HQ is buzzing with activity when they land, agents running around in what to an untrained eye might seem like panic and chaos but is in fact perfectly synchronized and practiced dance, getting arms and body armor ready for everyone, checking engines and control panels and every detail to make sure things work perfectly. Helicarrier has just been tested out with the reflection panels a few days earlier and everything seems to work perfectly; Steve's happy it was right in time.
When they get out of the jet, Phil and Fury are waiting for them silently and lead the team to a conference room to give updates to each other.
As soon as the meeting is over, Steve rushes to Tony's room to see how he's doing–he seemed so exhausted the last time Steve saw him–but the room is empty. The robot is there but doesn't move, as it if it was turned off or something, which is strange. Steve frowns at that but makes his way to R&D as quickly as possible, but Tony is not there either, and he's not anywhere in the Avengers space upstairs.
Steve can feel his heart pumping too fast, even for a super-soldier, the worry rising in his gut as he runs to medical – but someone would've told him if Tony was hurt, right? Hurt or something else – someone would have told him.
'Where's Tony?' he asks loudly as soon as he opens the door. Lisa, the doctor on call, makes a gesture at him to enter and follow her and it makes Steve freeze in place. 'What's wrong with him?'
'Everything is wrong with him,' Lisa says, sounding equally worried and annoyed, 'but I don't know the answer to your questions because he's not here.'
'He was here,' she says, not letting him finish. 'He fainted. His heartbeat was completely off charts, I was worried – we were worried, I called all the doctors, we discussed all possibilities but it's though when we still don't know exactly what the device keeping his heart beating is – and the next thing I know, he's not here.'
'How can he not be here? He can't walk for ten minutes! The cameras –'
'Are blacked out. We don't know what happened.'
'Damn it,' Steve mutters.
'I think he might've run away. Gone back to the city. Medical –'
'He didn't want your hands on him, I know, and then if he woke up here from unconsciousness he might've panicked and – yes, of course,' Steve agrees as calmly as he can, knowing that it's not Lisa's fault. 'But the invasion –'
'You can't go and look for him now, soldier,' he hears Fury's voice behind him, grim but firm.
'Director, I don't think this is negotiable –'
'You need to save the damn world, Captain. Don't give up on it because of one man.'
Steve hangs down his head, swallows, nods sharply, and leaves the room quickly, heading towards the conference room.
He hates himself for making this decision.
The world seems to be on fire, filled with too-bright warm light, the kind Steve has never seen before but he's imagined something similar back when he was a kid, reading science-fiction novels of old authors who had much more imagination that nowadays.
It almost feels like a bomb blast, flashes so bright Steve can see through his hands as he throws the shield and tries to avoid getting hit with one of the blue laser-like shots while not letting the aliens come close to the entrance of the building. There are hundreds of people inside and only seven of the aliens left for Steve to deal with, it should be easy but it's not because of the light, he can hardly see anything properly, reflections all about, remote rumble and crackling of buildings on fire echoing down New York streets.
And he can't stop thinking about Tony who couldn't even run if he had to, who would inhale the smoke and choke on it, whose heart would beat frantically with stress and fear and it's all – it's all too much.
'Focus, Captain,' he hears Natasha's voice in his ear and he listens to her, the familiar voice grounding him amidst the madness. He takes out the aliens, shouts at the people to stay where they are as it's the relatively safest place for those who weren't able to evacuate, and then he jumps onto Clint's flying cycle that has been finished by R&D just yesterday, based on Tony's technology.
'Breathe, Steve, you've got about five hundred more to kill,' Clint says tightly, flying the cycle like a madman between buildings, avoiding getting shot or crashing into something with unnatural, almost inhuman ease.
'This is –' he only manages when the cycle suddenly moves up and brings them both over the roofs of the city: the destruction is terrifying.
Everything seems to bright, ablaze, unreal, and Steve wishes he was never woken up.
'Gonna drop you there,' Clint says, pointing at a spot in the middle of a square, 'they need backup.'
Steve nods, knowing that Clint won't know if he does but it's non-negotiable. They need Steve. There are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents down there, a few dozen of them, but they are not going to hold off the aliens from another civilian retreat place.
'Good luck,' Clint says just before Steve jumps off the cycle, shield firmly in hand, and then it's only whistle of the air in his ears.
God-know-how-much-later he's still fighting, still moving, running and throwing the shield and shooting but it doesn't seem to help; there are simply too many aliens and even the Helicarrier isn't helping much; it's still confusing the aliens about where the people and the shots and mini-missiles are coming from – the invisibility mode in engaged and intact – but it's not enough.
There aren't enough superheroes in the world to save it, it seems, and it only makes Steve grit his teeth harder and run faster and shoot more quickly.
Even his super-soldier body is soon going to fail, though, but he's going to die fighting, he decides. He only wishes he could have said a few goodbyes. One goodbye.
It feels like he's going blind with time even if he isn't; the light doesn't cease and it hurts, it makes his head ache deeply inside – it's phantom pain, he doesn't feel the real one – and he only wishes it would end.
But he won't let it.
Hawkeye is nearby at some point, Steve doesn't exactly notice when he comes around, shooting arrows with scary precision despite having to shield his eyes from the light with special sunglasses, it's only logical he's have something like that on him, to be honest, and Steve wishes he did, too.
They work together just like they've always practiced, adapting to the aliens' style, keeping their movements smooth, almost like a dance, smooth and flowing but it's getting slower every minute and they know they won't last long.
Thor is up somewhere, making the skies roar and flash with cold lightning light that only melts into the warm one. Natasha reports being in the air, too, having hijacked one of the alien's flying things, Steve can't find a name in his head and he can't stop to think, and Phil's on the Helicarrier, trying to somehow wrap his head around the madness as he sends remaining agents into the battlefield.
Steve's cutting off an alien's head with a throw of the shield – he's never done that before and hopes he never will have to do it again – and turns to see more of them coming, catching his shield coming from behind without looking, when Phil swears into the comm line.
Everyone stops for a fraction of second, it's as much as they can afford, and then wait for an explanation because Phil would never, ever do that.
'WSC is sending a nuke to New York,' he says, voice tight and furious, and Steve blinks.
'That won't help,' he protests, never stopping his fight, 'they will just pop up somewhere else, they're from space, they can be anywhere right now–'
'We know,' Fury's voice says, a lit crackly on the comm line, 'they won't listen.'
'Fuck it, we're gonna intercept –'
'It's three minutes until the bomb hits,' Phil states.
His voice is calm and Steve suddenly feels painfully calm, too, like a magical spell. Everything seems to slow down and become so clear, bathed in the light.
He throws a punch at one of the aliens and shoots another one a second late and it feels like slow-motion. Clint on his right lets an arrow out of his bow and it flies through the air without any noise, piercing an alien armor and going straight through the heart, and the creature falls to the ground.
Two minutes thirty-nine seconds, Steve's brain supplies.
He hasn't done that in ages but he finds himself muttering a prayer as he spins around and jumps, as he catches the shield and crouches to avoid a blast, all instinctive rather than conscious, and there are words, sed libera nos a malo at the back of his head, and Tony's smile as he tried to pretend he wasn't terrified of his racing heart.
Two minutes and a second when Thor strikes a few dozes of the aliens with a lightning, and then he's towering over Clint and Steve, the square suddenly deadly calm.
'Fuck all this, I always wanted someone to fucking stay on earth to sing the glorious songs of my heroic death,' Clint declares hollowly, making it difficult for Steve to guess if he's joking or not.
Then Cling bursts out laughing and Steve does too, and Thor, and Steve has damn tears in his eyes when another bunch of aliens appears in the sky over them and Steve shoots them like a madman.
One minute forty seconds, he's gonna die, for real this time.
It feels more funny than genuine, he decides–and then he notices something in the sky.
'Missed me?' a familiar voice saying into his ear, on the comm line, and Steve closes his eyes for a second, knowing that Clint will notice and cover him.
'Friend Tony?' Thor asks – so they all heard it, it's not just Steve's brain making things up right before he dies – and Steve opens his eyes and stares back at the sky. It's just a second.
'Just fight, idiots, I'll take care of this,' Tony says and then goes silent.
Then Steve isn't sure what's happening anymore, all he knows is that he doesn't die, he keeps fighting and counting the seconds and he doesn't die, it's twenty seconds past the deadline and he isn't dead – and then the light suddenly disappears.
The alien in front of him drops onto the ground before Steve can touch him, and so do all the others.
'Tony?' Steve asks, slumping down to the ground, the sudden silence buzzing in his ears, 'Tony? Are you there? What have you – what have you done?'
There's only more silence and then Thor's large warm hand of Steve's shoulder.
There is no nuke and no aliens. There's just a burning city, dead bodies, and a bunch of heroes who aren't supposed to be real, and silence.
''m okay,' Steve hears a murmur on the comm line. 'Okay, Cap. Took care of the aliens, not me, Jarvis, we took care of the aliens–'
'I don't know what you're talking about – who you are talking about,' Steve replies quickly. 'Tell me where you are.'
'Brooklyn,' Tony replies, 'I'm in Brooklyn.'
Steve takes a breath, stops himself from laughing hysterically and then picks up his shield and starts to run, ignoring everyone and everything, letting the voice guide him.
It takes Steve too damn long to get to Tony; he snatches Clint's cycle out of Natasha's hands on his way and then flies over across the water not even caring that he's actually flying, and follows Tony's directions to find him curled up, with a blanket wrapped around his arms, sitting on a carton in a blind alley. He has blood smeared all of his forehead, as if coming from a cut on his head that Steve can't see, but Tony doesn't seem to care.
Steve comes up quickly, kneels on the dirty ground and takes Tony's cold had to make sure he's real.
'How – how did you do that?' he asks in an almost-whisper, 'I thought we were all gonna –'
'I know,' Tony says closing his eyes and relaxing. Steve feels blessed to have such a privilege. 'Your phone,' he adds, smiling tiredly at Steve's incredulous face, 'never gave it back. Thought you'd ask but you, ah, didn't. I used it. To hack.'
'The nuke –'
'Yeah, went up –'
'Why couldn't anyone else do it? The whole of S.H.I.E.L.D. was trying to do something –'
'They couldn't do it remotely,' Tony explains, still not taking Steve's hand, 'When I was playing, tinkering, at the HQ, I made this little thing to see if I still remembered how to do 'bots. A small flying 'bot. Sent it after the nuke –'
'Did you hack into our comm?'
'Of course I hacked into your comm,' Tony smiles, trying to fool Steve. 'Easy. Heard about the nuke, sent the thing to help me hack into its navigation, tough part. It shouldn't be possible, like, ever, but I had motivation, you know? And I thought –'
'Yes?' Steve prompts, moving closer. He can almost hear Tony's irregularly beating heart.
'I thought I wasn't gonna die without saying a goodbye – so just in case I die,' he adds, looking away from Steve, 'goodbye, Captain.'
'You're not going to die –'
'I think I might, well, it's been a thing for a long time –'
'Stop. Talking,' Steve orders him sternly and Tony listens, focusing on breathing. 'Isn't there anything you can do? No projects? No engineering magic?'
'I made this –'
'I know what you made, I know it's keeping you alive, but I ask you, what can you do? Is there anything you can do, anything more?' Steve asks fiercely, concentrating on the feeling of Tony's hands in his, not letting himself think. 'Is there?'
'… there is. Could work. Never know for sure,' Tony replies after a short pause, making Steve's head snap up as he fixes his eyes on Tony.
'What do you need?'
'Bruce,' Tony says and Steve remembers the one time Tony slipped the name out and then pretended it never happened to protect his friend; it must be the person who is a doctor-but-not-of-that-kind. 'I need Bruce.'
Steve nods sharply, knowing that now he just has to get to this Bruce no matter what, and for the first time in long hours the world around him seems real.
'I don't care what you have to do, Director, I know there are endless things that S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to take care of now, but Tony did it. Okay? You wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. We were all useless and he did it. We owe him that much,' Steve says firmly, anger lacing his words, glad that Natasha took care of Tony and he doesn't have to witness this.
'Half of Manhattan is burning, Captain,' Fury replies, raising an eyebrow in a silent challenge. Steve holds the man's gaze.
'That's a great exaggeration and you know it, Director. All I'm asking you for is to spare an agent who would make this man's entrance into the USA possible. It can't be that much, can it?'
'He's a convict. The military will never allow it.'
'Then make sure they do,' Steve states, standing up, and leaves the room, closing the door behind with a heavy thud, the echo following him down the corridor.
When he reaches Tony's room, he greets Dummy and politely asks Natasha to leave; she does quietly, without a word of protest. Steve knows he'll go have drinks with Clint now; this is how they mourn.
'Why did you do it?' he asks Tony, who is sitting in an armchair, knees hugging his chest, and staring out of the window at the smoke-covered skyline.
'You shouldn't be here,' Tony just says.
'There are surely lots of thing that need your attention more than me. Like the fact that you guys were pretty obvious this time,' a breath, 'and it's gonna be tough to pretend heroes ain't real.'
'I hate that you'd say that,' Steve tells him, moving closer and stopping two steps away on Tony's right, eyes locked on the view. The destruction, it's almost like in a movie. 'Why – why did you do it, why did you leave?' he asks again, and then adds, quietly, 'especially when you knew?'
There's a long moment of silence, the nothingness ringing in Steve's ears.
'I overheard doctors talking about having a look at the thing in my chest – a closer look –'
'That sounds like something they would say when you collapsed on the –'
'You don't understand,' Tony says bitterly, the tone making Steve shiver. 'It's not – I couldn't have them poke me –'
'They wouldn't do anything without your consent –'
'Oh, really? And what if I was unconscious, what then? Wouldn't they?' Tony asks, throwing the words at Steve angrily, only to cover the fact that he's scared. Steve can tell. He's seen this done so many times before, the smokescreen, and it doesn't work on him anymore.
Then Tony looks at him and suddenly, Steve gets it.
'Someone has done that before,' he realizes breathlessly, a freezing feeling climbing down his back, 'someone has – touched – the device without your consent before, haven't they? They did– They did something bad, didn't they?'
The silence is even longer this time.
'Obie – Stane. My business partner,' Tony finally says and then silences Steve with a movement of his hand before Steve can even say something. 'Did you ever look at my file? Sure you did but you're too nice to ask – You must've seen the notes. Stane, he said I was alcoholic, insane, irresponsible, suicidal –'
'I thought –'
'I was only alcoholic, highly functioning, perfectly functioning,' Tony says softly, closing his eyes, 'everything else he made up and made everyone believe him, and then he, he –'
'Hey,' Steve says, seeing how much it hurts Tony to say those words, whatever they are, 'you don't have to tell me.'
'You kept worrying about me during alien invasion and when you thought you'd die,' Tony protests, 'I owe you that much. No one even noticed me for years.'
'You owe me nothing –'
'I want to tell you, then,' Tony cuts in, his voice still quiet, 'I ended up in ER with heart trouble and he told them I tried – to kill myself, using the device in my chest because I can control it.'
'You were unconscious and he did it,' Steve realizes. Tony nods almost invisibly.
'He wanted me dead. Wasn't thorough enough so I didn't die. And then he took everything from me.'
Steve swallows, not sure what to say in this situation, what does a person say? It doesn't feel real, it doesn't feel possible for something like this to happen in real life. And yet he trusts Tony's words completely.
'He died over a year ago, stroke I think the newspapers said, I didn't – I could bother to find out more, it was still too raw.'
'It's always gonna be raw,' Steve says, thinking about his memories back from the forties, how they never fade with time, even though he's been in this century long enough to build a new life. 'But that's okay. That's human.'
'So I didn't want them to – it's silly. I know they wouldn't –'
'Would you let the doctors examine you if I was there the entire time?' Steve asks, looking at Tony expectantly. Maybe it's too much to ask. He still doesn't feel like he know normal human relationships well enough, but Tony is unique. Unlike anyone Steve's ever known.
'… yes,' he breathes in the end, making Steve suddenly feel so light. 'Yeah.'
Bruce is there the next morning and Steve goes out to meet him on HQ's roof; New York airports are out of use now so S.H.I.E.L.D. flew him by a jet from D.C.
'Welcome back to the U.S.,' Steve greets the man with a smile of relief. 'Steve Rogers,' he adds, stretching his hand out, surprised at how strong the handshake is for such an unassuming person.
'Doctor Bruce Banner,' Bruce says, looking around distrustfully, Steve can't blame him. 'So, I heard you had quite a fight yesterday,' he says, quirking an eyebrow.
Steve blinks and then he can't help it, he laughs.
'I think I know exactly why Tony gets along so well with you,' he says when he calms down a bit. Bruce is smiling, it's a faint smile but it's an amused one; he relaxes a bit, too, and that makes Steve feel happy.
'He doesn't know you're coming,' Steve says when they're walking down corridors, shooing juniors out of their way with fondness, ignoring their awed whispers at Doctor Banner. Steve has learned a lot about the man since yesterday and even though he doesn't know enough about science, he gets why everyone is so excited.
Also, he couldn't believe how lucky Tony was to randomly make contact with the man not knowing who he was at the beginning, using only strange nicknames on an underground website.
Steve lets Bruce open the door; Tony is sitting in the middle of the Avengers common space, on his favorite sofa, staring out of the window. He does that a lot. His breaths are ragged as he's clutching his chest in a strange twisted position; he does that a lot, too.
The footsteps don't make him turn around.
'Tony,' Steve says softly, 'you have a guest.'
'I don't feel well,' Tony mutters and Steve barely makes it out.
'I know, but please…?' Steve asks, knowing that he won't regret it. Tony sighs, takes another breath, and turns around–and then freezes.
'How is your genius self doing today?' Bruce asks, his voice warm and curious and Steve can't be anything but amazed with the ease. 'They made sure I could come back and flew me over here, first class, to save your ass.'
'I – Steve?'
'Thank you,' Tony says, still pale and still in pain, but beaming.
'I heard you saved the world after I explicitly told you not to push yourself so hard.' Bruce speaks up, moving closer and sitting on the edge of the sofa, eyes quickly assessing Tony's state. 'Have the doctors seen you?'
'Later, in the evening, I couldn't…' he trails off and Bruce nods, which means he knows the story, too. 'I didn't really do anything, saving the world,' Tony says, turning back to look at the city. There are black holes where burning buildings were, and the dust still hasn't settled completely, but the high summer sun is shining and making everything look less depressing. 'It was just a bit of robotics and some hacking and I just – I just laid there. My blankets wrapped around me. With Steve's stolen phone.'
Steve hears lightest footsteps behind him just as Tony says those words and he knows it must be Natasha and Clint as no one else can walk like this.
'You say you didn't do anything?' Clint asks aloud, making Tony and Bruce turn around and look at him sharply. 'Of course you did, you damn idiot. You saved the planet, blah blah, while you were almost-dying – you're still almost-dying, ain't you? – And we, the superheroes, we only saved the world. No dying part. You're officially awesome.'
'You heard him,' Natasha adds, her voice as cheerful as it gets.
Bruce looks back at Tony and now everyone is staring at him, so Tony shrugs slightly and says, 'Okay, I'm awesome.'
Clint nods eagerly, turning his head to Natasha.
'We need to go to a few meetings now, Captain. We should be back in a few hours. You two,' she gestures at the occupied sofa, 'can catch up, and the doctors will see you in the evening. Doctor Banner, please make sure he doesn't run.'
He can't afford to, Steve hears unsaid.
They all end up in medical, sitting around Tony like an overly-protective family from one of those modern movies Steve has seen, only that they listen rather than talk, trusting S.H.I.E.L.D. doctors to know what they are doing.
'We need to build a special artificial heart, in this case,' a tall doctor says, 'and he – and you don't have more than two months.'
'I'm sorry, but it's almost impossible,' the man adds, 'all the studies are years behind what you need as it can't be temporary, you need a permanent solution and –'
'We have blueprints,' Bruce cuts in and everyone look at him; he's clearly uncomfortable with the whole attention he's getting, 'We can make a heart. Tony – we've been working on the project, along with all the others. But it'd cost millions of dollars to get the materials we need so we weren't able to do it before – we can build a heart, though,' he repeats, this time more strongly.
The doctors look at Tony expectantly, waiting for some kind of a confirmation – they seem willing to trust the man who's done so many impossible things so far – and Tony nods.
Steve believes them.
Tony needs rest so they start planning the operation the next day; it's mostly Bruce and Tony who take care of all the preparations. They need to actually build the heart and run a lot of tests before they can even think of doing surgery so they need to hurry; S.H.I.E.L.D. can't spare too many people but they are, for once without an argument, generous with the resources.
'We'll need JARVIS' help,' Bruce mutters to Tony when Steve brings them both some warm lunch. Tony's in his wheelchair, instructing Bruce – his hands are too shaky to trust them, he said – the room around them full of sunshine, the windows open, letting in heat and dust-scented air.
'Who is Jarvis?' Steve asks, setting the plates in an empty spot on the workbench. He wasn't aware they have acquaintances in common, but it only makes sense since they're both scientists.
'JARVIS is an A.I.,' Tony explains casually and for a moment Steve isn't sure if he's being serious or joking. 'He really is,' Tony adds, noticing Steve's stare. 'We need him to analyze all the tests we run, it's gonna be much quicker this way.'
'Do you have access?'
'Access?' Steve questions. Tony gives him a look, his eyes shining.
'JARVIS has been stored in a secure place on the internet,' Tony explains, 'very, very secure. He's my greatest creation. I just need a few minutes to get to him and, well, wake him up – thanks, by the way,' he adds and Steve's only more confused.
'The phone,' Tony says, taking Steve's cell out of his pocket, 'it kind of saved the world, too.'
Steve shakes his head in disbelief; to tell the truth he hasn't noticed the phone missing, he still has the pager thing he communicates with the team with and mobiles don't seem very appealing or useful to him so he's never cares much.
JARVIS turns out to be an artificial being of British accent, perfect manners and politely sarcastic attitude. The voice greets Steve out of his own phone after the lunch is eaten, while Bruce is working on something Steve doesn't quite understand, following Tony's instructions, as Tony himself keeps tapping at the phone.
'Good afternoon, Captain Rogers,' the voice says, suddenly everywhere, and Steve looks around frantically trying to find the source.
'J and I, we just hacked S.H.I.E.L.D., he's speaking through the HQ's comm system,' Tony explains with a smile.
Steve frowns and then laughs, realizing that with Tony around pretty soon he won't be surprised by anything.
Everyone who can be spared spends days in streets, helping out NYPD, volunteers, and local communities to take care of cleaning the city up. Steve is there, too, with Natasha and Clint; it's good that while they had to go public after this stunt, their identities are not known. With Avengers' costumes forgotten, working as themselves, it feels natural and obvious to be there and help.
It's their home, too, the city.
Tony says the same.
'I have a flat, you know,' he tells Steve, his hands never stopping to move as he connect wires so small Steve can't believe it's possible, even with magnifying goggles. 'My old man set that up. Pointless, but he made sure I couldn't sell it. So I had no money to pay the bills, everything was cut off. And it's on the sixth floor on a building with no elevator so it was never worth it to bother to go up there. With my things, it would've taken me, like half a day. In the streets I got some change, at least, for food, or a nice hot chocolate,' he smiles and Steve knows he's the one who always brought chocolate.
'JARVIS says it should be intact,' Tony answers the unfinished question, 'but it's just an empty space,' he adds quietly. 'Hasn't been my home for a long, long time.'
'I wish I could help you,' Tony mutters over dinner one evening, in late July. It's been three weeks since Bruce came and the heart is almost ready for tests. That hopefully won't take longer than a week; the sooner the better.
Tony has been awfully quiet recently and it's not a good sign.
'Just fix your heart and regain your strength and help all you want,' Natasha tells him over her soup, 'we're good for now.'
'Yeah, like, everyone wants to meet the mysterious man. S.H.I.E.L.D. never said more than about two sentences but apparently the world's crazy about you, dude. They'd love some interviews.'
'Do I have to…?'
'Not if you don't want to.'
'Yeah, I know that,' Tony nods, playing with his food. It's tough to make him eat, even with Bruce's hard glare. 'Do I have to, you know, do it as me?'
'Do you want a secret identity, too?' Steve asks, admittedly he hasn't thought about that before. 'You don't have to make yourself a public person.'
'Dunno, don't mind,' Tony says, looking away, staring at the Manhattan; he seems in love with the view. 'There's just someone…'
Someone. Of course.
'She used to be my assistant, and then I didn't have any more money, ah, to pay her. I ordered her to go away and I knew she wouldn't, so I never let her know what happened. I just observed her – from far away. To make sure she was fine.'
No one knows what to say, really.
'Do you want me to…?' Steve asks after a moment. Tony smiles tiredly – Steve can see a bit of his face still turned away – and sighs.
'I could say goodbye,' he says, one of his hands moving up to his heart as if unconsciously. 'Just in case.'
'You're not gonna die,' Steve protests, but he knows he'll do whatever Tony asks him.
'Just in case,' Tony repeats and closes his eyes.
Pepper turns out to be a lovely well-mannered woman, pretty and therefore making Steve blush around her all the time, and she's completely mad at Tony. She shouts at him for at least fifteen minutes, her words turning from angry to desperate, and she ends up crying, Steve can hear it in her voice through the wall, and when he finally enters the room to see if they want some lunch, she's cuddled up to Tony's side, heels forgotten, her expensive dress getting all wrinkles, and she's petting Dummy with one hand, resting the over Tony's heart.
Steve feels strangely envious of the simplicity of the comfort.
Tony never lets anyone that close.
She stays at S.H.I.E.L.D. Phil takes an immediate liking to her, they seem to understand each other well, and even Fury doesn't try to make her go away.
Tony seems happy.
He keeps telling everyone goodbye, every evening, as if he wasn't going to wake up, and Steve dreads that part of the day.
When Tony wakes up on the day of the surgery – all the tests have been successful and they can't wait anymore, his own heart is growing too weak too quickly – he says goodbye to Steve, too.
'I hate you for this,' Steve tells him before he can stop the words coming out of his mouth.
Tony laughs at this, it obviously is taxing for him to laugh but he still does.
'I don't want you to regret – if – not having the chance to bid farewell,' he says, using one of Thor's favorite expressions, making them both grin in unison.
Then he takes Steve's hand and puts it on his heart. Steve can feel, with his enhanced senses, how weak and strange the heartbeat is, almost jerky at times, making Steve shiver with anticipation at each jolt.
'Don't forget to save the world if I die,' Tony says, 'and don't make that face, a few weeks ago I didn't even expect to live. I've known this for too long to be bitter about this chance. Don't mourn me and don't let anyone else do it either, just save the damn world whenever it needs saving. In my name, if you need.'
All Steve can do is nod stiffly, even though he firmly believes Bruce and the team of excellent doctors will do their best and succeed.
'When I was a kid,' Tony adds, still not letting go of Steve's hand, 'I always wanted to be a superhero, I even made up one for myself: I called him Iron Man, a man flying an iron armor. Then I got older and wiser and understood it'd be almost impossible from engineering point of view, but you know, you always remember your childhood dreams. And then I met Captain America who is real. Here. Real. It's more than I could have asked for.'
Steve nods again, not trusting his voice, and at Tony's command pushes the wheelchair through the corridor, where everyone wishes Tony luck, into the pre-op. The medical team is already waiting for Tony.
Steve leans over the back of the chair and whispers into Tony's ear, 'Goodbye.'
Tony is woken up two days later.
'Am I dead?' he asks, voice harsh. They all laugh happily to see him – alive, alive and being himself, alive and as well as can be expected.
'No, you're very much alive,' Pepper tells him fondly.
'My readings do in fact indicate that you are not dead, sir,' JARVIS quips in. Tony's eyes widen at the voice. He seems a bit woozy, obviously still not very present, but he's alive.
'You did it,' Steve says, and then glances at Bruce who nods. 'You and Bruce, you did it. The heart is working perfectly, as good as a healthy new one – and you know what?' Tony frowns slightly and shakes his head, 'now we all get to be annoyed with you about the goodbyes.'
'Fair enough,' Tony agrees.
They are all pretending not to be too damn moved to speak.
With meds, physical therapy, and constant support from all around, Tony keeps recovering. Since the procedure was pioneer and experimental, he has to be monitored at all times for at least several weeks so he stays living with the Avengers in the HQ.
Superhero business is going slow these days, it seems like all the bad guys got a bit scared after New York battle and retreated for a moment; no one complains about that, though. They are rather happy to keep helping down in the city and pretending to have normal lives for once.
Pepper takes care of Tony's legal issues with his if you want but no need to bother permission; she worked with him when Stane was the CEO and she obviously wants to fix as much as possible. He never tells the public his identity.
Tony upgrades JARVIS from Steve's phone while he's spending most of his time in bed or just sitting up, and brainstorms with Bruce about things Steve couldn't hope to understand; he talks with Natasha and jokes with Clint, he even argues with Fury – it's a well-executed game on both sides – but he's always there for Steve.
'You were the one who believed in me,' he tells Steve after a long time of silence; they're both sitting in the common room, Tony observing New York bathed in autumn sun, Central Park's golden and red surface somewhere on the edge of the view, and Steve reading a book. 'You are the one who gave me – all this.'
'How many times do I need to tell you that you saved yourself? I was just there. By accident. And I couldn't have done anything without your help –'
'We can argue like this forever,' Tony summarizes. Steve nods in agreement. 'You still dragged me to a different world.'
Tony's arms are wrapped around his knees, a careful position that he doesn't need anymore, the stitches are long healed and his body is doing great. He seems like he's missing something, though. Like he's alone, that look in his eyes, Steve recognizes it from long ago.
He puts his book away and moves from his armchair to the sofa, sitting so close to Tony that they can feel each other's body warmth, and they stay like that for some time.
'Please never say goodbye again,' Steve mutters eventually, breaking the calm silence.
Tony wraps his cold hand around Steve's and says nothing.
It's the end of November when Steve manages to persuade Tony to show him the apartment.
Sixth floor, it was like climbing Everest a few months ago, almost impossible. Steve knows the last time Tony was there was during a blizzard in winter two years prior and it was hard enough to take all these steps already, the luggage heavy in Tony's freezing hands.
'I told you all about me,' Steve says truthfully, 'and I just want you to show me the place you grew up in.'
'If you really want,' Tony agrees; he pretends not to be worried, but Steve knows him well enough by now to be able to tell that Tony is in fact very worried. Going up, walking up the stairs, it seems like a challenge – like a trial. Like a final test of his artificial heart.
The day is cold but sunny, so they wear everyday clothes and go out pretending to be normal people, in polished shoes and black coats, with Tony wearing a smart hat. They take a cab to the building, it's pretty far away and none of them wants to push it. Steve pays the driver and when he turns around, he sees Tony standing there, unmoving, head up and staring at the top floor of the building, or maybe at the sky.
'Take your time,' Steve says, putting a hand on Tony's shoulder reassuringly.
It seems like such a big thing.
It takes Tony over fifteen minutes of standing in the cold to finally shrug, as if he wanted to get something off his shoulders, and move towards the building. Steve follows. The steps are slow, reluctant, but Tony doesn't really hesitate. He's just taking his time, Steve realizes, as if he was afraid of failure but savoring the success at the same time.
It takes three to six months to fully recover from a heart transplant, Steve knows, and no one is sure how long it should take with Tony's heart. He seems to be doing well, though, step by step, each of them echoing in the stairwell, the wooden floor and barren walls making the noise loud and empty.
Third floor, Tony stops for half a second, closes his eyes and takes a breath, but then continues easily. Fourth, he puts his hand on the railing and lets his fingers run across the uneven metallic surface, more out of habit then for actual support. Fifth, and he's biting his lips, as if trying to keep a premature smile out of his face.
Steve doesn't bother, he just smiles.
On sixth and the last floor, as soon as Tony takes the last step, he stops, breathing heavily – but it's normal heavy breaths, Steve notices, not too quick or too shallow, it's just heavy breaths of a person who isn't used to this kind of physical activity – and then looks at Steve, eyes shining.
It's a journey he's never expect to make again.
He takes the big key out of the his pocket and puts it into the keyhole, hands just slightly unsteady with excitement, and when he opens the door with Steve a step behind him – he freezes.
The room is full of warm light coming from fairy lights and candles and filled with warm scent of spices and roast, people moving around speaking in hushed voices. Tony's eyes are wide as he understands what's going on; being a proper mad scientist he forgot about the holidays, too buried with his research to bother to check the calendar.
It's a proper Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and potatoes and beans, the table filled with plates and glasses, and all the Avengers, Bruce and Pepper several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are present, clapping and cheering and speaking too many words of congratulations at once.
'You –' Tony says and everyone seems to pause, looking at them with various stages of curiosity, 'You knew about this,' he adds accusingly. Steve nods happily.
Tony takes a breath, looks around once more, and lets a bright smile crawl onto his face.
'Screw being a superhero,' he says tightly, ignoring the mock-annoyed face Steve makes at the swear word, 'this is so much better.'
Steve nods in agreement, taking Tony's hand, and leads him inside.
A/N: Part two and the (sweet) end. Thanks for all you support, I hope you liked part two! I'd be grateful for any feedback from you :)