There was a side to Tony—a childish, highly prevalent side—that made decisions based on impulse and emotion. Spontaneous because he was rich enough to get away with it, selfish because it was so much easier to deal with the consequences of your decisions later, at some vaguely-unidentified date further in the future. Removed from the present. Removed from the now.
This was the side of Tony that had now claimed complete control of his mind, his body, and his actions. This was the part of Tony that assured his survival in the right here and now. Because he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he allowed himself even a heartbeat to pause, to consider his actions and the turmoil raging within him... he would be utterly and completely destroyed.
This side of Tony—the later part, the anytime but right now part—graciously allowed him to feel absolutely no guilt for the way he snapped Jar Sing's neck like a twig and dropped his body to the cold earth. This side of Tony carefully shunted the horror and guilt and anger away into the dark recesses of his soul, dust to be swept into a dustbin and disposed of in the sleepless hours of the night. In fact, there might even have been a spark of sheer, unapologetic satisfaction in the move.
There were few Kree warriors left now; almost the entire force had been taken out by the initial explosion. A few of the foolish that remained tried to flee. The rest attacked with all the savagery and skill the Avengers had already come to expect from them; had already prepared themselves to match.
The Kree's greatest mistake, in the end, was not realizing that they had just battered the earth team's leader almost to death. No amount of skill or cunning could save them from the Avengers' wrath now. The humans fought like men possessed, and if they were a little more ruthless, a little more vicious than they absolutely needed to be... well. No-one could blame them for that.
They had hurt Steve.
It took too long for Tony to disentangle himself from the three aliens that attacked him, to realize that Thor had just smashed the last living beast into the ground. It took him too long to look back, to seek the soldier out with his eyes and make sure he was still standing.
When he finally spotted him, squinting through smoke and ash, the bottom fell out of Tony's world.
Captain America, wrapped in tattered strips of red, white and blue, lay crumpled and still on the stone. Crimson blood pooled slowly beneath his body, and his skin was absolutely colorless. He looked worse than wounded. He looked gone.
"Steve," the name tore free of Tony's lips. Feeling numb and stupid with his own shock, he forgot how to move. To breathe. Blood roared in his ears and pulsed in his vision. It was Clint who finally shouldered past him and threw himself down beside the soldier's still body. Tony still struggled to inhale.
The others were... gone. Somewhere. Fighting. Working, doing something. They were cogs in a machine playing their part in a way Tony had never managed to, more by choice than inability. With Steve as the motor and the others as functional moving parts, Tony had always been nothing more than a wrench throwing himself repeatedly into the works, almost purposefully screwing up every possible scenario. He was chaos and mistakes; he was carelessness and childish self-importance. Too wrapped up in himself to give a shit about the people around him, about Steve, and it was too late to realize that he cared more about him than he ever had about anyone.
"He's not breathing," Clint choked out, his voice heavy with dread and disbelief. The archer's blood-slicked fingers fumbled for the soldier's wrist, and paused as he searched for a pulse. They moved next to his neck. After a moment too long Clint looked up, his face drained of all color.
"His heart—" the archer said, broken, hollow, and needed to say no more.
That after everything—all they had been through, the wars they had fought, the blood they had shed—that it had come down to this... it was impossible.
Somewhere in the pulsing, smoke-clouded atmosphere the Hulk's roars had ceased at last, but the air still rippled with the harsh groans and pained sounds of a monster slowly transforming back into a man. Bruce was still trapped in his own limbo, unable to return to his rightful place as the team's newfound anchor, the voice of reason, the one they counted on so desperately to keep their leader breathing. It felt wrong that he could not help them now; everything was disjointed and out of place now that he was not there beside the soldier.
But then again... that was Tony's place.
And yet he stood, rooted where he was in absolute horror and fear. The problem was that this was not a consequence that could be delayed. This was not a choice he could make without fear of repercussion; no cause without effect. If he approached Steve—if he touched him, if he saw with his own eyes that there was nothing left—it would be permanent. It would be real.
Without memory of the decision, he was moving anyway. His limbs were numb and uncooperative, the metal plated boots slipping on the rocks, but he was moving. Drawn closer to the soldier by gravity, the moon pulling closer to an impossibly beautiful earth.
Clint was still clenching Steve's tattered jacket in bloody hands, shaking him. Demanding a response, demanding life. The archer's face was streaked with sweat, blood, and ash. He looked alien. Inhuman, monstrous in the face of his own grief. He looked up when Tony drew near, and the billionaire couldn't even find it in his heart to blame him for the fury he saw in his eyes.
"This is you!" Clint growled at him, lurching to his feet as Tony approached, bearing down upon him like a bird of prey. "You sick fucking bastard, this is your fault!"
Tony did not retort, not least because no response existed that could deny the facts. This was his fault. And maybe for a while he had tried to ignore that. Not anymore. He had no defense for the archer's anger, no response for the heart-rending grief that overcame him. He couldn't even process his own.
Stark didn't have to get any closer to Steve to know the facts this time. He didn't have to touch his skin to feel that his heart was no longer beating. He wanted to anyway. He had to.
Clint was in his face, pushing him, shoving him, screaming as rage and grief collided, and Tony could only stand there and take it. It was only a moment before Natasha appeared out of nowhere to pull him away, saying the wise thing, the smart thing, the right thing; to say all the things that none of them wanted to hear. Tony was glad for her intervention, but also resentful. This was not a time for logic or wisdom. This was a time for pain, and if Clint wanted to punish Tony for the pain he felt, the billionaire could no longer deny him that.
Free of the archer's restraint and venom, Tony slid clumsily to his knees beside the shell of the man he had fallen in love with. And even without touching him, even without knowing, he knew that Clint was right. Because Steve was less a man than a spirit, less a life than a force. And now that was all gone. The power that radiated out from him at every moment had withdrawn, pulled into his body like the radiance of the sun being extinguished.
Tony laid a hand on the blond's blood-slicked chest, and his fingers shook. It didn't feel like Steve beneath his palms. It didn't feel like warmth and strength and idealism and naivety. It felt like a vacuum; a blackhole. A wound ripped in the universe, aching and raw and wrong. The air itself was screaming with the injustice of this loss.
"Steve," the billionaire called out stupidly, spoke because he had to. Because there was no way to bypass this, nothing to do but go through the motions. Even if Steve was gone completely, permanently, irrevocably, he had to fucking try to bring him back. He could no more surrender Steve to this fate than he could give up breathing. It was unthinkable. It was impossible.
"Come on," he attempted again through clumsy lips, his voice shaking in a way he could not understand through the numbness of his body. "Come on, kid... Steve?"
The blond looked small below him, almost thin despite his muscle mass as he lay where he had fallen, arms splayed brokenly, his shield useless beneath limp and broken fingers. The angelic face—that same one Tony had watched so many times as he slept—was nearly unrecognizable now. The levity and drive that haunted his features, that depth of conviction, the almost too-honest concern for others... all had given way to a stillness, nearly a peace that Tony had never seen on his boyfriend's face before. It was a sight that would have been welcome under other circumstances. It was a beauty Tony would secretly have given his soul to see. Now, he would have given his soul to see it gone, to see the heaviness of responsibility return. Because at least that would be something more than this, something more than the emptiness.
Anything would be better than this.
Hands still shaking almost too violently to be controlled, Tony reached out, cupped his lover's face tenderly and turned it towards him with both hands. Ash was showering down from a stormy sky, flaking down to rest gently on the red and gold plates of his armor; on the blood and leather of Steve's uniform. Tony tried to wipe some of the garish blood and dirt from the skin of Steve's cheekbone, but succeeded only in smudging the awful grime.
He became only distantly aware of the presence of his teammates as they drew near, Nat still holding Clint, Thor speechless and numb in his own shock. The brunette couldn't even process them, couldn't begin to address them. It all seemed so arbitrary; everything but this. Bringing Steve back to them, back to where he belonged.
"Hey, hey... come on," Tony rambled, panic rising in his chest like a tsunami, intent on killing him if it reached full force. "Come on big guy, this isn't—this is not the way to go out, you know? This is stupid, just aliens... just stupid fucking aliens, how many times have we kicked their asses, right?"
Tony's voice trailed off weakly, distracted by the horrible wounds he could now see on the blond's body, overtaken by the pallor of what little skin could be glimpsed beneath the mire. The odd angles of broken bones and the texture of torn skin threatened to undo him, made it all seem so reasonable that Steve had retreated from this world, from this body and this pain... from him.
Tony could hear someone approaching from over his shoulder, and he didn't have to look to know who it was. Bruce had finally completed his transformation from raging beast back into human form, but his steps were still wobbly and uneven in the exhausting aftermath as he stumbled forward to check the soldier for himself. The doctor was blood-stained and soot-streaked, looking exhausted and old. He was wearing only a pair of ragged jeans and a coat that had no doubt been provided for him by one of the others. He knelt beside the soldier, Nat and Clint retreating quickly to give him room, and performed the same examination that the archer had. His face fell.
"No pulse. His heart has stopped," he somehow found the strength to finish the words Clint had not been able to, and he looked so crushed as he rocked back on his heels and simply looked down at the body of Captain America. He looked absolutely defeated.
"We have to—to do something," Tony rambled, unable to adequately process what those words meant when they came from Banner, from the ultimate authority, "there has to be something we can do..."
Bruce looked up at him with dark eyes, heavy now with guilt and grief.
"What do we do, Banner?" Tony demanded, too far gone to feel ashamed when his voice cracked, "tell me what to do."
"I don't know, Tony," Bruce's voice was monotone and empty, as if he was too drained to feel anything but numb, "I don't know if there's anything we can do."
"Bullshit," the billionaire retorted viciously, grasping Steve's limp hand, flexing and unflexing his fingers as if assuring himself of the blond's presence would be enough to bring him back. "There's always something. There's always a way; some kind of trick or, a shot or—"
"His heart has given out," Bruce explained firmly, capturing Tony's eyes with his own, trying to relay the facts even while they were killing him, "it's too late."
"No," Tony insisted, the edge of something terrible clawing at the edges of his mind, pulling at his sanity and tempting it to fall, "no. This happens, people—hearts have stopped, and you can bring them back—"
He stopped rambling when something close to hysteria threatened his composure. He released his hold on the soldier long enough to rip off the lower armor of his arms and hands, throwing the pieces carelessly to the ash-coated ground until his fingers and wrists were free of the restraint.
Tipping the soldier's head back with shaky hands, the brunette sat up on his knees and placed his palms against the center of Steve's chest, beginning chest compressions with a steely determination, trying to ignore the way broken ribs shifted sickeningly beneath the soldier's skin. He worked like a man possessed, completely focused, ignoring the crumpling features of the team surrounding him as they watched him fall apart.
"Tony," Bruce seemed to be the only one who could even speak now, half-heartedly reaching out to stop the billionaire's frantic movements. His voice was quiet, broken.
Tony ignored the doctor stoically, shouldering his hand aside, pausing compressions long enough to tip Steve's chin up and blow several long, deep breaths into his lungs. He returned to compressions, refusing to make eye contact with Bruce.
The others were as still as statues, shocked into immobility by the unspeakable. Captain America. Their leader, their friend. Still and cold on the earth. It was a situation that defied logic and expression, rattled the foundations of all that they had believed to be true. Steve was the standard by which they all measured themselves. Steve was invincible.
That it could possibly come to this had never crossed their minds. Not even in their worst nightmares.
"Tony, that won't work on him—"
"How do you know that?" Tony demanded, his grief leaking out in the form of anger. He didn't stop trying. His hands clenched together, his arms pumped furiously above an unresponsive chest.
"His heart has been pushed too far," Bruce tried to explain, and it was clear that he hated himself for the words. "It wouldn't stop for anything less than an invading army… CPR isn't going to be enough to start it again."
Tony froze, and for a long heartbeat the doctor looked hopeful that he had finally helped the other man see sense.
"I stopped his heart," Tony said suddenly, looking up with a manic urgency into Bruce's dark eyes.
"You didn't. You can't blame yourself for this, Tony," Bruce assured him gently, if without much conviction, but Tony wasn't listening, wasn't registering a word that he said.
"He said that," Tony pressed on desperately, "just a few minutes ago he told me. He said I was the only one with the power to stop his heart."
Frantic, shaking with adrenaline and haste, Tony fumbled for his discarded armored gloves, sliding them manually back onto his hands and letting his suit's automated systems lock them back into place.
"He said I could start it again, too," Tony's voice grew louder with hope, his movements jerky as he snapped the last piece on. "This is what he meant. This is it, Bruce! I have the power. Right here."
The billionaire held out his hands, palms up, the strange white glow of his thrusters illuminating his face.
Understanding dawned quickly on Bruce's features, and with it, a flicker of the hope he had not allowed himself to feel. It came and went quickly, but Tony saw it, and latched onto it for all it was worth.
"Tell me, Bruce," Tony begged, "come on, give me a number here. How much juice is it going to take?"
Bruce licked his dry and cracked lips, shifting forward on his heels as his brain worked furiously. "A lot," he admitted, but his hands rubbed together unconsciously. It was clear that he was thinking through the process and liking what he was coming up with. "It's going to take—god, a lot."
"I have it," Tony swore, "this will work. It'll work, right?"
"I—I don't know," Bruce shook his head helplessly, thrown by the turn the moment had taken, "his heart is strained, physically damaged—"
"But you can fix it," Tony insisted, and it was a statement, not a question. "If I start it. You can—you can fix him."
"I'll try," Bruce swore.
"Then here goes nothing," Tony breathed, and then turned his words to the AI in his suit, "charge 'em up Jarvis. Full-tilt to palm thrusters."
A soft whirring noise filled up the air between them, escalating to an electrical whine that hovered just beneath the edge of what the human ear was capable of hearing.
"Tell me, doc," Tony tilted his head at the man who knelt across from him. The billionaire held his hands outstretched, hovering over the still chest. "How much do I give him?"
"I..." Bruce cast around helplessly for a clue, for some kind of guide on how to do the impossible. "I don't know," he shook his head, "if it's going to work at all, it needs to be big. It needs to be everything you have, and even then..." he trailed off, helpless to guarantee success.
"Full power it is," the brunette breathed out under his breath, adrenaline pulsing in his veins, hope making him lightheaded.
Tony's armored hands, powered to maximum capacity with deadly electrical force, hung centimeters over his boyfriend's chest. It was a terrifying visual, but the worst part of it all was what came next.
Before Stark could blink his mind was far from the windy plain, flashing back to an alcohol-blurred night that seemed like years ago. He could almost taste the bourbon burning down his throat.
The night was dark around him. A pleading voice carried to his foggy mind; it was Steve's voice. Begging him to stop, to listen, to see reason. To stop destroying himself and destroying them. The sharp crack of splintering wood. The higher pitch of shattering glass. The sound Steve's boots made as he slid backwards across the marble balcony, bracing himself.
Tony's thrusters firing, destructive and hot. Impact. A cry of pain. The balcony glass gave way and Steve was gone.
Tony exhaled in a single harsh rush and planted his palms flat on Steve's chest. He released every last volt of electricity that his suit had left, and imagined that with it he released every horrible thing that had built up in his chest like a tornado, aching for release.
The body of Steve—his best friend, his lover, his saving grace—arched violently beneath his hands, shuddering with the sheer power of the electrical current that coursed through every cell and synapse. When he fell back to the earth, as limp and pale as ever before, his head tipped towards Tony. His lips were bruised and slightly parted, a detail that stood out for no logical reason as Tony's mind fought to hold on to the smallest signs of life. Dark lashes remained pressed tightly to pale cheeks. The blue had gone.
Tony's suit grew heavy, the lights extinguished in his visor. He'd drained his last reserve.
For a horrible, gut-dropping moment, Tony thought that he had just played his last card and come up short. He had gambled everything on this and allowed himself to truly hope that it world work.
The world began to tunnel in his vision, his breath shortened as he spiraled downwards.
"God, Tony—he's breathing."
Bruce's awed voice cut through his awareness like a knife, and Tony might have thought he'd imagined those words if he hadn't looked for himself and seen the weak, uneven rise and fall of the blonds chest, a white star almost imperceptible beneath the blood and grime.
His fire restored, Banner was back in the game. He called urgent instructions out to Clint, to Nat, to the two S.H.I.E.L.D. pilots that had been waiting on the sidelines while the fate of the world played out before them. Tony's ears were ringing loudly. He couldn't hear a damn word.
Feeling weak with relief and nauseous with horror, the brunette sank bonelessly backwards until he was sitting on the ground.
He watched with glassy eyes as Clint helped the pilots shift a backboard from the plane underneath the soldier, carefully arranging unresponsive limbs. Thor picked up one end on his own, and they rushed the still body of Captain America back to ship.
The second they made it up into the plane, Tony turned onto his side and vomited.
Please dun kill meh.
This chapter is for you (if you are still here), my amazing readers... though some of you probably aren't, and I don't blame you. I've been burned by flaky authors before myself, trust me. For the faithful few waiting to see how this story pans out, never fear... I still have every intention of finishing it.
Check out my LJ if you give the slightest shit about this week's excuses for lateness. In a nutshell: New job, new car, new state, new boyfriend. I kinda like to push reset on my life once in a while.
So yeah. Stick around for the landing.
A huge thank you goes out to the ever-patient and ever-encouraging:
Tacpebs: Mmmm, cookies! -munchmunch- :3
Finchily: Thank you love!
Juliakaze: I know I didn't update quickly... but please forgive me! Thank you for reviewing!
Igotproblems: The Kree are gone... for now. ;) Thanks for reviewing!
Margaret: Why thank you! I debated Nat and Clint's move in that last chapter... like you, I thought they might do the underhanded thing and rig up the Kree ship themselves, but I felt it was more important to establish Steve remaining strong and tactical as a leader even as he was literally falling apart. Especially after watching the First Avenger again and realizing that hey, sometimes Cap doesn't play it so vanilla. :) You'll have to wait and see more about the serum, explanations to come in the next chapter. As for Tony... well, he wasn't quite himself during that battle, or he probably would have been the one scheming. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and awesome review!
Fleur: Yep, still hoping for a sequel! It might be a little slow in shaping up, but it wants so badly to happen! How can I resist exploring all the damage this story did to the team? Fanfic gold, right there. Thanks for your review, love!
K.T. Tag: Good lord, you know I love your reviews... hell, I love you. (even if I did totally ignore your messages for no good reason, haha. I'm responding right now!) But I know what you mean; even while writing I was just physically aching to give poor Steve a break... even if that comes in the form of dying... which is maybe not even close to being a break. Ahem. Either way, at least he got to rest for at least one chapter before he has a whole new fight ahead of him. Thank you, as always, for your crazy awesome reviews, detailed thoughts and wonderful encouragement. (nice theory, btw... hmmm...) I couldn't do this without you!
Aliko Kinav:Wow, thank you so much! So kind of you. I'm sorry for making you sad with my awful angsty story... but maybe this update will make up for it? :)
Anonymous2004: Thank you! And I will definitely message you when I (finally) get around to finishing this fic up, if you're still around. So sorry for the delay!
PumpkinSpiceLatte: I did! And I would say I'm sorry for it but we all know that would be a dirty rotten lie! Haha. But I did grant your wish; he lived! Thank you so much for your amazing review, my dear... you made me smile, as always.
Hooray-Anon: So, you may or may not have noticed that I didn't exactly update quickly... but I did update...? And that counts for something, right? Right? -nervous laugh-
Great: Right? Me too. Haha, but thanks!
Rebbyreb93: Seems like they do just need to sit down and communicate, huh? Maybe it will happen... eventually. ;) Thank you so much for your reviews; I'm really glad you're enjoying the story!
As a final note: I have worked in EMS so I feel the need to point out that electro-shock treatment such as defibrillators, etc, do NOT actually have the capacity to start a heart that has stopped. They are only able to restore rhythm to a heart that is experiencing life-threatening arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats). Often the heart can be kicked into flatlining entirely and allowed to start itself back up normally.
But enough of that. The point is that I took some big liberties with this process in this story under the umbrella excuse that hey, this is Captain America we're talking about here. Surely standard medical processes are obsolete in context to his body, while non-conventional treatments (read: thruster shocks to the chest) might be more successful. Like I even know.