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Hubris

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It was hot.

Tony was vaguely aware of that fact. He was also vaguely aware that he was moving; it didn’t really make sense.

Everything. Was. Very. Slow.

He felt, simultaneously, like he was going to melt, or maybe spontaneously combust, because the heat was being sucked into his every pore, his entire body a mass of sweat and other fluids he didn’t want to think about.

He didn’t know how long he’d been travelling, someone kept topping up the dose of whatever it was they where giving him every time they stopped. He didn’t know who, he didn’t know what, he didn’t know where, although he was pretty sure this was a car trunk. 

Like he said: Everything. Was. Very. Slow.

He remembered being taken. He had been at a shareholders meeting, the gunmen had entered and he had—

Why had he gone with them, again?

He couldn’t remember. He was tired. And hot. And so, so thirsty.

He wondered if people were looking for him, if his team were looking for him. Someone, anyone. He wasn’t quite sure how long he’d been gone, he kept blacking out, but he knew he hadn’t left the trunk because he can remember, at certain intervals, fresh air being let in and the drug re-administered. Sometimes, it would be day, and he would be able to catch glimpses of light from behind his blindfold. Most times, it was night.

He was scared, too. It was difficult for him to feel much of anything with what they’d dosed him with, but he was still aware enough for all his senses to be telling him wrong, and no, and danger.

He was supposed to be getting his helicarrier propulsion plans in today. Obviously, it was going to have to wait.

Tony lets himself fall asleep. Or black out. Either way, he lets darkness take him.

 


 

Until the trunk is opened and he’s dragged out.

He falls to the floor and the first thing he registers is heat, actual burning on his exposed flesh. He gropes the ground, head fuzzy, hot and thirsty but as weak as a kitten, and shuffles, tries to escape the feel of the blistering, dusty ground.

Which is when the blindfold is yanked off and he’s almost blinded. He yelps, undignified, and hits his head on the back of the truck he was taken in. He’s still drugged, the shapes in front of him blur and he keels over, face first onto the ground.

He gasps at the feel of the furnace-like earth, how he feels like his skin is being roasted, and watches the steel toed boots that swim in his vision go from one pair to two to three and back to one.

He throws up; or, he retches, and bile come out.

He’s so thirsty.

And he’s being picked up, two hands under his arms and dragged, feet trailing on the ground, and normally he would protest at being handled like this, he would say something cutting, or witty, anything to show that he wasn’t scared, or was defiant, but he knows that the drug has made him loose, unable to hide and slow and that he’s throwing up like there’s no tomorrow, which in fairness, there might not be, because you don’t not feed a guy or give him water for however many days and then drag him out into the desert to keep him alive.

It’s marginally cooler when they reach the threshold of a wooden shack. Everything here is dusty, everything is is covered in grit and sand. Tony is sweating, his entire body soaked and his dress shirt is clinging to his body. He pants are torn at the bottom from where they were raked against the ground and his shoes scuffed from the dirt.

He’s dumped, unceremoniously, on the rickety wooden floor. It creaks under pressure and Tony becomes aware of the threadbare carpet stained with blood that’s rough against his fingers and directly in his line of view. He lies there, focuses on his breathing, on not throwing up, on his thirst, doesn’t try and think about where they might do to him, all the ways the could hurt him or the indistinct murmur of their voices in the background.

Things are swimming in and out again when he’s rolled over, squinting and dizzy, and water is pressed to his lips. He drinks hungrily, revels at the wet feel of it down his throat, the relief at having his thirst quenched and drains an entire bottle until he runs out of breath, coughing and spluttering, and is left to roll back onto the carpet.

He can’t quite muster the strength to roll onto his back so he lets himself flop onto the carpet, just breathing, trying to stall the nausea, waiting for whatever it is they’ve got planned. It’s pitiful, he knows, they haven’t even tied him up, they’re just waiting and he’s really tired so he’s kinda just going to let the voices wash over him and hope they maybe forget he’s there.

But then there’s a sudden lull in the conversation that even Tony hears. It’s the sound of a car being cut out front, a door swinging open and banging shut, the click of heels on the floor and the voice, nasal and high and irritating that drawls a long “hey, Tony!” that forces him to open his eyes.

What he wants to say is you’ve got to be kidding me or are you fucking stupid? but all he gets out is a choke and a whine and then he’s vomiting the water he’d just downed.

“Aww, shit,” someone says “he’s gonna choke.”

And then he’s being turned over onto his front and he has the immense satisfaction of getting to finish his vomiting fit all over Justin Hammer’s patent leather shoes. They’re very shiny, Tony notes deliriously, very well maintained, that must be difficult in this climate—

A fist in his hair; Hammer crouches down to draw up his head.

“Hey, Tony,” he repeats with a smile “long time no see.”

Tony tries to tell him to go suck a dick but his mouth is slack and his voice is hoarse and instead he just coughs weakly. 

Hammer lets his head fall, his chin cracking painfully against the wood and he give a low groan, one ear pressed to the floor.

Hammer sighs “You know, this, yeah, this isn’t working for me, can we have him up here? Thanks,” he sees the leather shoes move out of his vision “it’s fucking crazy, I can’t see shit, thanks Morgan just put him up here,” and then he’s being lifted by his shirt collar, dragged to a ragged, dusty, blood-stained and come-stained couch and he can’t do shit about it, his limbs have turned to lead, he’s exhausted, Christ, he hasn’t eaten and he threw up everything he drunk, he’s just about ready to pass out.

Except Hammer doesn’t buy that, and he draws up a chair, sits in front of him, grinning madly. In fairness, if their positions were reversed, Tony would probably be feeling the same way.

“You hungry?” He asks, still grinning “I can get Marco to fix you something up. I, personally, will be eating this,” and then a small table is brought over by one of the men, a plate of spaghetti steaming on top and a cold glass of water with, oh God, ice, he wants ice, “but I might be able to get you some leftovers or something.”

And then he bursts out laughing as if he’s said something hilarious. He continues laughing even as he tucks a napkin into his suit collar, rolls up his sleeves and loosens his tie. He’s actually still chuckling softly as he twirls some spaghetti on his fork and shovels it into his mouth.

“So, I was thinking,” he says, mouth full, sauce flying “if I could have anything in the world, and I literally mean anything, what would I have, right? I mean,” he wipes his mouth with the edge of his napkin “some people, they’re shallow, Tony, they’re not like you or me, you know?” He places a hand on his chest, gestures with his hands “I mean, we? We’ve been fortunate in life. But these guys, they have nothing. So, I’m rotting away in that lovely jail,” he spoons more spaghetti into his mouth “and I’m just going by day-to-day when I get pretty friendly with my guy over there, Morgan. And he says, ‘Hammer, I like you. I’m gonna get you out of here,’ or he said something like that, the details aren’t important,”

He takes a drink from his iced water and Tony drools, whatever moisture is left in his mouth trickling out the side.

“— And anyway, he’s getting out a couple months later. And a week after that, I get a guest, and he says, hey, I’ll get you out if you make me some, you know, products,” he tilts his head in Tony direction in some kind of twisted companionship “and I say ‘sign me up!’ except then it all went tits up and he ended up doing a life-sentence in maximum security. But not before I was declared officially dead. So my point being, is, my friend Morgan here asked ‘if you could have anything, what would it be,’ and voila, here we are.”

He holds out his hands, gestures around the little shack in the middle of the desert with no air conditioning and holes in the wall.

Wow. Hammer is living the high life.

“So, I’m going to have some fun with you.” Hammer continues “We’re gonna play some games,” he grins, and then shrugs “and when I’m bored, I’ll let you go. Or have my men kill you. Either way, doesn’t matter to me.” And he shovels more pasta into his mouth, the sauce staining his face obscenely and flecks splattering Tony.

“I mean, it’s no fun bringing you so far down only to kill you. Once upon a time, I thought I was gonna beat you in business,” he snorts “look, Tony, I’m not an idiot, okay? I know how I’m gonna take you down and it’s gonna be the good old-fashioned way.”

Tony breathes. He gathers all his strength, every single bit left to him, and with supreme effort manages to raise an eyebrow.

Hammer smiles, picks his teeth. “You must be thirsty, Tony, you want some?”

Yes, he really does.

“God, it’s so cold, you know? Actually, can I, hi, Morgan? Yeah, can I get more ice, thanks.” He grins at Tony as the glass is filled to overflowing with freezing, cold, ice, oh God, he could really do with that, he would kill for that. He would never eat again if it meant getting some of it.

“Mmm’” Hammer gasps as he drinks some down “wow, that hits the spot. It’s so hot out here, you know?”

Tony lets his eyes close shut. He doesn’t want to play Hammer’s mind games right now.

Except then he throws the water on his face and he has no choice but to gasp awake, blinking, dazed, but still so tired.

The ice feels good, regardless.

“You tired, Tony? You thirsty? You’re probably hungry, too. Say, you want some pasta, maybe? What can I get you?”

Tony blinks languorously. “Fuck you,” he wheezes and Hammer grins.

“You know what, this is going to be fun. I can just feel it, Tony.”

 


 

He doesn’t let him sleep.

After that first moment, Tony is dragged outside, stripped, and washed down with tepid water. It’s unpleasant, and embarrassing, and he’s so tired he just flops on the ground, but he does get to down some water while they spray him and it feels good to be relatively clean.

Except then they lead him to a tiny room adjacent to the main shack and Tony knows that it’s not going to be anything good because there’s a rope with a noose hanging from the ceiling and he wonders if maybe they’re going to kill him anyway, despite everything.

But they don’t, they tug him up so he stands on his toes, and secure the noose around his neck. It’s long enough that he can stand but short enough that he’s kept on the balls of his feet. To stand normally would be to tug on the noose and consequently strangle himself.

And then they leave him. In the room thats five feet by five feet, struggling on his aching feet, hands tied behind his back so he can’t lean on the walls for support.

He’s so tired.

It gets colder at night but the air is still warm, still humid, just not as torturously so. Tony is slowly melting, he can feel it, he’s constantly veiled in sweat, he feels like he’s liquifying. His feet are on fire, too, he can’t support all his weight on the balls of his feet for this long, it’s impossible, there’s nothing to even hold up his heels but letting go would mean dying and that he doesn’t actually want to do. He won’t give Hammer the satisfaction.

It’s dark, and the room is tiny. It’s practically a box. Tony can feel claustrophobia creeping up on him, the rising sense of panic that being locked away induces. He’s not going to be able to do this every night. He can barely do it on this one.

He shifts, still standing on tiptoes, and wonders if maybe Hammer will let him go soon. If he doesn’t really mean to keep him hear all night. When he was first tied it was still late afternoon but now it’s pitch black, he’s been trapped for hours.

Tony is not petty, or foolish. He does not have a sense of pride that overrides the need to survive. He will do what he needs to to get out of here alive and mostly sane.

He’s really, really thirsty though.

He chokes when he flattens out his feet, when he can’t do it anymore, and his breath cuts off, suddenly, panic inducing, and he scrabbles on the rickety ground, breath hitching, face purpling, until he painfully, impossibly, manages to lift himself back onto his toes. It’s ten times more painful as the blood that had begun to return is once again cut-off and Tony feels the bruises that are bound to be forming.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, he can’t do this. He needs out.

Someone will come. Somebody has to find him. Hammer can’t be this competent, he can’t actually manage to avoid the FBI and SHIELD and the CIA and whatever else they set on him. 

Unless he actually is.

Tony’s face crumples, from sheer exhaustion, and the heat, and the pain and although no tears fall, he balances precariously on his feet, constantly shifting and trying to keep straight, to keep balance, as shudders wrack his body.

At one point during the night, he tries lifting one foot up, balancing on only one, but the pain is unbearable and he nearly chokes where he falls

It’s impossible, the whole situation is impossible, Hammer is going to kill him, he’s going to black out and die, Hammer has to know that, he has to feed him eventually, let him sleep, otherwise he won’t have a trophy to send back, broken and humiliated.

It’s a surprisingly comforting thought. 

He learns that, if he leans back enough, he can support his spine on the wall. It doesn’t take the weight off his feet, but it does help a little, and he’s in no place to complain.

Eventually, the sun begins to rise.

 


 

“So did you sleep well?” Hammer gloats “Because I slept great. You thirsty, at all? Hungry?”

Tony balances, exhausted, bone-tired and gasping, but he nods anyway, because he needs to eat, needs to drink, otherwise he is going to die.

Hammer giggles and fishes out a bottle, tilts Tony’s head back so he can dribble it into his mouth, slowly, and it’s not on purpose, he’s actually doing him a favour because any faster and Tony would choke.

“Was that fun, Tony? Did you have a good time? I know it’s not quite what you’re used to, but,” he shrugs “we’ve all got to make do, you know?”

Tony hates the way he’s always questioning, how every statement is phrased as if expecting an answer. It’s infuriating.

Hammer reaches for the noose around his neck, tugs it clean off and Tony sets himself onto his feet only to find that they don’t support him at all and he just collapses, lies half in the shack half out, sprawled out. He can’t believe the pain in his feet, he knows that if he were to look at the he would find torn, blistered skin and bruises and it doesn’t help that the ground is already beginning to heat up, burning his skin. There’s no protection out here, he has no clothes, and he doesn’t think he can ask for sunscreen. Tony is naturally tanned but out here he doesn’t like his chances.

Hammer sighs but Tony doesn’t bother looking up. Now, now, he can sleep, he can shut his eyes for just a moment and —

“Ah ah ah, Tony, we have a busy busy day ahead of us, no time for sleeping in,” he can hear the snide grin “we need to get you some breakfast and then — Ah! Thank you, Morgan,” and there’s something being set down by his head except he doesn’t want to look, he just wants to close his eyes and sleep, is it so much to ask for, what did he do to deserve this, God.

“Tony, you can eat this now, or you can go hungry till sunset. Your choice. But I feel like I should let you know you’ll be doing a lot of walking today and porridge is a slow release food. I think. I don’t actually know, nobody eats porridge.”

Tony cracks his eyes open, he’s half out of the wooden shack and lying on the burning earth. His hands are still tied behind his back and there is gruel in a chipped, dirty bowl to his left.

He needs to eat. He can’t not eat.

He lifts his chin, shifts to the left. He can feel Hammer’s eyes trained on him, watching his every move, watching as he lowers his mouth into the bowl and mouths at the sloppy meal, watches as it spills on his chin and even his nose, how he eats like a dog because he doesn’t know when the next meal is going to come and he doesn’t want to die here.

Tony takes it all, every single disgusting drop and bears Hammer’s hysterical laughter, how he slaps his thighs with crazed amusement and shouts incoherently. “Oh my God, oh my God, look at you Tony, holy shit, I can’t believe you actually did it, I was expecting, well shit, I don’t know, I didn’t think it would be that easy—”

Tony ignores him, closes his eyes and sleeps.

 


 

For at least five minutes, because when he wakes up someone has dragged him out to where the car sits and they’re kicking him until he opens his eyes.

Tony groans, squints up at the sun, what now, what could it possibly be, when is his team going to get here, are they going to get here, maybe Hammer is better at covering his tracks than Tony realises, maybe they’re not going to find him, they are in the middle of nowhere—

“Up, Tony, up up up,” and somebody, not Hammer, somebody actually strong is lifting him to his feet. He flinches, whines and his face crumples with pain. He rocks back on his heels, he can’t walk, he can’t, he can barely stand, the ground is burning him and he moans, low, and shuffles, tries to keep his feet off the ground but he’s too weak and they’re too scarred and bruised and damaged so he falls forward, briefly holds himself against the truck but then falls anyway, absolutely unable to hold himself anymore.

“Get up,” someone, probably Morgan, says dispassionately “I ain’t got time for this, get up or I kick your ass, your choice Stark."

Hammer giggles from somewhere else.

Things are fading in and out and there are black spots in front of his vision. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to go on.

But he hauls himself to his knees anyway.

“Stand up,” Morgan orders and Tony shakes his head.

“I can’t,” he hisses “I can’t, I haven’t slept, you can’t expect—”

He’s hauled roughly to his feet, and held there, soles burning, until he gets some semblance of balance. And then he’s shoved.

“Walk,” is the command given.

He puts one foot forward. It’s slow, it’s aching, and he barely manages it. Once he does, he has to pause to get his balance back anyway, and it’s painfully slow going.

But eventually, he begins to move away from the shack.

He begins to walk.

He hangs his head as he staggers, he doesn’t know why he’s being forced to do this, he doesn’t understand what Hammer could be getting from forcing him to walk naked through a desert. His hands are still cuffed behind him and he stumbles on his feet, his knees threatening to buckle at every stage. He’s too weak to be doing this, too weak, he hasn’t slept, God, he just wants to sleep although he’s a bit scared he won’t wake up again.

He focuses on not falling and he hears the truck start up behind him, Hammer at the wheel, following him slowly as he lurches on the scalding ground.

His feet have actually become numb; or rather, they’ve become one mass of pain, one huge lump that’s so bad he’s stopped feeling it. That happens, he knows. When the body takes too much pain the brain can block it out.

The sun is rising higher in the sky and he is getting hotter and hotter and hotter. He feels his skin begin to burn under the rays but what can he do? So he just keeps his head down and keeps on walking.

He feels sweat run off his skin, feels it pool in his clavicle, in a crevice. 

He’s so hot.

He’s in so much pain.

The sun climbs higher in the sky.

He doesn’t know where he is, anymore. The truck still follows him but when he turns, Hammer just presses the horn, and he can’t see the shacks anymore.

He’s becoming delirious with the heat, with the dehydration.

At one point, Steve is walking beside him and Tony takes comfort in his presence.

It hurts when he remembers he’s not real.

He swallows but nothing goes down.

The sands scrapes against his abused feet.

The truck stops, but Tony doesn’t notice. He just keeps walking.

“Hey Tony,” Hammer calls, even though he doesn’t hear. 

One foot in front of the other.

He’s been leaving bloody footprints

“Tony,” he says again, stands in front of him and he nearly walks through him until he realises, finally, that he needs to stop.

He blinks, frowns. Hammer holds out a bottle.

“Drink.”

He opens his mouth and Hammer let’s him take it all. Although it helps with the thirst dramatically, he now feels tired. Too tired.

He can’t walk anymore. Now that he’s stopped, he doesn’t think he can go on.

“Move,” Hammer says “we’re going back.”

Tony frowns. “Why?” He rasps.

Hammer jerks “Because I’m tired, why else, come on, get moving,” he says impatiently.

Tony shakes his head slowly “Why?” He tries again.

“Because I hate you,” Hammer hisses with vehemence.

Tony closes his eyes, shakes his head one last time “Why walking,” he says “why.”

Hammer shrugs, smiles “Why not?”

 


 

That night they tie him him the smaller shack with his arms above his head. It’s uncomfortable, but easy, and he’s so tired it doesn’t matter anyway. Being able to take him weight on his arms is a blessing compared to his abused feet and he falls asleep fast.

 


 

Too soon, they’re waking him up and water is being forced down his throat and gruel choked down. Hammer watches everything as Morgan chains his arms behind his back, leads him to the truck.

Tony doesn’t understand. 

He is marginally stronger today, probably because of the nights sleep and substantial offering of breakfast. He’s still dehydrated, still exhausted, but he can think clearer and thank God for small mercies.

His feet. Tony hadn’t had a chance to look at them but he can feel where skin has be been flayed, from where it had stuck to ground and been ripped from his sole. Where his heels and toes are bruised, burnt and swollen. It’s crippling, he doesn’t know how they expect him to walk, he can’t stand anymore, but Hammer is just giving him this leer of a smile and Tony really wants to smack it from his face but he can’t, can he, so he lets himself be dragged.

He doesn’t doubt that people are searching for him. He’s sure that they’re looking. He just doesn’t like his chance, out here, in the middle of bumfuck. He’s on the border somewhere, maybe even over it, maybe he’s in Mexico, he doesn’t know and he’s not exactly in any space to ask.

Hammer loves this. He loves that he’s got Tony weak and powerless and unable to fight back. Tony holds no illusions that he’ll be able to get out of here on his own. Maybe, maybe, if he could get his hands on that truck. But then he’ll be driving, aimless, and chances are in his current condition he wouldn’t last a day.

He’s so fucking hot. 

His lips are chapped, dry and chafing. He runs a dry tongue over them in an attempt to garner moisture but his tongue sticks, lifts dry skin from them painfully and he remembers that he has no moisture left to give.

He wonders if they’ll find him before it’s too late. 

He’s dragged to his feet and he doesn’t bother holding in a hoarse shout at they make him take his weight on his feet. They’re starting to burn all over again and he shakes his head, falls to his knees, tries to explain with choked words that he can’t walk anymore, he can’t, they’ll have to find some other way to torture him.

Then again, it wouldn’t be torture if he couldn’t stand it.

Morgan silently lifts him back to his feet and Hammer climbs into the truck. No exceptions. He has to walk.

“If you don’t get moving there won’t be any dinner tonight,” Hammer says lazily, lighting a cigar and tapping on the wheel “stand up.”

Tony staggers to his knees, panting. He’s dragged up once again and this time he stays on his feet. He winces, gasps, and tries to find some position, any position, that will take the weight off, will give him some relief, but he can’t and he curses Hammer, curses him, he’s going to kill him.

As soon as he’s rescued. Definitely.

Tony cries out when he takes his first step. He is heavy and infinitely weary and the burning pain that pressing his swollen, blistered feet onto molten earth causes is easily enough to make he scream, flinch back.

But then he swallows it down and begins to move.

One foot in front of the other, learning to walk all over again, he can do it, it’s easy, easy, babies do it all the time.

He feels perspiration that he can’t afford to lose roll off of his body.

He walks.

One step, two step.

Lifts each leg, puts it onto the ground.

He can do this.

(He really can’t)

Hours drag past and he just keeps moving, one foot in front of the other, pace thumping and slow. He stops being able to tell where the sky begins and the desert ends. It stretches on, endless, infinite, and he’s never going to be able to rest.

Steve comes back, walks steadily beside him. “Come on, Tony,” he says softly “you just hold on, Shellhead. We’re coming for you.”

Tony nods, it’s difficult to talk with dust in his throat.

“You just keep walking, don’t stop, Tony, you won’t be able to get back up, you know you won’t. You can’t stop now, Tony.” His voice is earnest, hopeful, everything about Steve that Tony loves but would never admit to and he uses it a lever to hoist himself forward, to pull himself, make himself walk.

“I’m tired,” he mumbles “my feet hurt too bad, Steve.”

“You keep on walking and we’ll find you, Tony. We’re already looking, Hammer’s left clues. We’ll find you and you’ll be okay.”

He blinks grit from his eyes, stumbles “Will I get sleep if I walk?”

“Sleep and water and food, Tony. Burgers and coke and fries and pies, all of it.”

Tony smiles “I’m hungry.”

“I’ll bet you are, Tony. You just don’t give up now, don’t you give up.”

“Who you talking to, Stark?” Hammer’s nasal whine cuts through his delusion and Tony feels like screaming in irritation. If the man is going to torture him at least let him have this, at least let him have Steve.

He continues plodding forward, and hears the truck cut out behind him.

“I said, who you talking to?”

Tony shakes his head, keeps walking because Steve was right, if he stops now he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to start again.

Hammer swings him round, brutal, fast, and he loses balance, falls flat on his face. He whines into the dirt at the burning that spreads up his torso, his legs, and struggles to get back onto his charred and scarred knees.

“No one,” he rasps “it wasn’t real.”

 


 

“You thirsty, Stark?”

His hands are tied behind his back, linked to a loose chain that’s hammered to the outer wall of the shack. There had been no walking today and Tony would have been grateful for the reprieve if it hadn’t meant that he hadn’t been fed or watered and had been left outside in the burning sun as it climbed higher and higher in the sky, reaching it’s sweltering peak and leaving his skin cooked to a crisp.

Steve had not come back.

“What’re you willing to do for this water, hmm?” He says, softly, almost kindly. He’s mocking him. He hates it, he hates this, he hates that Hammer has the upper hand and that Tony Stark, once again, has fallen to the weight of his own pride.

Tony looks at him with sullen eyes. The answer is ‘a lot’, but he’s not going to tell Hammer that. Although he suspects he already knows.

It’s a cold glass. There’s ice floating at the top. Condensation trickles from the curved glass, drips steadily onto the sand.

Tony shuffles forward on his knees as Hammer takes a step back.

“Ah ah ah,” he chimes “it’s not going to be that easy, Tony. Tell me what you’d do for this water.”

He wants him to plead and Tony is not above it. He needs to survive.

He coughs, blinks grit from his eyes, forces his mouth to form the word:

“Please.”

Hammer looks at him, considering. Then, he takes a drink.

He gasps, licks his lips, which he can do, because he is hydrated and Tony is not.

He closes his eyes “Please, Justin,” he rasps “let me have some water.”

Hammer’s eyes narrow “Say you’re stupid.”

“Please, Justin, I’m stupid, let me have some water.”

Hammer grins, wide “Say you’re worthless.”

Tony swallows, even though nothing goes down.

“Please, Justin,” he croaks “please, I’m stupid, I’m worthless, let me have some water.” 

Justin sighs, presses air through his nose and crouches down, water held tantalising close. Tony presses forward, he can’t help it, his lips move automatically towards the water even as Hammer draws it back and he loses balance falls forward and—

The water is poured into the dirt by his face.

He bites his lip and tries not to sob.

“I hate you, Tony,” Hammer says “I hate everything about you. I hate that we did the same thing, but you got better sales, I hate that you treat me like I’m scum because I try to do what you do but I don’t have the same intelligence, I hate that we had the same start in life but you got ahead because you were a fucking ass, you were a evil cunt, and yet you got to redeem yourself. I never got that chance, Tony, never. And for some reason, I tried to impress you. I wanted you to like me. Do you know what that’s like? To hold someone so high in esteem, yet they treat you like shit on the bottom of their shoe? Do you?

“Yes,” Tony says quietly, and of course he does. His father, his mother, Steve, everyone on his team, there’s a list of people who he wants so badly to respect him but he just doesn’t know how to make it work.

Hammer moves off and Steve sits by his head.

“You probably shouldn’t have begged,” he admits and Tony shuts his eyes.

“I know,” he says.

Steve shrugs “I mean, I wouldn’t have.”

“I know,” he says, then pauses. “Are you coming soon?”

“Yeah, maybe. There’s some stuff we gotta sort out first, but we are coming.”

Tony nods despondently “Okay, no, I know.”

 


 

They leave him out there that night and Tony revels at the chance to sleep lying down even if he’s not sure that he’ll wake up in the morning.

He dreams he’s in Afghanistan, and he’s walking through that desert, and he’s walking and walking and he doesn’t know if anybody is ever going to find him.

And then he’s walking through another desert, and he’s walking and walking and he doesn’t know if anybody is ever going to find him although he begins to worry that Raza’s men will find him here, too, even though it’s a different desert. It could be Afghanistan, Tony wouldn’t know.

He’s woken by Hammer persistently poking his head with his toe. He hasn’t moved since he fell yesterday, he still lies next to what was once a glass of water.

“You cry in your sleep.” Hammer says helpfully.

Tony doesn’t care.

“Here,” he says and he puts a bowl of water down by his head. It’s large, and it’s filled to the brim and Hammer has even put some ice in there for him and he lifts up his head, briefly looks Hammer in the eyes and waits for the trick, waits for him to kick it out from underneath him or tell him it’s laced with cyanide or make him beg but Hammer just walks away, back into the shack.

Tony waits till the coast is clear. He waits one minute, two. And then he presses his lips to the freezing liquid, drinks his fill, laps all of it up and swallows and swallows and swallows as if he’s never tasted anything better. He drinks until he’s fit to burst, until he’s sure he can’t take anymore and then he rest his head in the bowl, in the cold liquid, so it cools his brow.

Morgan comes out next with a hose and he washes him down, just sprays him with the cold water and he hasn’t felt this good in days, it takes the edge of the heat off, and he can think, he’s no longer thirsty and he’s no longer melting, although it won’t be long before both come back with a vengeance.

That day, they feed him and let him rest. That night, they put the noose back around his neck and force him to stand until the early hours of the next day, ignoring his moans, his screams and, yes, his pleas to be let down.

 


 

The next day Tony cannot move.

He cannot walk.

He is beyond the point of stumbling anywhere, his feet will not take his weight, end of discussion. They’re cracked, swollen, bleeding, burnt, broken things and any attempt to force him to walk ends with him falling to his knees.

So they make him crawl instead.

And he moves, following behind the truck, a chain on his neck connected to the bumper. His hands and knees blister, he scrapes his skin against the floor the extent at which they bleed, and he starts to worry about infection.

His knees begin to swell.

He loses himself to his imagination. He imagines, multiple times, that quinjet flies overhead and stops in front of the truck and Clint climbs out and shoots Hammer through the skull and Steve holds him close and Natasha does something, he doesn’t know, anything, maybe she takes down Morgan or something and Bruce smashes the truck and the shack.

And then sometimes, he dreams the quinjet flies overhead but doesn’t stop and he cries out “Wait! Please!” and tries to crawl faster, panting, tries to scramble to his feet until Hammer stop the truck and he realises it was never real at all.

Steve comes back. He’s not going to crawl next to him so he sits on the back of the truck, looking down at him as he trails behind, chained, like an old dog being forced out on a walk.

He tells him that they are going to come for him, he just needs to patient. He has to stop rushing them, they have other things to do as well, and Tony apologises, he knows that, he was just wondering.

After that, they don’t make him walk out in the desert again.

 


 

Instead, they leave him chained to the truck by his neck, too lazy to move him, out in the heat, all day, all night. They give him water but he hasn’t seen food in what he thinks has been three or four days and he’s getting desperate.

He tries begging the next time he sees them.

“Please,” he crawls to Hammer’s feet “just something small, an apple, or something, please.”

“I don’t know, Tony,” Hammer examines his nails “I think you can last a bit longer.”

Tony goes back to his spot, curled under the truck.

Steve sits down in the dirt beside him.

“You hungry?”

Tony nods.

“Here,” he says, and he hands him a burger.

“Thank you,” he gasps “oh, thank you,” and he eats it all, eats every little bit, chomps down and feels it slide down his throat, feels the juices on his burnt fingers.

Until he hears hysterical laughter, and when he looks up he realises that he had never had a burger, he’d never had anything in his hands at all, he’d just been chewing air, and talking to himself, so lost in his little fantasy that he didn’t notice Hammer watching.

He lets his head hang and collapses onto the floor under the truck.

“Hey,” Steve says, ducking his head under the car “don’t take him seriously, Tony. He’s an ass.”

“I know,” Tony nods “I know, I’m just so hungry.”

 


 

“Say Stark, you gonna come out of there?”

During the past week, Tony had made the space underneath the truck his temporary home. He shaded him from the worst of the sun and the ground was cool enough that he didn’t burn at the touch of it. It was also more difficult to be reached.

He thinks he might of been out here for a few weeks. The details are sketchy. Increasingly, Tony forgets where he is altogether. Sometimes, when Hammer comes out to taunt him he can’t remember who he is, forgets that he’s most likely still in America, and covers his chest, because he can’t let Raza’s men touch the arc reactor, he can’t.

Apart from that, nobody else has come.

Tony’s starting to worry they’ve forgotten him.

He shuffles forward, and it’s difficult because his knees are swollen, his hands are swollen, his feet are swollen, they’re barely feeding him and he feels sub-human but he does it anyway, ducks his head down and squints to shield it from the sun.

Hammer unclips his chain from the truck “How are we gonna do this, hmm?” he sighs “Can you walk or should I get Morgan to drag you?”

Tony doesn’t care.

He slides out of consciousness and when he awakes he’s in the main shack, the first one, with the bloodied carpet. He’s sitting on the couch, a real couch and he lets his head fall back against the cushions.

“He needs water,” someone murmurs and then it’s being trickled into his mouth.

“Give him this,” and something is propped behind his head. Pillow his mind supplies.

He cracks open his eyes and sees the red light of a recorder blinking in front of him.

Ah. So the game’s changed, then.

(they were never coming for him in the first place)

“…$50,000,000 in order to have Tony Stark returned to you.”

Tony lets his eyes fall shut.