On their sixth day on the planet called Ernor, Steve and Tony got into a fight. It certainly wasn't their first, nor was it even the first they had had since arriving here. But it was the first one that other people, including their alien hosts, witnessed.
They were standing in the tiled hall that led to their guest quarters, face to face, angry tension sparking in the air between them. Steve was vaguely aware that some of the natives were standing not too far away, looking uncomfortably at anywhere but the angry humans, trying to pretend they were not seeing this. He didn't really care, though. Later he would, but not right then.
"We don't belong here," Tony said for the tenth time that week. "We need to go home."
"These people invited us here," Steve said, also for the tenth time. "They requested our help."
"No," Tony said, "they didn't. Thor volunteered us. They had never even heard of Earth or the Avengers until he opened his big mouth."
"That doesn't matter," Steve said stubbornly. He had long since gotten tired of saying the same thing over and over. "They need our help in the fight against Thanos. Are we really going to turn our backs on them when they need our help?"
"We're turning our backs on our own planet, being gone this long!" Tony shouted. "Or did you forget that we're marked for destruction too, after what happened in New York?"
"No one is turning their back on Earth!" Steve shouted back. "And anyway how could I forget, with you reminding me every half an hour?"
"Every half an hour?" Tony repeated flatly.
"It might as well be," Steve said. "You've made your point. Over and over. Why do you insist on being so melodramatic?"
"Oh, hey," Tony retorted, "what's this? The great Captain America doesn't recognize melodrama? How can that be? You practically invented it, with your propaganda films and your posing for trading cards." His eyes narrowed. "So actually I'm just descending to your level, Cap. I thought that way you might actually listen to me for a change."
Steve resisted the urge to deck him, and sighed. "Really, Tony?"
And believe it or not, that was the high point of the argument.
It wasn't like Steve didn't understand what Tony was saying. He knew that they were taking a chance by remaining here, leaving the Earth undefended while they helped the Ernorran people arm themselves and prepare for the invasion that was coming. But he could not turn away from them. Not as long as he was in a position to help them. Thanos was out there, collecting more armies like the Chitauri as he threw power around left and right, taking over world after world in his bid to rule the galaxy. The Avengers had stopped him once before, on Earth. Now they meant to stop him again, on this world.
That evening he was summoned to the Matriarch's private chambers.
He was curious, but unafraid. Although he had spoken with her before, he usually spent this time meeting with the Matriarch's closest advisers and high-ranking soldiers in the War Room, discussing the day's events and what progress they had achieved. He decided that she must want to speak with him alone, and hear things in his own words instead of having the news filtered through her advisers.
The War Room was rather small and poorly lit – an oddly familiar setting for Steve. In contrast, the Matriarch's chambers were large and airy, and filled with light. Discreet armed guards stood sentry along the walls, protecting the Matriarch where she sat in a tall chair that rivaled her throne for elegance.
And she was not alone. Someone else stood before her – Tony Stark.
Unconsciously Steve stood up straighter as he took his place beside Tony. Since Thor had introduced him as the Avengers' leader, he had been awarded many honors and privileges by these people. But the Matriarch had always insisted on seeing him alone, saying dismissively on the first night that the other Avengers, while no doubt mighty warriors, were beneath her.
She did not seem pleased tonight. "I will speak with you, Captain." She looked at Tony. "And with you, Man of Iron."
Steve inclined his chin in a show of respect that was not quite a bow. "Yes, ma'am."
"All right," Tony said easily. As far as Steve knew, it was the first time he had been allowed in here, but if he was at all impressed by the grandeur of the Matriarch's chambers or the weaponry currently surrounding them, he did not show it.
"I have watched you and your Avengers as you labor to save my people," she said, "and I am not ungrateful. However, I am troubled by the strife I see within your own ranks." She leveled a stern look at Steve and Tony.
Steve returned her gaze without flinching – but it was not easy to do. He was ashamed that there had been witnesses to their argument this afternoon. He didn't fool himself into thinking that it would be the last time, but he vowed that in the future any disagreements he had with his team would take place in private.
"I am given to understand by the Prince of Asgard that your team has not been assembled for very long," the Matriarch said. "This disturbs me. My sages have assured me that in you two they have seen the potential for much greatness. Not only within your team, but for yourselves."
Now Steve did startle a little. Potential for greatness? With Tony Stark?
Beside him, Tony shot him a quick glance, one eyebrow raised as if to say, What the hell?
"But until you learn to work together," the Matriarch continued, "I cannot have you here. You endanger my people more than you protect them."
"Hey," Tony started to protest.
"Ma'am," Steve began, using his best it's-going-to-be-okay-Captain-America-is-here-now voice.
"Enough!" the Matriarch exclaimed. She leveled one claw-like hand at Steve. "You will not listen to what is being said. And you," she pointed at Tony, "refuse to see what is in front of you. Until you can do these things, let them bind you. And know that you shall not be allowed to return until you have overcome them."
A robed figure Steve had not seen before stepped out from behind the Matriarch's chair. It raised its hands and spoke a hushed word.
There was a terrific thunderclap of noise and white light. And that was the last thing Steve knew.
The first thing he noticed when he woke up was the silence. After nearly a week of weapons practice and giving lectures to young recruits, arguing with Tony and discussing strategy with his teammates, it was almost nice. Peaceful, actually.
Until he opened his eyes, and realized how wrong it was.
He was lying on his side on a rocky beach. Damp sand stretched toward the waves of an outgoing tide. He stared blankly as a wave rolled up the sand, white foam curling and frothing about the base of the rocks that stood between him and the water. A second wave crashed onto the beach, reaching in vain for the tideline that continued to pull away.
There was no sound.
His heart suddenly pounded in his chest – but not his ears. Memory returned with a rush. He twisted about on the sand and sat up.
He was not alone. Not far from where he sat, Tony lay in a loose heap, as though someone had dropped him and retreated hastily. He was still unconscious, but he did not appear injured.
"Tony." There was no distinguishing the word from the silence; the word was part of it, whole and complete. He tried again, and again he could not hear it. Alarmed, he put his hand to his throat, and this time when he spoke he pushed hard, trying to forcibly give sound to the word.
There was nothing. No vibration beneath his fingers. He could not speak. He could not hear.
Above them, the sky was leaden gray. The tide continued to go out. Steve sat on the beach and wondered just what the hell he was going to do next.
Well, first thing was first. He climbed to his feet and looked around. He saw no one else, only Tony and himself, and a messy cluster of footprints and trails on the sand where their unknown abductors had brought them out here, then retreated. On his left, the tide crept further and further away. Behind him and ahead, the beach stretched endlessly onward.
To the right lay the Forest. It undoubtedly had a proper name, but no one had bothered to share that with them. On their first day here they had been warned to stay out of the Forest, on the grounds that it was very dangerous to anyone not born to this realm. Naturally this had prompted Clint and Natasha to immediately sneak out and do a little recon. They had come back and reported that although they hadn't encountered any roving wildebeests, they had seen the rather large tracks of some kind of creature.
Now the Forest lay between them and the Citadel where the Matriarch and her people lived, the people who were supposed to be letting the Avengers help them defend their world. Coming here had been Thor's suggestion, and right up until this second, Steve had agreed that it was the right thing to do. Now he just wished like hell that he had never listened to Thor in the first place.
Thor. God, where was he? Where were Bruce and Clint and Natasha? Were they lying on another stretch of beach? Or were they back at the Citadel, safe and unharmed? Or under arrest maybe? It was true that he and Tony had been arguing all week, but they were not the only ones who had gotten into it. What was happening to the rest of the Avengers right now?
He groaned aloud, another sound he could not hear. The reminder of his predicament set his heart to racing again, and he had to breathe in deep to keep from panicking.
All right. He had to stay calm. There were no dangers in the vicinity. He was deaf and mute, but uninjured. The immediate priorities were taken care of. His next move was obvious.
He turned toward where Tony lay on the sand, and saw that his next task was, in fact, unnecessary. On his own, Tony was waking up.
Steve stood very still. He was pretty sure he knew how this was going to go down.
Tony came awake by slow degrees, his head turning a little, one hand twitching. He opened his eyes, blinked rapidly a few times, then stared up at the gray sky. Slow horror dawned on his face. His lips parted, either speaking or making some kind of sound – either way, Steve could not hear it. Then he was in motion, springing to his feet, utter panic in his eyes. And that was where Steve's guesswork failed. For when Tony's hands flew up, reaching desperately, it wasn't his eyes he moved to touch – it was the arc reactor.
There was no darkness in Tony Stark's world anymore. After Afghanistan it had taken him a long time to come to terms with that fact, to accept that even in the darkest night with all the lights off and blackout shades on the windows, he was never going to know pure dark again. He had raged against it for a while before finally accepting that he was forever destined to be his own private flashlight. It hadn't made falling asleep any easier, but at least he had stopped fighting it.
And now there was this. Waking up to utter blackness, accompanied by the sound of waves crashing on a beach. Never at his best when he first woke up, it took Tony a couple seconds to figure out what was so wrong about the moment – but when the knowledge struck, it did so with a vengeance.
He shouted in fear and scrambled to his feet, flailing for the arc reactor. He was so certain he would find only a gaping hole in his chest that when he made contact with the smooth surface, he couldn't understand it at first. He just stood there, running his fingertips over the edges, feeling for any damage, for something to explain why it was there but no longer putting out any light.
A shuffling sound came from behind him, and he whirled around, sliding a little on the sand. "Who's there?" he called.
There was no answer except for another one of those sandy shuffles. He took a step back and raised his hands in the reflexive gesture that belonged to Iron Man, not Tony Stark.
On his right, another wave crashed on the beach he couldn't see. Instinctively he turned to look at it – and just like that, his logical thinking brain finally managed to overrule the lizard brain that had been in charge from the moment he woke up in the dark. This unnatural darkness had nothing to do with the arc reactor or even something as simple as nightfall. The dark existed because he could not see. He had gone blind.
Panic set in immediately. He forgot all about whoever or whatever was in front of him, shuffling their way across the sand. With a sharp cry of terror he reached for his eyes, trying to understand how this could have happened.
He couldn't feel anything physically wrong, nothing to explain why he couldn't see a damn thing. And he was still trying to figure it out when a pair of strong hands gripped his wrists and pulled his hands down and forward.
Bright new fear bolted through him. He forgot every fighting move Steve and Natasha had tried to teach him. All he knew was that someone had grabbed him and he couldn't see them.
Desperate to get free, he kicked and struggled to pull back. Against his will, he was dragged forward. He managed to land a solid kick on the other person, but it had virtually no effect. He was helpless to prevent his unseen assailant from planting his hands firmly on the person's face.
Abruptly he stilled. What the fuck…?
Of their own accord, his fingers explored that strange face. And within seconds it was no longer strange. Because he knew that face. He had been looking at it for two months now. He had studied it when he was pretty sure no one was looking, until he had memorized every line, every contour. Although he had never touched it until now, he knew this face as intimately as he knew his own.
The face nodded.
"Oh my God." Tony slumped in relief.
The grip on his wrists did not slacken. His hands were moved to cover Steve's ears. Steve shook his head. Then again, this time his palms placed over Steve's mouth. Another shake of the head, a completely unnecessary gesture because Tony got it, oh Christ, he got it.
He didn't need sight to know that there was no one else around, and Steve couldn't hear it, but it needed to be said anyway. He threw his head back and shouted to the sky, "You have got to be kidding me!"