyes.
He became catatonic a week ago, the solitude finally crowding in on him, pressing so hard that what little remained of him collapsed inward, retreated from a world that has done nothing but hurt him.
"They took Aunt May off life support yesterday," Peter says as he leans forward, practically vibrating with intensity, his words burning, calculated to wound.
Tony doesn't flinch, or apologize, or react in any way. He sits, hands resting limply in his lap, and this broken shell of a man is nothing like the one Steve loved. His shivering is ceaseless- no food, no body fat to keep him warm, and he keeps the house cold as if to punish himself- and MJ bites her lip, obviously wishing to find a blanket and wrap it around his shoulders.
Steve could show her the blankets, could show her every nuance of this house, but he is dead and there will be no showing anyone anything ever again.
"Well?" Peter snarls.
Tony doesn't move. His shivering intensifies.
"Answer me," Peter says, his hands curling into fists on his thighs.
"Peter, calm down," MJ says, touching his shoulder, before she leans forward. "Tony?"
The two of them should just go, just leave Tony alone so Steve doesn't have to sit here and look at these living, vibrant people trapped in a house with the dead.
Dummy whirs into the room, the camera focusing on Peter and MJ for a moment, who regard the fire extinguisher with suspicion- and in Peter's case, scientific interest- before Dummy trundles over to Tony and, clicking softly, rests what amounts to its head on Tony's thigh.
Tony blinks, as if broken out of some terrible dream, and looks down at Dummy. The robot whirs, and if it were a dog there would be love in its non-existent eyes. Tony's lips twitch into a smile, bereft of joy, and nothing Steve has ever seen prepares him for the sadness that is Tony's thin whisper of,
"Hey, scrapheap." He runs the backs of his knuckles over the metal casing, the sound of his fingers shuddering against the metal ringing like a muffled bell in the silence.
In the end, this is all that he has.
"Tony?" Peter ventures.
Tony doesn't respond, absorbed in the way his fingers caress unfeeling metal. His shirt drapes off his thin shoulders like the wings of a bird.
"Tony, are you there?"
Steve's chest hurts, and he wishes for a moment that Peter could just see that Tony doesn't need this, doesn't deserve any of this, that what he needs more than anything right now is someplace to belong.
But the world has taken any place he could lay his head away from him and left him only with this house crumbling down around his ears.
MJ and Peter exchange looks.
"Let's go," MJ says, standing. Peter hooks his thumbs in his belt loops and stares down at Tony for a long, long moment, and then rakes his floppy hair back from his forehead, the motion a beige blurred reflection in Dummy's chassis underneath Tony's fingers.
"Uh-" Peter begins, falls silent, blunders on, "Um, for- for what's it worth- you don't really- really deserve this, you know?"
Tony's fingers still for a moment, and Steve can see the hope flicker in Peter's eyes that Tony is back, even if he has only returned long enough to answer all the questions roiling inside Peter.
But then those pale fingers resume their unhurried caresses, and Peter deflates.
"We'll visit some other time," MJ pipes up, but they all know that the words ring hollow, that there will be no more visits, for what purpose does a visit serve when the one you want to visit is somewhere you can't reach?
Peter slumps, shoves his hands in his pockets, and the two of them stumble out the door, the locks engaging themselves in a series of clicks behind them.
A shudder rolls over Tony's skin, and a tiny, tortured sound escapes as he murmurs to a Peter already gone,
The end comes.
Tony slams down the phone, Norman Osborne's voice cut off in mid-sentence, and looks down at the chip embedded beneath his skin. It flickers green- Extremis online. Tony breathes out once, twice, and gold slithers over his skin once again. The lockbox the armor is kept in swings open, the armor settling on Tony's exhausted frame, ill-fitting as the man inside is so wasted.
The armor is one of his old models, and the lack of care is obvious- it is already coming apart. He reaches over and taps Dummy on the chassis, the robot whirring inquiringly, before he limps outside, the doors opening for the first time in months.
Steve rises from the ground as Tony does, races through the air beside him over the continent as Tony breaks the sound barrier, and wishes for the feel of an ironclad arm locked around his waist.
The mothership from the latest Skrull invasion attempt looms like a gray behemoth in the air above New York. Thor is there, and Hank, and Peter, and even the X-men, and the air thunders with the sound of explosions and gunfire.
Tony lands, faceplate flipping up, Jessica Drew giving him the most cursory of glances before launching into her question.
"Osborn says you can hack Skrull technology?"
"Depends on what you want me to do, but yeah."
"If we can draw the battleship's fire, can you get in, hack their ship so it blows up or shuts down or I don't know, something?" She dodges as a piece of flaming wreckage sails by them.
Tony turns to stare up at the ships overhead, his voice flat.
"Should be tricky, but I can do it."
Only Steve hears the longing in his voice as he stares at the fire.
"Stark!" Thor calls, striding over to them, lightning boiling in the air around him. "Brave Wolverine has offered to join thee in thy assault."
Tony gazes up at him, and Steve practically sees Thor's rage floating between them. But for all that he spoke to Thor once, the only time he has spoken to anyone since his death, he could not make him understand that he didn't need to hate Tony- that he didn't want him to hate Tony.
"No," Tony says in a voice drained of everything. "Taking anybody with me would just slow me down. I'll do it alone. If you can distract them for fifteen minutes, I should be able to get inside to the engine room." He doesn't even smile as he meets Thor's eyes.
"Looks like I got to do something useful with my life after all."
And the faceplate swings down as he launches himself into the air, and Steve has never seen Tony move so gracefully as when he is going to his end.
From a distance, he hears the beating of great wings.
Thor doesn't even have the time to shout- to say something, an apology, a wish of good luck, doesn't even seem to realize Tony's use of the past tense- before Tony is among the battleships, repulsors twin blazes of white light, searing through the air, carving metal into red-hot slag- he grabs the tail of one ship and tears it off, the hydraulics inside his suit screaming as they break.
The others press on, distractions, as Tony hits the side of the mothership with a sickening crunching sound. He draws back one gauntleted fist, plants it deep in the metallic hull, the frame bending beneath him as he pummels it, tearing a gaping hole.
He steps inside in a blast of flame, a shadow like the shadow of Death's wings against the fire. The Skrulls pile on, snarling, weapons fire soaring through the air, through Steve, and Tony marches into the fire, the suit flaking apart with every hit-
He grabs a Skrull by the throat, snaps its neck with one twist of his armored hand, and throws it into the others, before swinging about, firing a blast from the reactor on the chest through the wall. It melts, and he walks through the hole without even looking at the glowing molten metal beneath his feet.
The Skrulls keep coming, more and more, and Tony wades through them, green blood streaking black over his gauntlets, his chestplate.
He is silent, and only the sound of gunfire and the screams of Skrulls fill the air.
Steve can do nothing- can't warn him, can't fight with him- but be here on his final journey into the dark.
He hopes- he prays- that it is enough.
Cracks span the armor, pieces flaking off, falling to the floor with clanks, and Tony jerks as lasers pierce his back, whirls, repulsors bisecting the Warskrulls firing on him.
Armor covering his left leg breaks, and he rips it off with impatient fingers, throws it into the leering face of a Skrull charging him. The Skrull gurgles, falls back, green blood spreading like a growing tree beneath him.
Red blood streaks the floor as Tony slogs on into the belly of the beast, Extremis trying desperately to repair him, tissue granulating over open wounds halfway before stopping, the healing factor overwhelmed as it tries to fix the damage increasing every moment.
Steve marches beside him, intangible hand at his elbow, and as he feels the life ebbing from Tony he can finally feel the sensation of armor beneath his fingertips, and the grief and the love and the pride wells up inside him in a perfect storm of emotion, and he finds himself choking on it as he feels Tony's elbow settle into his hand.
Tony pauses at the entrance to the engine room, flips his faceplate up as he steps inside the room, the bulkhead door swishing shut beneath him. He welds it shut with his repulsors without even looking. The engines are stuttering, smoke billowing out in choking black clouds.
Tony finds the nearest computer terminal and pulls out a tiny palm computer.
"You can do it," Steve whispers against his ear as he kneels before the terminal, rips its guts out with one shaking unarmored hand, metal tearing great gashes in his skin and the underarmor, searches through the wiring and grabs a thin, crystalline filament that resembles nothing Steve has ever seen, fumbling with bloody fingers to attach it to the computer.
Tony flings his head up at his whisper, his eyes- one black with internal bleeding- wild as he looks around, but doesn't see him.
"Steve," he breathes, before he shakes his head. "No. He's-"
And he applies himself to the computer, lines of symbols that look nothing like any human alphabet scrolling across the screen.
"Have to find the warp protocols," Tony mutters, shaking the computer as he scrolls down, down, down, pauses, lips moving silently. "They came from Throneworld-" he snarls, punching the wall. "Goddamnit you stupid piece of shit, give me the coordinates!"
For the first time in a year, he seems alive.
Steve kneels behind him, arms wrapped around his chest, and can almost feel Tony's skin against his. Tony bows his head, blood- and sweat-soaked hair falling limply over his forehead.
"Found it," he whispers, triumph in every line of his body, as he communicates to someone on the ground through Extremis, too tired- too dying- to remember that he doesn't have to speak.
"The ship will warp back to Throneworld in one minute," Tony slurs, blood bubbling from his mouth. Steve feels it drop, warm and wet, on his skin. "Get everyone to try and push the…" he chokes, spits on the ground, "the battleships back to the mothership so they get caught in the warp."
Tony throws his head back, the computer falling to the ground from suddenly nerveless hands, and leans on one hand, shaking as he presses his other hand to the gaping wound in his side.
"Armor's useless," he says quietly to himself, but laughs, bitter as alcohol, "And it's funny that I still can't give it up."
"Do you really want to die on Throneworld?" Steve says, resting his chin on one thin shoulder.
Tony blinks, drugged, and shakes his head. "Better to die in the city I loved," he whispers.
And Steve knows- Tony's said it more than once- that the only reason Tony loved New York was because Steve did.
"It's almost over," he says, and cards his fingers through bloody black hair, tears welling in his eyes.
Tony's back shudders against him, almost solid.
"I know," he mouths, without even the strength to speak.
Tony struggles upright, broken ribs grinding against each other, and staggers, bracing himself against the wall.
He takes a deep breath, and fires one blast from the chestplate, a pure white beam of energy that rips straight through the floor, through the hull, exposing New York far below.
Steps into the void and falls as the ship disappears in a thunderclap.
Steve falls with him, the wind howling as Tony's thrusters activate once, using up the last of the power from the arc reactor, which flickers dimly before cutting out forever, and then-
Peter's webs wrap around Tony's waist, immediately turning pink as blood soaks them, and he lowers Tony the last few inches to earth.
Tony hits the ground and collapses onto his back, the underarmor sucked back into his bones as Extremis devotes all that remains of it to futile repairs. Steve crouches, cradles Tony's head in his hands, the shroud puddling around them both.
"Tony?" Peter lands on the ground beside him, his voice stricken, and he hops from foot to foot, chewing on his lips beneath the mask. "Oh, God. Stay still-"
The ground shakes as Thor joins them, his eyes- blue as lightning- dimming to slate. "Stark? Thou is-"
Tony's back arches as he coughs blood.
"Oh, shit," someone says. There is a forest of legs around them both, and Steve can dimly hear Jessica screaming for someone to call 911. There is nothing but noise and people running and Tony bleeding out beneath Steve's hands and nobody is saying anything important, nobody is saying 'thank you' or 'sorry.'
"We can't do CPR, his chest is basically crushed!" Hank shouts, jabbing Luke in the chest.
"Well, we don't have many options-"
Tony swallows, his blackened eye rolling to stare at Hank. Luke recoils from the sight.
"Shut. Up," he says clearly from the ruined shell of armor. "No CPR."
"Don't talk!" Peter wrings his hands, "You're not supposed to talk when you're bleeding all over the place!"
"Don't…" Tony tries to breathe, but can't get enough, wheezes, "-care. Ready."
Tony spasms, once, twice as Hank starts shouting that damn him, he doesn't get to die, Jessica wrapping her arms around herself, and there is the beating of wings as he relaxes into a sleep more final that any he has had before.
And then his skin is there, solid and warm and yielding, beneath Steve's fingers, and Steve can't stop the tears.
Steve's world stutters to a halt.
Not Tony's voice.
He looks up and a hundred stunned gazes meet his.
"Cap, oh my God!" Hank is practically hyperventilating, and Luke's gone pale. Even Thor looks shaken.
"Why are you here? What's going-"
And they all fall silent as he looks down at Tony, pale and open-eyed and bloodied like a martyr, brushes his thumb over a cooling cheekbone, his mouth twisting in a smile painful with love, and looks back up at them.
He has been given this chance, and he knows what to say, has known all along. His voice is sure and strong.
"He didn't deserve this."
They do not- cannot- meet his eyes.
He lays Tony's head on the ground, closes his eyes with his palm, stands, and feels himself fade.
"Steve-" they begin shouting for him to come back, to talk to them, but he has no ears or eyes for them.
Only for Tony.
Tony stands barefoot in holey jeans and a grease-stained white wifebeater, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, staring down at his body with bemusement. He is tall and strong and everything Steve loved.
"Tony," he says.
Tony spins, gazes at him, his eyes wide, and he- finally, finally- laughs, breaks into a run, and they meet in the middle, arms around each other, hugging, and Steve scatters kisses over Tony's face, and their tears mingle between them as Tony mutters Steve's name over and over beneath his breath, hands ranging under the shroud, Steve's hands sliding beneath the wifebeater, feeling muscle-actual muscle-flex against his fingers.
Steve cannot breathe, cannot speak, cannot do anything but hold Tony tighter, tilts his head as Tony tilts his and then they are kissing, wild and fierce for all the kisses they never had in life.
"Steve- Steve- God, where have you been?"
"I've been with you."
Tony pulls away, leans back in the circle of Steve's arm, eyebrow arching suspiciously. "All along?"
Steve can't stop himself from grinning, too caught up in the joy of it all. "Yeah."
"Oh, God," Tony shakes his head, but he can't stop smiling, can't stop running his hands over Steve's shoulders, his neck, through his hair, pushing the hood of the shroud back. "That must have been so bad-"
"It was," Steve admits, but leans forward and steals another kiss, "Someone needed to be there, even if you didn't know."
Tony lets his head fall forward onto Steve's shoulder, his arms tightening. "Thanks," the words muffled by Steve's shroud.
"That was awfully sweet of you, Steve." Death stands beside them, ankh gleaming silver, and her wings overshadow the world.
"Ready to go?"
"Hi," Tony says, turning to greet her.
"Hello, Anthony." She giggles, looking him up and down. "If only more men wore wifebeaters when I came for them."
Tony grins, "Yeah, but not all of them can pull it off the way I do."
"Will we stay together?" Steve interrupts, suddenly unsure.
Death tilts her head. "Do you want to?"
"Then I think you will." Death smiles at Tony, her eyes alight with something like joy. "You were a very good man, Anthony Stark."
She reaches out with white hands, the world fading around them.
Steve grabs Tony's hand, squeezing as Tony squeezes his, and they grab hers-
And they are gone in the sound of wings.
A/N: All comments and criticism are loved, cherished, and adored.