When and how they were taken, Tony isn’t sure he’ll ever remember. All he knows is that he wakes up in a dark, dank cell—a cage—beside an already up and alert Agent Coulson. What with the tacky yellow jumpsuits, you’d have to be pretty stupid to think anyone other than A.I.M. was responsible. The demands of their captors are fairly simple; Tony makes them the weapons they want and tells them about what he’s made for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the two of them live. Tony knows that if he refuses they couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to take it out on him. Injuring him would only further impede the work they wished him to do. And that’s why they have Coulson. For every one of Tony’s refusals, their captors calmly explain, Coulson would suffer the consequences.
“Don’t give them anything,” Coulson tells him, when their captors have left them to discuss the matter.
“Yeah. Right,” Tony replies, fingers twitching against his thigh as they sit on the dirt floor. Dirt? Really? Just where the hell are they? “I don’t know.”
“There’s no room for ‘I don’t know’ here, Stark,” Coulson says evenly. “I’ve been trained for these kinds of scenarios. Just keep your head down and don’t do anything they tell you to. With any luck, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the other Avengers have already noticed we’re missing and are looking for us.”
“Okay, that’s great and all, you know, go team! But you’re asking me to sit pretty and let them torture you, Phil,” Tony points out. “Do you honestly think I’ll do that?”
Coulson studies him carefully for approximately thirty seconds before answering. “I don’t think you want to. But you also know you have to.”
“Stop trying to sound inspiring.”
The first time they take Coulson, he’s only gone for twenty minutes. They return him to the cell, shoving him in so he stumbles, catching himself on the far wall before he lowers himself back to a seated position beside Tony. He’s a little roughed up—from what he can see there’s a split lip, a bruise blossoming on his cheek, and from the way he’d eased himself to the floor, Tony’s betting there are a score of bruises he can’t see—but otherwise appears to be in good shape.
It’s enough to get Tony’s teeth grinding.
Coulson just gives him that mild, patronizingly patient look of his.
“You need to calm down, Stark. They hardly touched me,” Coulson tells him. “They’re not going to touch you, not if they know what’s good for them. And believe me, they know what’s good for them. You have nothing to worry about.”
It’s not me I’m worried about, idiot. Tony wants to tell him. But he doesn’t. Because that would be a decidedly un-Tony Stark thing to do. Besides, he doesn’t need their captors thinking he might actually care about what happens to Coulson. So he shrugs offhandedly, rises from where he’s sitting and strolls casually around their cramped dungeon cell.
“I’m not worried,” he says.
The second time they take Coulson, he’s gone for forty minutes. He’s still on his feet when they bring him back, but he’s limping now and sits almost immediately. He doesn’t say anything and Tony’s almost afraid to ask what they’ve done this time.
“Just more of the same, really,” Coulson says, as though reading his mind.
Tony scoffs, rolls his eyes, gets to pacing again. There’s blood running down the side of Coulson’s face.
“You might want to do something about that,” Tony tells him.
Coulson merely shrugs. It’s not important, apparently. It should be important. He shouldn’t be sitting there just taking it. But he does.
They sit in silence.
“Never let your fear decide your fate, Mr. Stark,” Coulson says at last, watching him carefully.
Tony wants to tell him it’s easy for him to say… except it isn’t. So he says nothing.
The third time they take Coulson, they’re gone well over an hour. They drag him back to the cell, unconscious.
“Still sure you wouldn’t care to change your mind, Mr. Stark?” one of the yellow-clad agents asks.
Tony watches them deposit the agent in a boneless heap before looking back to the A.I.M. goon. “What, you thought this might persuade me? Hate to break it to you buddy, but we’re not as chummy as you seem to think we are. Have you spent any time with the guy? Honestly? It’s like talking to plywood.”
“Why don’t you tell me, Mr. Stark. You did, after all, stop an alien invasion to avenge his death,” the agent says.
“Yeah, preeeeeeetty sure I did that so they wouldn’t… y’know… take over Earth,” Tony answers. “But sure, we’ll go with yours if it makes you feel better.”
They stand there on opposite sides of the metal bars as the other A.I.M. agents retreat, locking the door behind them once more. Coulson doesn’t stir. The goon who’s been talking to Tony—smooth face, 100 watt smile, deviously sharp eyes, terrible garlic breath—leans in closer. God, someone get this man a Tic-Tac. A Mento. Anything.
“He’s had ample opportunity to talk about you. Did you know that?” Garlic Breath asks. “Would you care to know what he’s said?”
“All flattering things, I’m sure,” Tony replies.
“Perhaps another time, then. Remember, Mr. Stark, you can put a stop to all this. If you want to spare his life, all you have to do is say ‘yes.’ Keep that in mind,” Garlic Breath says and he leaves, flanked by the other mooks.
“Not gonna happen, sunshine!” Tony calls.
He snorts. His eyes wander over to Coulson, still lying immobile on the dirt floor. He’s on his side, facing away from Tony, but the man’s still breathing, at least. Twenty or thirty minutes—he can’t be entirely sure—go by before the agent awakes with a startled intake of breath. He calms himself almost immediately and Tony can’t say as to how, other than to say that it’s Coulson. Coulson doesn’t do freaking out.
“Hey, it’s all right, you’re okay,” Tony blurts. He makes a face. “Well… no. I mean, it’s not all right and you’re not really okay. But you know what I mean.”
Coulson rolls onto his back with a soft groan, his unfocused gaze finding Tony’s face.
“Should program an alarm clock with your voice, Stark,” he slurs. “No one’d ever sleep in again.”
“Aw, love you too, honeybunch,” Tony says, patting his hand.
They’re quiet for a while after that. Tony thinks. He wonders if S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers really are looking for them yet. Or if they’ll find them in time. If they’ll find them, even. Of course they’ll find them, right? How stupid to even question it.
“I haven’t told them anything.”
Tony looks up so quickly he sees spots. Coulson’s eyes are closed and the words were soft, but he caught them.
“Yeah. I know,” Tony assures him.
The fourth and fifth time blur into the third, being carried out in much the same fashion. It takes Coulson longer to wake each time though. The sixth time is something different. An hour in, he hears a scream.
He starts upright in his cage, throwing himself against the bars. He doesn’t know where they take Coulson, but wherever it is, the scream was loud enough to travel back to him. Something sinks in his gut at the sound of pure agony and he starts calling for the guards.
“Hey! Hey, what the fuck are you doing down there?” he calls, gripping the bars of the cell until his knuckles turn white.
He’s left there for another two hours, but there’s no more screaming. When they do finally return Coulson to him, the agent is conscious, but barely. Tony drops any pretense right then and there, immediately crouching beside the fallen agent as the door closes on them once more.
“Are you ready to cooperate, Mr. Stark?” Garlic Breath asks.
Tony’s too focused on Coulson to respond right away. He catalogues the shallow breathing, the thousand yard stare he’s giving the wall, the blood (which seems to be everywhere, soaking in dark patches on the man’s suit), and the fact that Coulson is shaking. One look at the agent’s right hand tells him most of the bones there are probably shattered. Which definitely explains the scream. He’s willing to make a ten dollar bet with Fury that the man’s in shock.
“Fuck off,” he snarls over his shoulder.
Garlic Breath shrugs easily enough. “Very well. I’ll let you think for a while and then we’ll have another little chat to see if you haven’t changed your mind.”
It’s frightening when Coulson doesn’t make any sort of noise as Tony shifts him into his lap. The agent feels cold and, now that he’s this close, the shaking feels somehow worse. He wraps an arm around the man’s shoulders, trying to keep him close without jarring any unseen injuries. Already Coulson’s nodding off against his chest, the faint blue glow of the arc reactor shining through Tony’s shirt making his pale face seem even more ashen.
“Come on, Phil, stay awake, okay?” he says.
It’s quiet, breathy, but Coulson’s talking and he’ll take it.
“Talk to me,” Tony says.
“Can’t think,” Coulson answers.
“That’s fine. Just talk. Tell me about the dating adventures of dashing S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson,” Tony says.
He hears the soft huff of laughter. Or maybe it’s a wheeze. “Not much to tell.”
“Aw, come on, no one after the cellist? There has to be someone that you write home about,” Tony wheedles.
“Whoa, whoa. ‘Maybe’ never means maybe. Who is it? Spill. I want details,” Tony says. “Do I know her?”
“You don’t know her.”
“Will we get to meet?”
“You’ve already met.”
Tony’s armor cracks a bit at that. Coulson’s too far gone to even manage the simple exchange. How many times did they hit him in the head, he wonders? Just how hard had they handled the agent?
“You’ll find out… when you get out of here, maybe,” Coulson murmurs into his t-shirt.
“When we get out,” Tony corrects him.
“We,” Coulson agrees.
Tony doesn’t get much more than that before Coulson’s dead weight in his arms. Still holding onto the unconscious man, Tony starts to think. He doesn’t think he can keep this up. The next time he refuses, the next time they come for Coulson, he’s not sure he can let them have him again. Mostly because, as it is, he’s not sure the agent will make it. Not unless they’re found soon. But if he gives in, if he agrees to give A.I.M. what they want, everything Coulson’s taken up until that point will have been for nothing. If he doesn’t give them what they want, they’ll kill Coulson. And it’ll be soon, he knows. They’re tired of not getting anything from him, so they’ll play the ace up their sleeve. They know he won’t be able to allow them to kill the agent. But immediate threats of killing Coulson wouldn’t have worked, so they’ve had to prove they were serious.
So Coulson’s taken whatever they’ve thrown at him. He may be ready to die in order to protect all of them, but Tony’s not ready to let him. Not again.
Tony’s glare is stony when they return to the cell a few hours later. Coulson hasn’t regained consciousness.
“Ready to cooperate, Mr. Stark?” Garlic Breath asks, smiling at him pleasantly. God, this guy is like Evil!Coulson. Way too fucking calm. “I’ll take your silence as a ‘no’ then.”
They’re taking Coulson away from him. He struggles, lashing out at any A.I.M. lackeys that come within striking distance. It takes several of them to subdue him and they press his face into the dirt as he continues to struggle. They’re dragging a limp Agent Coulson out of the cell now. They’re going to beat and torture an unconscious man. Or maybe they’ll just kill him now. Tony’s not sure.
He just knows he can’t take it anymore.
“Okay! Okay, I’ll build your fucking weapons, just bring him back!”
That seems to appease Garlic Breath, because they dump Coulson unceremoniously back in the cell. The agent stirs slightly and Tony hears a quiet moan of pain.
“Glad you’ve seen reason,” Garlic Breath says. “We’ll return shortly with some equipment for you to—“
But he doesn’t get to finish. There’s an explosion just down the hall, the sound of roaring, he sees a star spangled blur collide with the A.I.M. agents that don’t have arrows or bullets in them. It happens quickly. The Hulk tears down the hallway, trampling anything and everyone in his path, and suddenly the A.I.M. goons are being pried off him and disposed of. He scrambles up and—thank God—the Mark V is being shoved into his hands.
“You okay?” Clint’s asking him, readying another arrow.
“Never better. Coulson’s—“
“Cap’s got him. If you’re game, suit up and get your punches in while you can.”
Tony’s always like Clint’s style, he has to admit. He’s about to take the man’s advice when Steve catches his eye. He’s kneeling by Coulson, his cowl pushed back. He has a hand on the agent’s face as he cradles him in much the same way Tony had earlier. It’s quiet, but Tony hears the words, “I’m here, Phil” from the super soldier and sees Coulson’s lips quirk upward at the edges in a small, grateful smile. His eyes are closed but he knows Steve’s there, that much is obvious.
And it all falls into place for Tony. Coulson wasn’t confused during their conversation at all. He knew exactly what he’d been saying.
“Stark, you coming?” Clint hollers.
“Right behind you!” Tony answers.
He takes a great deal of satisfaction in making Garlic Breath wet himself.
Tony fidgets outside the hospital room. The only reasons he doesn’t back down are because of the flock of nurses who’ve gathered to watch him pace indecisively outside the room and the threatening “You’d better not fucking leave” that sounds like it came from somewhere behind the ceiling panel above his head. He steps in the room quickly, shutting the door behind him and blocking everyone out. Steve turns in his seat and nods, but doesn’t smile. Tony’s not sure what he sees in the other man’s eyes.
“How’s it hanging, Capsicle?” he says, trying to sound casual.
“Tony, with all due respect, if you came here to mess around, you’d better walk back out that door before I count to three,” Steve says icily.
“Right,” Tony says, nodding stiffly.
He walks around the bed, taking the seat across from Steve. Coulson’s asleep in the bed between them and he takes a moment to study the agent. His right hand is bound up in various splints. There are stitches along his temple. The bruising under his eyes is so severe that Tony’s sure his nose is broken. He’s sure there’s more, but nothing he can see.
“His hand will take time to heal. He’ll need corrective surgery and the doctors say he might lose some function in that hand but won’t suffer a complete loss of it,” Steve says, his eyes never leaving Coulson. “They set all the other broken bones, put him in a cast for the fracture in his ankle. Stopped the internal bleeding, sewed him up. They say he’ll recover if he just rests.”
Tony nods slowly at all this. It was way too soon. It hadn’t even been a year since the incident with Loki on the helicarrier; way too soon for the man to almost die again. He feels antsy. He needs to change the subject.
“So, you and Phil then?” he asks with a smile.
Steve gives him a look that would have Nazis shitting their pants. It dares him to say something, dares him to crack a joke. He holds his hands up defensively.
“Whoa, no, calm down,” he says. “It’s not like that. You totally have my blessing, 100%. I’m just saying, you know… none of us knew. I didn’t know. That’s all.”
Steve backs down somewhat. “Yeah, it, uh… surprised me, too. We’ve been taking things slow so we decided it would be better if we just kept it quiet for the time being. Obviously that’s over now, but… he’s been very patient with me.”
“Well… good. Awesome. Uh… congrats to you both,” Tony says, shrugging further into his seat. “Really, Cap, I mean it. You’re both great guys. You deserve each other.”
“Thanks,” Steve murmurs.
His eyes are distant, but Tony can see he’s pleased. They sit for a time in silence, watching Coulson while he sleeps. The irony is not lost on Tony, but he keeps his mouth shut about it. He knows he’s not out of the woods with Captain America yet.
“Do you know what he said to me?”
“Do you know what he said to me, the only thing he said to me, before he passed out again? Back at the A.I.M. base?” Steve asks.
“Can’t say I do,” Tony answers truthfully.
“He said: ‘Steve, don’t blame him.’ So I’m trying very hard not to,” Steve tells him. “I know how he gets, so I know that, really, it’s not your fault. If I had been in your position, I’m not sure what I might have done. So if I get a bit angry with you in the upcoming weeks, I’m sorry in advance.”
“Nah, you’ve kind of earned the right to be,” Tony admits. “And, uh… I’m sorry.”
“You should be saying that to him, not me.”
“He’s not awake to hear it.”
“So save it for when he is.”
“Right. And I’ll do that, but you know, knowing what I do now about you two being…”
He makes a vague motion in the air.
“…an item… I guess maybe I owe you an apology, too. For not taking care of him for you,” Tony says.
“I don’t need to be taken care of.”
Tony’s gaze slides over to the bed, where Coulson is regarding him groggily.
“You son of a bitch. How long have you been awake?” Tony demands.
“Long enough,” Coulson rasps. “Apology accepted.”
“What? No. Apology retracted,” Tony squawks. “You don’t get one if you’re going to be sneaky about it.”
“No take backs.”
“Fine. Take your ill-gotten gains, you cheat,” Tony snorts as he folds his arms and leans back in his seat. “And if you think you’re getting me to do your paperwork because your hand’s broken, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“I’ll use my left.”
“You fucking would be, wouldn’t you?” Tony says with a leer.
Steve watches the exchange quietly. He knows how it works between the two of them. The fact that they’d lapsed back into their usual banter was a sign that things would be fine. Already Tony seems more at ease.
“I’m proud of you, Tony,” Coulson says suddenly. He’s not going to be awake much longer and they all know it.
“They must have you on the good drugs,” Tony says, looking at the clear bag hanging from the IV pole appraisingly.
“You held it together and let me do my job. For someone like you, who isn’t trained in these kinds of things, that’s not easy. It took a lot of guts not to cave,” Coulson tells him. “So thank you.”
Tony makes a slight humming noise and looks away, his mouth twisting into a frown. Coulson doesn’t know, then, that he did cave at the end. Even if it didn’t result in anything. He doesn’t want to forfeit the strange and likely unfounded trust the agent seems to have in him but, for once, he doesn’t want to lie, either. Because if a situation like this one ever comes up again, they need to know what to expect from him.
“And thank you also for being willing to create weapons that likely would have resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives just to save mine,” Coulson adds.
God dammit, the man really does know everything.
“You realize those are two very conflicting thank-you’s,” Tony informs him.
“Right. Just so long as you know, then,” Tony says with a shrug.
It’s not long after that when Coulson drifts off again. Tony stays a little while longer before eventually rising from his seat with Steve watching him carefully.
“Well, I’d better get going. I figure it’ll be a nice surprise if I file my incident report on time for once,” he says.
“Coming from you, that’s about as nice a gesture there is,” Steve agrees.
Tony nods. “Listen, do you think I can come back tomorrow? Figured I’d bring a mini-frosted donut bouquet or something.”
Steve actually laughs at that. “Sure. I think he’d like that.”
“I would like that.”
“Phil. Go to sleep,” Steve says over his shoulder.
“Like a fucking ninja,” Tony hisses under his breath as Steve walks him over to the door.
“You have no idea,” Steve replies.
If Tony really doesn’t, he decides he’d like to keep it that way.
He finds ways to keep coming back, even when Coulson’s been discharged from the hospital. It’s always with an excuse. That Pepper made him. That he happened to be in the area. That hospital food was too cruel a fate even for S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. That S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria food was too cruel a fate even for S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. That he was bored. (That last one is actually true.) He isn’t fooling anyone and he knows it. But they all seem perfectly fine with pretending he is.