Work Header

This Corrosion

Work Text:

At first it felt like turbulence. A sudden drop, lurch, then stability. Steve grabbed hold of a handle to keep his balance in the wobbling plane, and it took him a second after they regained normal flight to realize that nothing was normal. There was silence.

Steve rushed to the cockpit. "Tony. What happened?"

Tony was frantically working, pushing buttons, flipping switches. "We have no power. No communication. Nothing."

As much as Steve wanted to know how the hell that could happen, he didn’t ask. Right now, he did not need to know. "Can I help?"

Tony turned his head, looking at him for what felt like a long second. "You can strap in, brace, and hope."

~ ~ ~

The world spun, foggy, blurry, then slowly came into focus. There was a bright, electrical light overhead, gray walls. Pain, headache, something with his left arm, but bearable. He was on a firm surface, slightly padded. A rustle to his left made Steve close his eyes again, hoping to buy more time before he had to speak. Assuming he was waking up somewhere friendly after a plane crash worthy of the Bermuda Triangle was not a luxury he could afford. Instead of sight, he used his other senses, adding to the vague picture he had of his surroundings. Bare walls, most likely concrete. Strip light, one, in a smallish room. The smell of somewhere a little musty or at least enclosed pointed to him being underground. He was on a cot or similar narrow bed, a thin mattress under him, sheets smelling like professional laundry, the same kind of smell sheets have in hospitals or cheap motels. No other sounds over the soft thud of his own pulse in his ears, save a soft repeat of the rustle next to him - sheets, he realized. One more person, likely in a bed like this. It might be Tony - he hoped it was - but if it was not…

Steve dared a glance out of the corner of one eye and saw enough to feel a rush of relief. Tony was there, and since he had moved, he was alive. He looked pale, and there was blood smeared on his face, but he was there. They had crashed a plane into the ocean, so injury was to be expected. Forcing himself to remember made his head ache, but the image of Tony’s bloody face superimposed on something appeared in his mind. A memory of him dragging an unconscious Tony out of the plane, onto a raft. He remembered looking at the plane, watching it sink some hundred yards or so away - and then all went black. That part bothered him. He had no recollection of anything around them, not in the water or the skies. Something must have happened, and he did not like it. They had not even been able to send out a mayday, they had been lost over the Indian Ocean and no one should have been able to find them that fast. Even if they had, why did he not remember it happening?

For a while, he lay there, quiet and still, going over events in his mind, trying to coax more details out in the open, but the pivotal memories never appeared. He mentally settled in, ready to wait out whomever was holding them before moving. Next to him Tony groaned. Something in the sound made Steve tense up again. When there was another groan, softer, and a movement - he almost sat up out of pure instinct. He held back, certain someone would come now. These people had to be monitoring them somehow.

After what felt like much longer than it should, someone did. Steve picked up the sound of steps far away and wished he could check on Tony, warn him if needed, but if he wanted to have any advantage here, that was not an option. This might be the only chance he got.

When the door opened, he was ready. He knew there were four of them, had been able to tell by the footfalls, and he moved as soon as he knew they were all inside the room.

The jolt when he landed on the floor pulled at the soreness in his left arm, but he had one of them (male, uniformed) on the ground before he the pain registered.

"I would not do that if I were you." The second figure spoke before he could strike at her. It was not her words, nor the gun pointing at him from guard no. three, as much as what she was pointing to that stayed his hand. Another gun, in the hand of the fourth person, and it was pressed to Tony’s head. He stood down.

"Wise choice." The woman spoke again, cementing the idea that she was in charge. Steve noted that she spoke with a faint accent that he was unable to place. The people in the room gave no indication of any kind of place or origin either. None of the others (two men, one woman) had said anything. Instead they looked to the speaker. "You are our… guests. For the time being. We will not harm you." There was a vague hesitation in her voice towards the end that betrayed a lie, but Steve pretended to believe her. "We only mean to check on your friend, and his injuries."

Steve met Tony’s eyes across the room, taking in the sight of him - the visible injuries, the pale skin, the eyes that were a little too wide and shiny - and said nothing.

"I don’t need help," Tony said. "I’m fine. Sore. That’s all." Steve was sure that was a lie, and not a small one either, and there was real fear somewhere in Tony’s voice.

"You had a head injury." The man who had until a moment ago had a gun to Tony’s head spoke up. "I am a doctor. I can help."

Tony looked up at him. "Forgive me if I’m not inclined to entrust my head to someone who threatened to blow my brains out."

The woman in charge huffed, amused. "I understand your feelings, Mr. Stark, but he is in fact a doctor, and an extremely good one. He will not shoot you now your friend is behaving." It was only then that Steve noticed that the gun trained at him was still raised and ready.

For a minute or so, Tony looked at her, then at Steve and back again. Finally he met the supposed doctor’s eyes. "Fine. Look. But only at my head."

As far as Steve could tell, what followed was the standard examination to determine if Tony was concussed and if anything needed stitches. The conclusion was, if these people were to be trusted that far (and Steve though they might be, as he was sure that no matter what, they wanted him and Tony alive for now), that Tony was mildly concussed, but that was the worst of it.

The doctor instructed Steve to keep an eye on Tony and regularly ask him simple questions, like his name, who the president was, and told them he would be back later. When he was done, he nodded to the woman. She informed them a guard would knock on the door every time Steve should check on Tony, waved at the three armed people and they left.

"Friendly people, huh?" Steve said, watching them leave. It took too long for Tony to respond. Steve turned to check on him just as Tony spoke up.

"Not sure I’d use that term." He was pale, more than he had been before, which meant it was unlikely to be a physical response. Why would he react like that? It was not as if being under threat, having guns pointed at them was anything new. Slowly, Tony sat up, and Steve noticed a tremor in his hand. "Who do you think they are?"

"Not sure yet." Steve moved closer. "Are you all right?"

Tony just nodded. "You heard their doctor person."

"Maybe we should resurrect that old nickname of Shellhead, if your skull is that thick." The half-chuckle from Tony was worth the attempt at a bad joke, and he looked better just for smiling. Whatever it had been that affected him it seemed to be passing now. Maybe it had been a jab of pain after all.

"And you? You okay too?" Tony asked, giving Steve’s torn left sleeve a meaningful look before meeting his eyes.

"I am. My arm hurts, but it’s nothing bad." He moved it, testing, allowing himself to check how he was really doing. There was nothing wrong, most likely a hard strike that had left him numb for a while. When he looked, he could see a cut, superficial, and already scabbing over. In the worst case scenario, there was a hairline fracture, but it would heal fast. At least he had no risk at further damaging anything since he was no longer planning to punch anyone.

"Good." Tony nodded. "I’m glad you’re here."

That was unexpected, but Steve took it in stride. "Likewise. A fucked up situation is always a little easier to bear when you’re not alone."

"Yes. Exactly." Tony swung his legs over the edge of the bed and carefully tested the movement of limbs; he seemed to be satisfied. Steve casually noticed the way he moved, with a certain grace enhanced by the fact that he was only wearing the conductive sheath he wore under his armor. (Or was part of it? That had changed, depending on how he used his technology.)

Steve kept a close watch on him, but there were no signs of anything worse than what that doctor had mentioned. He sat down on the bed he had woken up in, facing Tony. "I guess we may have some time to pass…"

"I guess." Tony was quiet for a long while, yet looked like there was something bothering him. Several times Steve caught him about to say something and stopping before he did. Finally, he spoke up. "Did the plane sink before these guys got to us? I mean, I assume it sank…"

"It sank. I saw it begin to go down. But I don’t remember anything past that, so I don’t actually know." Steve frowned; the fact that something had shut him off like that bothered him a lot.

Clearly, Tony felt the same about it. "Not good. And on top of that, I need to know if they got hold of my armor. I can possibly send it a self-destruct order - if they didn’t fry all the circuits when the took us down. But I’d prefer to recover it."

"Is that how they did it?"

"I think it’s the most likely explanation. An EMP. It fits with what happened."

The following hours dragged by in slow motion. Steve examined the room, inch by inch, periodically checking on Tony, but nothing else happened. After a while, someone opened the door and placed two plastic plates with food on the floor. Later, the empty ones were retrieved. Though Steve was certain many hours passed, the light was never dampened, nor was there any other change he could tell. Gradually, it began to be harder for especially Tony to stay awake for long, but Steve dutifully woke him up to ask him questions every time a guard knocked on the door.

"You know, this place is an odd cell," Tony observed from his bed. He was sitting up, and looking a lot better now, more awake too, even though he had been completely asleep this time. Steve had had to shake him awake to ask questions.

"How so? To me it seems extremely well-suited to its purpose." Steve stopped checking a minuscule crack in the floor and looked at Tony.

"You have been over everything, and never once found any surveillance equipment. That’s odd."

"You are right. It seems strange."

"Very strange." Tony shook his head, blinking.

"What’s wrong?" Steve was at his side in three steps.

"I don’t…" Tony sagged, and Steve caught him, got him sideways onto the bed just as he noticed the effect on himself. Gas, he thought as everything went dark.

~ ~ ~

Tony woke to light blaring into his eyes. It hurt. Not just his eyes, but his head, somewhere deep inside his skull. He must have cried out, because someone pushed the lamp. It swung like a pendulum, giving temporary relief half the time. The effect was nauseating. He was still dressed, but felt cold. A voice in the room, arguing in a language he did not understand and could not place. The light faded enough that he could make out where he was.

A bare room. White this time. He was in a chair, reclined, strapped in. The place was white, stark, tiled floor and walls. The light still too sharp to allow him to make out the persons talking behind the lamp. He was alone. No Steve this time. Fear took over as pain faded, growing towards panic. He yanked at the straps, feeling enough give that it was worth doing it again. They dug into his skin, stripes forming.

"Relax, Mister Stark." One of the voices spoke up, accented again in a way he could not identify. "We do not intend to hurt you. We merely want answers."

"Well, you can’t have any." Tony tried to glare, though the best he could do was squint against the light.

"Maybe not, but perhaps you want to hear our questions first."

"Not really. I think you’ll find it makes no difference what you want to know. I’m not going to tell anything to anyone who captures me and treats me this way." Not mentioning Steve - saying me and not us took an effort. Better they not know how much he would do to keep Steve safe.

As one of the figures moved closer, his fear shifted again, away from Steve, to himself, his own being. A bodily fear that seized him and made him tense every fibre against any kind of touch. When the touch came, he had to force himself to remain still, not to scream. "Don’t. Ever. Touch me." He spat the words out between clenched teeth and could meet the eyes of his interrogator now. Sheer force of will allowed him to turn all his fear into anger. The hand on his arm withdrew.

"As you wish, Stark." The light shot into his eyes once more and the questions began.

~ ~ ~

Steve paced the room with the two beds. Waking up with Tony gone had been unsettling to say the least. What if they had decided to separate them? What if Tony was dead by now? There were far too many questions and no answers. The room gave up no secrets - it was as unyielding as ever. Its concrete walls were gray, solid and impenetrable, no windows or slits, no seam in the steel doorframe, not even a crack in the ceiling.

Everything was quiet, gray and empty. The room was 16 by 19 feet, 10 feet from floor to ceiling, and all of it concrete. A bare, metal toilet bowl, seemingly set directly into the floor. The beds steel, painted a lighter gray, bolted to the floor. Solid enough that he could not make them budge. Careful knocking and listening had helped him assess that the door was far too heavy for any chance of breaking it down. The silence indicated as much too, along with a hint that the walls were very thick indeed. When he strained, he could hear footsteps outside, though never for long, and only ever one person. This place was built like a bunker from the era of nuclear war - so that might very well be what it had originally been constructed for. Breaking out would be more than difficult - it would be near impossible.

Footsteps appeared again, multiple this time, then the low sound of a lock opening. Steve did not bother to pretend he had been doing anything other than what he had. Besides, they must expect him to be checking the surroundings. They knew who they had captured, after all.

The door opened to two guards pointing guns directly into the room. Behind them two more, flanking Tony. Steve felt a palpable relief at seeing him, and kept it secret. He stepped back and let the two escort Tony inside, and stood still till all four were gone and the locks and bolts turned again.

His hand was on Tony’s elbow the second silence had fallen. "What happened? What did they want?"

"Bog standard interrogation." Tony gave a small shudder at the touch, but did not pull away. "Rather civil, but I got the distinct impression they were keeping it that way as a courtesy for new customers. Bright lights and asking the same things a million times. Crude."

Steve nodded. "I see. What did they want to know?"

"Oh, everything. I believe they were trying to obscure what they most want to know, but they asked about everything from details of technology to security codes at the mansion. So far all I’ve said is 'Don’t touch me' and 'No comment'. The last only because it got annoying saying nothing after a while."

The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched a little. Tony keeping completely silent under fire was unlikely. At least his tone suggested he was in the mood for morbid humor, which was a good deal better than Steve had feared. "I suspect they will try me next then."

"Yeah." Tony met his eyes. "I suspect they figured I was the weaker link. Rightly so."

"No." Steve shook his head. "That means they underestimated how damn stubborn you are."

"Well… maybe." Tony slowly walked towards one of the beds, and Steve followed, unwilling to let go of him yet. "Guess we’ll see."

For hours Steve kept expecting that gas again, or, alternatively, men with guns arriving to take him away. Nothing happened. At one point the door opened and food was brought in, later plates were collected, each time by one person escorted by two armed guards. Aside from that, they were left alone. How long had they been here? Between being knocked out, injured and gassed, Steve had already lost his sense of time, but he had not been unbearably hungry then they were fed, which pointed to twenty-four hours at the most.

He and Tony tried to pass the time, though their smalltalk, kept to unsubstantial things by unspoken agreement, died out after a while, and each lay on a bed, silent. Eventually, he fell asleep.

~ ~ ~

Tony woke to Steve standing over him. "Tony. Wake up. Tony!"

"What? Why?" He almost asked where are we? before he remembered.

"You were dreaming. Screaming too."

Dreaming? A flash of it hit him. Back in that chair, strapped in, naked, and… no. He could not even think the words, let alone allow the images to appear again. They were too much, made him feel sick. "Sorry. Nightmare."

"I guessed as much…"

Steve’s dry tone was far more comforting than any more conventionally consoling words might have been. "Not just a nightmare. More like fears incarnate."

"Okay." Steve sat on the edge of the other bed, expression calm and neutral. Ready to listen - or to talk about something else. Tony looked into his eyes, kept looking, held them for a long while, and yet that expression never changed. That look sealed it for him.

"I’m scared, Steve. Have been since we got here." Tony broke the eye contact, not out of shame, but out of yet another brand of fear - the one related to rejection. Instead he looked at his hands; veined, with dark hair on them, strong. They were good hands, he liked them. Knowing what he could do with his hands and his mind eased the knot in his stomach. Had this been anyone but Steve fucking Rogers, he would not even have considered saying what he was about to. Anyone would understand that - perhaps except Steve. Steve who always thought the best of people. Of Tony too. "There’s a shitload to be scared of right now, but the obvious suspects aren’t what I’m having nightmares about. This is worse. For me, at least." All that weaving, and when he looked at Steve, he was still waiting, patient, listening. "Not that it’s not bad for you too," Tony added. Steve nodded, a silent equivalent of no offense taken. "Steve, I’m scared of what they’ll do to me. Not that it’ll hurt - okay, that too - but… what they’ll find. What they’ll do if or when they see."

"See?" Steve nudged rather than prodded, and of course struck right at the core of the matter.

"Yes. See. How I look." This was even harder than he had thought it would be. It was years since he had last had this conversation with anyone, and never had as much been riding on the outcome as now. He needed Steve to get this, quick, and be ready to help him. "I was born a girl. It… complicates matters somewhat."

"What do you mean you were born a girl?" To Steve’s credit, there was still no judgement in his voice, more something akin to confusion. Tony did not dare look for any further clues to his reaction.

"I mean that when I popped out of my mom, the doctor looked and said 'congratulations Mrs. Stark, you have a baby girl' is what." Tony had never been able to explain this without using sarcasm. To him, the story was morbid. Something had gone wrong, and he felt betrayed by his body. "Fixing nature’s little mix-up isn’t all that fucking easy, you know."

There were a few moments of silence before Steve spoke again. "So… your nightmare. Is someone finding out about this?"

"Yes. It’s like my kryptonite, Steve. Not just because of the emotional damage that can be done by exploiting it, but the facts of my body. Like I said, it’s not easy. And, well, long story, but I have my reasons. The fact of the matter is that what’s between my legs is a lot closer to what you’d find in a woman than a man. Will that do or do I have to draw a picture?" He knew he was being unjustly harsh, and he hated the notes of desperation that crept into his voice, but he was desperate. Desperate for understanding, for help, support, for this fucking conversation to be over to so he could curl up and try to forget it again. He was even shaking now.

There was a hand on his shoulder. Instinctively Tony wanted to pull away, he was too raw, too vulnerable, but Steve squeezed, insisting. "For what it’s worth, Tony, that doesn’t change who you are. Not to me. Okay?"

"Okay." Tony nodded, still not looking at anything but Steve. The knot inside him loosened a little.

"And I will help you keep that secret. Whatever it takes. We’ll get out of here before they have a chance to find out. I promise you."

"Don’t promise, Steve. I know the situation. We won’t be easy to get out of here."

"I said nothing about easy. Only that we’ll do it." Steve sat down next to him. "Together. We’ll find a way. If anyone can do it, it’s you and me."

~ ~ ~

They sat like that for a while, silent, until Tony muttered something about trying to sleep again, and Steve took the hint and moved to the other bed. While Tony did lie down, back turned, Steve knew he was not asleep. Not that it mattered; Tony had no obligation to explain anything. Quite obviously he had already said more than he preferred, and Steve could not fault him for wanting what semblance of privacy could be found here.

He lay back on the other bed, looking up at the ceiling, once more going over their situation, cataloguing options, and drawing a lot of blanks. At the back of his mind, he kept returning to what Tony had told him. Part of him was annoyed with himself for thinking about it - it ought to make no difference. Tony had not changed, he had told Steve a detail about himself that Steve had previously not known - and yet it kept making him think. Mentally testing his own reactions, Steve tried to make himself think different of Tony, forcing himself to imagine the girl he might have been, but could not do it. That made him feel a little better, passing the test he set for himself. Instead his mind drifted to what it could have been like to live with a secret like that, and again that led to more questions. Like how long Tony had been hiding this, or when he had begun to, who knew about it, had his parents known before they died… All things that were none of Steve’s damn business. Even if he did have a way to ask those questions, if it had even been remotely appropriate, they were not his priority right now. Tony had chosen to share something that was of strategic importance, that was what he needed to focus on. Keeping them both safe and sane was vital, getting them out of here even more so.

Try as he might, he got sidetracked yet again. Old memories resurfaced, things he thought he had left behind ages ago. Long ago, his body had been different, he had not been born strong and fit. As a child he had felt betrayed by his body, and that was the phrase Tony had used. When he first went through the process to become Captain America, he had changed so dramatically that it had taken him a while to adjust to it. Not just to his strength and abilities, but to things like how his body felt. For the first long while he had felt like a skinny, sickly guy trapped in a strong, healthy body. Part of him had missed his old self, even as he enjoyed being able to breathe freely, to run, to use his skills for the good of other people. Now, he felt at home in his own skin, but he wondered if that feeling of disconnect was how Tony felt, or had felt. Some day, he vowed, he would tell Tony about the procedure. But first they needed to get out of here.

Steve jumped off the bed and paced the room again, needing to feel himself move, to reassure himself that his body was still his. He was quiet enough not to disturb Tony, who might not be sleeping but clearly needed some peace. For the nth time he checked every line, every scratch, every inch of the room where a weakness might be. The result was depressing; it was an incredibly well-built and maintained cell, and looked pretty new too. He was about to return to his bed when he spotted something. Something he had not seen before. Something that broke the continuous gray of the room.

"Tony." Steve crouched down, peering closer. "Would you give me an opinion here?"

A soft pad of Tony’s steps behind him, and the familiar feel of Tony next to him was there, scent and heat all the same as usual. A comforting presence. "Sure. What is it?"

"Here. Look." Steve pointed, shifting to the left to give Tony room.

"I’ll be damned…" Tony got down on his knees, then flat on his front, nose to the door. "It’s corroded." A soft chuckle. "It’s got a weakness. Steve, you brilliant man, I could kiss you!" Tony got up on his knees again, slapping Steve’s shoulder, grinning with relief.

"It’s a tiny speck of rust, Tony. It’s not a way out." Steve was amused, but also sober. Yes, he had been right, but Tony seemed too enthusiastic.

"That’s because you haven’t seen their torture room yet. There’s acid in there, and batteries and other things that can accelerate corrosion. This door isn’t impenetrable, Steve. They haven’t thought of anti-corrosion."

This time, Steve grinned wide. "Well, that’s different then… I’m sure one of us can get to that."

"I’m also sure they’ll not like us getting out of their fancy bondage chair…"

"True." Steve chewed his lip. "Leave that part to me. I can handle it."

"Are you sure?" Tony moved, leaning against the door now, facing Steve. "They will kick your ass - and they might find whatever you get and it’ll all have been for nothing."

Steve smiled a little, and the same kind of morbid amusement Tony had expressed previously crept into that smile - and his voice. "You may be the genius, but I have ages of experience in fooling people like these. And I’m willing to take the beating for it."

~ ~ ~

They put their plan into action soon after. If he had a choice, Tony would have preferred it to happen differently, to perhaps have just a little more time to plan. Beggars can’t be choosers, though, and prisoners do not govern their jailers.

After the discovery of the door’s weakness, they both tried to get some rest, and when Tony woke again, it was with a throbbing head and no Steve in the room. A lingering scent of something noxious, along with the headache, told him they had been gassed again. His first thought was to wish it had been him who got taken away again. Waiting for Steve to return, especially knowing what he planned, was its own brand of torture.

To make matters worse, with no way to tell time, Tony’s mind kept playing tricks on him, telling him it had been hours when it was more likely that the elapsed time should be measured in minutes. Soon he took to pacing. When that was not enough, he kicked the door, again and again, banging on it, screaming at whomever might hear. The pain in his hands finally made him stop and he forced himself to calm down. As he sank to the floor, his breathing slowed and he was able to think again. In his mind, he began to plan how to use a corroding agent, planning for different kinds of chemicals, factoring the time it would take them to eat through the heavy door, and how that related to the steps they heard outside. He sat at the door, ear to it, and used his knowledge of his resting pulse to time the supposed guard outside. Making himself repeat the count again and again both calmed him and made him feel at least moderately useful.

His vigilance also meant that when the guards returned with Steve, Tony knew they were coming. There were more than one set of footsteps, and they were heavier. Tony jumped to his feet and retreated to his bed, lying back so he could sit up with a fitting amount of surprise when the door opened.

He didn’t have to fake anything. Two guards entered, all but dragging Steve between them. "Steve!" Tony jumped off the bed, was moving towards them when a gun was pointed at him.

"Stay back." One guard had eased his hold on Steve and drawn his weapon.

Tony stopped, hands out to ward off any sudden moves or rash decisions. "Not moving. At all."

"Calm down." The other guard lowered Steve to the ground. Tony was half surprised they did not just drop him. "That one isn’t dangerous - he’s all brains and no brawn."

Tony let the comment slide. "What have you done to him?"

The guard without the gun nudged Steve with his foot. "He thought he was being clever. Turns out he wasn’t."

"If you…" Tony began, but dropped it. He had no need for threats right now, they would serve no purpose. Let them think he felt defeated, that he shut up again because he knew he had no chance against them. That might prevent them from noticing the fact that Steve had just winked at him. The guard with no gun laughed, but they both left again without speaking another word. Tony glared at them till the door had closed.

The second the lock clicked, Tony was kneeling by Steve’s head. "Are you okay?"

A slow smile spread across Steve’s face. "Far better than they think. You’re not the only one who can put on an act…"

Tony winced. The comment was unexpected, and hit caught him like a punch, knocking the air out of him. It must have shown in his face, because Steve sat up, far too fast for a man who looked beat up, and grabbed him by the shoulders.

"I mean now, here. You saw me, you played them so they wouldn’t look at me. It was good and it worked."

"Right. Yes." Tony did believe him, he truly did, but recovering took him a moment. "It’s just… I’m not used to anyone knowing and I’ll probably keep second-guessing your words for a while."

"Of course." Steve nodded, hands leaving Tony’s shoulders again. Warmth lingered where he had touched. It was nice. "I was thinking earlier, what it must be like to be you, and I think that if I were in your place, the worst would be not being able to trust anyone."

Tony shrugged. "I trust some people, Steve. I trust you, and I did before this. And if I don’t, it’s got nothing to do with my body and everything to do with people. I don’t talk about this because the shape of random body parts are of no consequence."

"Got it." Steve nodded, and, much to Tony’s relief, asked no questions. "I’m glad you trust me, though. In general. Not related to body parts."

Tony chuckled softly. "Glad we sorted that out then. Now tell me if your cuts and bruises payed off."

"They did." Steve tugged his right boot off, revealing a tiny plastic bottle and a battery. "I hope this will do, they seemed to be wary of even touching it."

Tony took it from him, examining it. "Holy shit, Steve… This is hydrofluoric acid! If this had broken, you’d have died."

Steve shrugged. "Good it didn’t then."

Tony sighed, exasperated, but refrained from further comment. There was no need to ask about the battery, because he was reasonably sure he knew why it was there. As a back-up agent, or to accelerate a process. It was good thinking. "At least this shit is also good at eating through metal, but it will take a while.

"Good work." Steve nodded, registering his praise.

"The trouble here is, we’ll have to wait for it to work, and may have to apply more as we go along." Tony chewed his lip, thinking. "We need to time it carefully and hope my estimate of the door’s thickness is right. I timed the guards while you were gone. My resting pulse is about fifty-five, and using that, I say they pass by here around every five minutes. One guard at a time, maybe only the same. I think they trust the integrity of the cell too much."

Steve nodded. "So how much time do we need?"

"I put it at fourteen minutes, twenty seconds, give or take. So if I apply it when a guard is approaching, it should eat through when he’s just passed us."

"Let’s assume that. And we’ve both been outside, we know that the corridor to the right ends in a dead end with multiple rooms, one of which is their charming little interview room."

"Decorated a la Marathon Man. So we go to the left."

"Yes. And hope that there aren’t too many doors like this one ahead - or many guards."

"Great. It’s as much of a plan as I think we can make." Tony met Steve’s eyes. "We’ll need something to apply the acid with. And we should probably wait till you’re a little better."

Steve shook his head. "I’m fine. Like I said, it was an act."

"The blood and bruises are real."

"But they won’t suspect we’ll make a break for it now."

Tony felt like smacking the stubborn bastard, but he had a point. That, and he did not want to have to hide the acid in here if someone entered. It was too risky, both in terms of accidents and discovery. They would not get a second chance to grab anything. He nodded. "All right."

"Would a toothbrush work? For applying it with."

Tony nodded. That was the only kind of supply they had in here, except for a tiny bar of soap, and it was a better option than any kind of fabric.

Steve got up and grabbed both toothbrushes, hiding one in a pocket; the other he handed to Tony. "Do it then."

"One more thing. We have to stand back." Tony knew this was a problem point. "The gasses this shit releases is bad for people."

"Got it." Steve made a face. "Can we make it?"

"I think so. As long as we’re well away from it, and I use as little as possible to get the job done."

"Okay." Steve nodded slowly, and Tony let him think it through. "It’s still our best bet. So I say we try."

"Deal." Tony leaned against the door, listening.

"Let me." Steve stood behind him and leaned in. "You get ready. We let him pass once, so I know when he’s forty seconds away."

The minutes were tense, slow, and Tony was acutely aware of holding in his hand something that could kill them if he spilled it, and having to apply it with a flimsy object in a matter of seconds. His heart hammered. Steve counted down the first pass, and Tony shifted, ready with minutes to spare.

"He’s approaching." Steve’s voice was soft, a sure sign that he was feeling the pressure too. "On my count. Five, four, three, two, one, now."

Tony brushed the acid directly onto the lock, stoppered the bottle, and ran to put the brush in the sink and let water run over it. When he turned again, Steve had stepped back, watching intently as the lock smoked and the metal began to come apart.

If the five minutes wait as the guard made his round had been tough to wait out, it was nothing against this. The seconds were as sluggish as cooling tar, and the air was rapidly getting worse in the small, enclosed room. Just as Tony was starting to worry it would take too long, or that he would have to apply a second coat, light fell in through the door where the lock had been.

"Thank god," Steve mumbled and pushed the door. It opened.

~ ~ ~

Out there in the corridors, Steve took the lead. They managed to round three corners and cross another hallway before an alarm sounded, blaring throughout the corridors. Steve slowed down instantly, all but creeping ahead. Now was not the time to run and risk being found. Instead they moved so slow Tony could barely stand it. He forced himself to focus on the next hurdle, one thing, one step, at a time.

Intersecting corridors, someone walking there. They waited, pressed against a wall. Followed them for ten steps, went left, hid in a storage closet. Tony pocketed a small object, making Steve worry he would knock something over and draw attention. Footsteps rushing past. They went opposite, trying to backtrack to an exit. Another intersection, this one they had to cross in a rush as steps approached. Next corridor, a door with a keypad. Tony stepped up next to him.

"Battery," he whispered. Steve passed it to him. Tony worked fast, opening a front panel with a tiny sliver of metal. That must have been what he picked up earlier. Steve looked around, listening hard. Wires pulled free and touched to the battery. The lock clicked and Steve opened the door.

Sunlight. It made them both blink to adjust, it was so much brighter than the strip lights where they came from. This was still inside the building, but here it looked so different it felt unreal. Their surroundings were more like a fancy office building than a dungeon. Steve was acutely aware of two things: it was easier to hide here - and they stood out like coal in a soapbox. A man in a black skin-tight catsuit and Steve in his dirty and torn uniform.

They were on the ground floor. The walls were white, there were heavy, dark carpets on the floors, glass wall on one side, facing an unfamiliar cityscape. No doors to in sight. The cells he had presumed were underground had to be a building inside the building, like a box. That explained the musty feel and why he had thought it was subterranean.

"This way." Tony nudged his shoulder. "Office buildings are my forte."

"Wait." Steve had seen something. Something that made him think that their captors were far bolder than he had thought possible. Dead ahead of them was a large room, luxurious, probably intended to board meetings. Over a large LCD screen on the back wall hung his shield. "Stay here."

Tony followed Steve’s line of sight and nodded. "I’ll buy us some time." He turned and began to open the keypad on this side of the door. Steve did not linger to ask, but ran. The shield was out of reach, but with creative use of some chairs and with a good jump, he got it down. He returned to Tony who fell in behind him without a word as they ran in the direction Tony had indicated.

Running past several closed doors, they could see through some glass-fronted offices to populated areas. There were far too many people out here; it was a matter of time before they, too, were alerted to fugitives in the area.

"We should consider a window." Steve pointed to an open door with an empty office behind. "The exits will be guarded."

"True." Tony followed, shutting the door and locking it behind them. "Cameras." He pointed up. "We won’t have long."

Steve nodded, checking the room in detail. None of the glass panes opened. There was central air condition instead. He knocked the shield against a window. The glass held.

"Figures," Tony muttered. "Security is high, the glass is bullet-proof."

"But not shield-proof." Steve ran a finger along the pane, checking, and slammed the edge of the shield against it. A crack appeared. He did it again, and the metal creaked. With the next blow, the window came free of its frame on one side.

"Steps," Tony warned from the door.

Steve threw himself, shield first, against the window. It came free, and he rolled on the strip of grass outside.

"Tony! Run!" He was on his feet, catching Tony as he jumped out.

There were shots fired out the window after them as they raced down the street. One bullet grazed Steve’s calf, and then they were behind a line of trees, then across a road with screeching tires and loud horns, and around the next building.

They kept running till Tony was out of breath and slowed to a halt.

Steve stopped, looking around. "Any idea where the hell we are?"

Tony stood, crouched, hands on his knees, panting. "Madripoor." He pointed to a sign on a building across the street.

~ ~ ~

Ten hours later they were on a jet off the island. Getting in touch with someone without being seen or captured had been the hardest part, but now they were finally safe.

Tony sat quietly in a seat, more than happy to leave the piloting to someone else this time, and could finally allow himself to let down his guard. His relief was so deep he could barely feel it.

"You okay?" Steve asked from the seat across from him.

"Hm? Oh, yes." Tony managed a weak smile. "Just tired."

"Of course."




They were silent again. Below them, the world zoomed by, water eventually giving way to the edge of the North American continent.

"You can ask those questions now," Tony said.

"What questions?" Steve looked genuinely puzzled, and Tony could have kissed him for it.

"About me. I know you have them."

Steve shrugged. "Maybe some time. Or you can tell me anything you think I should know. If you want to. For my part, I never needed to know in the first place."

"What happens in Madripoor stays in Madripoor?" Tony could not contain a wide smile.

Steve mirrored it. "If that’s how you want it to be."

"Maybe. And maybe I don’t. I’ll let you know."

"Fine by me."