Overall, I'm happy with how this chapter turned out. It was very hard to write, mostly because each of Tony's talks with a respective Avenger, had to sound in-character and organic. I couldn't force them to grovel at his knees for forgiveness, but I couldn't also just put them together again and have them move on.

The discussions are messy, and not everything is resolved, but I feel that that most closely approximates real life, where endings aren't always perfect and human beings have various reasons for doing what they do.

How Strange, To Hope


"Look, you either back off or I'll start pulling projects."

"Are you threatening me, Stark?" Fury's face is impassive, but his tone is solid rock.

It's all right. Two can play that game. Tony's will is iron itself.

"I know they're SHIELD agents, Fury. And I know they're you're best. But they're also Avengers, and when they start going missing or coming home with broken bones, we do notice and we don't like it one bit. So you start by looking at that contract or I pull all the projects you've got me on. And good luck finding anyone else to finish them. I guarantee you no one else can."

For a moment, Fury just stands there, looking at him.

"So, you want to play babysitter, is that it?"

Tony ignores the jab. "Either of them get sent on a mission, Rogers gets a call. If and when back-up becomes an option, another Avenger is the first choice. We always know where they are and why."

"And if I sign this, you'll get out of my damn office?"

"Faster than your one-eyed can blink."

"Threaten me again, Stark, and we'll have a whole hell of problems."

"Looking forward to it."


Hill is almost gaping.

Natasha wants to laugh. Clint actually chuckles.

"Stark? You've got to be kidding me."

"There is no jest about it. Brother Stark is second in command, should the Captain fall. He is well equipped to lead, and I shall follow him."

"So will I," Bruce adds, not looking up from his tablet.

"Me too," Clint chimes in, finishing his report with a flourished signature.

"Stark will always put himself in twice as much danger as he will any of us. He's proven himself. And we will stand behind him," A glimmer of ice belies Natasha's casual tone.

Hill bristles.


Tony doesn't remember how long they've been there, only that Clint's murmurs have died down, and that the man appears to be occasionally troubled by whatever it is that he sees. Tony's chest hurts, badly, but still he keeps Clint's hand on his reactor.

Steve finds them like that, almost bent towards each other, Clint's hand on Tony's chest, blue glow scattering around the archer's splayed fingers. Behind him, Natasha moves efficiently, darting forward to a crouch.

Clint responds to the new presences with alarm.

"Took you...guys...long enough..." Tony's breathlessness is alarming, "Clint...can't see." Natasha flinches at that, hard, but then she's moving again, leaning in close to Clint, whispering something in his ear.

"Tony, Tony can you move?"

"Yeah, um...how about...no?"

Natasha softly pries Clint's hand away from Tony's, "He'll be all right, Stark."

"We need to get you out of here."

Tony nods. His chest fucking aches.

Steve's hands go around his back, hitch under his left arm.

"Lift on...three?"

Steve nods, "One, two...three."

Tony braces himself but still bites off a cry when Steve helps him up, even as the super-soldier makes every effort to make his firm grip as gentle as possible. Steve cringes, frowns, "Sorry, sorry."

Natasha leads Clint ahead of them, hand-in-hand they go.

Steve is a steady presence at his side, and pressed so close, Tony feels the beginnings of something flutter in his chest.

Tony wants to run. The urge to flee is strong inside his chest, and he makes it as far as the kitchen before he wills himself to stillness, fingers gripping the edges of the countertop tightly. He can hear footsteps behind him, steady and slow. Clint is giving him time to collect himself, and for that, Tony is grateful.

"If you want me to leave…" The invitation is there, open. Tony wants to take it. Doesn't want to do this now. Not today and not tomorrow. But he can't keep living like he has been, not after everything he now knows, the choices they made and the choice he made himself. They're inside him now, each of them, a part of his heart and who can excise his own heart? For all the power of his mind and the masks he chooses to display, he's always been unbearably human.

Who is to blame (is anyone?)? Himself, for what he did and what he said, ("Do it."), or them, for what they hid and followed through with?

Look at what happened, from every side, and consider all the other ways it could have gone.

"No. Just, just stay, okay? And give me a minute."

Clint doesn't argue, even if he wants to. He moves past the engineer and takes a seat at the table. It's uncomfortable, the walls that seem to be between them now, but he sits there and waits, because this is what he owes.

When Tony finally turns to look at him, leaning against the counter, hands in his pockets, Clint doesn't know what to do.

He looks better, and that's a grand relief that eases some of the tension he's been carrying inside since they found out how Tony broke.

How they broke him.

"You look better."

"Can't really say the same for you."

No bite on either side, and yet the ease of the traded words only adds to the pressure, for it is fake, an empty counterfeit of what they used to have before.

"I, I don't really know what to say Tony. You know I'm shit at this."

Tony could attack him then, tear him to pieces. But he remains silent, just looking at him, and Clint feels anger start to stir, deep inside. It's the kind fueled by fear, sickened by a guilt that eats and eats and eats, and Clint wants Tony to react, to scream. To not stand there and act like nothing happened, like he can forgive them because Clint knows what they have done and what they deserve.

"I'm not here to fight you, Clint. I didn't come here to throw everything in your faces, not like before. I didn't know. Why didn't anyone tell me what I'd done? I told Steve to–"

"I was the one that killed the kid."

Tony stops. Freezes. Looks at him with open, horrified interest.

Clint forces himself to meet his friend's eyes.

"I was aiming for Sandhurst, and it happened so fast, I was –I was scared. I never fucking miss but I was fucking terrified. He was a telepath, and you! You went there on your own, by your goddamn self and all I could think about was how I wanted him not to take me. How it felt to have someone else in your head, fucking around like you aren't even there and I didn't –I couldn't, not again…he was using the kid as a shield and I fucking missed. Don't you get it Tony? He knew what we would do, how to play us against each other. Knew what it would take to break me, to break you…If Ihadn't –" Clint is standing now, eyes so, so angry and pained. "And then, I wake up, wake up to what you did, what I did… And when Cap –when he tells us what you said to him…I threw my lot, Tony. I knew, I fucking knew what could happen, I knew we'd be hurting you and I –I made my choice, and so did you. Only, I betrayed a friend, I mean we fucking almost broke you and there's nothing I can say that can take that back, nothing in this world I can give… And the honest truth is that I still don't know if I what I did was worth it…We just wanted to keep you safe, but if you had woken up with others' blood on your hands…"

Tony takes every word in, accepts it all. He knows what they did and why. Can even appreciate, (now, after days of questioning his trust in them, and his own worth), that they meant to preserve life, save him from condemning himself. He knows perfectly well that he could have killed Clint and Coulson. Anyone. Almost did.

Knows that those acts, even committed unwillingly, would have ripped him to shreds, swallowed him whole and destroyed him in ways that not even the worst villains or the recent actions of his teammates could ever do.

And yet…

"From the beginning, you could have been honest with me. You could have told me," Tony realizes he's raised his voice, and lowers it, "I thought we'd gotten past the mistrust." He can't help the hurt in his tone, the raw throbbing, no more than Clint can help his answering flinch.

"We should have, Tony. We should have and I…I wonder about that too, you know? About how things might have been different. We kept you safe, but we didn't…and if I could do it again, I don't…I honestly don't know."

Clint's eyes tell Tony everything. That Clint wanted for him something he himself did not have. Tony knows the deaths of those agents still weigh on him. Remembers when Clint wrote out letters of condolence by hand, to every single family. Knows that the past are impossibly long claws.

That here is a man punishing himself, more than Tony ever could, because sometimes the teeth at your bones are your own.

"We can't turn back time, can we?"

"No," Clint concedes, deflating back into the chair, sinking against its support. He wants to say more, make his apology and his admissions and his confessions more concrete. But there are no more words left on his tongue, just the bitter taste of helpless sorrow.

"But time can move forward, right? It carries on."

Clint feels the wish swell in his chest, impossibly sweet and fragile, growing there amongst the bramble and thorns, a soft whisper of a thing.

Tony is–

Tony is throwing him a lifeline; to the man drowning in the ocean of his own transgressions and both their choices.

"Yeah. It does."

Tony's smile is small, and it doesn't reach his eyes the way it used to. But it's something, and something is a start.


Tony can feel the warmth and sureness of Steve's hands on either side of his face. They're an interesting paradox, the both of them, Tony who can show Steve how to fly in so many ways and Steve who is a solid, unshakeable landing point.

Steve is talking. Talking to him.

"Come back, Tony. Come back to me."

Tony lets the ire slip away. It reminds him too much of Afghanistan, Yinsen among the rice sacks, the screams and stench of men being burned alive.

Steve's breath is quick, made so by pain, and yet he stands there like a monolith, as Tony comes back to himself. Coulson is just behind the super-soldier. Tony makes eye contact, and Coulson nods at him, accepting.

When they make their way out, Tony takes the lead.

He's tense, still wired from everything that's happened.

He trips, feet catching on each other as interrupted physics threatens to send him forward.

But Steve is there, taking his hand, steadying him.

Tony doesn't let go the remainder of the walk.


"There has to be a way, Bruce! Don't tell me you're giving up?" Tony is angry. Bruce struggles to control his own waning temper.

"Don't be an ass, Tony. You don't think I want to save Steve too? You think I like this? I like watching him die?"

Tony recoils at that, draws himself up to his full height, levels Bruce with a stare that rivals the faceplate of Iron Man, "We're going to save Steve, Bruce." And that's all Tony says on the matter before he's spinning around, returning to his work station, barking orders at JARVIS.

Bruce knows that losing Steve will hurt. Steve is their leader, their friend. But Steve and Tony... Bruce allows himself a minute to wonder why the two of them don't go for it, why they don't throw caution to the wind and decide to find happiness, like him and Betty, or Thor and Jane. Even Clint and Natasha are circling each other with intentions to take things further.

He risks a glance at Tony. The engineer doesn't notice, too engaged in his work. He's been up for over 36 hours, and he's hunching forward a little more than usual, in that way that Bruce has learned means the reactor is bothering him more than he can ignore.

The Hulk rumbles inside. He wants to make Baron Zemo pay, for injecting Steve with a poison that is slowly destroying him as his friends scramble to find anything that might bring the nightmare to an end.

Tony has been awake for more than 36 hours, and he's hunching and he's irritable. And yet, his determination continues its brilliant burn.

Tony just doesn't know how to lose, and that, that will always be his saving grace.

Thor finds him on the rooftop garden. It was Natasha's idea, Tony remembers, almost two years ago now, when she had hefted bags of soil and fertilizer to the elevator. She certainly had a green thumb. Everything is growing, and growing well.

The demi-god hesitates before taking a seat next to him. Tony doesn't mind. Not really.

Or, that's what he tells himself.

"I am relieved to see that you have returned, Tony. We were, all of us, anxious to see you..." Thor trails off uncertainly, shifting in the garden chair, "When my father cast me down to Midgard, powerless, it was to teach me humility. That a leader, a ruler, should consider himself as one of his people, and not above them. That arrogance is a fickle thing best expunged from one's decisions and being."

Thor is running his fingers through a nearby plot of daffodils, large hands very, very gentle.

"I had thought my lesson learned, and yet, I find that I have again fallen to it. It was arrogant of me, of us, to believe that we knew what was best for you, without your consult. To think that our actions were warranted, and unquestionable in their righteous intentions. To hope that you might wave the act away, that you might not have suffered needlessly."

Tony doesn't really know how he should respond, what he should say. Clint was…there was a reason that he chose to speak to Clint first. The archer had been in the same position, forced to do terrible things against his will, things that he will always carry with him like scarred over wounds. It is something none of the others can really understand, and something Tony cannot credit them for, not like Clint.

"I think I understand you a little better," Tony blurts out, absently running his fingers through a nearby fern. They're unsteady, and they catch on some leaves that flutter slowly down. Thor looks puzzled.

"All those times, with Loki…I could never really understand how hard it was for you, how much work it is to continue trying and loving somebody that has hurt you," Thor's face falls, "I'm trying Thor, I'm…trying, ok? But how did you –how did you let go?"

Thor considers this, hands now in his lap. "I do not think you ever can. You only look forward, remember that the past is with you, and all the memories that made it worth it are there also. I am truly grieved that I cannot provide further guidance, nor can change the past. For what it means, I wish now that we had had more time. I wish I could go to my father, or even Loki himself, attain a means to bend time, end the fiend before he had a chance to even think of harming you or anyone. However, I must be truthful with you, I refuse to lie, and I will not shed my responsibility in what was done against you. If you so desire, I will depart from your home immediately, yet not before I say this: What we did was done in all good intention. We only ever sought to keep you safe, that you might not be used as a puppet for evil deeds. Changes could have been made, I will not deny you that. But if your life were at stake once more…" Thor sighs, raises himself up, "We must save your life first, that is the vow under which I serve Midgard, and the Captain, and you. It is to that end that I shall always pledge myself to."

Tony can appreciate Thor's honesty, the courage that it takes to speak one's mind. It's easy to write off the demi-god, say that he's an alien, separate from humanity and therefore the emotions and fallacies that are par for the course. But Thor is just as human as they are, just as prone to make mistakes, his family just as dysfunctional as ones on Earth. Tony thinks of Loki, of the millennia that the liesmith and Thor have shared.

"There are no words to convey how sorrow weighs in my heart for how deeply we misjudged the possible consequence of our actions. But I offer you my sincerest apologies, Man of Iron, though they may be but paltry supplications," with that, Thor stands, and before Tony can even say anything, the crown prince of Asgard is bowing deeply to him, golden tresses curtaining his face from view.

"I'll keep trying, Thor. That's all I can promise."

Thor stands then, "That is all I can ask for."

As Thor is walking away, Tony sees Mjolnir a ways off, sitting near the plot of dandelions, Thor's favorites.

Thor catches his line of sight, stares at his hammer fondly, and stretches his hand.

When nothing happens, the demi-god smiles ruefully, but acceptingly dropping his arm back to his side.

"I'm not worthy of her yet."


Peter wakes up with a groan, immediately aware of the fact that his mask is still in place. He is relieved until he thinks more closely about what he is laying on. Consciousness slams back into him then and he launches upright, ignoring his body's protests.

"Oh, good. Glad you're awake. I was about to have JARVIS start notifying next of kin," None other than Tony Stark saunters into his field of vision, "You have a couple of cracked ribs, some sprains, bruises, nothing too grave. I hope you don't mind that I've relocated you. You were going to get squashed, so, you know, you're welcome."

Peter doesn't know what to say. Is this guy for real?

"You can't just go around kidnapping people!" Peter splutters before he can control himself, awfully aware of just how childish he sounds.

"Relax, Pete, can I call you Pete? Petery? Too much?"

The anger in his gut solidifies and Peter is springing off the bed now, intent on leaving as quickly as possible.

"I didn't cheat, if that's what's got you worked up."

"Cheat?" He all but growls. Who knew Tony Stark was such a dickhead?

"Take off your mask, run fingerprints, etcetera, etcetera," Tony's hands are in full motion, "You're small enough, voice, no offence, not the deepest baritone in the choir. Therefore, not an adult. Close, but the waitress isn't buying it, so you get no alcohol. You saved a girl last week, took a nasty hit to the side from a Doombot. Now, I'm not saying you wouldn't do that for the average Joe or Jane but the way you handled her was something else, like the Hulk handles Betty. I looked her up of course, pure scientific curiosity, just testing a hypothesis. Relax, not trying to steal her from you. Anyway, I came across Midtown High School, did a search of the student body, hacked some servers…you had perfect attendance up until about 5 months ago. High grades, so not the type to skip for funsies. Couple of teachers concerned over your wellbeing, as, apparently, you show up looking like someone's been laying into you at home–"

"Enough." Peter says calmly, not needing or wanting to hear more. Stark is as brilliant and annoying as everyone seems to say.

Tony, surprisingly, shuts up, goes back to tinkering with something before tossing it at Peter. He catches it easily, unease growing when he realizes that it's one of his shooters, but modified.

"It's ingenious, by the way. Not something I say often, but hey, you're good. I changed the casing though. Steel aluminum alloy, still light, very waterproof."
Peter has many questions but he settles for, "why are you doing this?"
Tony smiles, "I knew your father you know. Back when I first took control of Stark Industries. The biotech department was flagging and I offered him a job but then, we were a weapons company. People rarely have the guts to tell me off, especially to my face. He said I had power I was abusing. A responsibility I was taking for granted. Something to that effect. Didn't really understand until years later."
Peter stills, transfixed. He still knows so very little about his father.
"What do you want form me?"
"Nothing. Just giving you some advice. You don't have to do it alone." And then Tony extends his hand, like they're equals. No lecture about the danger, about how young he is and what he shouldn't do.
Peter takes it, grip firm, "Peter Parker, Spider-Man."
Tony grins, "Tony Stark, Iron Man."

Tony walks into Bruce's lab without preamble. While Bruce appears engrossed in his work, switching dutifully between his notebook and his microscope, Tony can easily tell that he is distracted. He wants to take a break, go to his own lab and do something that doesn't send his heart racing as he struggles to maintain a veneer of calm. But he is buoyed by his progress with Clint and Thor, and the fact that he has yet to run into Steve.

He instantly notes that things are different. Most importantly, Bruce has limited his work to one solitary lab table near the far end of the wall. The other tables, usually full of computers and test tubes, sit empty. Tony narrows his eyes. Bruce is planning on leaving.

"So, what time is the flight?"

Bruce rounds on him, looking like he's seen a ghost.

"Jesus, Tony, what– I could have–"

Normally, a flustered Bruce is a mission accomplished. But today, the man before him is honestly stricken, even if no green shimmers across his skin.

"I'm back." Tony says, adds a small and genuine smile, and settles his hands behind him on the counter. Bruce catches them anyway. It's hard not to, when Tony usually uses his hands and arms when he talks, gesturing, moving, touching.

Another pang of regret in his chest, another nail hammered into his consciousness to count for all the hurt he's caused, voluntary and involuntary.

"Tony, um, you look good. Better. Um, crap... I'm not –not too good at this." Bruce wrings his hands, resists the urge to remove his glasses.

Tony seems nonchalant, almost calm. But Bruce knows him better.

Do you? A voice inside rumbles, sounding not the Hulk's but his own, coated heavily in disappointment.

"You don't need to escape you know. I came back to try to fix things. Have some discussions. Be…mature? Responsible?"

Tony is smiling, so Bruce tries, tries to get the corners of his mouth to climb up, tries to recall how easy things were between them.

But the truth is that that understanding has been weakened, if not destroyed, and Bruce has no one to blame but himself. This time, the monster was not green and large and powerful. It was him, Bruce Banner alone; an average sized human being that didn't know how to protect his friend.

"Tony, I can't stay here. Not after what I was party to. Not after what we did to you."

"And all of you neglected to mention that I had agreed to it. Told Rogers to do it."

An undercurrent of anger there, just below the surface, and Bruce marvels for a moment at Tony's control.

"Tony, you weren't in a position to agree. Not fully."

"Yet I did. I did and what was done was done, and now I'm here, I'm back, trying to fix things. Or is that not possible anymore? Is that what you want to say Bruce? Where are you even going?"

"You're not supposed to be the one fixing anything!" Bruce bursts, matching Tony's rising volume easily.

Both men freeze, Bruce more so.

But the beast doesn't stir.

"I messed up Tony, why can't you– From the beginning, the very beginning, you were the one that believed in me. The one who didn't react with fear or trepidation. And I, I took that and I broke it, Tony. I'm so, so sorry. I didn't want to, I didn't agree at first, but I just –" Bruce is aware that his voice is hoarse, that he's clutching his glasses like a lifeline liable to break, "We were trying to keep you alive, Tony. And in the process, we lost sight of, of, of even considering what it might do to you!"

Bruce drops his eyes.

"The, uh, Other Guy, he kept –kept asking for you. I've actually been benched this whole time. Can't get him to come out… I think he's angry."

A beat of silence, before both of them process what Bruce has just said.

And then, laughter, deep and desperate but no less pure. Tony has to lean back on the counter to support his shaking frame and Bruce tries and fails to hold onto his glasses.

For that moment, they forget and remember everything.

"Wow, that was just, one of your best lines ever, Bruce, I have to hand it to you, seriously," Tony's still grinning, and it reaches his eyes.

Bruce wonders, own mouth still held in the lingering form born of laughing. Can it really be this easy?

New warmth sears in his chest for the man before him. He'd always known that Tony had a big heart, that he hid it so perfectly and completely so many believed the lie and never had the opportunity to experience Tony for who he really was, the greatest friend that Bruce had ever known.

"I'm not going alone. And I'm not leaving forever, just…until I get my bearings back I guess."

"And which country will be host to your penance activities?"

Bruce shakes his head, trying and failing not to smile. "Betty really took a liking India."

"Smart man, giving the girl what she wants. Which is only fair really, she has to deal with your celibacy," Tony ribs good naturedly, "Bring her around the tower when you get back. I'm sure she'd love to play with all the shiny toys."

Bruce nods, feeling like he wants to say more but not wishing to spoil the moment, this level of peace that they've reached.

Tony's stomach rumbles.

"Uh oh, hunger calls. JARVIS? Get me some food will you?"

Tony is turning to leave when Bruce catches his arm.

"I was waiting for you to get back. I didn't want to leave before I saw you, with my own eyes, saw that you were…better. Okay. And I wanted…Tony, what happened. What you did, did you mean it?"

Tony remembers Bruce's words, spoken nearly 2 years ago, I didn't see an end, so I put a bullet in my mouth and the Other Guy spit it out.

"I would have taken out the arc reactor," Tony answers easily.

It's the truth. Even now, only Pepper and Steve know how to remove and replace the arc without triggering the self-destruct mechanism. Only JARVIS knows where the spares are. By the time things could have been mobilized, and after all the close shaves he's already had, he's sure his heart would have stopped.

Bruce knows this too, and chooses in that moment to ask no more. He knows how far he can push, how much he is now entitled to knowing.

The answer is enough and he lets go of the other's arm.

"I'm…thank you."

Tony nods and starts to walk away once more.

"Take your phone with you. Might pick your brain once in a while. Also, check out Akathiyoor. There's a little car shop there, and a fantastic mechanic that'll set you up with a room if you need it."

When Tony is gone, Bruce slips back into his seat, still drained. But there's lightness there too, that wasn't there before.


"We need a decision, Captain," Fury repeats. Like he's out of patience. Like they're simply giving a status report.

"You're not the one being locked away," Bruce growls, and forest green shines brightly in his eyes. The Other Guy is livid. Fury is undeterred, "I'm not the one who went solo to confront a psychotic telepath and almost killed two men."

The words sting, but they're the truth.

Steve's mind is whirling, like a helicopter caught in a tailspin, an inevitable crash to earth.

"The Man of Iron assented to his containment. He was aware long enough to realize what he had committed, and saw that the best option was this one. We must honor his brave decision."

"It isn't really a decision!" Bruce shouts, "He was aware for a few seconds, right after he was forced to attack two of his friends. You can't honestly believe he was in any position to consent!"

"You weren't there!" Natasha is in the conversation now, voice sharp as steel, "You didn't see what he did to Coulson or Clint."

Bruce draws back at that. Coulson is still in the ICU. He'd been fighting for his life just a few hours prior. He decides to change tactics.

"Look, we need some sleep, some food -"

"This isn't a matter that can wait, Doctor," Fury interrupts, "We can't keep Stark sedated forever. There's no telling what Sandhurst's next move is. He was able to control three people at once, all without even being in the room."

"Then why aren't we joining Tony in the cage?" Bruce is pacing restlessly now. He knows he's starting to scare his teammates, but this...what they're asking him to agree to... "We are all dangerous in some way or another."

Fury's responding sigh is angry. "No threats were made against you. Sandhurst could have targeted any of you. For whatever twisted reason, he chose Stark. Only made a move on Stark. We need the rest of you to find him. He is a highly volatile enemy, and we need him out of the game as soon as possible."

"He doesn't even remember anything," Bruce adds, aware that he's grasping at straws, "And you want us to keep it that way? To keep him in the dark?"

The few times that Tony fought off the drug, he showed no indication of recalling what had happened, what he had done.

"There's no telling what will happen if we tell him what he was involved in," Fury presses, "We don't know anything about how Sanhurst's powers work, or how far his reach is. Telling Stark that he almost killed two Avengers compounds the risk!"

"Tony could help. He'd want to help. I don't have to speak for his intelligence or his persistence. Both are invaluable."

"And both are the very reason why Stark can be a powerful threat," Fury warns, voice steady, "Stark has everything at his disposal, and if he can't buy it, he'll sure as hell make it. His IQ is off the charts, his processing speed like nothing that's ever been seen. In the wrong hands, these things become as perilous as anything the Avengers have come up against, if not more."

They all fall silent at that, a heavy lack of sound that settles on them like lead weights.

"I'd have wanted it," Clint finally adds, the first time he's spoken during the whole meeting. "If someone had given me the chance, to become Loki's puppet or get locked away, I'd have chosen the latter every time," Clint can barely sit up without wincing, but his voice is firm as he makes his confession. "I know Tony. If he'd have killed us...Coulson...he'd never forgive himself. That blood is always on your hands. Always. And that, that would tear him to shreds."

Bruce wants to say something, but finds himself without any words. Only a foreboding deep in the pit of his stomach that stirs the beast inside.

"I agree with Clint. Stark already takes the blame for things that aren't even his fault. Mind control or no, he'll take it hard if he hurts anyone else."

Thor nods at Natasha's words. "These actions are regrettable, but necessary. Shield brother Tony's life is the foremost priority. Whilst he is in containment, we must search for the villain quickly, and bring him to justice for all the grief that he has caused."

"Well, what can I do? What more can I say? I'm not comfortable with this decision. I hear what you all are saying, and I know that none of you, none of us, wants anything other than what's best for Tony. I don't think he'll see it our way, I mean, he'll be furious," Bruce runs his hand through his hair, too tired and too alone and too shaken to articulate what he wants to say, "but if we can keep him safe... If we can guarantee that he'll come out of this, I can't disagree. No matter how much I want to."

And then, they're looking at Steve.

Like he has all the answers.

Of course. Steve Rogers, Captain America, the man with the plan, the man with the unshakable moral compass.

They look up to him, each one of them. He has yet to fail them, to lead them astray or make the wrong call.

He's the leader for a reason, they follow him for a reason.

And right now, he feels like Atlas, the weight of the world on his shoulders and what is he supposed to say to that? What can he do now? Shake the weight off, pass it to someone else? Call up the Hulk, say, here, hold onto this for a while, let me think, God, let me think, because I can't. I can't. How can I make the best decision, how can I try to be impartial? This man, this man that I love with all that I am, went alone to confront a devil, and then he came to me and kneeled before me and looked me in the eye, and gave himself into my hands. He thrust his freedom forward, and his trust, and what do I do now? What do I do, what do I do, what can I do? He said yes, and spared himself, the son of a bitch, like it would be so easy, like he meant nothing to me, why isn't here now? Why doesn't he remember? Why isn't he here to stop me, please, someone stop me, stop this!

Natasha's glance bear pity. He confided in her. She alone knows how deeply he loves Tony.

He can see it now, Abraham setting what he most loved upon the altar, flame in hand, only the best intentions in his heart. He can see it, so clearly, whereupon no angel descends from heaven, and with a heavy hand he reaches forward and sets his world alight.

"It's up to you, captain," Fury prods, waiting.

They're all waiting, and Steve hates them in that moment. Every one. Hates Tony most, because Tony came to him and gave him permission to do it, and what will Steve do now?

Either way, either way, little soldier. Turn left (Tony goes free, Tony kills, them or anyone, dies himself, because it could come to that couldn't it?), turn right (Tony is put away, not knowing why, betrayed), turn around and around little soldier.

March, left, right, left.

Either way, either way, little soldier, you are damned.

"Tony will be placed into containment until such a time that we determine he and everyone else is safe. It's done."

Three down and four more to go. Almost a majority. The success burns brightly, even if dampened by the kind of exhaustion that has nothing to do with physical effort but emotional control and outpouring. He's rounding the corner, about to ask JARVIS for some food options when he runs into Steve. Not so much runs into him as he sees him coming, and Steve sees him. The soldier stops in his tracks, like a deer caught in the crosshairs. He pales, shoulders stiffening and Tony recognizes motions that set up a body to flee. He could say something. But Steve…Steve is last on the list, for so many reasons. So he stays quiet, lets the unbearable silence continue.

This time, it's Steve who turns and runs.