There is sickness in the air. Cold sweat and sour. Unwashed wounds from a battle long and bloody fought. There are three separate fires burning on the horizon. A distant wail of sirens and an imagined echo of screaming. People probably are. Screaming, that is. He’s just too far away for the sounds in his head to be anything but imaginary.
There’s fight still left in him. A dribble. A dredge. Enough to make a difference in the past. Enough to draw on and pull off the impossible. He’s been beaten worse before. He’s been pushed down lower. He could get up. He could speed off to the horizon and put out the fires. He’s done it before.
If he flies to those flickering lights now and tries to put out the fires, he won’t be welcomed for it. It’ll be his fault they are burning in the first place.
Maybe that’s been true in the past. Maybe he’s been to blame for so many of the bad things that have plagued the world. He’s tried to fix them where he can, however he can. He’s tried to atone. Tried to pay penance through punishment. Hard work. Charity. Blood. His own, given in buckets, gladly.
He’s done everything right this time. Played by the rules. Fair. Above the belt. Maybe that’s why it’s worse. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
“How’d you do it?” He’s felt Steve’s arrival, not heard it, and for a second the words just hang in the air precariously.
Rooftop chats have becomes something of a thing for them. It’s strange, really. The easy camaraderie with Steve when they clash so quickly on most of the things in their world. Strange, but not necessarily unwelcome.
“Do what?” There is no uniform in sight when Steve drops down to perch beside Tony on the edge of the roof. Captain America is officially retired. They need him now, more than ever. More than they need Tony, that’s for sure.
He waves a hand absently. “I’ve heard the speeches. ‘Plant yourself by the river of truth blah blah’,” his tone is bitter and sarcastic but he thinks Steve knows him well enough by now to know where it is all being aimed. “That’s great and all, but how do you actually do it? When the world is set on hating you no matter what you do, and they take every attempt to do the right thing and hold it up like it’s a crime you’re committing against them… just. How? How’d you do it?”
There has always been an old soul looking out from Steve’s eyes, but now there is an experience there, a pragmatism, that’s new. Solid foundations digging deeper as the ground around him becomes even more unstable. Unyielding. Unbowed.
He holds Tony to standards even higher than the rest of the world, but he does so not with the knowledge that Tony is going to fuck up somehow, always, but the belief that he can not only meet them, but exceed them. His voice is as measured as his words. “You know how, Tony. We do what we have to, no matter the cost. What are you really asking me?”
Tony kicks his heels against the glass behind them, childish and spitefully angry for a second. It doesn’t last. He considers not answering. He’s only going to be asking a question he’s not sure either of them will know how to face.
He does so anyway. Steve is watching him expectantly and Tony wants desperately not to let anyone else down today.
“How are you not afraid?” He waves a hand at the world burning in the distance. “When you plant yourself by that river and the ground is quicksand and the water is boiling and the world wants you to suffocate or drown or both… how do you look at all that hate and not be scared by it?”
The laugh that escapes Steve’s through surprises them both. “You think I’m not scared? Tony, sometimes I look at the world and see nothing I recognize. And then sometimes I look at it and see too much that hasn’t changed. You think it doesn’t frighten me? Thinking that maybe this," he waves his hand towards the horrizon, "is all there might ever be?”
Tony’s not sure why the blunt honesty surprises him. Steve can be counted on for nothing if not delivering the truth, no matter how harsh. “Is this where you give me the ‘courage is not the absence of fear’ soundbite?”
“If you want me to,” Steve shrugs. “Personally that one’s never really hit home with me. Yes, believing that the right thing is worth doing no matter how scared you are, that’s true. And it’s not wrong. But it is sometimes asking too much of people. Looking that far into the future for an indefinite ‘someday’ isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve been waiting nearly a hundred years for ‘someday’.”
“So what is it to you?”
“Endurance,” Steve says softly. “It’s holding on. Another minute. Another hour. Another day. Because that’s what you have to do. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do. And whether it’s war or politics or love… to me, endurance even in the face of the darkest night, that’s the height of courage.”
The words hit hard. More so for the quiet surety with which they are spoken. They sink into his chest and hook behind his ribcage, tugging Tony back from a precipice he’s scarcely aware exists.
It’s not the glowing, rallying cry of a man who faces down the world unflinchingly. It’s all too human. Tired in so many ways, but resolved. Unbroken.
Steve has given his life in hope for the future and lived to see that gift squandered and forgotten. He’s given everything he has, and it’s not been enough. He, like Tony, has failed.
“We’re both still here,” Tony says.
Steve nods, a shadow of a smile meant for Tony alone. “Yes, we are.”
“They kicked our asses today.”
The shadow turns rueful. “That they did.”
“But we’re not done.” He stands and holds down a hand, knowing that Steve is on this roof for the very reason of getting Tony back on his feet again, he is unable to do anything but the same in return.
“No,” Steve takes his hand and lets Tony pull him back up into action once more. “No, we’re not done.”
“Endurance,” Tony muses as they make their way off the roof. “That’s going to be both our battle cry and our drinking rally."
“I can think of worse things.”