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Sleep Eternal

Chapter Text

 

 

Have you ever woken up, looked around and seen your five best friends, your only family, in relative positions of discomfort and stages of waking -noticed that they were the only familiar thing about any of your surroundings– and realised that you didn’t remember anything.

Neither had Tony, until 10 minutes ago.

“Tony…?”

That was Steve – Tony could just make out the Captain rolling over and sitting up to lean against the nearest wall, his blonde hair a glowing halo in the dimly lit room. Steve swivelled as he searched the near vicinity, categorising each team mate and their apparent condition.

Tony sat up awkwardly from where he was completely hidden beside Thor’s inert body. Using his tied hands, he propped himself up on the ridiculously massive chest, answering Steve with a soft, “Here…” as he tried to shake Thor into wakefulness.

“Hey. Hey, big guy – rise and shine…something’s going down and we may need our resident god on hand…” a few more ‘less than subtle’ prods had the Asguardian shuddering to his feet in the same manner he did just about everything else – loudly and with great enthusiasm.

“Where hides this treacherous foe! We shall smite hi- …Loki, you had best not be behind such tomfoolery as this!” he boomed. He caught Tony as the still bound genius was toppled backwards and easily re-setting the billionaire on his feet, as though it were an everyday occurrence.

“Shh! Unknown territory…quiet.” And that was definitely Black Widow, not that Tony could see her lithe form in the inky shadows, but it was confirmation of her presence and therefore enough.

The audible snap of the rope binding Thor was echoed by its twin as Steve followed suit. Tony was about to complain and demand assistance when a shadow broke free of its brothers and materialized into an assassin, hands already free and brandishing a lethal 3inch blade.

Decidedly Hawkeye rather than Clint, the archer was all business and noticeably less humour, “Hands.” he demanded quietly, blade slicing cleanly through the heavy bindings, before he disappeared as smoothly as he’d appeared.

Tony could make out Thor and Steve forming their standard protective brace on both his left and right, their considerable reach forming a ‘sanctuary circle’ between them.  Clint had retreated back to his dark vantage point, and although his bow and quiver were missing, he still managed to locate a small armoury from within his streamlined black suit, standing vanguard.   Natasha, he could now make out crouched low over what could only be the still unconscious form of Bruce.

Tony’s heart leapt and he made his way closer, dropping to a knee beside the petite killing machine, hands already reaching for Bruce, before he registered Natasha’s voice. “…fine, just out…thought I’d leave waking him to you, he –especially Hulk, always responds to you best. Go ahead.”

Calming, Tony leaned down and placed a firm hand on Bruce’s shoulder, speaking softly, “Bruce? – Wakey, wakey Banner - we’ve got a kidnapping to foil….aaah, there you are. How’s your happy-o-meter? We don’t need to be preparing for the imminent arrival of big green?”

Bruce sat up slowly, shaking away the last vestiges of drowsiness, blinking up into the concerned, if only half visible faces of his friends, “We’re fine – what’s going on?”

Tony rocked back on his heels, looking around at their mostly unknown surroundings and answered “We’ll, that’s just the question, isn’t it?”

******

Once all six were on their feet, they fell into their standard defence formation- Natasha taking up position behind and slightly to the left of Thor and Clint mirroring her behind Steve, bracketing Bruce and Tony in the middle, as their two most vulnerable members – sans hulking rage and titanium-gold alloy suit.

Slowly they crossed the small expanse, cautious and wary of their unknown surroundings, approaching the only light source, a low flickering flame in the centre of the room. A kerosene hurricane lamp greeted them, situated on a small lonely end-table, burning low and dim.

The group silently switched places, Tony sliding effortlessly through the gap created by Clint and into Steve’s position at the fore of the group, shadowed closely by Steve’s bulk as his vulnerability increased with the apex position.  Because tech – of any description, was Tony’s purview.

The lamp looked innocent. Like any other old fashioned kerosene, wick winding, hurricane lamp. Or it could be sitting on a bomb. It could be coated with some form of touch transferred virus. It could be an alien death device, disguised as a lamp. It could be a teleport or paralyser. Or it could just be a lamp.

It was just a lamp. 

Tony reached out and slowly turned the little dial that wound the wick higher, throwing the room – well, if not into stark relief, then at least into soft illumination, easily chasing away the shadows from corners and crevices.

They were in a room.  It had been suspected, but was nice to confirm. A small circular room, modestly painted in beige and trimmed in pale blue. Lush cream carpet sprawled beneath the deep indents of their booted feet. The tiny table supporting the lamp was the only furniture.  

A cardboard carton across the room depicted a flowing river and was labelled ‘Spring Mountain Pure Sourced Rainwater’, and beside it sat what looked like army surplus crates of MRE’s. Whoever had put them here obviously didn’t intend for them to starve to death.

 Or perhaps the rations were poisoned and offered an even crueller fate than starvation.

Regardless, the supplies were recognised and cast aside as irrelevant at that point in time, and they had no intention of staying long enough for them to become relevant. Natasha and Clint confirmed that there was no visible or audible surveillance in the room and the team turned their considerable attention to escaping.

The room boasted no windows and only one door, and the team sidled towards it, approaching from an angle, as Tony was swept back through the ranks to his rightful place besides Bruce.

The door, a standard interior separator door, pale blue in colour with a delicate cream handle, separated them from whatever was next.

Steve dropped to one knee, hands missing his ever present shield, yet hardly helpless without it.

Thor turned to stand by the wall to right of the door frame, his huge form ready for any intruders.

Natasha, garrotte loosed from her now flowing tresses, fell into place behind Steve’s form, her torso shielded by his kneeling bulk.

Bruce moved to crouch behind and at a slightly skewed angle from Thor.

Tony slipped back across the cleared room and dimmed the light, crouching behind the table, his hands clenched around the smooth polished legs in preparation of using it as a weapon should he need to.  

Clint ghosted around Steve and cautiously gripped the handle, intending to pull it open in one move, maximising the chaos and surprise, as well as shielding his upright body with the door.

As soon as their eyes had adjusted to the renewed plunge into murky darkness and each position was stabilised, Steve gave the ready signal – one quiet click of his tongue.

Thor raised his fists.

Bruce breathed through his nose, practising his calming mantra - the Hulk really couldn’t come out to play in these confines.

Natasha twirled her garrotte into formation one and fell completely still.

Tony’s hands clenched and then relaxed into a firm grip around the table legs.

Steve drew himself back, ready to lunge forward.

Clint threw open the door.

******

It was a bathroom.

A toilet, small wash-basin and garbage bin.

With no windows and no other door.

“How the hell- Check the ceiling and carpet…” Steve ordered, already falling to his knees to inspect the tiled floor of the bathroom, noting Natasha peering up at the perfectly normal and hole-less ceiling above him.

Tony fished through his pockets, hoping to find his charged cell phone, preferably within signal range.  That would have been too easy though. His phone, wallet, keys – even his suit bracelets were missing.

“I’m assuming that everyone else’s valuables are missing as well?” he asked, receiving the expected negatives.  With a disgruntled sigh, he turned the lantern back to its full illumination, before moving to join the search.

There wasn’t even a manhole.  The ceiling was smooth, jointed neatly at the wall.  The cool thickness indicated a heavy mass – concrete or brick, maybe even solid ground.

The ceiling and floor inspection soon turned to a wall inspection, but the results were the same. There was nothing. Or at least, nothing detectable.

Clint, his frustration mounting to a burst of rage, lashed out with a punch to the wall, and came away nursing his fist, cursing at the unblemished target.

He’d then turned to Thor and asked him to punch the wall.

The Thunder God had done so, winding up to his full strength and letting fly with a huge blow that set their eardrums throbbing and Thor to looking disbelievingly at the completely unscathed wall.

Twenty minutes later the general consensus was that the room had no way in…or out. They were essentially trapped.

******

Clint was the first to sit down, flopping onto the carpet with a dirty scowl towards the room in general.   

The mighty Avengers, thwarted.

By walls, ceiling and floor. 

S.H.I.E.L.D was going to have a field-day.

Natasha moved to seat herself gracefully besides the sprawled archer, her own visible displeasure speaking volumes as to the eventual fate of their kidnappers.

Thor, murmuring one final Asguardian curse that he’d heard Lady Sif use in the past, finally admitted defeat and joined his S.H.I.E.L.D brethren on the floor.

“Well. I really don’t think it would be a good idea to let the other guy loose in here – this room would barely hold him – let alone his temper. Come on, give it up Steve…” Bruce said conversationally as he sank down besides Thor, beckoning Steve over from his fruitless micro inspection of the bathroom tiles.

The Captain, after a moment of obvious reluctance, nodded at the unproductiveness of his search and pulled himself up from his crouched position to stride across the carpeted floor and drop down against the wall, leaving only Tony still inspecting the baffling architecture.

The other five left him at it, knowing that the engineer, with his eye for detail, innovation and anomaly, would perhaps be the most likely to locate a hidden entrance. However, when a further ten minutes later, Tony also dropped down beside Steve and thunked his head back against the wall in despondent disbelief, they knew it was hopeless.

Gesturing with complete bafflement, Tony voiced, “Nothing. There’s nothing! We’re not going anywhere. If I had to guess, I’d say this was an enchanted or ‘magicked’ room, built around us…but how the hell could that be possible? We’ve only been gone – what…You know, I have no idea. What’s the last thing everyone remembers?”

Silence fell for a moment as each thought through the muddle of their shambled recent memories and finally it was Thor who spoke first, “I recall a ball. Dancing. Feasting. Much fine ale.”

Clint was nodding in agreement, “I’ve got dancing as well – and look at how we’re dressed..” his gesture took in Tony’s dove grey Armani suit, which on its own wasn’t telling of anything, but coupled with Steve’s sleek black lines, Thor’s fancy honour-held cloak (or, ‘the bearskin’ as Clint called it), Bruce’s tailcoats and Clint’s own suit, as well as Natasha’s form fitting emerald silk gown – all together obviously told of some sort of high society event.

Clint settled further into his sprawl, deciding that if they were trapped, he was at least going to be comfortable, as he said, “So – schmoozing the upper crust and then…bam! We wake up here?”

He got shrugs, nods and murmurs of agreement before turning to Tony with a raised eyebrow, “Dammit, Tony – Who did you piss off this time?”

Tony, who had been staring at the lamp, lost in thought until that point, came alive with his own vitriolic rebuttal, “Me! I’ve been on my very best behaviour – there’s only been…two – two! incidences in the last month! It must have been something you did!”

“Was not!”

“Was too!”

“Was n- Hey!”

Thor laughed outright as Bruce reached across and swatted them both upside the head, telling them to “Behave.” before turning to look to Steve, as team leader, for a course of action.

Steve, smiling at the lightened mood and full out grinning at Tony’s smug self-satisfied smile upon seeing it, made a decision – “For better or worse, it seems we’re stuck here for the mean time – It looks like we will have to wait for S.H.I.E.L.D or our kidnappers to come get us… I say we take it as it is. Just relax, rest…until it’s otherwise, we seem safe enough in h-”

And that’s when the cloudy, red tinged gas started billowing into the room.

******

It streamed in from where floor meets wall and spread throughout the room, clinging wetly to exposed skin and smelling faintly of bleach.

The six sprang into action, despite there being little they could do, “Shield your face! Try not to breathe it in undiluted. Use your shirts!” Natasha called as she hiked up the hem of her dress, folding the silk over her mouth and nose, offering the other side to Bruce, who was closest, ignoring the indecent spectacle she made with the emerald material drawn up about her midriff.

Clint made a beeline for Natasha and Bruce, dragging Thor to the ground with him as he reached them, calling, “Stay low – it’s already rising!”

Steve grabbed for Tony, ignoring his mangled refusal and furious tugging, as he tucked the smaller form beneath him, angling Tony’s face into the smothering breadth of his chest, not allowing his lover, best friend and partner to pull away.

He could feel Tony’s fierce struggle to pull free – actually, no – to reciprocate equally in protecting each other.  The Captain hoped against hope that their kidnappers hadn’t factored in his Serum immunities, but regardless, he was not willing to risk Tony’s already jeopardised lungs, and used his full strength to immobilise the angrily writhing form as he shielded his own face as best he could against the carpet.

Was it some sort of sedative, to allow them to be moved? Something more sinister? A nerve agent? Bio-warfare? Some sort of deadly infection? Hallucinogen? 

They all wondered as they waited for the effects to start. And waited.   The gas rapidly dissipated, leaving the room as nonthreatening as it had been before, and still there was no side-effects.

Tentatively, they pulled back from each other, releasing clothes and smoothing out stinging skin from being smooshed too hard against cloth or carpet.  Bruce was already eyeing Natasha over, taking her pulse and asking questions, as Clint did his own self check besides them, Thor having wandered over to look for the source of the noxious cloud.

Steve hesitantly pulled back, releasing his locking hold as Tony took a deep gasping breath, glaring liquid death up at his lover, speechless with quivering rage.

Steve, unable to offer anything in his own defence, and knowing he’d be as furious, if not more so, should (when) Tony pulled the same self-sacrificing crap with him, simply pressed a kiss to thinned, bloodless lips and murmured a “Sorry…” as he pulled back further, eyes trying to differentiate between  rage induced breathlessness and something more sinister.

Satisfied Tony was unharmed, albeit furious, Steve started to get to his feet and check in with the others, when Tony snarled, and managing to take him by surprise, yanked him off balance and down flat on his back on the carpet.

Before he could voice his question, Tony’s own warm fingers were settled over his racing pulse point, and his head resting over Steve’s rapidly beating heart, listening for any anomalies within the adrenaline spiked heart rate.  Knowing it was as close to forgiveness as he was likely to get, Steve took it, gently running a large hand down the curve of Tony’s back reassuringly.

He felt fine. They all did.

Until a soft giggle broke the air around them. One they didn’t recognise.

Followed by a voice, inflected with psychotic glee, “That- my brave Avengery folk, was a little concoction of my very own. You’re probably sitting there thinking that nothing’s wrong. You feel fine. Right? But then, your pulse is racing, adrenaline coursing – you won’t feel anything. Until you relax.  And if you fall asleep? You’ll sleep for all eternity...”

******

For a second no one moved, and in the next instant all six where on their feet, back to back, instinctually settling into defensive postures.

“Show yourself!” Steve ordered, all the command and gravitas of Captain America present in his voice.

No-one answered and nothing happened.

Thor boomed, “What trickery is this!? I demand you face us as a warrior, instead of skulking in the shadows!” his body vibrating with the desire to call upon his lightning power, but he was unable to find anything to harness.

Natasha and Clint had fallen back on their shadier training, expanding their senses to spider across the area, feeling for anything odd or out of place - and re-established that there was no one else in the room with them.

Tony had been scouring the walls again, looking for anything that could hint at speakers or an intercom for a technological communication system, but at the lack of anything telling, he turned his focus inwards.

He could feel his own heart beating at a ridiculous pace, but was more concerned about the laboured breathing he could hear from his left, as Bruce fought to keep the Hulk under control.

“So. What the fuck was that?”, as he spoke, Tony saw Bruce relax slightly, and knew that he’d handled it right – rather than call attention to Bruce’s state he’d directed it towards their situation and given his fellow scientists analytical brain something to focus on.

Again, it was Clint who was the first to relax fully, dropping back onto the carpet, saying, “Best guess? We’ve just been poisoned. Now - chicken or beef MRE’s for dinner?”

Steve snorted as he too settled back to the floor, although he couldn’t relax, asking, “Anyone feel off? No one feels anything? Thor - you didn’t have an adverse reaction? Bruce…Hulk? Tony?”

Natasha, taking her cue from Steve, also sat down, drawing Bruce down beside her and urging him to answer.

Bruce, once again calm in his deliberate ‘Zen’ like state, replied dutifully, “No –I mean, I feel no different. The other guy got a little upset at the shock of it all, but it wasn’t the gas or anything.”

“I too feel as hearty as ever. I feel no negative effects of this gas substance.” Thor said, adding, “And you – Man of Iron – how fares your mechanical heart?

Tony, still on his feet, looking about the room, sniggered as he answered, “Birdman still needs a brain, but cowardly Bruce over there found his courage, Toto – he’s Thunder Dog. The wicked witch has her blades out…Tap your heels Cap, and let’s go home.”

Bruce and Tasha’s swats both missed the back of his knees as Tony sidestepped, but Steve’s didn’t – by virtue of the hand at his wrist that dragged Tony closer, and being aimed just that little higher.

“Hush you. Serious answer please.” The Captain demanded as he contentedly tucked an equally receptive Tony into the curve of his side.

Rolling his eyes, Tony answered, “The arc’s fine. I’m fine. ”

“So. Everyone is apparently fine. Anyone stop to consider if this is even real? Maybe it’s just this month’s disturbed nut-jobs idea of a prank…or the gas was wrong?” Clint voiced the theory, and each passing moment with no effect offered credence to the idea.

Steve rolled to his feet, moving to the crated food and water, “I’m going to hope that this is all a mistake – we feel fine, so that supports it, but I guess it’s back to ‘wait and see’ …although, the longer we go with just ‘waiting’, the better I’ll feel.  Now – let’s have a look at what’s on offer for…let’s call it dinner.”

Clint called dibs on chicken and Natasha refused one, but with good reason. Tony accepted whatever he was passed with no real intention of eating it. Bruce went for a curried option and Steve just chose whatever few he laid hands on first.

Thor tried one of each.

As Natasha grabbed Clint’s, Thor asked, “So ‘Em-are-ees’– another midgaurdian delicacy?”

Amidst short laughter Steve explained about military rations and supplies to an enraptured Thor. Natasha finished sniffing, eyeing and sampling Clint’s meal and handing it back, she moved onto Bruce’s.

The scientist relinquished his opened, yet untouched curried beef gracefully, Natasha raising the dish to eye level and inspected the colours and textures closely. She sniffed warily and finally tasted a tiny mouthful of the dish, before handing it back and moving onto Steve’s dinner.

She tried both his spaghetti’s and his beef stew with the same attention to detail, sure before she ate that the meal had passed all her checks.

Thor’s 11 varieties soon filled her small frame, each one tested and sampled before being passed back to its owner.

The super-assassin turned to Tony, hand out in expectation, even as Tony shook his head to answer negatively.  Steve appeared behind his lover and reaching over his shoulder, the Captain wrested the MRE from Tony’s lax grip and handed it to the woman.

Tony turned sightly and opened his mouth to argue, but was silenced by Steve’s lips pressing gently against his.

“Please”, was all he said, and Tony capitulate.

Despite Clint’s catcalls and crows of “Whipped…so whipped!” in the background, Tony was quite smug – with Steve’s arm still draped over his shoulder and the broad chest at his back, Tony found that he really didn’t mind being whipped.

Even when it meant eating and sleeping when there were more important things he could be doing with his time.

The MRE’s were devoured and water drunk, after being thoroughly tested of course. Thor was equally impressed with seeming magic of a hot meal without heat and the convenience of it all, as he was disappointed by the taste and impending future of only MRE’s for sustenance.

With no leftovers remaining, packaging and rubbish had been discarded in a provided garbage bag, concealed neatly behind the door in the bathroom, and the six had settled back into their various positions on the carpeted floor.

The atmosphere had been tense at first, heavy lingering fear and worry. Anger at having been so thoroughly hoodwinked. There had been planning, as they’d discussed all manner of relevant subjects, such as establishing a watch schedule (it never paid to be too lax), considering all the possible culprits of their unexpected confinement and rationing the food and water in the event of an extended stay.

As the serious matters were dealt with and ticked off, the conversation had dwindled into idle chatter and nit-picking banter (depending on which conversation they were involved with), Bruce explained the science behind the MRE to Thor, Clint and Tony devolved from intelligent insults to name calling, with Natasha subtly egging them on and Steve had just looked over his group with indulgent exasperation.

As the hours passed, with no way to measure time – even their watches were missing – the conversation got slower and steadily the periods of silence stretched longer. Steve estimated at least five hours had passed when the chatter finally ceased completely, the group settling into a comfortable lull of companionship, not needing to be broken by the surface familiarity of speech.

As the lingering rush of being kidnaped and the uneasiness of their surroundings grew stale and the team settled, full bellies, warm friendship, lack of apparent danger and comfortable carpet soon had each of them starting to relax.

Steve noticed it in the behaviour and body language of just about all of them before anyone deigned to say anything. Paleness, shivering, and tell-tale signs of budding headaches- he had them all, and so did most of the others.

Bruce was the first to speak up, knowing that with this crowd he’d be waiting a long time for someone else to admit weakness first. “Uh. I’m thinking there may be something to that gas after all – headache and nausea…anyone else?”

The other five looked to Bruce with concern and then gazes flickered searchingly over each other, worry and fear starting to inch in on contented relaxation. 

Natasha caved first, “Yes – Both those and a lingering weakness of the muscles.”

“I feel faintly ill, that’s all…Clint?” Steve exampled up, admitting the unfamiliar yet distantly remembered feeling of illness, before turning his enquiry on the visibly pale Clint.

The archer, sprawled out on his stomach, frowned, considering and then shook his head as he answered, “No, none of those…I don’t feel too bad, just a general sort of offness, maybe…”

Natasha squinted at Clint, not seeing the hallmarks of a headache or the tell-tale paleness of the skin, but agreed that something was just a little off. Playing a hunch, she reached across Bruce’s supine body where his head was propped up on her thigh and brushed a hand against the back of Clint’s neck, frowning slightly as she reported, “You’ve got a mild fever – that offness… tight skin?”

Clint nodded in agreement, turning to Thor to ask, “How about you – thunder rumbling in that head or butterflies in your stomach?”

The Asguardian looked only slightly baffled, answering “No – I feel no presence of thunder, nor any ‘butterflies’…just an overall weariness that I am not accustomed to.”

Concern grew stronger as each listed similar and differing symptoms, and finally they turned to the only one who had remained silent.

Tony was leaning back against his lovers chest, his head lolling comfortably at Steve’s shoulder and his lower torso and legs bracketed by Steve’s own.  The bond’s arms -wrapped securely around Tony’s waist- tightened slightly when no answer was forthcoming and Steve turned his expectant stare down, meeting only the crown of Tony’s unruly locks.

“Tony. How do you feel – headache, nausea?” he asked, with just the tiniest amount of ‘Captain’ infused into a voice that was otherwise purely Steve.

Tony finally tilted his head back, what was supposed to be a tiny reassuring smile gracing his lips as he answered, “Fine. I feel f-   Hey… No! I’m actually- It’s the tru- I feel 100% normal!”

At each protested refusal and adamant denial of any ill feeling, the team became steadily less convinced – which considering they hadn’t been overly convinced in the first place, wasn’t really saying much.

Steve lifted Tony’s bodily as he stood, pulling his lovers weight up with him and settling them both on their feet, before hooking an arm around Tony’s waist and propelling him across the room. 

They stopped at the far curve of the room, and creating an illusion of privacy, their conversation was blockaded by Steve’s broad shoulders as he leaned in close to where Tony was propped nonchalantly against the wall.

“Everyone else has symptoms…and you don’t? Come on Tony – it’s hardly time to be hiding a potential weakness…especially with the rest of us down too…” Steve cajoled, one hand coming up to rest against Tony’s throat to sooth the sting from the words little.

Tony looked up at him, eyes liquid with intention and the next thing Steve knew he had one arm around Tony’s waist, the other in his hair and they were joined at the lips.

Pulling back, Tony grinned, eyes sharp and bright and honest as he said, “I. Feel. Fine.”

Steve stared him over for an instant longer, looking for tells of a falsehood that he already knew he wouldn’t see. Finally nodding, the Captain drew them back over to what was essentially an Avenger puppy pile on the other side of the small lamp and pulled Tony back down into his lap as he said, “Tony has no symptoms –yet. Bruce, any ideas what this thing is?”

Bruce looked up from where he’d been taking Natasha and Thor’s pulse at the same time, and immediately started to speculate, “That…whoever he was, said that when we relaxed we would start to feel the effects of his gas. We’re all starting to get pretty relaxed, despite the situation.”

Natasha tilted her head as she thought, voicing her theory as she went “So – a nerve gas or hyper-stimulant cocktail perhaps. When our heart rate drops below a certain level we start feeling like crap…”

Nodding, Bruce agreed, “That’s essentially what I’m getting as well – Although that still doesn’t- Actually, just let me test something. Tony…”  Dropping Natasha’s hand, Bruce reached out and drew Tony’s right hand away from its lax position on Steve’s thigh. 

Using one hand to locate Tony’s pulse and the other to find Clint’s , Bruce waited until he had a decent count on both and then, shrugging he let go, “Tony’s heart rate is slightly more elevated…although I can’t tell if that’s coincidental or if he just has a faster heart rate. You could have just inhaled less of the gas than us.  Whatever the case, it appears that you’re not effected.”

Steve ignored Tony’s heated look in favour of stepping in again, “Okay – so, we relax and we feel like crap. That’s the general consensus of the gas’s effects – yes?”

He was met with nods of agreement from all five, and was about to suggest a cause of action when Tony’s face suddenly swept bone white and he choked on a gasping breath.

“No. It’s much, much worse than that.  “And if you fall asleep? You’ll sleep for all eternity...”  This. This is intended to kill us.”

******

The horror and rage that had coursed through their veins upon the realisation had the added bonus of lifting all their heart rates again, and as a result all six where soon feeling much better. The only exception being the pit of dread that pooled in their stomachs at the knowledge of what would happen should they grow too relaxed.

“Everyone on your feet. We need a course of action.” Steve ordered as he stood, stretching and breathing deep, as he did in preparation of strenuous exercise.

The other five immediately followed suit, all falling into their place in the unconscious circle they formed.

Looking around at the group, Steve said, “Okay. The way I see –this bastard wants us dead. We’re not in that line of business, so let’s make it as hard as possible for him. Eventually, we’ll get out, he’ll come back or someone will come for us – and with Agent Coulson at the S.H.I.E.L.D helm, I don’t imagine it will be too long – we just need to hold out and stay awake.”

Seeing the enthusiastic gung-ho faces around him, Bruce added, “Let’s not go about this stupidly – acting first and suffering later. We obviously need to make sure our heart rates stay up and that we don’t, under any circumstances fall asleep – and the best way to do that is through movement. However, it’s a double edged blade – too much movement will only exhaust us and we’ll be worse off than before we started.”

“Indeterminate length break periods, with moderate exercise recommencing with each subsequent onset of symptoms, continuing until they settle.” Natasha broke the problem down and constructed the most effective plan, explaining it confidently.

Bruce nodded, but answered, “Yes – at least until I have some controls and can determine a base heart rate and length of symptom on-set, then we’ll reassess.” Plan hashed, he turned to Steve for implementation.

The Captain nodded, strategy and logic already settling into his mind as he said, “Right – anyone still experiencing symptoms, no matter how mild – exercise…moderate. Nothing high impact. Everyone else – take a seat until you feel the need. And keep Bruce and I- Actually, keep everyone informed of anything that might be relevant. We’re going to have to back each other on this one.”

Tony settled back onto the carpet, followed by Natasha, Steve and Bruce, while Clint started jumping jacks and Thor practised his hammer throw release form.

And they prepared for a very long few days.

No one could have known just how long.

******

Clint and Thor both settled after between ten and fifteen minutes of exercise, plopping down on the carpet to join their chatting friends. The need to ensure that no one fell asleep setting the atmosphere slightly manic.    An estimated three hours later, Clint, Natasha and Bruce were crunching sit ups and squats as they waited for the slight onset of nausea and headaches to fade.

Steve lasted a further hour before he felt the sickening drop of his stomach muscles, and despite his body protesting, the super soldier forced himself to duke out a set of push-ups, glad when the feeling settled and he could return to Tony’s side.

The hours were cut only by trips to the bathroom and regular water/food breaks, the rest filled with as much inane chatter as they could stomach. All six were glad when the conversation delved into a deeper, more sensitive topic, glad for the respite from senseless prattle.

******

They were definitely well into their second day – by all ‘counts’ lunch and breakfast were over and evening approaching.  Bruce had managed to determine an emerging pattern, and it seemed that Steve generally only needed to break into motion once every six to seven hours to delay the symptoms.

Natasha and Bruce where both settled at around three to four hours, each exercising for a good twenty minutes to stave off the effects of the gas.

Thor was currently practising lunges across the room. With the most unpredictable pattern of all, the Thunder God was often fine for long periods of time before onset and then only allowed a tiny rest period before the next.

All five were worried about Clint.  Despite his ‘toughness’, the poor archer seemed to have the quickest heart rate return of all, each ‘break period’ lasting barely more than an hour, and his exercise bouts often surpassing the half hour mark. It was clearly exhausting the young man.

Tony felt nothing at all.

******

It was late after dinner, and energy was obviously waning – what hadn’t seemed that hard in theory two days ago was now proving to be much more wearing.

Thor had just sat back down, and for the first time in almost 4 hours, all six were seated together, and all seemed to feel okay.   They were discussing Fury’s eye and whether or not any of them dared present him with a Seeing Eye pup for Christmas.

It was Tony who noticed.

One minute he was still, leaning contentedly against Steve and enjoying the fingers that were tracing patterns into the skin at the base of his spine and the next he’d flung himself across the room, dragged Clint to his feet and shaken him like a ragdoll.

“Droopy eyes! Stop it. No one goes to sleep in here. We all walk out and thumb it at the asshole who put us here. Look alive or I’m tipping water all over your head.” He demanded, getting right up in the now wide eyed Clint’s face.

Clint blinked, once, twice and then let loose a shuddering sigh as he said a shaken, “Thanks Tony.”

In their heads, five people put him on their ‘watch list’

******

Steve guessed it was nearing four am by his internal clock, and he shook his head tiredly as he gazed about the five others milling about the room with him. 

It was like they’d hit a wall. As the 48 hour mark approached, it seemed as if all anyone of them could think about was laying their head down to rest. Admittedly, several were faring better than others – Tony had taken to following Hawkeye around just to poke and prod him when needed and Thor had taken Tony’s suggestion to heart, and wandered into the bathroom every half hour or so to douse his head under the cool jet of water at the basin.

Bruce had taken to bouncing increasingly complex equations off Tony, each trying to stump the other, hoping that the thrill of the competition would keep him focused and awake.

Natasha was as rock steady as always, yet Steve could see it in the pinch around her eyes and the millisecond hesitance that was now present in some of her answers.

Steve himself seemed to be doing better than most, but even he could admit to really starting to feel the alluring pull of slumber.

Something was bugging him about Tony, but Steve was damned if he could put his fatigued finger on it. His lover still seemed as unaffected as he had been two days ago. He hadn’t once felt ill or looked tired –whatever the case, Steve decided to just be glad the one he loved most wasn’t suffering as they were.

******

It was as if the ‘dawn’ of day three brought new energy to the assembled group. Or like they’d crossed the mountain and were now travelling at a steady easy lopping downhill pace.

Even Clint was more alert as they shared a breakfast of delightful MRE’s and water, Tony grinning like a loon at the apparent passing of the immediate danger.

Steve was seriously starting to hope that either the nut-job would return for them or S.H.I.E.L.D would hurry up and retrieve them, because at least today they had a chance of walking out strong and proud, rather than as jabbering sleep deprived messes.

He was broken from his musings by Clint’s soft groan and looked up to see the suddenly paling archer stumbling to his feet and moving reluctantly past the nausea to fall into a sit-up position.

Steve winced at his pained, weary expression and felt for his obvious growing dismay at the enforced activity, and from the corner of his eye he saw each of the others do the same.

Tony flinched to his left, and Steve looked down to see him studying Clint very closely, before his lover abruptly nodded and got to his feet, sauntered across the room and pulled Clint upright.

Before the archer could even question, Tony Stark was spinning him around the small room in a very abridged, rather amended variation of the tango.

******

A laughing breathless, energised and invigorated Clint had been handed off to Natasha and Steve had found himself being dragged about the room in some approximation of a waltz.

It was fun.

After that followed gentle sparring matches between mortal and god. Between Serum and Assassin. Between man and woman.

Clint taught Bruce the basics of Pat-a-cake, and Bruce had been strangely thrilled with the children’s clapping games.

Natasha had then taught them an absolutely filthy variation of pat-a-cake that still had Steve blushing to recall.

Thor had taught them Asguardian chanting songs, and the louder one got the better.

Natasha, Bruce, Clint and Tony got involved in a four-way, Multilanguage cursing competition…which Thor one.  Who knew that bees could say that?

All in all, their third day passed in a much more pleasant fashion.

******

“-the rat got married! Had sixteen little mouse babies under my beautiful matre-”

Steve tuned out Bruce explaining to Clint that Rats would have rat babies – not mice and turned to look at the closed bathroom door.

He turned back into the conversation to hear Clint add something about a cat and decided that his presence truly wasn’t necessary.

Besides, Tony had been gone nearly fifteen minutes, and Steve was starting to grow concerned.

Getting to his feet and waving off the anxious looks with a pointed nod to the bathroom, he left the group, hearing Clint over his shoulder “Anyone else realise that the Cap is headed to the bathroom…where our billionaire babysitter sequestered himself earlier….”

Steve blushed, although he was gladdened to hear Bruce defend his honour, the scientist saying, “Really Clint, I’m sure he’s just worried – Tony’s been gone a while.” And then shook his head as Bruce added, “Now, Tony on the other hand…”

******

Tony had eased the bathroom door open at the soft knock and moved back to allow his lover entry.

Before Steve could even ask if everything was okay, he found himself with an armful of warm, pliant Tony.

Which, really, was more than okay.

Damning propriety and modesty, Steve’s hand fumbled behind him and flipped the lock on the door, and he tilted his head to the side to allow Tony’s lips access to the sensitive hollow at the junction of throat and shoulder.

The budding feeling of slight nausea that he hadn’t even truly recognised, fled as Tony’s strong fingers found their way into the short bristled hair at the base of his neck, massaging at the tense muscles and Steve sighed as he melted, his final reservations fleeing.

Tony sniggering knowingly at his giving in would never do though.

Large hands that had been settled at Tony’s shoulder and waist slipped around his smaller form, raking over expensive cloth and bunching the material shamelessly as he drew Tony closer to his body.

The swift change of angle threw Tony off balance, as intended, and Steve’s hands moved lower still, his strength easily allowing him to lift Tony from the ground fully, the heavy cradle of that gorgeous rounded ass dragging Tony up his thigh, rubbing obscenely against swelling flesh.

Tony moaned, low and dirty, and it sent burning embers shooting up and down Steve spine.

Apparently, Bruce was quite cluey.

******

 

It was mid-morning day four when Steve finally clicked as to what had been bothering him about Tony.

He’d been watching Tony, Bruce, Clint and Tasha limbo under Thor’s arm when it had suddenly become so very obvious.

Tony stumbled slightly.

He righted himself immediately and offered a disarming smile at Natasha, the only other who’d noticed, and while this satisfied the assassin; Steve could have kicked himself.

Tony was going to crash. And crash hard.

He’d seen it so many times. Tony could (and would) go and go and go. Mind working at full tilt, amazing brilliance at open throttle – for days, sometimes up to a week on little to no sleep.

And then he’d just crash.

The lights would be on but Tony certainly wouldn’t be home.

He’d seen it, most recently a few months ago when Steve had returned home form a charity function only to find Tony completely and utterly exhausted, yet still attempting to work.

His Tony, sweet, pliant, adorable and completely and utterly not for anyone’s eyes but Steve.

And always always, after he crashed. Eventually -hours, even days later- tony always slept.

******

It was nearing lunch on the fourth day and Steve was concerned, about everyone of course, and the situation in general – but most notably and most privately, about Tony.

He had been fantastic. An absolute godsend.  He’d kept Clint awake, entertained them, and encouraged them through bouts of terrible exercise.   Watched them feel ill, suffer, rinse and repeat, so many times with nary a word.

All with a stamina that should have amazed Steve – yet he’d seen it before but failed to recognise it for what it was in the mess of all the other issues.

When Tony inevitably fell asleep, would he be affected? Would he wake again?

What to do?  Was there anything to do?

“Oh god! No! Don’t sle- Wake up! Please, Please wake UP!”

The shout cut across his preoccupied mind with such sharp agony that Steve couldn’t even recall who had spoken. Spinning in place, his eyes came to rest on the small huddle on the opposite side of the room.

His heart dropped to his knees and shattered into a thousand pieces, his soul screaming Tony as he leapt to his feet, fearing the worst.

Apparently his soul came out through his mouth, because huge grief stricken, shocked brown eyes jumped to his and Steve breathed a sigh of relief – Tony.

And yet…

His gaze dropped to the lower, between the huddled bodies.

Thor.

The strongest of them all.

******

Steve stared in stunned disbelief, his mind unable to comprehend what his eyes were seeing.

Thor – larger than life, overwhelming, awe-inspiring Thor… now still, silent. Gone.

It was just…absurd

The man was an honest to God…well, God. Legend of a thousand generations. Eons old, and yet still so young.

Dead.

Thor lay where he’d slumped an hour before, after a particularly long series of stationary sprints. His face was relaxed, eyes closed peacefully, as if he’d awaken at any moment – only, somehow Steve just knew…Thor would never waken from this sleep.

The Captain had seen friends fall in battle, watched friends wither and die of age, from long-term illness and by their own hand, yet nothing had prepared him for the possibility of losing Thor – and certainly never like this.

Steve blinked, the scene spread out before him finally starting to filter through.

Bruce, kneeling by Thor, hands desperately pumping the massive chest, frantically trying to force life back into the god. 

Natasha – small and unobtrusive, slightly off to one side, the firm set of her jaw and thinning of her lower lip the only indications of her inner grief.

Tony, quiet for once- in a way that was more unsettling than had he burst into tears.  He was kneeling beside Bruce, at Thor’s side, and simply staring – eyes wide and glassy, head tilted quizzically to the left.

Steve warred with himself, wanting to indulge in his own sadness and at the same time avoiding the tendrils of grief that already ate at him.  He also had a team to look after, and as always – their wellbeing won out.

Tony’s silent, confused sorrow was the siren that called him most strongly, despite Bruce’s fruitless, almost manic ministrations and Natasha’s quiet yet consuming grief, but Clint? Clint was on the precipice…

“-this can’t be happening. Cannot be happening. This is – I can’t – He can’t….”  Clint sounded as completely devastated as Steve’s jumbled thoughts were – the archer kneeling beside the still body, his fists clenching and relaxing as if he wanted to shake Thor, so that he might waken.

Rambunctious, mischievous Clint – using sarcastic cheer to carefully mask his insecurities and vulnerabilities… and the masks had just been torn away.

Steve physically pulled himself together, moving over to where the small group was huddled.

Grief and anguish were not his forte, they made him uncomfortable and reminded him of things he rather left forgotten, and he knew it was the same for each and every one of his team – they’d all lost too much.

But for them – Steve would try.

He knew only one way to help Clint, and the same way would help Natasha. He pulled Clint from the floor, ignoring the archer’s futile struggle to remain at the god’s side – and propelled him slightly to the left; straight into Natasha’s open arms.

Hearing Tasha already murmuring in Clint’s ear, Steve left them to it, knowing that the pair had been through way too much to not take comfort in each other’s presence.  Natasha, much the same as Steve, receiving reassurance by offering it and Clint clinging to the one person he had trusted the longest and the most fully.

Bruce was harder, and at the same time easier…by virtue of the fact that Steve wasn’t the one who would have the most soothing effect on the scientist. To help Bruce, he needed Tony.

Looking down at his lover again, Steve had no idea what to make of Tony’s behaviour. It was almost more of a non-reaction than a reaction. Just an emptiness.  It was disturbing Steve something terrible to see his usually animated love so…vacant.

The hands on approach had always been his style, and so Steve reached down and pulled the unresisting Tony to his feet, his large hands cradling the pale face and creating a blinker-like effect – narrowing Tony’s line of vision to only Steve’s face.

Steve opened his mouth to speak, but Tony beat him to it, fire coming back into his eyes as he spat, “They’d better hope I never get out of here…”

The hatred seething in Tony’s voice barely masked the anguished grief, and Steve contemplated calling him on it, but decided that familiar anger was more useful at that moment- than grief that Tony didn’t even know how to process.

Steve didn’t get an opportunity to say anything else; Tony pulling away, looking around and immediately moving to Bruce’s side, as Steve had known he would. 

Rather than ordering Bruce to stop, or try pulling him away, Tony knelt down beside him, speaking softly, “Anything?” already knowing there wasn’t.

Bruce glanced up, acknowledged Tony and then stilled as he contemplated the question, stopping to feel for a pulse.   Resignation and acceptance passed over his face as he shook his head, dropping back on his heels, shoulders slumping- defeated.

“You tried -”, that was all Tony could say, and it was weak with insufficiency –but Tony had been best friends with Bruce for long enough to know where to direct his attentions, and added, “Clint - …he’s pretty shaken.”

Bruce looked over to the Clint and Natasha, taking in the archers pale face with concern. Relief at the unspoken task clouded his features as he said thoughtfully, “He’s exhausted, emotions always run closer to the surface…” he trailed out of hearing as he wondered towards the pair.

Tony stared after him for a moment and then dropped his gaze down to Thor’s body, murmuring softly, “Still my favourite”.

Silence settled over the room as Tony looked up to Steve and said, “We have to survive this – for him.”

It wasn’t a suggestion.

******

Thor had just died, even now, helay there dead… the shock of it was beyond anything Steve had ever felt.

Just…Thor.

At first Steve couldn’t see how they were going to cope- how were they supposed to just pick up and keep going?

How could they possibly continue to be the Avengers without Thor?  How on earth could this have happened – and more so because it was earth. What were they going to tell Jane? Who would deal with Loki? God forbid – with Odin? 

And then, after twenty minutes of silent, cold stillness, Natasha got to her feet and fell into her basic warm-up kata.

Moments later, Clint joined her and Steve, Bruce and Tony were only seconds behind. The five moving through the familiar routine with ease and grace, even as eyes never left the still god, honouring him with their will to keep going.

This. This was real.  This was happening. 

Steve had assumed, if it was even real, that the gas wouldn’t actually kill them. After all, hundreds had tried and none had succeeded.  He’d subconsciously disregarded the threat to Thor, Bruce and himself especially – God. Hulk. Super soldier.

Thor was dead.

This was real.

******

In the back of their minds existed a hope that if they could just get Thor back home to Asguard, he may be saved. 

Steve pushed Clint into movement whenever he noticed the slightly glazed look returning to the archer’s eyes.

His own eyes followed Tony everywhere, watching for the cliff that Tony was approaching and hoped he had the strength to hold Tony up or throw him across the abyss.

Natasha was as fire and ice as ever, determination lightering her frame as she pulled from an acrobats roll and guided Bruce through a slower variation.

Bruce was more on tenterhooks than any of them, keeping his adrenaline high, without going too high, was a tiring processing in and of itself, and he was wearing the strain clearly.

He pushed them and cajoled them… Steve was determined that he wasn’t losing anyone else.

******

It was early the next morning, day five if they had been guessing correctly and the lamp had been cast low again, in an effort to conceal the still body across the room. They all knew he was there though, not one of them could forget it.

He’d been waiting for it, with more surety as the morning approached and when it happened Steve was right there, drawing the suddenly glassy eyed Tony away from a stunned and concerned Clint, over into the bathroom.

He lifted his lover’s mostly dead weight onto the basin, careful of the taps at his back. His hands ghosting along Tony’s thighs as he stepped up, into the gap between them. “Hey. Hey! You with me? Tony – you can’t sleep yet…”

Tony answered, yet it didn’t calm Steve, the genius mumbling an altogether unreassuring “’m not t’red” against Steve’s throat as he plastered his smaller frame against the broad chest and looped his arms about Steve’s shoulders.

“Tony! Come on -” he pushed Tony back, ignoring the clench of his heart at the reluctant grousing. God he loved this Tony – and he hardly ever got to see him… it was usually sarcastic cantankerous, snarky Tony that came out to play when the genius got beyond exhausted.

Steve was at a loss, he’d never tried to rouse Tony from this state – only ever encouraged him to go to sleep.   A gentle shake didn’t work, and the effect of one a little more vigorous barely lasted long enough for Tony to glare adoringly at him.  Steve didn’t dare shake any harder.

Water was not an option. With Tony as out of it as he was, Steve was worried he’d pass out from the shock, or crack his head open and then pass out. 

One large hand settled beneath Tony’s dropped chin, and Steve raised the brown eyes to meet his, “Tony – you need to snap out of...oh for-” Tony’s eyelids drooped as Steve watched, and his lover listed to one side.

Steve, at a loss for what else to do, dragged Tony forwards by his collar, and claimed his lips in a fiery kiss, infusing as much passion and desire as he could dredge up. 

He pulled back and his heart leapt to see Tony’s eyes open, but fell just as quickly when Tony murmured through a yawn, “...s’nice…”

Steve shook his head, leaned forward and ghosted a kiss across pouting lips as whispered, “Sorry, love…”

His nimble hands made quick work of Tony’s shirt buttons, his jacket having been discarded days ago.  Steve pushed the shirttails back, revealing inches and inches of creamy skin, and reached for the snap and zip and the waist of Tony’s slacks.

A deft flick parted the opening revealing a crevice of sensitive skin just below waist level and Steve attacked.

His hand half muffled the shrieking yelp that escaped Tony’s mouth, and looking up through his eyelashes, Steve was so very, very glad to see intense brown glaring at him –and not a little bit smug.

A further flick of his warm tongue against the tiny patch of skin below Tony’s navel rewarded him with a sharply indrawn breath and a smarting grip in his hair as Tony dragged him upright.

“As far as the others are concerned – freezing cold water was involved. Got it?” he threatened as he drew Steve’s lips to his.

***

Knowing grins had met Tony’s vehement denials, and then eye rolls, at his cocky agreement.

And Tony was up again. Steve had never seen anything like it. They’d been awake over four days and each one of them was flagging dangerously, minds muted with slowly worsening fog and movements inhibited by sluggishness. Yet Tony was like magnesium, burning hot and fast…yet endlessly.

He herded Clint about the room, insulted Natasha to rile her and one-upped with Bruce. Steve he kissed.

Steve thought if they could just hold on like this….

******

Four hours later, barely more than a heartbeat, yet stretching for eons in their grieving exhaustion, Clint sat back down from his latest bout of still jogging and leaned against Natasha, smiling as she carded her fingers through his hair.

He’d caught her hand, pressed his lips to her wrist and smiled.  His eyes fluttered and then closed, as he gave in to the pull of slumber, going peacefully, knowing he’d never waken.

Natasha had just stared down at his slack face, not saying anything, unable to say anything.

Tony, who had been constantly shadowing Clint, noticed first and his anguished moan drew Steve’s and Bruce’s attention.

And the Hulk’s an instant later.

Surging to his feet with an agonized roar, Bruce immediately had the remaining three’s attention as he doubled over, physically trying to restrain the force of chaos that was battling to escape him.

Hulk didn’t understand, didn’t comprehend – only knew that his ‘Shooty-bird’ was gone and that he was enraged by this.

Bruce understood, perhaps too well and also shared that rage, but knew that its manifestation would only cause more heartbreak.  He fought back, clinging to his control, refusing to allow the Hulk to come forth. His lips were white with the effort, his whole body strained tight and vibrating.

Calming down wasn’t an option, but he was fighting with everything he had.

And was losing.

“St- Please Stop me!! I Can’t- HULK…Plea- Please” he moaned, looking up through already sweat damp hair, pleading.

Natasha surged to her feet, alongside Tony and Steve. Clint lay forgotten for a moment as they faced the imminent threat.

“Please Bruce – Calm…It’ll – It’ll be o…I -” Tony tried desperately to work his magic, his seemingly natural ability to calm the hulk within – but his own grief and shock, coupled with Bruce’s proved too much, and Hulk only grew angrier.

Steve was strategizing, instinctively pulling apart the issue categorising the options, yet they seemed limited, “If I knock you out – your pulse will drop! I – we can’t-”

Bruce shook violently, “Do - Do it! Please…Don’t kill me – KILL ME!” as little sense as that made, each of them understood it perfectly – Bruce would rather die than hurt one of them.

Tony protested vehemently, mindlessly, “NO! No – we can- I can…no.

Bruce’s eyes flashed green, helpless and fearful and raging.

Natasha reached over and nerve pinched him, catching and lowering his still body to the floor in silence.

******

Bruce lay where Natasha has set him, colour still fleeing his slack face. His left arm loose and at an odd angle from the rest of his compact frame, draped listlessly close to Clint’s unmoving chest.

Steve turned, stumbled and didn’t bother righting himself, allowing inertia to guide him roughly to the ground, slumping haphazardly against the wall. His head dropping into his hands to hide them from his eyes. His failure.

He could hear Natasha – strong, silent and steadfast Natasha –softly sobbing as she used the hidden strength of her petite frame to move Clint over to where Thor lay.

Tony he could also hear – and he knew Natasha could too. How he wished she couldn’t.

Kneeling at Bruce’s side, Tony was simply staring, muttering under his breath in a completely raw tone, “I could have saved him. I could have saved him. I know I could have. I could have saved him.”

Steve’s heart was breaking and he didn’t know who for.

Natasha came back, this time for Bruce, and as she reached down for him, Tony looked up, straight at her, his turbulent brown eyes drilling into her desolate green, as he said brokenly, “I could have saved him.

All the strength that Natasha had held onto so tightly, seemed to just leak out of her and she melted before Steve’s eyes.  The ease she’d shown while moving Clint fled, and she struggled to lift Bruce from the floor.

Steve could see them destructing before his eyes.

Two. He had two left to protect, and he pulled himself together.

Lifting Bruce, Steve followed Natasha to the other side of the room, letting her set the pace and guide their motions – any form of closure or relief he could offer.

He left her there, in her silence, and turned to Tony.

His lover was still muttering the repeated phrase and Steve didn’t hesitate, simply dropped to his knees and drew Tony to his chest. For all that he’d lost his parents and Stane…this was as close to death as Tony had ever been. The gut wrenching loss of one you had grown to admire, respect and love.    Yinsen had been a brush, but this – this was immersion. And Steve worried it was more than Tony could handle.

But Steve couldn’t let him break Natasha, “Stop, Tony. She had to… She. Had. To. Bruce needed her to. Stop. You’re hurting her.”

Tony finally, thankfully, fell silent as his gaze snapped up and he saw, truly saw Natasha.

She was still kneeling by Clint’s side, her fingers gently ruffling through his hair as she gazed down at Bruce.  She emanated terrible guilt and torturous pain and Tony had slithered out of Steve’s embrace before he’d decided to, and hurried across the room to pull Natasha into his arms.

He’d also lost both his best friends, his brothers – and he was less eloquent than they’ve ever heard him, his words stuttered and broken, as he said “No. Tasha, no… He- I’m sorry. Sorry. You had to. I could have saved him. I should have saved him. ” He blamed no one but himself.

They sat their wrapped in each other, trying to absorb comfort from where there was none to give. 

******

Eventually Steve drew them both up and over to the side, against the wall they had all leaned against that first night, laughing and joking – no way of knowing that it would end like this.

Natasha he pulled in against his left side, she curled into a tiny ball, her russet head pillowed at his waist, her arm across his thighs and gripped equally tightly in Tony’s.  His love was plastered against his right – his head tucked at Steve’s shoulder, face hidden against his throat and Steve wanted to see his eyes but satisfied himself with the brush of lashes against his skin.

It was enough. And nowhere near enough.

It took a while, both Natasha and Steve having longer pulse return rates, but eventually the illness returned and the two were forced to their feet and into motion.   Tony joined them a moment later.

Steve gestured for him to sit down, the constant motion would only tire Tony faster – and there was no Bruce or Clint who needed egging on.   Not anymore.

Tony stared at him for an instant, wavered and then murmured something so low that not even Steve’s enhanced ears had a hope.

“Tony?” he asked, not knowing what else to say.

Tony repeated, “I have to.” And the last of Steve’s tenuous hope dropped from the bottom of his stomach.  

“You feel sick.” He didn’t ask. He already knew.   

Tony nodded anyway and Steve shuddered – He’d so hoped that Tony wasn’t effected, that even if (when) his lover fell asleep he’d just sleep and then wake. That he’d live.

He didn’t say anything, as he had nothing he could say – simply pulled Tony into his own variation of a waltz and spun him about the room, as Natasha danced through an old ballet memory in the centre of them.

******

They’d eaten again, the tasteless MRE’s – more as something to do than anything else and returned back to their spot by the wall, reassuming their previous positions.

They spoke quietly, wondering who had finally succeeded in destroying them – and why. What deed had they done? Who would eventually find them? Why they hadn’t been found yet. Half their number was gone – Thor, Clint, Bruce – and not one of them could comprehend it yet. Could believe it. Yet the proof was still and silent across the room.

They fell silent, just being together, offering what they could - and then, between one breath and the next, Natasha slipped away.

Tony and Steve didn’t say anything, Steve just wordlessly moved her over to rest near Clint.

He returned to Tony, and dropped back to the carpet, reaching. He pulled Tony fully into his arms, settling him close, tucked sideways across his lap and cradled against his chest.  There was a murmured “I love you” and a brush of lips which was returned and then just the sound of breathing.

That’s how they stayed. Ignoring the encroaching illness and the magnitude of loss, they stayed wrapped in each other and denied the world anything else.

******

He didn’t know how much time has passed- couldn’t be bothered trying to follow it, when a soft sigh ghosted across his cheek – and then just a sudden terrifying stillness.

He pulled away slowly, took a deep shuddering breath and closed his eyes.  

They opened again and disbelieving agony widened them, as he breathed, “S-Steve?”

Tony stared for a long moment, not believing. Refusing to believe, but his head had always followed what his eyes decreed and this was no different. The truth filtered in.

Steve was dead.

And Tony was alone.

******

Gorgeous, and glorious and perfect and gone – fury like no other beset Tony and he raged.

His head thrown back, Tony screamed at the empty room, wordless and disturbing in his intensity, before slowly morphing into understandable English, “…CKING KILL YOU! WIPE YOU OFF THE FACE OF THE PLAN- THE WHOLE FUCKING UNIVERSE! I’LL TAKE EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER LOVED! EVERTHYT- EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER KNOWN AND CRUSH IT.  Why?  WHY!?… EVERYTHING! ANYTHING! God –I promise. PLEASE!! Please… Anything you want...just-”

No answer was forthcoming and Tony turned his attention to a different target.

He shook Steve viciously, demanding, crazed and irrational as he screamed, “YOU DON’T GET TO DIE – YOU CAN’T – CAN’T… you can’t leave me – please…Why – It was my turn. MINE! I WAS NEXT. – I CAN’T… I can’t, Steve…not without y-” and then he finally found a target that could respond.

Himself.

And he broke down, wracking sobbing gasps for air that no one was there to soothe.  Slumping into Steve side, Tony simply cried.

******

His eyes were heavy and no doubt red and blood-shot when he finally let go, took his grief, the loss of almost his entire family and buried it deep. He breathed in, shaky at first, but becoming steadier and finally dragged himself to his feet. 

Steve’s dead weight took him several long minutes to drag across the room to the others and Tony was breathless by the end of it – but Steve had to be with his team.

Pressing a kiss to cooling lips, Tony pulled back and let his gaze linger before he moved away again.

Looking about the room, the emptiness setting his teeth on edge, Tony Stark did the only thing that Tony Stark truly knew how to do.

He persevered.  Got determined. Dug deep and pulled hard. Starks rise from the ashes.

Someone had to survive this. Had to escape and avenge his family. He was the last man standing- not the strongest, nor the best, but the last and he would do what he had to do.

Meticulously he rechecked very inch of every section of every wall, ceiling and floor.  

He spent hours screaming, hoping to hear something, anything –an answering call would be best, but an echo or vibration would be telling emough. 

He sat quietly for days, in dead silence and listened for the hum of electronics or the whir of mechanics.

For three more days he moved, ate, rested, searched, hunted, wracked his brains and gave it his all.

And still had nothing.

He no longer believed that the kidnapper had any intention of returning, or that they could be found.

He was standing alive in the Avengers tomb.

His hands had started shaking, fumbling and unsure in his fatigue, his eyes swollen, burning and blurring. His head throbbed continuously and his heart along with it.   

And finally. Finally.  He admitted defeat.

Because he wasn’t strong enough, not good enough…simply not enough.

And he was so, so tired.

He looked over at the wall, where Steve had held him and told him he loved him – empty now.

He looked to the team, a silent cold huddled mass. Together in death as in life.   

Tony curled up beside Steve’s body – and just…let go.

********

The end.

Until it’s not.