Steve tells himself this is what he’s going to do.
He finds some instant coffee in one of the cabinets and settles himself at the kitchen table. He forces himself to the task at hand, compresses his reality to maps spread out before him, on patterns and infiltration strategies and recon, not wild what-if-he’s-dead’s and how-could-this-happen’s and she’s-dead-she’s-dead-she’s-dead’s.
The maps make it abundantly clear that this is incredibly ill advised.
He pores over his materials, scribbled and highlighted in Carol’s journalist scrawl. It’s mostly guesswork, with a fraction of concrete information from the first few weeks from Carol’s forays into New York airspace and from Stephen (before they put up some kind of mystical energy barrier that made it impossible for him to teleport in and out). He’d give anything for real-time intelligence right about now.
It’s a mess, half the subway lines are flooded and the ones that aren’t, they’re using for some kind of generator. The bridges are down, too, scribbled out in sharpie one by one, except the Tappan Zee, and he gets the impression that any way he goes, he’s liable to be shot at. Fine. Suicide mission, Peter had said, and the words bounce around in his skull and he studies furiously and plans his entry in through the red line from the North.
3 hours in, he’s slumping in his chair, rubbing at his eyes in the half-flicker of the candle (Carol runs the only generator, they save the gas for the getaway vehicle), murmurs and voices drifting up from the basement.
They want him to stay. They want him to tell them what to do. They want him to fix this.
Steve wants to retire.
He thinks that maybe he doesn’t care if he comes back from this.
He puts his head down, just for a minute, lets his eyes fall shut –
- - -
Steve doesn’t want to be here.
Tony hasn’t shaved in what looks like weeks. He’s lying on the bed, propped on an elbow, a bottle of Bacardi half-tipped to his lips. “You don’t understand,” he’s slurring. “I have to.” He mumbles the words out, their shapes clumsy in his mouth, and then he spills rum all over his collar.
He’s drunk enough that the whole damn room smells like alcohol.
“Tony, stop,” he spits, feeling more than a little desperate, tired of Tony’s one man wolf pack act, tired of this back-and-forth they do, tired of watching this happen. “What is wrong with you,” he says. “You had everything, you’re the most powerful man in the whole goddamn world and you’re throwing it away. Why.”
Tony goes in for another swig in lieu of a response, and Steve knocks the bottle out of his hands.
“I want an answer,” he roars, and he might be yelling, but there’s no one to hear them do this. It’s just them, alone in this shitty hotel room, and no one else is going to do this if Steve doesn’t.
No one else wants to.
“Or what,” Tony says. “Gonna beat me up? You know I’m no match for you without my armor.”
Gonna put me out of my misery, is what Steve hears.
He’s wasting his time.
“A man has to want to be helped,” he says, and his voice is raw. “Let me know when you do.”
Steve walks away.
His feet are carrying him down the hallway, and he hates how Tony doesn’t fucking care what happens to him, he hates that it’s gotten this bad and no one noticed – he didn’t notice, damn it, Steve – and he hates that somehow he’s lost the ability to be rational where Tony is concerned, and –
Tony is killing himself, and Steve is letting him.
He slams his fist into the wall so hard it buckles.
Steve thinks maybe he should be better than this.
- - -
He brushes his hair out of his eyes and sits up, an ache in his back and his face feeling lopsided.
Carol is leaning against the counter, a spoon in her mouth, her hair sparkling in the light pouring in from the wide window above the sink. She’s in sweats and a t-shirt, pouring him a mug of something that smells a lot like real coffee, thick and smooth and the nicest thing he thinks he’s ever smelled –
She slides into the chair across from him, her eyes downturned, and rests her elbows on the table.
“You should go in from the north,” she says, as if they’re on speaking terms. “We think they’re using Lower Bay to run ops – they’ve got Aquatic units that patrol the coast, we’re not sure what for. The other option is looping around from the East, but you’d be going in blind, we don’t have any information about what sort of shape the Bronx is in, but it’s probably bad. They’ve got a net around the city, all the tunnels are locked down, and you don’t really have a chance with the bridges unless you crawl over underneath – honestly, it might just be easiest to take a boat across.”
Steve is doing his best to wake himself up for this, but he’s hovering between disbelief that she’s helping him and gratefulness that she’s helping him and settles for sipping his coffee so he doesn’t have to say anything. He watches her, as she straightens a little, shuffles off sleep, blinks red out of her eyes.
“You could drive as far as the Tappan Zee and hump it from there, I guess -”
“I’m not asking you for your damn truck,” Steve says, and his voice sounds more like a growl than he really intends it to. “I’ll hike. It’s only two days.”
“Can you not be an asshole for a minute,” she snaps, “there’s a bike in the barn, just shut up and take it, we can spare a couple of gallons of gas.”
They stare at each other, and Steve feels like an asshole.
“Ok,” he says finally. “I’m sorry. Thanks. I’m tired, I. Sorry.”
“It happens,” she says stiffly.
Steve lowers his eyes. “Yeah,” he agrees, feeling mildly ashamed.
“I wish you’d stay,” she says quietly. “We’d be a lot better off with you here.”
“I wish you’d done this two months ago so I didn’t have to,” he says, utterly weary, and Carol sighs and presses her lips together into a thin line.
“I wasn’t kidding,” she says, low in her voice, looking down at the table. “I don’t know why he’d still be alive by now. I wasn’t going to risk my whole force for one man.”
Steve stares very intently at his arm, at the dirt ground into his skin. “Well, you won’t have to,” he says quietly. “Just me.”
Carol looks at him like she’s been slapped, and Steve downs his mug and goes back to planning his desperate little assault.
She pulls the map out from under his elbows.
“Here,” she says. “Listen. I’ll show you how to get out.”
- - -
He takes the bike.
It’s not what he’s used to, but it’s enough. It’s got a muffler and tires, it’s not rusting through. Steve rides a little too fast around country roads, keeps to the shadows of the dead trees, and goes. It doesn’t feel right, having the pack where his shield should be, but there’s nothing he can do, so he presses on. The wind whips his hair into his face where it’s poking out from under his balaclava, and he grips the handlebars until his knuckles are white.
He can’t remember the last time he told Sharon he loved her.
He thinks maybe he shouldn’t have lied when he didn’t anymore.
There are things he should have told her, he thinks, as he passes cars with their doors gaping open and snow drifted onto their seats. She wanted to marry him, he thinks, as he sails past houses with roofs caving in with the weight of long-un-shoveled snow, and more with the windows boarded tight. There are things that should have been said.
He thinks of Sharon’s smile and her voice and her jibing and her fierce strength and he wonders why he can’t muster anything more than a dull, aching pain in mourning for her. He thinks that maybe after all they’ve shared, it should be more acute.
There’s no time for him to mourn in this world, he thinks.
(Tony doesn’t have time.)
He rides, and does his best not to focus on anything but his immediate reality, the cold and the burnt-out houses and the boarded-up houses and the occasional body on the side of the road.
Welcome to New York, Steve.
He can’t help but think it feels like coming home to die.
- - -
Steve starts to get nervous when the trees start to give way to residential areas and he catches a glimpse of the interstate walls. He doesn’t dare go over on the highway without a permit, he’d call far too much attention to himself and he’d be hemmed in if they tried to apprehend him, but he feels so exposed, here. Informants are popular, Carol had explained, it’s why they had to bolt so far outside the city, where no one knows they’re there, or they’d have Skrulls descending on them in battalions. They’re not bad to the ones who cooperated, apparently – they’ve got a volunteer service set up, they’ve decided to avail themselves of the best thinkers Earth’s got to offer, if they’re willing.
If they’re not, well. Carol has quoted casualties to him.
He knows he’s getting close, because he smells the water, the grime, and the air is colder as it comes off the river in raw gusts. He’s just scanning when he sees it, smoke, barely a wisp, behind another wide expanse of trees ahead. People, he thinks with trepidation, and he’s trying to decide whether or not they’re going to shoot at him when he comes around the bend and almost falls of his bike because of the stench.
There’s a hole, a gaping hole carved out of the ground, meters of raw clay open to the air, at least a 50 feet long, and the smell has him clamping an icy hand over his face and trying not to retch. He slows, to see, breathing through his mouth, and he already knows what he’s going to find, because it’s just the same and he’s back at Dachau, back in the snow –
There are bodies. Dozens and dozens of them, thrown into the hole, piled on top of one another, a tangled heap of limbs and maggots and snow melting into slush. They’re rotting, some of them, and others look frozen, and there’s skin and muscle and decay and tiny little fingers curled into fists –
He leans back from the edge, breathes into his hand for 20 seconds, because everything is awful, and nothing is how it should be, and it’s come to this, mass graves in Nyack, people rotting like animals in the wind and rain.
He wonders if Nick is rotting in one of these back in Pennsylvania.
He floors it, wondering what they’ve all done to deserve this.
- - -
It takes him 2 hours in all, but he makes it to the Tappan Zee without incident, even though his heart feels like it’s clenching and unclenching in his chest as he slows and gets off his bike. Steve hides it under a particularly sprawling pine tree by a large transformer a few miles from the bridge piling, unslings the shotgun from his shoulder, and starts the long scramble down to the shores of the Hudson.
It’s off to his left, less than a mile, but there’s a block or two of marinas and private docks and vacation homes between it and him. He hasn’t seen a soul outside thus far, so he chances it, winds down along the water. There aren’t as many swanky estates on the eastern side, but it’s easy enough to find a dock that looks suitably neglected. There are plenty of motorboats, but he’s worried about gas, so he opts for 10-foot rowboat bobbing at the end. The oars are already resting in the bottom of the boat.
He’s stealing it when he hears something moving behind him.
He drops the rope he’s holding, and he barely catches a glimpse of a red blur diving behind the shed at the foot of the dock as he spins around. He raises the shotgun.
“Come out,” he says. “Hands up.”
There’s a tapping sound, and a whump, and then Steve is entirely certain his life is a cosmic joke, because Deadpool shuffles out, hands up and fingers splayed wide.
“You have 30 seconds to explain how the hell you happen to be in the same square mile as I am before I take your head off,” Steve says.
“That’s not very nice,” Wade says, and he pulls himself up to perch on one of the massive wooden posts jutting up from the platform of the dock. “I can be where I want, it’s a free country, you know – land of the dead, home of the Skrulls. I’m not here to kill you, you just got un-dead, what kind of superhero would I be if I re-killed Captain America?”
“You’re not a superhero, you’re a mercenary.” Steve hisses, “And I’m not Captain America.”
“Gee, thanks, Cap,” Wade says, and it might be Steve’s imagination, but he looks like he’s deflating a little. “You say the nicest things. Ok, well, identity crisis, been there –”
“15 seconds,” Steve says, trying to decide whether Deadpool would sink or float if he knocked him into the river.
“Ok, I have a thing for tall blonds, so yeah, I was following you. Strength in numbers, right? It’s a Skrull’s world, and I’m the farthest thing from green there is –”
“Why were you following me, Wade,” Steve growls.
“You got me,” Wade says, shifting from foot to foot, “I’ve lost myself. I’m nothing without you, Cap –“
“5 seconds, Wade, or I blow you right back to Canada – ”
“– Also, I kinda have a price on my head. I might have ripped some throats out, and the throats may have belonged to Her-Holiest-Bitch’s favorite generals. Because duh, aliens, why would you not cut them up and see what color they bleed, right –”
Steve doesn’t hear the rest of Wade’s explanation, because there’s a humming behind him, a dull mechanical groan, and he turns around, wondering what new horror this will be.
There’s a ship, larger than a human helicopter and armed to the teeth with what look like plasma cannons, lumbering through the sky, heavy and silent, along the far bank. He’s impossibly still, he swears he can hear his heart beating, and Carol warned him about this sort of thing, didn’t she. It’s got no engines he can see, just these purple glowing lesions on the bottom that glow and spin and seem to be some kind of bastardization of repulsor tech. It ghosts along the coast opposite them, swivels and dives closer, projects a massive purple beam over the trees.
“Oh, hey, that’s them,” Wade says.
Steve is just about done.
“You son of a bitch,” he breathes, turning back around. “What are they even paying you with?” It’s just like him, he doesn’t believe in anything, he fought for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the streets, slashing his friends’ throats while Steve was grinding Tony into the concrete. “Think they’d go away if I left your bleeding corpse for them?” he says darkly, and he’s only half-kidding. He steps forward and he’d be trembling with fury if he wasn’t better-trained, but Wade is just dancing out of the way, and Steve is inches away from calmly and efficiently dispatching him and leaving to regenerate in the muddy grime on the shore.
“No, they don’t like me enough to pay me,” Wade says sincerely. “They’re looking for me, they’ll scan this shore when they come back around, we’d better get moving, chop, chop, Cap – ”
“We-are-not-a-team,” Steve yells. “We are not going anywhere.”
“Yeah, ok, but maybe we could be? And you know, I help you and maybe you could put in a word for me with the Vagabond Post-Skrull Avengers, ‘cause references, hard to get in this economic climate –”
“No,” Steve says in utter disbelief. “You were trying to kill me when we last met, remember? You don’t even know what I’m doing, do you, you’re just a poacher now –”
“Details,” Wade says, waving one of his hands absently. He’s got something in the other, some kind of metal thing the size of a tablet, but round, metal and twisting wires and it’s casting a purple glow onto Wade’s mask as he fiddles with it. “Poacher is such an ugly word. I’m useful, I can eviscerate people and stuff, I can get you into the city anywhere you want to go. No fuss, no muss, no blood, no guts – unless you want there to be guts, I guess, I’m into it –”
“Why should I trust you?” He’s trying, he really is, but Wade Wilson is certifiably insane and Steve is having a hard time getting past the bloodstains soaked into his costume.
Deadpool sighs an exasperated sigh. “You’re killing me, Cap. They have no sense of humor and they try to vaporize me on sight now,” he says. “I don’t think they like fireworks, they took it kinda personally.”
Steve doesn’t know when his life turned into this.
“Look, I know a guy, he does tacos in the part of Hell’s Kitchen they haven’t locked down, I can hook you up.” Steve just stares, and Deadpool shrugs. “Whatever, I’m going anyway.”
The gunship turns and slogs through the air in a lazy arc, and then it’s on their shore, not a mile away.
“How does that work,” Steve says, starting to feel frantic, nodding at the thing in Wade’s hands. He assumes it’s some kind of teleportation device, judging by the way it’s throwing out purple light in a 3-foot projection around Wade.
“Shhh, you’ll ruin the magic,” Wade says. “Deus ex machina, it’s ready, come here and hold me. We’ll hug it out.”
“Tell me what it does,” Steve presses.
“It’s an Infinite Improbability Drive,” Wade chirps. “Liberated Skrull tech. Really, move your ass, you need to be grounded, the first time I used this I was wet and I spent 16 hours twitching in the gutter.”
The gunship is drifting towards them.
“Fuck,” Steve says, and jogs the length of the dock.
Deadpool smells like blood and – Mexican food, and he wriggles and yanks Steve’s arm up from where it’s resting at his side and winds it around his waist. “Physical proximity is essential for the success of any relationship,” he says, very seriously.
“Avengers Tower,” Steve says, gritting his teeth. “Get me there.”
“Oh, good, Skrull-baiting,” Wade says, “I think you missed some stuff, Cap, it’s a Skrull pad, now. Don’t worry, I’m not judging you, we all have our baser urges.”
“I’m going hunting,” Steve says.
“Approved,” Wade says. “So about the Avengers thing, right –“
Steve pushes the button Wade’s thumb has been resting on so he doesn’t have to hear the rest.
There’s utter silence, then, and the docks are disintegrating. Steve feels the air around him tugging, like it’s pulling his matter along. All he sees is a blinding purple-white for a minute, and Deadpool is laughing next to him.
And then the wind is whipping his eyes again, howling in his ears, and they’re 90 stories up.
- - -
He steps away from Wade, who’s cackling like an idiot, and it’s a good thing he staggers back, not forward, because they’re on top of the tower, the highest balcony, and Steve can see everything.
It’s so much worse here, he’d thought it was bad in the woods, but the sun’s entirely blotted out here, it’s green haze and rust-colored haze smeared across the sky, mixing together to form this muddy pall.
He steps forward, because how can he not, and it’s alien and terrifying and entirely overwhelming. It’s not the city he knows. They’ve built, and they’ve destroyed, and the skyline is wrong. They’ve filled what must have been gaping holes from the battle with strange, spindly towers, and they’ve clamped hardware onto most of the major skyscrapers. There are platforms, now, landing pads above ground level, a second layer of the city suspended between all of the highest structures, enough that he can’t see down to street-level. There’s a massive statue of a woman – a Skrull woman, proud and cruel and lifting her arms to the sky in the center of Midtown proper. It’s a city of the air, now. There are hundreds of ships, carriers and patrols and individual fliers whizzing past in great metallic streams. There are smaller stations suspended in midair, too, collections of vertical cylinders hovering high above the tallest of the buildings. Beacons of some sort, maybe, or defense towers, he’s not sure.
The tower’s been changed, too, infected, more of the same metal pieces grafted onto the sides of the main building. They look like sinister tumors that have pushed their way out of the glass and steel, strange and curved, and it occurs to Steve they probably scrapped their ships to do it. It’s all backlit by the weird purple energy, and the base of the tower has been widened, like it’s sunk its claws in at street level. It’s elegant, if harsh, and they’ve somehow managed to assimilate the smaller two towers into the main one and build another giant landing platform between them. There are ships lined up down there, fighters and some Quinjet-sized and what looks like a carrier.
Tony’s tower, headquarters of the new regime.
“Aw, man,” Wade is saying, as Steve keeps standing, horrified, at the edge, “I thought we’d have like five minutes, at least.”
“What?” Steve says weakly, because everything is terrible, and it was two months, he was dead for four and they did this in two –
“This thing always attracts Skrulls like crazy, it’s like catnip,” Wade says, and then the alarms go off.
Every system in the tower is blaring, and some from outside that Steve doesn’t recognize. The lights have changed, too, the purple is a red, now, spreading out under their feet in pulsating lines on the flight deck. The nearest hovering station lights up, and Steve gets what it’s for now, because a mass of probes, or fighters, or something dart out of ports lining the sides, and make straight for the tower in a tight swarm.
“You knew this was going to happen?” Steve asks, because this is better and worse than every plan he’d come up with to get in, and he’ll be damned if they catch him before he’s even set foot in the tower, and fucking Wade. “What were you thinking,” he says, but he’s so overwhelmed by this wicked landscape that he doesn’t know how to be angry right now.
“It’s cool, man,” Wade says, “I got you covered.”
“You do?” Steve says, more and more confused all the time, and then Wade is snatching the shotgun out of his arms and diving off the balcony.
“Hey,” Steve says, but it’s too late, and it’s all he can do to rush back to the side to watch him fall. The drones swoop in after him, followed up by a few Skrulls on individual open-air craft. Steve shrinks back, and he’s reaching in his pack for the other rifle, but they don’t even see him, it seems, because they’re rocketing down to street level as Wade falls.
“I be-liieeeeve I can fly,” Wade is belting, between whoops, as he pumps the shotgun and fires into the swarm. “I believe I can touch the – shit –” There’s smoke trailing behind him, thick clouds of red and black, he must have loosed his signal canisters, and the ego on him, even now –
He pulls a parachute Steve didn’t realize he was wearing when he’s about 10 stories up. The drones are shooting plasma bursts, and they’re quick to riddle it with holes. Still, he seems to be doing ok, because after he disappears under one of the huge landing platforms, Steve still hears weapons fire tearing off down the street to the north.
Steve swears, because Deadpool is a shit, his offensive weapon of choice is gone, and his convenient way out is running away down what’s left of Park Avenue. He needs to move, he needs to maybe hide in the ship behind him, there are probably going to be Skrulls piling out onto the balcony to descend on him any moment, think, Steve–
The alarms stop.
Steve watches what’s left of the drones zoom back up, watches them settle themselves back into their ports, watches as the lights beneath his feet fade back to purple. The Skrull fliers don’t fly back.
No one comes rushing out the balcony doors to apprehend him.
Steve yanks off his balaclava and walks into the penthouse, not daring to believe his luck just yet.
- - -
There’s no one there.
There aren’t any guards, not that he can see, and he drifts through the kitchen, through the utterly sterile common area, past the dining room, down towards the bedrooms. It doesn’t look any different, not really – the furniture’s the same, but it’s not lived-in, and he wonders if they’re using the sub-levels as their main control center. It’s what he would do.
“K’arr’n,” a sharp voice says behind him, and Steve freezes, mid-step.
He doesn’t turn around. The rifle is still in his bag, and the flashbangs are shoved in at the top, but he could dive behind the dividing wall between the breakfast nook and the living room, knowing Tony, it’s probably reinforced with steel -
“Where are you going, my love?”
Steve turns around.
It’s a Skrull, the first one he’s seen up close in years. A woman, tall and statuesque, wearing this ridiculous leather thing that barely covers her, her dark brown hair loose and spilling all over her shoulders. She’s got the chin ridges, the ears, but her features are so familiar, so harsh, so close to–
It’s Skrull-Jessica. The Queen.
She’s leaning out of Tony’s bedroom, what used to be, anyway, (what’s good enough for Tony Stark is apparently good enough for alien royalty, Steve thinks) and then she’s loping towards him. She strides, and her green feet are bare on the hardwood. She’s dropping her cape and toeing up to him and wrapping her hands around the back of his neck –
She looks up into his face, and it’s all he can do to keep his expression neutral. Her fingers come to rest on his cheek, on his lips, and Steve wills his heart to calm the hell down. She twists her lips in what Steve thinks is amusement, studies his features, and he doesn’t know what she’s doing, until her face breaks out into a cruel smile and she speaks through pointed teeth.
“Is this your game today,” she purrs. “Two can play, K’arr’n,” she half-hisses, and then she’s changing, her skin is evening out into a light tan, and her ears are shrinking, and it is Jessica, then, standing in front of him wearing rubies and pressing herself into his body–
She’s all over him.
She thinks he’s his imposter.
Steve wasn’t expressly trained as a spy, but he’s run enough operations in his life and been around enough of them that he can pretend. He opens his mouth to respond, but she’s pressing a finger over his lips, she’s hissing in his ear –
“That’s the third time this month he’s base-jumped off my tower,” she says, “You’re supposed to stop this sort of thing. Perhaps I should find a new chief of Security.”
“It’s taken care of,” Steve says, trying not to stiffen under her touch, they’re obviously lovers, or something, play the part, Steve–
She thumbs at the strap of his pack. “Like you’ve taken care of the Avengers?” she murmurs, low and dangerous, and it’s abundantly clear that she’s mocking him. “I want his head on a plate,” she whispers. “I want to see if his body will grow back around it.” She rakes his fingers down his neck, and he hates it, he hates it, he hates it -
“You’ll have it,” he says, because he doesn’t know what else to say.
“You’re wearing the human’s face again. What are you up to,” she breathes, hot in his ear. “Skulking off to detention again? I thought I told you not to toy with your prey,” she whispers. And Steve’s chest is cold, his mind is racing, because she’s talking about him, about his face, about Tony, improvise, Steve-
“I have new intelligence,” Steve murmurs, and he’s flying blind, he has no idea what to say, he has to get to Tony. “I think I’ve found them for you.”
“Oh, I see,” she says and she’s digging her nails into his skin, she’s dropping his pack onto the ground. “How many times is that, now?”
“I’m certain,” Steve says, trying with every fiber of his being to keep his voice as level as hers is. “You’ll have them -”
“Stop,” she hisses. “I haven’t forgiven you. I haven’t forgotten.” She’s sliding her hands over his back. “I do like this body,” she says, running her fingers over his chest, and he wants to throw her against the wall, but he needs to use this, doesn’t he – “but if you think you’re going to have his and mine, you’re sorely mistaken.”
She's talking about Tony. She's talking about his imposter. She's talking about -
Steve almost loses it.
Steve pulls himself together.
“I apologize,” he manages, as if he’s not choking on the words, and then she’s kissing him, and Steve is absolutely horrified.
She slides her long fingers into his hair, and he can feel the points of her nails digging into his scalp, and her tongue is in his mouth, and it’s nothing he ever wanted to do. “Don’t misunderstand,” she murmurs, pulling away to nip at his jaw, “I’ll keep you around as long as it pleases me.” She’s sucking at his lip, then, sinking her teeth like needles into the flesh of his mouth. He tastes the blood as it wells up on his tongue, and he can’t help himself, he winces -
“What’s wrong,” she snarls, as Steve stands there, entirely too shocked to move as she laves his neck with her tongue. “I thought you only enjoy carnal pleasures when blood is drawn.” She bares her teeth in a toothy grin, and she's leaning up to bite at the hollow of his throat -
The elevator dings behind her, and Steve just about sobs in unspeakable gratefulness.
“Not now,” she barks, without turning around, but Steve looks up just in time to see another Skrull step out onto the landing. This one’s male, and he picks his blond head up, tall and built with blue, blue eyes -
His eyes. They’re Steve’s.
“Veranke,” the Skrull says, and then he says something in Skrull and Veranke pulls away from Steve and turns to look behind her.
“K’arr’n?” she says in disbelief. And nothing is ever easy, is it, because the Skrull is punching a button next to the elevator, then, and the fucking alarms go off again. Steve wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and then she’s turning back to look at him, her mouth warping into a snarl, her eyes mad with fury –
Steve takes the opportunity to punch her squarely in the face, because he's done.
Her nose cracks under his fist, he thinks it might be the most satisfying thing he’s done since he’s woken up to this ridiculously cruel world. She crumples, and her head hits the ground with a knock. Steve is itching for a fight, and his body is miles ahead of him, he’s already sidestepping when K’arr’n – Steve assumes that’s his name – comes barreling down the hallway, pulling this enormous dagger out of a sheath on his thigh –
Steve ducks as the dagger sings past his head, K’arr’n’s swipe inches away from his right eye. Steve dives at him, wraps his arms around his body and tackles him to the wall, the drywall buckling beneath both of their weights. He’s kicking, but Steve stomps on his foot and slams his arm into the wall once, twice, three times until he drops his blade and it clatters to the floor. Steve looks at it for a fraction of a second too long, because K’arr’n brains him with a massive green-fisted right hook, and his ears are ringing as he’s dragged up –
Steve feels the blow connect with his jaw, and his head knocks back against the wall before he’s being kicked in the chest and thrown through it entirely. He lands, hard, on his back, gasping for breath, covered in dust and tasting blood in his throat. He’s strong, this asshole, stronger than Steve, maybe, and he doesn’t know how long he’s going to last in a fight like this. He’s wasting time, if the alarm’s been sounded, they’re probably on their way up, he has to move. K’arr’n is scrambling on top of him, then, wrapping hands around his neck and squeezing, and Steve’s eyes are tearing up, the blood is pounding in his ears –
He gets a fist up in a desperate uppercut, and K’arr’n’s jaw cracks. He loses his grip for a second, and it’s all the time Steve needs to scramble over Tony’s enormous bed and tear out through the door. He scoops his pack up as he runs to the elevator, rubbing at his throat. He skids to a halt, jabs at the button, and the doors need to fucking open because K’arr’n is getting up. Steve hears stomping, coming from the kitchen corridor, down next to Jarvis’ rooms by the stairs, dammit –
He’s just turned around to jab at the button again when he hears it, hissing through the air at neck level, and he sidesteps and shoots his arm up, decades of instinct and training kicking in all at once –
He closes his hand around it, smooth and light and hard as steel.
It would have taken his neck off if he hadn’t snatched it out of the air.
He whirls around, and K’arr’n looks stunned, panting in the doorway, his arm still extended and his mouth dripping a deep green onto the rug, and the doors are dinging open, thank fuck –
“This is mine,” Steve growls, ducking inside the elevator. “Try it,” he says. “I dare you.”
“You’re already dead, Captain,” K’arr’n spits, bending to pick up his queen, and then the doors are rolling shut.
- - -
He locks the doors as soon as he’s gotten in and he silently thanks Tony for all the manual safeguards he’s built into his engineering. The alarm is blaring in the elevator too, and Steve leans against the wall in the harsh wash of the emergency lights and presses the button that will take him to the detention level in the upper levels of the sub-basement. It’s where he’d keep his prisoners, too, if he were –
The light on the panel beeps, flashing red. It’s a different interface than he remembers, though, and it chirps out what he assumes is an error message in Skrull.
He swears, because he doesn’t have time for this bullshit.
He raises his shield, bashes the top hatch open, and reaches up with bloody hands to wrench himself up. It’s a tight squeeze, with the pack, but he scrambles up on unsteady legs, kicking the hatch shut under him in case they try to pry the doors open.
He really doesn’t want to do it this way, but he doesn’t have a choice, because there are 92 stories between him and where he needs to be, and.
He closes his eyes, gathers himself up, and then reaches out and swipes at the cables with his shield.
He’s falling then, riding the top of the car down, desperately trying to balance his weight on unsteady legs. It’s exactly the last thing Steve wants to be doing to his body right now, but it’s not like the universe has ever really taken his comfort into consideration. He can’t hear anything over the air rushing in his ears, and the white numbers painted onto the inside of the shaft blur together as it picks up speed. He forces himself to his knees, smashes his shield into the roof, and presses himself down on his stomach as the car shudders beneath him. It’s not going to do much, but it’ll help, at least, and he won’t have broken legs–
The car groans and shudders and jerks violently underneath him, and it’s all he can do to clutch the handlebars on the hatch desperately. There’s a deafening hiss, and then it’s coasting a few levels and it stops abruptly instead of crashing. It’s jarring, and something like whiplash, and the jolt is enough to bash his forehead into the titanium.
He lies there for a minute, marveling that Tony had the foresight to install emergency shocks in his elevator (of course he did) and then he picks himself up, feeling like he’s been thrown against a wall of bricks. He wrenches his shield out of the car and looks around.
Level L, the stencil above the door reads. Three more levels to go, then.
Steve huffs out a sigh, slings his shield high up on his arm, and reluctantly starts to climb the ladder down to detention.
- - -
Steve sets a breaching charge on the doors, because he’s just about dead on his feet from the climb after that impact and really doesn’t want to wrench 400 pounds of hydraulics open with a metal Frisbee. He crawls back up a few meters, and blows them wide open.
That’s when the shouting starts.
He slides the rest of the way down, punches through the gaping hole shield-first, and then he’s assaulted by energy weapons fire.
Steve is not in the mood.
The great thing about plasma weapons, he thinks, is that he can deflect most of it back onto his pursuers without even breaking a sweat. He’s in the main part of detention, a hub that connects the four main corridors, and there are 6 of them guarding the far corridor. He takes two of them down with deflected bolts, charges two of the other ones and brains them both with the shield. One of the remaining two is yelling down the far corridor behind him, and Steve tosses the shield in a wide arc, watches it bounce off the wall and slice off one of his arms. His companion looks appropriately horrified, and Steve lunges forward the last meter, and picks it up off the ground and slices his head cleanly off in one smooth, uninterrupted motion.
He flicks green blood off of the shield with a snap of his wrist, and then he darts down the corridor they were clustered around. All the cells are empty and dark, and Steve is almost worried he’s picked the wrong one. But the lights come on as he runs, and then he rounds the corner and sees them.
There are two Skrull guards standing outside the last cell at the end of the hall, and they’ve barely raised their weapons when Steve sends his shield flying down the hallway to crush both of their skulls in quick succession. He’s far beyond non-lethally disarming his opponents. It’s the only cell with an active barrier, a thick, buzzing white-blue wall of static that Steve can’t see through. He wrenches his shield out of the wall, leans in to do the retina scan, and then the energy barrier is falling (they’ve used his face for this) and he’s stepping into the cell.
And his heart, his heart is twisting in his chest to look at the man chained in the corner.
There’s commotion on the floor above them, shouting, and metallic banging like maybe they’ve gotten the elevator working again and they’re trying to get into the car. He should be worried about it, but he can’t, there’s nothing in his head but horror, because he doesn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t this.
This is worse, this is so much worse than he’d thought it would be.
Tony is on his knees, his head bowed to his chest, shackles shining on his ankles, his wrists drawn up above his head by silver chains. He’s entirely naked, and so terribly thin, thinner than Steve can ever remember seeing him, the strong lines of his musculature dulled, a suggestion of something that used to be toned. His skin is ruined, he’s all deep cuts and bruises on top of bruises and blood, so much blood, shining burns carved deep into his chest, his sides, and half of his fingernails are missing -
Steve doesn’t know who he thought he was fooling when he told himself he was prepared for this.
“Tony,” he says, and he can barely hear his own voice.
Tony is terribly still.
Steve sinks to his knees, and Tony doesn’t look up, and he reaches a tentative hand out to tilt Tony’s chin up, because he’s not dead, he can’t fucking be dead after all of this -
Tony’s eyes are open.
“Tony?” he tries again, and his voice is leaving him, then. Because he sees, how Tony’s face is filthy and streaked with glistening tear tracks, how there are layer upon layer of bruises on his jaw under the stubble, how there’s dried blood caked under his nose, how his lips are cracked and bleeding and stretched open around this awful metal gag, how there’s glistening filth all over his chin and a collar around his neck, how –
How his eyes aren’t looking at anything at all.
“Oh my god,” Steve says, and he fumbles around to undo the buckle on the gag, crumples it in a fist and hurls it into the far corner. “Tony, say something,” he says, and the corners of his mouth are raw and pinched from the fucking thing, and he reaches his other hand up to touch Tony’s face-
It’s the wrong thing to do.
Tony doesn’t say anything, he just flinches desperately away from Steve’s touch. His eyes glass over, bright and blue and wide with pain, and there’s a fresh tear running down through the grime on his cheek. He’s not looking at Steve, his eyes aren’t tracking right, his gaze is just fixed over Steve’s shoulder, he’s looking nowhere, and the rest of his face is slack with terror like he’s trained himself not to see –
“Ok, it’s ok, you’re ok, we’re going, just, let me, I’m gonna,” Steve chants, and everything is so far from ok it’s staggering, but he has to say something or he’s going to lose it, because there’s gunfire somewhere above them, and they’re coming to kill them both, and Tony. His hands are shaking, he realizes, as he checks Tony’s pulse (thready) and his pupils (no concussion), so tight and small and swallowed up in the blue. He fumbles at Tony’s wrists for a moment, so terribly abused and bloodied (every inch of him is bloodied), but the cuffs are entirely smooth. He runs his fingers over them desperately, mad with frustration, because they feel like adamantium, and he can’t do anything about that. But then there’s a click, and there’s a seam, and the one he’s touching splits and hinges and falls away from Tony’s wrist.
It’s keyed to his biosignature.
He catches Tony’s arm as it falls, presses the pads of his trembling fingers to the rest of them and pulls them from Tony’s skin, and they’re keyed to his biosignature, they’ve been using his fucking face for this. Tony crumples into his lap like a rag doll and lies there, quaking with every breath he sucks in, and his skin is so cold under Steve’s fingers. He tries to be gentle, tries not to touch the electrical burns on his back or what look like whip-weals on his side as he cradles Tony to his chest, but Tony presses his eyes shut like it’s all he knows how to do and bites his lip and goes limp as death, and he’s breathing in these terrible little gasps that rip at Steve’s chest, and –
Steve never wanted to have to do this.
“What did they do to you,” Steve says, and it’s halfway to a sob. They should have been here, they should have been here months ago, how long has it been since he’s seen the sun -
He feels in his pocket wildly for the morphine syringe, the precious morphine that will make Tony not feel anything for a blessed while, and presses the tab to his neck with a hiss. Tony doesn’t even flinch, and Steve caps it back up and stuffs it in his pocket and feels Tony shaking to pieces under his hands.
“We’re leaving,” he says, and his voice is breaking. He reaches unsteadily under Tony’s knees and around his shoulders, hoists him to his chest as gently as he possibly can, the shield slung around his forearm in front of Tony’s head.
Steve is stepping into the hall and trying not to let himself feel anything or knock Tony’s feet on the door when he feels Tony’s fingers scrabbling on his shirt, and his voice rasps out of his throat like he’s forgotten how to use it.
“Please,” he’s saying, and his grip is barely even a grip, “just.”
“It’s ok,” Steve says roughly, and he’s barely holding it together as it is, “grab my neck, I got you-”
“Don’t play with me,” Tony mumbles, “Just kill me this time, kill me, just.” And then the morphine is kicking in, his eyelids are drooping and he sags in Steve’s arms like he’s dead and he just hasn’t realized it yet.
Steve’s feels like his throat is closing up, because this isn’t fair, because Tony is begging him for death again, and they used to be people, didn’t they, free, and happy and Tony was so proud–
Steve thinks maybe he fucked this one up.