They had identified themselves as independent contractors, but in Steve’s eyes they were nothing but a HYDRA offshoot, profiting from the crumble of HYDRA’s chain of command.
Offshoot or not, their plan had been solid so far, and Steve yet again craned his neck to look at the walls of the tubular contraption inside of which he’d been locked with Tony Stark. The material was like plexiglass but much stronger; his shoulders were still bruised from trying to break out. Without his shield, he was not escaping with brute force alone.
The space was tight enough that they couldn’t move around without bumping into one another. The tube was also too tall for either of them to reach the ceiling on their own, but Steve had hoisted Tony up onto his shoulders when the man checked all the corners for a means of escape, focusing on the ceiling because that was from where they had been dropped in, and so far it was the only moving part that they had detected.
Their captors had not stopped Steve and Tony’s exploration, which confirmed Steve’s suspicion that their trust in their prison’s integrity remained unshaken.
He shifted his feet and looked again at the floor. Resembling a large manhole cover, it was firmly fixed in place. They had tried lifting it already, but both of them could brace themselves on the smooth walls for only so long and Steve could not pull while he had to keep himself from standing on top of the cover, so they had eliminated that method of escape; the holes in the cover were too small to properly stick his fingers through and even if they got it lifted and twisted to the side, there would be no way either of them could fit through the gap – not to speak of the fact that there was no knowing what was beneath the tube.
The thick glass-like walls around them muted the conversation on the outside. Steve could follow it if he pressed his ear to the wall, but Tony was getting frustrated, able to catch only a word here and there.
Hearing wasn’t necessary, though, when they could plainly see things weren’t going as expected: Jane Foster, who had been captured alongside them, looked extremely distressed as she argued with their captors. “I don’t have that kind of information!” Jane exclaimed loudly.
“You worked with S.H.I.E.L.D.,” one of the captors insisted.
“Barely,” she claimed. “I didn’t have access to their database, other than what I needed for my research. What you’re asking about is revolting and I would never partake in anything like that. I don’t know anything!”
One of the captors raised a hand to no doubt strike her, and Sam barked loudly: “Hey! That’s Thor’s girlfriend you’re roughing up, so I would think twice before touching her more than you already have!”
Of their fellow captives, Clint was keeping his face passive, doing a much better job at being professional when compared to Sam – who just couldn’t stop throwing comments as their captors. The two of them were tied together around a solid metal column, a safe distance from anything they could use to facilitate an escape.
The villain snarled and glared daggers at Jane, who was visibly nervous, tied to a chair that Steve could have broken easily but she had no chance getting out of without hurting herself.
“How about you?” the same HYDRA goon asked, looking at Clint and Sam. “What do you know of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret research on alien life-forms?” Clearly he was the one doing the talking.
“I never worked for them,” Sam stated.
Clint didn’t say anything at all.
“Fine,” the interrogator huffed. “Let’s see if we can’t loosen your tongues.”
“They don’t look like the torturing types,” Tony mused, voice low, eyes watching the interaction. He wasn’t actively trying to listen, but the body language of the other people in the room was easy enough to read.
“They’ve managed to secure four Avengers,” Steve reminded him, ear still pressed to the surface of their prison. “They made our capture look like child’s play.”
“Three Avengers and one superhero trainee without wings,” Tony corrected.
“You promised to fix that,” Steve shot back.
“Doesn’t make him an Avenger.”
“And what if I say it does?”
“We’ll put it to a vote,” Tony shrugged and watched as one of their captors moved over to a valve in the floor near the tube, turning it several times.
Steve turned his head, hearing something new. “Can you hear that?” he asked Tony after the man didn’t react.
Tony tilted his head, then stiffened. “Shit,” he muttered. “I knew I should have gone to the bathroom…”
The sound of water moving through pipes beneath them increased – then Steve felt the soles of his feet getting wet and looked down, seeing a steadily increasing volume of water pushing up through the small holes in the cover they were standing on.
Tony moved slightly, making a soft sound of distaste, then glanced at Steve. “May I say I’m not thrilled about this turn of events?”
“Stay calm,” Steve ordered.
The water level rose as rapidly as it could coming in through such small inlets, yet filling the already limited space. Steve looked up, wondering whether they would run out of air before the water filled the entire tube, seeing as the closing mechanism appeared air-tight.
“See if you can open it,” Steve decided.
“We already tried that,” Tony reminded him but allowed Steve to boost him up.
Steve kept his eyes upwards, following Tony’s desperate search for anything that would help them escape. After all, he could feel the water reach his ankles, his shins, then his knees, and the mounting tension in his body constantly reminded him that they were running out of time.
“Fuck!” Tony hissed sharply, fingers prying into something. “How about I help you up here and we’ll see if you can’t smash your way out?” Tony suggested.
Steve nodded and let him down. Tony was smaller than him, not nearly as strong out of the armor, but he supported Steve’s weight without protest, elevating him high enough to reach the ceiling.
There was nothing he could see: no exposed wiring, paneling or weak spots. He tried finding something to sink his fingers into, then swapped caution for power and simply tried to make something break.
Tony suddenly trembled beneath him. “Cap…”
Steve looked down, seeing an urgent expression on his teammate’s face as the water steadily climbed up Tony’s chest.
“If you’re gonna do something, do it now,” Tony urged him needlessly, voice wavering. His body was starting to shake under Steve’s weight.
Steve tried hitting the cover harder, but he couldn’t put his whole body into it because his weight was resting on Tony. All he eventually gained from his efforts was bruising and blood on broken skin, but the lid remained firmly sealed.
A strangled gasp filled the space of the tube and Steve moved off Tony before even looking down, coming face to face with the shorter man as Tony angled his face up to keep it above the rising water. Steve estimated he had less than a minute before breathing would get difficult for him, too, but he still motioned for Tony to brace himself on him. “Save your strength,” he advised, and Tony nodded, setting his hands on Steve’s shoulders, allowing his body to float up an inch or so.
“How about you believe we don’t know anything about any alien experiments and let the water out of the tank?!” Sam yelled outside. It was hard to hear him, with the rush of the water.
Tony moved his feet, trying to brace them on something to keep his head above the surface.
Steve moved up to his tiptoes, water lapping around his chin and ears. “Wanna give the lid another try?” he asked. Tony gave him a look, then nodded, determination on his face. Steve didn’t have high expectations, but they both needed a distraction. “Up you go,” he murmured and bodily hoisted Tony up when the man hesitated at the last second.
Water crawled over his face and Steve filled his lungs while he still could, trying to make himself relax. He could hear the water and little else. When he opened his eyes, the water itched and stung for a moment. It was hard to see, but it made him feel better than not seeing anything at all.
Tony moved after half a minute, dropping his feet from his shoulders, and Steve kicked up, finding that the water had risen quite a bit while he was under; when he reached the surface, he could no longer feel the bottom, and Tony’s determination was swiftly slipping in favor of fear.
“Just breathe,” Steve told him. “Fill your lungs with air and float.”
Tony’s breaths were coming too fast and every time he sank under the surface, he seemed more and more out of it.
Steve kicked off his shoes and socks, to help himself stay afloat. The confined space made any kind of swimming difficult and he could not find any purchase on the sides of the tube, wet skin slipping as soon as he thought he could put some of his weight into the contact.
As the seconds ticked by, Tony was drowning more than swimming, and Steve forced himself back under water, lifting Tony forcibly as he went, to help him feel less like he was sinking for at least a moment.
Steve told himself to be patient. Their captors would not let them drown and risk losing a source of information. After all, Tony was one of their best bets to dig up old S.H.I.E.L.D. files. This was just scare tactics.
People were yelling on the outside. Steve tried looking but failed – then felt a hand in his hair, tugging.
His lungs were aching for air so he pushed up again, surfacing to find that they had less than a foot of breathing space. The air felt heavy, the water was still climbing up, and Tony’s breaths begun to stutter almost instantly.
“They’re not going to let us drown,” Steve informed him. “They need us alive.”
Tony nodded, then went under.
Steve reached down, fishing him back up. It made it harder to keep himself afloat but he received a deeply thankful look from Tony.
“I don’t like drowning,” Tony confessed.
“No one does,” Steve replied.
Tony tried laughing, but it came out as a sharp burst of desperation. “Guess you would know that, better than most.”
“I don’t remember it,” Steve said. Some nights, he did, but it may have been just dreams filling the blanks.
“I remember,” Tony said, and for a moment Steve wasn’t sure what he meant. It was getting harder and harder to keep up a conversation, the tops of their heads bumping against the ceiling depending on how they managed to keep themselves above the surface. “I remember how it feels every time I take a shower,” Tony managed, then got a mouthful of water and spat it out, his body growing frantic.
Steve held onto him tighter, kicking his legs, pressing himself as high as he could. Tony’s legs hit his body every now and then, the space too small for them both. “Stop kicking,” Steve ordered. “I’ll do that. You just… keep breathing.”
It was not the offer, he knew, but a need for survival that made Tony stop kicking and cling to him instead, his weight leaning heavily on Steve and forcing his head under an instant later.
“Sorry,” he heard Tony say as he surfaced.
The water was still rising, and no amount of swimming was going to help them soon.
“Okay, I need you to start swimming, now,” Steve said after a bit.
Tony detached himself from his body, too tense, and gasped for air. They had just a few inches left and Steve tried deepening his breaths, like preparing for a long dive. It still caught him off-guard when the air was gone, the tube completely filled, and he braced one hand on the ceiling, the other searching for Tony. The other man was right in front of him, muscles tight, eyes wide in the somewhat murky water.
Their gazes locked and Tony’s hands fisted in Steve’s shirt, nails digging into his skin, grip tight enough to hurt. Steve secured his own hold on Tony’s waist, pulling him close, trying to tell him they were in this together; that he wasn’t alone.
Steve could barely hear anything over the rush of water and the blood pumping in his ears. They were fully isolated from the world, caught in a timeless vacuum of horror – then Tony’s fingers tightened a fraction more and air bubbles escaped his mouth. Steve tried shaking his head, to force him to hold on with pure force of will, but Tony’s body gave out, his mouth opening for air and body convulsing as there was none.
It seemed to take forever, the short struggle for life. Steve’s fingers dug in, but there was nothing he could do. He ached to pull Tony close and give him some of his precious air, but it didn’t work like that and then it was too late: Tony’s body stilled, the tension fractionally vanishing. Steve wanted to scream, his own lungs nearing their limit as he waited, but the water was still there and Tony was not moving, floating in the water, eyes still open as if asking Steve when he was going to stop them from drowning.
Steve debated giving in, but it was an unnatural thought. He briefly thought of avenging Tony’s life, to make them pay for the horror they had forced upon him, yet time was running out for him, too: his body tensed, screaming for air. He knew from experience he could push on still, but even he had a limit, and when his thoughts began to cloud and all he could focus on was holding onto Tony, to focus on that last bit of contact…
Let go, don’t let go – it no longer mattered.
It felt like he was in that HYDRA plane all over again, rushing towards the icy landscape, unable to stop it even if he had wanted to.
For a moment, he had wanted to…
A loud bang echoed through the hot pressure in his ears – then another. The rush of water intensified, brushing against his skin, headed in a new direction.
Another bang was followed by a cracking sound, and the water all but collapsed from around him, sending Steve tumbling down roughly against a broken edge of the tube as the water kept draining out.
“Steve!” Sam shouted.
The sudden attack of voices was almost unbearable. Steve coughed, drawing air into his deprived body, his hands tightening, body tingling all over and barely registering the dead weight resting on his.
“Shit!” a young woman’s voice exclaimed nearby. “We weren’t too late, right?”
Someone screamed, further off.
“Thor, don’t kill them yet!” Clint roared.
Steve blinked, his vision clearing. He leaned forward in his half-seated position against the tube’s wall. Water was still sloshing around him although draining rapidly, and he hoisted Tony’s body forward, hands trembling harder than they had ever since he was given the super-soldier serum.
His brain tried to summon a guideline on what to do, on how to save him. Tony wasn’t moving, wasn’t coughing, his wet weight dead and too pliant in his arms.
“Get him out of there,” someone ordered.
Steve growled, since that sound didn’t require him to form actual words with his lips, and he leaned away from the source of it, trying to block Tony’s body with his, to defend him now because he hadn’t been able to before.
“Steve, you gotta move,” Sam’s voice drifted through the fevered fog in his mind.
“We will help him,” Thor joined in, and then there were hands on Steve, drawing him back – taking Tony from him. He scrambled up to follow, feet slipping on the wet floor, toes digging in for purchase.
Thor had laid Tony out on the floor and Sam leaned over him, tipping his head back and to the side. Steve scrambled closer, wanting to help – needing to do something – but in the end he just watched as Sam pushed at Tony’s chest and stomach before even breathing air into his lungs, most likely trying to get the water out.
“If he dies, the Hulk is going to tear you a new one,” Clint muttered to someone nearby.
Steve looked up at the archer, noticing him standing guard beside their former captors. The men looked bruised, a few of them actively bleeding, and two of them appeared dead. Somewhere far away, explosions sounded, the floor shaking a bit.
“Come on,” Sam breathed out, then leaned over Tony again, pushing air into his lungs.
Steve inched closer on his knees and slid a hand over Tony’s, wet and motionless. He squeezed it, intently watching his face as Sam drew back, looking troubled.
“He’s not responding to CPR –” Sam started, but then Tony’s fingers tightened around Steve’s, his skin heating up from the inside out, and he jerked and sat up with a motion that looked almost painful, eyes opening wide. He coughed violently, bringing up a mix of water and vomit all over Steve who had instinctively leaned forward to support him. Sam, who had had the sense to move back, yelled out in triumph.
Tony gasped and coughed, skin alight with an unhealthy orange glow. His grip almost burned, but Steve didn’t try to dislodge his hand and watched as the glow eventually receded, lingering in Tony’s eyes a fraction longer as the man’s gaze finally found his face. “Not gonna let us drown, huh?” he managed. Steve supposed he could apologize, but Tony moved his gaze from him a second later, surveying the situation around them. “What the hell took you so long?” he demanded, looking at Thor.
“We were late receiving news of your location,” the Asgardian explained.
“You should have sent out a distress call or something,” the female voice from earlier demanded, and Steve looked up at a young brunette standing beside a shaken Jane. “Hi,” she waved at him. “We haven’t met. I’m Darcy.”
Steve guessed she was a friend of Jane’s because she didn’t look like one of Thor’s people.
A mighty roar tore through the wall nearest them – or so it appeared before the Hulk emerged from the dust, pounding towards them, nostrils flaring. In his wake floated a familiar view: Iron Man.
“We would not have found you if Stark’s computer had not been able to find his location,” Thor explained.
“They were cutting off all our trackable devices,” Clint surmised and looked at Tony. “How the hell could they track you?”
“I’m not telling,” Tony retorted and looked at his suit as it landed gracefully beside the Hulk. “Took you long enough, J.”
“My apologies, sir. I am, however, glad to see you are alive,” a voice replied through the suit, not sounding anything like Tony’s usual speech pattern.
“Should have come to check on me a few minutes earlier,” Tony muttered glumly.
The Hulk snarled and looked out towards the captured men. Clint took a step away, looking ready to bolt if the rage monster decided to beat the last of their enemies to pulp. Steve agreed that it wasn’t worth it trying to stop the Hulk if he chose to do that – especially after they had allowed Tony to drown.
“I promised you he would be alright,” the armor told the Hulk, patting him on the arm.
The Hulk huffed and looked around, knuckles cracking. The green gaze stopped on the broken tube and Steve was fairly certain the Hulk knew what it had been used for. That was when Steve located his shield, lying close to the tube, and Sam moved over, picking it up and bringing it to him.
“The only thing we found that could break the damn thing while these guys were busy elsewhere,” Sam explained, nodding vaguely towards Thor, the Hulk and the Iron Man armor.
Steve nodded and set the shield down on the floor beside him, returning his gaze to Tony. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Tony gave a tight nod, then slowly unwrapped his fingers from Steve’s. “Thanks,” he murmured. “For… what it’s worth.”
“Thanks for what?” Steve frowned.
“For not letting go,” Tony replied, looking him in the eye again.
Steve knew he could have said something inspirational about them being a team, but it wasn’t that. It had been just the two of them, trapped like two drowning rats. He was never going to use that reference again, and might punch anyone else that did… “I’m sorry it wasn’t enough,” he admitted.
“Next time,” Tony said, sounding almost chipper, and then hoisted himself to his feet, wet sneakers squeaking on the floor. “Please tell me there’s someone left I can beat up,” he asked the Hulk.
Clint took another decisive step away from their captors-turned-captives.
The Iron Man armor straightened, then began opening up at the front, clearly to let Tony inside.
“Ladies,” Thor turned towards Jane and Darcy, “I believe this is when we take our leave.” He draped one arm over Jane’s trembling form and guided her out while Darcy followed.
“I’m so sorry,” Jane said as she passed Steve and Tony. “They wouldn’t believe us.”
“Let’s see if they’ll believe why we’re called ‘The Avengers’,” Tony replied grimly and stepped into his armor, letting it close around him, cocooning him inside. He was a mess and Steve didn’t think he was all that comfortable in his wet clothes, but he knew the armor had to be a kind of shelter for Tony and he more than deserved that after this ordeal.
The Hulk punched his palm and fist together suddenly, grinning. “Tin Can smash.”
“It’s Iron Man, you doofus – and yes,” Tony confirmed, “it’s my turn to smash, so you just sit back and enjoy the view.”
Steve picked up his shield as he stood. “I’ve got your six,” he told Tony – not that he needed the back-up. Didn’t even need the suit to beat up the last of their enemies, really, but Steve wanted to let Tony know he was right there.
Tony actually acknowledged it with a nod before stepping forward.
Hours later in the Avengers Tower, showered and cleaned up, Steve asked Tony about his fear of water.
Tony told him about Afghanistan and having his head being pushed under water while simultaneously being commanded to build a weapon for the terrorists holding him captive. He wouldn’t have needed to tell Steve he had said ‘yes’ in the end, but he told him anyway.
Steve wished he had been stronger, to be able to break them out of the tube – then told Tony about crashing the plane in the ice and about the ghost memories of drowning and freezing, and that he sometimes wished he had never been found because he was a man out of time and nothing could change that.
Tony got drunk that night while Steve felt tipsy for the first time in years as he briefly managed to outdrink his metabolism.
Three hours later Tony was no longer drunk, orange light dancing on his skin, and he complained about it until Bruce woke up and they fortified themselves in the lab while Steve sat in front of the windows and drew the Manhattan skyline as the sun rose over the horizon.
The other Avengers joined him one by one, pulling him away from his drawing.
Tony called Sam into his lab after a bit, informing him that he needed to take some measurements. Sam looked puzzled while Steve just smiled, feeling more tethered to this time when surrounded by the people he could, even on the worst of days, call his ‘team’.