Steve's heart thundered to a stop. Looking rapidly between the two buildings, the blood in his veins went cold.
He had to decide. Now.
There were two bombs flying towards him at an incredible rate, barely a blur even to his enhanced eyesight. One was en route to the group of professional adults running from the exit of an office building, the other aimed directly at the children cowering in front of the door to the daycare. He could hear the babies crying through the cacophony of the battle going around him.
Steve had two seconds, maybe three if he was lucky.
He saw Iron Man, a mere glint in the sky, racing towards the plane that had dropped the bombs, but he wasn't going to be fast enough.
Women were screaming to his left, children were sobbing to his right.
He didn't think, couldn't even begin. Steve surged forwards, launching off the flatbed of an abandoned truck. It was pure reaction. He pulled his shield up, angling it to the left on instinct. There was a loud whistling sound, the missile ripping through air before it was going to hit him.
Steve had nothing to compare this to, the collision of the bomb and his shield. The force threw him into the ground, driving him through the concrete and rolling backwards for at least twenty feet. Pain struck the back of his head, making a black film crisscross his vision. He was barely conscious, but heard the bomb explode. It was impossible to describe the sound: louder than thunder, with steel and plaster and glass shattering into pieces.
He heard the large pieces of metal hitting the ground, clattering on the pavement. One landed over his legs, the sensation barely registering.
Steve twitched, muscles clenching and shuddering with pain. When his right arm barely moved, set on fire, Steve realized it was dislocated. He jerked his foot, trying to shrug off the plate of tin resting on his thighs. Actions stunted with pain, Steve clumsily rolled to his back, rubble digging into his spine. There was an interminable ringing in his ears, but the horrified cries were clear.
He had to get up.
Groaning, he pushed himself up on his left arm, his right throbbing intensely. Everything was blurry, colors blending, but there was also a dusty haze settling over the ruins of the suburb.
All the kids were crying, sobbing, actually.
He kicked away the debris on top of his legs, lurching to his feet. Breathless with pain, he gasped for air, and realized why he was here.
The other group. Turning, he staggered drunkenly towards the entrance of the office building—not that it was there anymore.
He was looking at a pile of ashes.
Steve went cold.
He limped forward, numb to the blood running into his eyes and down his left leg. He kept going, heedless of impediments, broken chairs and glass windows crunching under his feet, until he was in the middle of the wreckage. He looked in a circle, desperately searching for a sign someone.
Steve coughed, gagging on dust and smoke. Ash.
Dead. They were all dead.
There was a bloodied hand sticking out from under a broken door. Steve's heart thudded with hope, until he realized that beyond the small pile of splintered wood, there was nothing. It was just a hand.
There had been at least thirty people standing there, looking at him, begging and screaming for his help.
Steve weakly swallowed the urge to throw up.
He recognized this smell.
Suddenly he was back in 1943 and watching Bucky fall from his grasp. He was watching men burst into pieces in front of him. He was covered in mud and blood, and he was crashing a plane headfirst into ice.
Steve looked down at his hands. They were dark gray, splattered with red.
Thirty people dead because he had made a decision.
He stumbled forwards, falling onto a bent support beam wide enough to hold his weight.
Steve sat and stared.
He was barely breathing, a strange wheeze to every intake of air he tried to pull in. Mind spinning, he saw people dying, getting ripped to pieces. All because of him. He did this. He settled a shaking hand over his eyes.
Pull it together.
He was the captain of an elite squad. He was stone number one, impenetrable pillar that was not allowed to fall. Tony was the one who drank himself into frantic episodes, who had to be pushed into a bed and calmed like a child. Bruce lost control of his staggering anger and turned into a green monster, only appeased when they all talked him down. Hawkeye would disappear for days until Steve would find him on the roof and silently listen while the man rambled for hours about the guilt he carried. Natasha never had a specific breaking point, but when she slid down the hospital wall after Clint flat lined, Steve slid with her. Thor was easy to assuage, only needed someone to spar with until he ran out of gas and slept it off after Steve fed him a line of platitudes.
Steve made sure he was there for everything. He didn't expect them to want him there at first. None of his men before had come to him for reassurance, there was only an unspoken request that he was consistently in control. That still rang true today, but the Avengers were tightknit, and he watched them break together and build together.
He didn't know how they did it. How they could fall apart like that, without reservations. Maybe he forgot, lost it in a war and an ocean.
He couldn't lose it. If he crumbled then all of America was going to follow him, because for some foolish damn reason they tacked everything they believed in on his chest. Then he had to laugh; this America didn't need him. They had their fast cars, social networks, and a litany of debt problems stemming from the fact that no one searched for happiness anymore; they tried to buy it.
Captain America was useless here.
He was a relic, outdated and obsolete.
"Captain, the medics are here, maybe you should—"
Steve looked into the sheepish eyes of a young police officer.
He couldn't handle people. Not right now, not while he was so close to snapping. No one needed to see it. They shouldn't have to.
The cop stepped back, fear marring his features. An older man with a similar uniform pulled on his arm, talking loudly into his face.
"Max, you don't interrupt a captain, you hear?"
The kid blinked, but didn't cower under the stern gaze. "But he's—"
"You let a man grieve after a choice like that. Now scat, they need support on 45th."
The younger walked away with a lingering glance. The eldest looked at Steve with something like empathy. He tipped his hat, and then melted into the disorder of ambulances and fire trucks.
A harsh scream broke Steve's reverie. He looked up, fatigue making his head heavy, and found himself stuck in the eyes of a young woman. She was sobbing hysterically, collapsing into the arms of two police officers. She was crying for a man. The ring on her finger glinted on the sunshine. Steve watched every tear fall down her face. She was fighting the men holding her back, pleading to see; not listening when they told her there is nothing left.
He watched her, as absolute tragedy completely destroyed her life, and he was responsible for it.
The back of his eyes started burning.
Steve didn't hear the sound of thrusters powering down to make a smooth landing, didn't realize Tony was standing in front of him until he was staring at dark red boots. He heard a soft mutter of, "I know," that probably wasn't directed at him, and a click, and then Tony's armor was folding down into a neat square on the ground. The billionaire rolled his shoulders, readjusted his shirt, and sat down next to Steve with a sigh.
"The suitcase is rather nice for transportation, I must say."
Steve tried to come up with a response. He had to say something, gather himself. Of all the people to come here it had to be Tony. The man barely respected Steve as it was, if he saw him like this, he'd only have more to ridicule. This was bad.
Pillar, pillar, pillar.
The silence stretched long.
"How long have you been sitting here?" Tony asked.
Steve shrugged lopsidedly, the pain of his dislocated shoulder coming back with a vengeance.
The woman was being led away from the yellow tape, the arm of another man around her shoulders. Before he left, he turned back and drilled Steve in the eyes. It was hatred, through and through.
Steve felt all the air in his lungs tumble out.
"Hey," he paused. "Steve," Tony beckoned, suspiciously quiet.
Steve was blinking rapidly, heart sinking. Guilt was hammering every single nail into his coffin. He killed people.
He supposed Tony lost attention for his apparent muteness, because he started talking to someone else. The words were garbled, like Steve was underwater. Seconds later, Tony was sighing and crouching in front of Steve. There was a cold wetness pressing against his forehead, and he jerked back, startled.
Tony didn't seem perturbed and brushed the cotton ball on his hairline. "You're leaking like a faucet," he said quietly.
Steve swallowed, hurting in places he didn't think could hurt.
"You know this isn't—"
His left hand was shaking violently. Shame creasing his features, he curled it in a fist. The shivers ran up his arm. All of him was shaking. Why was he shaking? He shouldn't be.
Steve pressed his eyes shut.
He heard Tony exhale roughly. "No, you're not. No one would be fine after that."
"Go back to the Tower, Tony."
Tony stood, searching for something. He found the tipped over remains of a chair and dragged it behind him, sitting and perching on the end.
"You could try trusting us, you know."
Steve lifted his head in confusion, managing to glare at Tony's neck when everything spun in a lazy circle. "What are you talking about? Of course I trust you."
"No, you don't, actually. This," he gestured to Steve, "mindless robot you try to portray is not trust at all. It's just a lie."
Steve sucked in a breath, caught between wanting to argue with Tony and the fact that thirty people were dead and it was his fault. His gaze roamed around the wreckage. The smoke was making his eyes sting, his throat close. They exploded. They burned to death. He did it.
"I'm not," he tried, clearing his throat. "I'm not lying to you guys."
Tony shook his head. "Steve, you're allowed to freak out sometimes."
The girl's tears were seared into his memory, tattooed behind his skull. She had sobbed. She had been married. Her husband was dead.
The lump in his throat was painfully large.
"I can't," he said, voice cracking.
Tony sighed again. "How old are you?" he asked, taking up a completely new subject.
Steve's head was throbbing in time with his heart. "Twenty-three."
This had to be the first he'd ever seen Tony Stark look surprised. But this was Tony, and nothing ever fazed him for long. "You're twenty-three years old, and you just got done fighting in World War Two. You're twenty-three years old, and simply because you can take a beating better than most people, you're made a captain in the military. You commit a pseudo-suicide to save millions of people and wake up seventy years in the future and everyone's dead. But wait, three weeks later, you have to lead a bunch of strangers with superpowers against a fratricidal alien with a big fan club."
Tony stopped for a moment.
"So, you should have issues up the wazoo right now, but you don't. You're remarkably sane considering the circumstances." His voice dropped in volume. This was weird. Tony using a comforting tone. "But you just watched thirty people die, and you have to come to terms with the fact that you had a hand in it. Dealing with something isn't weak." His face creased as he pushed another cotton ball against Steve's heavy head. "Spilling your juice all over the pavement, on the other hand, is pretty stupid."
And queue Stark's reentrance.
"I just," Steve breathed. "They all died."
He sounded airless, hollow. He felt hollow.
"And that's not your fault," Tony said. He leaned forward and grasped Steve's right arm. Steve lurched away from the contact with a strangled gasp. His vision swung violently. He didn't even realize he'd overcompensated in the other direction until Tony was yelling in surprise and tugging him back up. "Yeah, I'd say that was dislocated. Are we done brooding? Your arm isn't supposed to hang to your knees, and you're getting my shirt all bloody."
They were dead. Oh, they were all dead and he could still smell it, and his arm hurt…
Tony tapped his jaw, drawing his attention up.
"Get fixed up first, huh? You'll feel better when your shoulder's actually in its socket. Then we'll get alcohol and watch bad Westerns until you forget about it."
Steve swallowed a groan of pain, gripping Tony's sleeve as he laboriously climbed to his feet.
"That's your version of dealing?" he asked breathlessly.
Steve's knees buckled, and he very nearly met the ground, but Tony slid under his left arm and balanced his wavering feet. "And this is yours?" Tony grunted, hitching Steve closer to his side.
The world was blinking in and out; his head, heart, and arm were all aching in sync, and Steve called that excuse enough not to answer. Tony dragged him to the back of an open ambulance, and made sure he was settled with a pad of gauze and an EMT experienced in popping in shoulders. Steve sat down wearily, eyeing Tony, waiting for him to leave.
"You know you don't have to stay, right? I'll be fine."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Please. I'm just curious to see how one relocates a shoulder."
Steve thought that was rather morbid, but realized with a smirk that Tony was just hesitant to leave.
"Alright, I understand that with the serum you heal pretty fast. So we're just going to put her in here and now, okay?" Apparently his shoulder was a female. The EMT gently held his arm, and pressed it against his side. He took Steve's hand and pulled it up, like he was going to swear on the bible. He slowly rotated it to the side, and Steve felt a grinding sensation, and his shoulder slipped back into socket.
The pain took him by surprise, and he tipped to the side, right into the waiting stomach of Tony Stark. "Sorry," he groaned, voice muffled by fabric. Tony chuckled. "I'm jus' tired."
An arm pulled him back upright, and started cleaning the gash on his forehead. The EMT pressed against his ribs. "Well, none seem to be broken." He waved a penlight in front of Steve's eyes. "And the concussion seems to be fading already. Quite the efficient patient." He grinned wryly and patted Steve's collarbone. "Phillips said I had to get you fixed up and out of here quickly. The shoulder should feel sore for a few hours, and the head wound's already closing. You can chalk up the dizziness to pure exhaustion."
Steve nodded wearily. He wanted to take a shower, and a nap.
"Captain? No one in their right mind is going to blame you for what you did out there. You still saved a few dozen lives. Children nonetheless."
Steve smiled his thanks and climbed off the ambulance.
"You want a ride, or do you want to take a taxi?" Tony asked, gesturing to his Iron Man suit.
Steve eyed the box, memories of high-winds, narrow escapes, and heart stopping last minute rescues coming to mind. He scrubbed a hand across his face. "I want to take a regular, smelly, New York City cab."
Tony's nose scrunched. "Suit yourself. I'll meet you back at the Tower. Don't try and run away, okay? I'll get a chip implanted in your ass." The EMT, who was pulling out tools from the back of the ambulance, let out a short laugh. Tony ignored it, reached into his pocket, and then shoved a fifty dollar bill into Steve's chest. He mock saluted Steve, and then disappeared into the Iron Man suit.
"What's this called again?"
"Oh. And that guy is…"
"The late but great John Wayne."
"Oh. Why do I need to know who he is?"
"Because he's referenced all the time. Next we'll work on your knowledge of Spaghetti Westerns."
"And what are those?"
"A rash of mid-60s western movies that were made by Italians. Now shut up and watch the movie. Or sleep, you need to do that, too."
Steve wriggled deeper into the couch cushions. His body already felt like it was molded into the thick leather beneath him. Things had never been this comfortable back home. He had showered and changed into sweats, and this really comfortable thing called a hoodie. They had been called sweatshirts when he was in high school. Only the football players had them back then. Steve wasn't a football player.
Tony was next to him, a large bowl of popcorn in his lap. He was interesting to watch movies with. He liked to yell at the TV, and he could quote entire paragraphs minutes before they even showed. Steve supposed it got annoying after a while, but he was so lethargic, so beyond drained, that the rambles were almost comforting.
"I believe you testified that you backed away from old man Wharton? Yes, sir! Which direction were you going? Backward. I always go backward when I'm backin' away.'"
Hell, he was really comfortable.
Stirring, Steve blinked lazily, watching Tony as he passionately threw square pieces of licorice in the air. Licorice was a must at all movie marathons, according to Tony. He must've noticed the stare, because the billionaire turned and looked at him.
"So it lives! Are you back for more, or is this just a recess?"
Steve sniffed, vision blurry, and brushed off the popcorn that had mysteriously landed on his chest. His head still ached, but his arm felt better, and somewhere between Rio Bravo and Tony's heartwarming outbursts, the oppressive weight on his chest had lightened.
"What movie is this one?" he asked. He had fallen asleep sitting up, and had an irritating crick in his neck. Looking around, he located a pillow lying on the floor and laboriously dragged it onto the couch next to him.
"A Fistful of Dollars. You missed the rest of John Wayne. We moved on."
Steve lifted his feet up, and scooted down until his head met the pillow. It felt nice to be horizontal, taking the stress off his aching everything.
"So. This is recess. Well, I suppose you get a pass this time, with bombs exploding and stuff. But, next time you're the first kid asleep at the slumber party? Sharpies."
All the aches that had throbbed like a demon before were down to a dull throb. Steve closed his eyes and melted into the wonderful softness of the cushions below him. He fell asleep to Tony's voice trying to go laughably deep and gritty.
"'I don't think it's nice, you laughin'. You see, my mule don't like people laughin'. Gets the crazy idea you're laughin' at him. Now if you apologize like I know you're going to, I might be able to convince him that you didn't mean nothin' by it…'"
When he woke up the next morning, there was a blanket pulled over his shoulders that hadn't been there before, and a stack of pictures of fifteen grinning, toothless children on the coffee table.
Uh, yeah. I dream of Tony watching Westerns. Can't really explain that one...
The previous quotes were taken from True Grit and A Fistful of Dollars.
I also have a thing for Westerns. And Steve in pain. The usual.
I'm working on the action-y two-shot right now. I must say, the title is vvondervvul! And I'm also working on this other one...that's insurmountably sad compared to anything else I've ever written in my life. Yeeeuh. There's blood and tears and stuff.