Steve could hardly believe what was happening, like he was stuck in the middle of a haze, swathed in shadows where every turn reaped only darkness. It didn’t seem real– it couldn’t, it shouldn’t have been real, a scene torn from horrors that belonged only in the confines of a tortured mind.
It wasn’t that he was naïve. He’d seen war, he knew the atrocities people were capable of committing– but everything had been going so well, until, of course, suddenly it wasn’t. And for something to be torn from the depths of his own terror and presented to him as if it were a gift was just... well. His mind was near blank, caught in a surge of memories that caused his ability to formulate a decision to splutter out of his grasp. The scene swam before Steve’s blurred vision, Clint’s panicked questions sounding distant as he remained unable to focus on anything but his own horror.
It was any leader’s worst nightmare, to be made to choose between two members of his team.
It was any person’s worst nightmare, to be forced to choose between two of his friends.
Steve squeezed his eyes shut.
Tony Stark wasn’t even supposed to have been there.
Steve tried to shake the thoughts from his mind, tried to push away the memory of choosing to leave Bucky alone in the train carriage while he moved forward to try and capture Zola.
(Peggy said that it had been Bucky’s choice. Steve didn’t think he believed her.)
The scenes were not all that similar, not really, but Steve’s mind was twisting into knots, and he was terrified that this would turn out the same.
Iron Man, the person Steve would probably label his best friend in this century, was stretched out across the ground, his shining red armour caked in dust but still managing to gleam under the bright desert sun. He lay face down, a heavy boot pressing his helmet against the ground as the barrel of a gun was held to the join in the armour’s neck. He had been entirely unresponsive ever since the brutes had thrown him down, and it was impossible to tell how much damage had been done.
It wasn’t a thought that he allowed to linger.
To make things even worse, Tony Stark was hanging limply from the grasp of another big man in beige protective gear, clearly unconscious although there was no visible injury other than his too-red skin and a single drop of blood on the left side of his face. Steve noticed that his chest was rising and falling with ragged breaths, wrapped in a torn and grubby suit jacket Steve remembered seeing him wear that morning as he headed out to a meeting.
Two people in danger. An Avenger who had moved too far ahead of the group and a civilian engineer who was supposed to still be back in New York.
Both had guns to their heads, and Steve was being asked to choose.
The guy holding Tony snarled something indecipherable, forcing Steve back to reality, his veins surging with adrenaline.
“You’d best pick soon, Captain,” said a grubby man standing behind the others, his voice quiet and unsteady. A translator. “They don’t want to be kept waiting.”
There had to be another way out. There had to be.
Steve couldn’t lose another friend.
He cast his gaze about wildly, assessing a situation that he had already assessed a thousand times, desperately searching for an answer that he knew he wouldn’t find. A quick glance to Clint, standing only a few yards from Steve himself, proved that the archer’s quiver was completely empty with no hope of a refill. Steve could see his shield– it was about twenty yards away, under the wheel of a jeep. Even if he could get to it, he couldn’t get at it, at least not quickly enough to make a difference. And with the number of guns these guys were waving about - not to mention the Enhanced who seemed to have some kind of affinity for fire - there was no hope of winning a fight without weapons.
“Cap,” Clint muttered out of the corner of his mouth, his voice still sounding strange to Steve, like it was being carried across on the desert breeze rather than being spoken into his ear from the comm. “Cap, I don’t want to seem like I’m telling you what to do, but do we really have a choice here?”
Steve didn’t want to believe it, but he was forced to accept that there wasn’t another way out. This was the only way, and part of being a leader meant that you had to make the tough decisions. Sure, Steve could decide not to give an answer at all, but that in itself was still a decision– and one that would no doubt damn them all.
There was a chance, of course, that they were lying, that Steve could give an answer and the men would kill them all, anyway. Steve didn’t think so, though. Maybe the hit to the head he’d taken during the fight had affected him more than he’d initially believed, but he thought that the men were probably being sincere. There seemed to be something they wanted, and it didn’t take a genius to work out what.
Time was running out, the man with his gun to Iron Man’s neck was twitching impatiently, and Steve knew he had move quickly.
He swallowed hard, feeling sick, because…
Well. Because maybe Clint had a point.
Mind reeling, he grasped onto the smallest piece of sanity he could find, clutching Clint’s argument to his chest like a safety net.
The ultimatum was horrific, yes, but was it truly a choice between teammates? Iron Man had been on the team since the beginning, but he’d seen Natasha’s initial assessment– Stark himself had been recommended for nothing more than limited association, a business deal more than anything else. Stark had never been, and would never be an Avenger. He wasn’t on the team, he merely lurked in the Tower – fair enough, really, since he owned the place – offering up resources when needed but otherwise staying out of the way.
And… was it really a choice between friends? Steve had only really talked to Stark a couple of times, their conversation limited to new gear or things in the Tower that needed to be fixed– or, on the odd occasion, Iron Man. Iron Man himself was witty and charming, friendly and kind, always willing to listen when Steve needed a someone to lean on. He was truly one of the best people Steve knew, nothing like the brash inventor that employed him.
Plus, as awful as it sounded… they needed Iron Man. He had saved the world hundreds of times, and they needed the hero more than they needed an engineer. They’d all got by just fine before Tony had started making them all special gadgets, and they would be able to cope without them in the future.
He might have hated it with every fibre of his being, but still Steve knew exactly what he was going to have to do.
“Iron Man,” he whispered, the name slipping from his lips like a prayer– though to Steve it felt more like a curse, for it would condemn Stark to captivity at best, and at worst…
The big man said something, and the translator shuddered before glancing back to Steve.
“He says he can’t hear you, he wants you to speak up,” said the grubby man, sounding terrified. Steve supposed he must have been just as much a captive as they were.
“I choose Iron Man,” said Steve, hating himself despite knowing that it was the right thing to do. “Give us Iron Man, and you can… you can take… just let Iron Man go.”
All of a sudden, every single one of the dozen men before him gave a feral grin, and Steve felt like he was waltzing into a den of wolves. Unable to shake the feeling, Steve glanced across to Clint, but the archer’s gaze was only angry, not suspicious.
The burly man was talking again.
“They say they are men of their word, and that they have no grudge against the Avengers,” stuttered the translator. “If you let them go quietly, and if you do not try to get retribution, they will leave you alone from now on.”
Clint’s expression was burning with unbridled fury, giving off the impression that if it were possible, he would be shooting flames from his eyeballs.
“We won’t chase you,” Steve replied thickly. “We’re in no state to do so. Just… leave us Iron Man. Let us take him home.”
After this had been relayed to him, the man holding Stark nodded to the others, then pulled the engineer over his shoulder and began to walk away. Steve watched, at first, as his prone benefactor was carted off in one of the dust-covered jeeps, but the glint of sun on metal caused his gaze to drift. In moments he was hovering over Iron Man, shaking the man’s shoulders, calling for his teammate, begging for his friend to wake up.
But there was no response.
“Come on, Cap,” called Clint, running forward and grasping one of the metal arms. “We’ve gotta get him back. We can’t stay here.”
Steve knew Clint was right, and jerked his head in a shaky nod before going to collect his shield. It was a long trek back to the quinjet, but they couldn’t stay in the open, and Iron Man still wasn’t moving.
For all Steve knew, his friend could be dead inside the metal tomb.
They had to go.
Managing the weight between them, the two Avengers dragged the heavy suit over the rocky ground, heading for safety without a single backward glance.