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Coded Message

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It started with a seemingly innocent suggestion.

"We should make a secret code." Clint said suddenly. The team was sitting at the dinner table having a joint meal, a rarer occasion these days than it had been at the beginning. Steve paused mid-chew and glanced at him. Natasha snorted around her own mouthful. Bruce made no comment, but Tony's interest was piqued. Thor had opted to spend the evening with Jane that day, which was a shame. Steve would've liked to see what Thor had to say on the matter.

"What code do you mean?" Tony asked, making a stabbing motion with his fork at Clint.

"Like Morse code, but that only we know what everything means." Clint said. He was picking through his plate for a piece of carrot, and when he found one he picked it up and threw it in his mouth, looking satisfied and completely at ease. "So we can communicate under difficult conditions without everyone figuring it out." He said. Steve resumed chewing and lowered his gaze back to his own plate. It was a sound idea, but Clint had brought it up, so he couldn't tell if it was genuinely the man's idea or something orchestrated by SHIELD. If he were to make a code, he wouldn't want the agents to know, trust them as much as he did. He glanced at Tony, who looked right back at him with a grin plastered on his face. Maybe Tony. A secret code he shared with Tony might come in handy one day. If it proves useful, they might consider sharing it with the rest of the team.

It was on their next trip to the diner around the block that Tony brought up the idea of the code again. He hadn't exactly started a conversation about it, though. He just made a pattern of taps on their table and looked Steve right in the eye before saying. "Help." It took a split second before Steve realized what Tony was trying to say, but then he simply nodded and repeated the pattern. They didn't need more than this to remember the words and their meanings. Both had vast capacity to memorize things, and it wasn't long before they'd constructed a considerable vocabulary.

~

Three days have passed since the successful rescue operation. The night finds Steve lying in bed in his Avengers Tower suite. It's common for him to go on very little rest, but even he still needs some hours of sleep each night. He stares ahead, memorizing the shape of the closet-door. He hasn't been able to sleep for three nights, but if he manages it now, won't it set him back there? In captivity? He shudders slightly at the thought when Jarvis' voice pierces the silence. "Excuse me, Captain Rogers."

It's a feat of pure self-control that he doesn't flinch at the sudden intrusion. He's been living in this tower for several years now, and still, being reminded that he's never entirely alone makes him uneasy. He doesn't hold it against Jarvis, of course. The AI can't help doing what he was designed to do. He doesn't blame Tony, either. It makes sense that a man of Tony's genius would have the most advanced gadgets and, if it means having an AI keep track of everything in the tower, well, that's what Tony does. And if he's honest, Steve can admit that Jarvis' tone had been quite soft. He sighs, closing his eyes. "Yes?"

"I am to inform you that-" Jarvis says, and the words are followed by a monotone set of taps. <hungry?> And Steve does flinch, this time. It's become second nature to translate the code into words, now. He rolls onto his back, controlling his breathing as best as he can, slow inhale, slow exhale. He stares at the ceiling and he's grateful that Jarvis isn't fussing. When he's got himself under control again, he closes his eyes and covers them with his palm.

"Tell him I'll be down in ten minutes." Steve finally says when he's sure of his voice. He takes a few more deep breaths before rolling off the bed and efficiently dressing up in casual clothes. He glances briefly in the mirror when he brushes his teeth and runs the back of his fingers along his cheek. The stubble is too short to earn a shave, too long to go unnoticed. He wonders if Tony would say anything, and washes out his mouth.

The elevator dings to announce his arrival at the workshop just on time, and he walks out into the open space. It still puts him on edge, but he ignores the sensation entirely. It'll pass in time, he reminds himself, and finds Tony sitting on the couch with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, hugged close to his side, and a tablet in the other hand. "Hi Cap." The man announces, his eyes still set on an image of intricate mechanism displayed on the tablet's screen. "Be with you in a minute." He offers when Steve pulls the whiskey bottle free from Tony's grip. He examines the bottle. It's a brand he used to like, and he contemplates taking a drink despite knowing it's going to do absolutely nothing for him.

"Take your time." Steve says when he decides what to do and unscrews the top of the bottle to take a quick sip. It's strong, and Steve hasn't had a drink in quite a while, and while it doesn't affect him, the taste burns his throat familiarly. He closes the bottle again and settles next to Tony, watching the schematics he's working on. "New car battery?"

"Working on completely green cars. This one's supposed to recharge via kinetic, thermal and solar energy, but no matter what I do, I can't work around needing some kind of older fuel." Tony answers absently as he pulls a piece of the image up and out of the tablet. The holographic projectors pick up the motion and expand the view, letting Steve watch closely. "The Arc Reactor technology is what I'm using to jump-start it, but that's still using finite resources." Tony grumbles, and Steve watches him for a moment. When Tony's frown only deepens, Steve reaches over and mangles the hologram. He knows Tony has it backed up so he doesn't hesitate.

"Tony." He waits for Tony to look at him with that slightly offended and generally startled expression on his face. Being able to surprise Tony is one of Steve's favorite things. "Didn't you say you wanted to head out?" And he knows already. He knows Tony had asked rather than announced, even though there's no way to indicate punctuation in their odd tap-language. Nearly three weeks of having only this code for communication has taken care of how well they understand each other when using it. Tony doesn't take the bait, dumps the tablet to the side and stretches. It's obvious Jarvis isn't supposed to know their code yet, Steve isn't complaining about that.

"Jarvis, how's my data doing?" Tony asks as he pulls himself to his feet, eyeing Steve up and down, which makes Steve raise an eyebrow questioningly.

"We should have results by tomorrow morning, Sir."

"Good, keep going. I'm gonna wash up and change, give me five minutes." Tony says, shaking his head and then turning to walk off, leaving Steve on the couch in his workshop. For anyone else, this would seem a huge feat of insanity - no one other than Rhodey and Pepper has ever been allowed to be in the workshop when Tony wasn't there - but here's Steve, sitting idly and glancing at the tablet from time to time before Jarvis speaks again.

"I've taken the liberty of installing an application I thought you might like, Captain." Jarvis says pleasantly, and Steve glances up to where Jarvis' speakers are concealed. "Do try it. I believe Mr. Stark will be longer than his stated estimation." So Steve glances at the tablet next, and sure enough, the project that was there just seconds ago has disappeared. The screen is now an old shade of cream white, textured like a page. "You will find a stylus along the right sideline." Jarvis adds helpfully.

And so it is that fifteen minutes later, when Tony comes back fresh and clean and ready to go out, he finds Steve sitting comfortably and doodling away. He clears his throat, even though Steve's hearing is, like the rest of him, enhanced. Steve simply smiles up at him and tilts his head. "How do I save this?" He asks, addressing the room in general.

"It is already saved, Captain Rogers." Jarvis says, so Steve sets the tablet aside and rolls onto his feet. He stretches and then taps Tony's shoulder. <let's go>. Tony doesn't jerk at the silent communication, but turns and joins Steve on the way to the car he'd been planning to take out for a spin.

The eatery they go to is almost completely empty, save for one weirdo at the corner and the lady at the counter. She takes their orders without pause, and serves them the food when it's ready. They hardly exchange a word during this time. Tony mutedly expresses his wish to be able to sleep at one point, Steve hums in agreement. When Tony's done eating and is waiting for Steve to finish, he's tapping the table. A nervous tic, Steve thinks, but he doesn't need to even try to figure it out. Tony is repeatedly tapping <Cap> <Cap> <tired> <Cap>, and it's driving Steve mad, but he can't do anything about it other than eat faster. <home> is the last thing Tony taps when Steve drops his utensils in his empty plate and reaches for his wallet. They half-heartedly argue between splitting the tab and letting Tony pay. It's short lived and nothing like their usual banter. Steve thinks it's like a ghost of what they used to be like before, but tries to not dwell on it. They decide to split the bill and leave after paying.

When the elevator at StarkTower arrives at Steve's floor, Tony idly taps <Sleep>, and Steve stalls just a second longer than he has to, to tap it back at Tony. When they were held captive, neither had felt it appropriate to use a mundane phrase like 'good night', and even if they had, their code was still fairly limited, and didn't contain such trivial phrases. It was this simple word that had helped them sleep in captivity. Their captors had never switched off the lights, so there was no sense of actual night, but Steve's inner clock is excellent, and he kept Tony up to speed as to what time it was.

When Steve slides into bed for a second attempt at sleep for that night, he falls asleep instantly.

~

There was a constant buzz in the background that was the first solid thing he noticed. Then, the smoothness of the cool surface he was lying on registered. The place smelled alien and Steve contemplated between jumping awake to surprise whatever was guarding him and pretending to sleep long enough to pick up on any hints as to what could be going on. He chose the second option, using the idle time to figure out what's the last thing he could remember. There was a park, and he and Tony were discussing one thing or another, light conversation, then suddenly, Tony froze. It wasn't a surprised kind of freezing, but rather, an unnatural cessation of motion. Before Steve could ask what was wrong, though, he was out as well. So it had been an ambush probably, and some kind of neural interference. Steve hated cowards.

When thirty minutes passed without a single change, Steve finally opened his eyes and sat up slowly. Nothing stopped his movement. There were no restraints on his hands or legs. He had been stripped down to his boxers, undershirt and socks, but was feeling no particular chill. The strong fluorescent light was white, cold and unforgiving. It illuminated the room completely. Steve took a long moment to survey his surroundings. Plain reinforced concrete walls, the width of which was yet undetermined. A large, high-security-vault door with no apparent handles or keyholes, just a small multi-layered window at the top and a movable hatch at the bottom. Steve assumed, and was later proven right, that it served the purpose of providing the inmate with food. He scowled at the thought, but it seemed that's what he was, and sugar-coating it wouldn't do him any good at the moment. There was no part of the cell, save for the corners adjacent to and the lower half of the door, that could not be seen through the window at a glance. Steve considered this for a bit, then looked at the opposite wall. It took some effort to spot, but a miniature camera was indeed embedded in the concrete. He could try and pry it out, but it would only do any good if the door was ever to be opened. He filed this thought away for later consideration and continued his inventory review.

The bed he had been lying on - and he called it a bed because it was the only horizontal surface the small room had to offer other than the floor - was stripped of everything. There wasn't even a mattress to cushion the smooth and flat metal slab. Sleeping on this would be extremely unpleasant, but not entirely unmanageable. The bed was standing along one wall, one end pointing to the wall with the door in it, and the other end touched the wall on the other side. It would leave Steve with very little choice on how to sleep, but that wasn't the last of it. On the wall across from the bed there was a sink with a faucet, and a stripped bare toilet.

So this was it, Steve thought, not exactly bitter but rather resigned. One little ambush, and The Avengers' finest leaders were off the grid. He'd be embarrassed if he weren't so busy wondering how it could've happened. And then, instead of embarrassment, Steve was consumed by one thought:

What about Tony?