Summary: As he watches Tony Stark disappear into space, Steve Rogers realizes that falling on the grenade isn't just his thing. He knows that, but it's different to watch a sacrifice rather than make it. And he doesn't like it at all.
A/N: There is a mention of something that happened in Captain America, but this story takes place in Avengers when Stark flies the nuke into space and what follows.
Thanks to the lovely people at Underground Fanfictioners: Audie the Gothic Alchemist, XxSuper DriverxX, and especially ncisduckie for the more detailed suggestions, and Incinirmatt for his help with smoothing out my sentences from the very rough draft and pointing out my overuse of the word "and." Also thanks to my sister, Sylar Bartowski for giving it a read as well.
This might have a second part based on what happens the next day, but I haven't decided yet.
As he watches Tony Stark disappear into space, carrying a nuclear warhead meant for Manhattan, Steve Rogers realizes that falling on the grenade is not just his thing. He can't tear his eyes away from that unholy rift in the sky as he prays to see that gold and red metal body come falling back to Earth.
Steve is not unfamiliar with sacrifice. He's done it so many times, his name might as well be Captain Martyr. But it's different to watch it happen and not be able to do a thing about it. It's different for Steve to watch a sacrifice rather than be the one making it. And what's worse is that he's about to seal Tony's death.
"Close it." The words fall out of his mouth against his will. He wants to wait, but they can see the blast from here. From what he's read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Captain Rogers can't allow even the fringes of that mushroom cloud to touch the city. Steve wants to wait. Captain Rogers won't let him.
Of course, Agent Romanoff does as he says without hesitation. He appreciates that about her, except in this moment. He wishes she didn't follow his orders so readily. Even a nanosecond's pause would have allowed Steve hope for Tony that much longer. But she closes the portal, and Tony is lost. Like Bucky. Like Peggy. Like Howard. All lost.
And then he sees it. The thing he's been wishing for all of ten seconds that seem to have passed much slower than the last 70 years.
"Son of a gun," he mutters as his heart swells at the thought that for the first time, he hasn't lost a single soldier. And they are soldiers whether the individualistic billionaire wants to admit it or not. Most of them didn't want to be, but they're here. They're saving the world, as Fury said. Steve is used to the idea, but maybe it will take the others some time.
And then Thor's resounding voice cuts through all the joy and crushes it like Mijolnir against alien skull. "He's falling too fast."
And Steve wants to punch him, but he's pretty sure that would just get his super-strong fist crushed. As he's thinking this, that wonderful hammer begins spinning. In that moment, Steve really loves the strangely Shakespearean alien.
As if to restore his faith in humanity, which Steve isn't sure if he's lost or not, Hulk comes out of nowhere and catches Tony, cushioning his fall. Steve isn't particular about who performed the rescue. Tony is safe on the ground; all is well.
But he's not moving. The light on his chest is out. When Thor rips off Tony's mask, Steve's heart sinks for the third time in the last 60 seconds. Tony isn't breathing. Steve is about to ask Thor to rip off the rest of the stupid suit—though he's not sure if CPR would work on someone with a metal heart—when Hulk lets out such a growl that Steve is sure makes his own heart speed up. Though that could be the sight of Tony's chest lighting up and his eyes opening.
He makes some stupid joke, and for half a second that he promptly forgets, Steve really does want to kiss him.
There's no time to think about it, or talk, or anything, because they all have to get to the top of Stark Tower to make sure Loki doesn't disappear on them. So, for the moment, Steve forgets his brief but complete terror at the thought of losing one of the team. Apparently, they're a team now. When did that happen?
Capturing the maniacal god-in-his-own-mind is almost boring. Steve finds it hard to focus on anything. Without his staff and his army, Loki seems to be nothing more than a vengeful child. Steve happens to think that all would be dictators are nothing more than overgrown, petulant children, but what would he know? A small part of him is still stuck in 1943. Or maybe more than a small part.
But maybe that's why today has affected him so much. Now that they have Loki, Steve has time to think, and he realizes that out there, he was seeing these "Avengers" as his old team. When Tony flew into that awful hole, it was like Bucky falling off the train all over again.
That's not how it's supposed to be! Steve remembers when he first got into the Army and the dummy grenade. He remembers believing he was about to die and being just fine with that. The same as when he flew that plane into the ice. He knew what he was doing.
But he did not know what Tony was doing. He never does. He does not like that at all.
It's not until after they've eaten, and Steve feels far past ready to collapse, that Tony says something to him. He doesn't hear it at first, so the Iron Man repeats it.
"You all right, Cap?"
Steve stares at him. They're on a sidewalk, and the others are close by but not paying attention. Steve doesn't quite know how they got there, but he sees the restaurant in his peripheral vision.
"You seem a little out of it. Take too many hits to the head, did you?"
Tony gives his mock offended look. "Fine, Captain Moody. Hey, we won. You should be happy."
"Tell me that wasn't any fun for you. You know, back in the saddle after 70 years and all that."
"It was not fun." And then words start spilling out that Steve can't seem to stop. "It was not fun to watch the city nearly get destroyed. It was not fun to watch people die. It was not fun to be under attack by hellish creatures that should only exist in nightmares. It was not fun—" Steve realizes that he's shouting, but it's too late to turn back now. "—It was not fun to watch you fall out of the sky like a horrible shooting star."
For once, Tony Stark is speechless. Steve almost wishes he would make a joke or an excuse or something. It would be better than the silence.
But then a black van pulls up to the curb, and Steve realizes that they have been waiting for their ride from S.H.I.E.L.D. Not a word is said as they all get in. Steve ends up sitting in the back next to Tony, which is now very awkward. He knows the others heard what he said.
Thankfully, Tony speaks quietly. "It's okay, Mom, I knew what I was doing."
Steve doesn't look at him. He can't even muster a scolding glare. "I wonder sometimes."
"No, see, that's the point. Everyone thinks I have no method to my madness which makes me unpredictable, and therefore successful. Anyway, wasn't it you who suggested I lay down on the wire, or whatever?"
"I did not say that." Steve is speaking too loud again, and now he's looking Tony in the eye. Then he leans back against the seat, crossing his arms. "Did you even think you wouldn't come out of it?"
Steve expects him to say no. To say that he had it all figured out and knew he would be fine. It would make sense. Steve has little respect for it, but at least it's in keeping with Tony's personality. Self-sacrifice does not make sense for him.
"Yes." Tony is now looking off into nothing. "I was actually pretty sure I would die. I mean, it's nice that I didn't. That makes me very happy."
Steve looks at him again. This is honest Tony, not someone very many people ever see. He's a lot less irritating than the usual version, though the fact that he meant to lay down his life bothers Steve for some reason.
"Don't do it again."
"What, fly a nuclear warhead into space? Aye, aye, Sir."
"That's not funny."
"You mean don't save millions of people? I thought that was the job description. Or are you the only one allowed to fall on the grenade?"
"How did you—"
"My dad may have mentioned it once. But answer the question. Is Captain America the only one allowed to make sacrifices? How is that fair?"
"At least I don't have anyone waiting for me."
Tony laughs. "What do you call five other people willing to follow you to the jaws of death?"
"You didn't follow me."
"Yeah, we kinda did. I mean, it was all your noble self-sacrifice-y-ness that got the ball rolling. I am not one to be outdone, as you must know, and I think the nuke trumps the grenade, so..."
And then Steve smiles. He can't help it; he's tired. "Yeah, you win, Tony. Just no more falling out of the sky, all right?"
"I don't plan on it."
And of course, Tony Stark's plans always work.