. . .
At three a. m., Steve dives out of bed, staggers down the hall, surfaces in the living room, and sees Tony already there with a smirk on his face. Steve rubs his eyes. The alarm still ringing in his ears, he watches the billionaire conferring in low, sleep-edged tones with Director Fury and Natasha. Though the flawless Black Widow is sporting some serious bedhead, and Fury wears a most awe-inspiring frown, Steve is more impressed with Iron Man's coherency and awake-ness. Tony is far more responsible now than Steve ever dreamed he could be, back on the Helicarrier with Loki's machinations dangling over their heads.
He hangs back, watching, listening as the team – his team – slowly gathers. As Clint tumbles past in a blur of black and purple, rubbing sleep from his eyes, Steve follows the archer, grinning in spite of himself. They're his family, the end of the long road home. But there's always a chance one of them won't come back; he wants to paint Thor's battle-ready grin, Natasha's frizzed hair, Bruce's way of rubbing his eyes, Clint's just-as-epic bedhead – and of course, Tony's wicked smirk.
Fury breaks into his thoughts, explaining that there's a madman ('Dr. Grendel,' Tony interjects with an eye-roll) with an unknown gun laying waste to a residential section. His gun reportedly sets fire to inanimate objects, but causes swift and unnatural exsanguination in human and other life forms: they bleed out like there's no tomorrow...
'You can't do that,' Tony interrupts again, 'not without breaking at least – help me, here, Bruce – three basic Laws of –'
'It's Asgardian' – 'Dark elven,' Thor interjects.
Fury gives him the evil eye, literally, then rumbles, 'It's not going to make sense. Just shut it down... destroy it if you have to.'
Tony's jaw tightens, and there's that look. He wants to take the gun apart and see what makes it tick. Once SHIELD gets their hands on it, Tony's chance at full understanding all but vanishes. He's going to act up. But Stark only nods.
. . .
Minutes later, they all clamber aboard the Quinjet, crowding and snarking and elbowing – ouch! His ribs still aren't healed from the Berlin Debacle (Clint's words, not his) ...and why is Steve smiling? Bruce is hunched next to him, jabbering quietly to Tony about something incomprehensible. Clint is on his other side, looking about ready to poke him in the ribs –again – just to see if he'll jump. Steve would never have guessed how much of a prankster their resident marksman would become. The Marker Incident, and its horrific backlash, stand out as shining examples. Of course, Tony did stoop to his level and retaliate by replacing the explosive agent in a few of Clint's arrowheads with confetti. Then the archer had recruited Natasha, leaving Bruce and Thor to side with Tony. The Asgardian had picked up an alarming amount of pranks and practical jokes from his little brother, the net result being that Clint and Natasha – and Steve, who, though technically neutral, had fallen in with the assassins by default – lived in terror for a week.
Steve smiles at the memory, watching Thor spread his cloak out over the cold metal bench... and Natasha come and sit on it next to him, pooling red and red and gray and black. She's whetting a long, wickedly bright knife on Mjolnir, her legs pulled up under her. Thor's smiling, watching her quick movements with an arm wrapped loosely round her narrow shoulders. Clint watches both of them, grinning.
Of all the unlikely friendships...
Steve was sure from the beginning those two would hate each other. But then he thinks of Clint and Bruce conspiring to replace Tony's coffee with decaf, and he and Tony being something close to friends, strangest of all. The man is becoming almost-not-reckless before his disbelieving eyes. Steve is ...proud of him. Strange. (Almost as strange as Howard's son being older than him.)
The pilot's voice crackles back to them as a ruddy fireglow paints over Bruce's nervous smile.
And Steve's running through Fury's orders and his own plans. 'Iron Man, fan out and see if you can spot this guy from the sky. Thor, can you take Hawkeye to a high point? Good. Then join Tony. Widow, you're with me on the streets. We'll do as much damage control as possible until we can find Dr. Grendel and shut him down. Bruce, I think we'll save the Other Guy for the possibility of this going south.'
A ring of determined faces nod and then they break apart, scattering into the fiery false-dawn. Thor wraps an arm around Clint and they spring from the cargo hold, whooping simultaneously.
'Try not to make me save your spangly butt – again,' Stark quips, standing outlined against the sky, his metal-encased arms folded.
Steve fights the urge to roll his eyes, replying, 'Same to you,' with a wry grin.
Tony smirks. Then he falls back into a sea of burning buildings and milling people, twisting though the wind with a distant 'See ya, suckers!'
Steve really does roll his eyes this time. Natasha snorts at his side. They exchange a look and leap from the cargo bay, the Quinjet low enough now that they execute a flawless dual landing. Rolling to his feet, Steve smells panic in the air. People are just waking up to a nightmare; streaming, white-faced, away, they remind Steve of a drop of blood twisting and dissolving in water.
Even a cursory look around tells him that this is going to be a bigger problem than he first imagined: the destruction is on a larger scale than one man with a gun – however big – could accomplish. But Dr. Grendel doesn't have a gun. He has an alien weapon. He has an artifact from another realm, capable of no-one knows quite what.
Something shakes the ground beneath his feet and he watches mutely as a tiny shell of golden light slices through the air and the window of a nearby structure. A high note, not unlike that of a plucked harp string hangs in the air, and the bricks erupt in flames.
They jump backward, Natasha landing behind him in a crouch. But she's not trying to shield herself. She points down an alley toward a tall man in a long brown coat. Something dark and flashing rests on his shoulder.
At least Dr. Grendel's not difficult to find. The man is smiling a most beatific smile, his features set in look of utter contentment. Steve feels a shiver run down his arms when Dr. Grendel looks up and catches his eye. Then he lifts the gun and fires in one swift, infinitesimal motion. At his side, the Black Widow twists and snarls, a golden glim floating past her ear. It strikes a man fleeing behind her. Before Steve can flinch, cry out, begin to run toward him, he crumples into the concrete, red pouring all over his rumpled gray suit. Steve stands frozen to the pavement, watching him bleed. So much blood. It's not in any way natural. Another shiver laces through his spine. This – all of this – is so wrong that his skin crawls.
His fists ball together as the man's head falls back, face ashen. It took him less than twenty seconds to die and Dr. Grendel is about to fire again.
Steve doesn't think. His shoulder spins back and he sets the shield against his arm, ready to take Grendel's lights out. He sees it in his mind's eye: the way his head would snap back, the elven gun clattering, unsatisfied, to the asphalt, bony fingers grasping at the air, a threadbare suit sucking up the alley muck.
But something written deep in his mind in straight-backed script on a gold-edged page pulls him up short. Blesséd are the Merciful.
'Move in,' he tells the team. Settling in behind and above, they give him hope, somehow, that this will work.
'Dr. Gendel,' he calls out, 'you're outmatched and outnumbered. Give up now and it won't be so bad.' He watches the man's head snap up, his eyes wide and flickering.
'Drop the gun,' Steve angles all the authority into his voice he can manage. 'You can't win this fight.'
Dr. Grendel's face is as pale as the moon and his whisper carries up the alley. 'I don't have to win. You just have to lose.'
Then he's kneeling, pulling a tiny mirror from his breast-pocket, standing again, raising the gun toward that little sliver of reflected sky–
Thor's warning growl tells Steve that the madman in front of him can't be allowed to fire into his mirror. A multiplied explosion, massive destruction, his team dead. There's no time for a plan, no time to alert Natasha, no time to tell Tony or Clint to shoot him down.
Steve's running, running so fast his heart will burst, and then he's arcing through the air, smashing his shield down across Dr. Grendel's head and throat. The gun clatters away with a hollow echo as the Doctor falls in a lifeless pile. Looking down at the dead man, Steve sees nothing through his relief but a worn and weary soul in a threadbare suit, brown-haired and hopeless, whatever spark of madness that animated his despair quenched A thread of pity twists under his ribcage and he can't bring himself to reach out and check for a pulse. It hits him like Thor's hammer that the Avengers are the only thing that kept him from softly, quietly snapping and slipping into the same reckless twilight.
Steve doesn't hear Clint's bitten-off shout, Tony's curse, Thor's growl. A faint, high note like a golden bird sings toward him. But he does see the elven gun shuddering and twisting in the dust, still aimed perfectly at the mirror. Fear ices over his already frostbitten heart and he hopes they won't hate him for this. And then Steve's moving, rolling, trying –
The golden glim of a bullet pierces neatly through his side. Its sweetness founders in an iron clang, eclipsing the world. Then a haze of pain blossoms behind his eyes and he staggers like a sleepwalker, hitting the ground in a daze.
There's a tiny weed growing in the cracked asphalt in front of his face. It quivers and bows, rising again, effervescent. Steve reaches out a hand to touch it, but his fingers only twitch. He feels like a puppet with its strings cut.
A puppet painted red.
There's blood – his blood - everywhere, soaking into the hungry earth like rain. Quivering like a puddle, Steve's legs betray him when he tries to stand. He slumps back into metal arms and Tony's staring down at him, hissing at him to wake up, stay here, don't die, dang it!
There are frantic, callused fingers cupping his jaw, wrapping around his neck. Tony's swearing quietly above him and trying to stop the blood, but it's too late, and it's too late. But Steve knew that; he knew it from the very beginning of the Super Soldier Serum – one day he would go out and never come back.
Steve dredges a smile up out of all that blood and tries tell Tony confidently. It comes out as a whisper.
'I don't grudge God, Tony.'
'Shut it, Captain Peity, and breathe, will you?' He barks, and Steve distantly thinks that Tony is taking this all very well.
'Steve. Hey! Steve. Look at me.' Now he's staring down at Steve with something close to tears swimming in his eyes. But he's not panicking. Stark's still in control of himself, even if the situation is spiraling out of control faster than Bucky fell.
'Captain!' The well-worn title snaps him out, and he drags his eyes up to Tony's, trying to focus. His lids are slipping closed and he blinks dully.
'No, no, no,' Tony mouths, but there's no sound. 'You stay right here, and don't you dare …'
..die. Unspoken, the word hangs between them.
'Why didn't you just duck?' Tony croaks, then, 'Idiot.' His eyes are like boiling obsidian.
' 'M sorry, T'ny,' he murmurs, and when did his tongue get so thick and heavy? 'Wasn't... wuzzn't 'nother way ...out.' There's blood in his mouth, too, he discovers.
It's running from the wound in his side like a red river and taking all the warmth in the world with it. It won't be long now. And he's okay with that. His Avengers are worth it. They're more than worth it.
But first – but first –
Everything comes together like the glass he dropped and shattered this morning in reverse. Tony knee-deep in mission briefings before Steve walked in the door. Tony knowing when to back down to Fury. Tony actually following his commands. It'll work. He dares to smile.
'Lead them,' Steve whispers, glad for the final clarity of his voice, 'lead them home.'
Tony swallows thickly, nodding. There are no more words. But the circle of shadows above them coalesces into the ring of faces he knows best: Thor, Clint, Natasha, Bruce. He dredges up another smile for them as they sink down around him. Natasha takes his hand and Clint just stares, but Bruce takes one look at all that blood and just shakes his head, older than Steve has ever seen him. But there's no green in the Doctor's eyes. That's good.
Steve is shivering. When did it get this cold? He almost expects the tears falling on his face to freeze like rain in the winter. Color rushes past his peripheral vision and then Thor's cloak is cocooned him, red on red. Steve stares up into the storm of his eyes and reads something great and terrible there. Natasha's face comes very close to his and her breath is warm on his cheek. Her hair brushes over his eyes. Red and red and red. Is she crying?
Then she sits back and rubs his hand with her small one, swallowing hard. Tony's arms tighten and they all press close. Steve feels his head tip back and his eyes slide shut. He wants this moment to go on forever: he can hear all their heartbeats and their breaths mingling.
He's struggling to breathe now.
In. His ribcage is the greatest weight in the world, a broken cathedral of bones. Out. Thor is chanting something like a benediction so low that it sings in his bones. He can't understand the words, but it's still the best goodbye he's ever heard. In. He opens his eyes for them, one last time – Tony's dark, steady gaze. Natasha's hair like fire. Clint's hand strong on his shoulder. Bruce's sad, sad smile. And Thor's eyes like breaking rain – and empties his lungs into the leaden sky.
Steve Rogers sees white.
. . .
I still believe in heroes. Do you?