Amazon rainforest, Brazil
Steve breathed in the humid, heavy air. He could feel a layer of moisture on his skin, mixing with the perspiration, and regardless of how alien this feeling was compared to all he had gotten to experience in his lifetime so far, he deeply enjoyed the climate.
He had briefly come into contact with an artificial version of a rainforest when the team visited Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska – to introduce Thor to Earth’s fauna, and to give Steve a glimpse of all the things he had missed. He could admit the real experience was blowing him away, and they had landed only ten minutes ago.
“Thor, please don’t wander off,” Natasha called out, dressed in long boots, shorts and a vest.
Their resident Asgardian was disappearing into the bushes, drawn by the innumerable animals and plants in their vicinity. After all, they were in the middle of the Amazon jungle, a hundred miles from the nearest city or road, and if not for the S.H.I.E.L.D. equipment and personnel, Steve might have felt truly lost in the wilderness.
Thor returned to them, looking around with wonder, and Steve agreed that it had been worth the long flight – and the extensive briefing on safety and various dangerous animals they might encounter and be subjected to. Not that Thor or Steve needed to be worried about a snake bite or infected wounds, but they had been forced to sit through the briefings anyway.
Clint was already scratching his exposed skin and swearing that whatever lurked out here had probably evolved past normal bug spray. The hand that wasn’t soothing some itch was tightly wrapped around his bow, as if that would keep unwanted insects away from him. With his aim, that might well be true.
“I cannot believe Tony and Bruce did not want to join us,” Thor mused. He crouched down on the ground suddenly, poking his finger at something that was moving across the forest floor.
“Yeah, I don’t get it either,” Clint groused, voice overflowing with sarcasm.
“You were offered the choice to stay behind. In fact, you insisted on joining us,” Agent Phil Coulson mused as he strode over, a map and some kind of device in hand that would hopefully help to guide them to their location.
“Well, someone had to come out here and make sure you don’t get stabbed to death – again – by some indigenous tribe for stepping on their holy land,” Clint muttered. Steve guessed his real reasons for coming had more to do with pride, since staying behind when Natasha and Coulson were coming down here might have made him look weak.
Steve was jerked out of his musings as he felt his phone vibrate on his belt. He fished it out, amazed that someone was able to call him in the middle of nowhere. It shouldn’t have surprised him that it was Tony, and Steve swiped his fingers across the screen to answer. He was met with a greasy face and a view of a lab in the Avengers Tower in New York City; Steve wouldn’t have been able to tell one lab apart from another, but Bruce happened to be within the range of the screen as well, and Steve recognized a few gadgets he’d seen during his last visit to the lab, shortly before they left for Brazil. “I didn’t think there would be reception out here,” he mused in a way of greeting – because people didn’t greet each other anymore, like back in his day.
“There isn’t; it’s a satellite phone,” Tony replied in his usual mannerism, as if it weren’t a big deal although Steve was pretty certain it was. “So, you haven’t been eaten by anything eight-legged yet, I take it?”
“No,” Steve smiled. “It’s amazing out here. You should have come.”
“Yeah, no,” Tony grimaced visibly, and behind him Bruce did the same.
“Have fun, though,” Bruce called out. “It’s beautiful out there, but… Well, I had my share of it.”
“Understood,” Steve said. He knew Bruce meant the time he had spent on the run from various government agencies. “Did you have something to tell us?” he asked next.
“No,” Tony replied, making it sound as if Steve had been the one to call him in the first place. Then, just as suddenly, there was a small, brief, genuine smile on his face – a smile he gave most people, but Steve thought the one directed at him was different. A good kind of different. The kind that made his insides twist and feel warmer. “We’ll call you again tomorrow, when the satellite is in position,” Tony told him, smile already gone but the feeling inside Steve’s chest persisted. He had never been so glad for his excellent photographic memory.
“Alright,” Steve nodded, and just like that the call ended and he pocketed the phone carefully, to make sure he wouldn’t lose it.
“I’m just saying,” Clint was murmuring, leaning slightly towards Natasha. “They have a thing.”
“They’re not going to act on it,” Natasha murmured back, then pulled up an innocent, uninterested expression when Steve looked at her long enough.
“Let’s go,” Coulson called from up ahead. “It’s going to be dark in a few hours and I want to make camp before that.”
“Yes, sir,” Steve said easily, picking up a few of the heavier bags. Thor did the same, already grinning excitedly. The rest of the group followed, Natasha and Clint bringing up the rear. Around them, the forest echoed with strange, exotic calls of dozens of animals and Steve cherished how he felt as much like an outsider here as each of his companions; it was a rarity in his life, and he was going to enjoy it.
Their camp stirred early the next morning. Steve was up before most, of course, but since he couldn’t go for his customary run or work-out, he simply enjoyed the breakfast provided and the heavy air – and the sight of some ancient jungle ruins they had come here to see.
The place, according to S.H.I.E.L.D., hadn’t been built by any known civilizations. The locals stayed away from it as if it were cursed, and getting information beyond that had been impossible. It also emitted some kind of faint radiation, which was suspicious and led scientists to toss up ideas about the possibility of an alien origin. That was the main reason why Thor had joined them: to see whether the Asgardian would recognize the structure and anything they found within it.
Once breakfast had been served, the scientists began to set up their gear, checking the readings from a couple machines they had set up last night. Steve watched the proceedings, again wondering why Bruce and Tony hadn’t wanted to join them for the simple pleasure of scientific research, then noticed a group gathering on the side.
“We’re going in,” Coulson noted, nodding towards a partially over-grown entrance to the structure. “Will you join us, Captain?”
“Of course,” Steve smiled cheerfully. The place didn’t look threatening, and they had more scientists than agents present, which meant this was like an exploration of some ancient location. Perhaps next time, they could go and see the pyramids in Egypt.
Strapping his shield to his back – he didn’t really know how to go around without it, even at a time like this – he joined the others as they picked a path to the doorway. Natasha cut down some of the vegetation with a machete and Clint peered inside, fingering his bow. Coulson turned on a heavy-duty flashlight and was the first to actually step forward. Thor followed him eagerly, followed by Natasha and Steve; Clint remained at the mouth of the entrance, looking distrustful.
“Is something wrong?” Steve stopped to ask him.
“This place is giving me a bad vibe,” the archer replied.
“You said that before we even got here,” Natasha shot from the darkness. “Stop being a baby!”
“Just being cautious…” Clint muttered. “Why do you think Banner didn’t want to come here? And all those local tribes, terrified of this place. And the strange radiation no one can figure out!”
“You can stand guard outside,” Steve suggested.
Clint stiffened immediately. “Stand guard against what?”
Steve shrugged. “Anything you think might be threatening us.” He tried to fight down the grin from his face and failed.
Clint narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re sickeningly cheerful about all this, Cap.”
“It’s an adventure. I like adventures,” Steve confessed and then turned and joined the others in the stuffy air inside. “How long do you think it has been since someone was in here?” he mused. “If the locals avoid this place…”
“Hard to tell,” Coulson mused. “It’s too far away for tourists or researchers to stumble upon, so save for the animals, I think it’s a fair guess to say it’s been a while.”
“This place gives me the creeps,” Clint repeated his earlier sentiment, voice echoing off the walls. He had followed them in after all, and turned on a flashlight of his own, moving the beam of light this way and that. “There are no animal nests. There are no bones, or droppings, or even bats. No sign of any life-form anywhere.”
“There are many plants here,” Thor argued, moving around the space, touching things with curiosity.
Clint muttered something like ‘evil plants’.
Steve ignored him for the time being and moved to the side, then noticed something on a far wall: moss-covered stones. He crouched down, touching them. They looked like ancient bricks, roughly square-shaped. He glanced up and spotted a hole in the wall – a hole that may have been shut with the bricks that lay beneath it.
He shifted closer and peered into the hole. A slight draft caressed his face, meaning that there was something on the other side. Experimentally he tugged at the hole, and three pieces of stone fell down to join the others.
“What was that?” Clint asked, alarmed. It showed considerable restraint from him that arrows didn’t follow his words.
“I think I found something,” Steve replied, and tugged free another few bricks. Some of them were stuck, as if someone had been intent on walling up this section, many years ago. They hadn’t finished, for whatever reason.
“Maybe you shouldn’t touch that,” Natasha mused, moving closer, offering Steve more light.
“I think there’s a tunnel,” Steve dismissed her concerns, looking inside the hole again. “It’s not very wide, but I think I can fit through.”
“No one’s crawling through anything,” Coulson joined them as well as Steve finished pulling the opening of the tunnel free of the bricks blocking it.
“Yeah; we can send in one of those robotic camera things,” Clint agreed.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Steve asked them, already unstrapping his shield from his back. He knew someone else would fit better – anyone but Thor, to be honest – but no one else seemed interested in what lay on the other side, which meant it fell to Steve to investigate.
This was like one of those Indiana Jones movies he had seen – only he didn’t suspect there were any elaborate traps left by an ancient civilization. And even if there were traps, who better to deflect them than Captain America?
“Captain,” Coulson started again.
“Phil,” Steve looked up at him, and he could almost see the hardened agent melt a little on the inside. It was wrong to use the man’s admiration for Steve against him like that, but it would work to his advantage in this situation. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. It doesn’t reach very far, by the look of it, and I have a good eye for detail.”
Coulson was still hesitating, and Steve was aware of both Natasha and Clint giving the agent some serious looks as he said nothing. Thor, on the other hand, was on the opposite wall, engrossed with perhaps another insect he had found, and offered no words of warning.
Steve took a steadying breath and then moved forward, squeezing himself into the dark, dusty tunnel. He wormed his way forward, the voices of the others momentarily drowned out as he moved. Dust and fine stone fell from the walls and ceiling as his body dragged against them, but the beam of his flashlight was already showing him something ahead – another room.
Once upon a time, Steve was fairly certain he had been claustrophobic, among other things. After becoming Captain America, however, crawling into spaces that could barely fit his new body wasn’t a problem – especially when some kind of discovery lay ahead.
When he reached the end of the tunnel, he stayed still for a moment, casting the light around, mapping out the new space the best he could. There were no plants, no lights, and for whatever reason it set his nerves on edge. Maybe Clint’s superstition was finally catching up with him.
“Cap?” he heard Natasha’s faint call.
Moving forward, he pulled himself into the room and turned around, seeing the lights coming from the other end of the tunnel. The others were perhaps 25 feet away, but it felt almost like fifty in the darkness. “I’m fine,” he called out.
“Good. I’m not coming in there to save your ass from… whatever booby-traps,” Clint replied.
“Thor found writing on the wall,” Coulson’s voice came in stronger as he was no doubt crouched down to speak directly into the tunnel. “He says they seem familiar, but he cannot read them.”
That supported the possibility that there was something Asgardian about this place. Seeing as they had been coming to Midgard for thousands of years, it wasn’t surprising. In fact, Steve kept wondering whether some of the ancient world relics were somehow related to them.
He looked around the closed space. It was perhaps ten feet across, an almost perfect rectangle. No windows, no holes; just smooth stone walls as if the room had been carved into a mountain. Steve tried to recall what lay outside the ruins and guessed this might well be inside the hill that flanked one side of the structure.
Feeling a new wave of energy take over as he contemplated why someone would go to the trouble of creating this place, and then trying to seal it off, he tried to find any foreign-looking markings on the walls, but saw nothing. He tried not to feel disappointed and kept looking for anything out of place. His foot caught on something as he crossed the room for the third time and he looked down. The floor was even, hacked into stone just like the rest of the room, but there was something on the floor, like a slab of some kind.
Kneeling down, he tugged off his gloves and traced the edges. On three sides, the slab was completely even with the floor; that was how he hadn’t noticed it before. The fourth side, however, was slightly raised, as if it hadn’t fallen into place properly, and he wondered if there was something beneath it. He wasn’t foolish enough to hope for treasure, and knew it was possible the source of the strange radiation lay beneath the slab of stone. Despite its unknown origin or qualities, the scientists had determined the radiation wasn’t dangerous, far as they could tell. Steve was confident the serum would protect him even if it was dangerous, so he curled his fingers around the edge and pulled.
The slab didn’t move.
Letting go for a moment, flexing his fingers, Steve put the flashlight in his mouth and pointed it down, sliding his hand across the slab’s surface. Beneath the dust of untold years, he could see shapes engraved into the stone. They made no sense to him, so he pulled out his phone and opened the camera function, snapping a few photographs of the markings. In the poor light they weren’t good quality, but they might do.
Pocketing his phone again, Steve curled his fingers once more around the edge and pulled as hard as he could, leaning back with his weight to add to the force of his arms. At first nothing happened, but then he could feel a slight shift, and leaned back even harder, fingers aching with the strain.
Suddenly the slab moved, making Steve fall onto his back on the floor, the stone landing half on top of him. There was no sound save for a slight trickle of sand and Steve’s own hard breaths.
“Steve?” Natasha called out again. “What are you doing?”
“Investigating,” Steve called back after plucking the flashlight from his mouth.
“Perhaps you should come back,” she mused. “We can send in a crew with proper equipment.” Why they hadn’t done that already, Steve didn’t know. Weren’t they interested in what lay here, hidden from the world?
That reminded him of his recent success, and Steve carefully set the slab of stone aside and looked at whatever he had exposed. There was a shallow indentation in the floor that had resided beneath the slab. It was so shallow there was nothing to fit there once the slab was in place, which was disappointing. Steve looked at it, moving his flashlight from side to side, but that was it: a hole matching the shape of the slab, nothing more.
Perhaps he had been looking forward to some type of treasure after all…
“Cap?” It was Coulson this time. “Perhaps you should…”
“Yeah,” Steve sighed and moved to stand up. His hand pressed against the underside of the slab as he did, and he jerked at the sudden, unexpected sensation on his skin: the stone was wet and a little sticky, as if smeared with blood or a similar substance. He directed the flashlight at it, and wondered how he hadn’t felt it before when he moved the slab to the side: almost the entire bottom surface was covered in wetness. Its color was hard to determine in the poor light, and he rubbed his fingers together, not liking the sensation. “Weird,” he muttered.
He glanced at the indentation again, but there was no sign of any wetness or even smears on the bottom of it. How could that be, when the slab fit it perfectly in size and depth? And with that much of the oozy substance, there was bound to be some sign of it on something other than the slab itself.
Steve looked down at his stained hand again, then brought it closer to his face and sniffed. It smelled very faintly of copper, but the rest of it confused his brain, as if it couldn’t pinpoint the smell and tried to replace it with something he would be familiar with. Perhaps it was the blood-like thickness of it that made him choose copper in the first place.
Deciding to be smarter than trying for a taste test, he wiped his palm on his pant leg and turned back towards the tunnel. Perhaps it would be better to see if the scientists wanted to take a look at the room, after all – and to analyze the substance.
Placing his flashlight between his teeth again, he began to squeeze through the tunnel once more. He got in a few feet before he began to feel a little weird, as if his skin were suddenly too tight. His heart began to hammer in his chest and he sweated even though the air wasn’t that hot or suffocating… He paused, trying to clear his head, then moved forward, knowing he couldn’t just lie there in the middle of the tunnel.
Each movement felt forced when he resumed moving. The tunnel seemed smaller, pressing against him, and it would have been so easy to just lie down and stay still…
No, he told himself. He couldn’t give up. He would never stay down.
With what felt like the last of his energy, he pulled his way to the other end of the tunnel and slid out with a heavy thud.
“Cap?” Clint called out and rushed over. “He doesn’t look good.”
“What happened?” Coulson moved over in alarm, crouching down beside him.
“Just… need to breathe,” Steve started, but it didn’t seem like breathing was helping. He lay on his back, trying to get his bearings, but he felt worse than he had in the tunnel, his heart thrumming, chest tight…
“Let’s get him outside,” Coulson decided.
Steve was dimly aware of arms grabbing him, lifting him off the hard floor. The sunlight was painful in his eyes and he closed them against it, a pain almost splitting his skull from the inside. The pain didn’t subside when he blocked the sunlight, and he could taste that strange coppery smell on his tongue.
“Is that blood on his hand?” Clint asked from the side.
“Did you cut yourself?” Natasha pressed.
“Something is wrong,” Thor murmured.
“Steve,” Coulson spoke up, voice urgent and trembling, just slightly. “What happened?”
Steve couldn’t speak. So many thoughts in his head – fear, anxiety, doubt – and there was noise, too; something that wasn’t words, but not tinnitus either. The noise eventually blocked out everything, like a wind in the trees, increasing without letting up.
Something vibrated against his hip, and he grasped for it with a single-minded focus which shocked him in the midst of the chaos in his body. He opened his eyes as he brought the phone in front of his face and a red-smeared finger moved across the screen. Tony’s face appeared, and it felt like someone had stuck a ladle in his chest and stirred.
“Cap? Steve? What’s going on, you look like –”
Steve could hear his voice, but he could not answer.
His vision blacked out, swallowed by a sudden wave of darkness that sprang forth from some corner of his being, drowning everything in its way.
When Steve had crawled back out of the hole in the wall and flopped onto the floor in an uncontrolled tangle of limbs that wasn’t anything like him, Clint knew they should be concerned. Their leader hadn’t looked good, eyes glassy, skin flushed and sweaty, and it looked like the palm of his left hand was covered in something that resembled blood.
They moved him outside, which appeared to be a bad idea when Steve shut his eyes against the bright light. He was conscious, clearly, but unresponsive to their questions. Thor’s murmured ‘something is wrong’ wasn’t particularly reassuring, either, because half the time when the Asgardian said something like that, things happened that no basic or special training could prepare them for.
A faint, vibrating sound made them all start.
Steve reached blindly for his belt, fishing out his phone. Considering everything, it was beyond ridiculous for him to do that, but Steve opened his eyes a fraction and swiped one red-smeared finger across the screen. Tony’s voice came forth from the speakers, alarmed at the state Steve was in – and then, suddenly, the blond’s eyes began to glow.
Clint had to blink a few times to believe it, seeing the black pupils light up with an inner glow as if someone had caused a miniature supernova inside Steve’s head. Slowly the glow spread to fill his entire eyes – the black, blue and white – leaving them emanating luminescence like some light therapy lamp. Even in the bright daylight, it looked as if the brightness was overflowing and leaking out, light particles forming clouds at the corners of Steve’s eyes.
“Captain?” Coulson’s voice snapped Clint out of staring at Steve’s face, and the strange glow of his eyes. The unblinking stare was kind of hypnotic, if you forgot about how it shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Steve twitched and sat up. The phone that was still in his hand went quiet. His face was blank, eyes remaining wide open and completely encompassed by the white glow that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
“Cap?” Natasha prompted from the side, and Clint slowly moved to his feet, fingers curling around his bow in an automatic reaction to the situation.
Steve lay still for a moment – too still, and too quiet. And then, as if someone had flipped a switch, he looked at the phone in his hand, and uncurled his fingers from around it, allowing the device to fall to the ground. Clint’s eyes automatically followed the motion and noticed the screen had gone blank.
With his hands both free, Steve curled and uncurled his fingers, looking at them as if he had never seen them before. Then he lifted his head and looked to the side – at his shield, lying against the wall of the ruins; Natasha must have brought it out while Clint, Coulson and Thor had been carrying Steve outside.
“Captain Rogers, it might be best if you remained still,” Coulson started as Steve began to get up, every movement as fluid as ever. The flush had disappeared from his skin, as if everything was okay – save for the eyes and the too-blank expression.
“My friend,” Thor stepped in front of Steve, forcing him to halt or walk right into him, “you are not well.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Natasha asked.
“Can you not sense it?” Thor frowned, looking at her for a split second – and that was all it took for Steve to bring up his fist in a quick right hook that sent Thor sprawling to the ground. It happened so fast that Clint barely had time to twitch his fingers around his bow, and then Steve was moving, across the space between him and his shield, and Clint wasn’t certain whether to shoot, which made him look at Coulson for guidance, but the agent didn’t seem to have quite recovered from the suddenness of the attack either.
Natasha was the one to move, springing after Steve, catching up with him just as the man was reaching for his shield. It may have not been her smartest move, but she kicked up with her left leg, forcing Steve’s arm up and away from grasping the shield. Steve’s response was to whirl around, deceptively fast for someone his size. Natasha had fought alongside him, however, and they sparred together from time to time, so she jumped out of the way, yet not too far to lose her chance to attack should Steve go for his shield again.
Steve remained facing her, face impassive, and it was impossible to tell what was going on behind those glowing eyes – whether it was Steve at all. When Clint reached that conclusion, he snapped himself into action, reaching for an arrow. “Stand down, Captain,” he ordered. “We don’t want to hurt you, but clearly something’s amiss.”
There was no reply. He didn’t even blink; all Steve did, in the end, was move towards Natasha with the clear intention to strike her down. She dodged down and to the side, trying to sweep his legs from under him, but Steve was already moving, angling his body and moving his balance so that her attempt to make him fall was fruitless. She didn’t give up – she never did: Natasha straightened herself again, the posture of her body suggesting readiness for battle, and Clint’s fingers itched on the controls of his bow, to select an arrow. Not yet, though.
Thor had picked himself up from the ground, but instead of his customary claims for a fair fight to prove the might of Asgard, he was quiet. Clint glanced at him, noting the frown and the uncertainty in the blue eyes that didn’t belong there. Thor rarely hesitated; he and Stark had certain things in common, especially in battle, and one of them was the talent to attack headlong and somehow not get killed in the process. To see him survey the situation without making his move was forcing Clint to reconsider the circumstances all over again. Clint just wanted someone to say something that would clear things up.
Around them, the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel were moving. They didn’t have many trained soldiers with them, seeing as four Avengers had decided to accompany the expedition. Most of them would do wisely to stay out of the way – and they probably knew it as well, moving sensitive equipment further from what might yet become a battlefield if they didn’t take Cap down.
For some reason, Clint had a feeling their leader wouldn’t just lie down if they asked him nicely one more time.
“Cap,” Natasha started – and Steve moved to strike, only to miss as she bent down and elbowed the man in the stomach. It took more to actually wind the super-soldier, however, and Steve whirled around, quick and effortless, bringing his leg up in a wide arch. Natasha bent backwards to avoid the attack, barely missing it, and then she rolled backwards, over her shoulder and back to her feet, already advancing, pure intent on her face. She was going to take Steve down and apologize for it later.
Clint stayed his hand, watching, waiting, every second feeling like an eternity as Natasha launched forward, jumping up. He fully expected her to wrap her strong legs around Steve’s throat and not let go before he succumbed, but as she braced her body for the final leap, Steve moved to the side, just slightly, angling his body away, then stuck out his hand and seized her by the throat.
Natasha let out a strangled breath and her hands came up involuntarily to fight the strong grip.
Thor summoned Mjolnir from across the camp, raising it in threat.
Clint plucked an arrow, unhappy that Natasha was so close but clearly this didn’t seem like it was going to end well in any case.
“Captain, let her go!” Coulson ordered. He had a gun out, but Clint doubted he would shoot.
The glowing eyes rose, regarding them – or at least that’s what it felt like. The fingers around Natasha’s throat didn’t ease their hold, and even with all her training, she was having a hard time fighting back.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” Clint agreed, “but we will if you don’t stand down.”
“We are not speaking to our friend,” Thor said suddenly. “His mind is not in control.”
Clint wasn’t sure whether to believe that. Whoever or whatever Thor thought was in control knew exactly how to use the serum-enhanced body. Each move had been pure Steve, only he hadn’t been kidding around.
“If Captain Rogers isn’t in control, then who is?” Coulson asked the obvious question.
For some reason Clint expected a reaction from Steve at that point. Maybe an evil smile, a laugh, and one of those clever, boasting one-liners the villains were often so fond of – before getting beaten to a pulp by the Hulk or humiliated by Iron Man.
None of that happened: not a sound; not even a twitch of a facial muscle. It was unnatural and deeply unsettling, because even as stone-faced as Steve Rogers could be at times, even he was alive. It felt like looking at a mask of some sort, made of flesh and blood.
Natasha shuddered and Steve suddenly let go of her, allowing her to fall to the ground, gasping for air. Clint took that as a gesture of good-will, regardless of the lack of communication.
Steve looked at them again, then turned around and began walking towards his shield once more.
“Captain, please stand down,” Coulson asked again.
“Nat, stay down,” Clint murmured as Natasha began to make her way onto her hands and knees. She was still winded and pale, shaking, but Clint knew she would be back in the fight once she got her feet under her. Against Cap, however, she needed her full strength – which she didn’t have right now – but it didn’t stop her from ignoring him and lifting herself up anyway, albeit shakily.
Further off, Steve reached his shield, lifting it up and sliding it on his arm before turning back towards them. His eyes were still glowing, and Clint knew he had to do something before Natasha made her move. So, he fired, past her shoulder, close enough to stir the red hair. It was a perfect shot, but Steve lifted the shield just in time and the electrical burst the arrow was designed to release, to incapacitate the person it hit, sparked and crackled across the vibranium surface.
“Damn it,” Clint muttered and drew another arrow, just as Natasha decided to launch forward again. Whatever she had planned on doing became irrelevant as Steve easily sidestepped her, lifted the shield and smacked her upper body with it. Natasha still tried to remain on her feet – to turn defeat into a surprise attack – but Steve followed the motion of her body and kneed her in the lower back.
With a cry, Natasha fell, not getting up.
“Enough,” Thor decided and moved forward with his customary roar. Mjolnir sparked briefly, as if preparing for impact, and Clint considered that after all this time, the god of thunder should have known better; all Steve needed to do was to brace himself and bring up the shield, and the force of Thor’s mighty weapon slammed back at all of them.
Clint hadn’t been there in person, but he had heard of the rather legendary first time it had happened, in the woods somewhere on the outskirts of Germany; reports said the impact had leveled part of a forest, and he didn’t doubt that for a moment as his body was flung back, a hot, crackling pressure unstoppable as it moved the air. Clint hit the forest floor hard, wind knocked out of him and debris flying everywhere, momentarily blocking out the sun. As the dust settled, literally, he forced his way to his knees, to enable him to shoot – but their target was gone.
To his left, Thor groaned and rolled over onto his back. He was breathing hard and had taken down two trees as he landed. His blond hair was full of roots and broken branches, face covered in dirt that still continued to rain down.
“He’s gone,” Coulson’s voice came from Clint’s right, strained but alive.
Clint forced himself to his feet, ignoring several aches and bleeding cuts. Dirt fell from his hair into his eyes and he brushed it away, surveying the surroundings.
Steve was nowhere to be seen.
“What do you mean, he ran away? And why did it take you a fucking day to call me back?!” Tony’s voice could be heard half-way across the camp. “Don’t shush me, Banner. I’m allowed to be pissed.”
“You weren’t here,” Clint muttered, pressing an ice pack against the side of his neck. It had been roughly fifteen hours since Steve got, for lack of a better term, possessed, and took off after giving them a royal ass-kicking. Well, Natasha had taken most of the heat, obviously, and she was currently lying down, her back luckily intact but giving her so much pain she couldn’t even roll over without it hurting. It was a strategic move, she had said; Steve had known that instead of breaking bones, all he needed to do was cause enough damage to slow her down for the next few weeks.
It wasn’t necessary to know her to be able to tell she deeply resented her current situation.
“How could the three of you let him just take off?” Tony demanded. “And let me come back to my earlier point: why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“What were you going to do, fly down here?” Coulson asked. He had been broody and snappy ever since they realized Steve wasn’t coming back, and they couldn’t find him. They had tried tracking him down for what was left of the daylight, with no luck, and come morning they had decided to inform the two absent members of the Avengers of what had happened.
Tony took a small moment to breathe, eyes dark and mouth tense. Bruce appeared within the screen, looking worried and reasonably tense, seeing as he had to deal with Tony in person. “Did he take any provisions?” Bruce asked. “Without food or water, he’ll have to slow down eventually – or find somewhere to get those things.”
“He took my map,” Coulson informed the scientist. “In the midst of it all, it may have been luck on his part –”
“He’s the tactician of the team,” Tony snapped. “He saw a map, he grabbed it. What else?”
“Nothing, save for his shield,” Coulson said. “He seemed pretty intent on grabbing it before fleeing the scene.”
“What does Thor have to say about all this?” Bruce asked.
“He’s been in that cave for the better part of the night and morning, trying to decipher the texts on the walls,” Clint told them. “We also sent a team to that adjacent room, and they found this slab of stone with some weird, dried goo on it. They’re analyzing it now, and if Steve didn’t cut himself, it’s possible the red stains on his hand were from that rock.”
“Send us the data when you have it. We’ll take a crack at it,” Bruce said, which surprised no one. He and Tony shared a common mistrust of someone else conducting tests on important things.
“So, he crawls into a tunnel, turns over a slab of stone, and goes berserk,” Tony recounted. “Does Thor have any ideas on how that happened?”
“He said something about Steve not being in control; that he could feel… something,” Colson said. “Beyond that, Thor has been his enigmatic self.”
“He’s been frowning a lot,” Clint added.
“That’s never a good sign,” Bruce said what they all were thinking.
“We’ll widen the search area today; hopefully we’ll get on his tracks before dark,” Coulson laid out their plan. “There’s nowhere to go, for dozens if not hundreds of miles, so we’ll be able to narrow down possible destinations.”
“He’s a super-soldier; a few hundred miles is nothing to him,” Bruce reminded them.
“Why are you sitting on your assess instead of looking for him?” Tony added. “Please tell me you have people combing the area.”
“We’re… still figuring out our options in getting local help,” Coulson said carefully.
Tony’s eyes narrowed immediately. “You haven’t told Fury?” It wasn’t really a question; he knew, as well as the rest of them, that no one wanted to give the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. the call explaining how they had managed to misplace the man who was the leader of the Avengers, a national war hero and a super-serum enhanced tactician.
Everything was distorted in his head. It felt like he was wrapped in layers upon layers of something partially see-through, thick enough that in the end he could see only the most prominent shapes, of which there were not many. Mostly it was just brilliant brightness or dark shadows, and all of it was covered in a coldness that matched his vague nightmares of the ice.
Steve couldn’t tell the passing of time. He didn’t know what was happening, where he was… but he knew where he was going. The goal was clearer in his mind than anything else, and taking into consideration where he had been, deep in the Amazon jungle… he had to get creative to reach that goal.
Therein lay the moments of clarity; when his mind worked to overcome the next obstacle, he felt almost as if he were awake… yet he could not truly see, and that troubled him greatly. The veil was in front of his eyes, muddling his thoughts, and a bottomless pit of longing grew ever stronger within him. It hadn’t been there before, and he was afraid he would get lost in it. So instead he tried to struggle against the current of despair and the cold grip of ice, and convince himself that he could outrun the abyss if he moved fast enough. If he was strong enough…
He didn’t feel weak, far from it, and Steve knew he should be glad for that. Even with his control gone, he could still keep moving and fight his way to what he felt would equal safety.
All he needed to do was find a way to get there.
First he needed to find transportation, and that led him moving through the forest. Light and dark washed over him; day and night. Brief glimpses reached his conscious mind before he appeared to sink deeper once more: Phil Coulson’s map; Manaus, the nearest city… and from there to São Paulo, hiding inside a truck.
He felt calm and methodical when he thought of ways to get back home. The grip of the ice wasn’t so firm then, and the depressing loneliness eased slightly at the thought.
His senses were not his own when he climbed a fence and waited, but he knew the timing was crucial, and if he made the wrong choice, he would find himself twice as far away from his goal than he was now. The idea of being lost even further was painful, and steeled his resolve to get where he wanted.
Soon… he would not be so alone.
Steve knew his senses were alert as he waited; he just wasn’t fully connected to them. However, when he saw the plane – the right plane – he prompted himself to move, to cross the distance and stay hidden. He distracted the men working with a well-thrown rock, slipped inside the cool cargo hold, and wedged himself deep in the shadows.
After a long while the plane took off. The air grew cooler and the pressure changed slightly.
The world was dark around him, but at least he was moving towards home…
Miami International Airport, Florida, USA
There were more people here than in São Paolo; more noise, more traffic – and more guns. They told Steve to stop when they found him, but he couldn’t do that. He was closer, he could feel it, but he still had far to go before he would be content – before he would be home.
After they had shouted at him, they shot at him.
He took them down; they were in his way, trying to stop him, and he refused to be held back.
He would never stop fighting…
There were alarms. He heard them, saw flashes, felt a brief flash of pain as electricity shot through his body whenever he made his way over another fence. They were running, trying to surround him, but he was faster and smarter, and if they got too close, he did what he had done before.
And eventually, they stopped coming.
He slipped into a departing truck and jumped out in the thick of a city, mixing into the crowd, disappearing. People looked at him, looked at him twice, but he didn’t care; they would consider him an oddity, a person better to not be remembered. They would look, but their eyes wouldn’t linger.
However, he needed clothes. It was better to blend in, to not attract attention. With no money, he had to be sneaky, so he browsed the streets, searching for stores with clothes out on display and took an item here, an item there. No hesitation; just grab it and keep walking.
When he had enough, he slipped into an alley. A broken mirror leaned against a wall, and he looked at himself once in his new clothes. Steve saw himself, yet the vision blinded him when he met his own eyes.
Everything was blank for a long time after that, his thoughts more muddled than before, thick and moving slowly. The ice seemed thicker, more confining, and his attempts to claw at it were feeble and weak. He was scared, cold, and alone. Any chance at escaping the prison he could not feel, see, taste or touch seemed impossible and elusive. He was trapped…
“… Stark will be appearing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the day after tomorrow. Barring any world-threatening incidents, the genius billionaire also known as Iron Man will be returning to his alma mater in Cambridge to once again inspire brilliant young minds. A much anticipated –”
His vision cleared as he stared at a TV screen behind a display window. The familiar smile was there, although it was just an official PR photo without the actual warmth. A front for the world to adore, but Steve saw behind it, could not be fooled by it…
Cambridge. Tony was going to be in Cambridge.
He felt the muscles of his face pull, just slightly. Steve didn’t try to meet his eyes again, remembering what had happened the last time: a flash of white and nothingness until he heard the familiar name and was pulled back from the ice. He dared to look at some of his reflection, though, and could just make out a ghost of a smile that was on his face. Unable to see his eyes, however, it looked almost scary. Out of place. Wrong.
It was all wrong… but it mattered not: he had a heading, and now he just had to reach his destination. It was time to find himself another ride.
“No way,” Natasha muttered to herself. “No fucking way.” It may have been overkill to add a half dozen curses in all the languages she knew, but then again, they were all royally fucked.
“What is it?” Coulson asked, slipping into the tent she was supposed to be resting in, but she hated feeling useless and much less being useless, so she had pulled herself over to a desk, turned on the computer and browsed through the news.
“Cap is in the States,” she informed the agent.
“What?” Coulson sounded shocked. He strode closer and leaned over her shoulder, gazing at the feed she had managed to pull from the surveillance at the Miami International Airport. It showed them a rather familiar, haggard form making his way across the airport grounds. “How did he get into the country without anyone seeing him?” Coulson asked out loud.
“Slipped into the cargo hold, if the preliminary investigation is to be trusted. Beyond that, no one has any idea – or knows how he managed to escape. He took down over thirty guards and airport workers. Three of them died of their injuries, eighteen were admitted to a hospital.” She heard Coulson draw in a careful breath.
“Where is he headed?”
“No idea. He disappeared soon after leaving the airport area. I’ve tried to track his movements, but… he knows how to avoid cameras.”
“Do the local authorities know who he is?”
“As of now, no one has said the magic words. I’m pretty sure they saw the shield, but…”
“There are hundreds, if not thousands of people carrying cheap copies of Captain America’s shield around town,” Coulson decided, standing up straight. Natasha didn’t need to look at him to know he was trying to think ahead, to plan their next move.
“There’s no way Fury won’t get the wind of this,” she finally said, knowing he knew it, but it also needed to be said out loud, at least once.
Coulson heaved a deep sigh. “I’ll arrange a plane for us; we need to get to Miami and figure out where he’s headed. Until we’re ready to move out, keep on trying to find him.”
“Yes, sir,” Natasha said automatically and turned her attention back to the screen. Not for the first time she was glad about the access to Stark International’s satellite network; it might take Fury a few hours longer to figure out how badly they had fucked up.
New York City, NY, USA
“This is ridiculous,” Tony said, pulling off the tie he had just fastened around his throat. “I can’t do this.”
“You promised Pepper,” Bruce reminded him, stepping over and tying the tie once more, although not as neatly as Tony.
“We should be looking for Steve, not… giving speeches,” Tony huffed, looking at nothing in particular over Bruce’s shoulder.
“They haven’t found him in all this time, I doubt a few more hours are going to make a difference,” Bruce said, attempting to be the voice of reason. “After this speech at MIT, you’ll have finished all the things Pepper had on her list, and we can go down to Brazil and scan every inch of the jungle until we find the Captain. In the meanwhile, you’ll spend a few hours impressing people and making them feel ridiculously awesome about themselves and their future careers.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at him. “You suck at giving inspirational speeches.”
“That’s why you’re their guest speaker, not me,” Bruce noted.
“They just like me because I’m the best damn thing to ever happen to that school…” Tony muttered, yanking at his tie again, but this time he merely straightened it and left it on. “He’s been missing for nine days,” he went on after a bit. “Wonder if he’s gone native in the woods.”
Bruce chuckled, although the whole situation was troublesome. Surely by now the group in Brazil should have found something. He knew that in the past week, Tony had been more than prepared to put on his suit and fly down there, but hell hath no fury like Pepper Potts when Tony blew off yet another commitment. Bruce hadn’t been eager to fly south either; if it so happened they found Steve, and he was still in a mood to attack his team, he didn’t want to bring the other guy into that particular mix.
There was only so much Captain America’s vibranium shield could cover between the Hulk’s fists and the hard place.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up before Tony could launch into another excuse why he should skip the MIT commencement speech and try to find their missing teammate. “There has been an update on Captain Rogers’ location.”
“What?” Tony blinked.
“It appears he managed to stowaway on an airplane and landed in Miami International Airport roughly thirty-two hours ago.”
“Why haven’t we heard of this before?”
“The incident hasn’t reached the news, and the airport’s internal investigation is on-going. However, Agent Romanoff gained access to the airport security feed about five hours ago and determined that it was indeed Captain Rogers who managed to elude the airport staff and escape. His current location is unknown.”
“Why didn’t anyone call us – again?!” Tony snapped, once again tearing at his tie as Bruce pressed his thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose.
“Where is the rest of our team now?” Bruce asked before Tony could go on.
“They are currently in a Quinjet, on their way to Miami.”
“Is Cap still in Miami?” Tony asked.
“I do not know, sir.”
“Find out,” Tony told him. “Track his movements. Every camera, CCTV, cell phone, YouTube video… Just find him, and when you do, you’ll tell me and not those clowns who keep leaving us out of the loop. Goddamn it…” Tony muttered and began to stalk towards the elevator.
“Sir, Director Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. is calling you,” J.A.R.V.I.S. added before the elevator doors had properly opened.
“Tell him I’m en-route to Boston, mid-flight. Can’t talk. Airplane safety and all that,” Tony replied.
“Doctor Banner –”
“I’m not available,” Bruce said swiftly before the AI could connect the call. “I’m… not here.”
Tony crossed his arms over his chest and sighed, the elevator doors closing between them. Bruce decided to go to the lab and perhaps work out some of the frustration of the last nine days while waiting for J.A.R.V.I.S.’s results on Steve’s location. They needed to find him, more than ever, before something else happened.
Tony had done MIT’s commencement speech several times after he’d graduated at the age of 17. After he missed it that one year because he was stuck in a cave in Afghanistan, he had become rather sought-after for various functions – well, after his mental state was cleared and he came out as Iron Man.
So, he had a speech prepared, more or less, and he went through the routine hand-shakes, drinks and compliments like a champ; Tony had his game face on, covering up his inner turmoil as he counted the minutes until he would get to leave, put on the suit and go looking for their missing teammate. He was confident J.A.R.V.I.S. would have information for him by the time he was done here, and then it would simply be a matter of tracking Cap down, taking him in and sorting out this mess. The others had fucked around in Brazil long enough; it was time to finish it.
“Mr. Stark, you’re up in two minutes.”
Tony squared his shoulders, checked himself casually in a mirror, then stepped outside and walked towards the stage, waiting for his cue. He had a microphone on, some cards in the palm of his hand, although he would end up pocketing them because he had a bit of an aversion to cards these days. It wasn’t as if he had no idea what to say to the brilliant young minds waiting out there.
When the two minutes were up, some of the faculty members waved him up, and his entrance was met with thunderous applause, followed by a certain amount of shouts and whistles. It was tame compared to most other times he went on stage somewhere, but he took it all in with a good-natured smile and for a moment forgot all about their missing leader.
“Alright!” he grinned at the crowd, spread his arms and gave them a small bow, then waited for the noise to end. “I assume everyone here knows who I am – but I also know who you are; the people who are, hopefully, going to shape a tomorrow we all can enjoy and be proud of.” That got him another wave of cheers. “When I started my –”
A loud sound echoed from somewhere further back on campus. Tony stopped automatically, associating loud sounds with potential experiment failures or an attack. Many heads in the crowd turned to look as well, and a few members of campus security moved out of sight, no doubt to check out the source of the distraction.
“As I was going to say,” Tony started again – then looked up at the sound of breaking glass. A security guard came flying through one of the windows of the Maclaurin building which flanked Killian Court, the man landing hard several feet away from the building. The crowd was beginning to move uneasily, then total panic erupted as shots were fired somewhere inside the building.
Tony took a steadying breath and tore the microphone from the lapel of his suit. He glanced over at the man who was playing his bodyguard today – a poor replacement for Happy Hogan, but right now he could prove his worth. “Where’s the suitcase?” Tony demanded.
“In the car, sir,” the man replied.
“Get it,” Tony snapped an order and the man didn’t hesitate or ask twice: he was already running.
More shots were fired and people were being guided away from the open space, to safety. Tony wondered what the hell was going on that they hadn’t taken the perp down already, seeing as security measures were up high today – then a figure crashed down into the yard through another window, rolling instead of landing roughly on the ground, and the familiar shield caught the sun.
“Well,” Tony murmured before someone pulled at his arm.
“Mr. Stark, we need to –”
“You know, I think I might just stay and see this one out,” Tony argued and pulled himself free. Because he was a known superhero, no one was going to argue with him. It would take several minutes for his bodyguard to get to their car and haul the second version of the suitcase armor over. Tony wasn’t leaving to meet him half-way, however, because he wasn’t certain whether the luck which had just dropped Steve Rogers in his lap was going to last.
“Hey!” Tony called out loudly, stepping forward. He didn’t want to call Steve ‘Captain’ in case someone put two and two together; if there was still a chance that they could keep the fact that Captain America had gone rogue from the world, he would seize that chance by the balls and not let go. After all, so far it had seemed that no one suspected it had been the first Avenger in the Miami airport, even with the genuine shield in his grasp.
Steve froze and turned towards him. People had moved out of the way surprisingly fast, and armed guards were approaching from all directions.
Tony wasn’t certain what he had expected, even with the reports from Brazil, but the unnaturally glowing eyes still gave him a start. He wondered if he could reason his way out of this, especially when Steve seemed to just look at him instead of immediately attacking, but then the security started shouting and cocking their guns threateningly, and Tony felt like screaming at them that telling Captain America to lie down wasn’t going to happen, ever.
Clearly that hadn’t changed even with this strange possession: the shield was lifted, body bracing itself for an attack, and Tony could almost see it before the shield went flying, knocking down three men before they even knew what hit them. Steve launched himself forward to intercept his shield again, then whirled around once he caught it, protecting himself from shots fired at him.
“Come on…” Tony muttered. Next time he was going to drag the armor along, no matter what anyone said. It was ridiculous he just had to stand here, watching as Steve flattened the resistance one by one.
“Sir, you must take cover!” someone shouted from behind him, and Tony turned to look at more campus police arriving. Most of the Court had been evacuated already, which made Tony stand out.
“It’s fine, I’m waiting for a delivery,” Tony explained. “And once it arrives, I’ll sort this out for you guys,” he promised.
The cop who had spoken to him gave him the oddest of looks, and then another one elbowed him in the side. “That’s Tony Stark.”
Tony flashed them a smirk – just before Cap’s shield came flying past him, knocking down the two men, sending them sprawling to the ground with pained gasps. Tony grimaced and turned, seeing Steve advance. His expression was cool and calm, the eyes still glowing so brightly it seemed they were leaking, which was beyond disturbing – as was the fact that he wasn’t blinking. “Why don’t we talk about this?” Tony offered, raising his hands to show that he wasn’t carrying a weapon – and hoping the cops would stay down, and their friends out of the way. “Put your shield down, and we’ll sort this out. You’re not yourself.”
Tony cringed as he heard heavy footfalls. When he turned his head, just slightly, he saw his bodyguard running over, large suitcase in hand. A cop moved towards him, to hold him back from the scene. “Let him pass!” Tony called out; it would be typical that when he was so close to suiting up, some moron would fuck it up.
“Put it down!” someone else shouted, and Tony turned his head further, seeing the rest of the officers pointing guns at Steve and eyeing him tensely. One of the two fallen officers had climbed back to his feet, while the other still lay on the ground, looking winded.
Tony snapped his fingers impatiently and gestured at his bodyguard. “Come on! We don’t have all day here.” He turned his attention to the cops. “Let me suit up and take care of this, gentlemen. Make sure no one gets in the way.”
“We have it under control, Mr. Stark.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Tony couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm from entering his voice, which the cop caught on to immediately. Okay, so this was going to be one of those days… “Case!” he ordered his bodyguard again, who looked conflicted between following his orders and the demands of the officer to not come any closer.
“Stop! Put down the… weapon… and lie down on the ground!”
Tony turned in time to see that Steve had taken several steps forward, the shield firmly in his grasp, body still poised to fight. His clothes were dirty and tattered, but didn’t look like something he may have worn in the jungle; he must have changed his wardrobe somewhere between the Amazon and arriving in Massachusetts. Well, as long as he wasn’t wearing the Captain America uniform, they might still be able to salvage the situation.
Keeping his eyes on the blond, Tony began to move to the side. The glowing eyes followed, Steve’s head turning slightly to keep track of him. Tony guessed that as long as Steve was staring at him, he might not attack. Tony continued backing away, eyes still on Steve. He reached out with his right hand, hoping his bodyguard was going to earn his paycheck and comprehend that he was still waiting for the suitcase.
Steve took a step forward, moving just as quietly and effortlessly as always. He matched one step for each four Tony took, and the cops were starting to shift uneasily.
“Drop it, mister,” one of them commanded again.
“Don’t provoke him,” Tony suggested tightly, gesturing with his outstretched hand. Finally he felt the handle of the suitcase and dropped his eyes as he laid it out on the ground in front of him and pressed his fingers against the sensors that would recognize it was him. The suitcase came to life, unfolding and then rearranging itself up along his body. Tony winced as his clothes were pressed tight against his body, not designed for this. As the faceplate finally snapped into place, the comforting information feed of the HUD greeted him with a more thorough look at the situation.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. acknowledged the fact that he was armored up.
“Let’s wrap up this party,” Tony noted. “Any readings we can get from Cap?”
“The armor’s sensors are not strong enough to get a full analysis, but there is a strange energy signature coming off Captain Rogers.”
Tony’s eyes glanced at the data on the HUD, registered it, then focused on the important part: “Alright, mister, give me the shield before you hurt someone else –”
The shield slammed him straight in the face, sending his body falling back, armor and all. Tony had never really gotten such a good taste of the vibranium before, but he wasn’t going to beg for a repeat – at least not in the thinnest of his current armors.
“Fine,” he started to say as he got back to his feet, tasting blood in his mouth. “The hard way, then.”
Steve attacked before he could elaborate, and Tony dodged, but there was no chance he was getting out of the way fast enough, with or without the suit. All he needed to do was avoid full collision that might be more than he could handle right now.
Tony felt the shield strike his shoulder and alarms flashed on the HUD. He ignored them for now and brought his left hand up and punched the other man, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Not a second after Steve hit the dirt was he back up, rolling backwards and onto his feet, his face still passive, eyes glowing. Tony lifted a hand as he forced himself to his feet, preparing the repulsor, and maybe Steve saw it coming or merely thought it a good time to strike, but he moved forward just as Tony shot at him. The shield took most of the impact, forcing the police to duck for cover as the repulsor blast bounced off the vibranium, and then Steve was right there, pounding at him as if it weren’t metal he was striking. Even with the buffer of the suit, Tony felt it – then pain coursed through him as the shield struck him in the side.
With a new set of alarms flashing before his eyes and several of his ribs possibly bruised, Tony released a couple flares to blind the other man and give him room to strike. He didn’t want to hurt Steve, but he was running out of ways to stop him without compromising his own health first.
The flares flashed between them, but Steve didn’t turn or shield his eyes. Instead he took Tony by the throat and shoved him to the side. With the lightweight suit, Tony fell over, slammed hard into the ground, and then the shield came down, at the same spot on his right shoulder as before, and pain flared across his upper arm and chest.
“The armor has several breaches, sir, and your vitals are –”
“I can feel it, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony gasped and then twisted, bringing his legs up, kicking Steve to the side. His right arm was on fire and he was fairly certain Steve had just managed to fracture his clavicle. “Transfer all power to the boot repulsors in five seconds,” he ordered, then rolled up, returned the favor and took Steve by the throat, then kicked himself off the ground. This suit wasn’t meant for heavy loads while in the air, its flight capabilities weaker than those of his usual suit. However, it might buy him some time.
Steve struggled, hands squeezing around Tony’s forearm. Tony forced his fingers to squeeze harder, to hopefully cut off the air long enough to render the other man unconscious. That was when Steve decided to swing, his legs wrapping around Tony’s. With the perfect flight position lost, Tony felt a sickening lurch in his stomach as they started to turn in the air – and then Steve grabbed his face, although the armor was in the way. The pressure was there, though, a faint whine of metal following.
“What are you doing?” Tony demanded. “You’re going to get us both killed…”
With his balance lost, they were careening lower, and then Steve sank his fingers in with precision. There was no way he should have known where to press, to get to the seam of the helmet, to pry it open by force. Tony felt the wind on his face for a brief two seconds before they crashed into a tree, the armor’s repulsors shutting down and sending them both falling, one painful branch at a time, all the way to the ground.
Tony fell on his already burning ribs in an attempt to keep his right shoulder from hitting the ground first. It hurt, so goddamn much, and he blinked hot tears from his eyes as he tried to scramble up, to regain control of the suit manually now that the more fine-tuned controls via his AI were out of his reach with the helmet damaged.
When he looked up, Steve was already standing above him. His hair was a mess, more so than before, small cuts on his face and bruising on his neck. The injuries were already healing, by the look of it. Good for him. “Steve…” Tony tried, attempting to force himself up to his knees, to ignore the stabs of pain licking his left side and the fact that he couldn’t really move his right arm.
The unblinking eyes stared at him, calm, glowing, as if he hadn’t just almost killed them both. Well, Tony had still been mostly in his suit even with the helmet torn, and they hadn’t been that high, but he could imagine a few scenarios where it would have ended badly.
“Steve, if you’re in there somewhere,” Tony tried again, “you need to stand down and let me take you home. Okay? No more fighting.”
There was no response – other than a sudden twitch of his entire body, and the blond suddenly fell down to the ground in front of him. Tony stared, blinking, not understanding what was going on – then noticed several men in S.H.I.E.L.D. gear moving closer, weapons raised. A half-dozen darts stood out from Steve’s back, no doubt filled with enough tranquillizer to take down a couple elephants. Even with that dose, though, the man was already shivering, eyes still wide open, his fingers beginning to curl.
“Uh, guys? If you’re going to secure him, I suggest you do it quickly,” Tony called out, and five agents moved out with heavy duty restraints, grabbing Steve’s arms and tying them behind his back, then tying his legs with a short chain between the cuffs. They lifted him first to his knees, then to his feet, and the glowing eyes still stared unerringly at Tony, as if mocking him.
Tony allowed his face to hit the ground and closed his eyes. “Not now.”
“Naptime’s over,” Director Fury informed him, halting beside him. Tony could feel his intimidating stare even without looking.
“In my own defense,” Tony started as he rolled onto his knees with some difficulty, “I’m totally innocent of whatever you’re currently accusing me of.” He looked up at the other man hopefully, wanting to believe he didn’t deserve the expression of deep dissatisfaction on Fury’s face.
“You didn’t know Cap was missing?”
“I heard about it a day after he went missing,” Tony admitted. “And at least I found him! I think I should be commended for that.”
Fury’s scowl deepened. “What the fuck was going on in your head when you thought I shouldn’t know that one of our top operatives had gone missing under unclear circumstances in the middle of the fucking Amazon?”
“I thought Mr. Agent was going to report it?” Tony tried. Really, it was Coulson’s problem, not his.
“Get up,” Fury finally snapped and turned on his heels, marching away. A couple choppers flew over them then, monitoring the situation, and Tony sighed, already feeling a headache coming on. It took him the better part of two minutes to climb to his feet, and he immediately regretted doing it. Where was help when he needed some? Not that he would ask for it, but there was at least one guy here who was getting paid to protect him.
When he walked out of the trees circling Killian Court, a Quinjet had landed in the middle of the open field. S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles were parked on all the nearby streets he could see and the police were being turned away like they were tourists. The whole commencement area looked a bit like a war zone, although not too bad. They should be able to continue later, but Tony wasn’t going to stick around.
“Are you injured?” a voice asked, and he turned to look at a female agent in the dark S.H.I.E.L.D. gear.
There were a hundred things Tony could have said, but he had just gotten the shit kicked out of him by the man who usually led him into battle, and he didn’t have the spunk left in him to act defiant. “Yeah,” he admitted.
She nodded. “Right this way. Let’s get you out of that armor.” The casual way she said it should have put Tony on edge, but he meekly followed her to one of the cars, allowing her and another agent to assist in the removal of the suit.
At some point between the chest pieces being jammed from the impact and his ribs almost making Tony scream, his bodyguard made an appearance. Tony told him to return to New York City. “I’ll be catching a flight home with these guys,” he nodded at the Quinjet.
“Of course, Mr. Stark,” the man said and almost ran away. The agents gave the bodyguard a somewhat amused look, then went back to stripping Tony of the armor.
New York City, NY, USA
They had all seen their fair share of nondescript warehouses S.H.I.E.L.D. liked to keep handy. So, when Bruce had heard from J.A.R.V.I.S. that there had been an unscheduled incident at MIT – involving their missing team leader – he knew to expect a call, if not from S.H.I.E.L.D., then from Tony.
S.H.I.E.L.D. called him first, and soon he was sitting in a bare room, waiting for the others, reading a few science magazines he had grabbed from the Tower before leaving and enjoying a fairly decent cup of tea.
Four people stepped in after he had been waiting for about an hour, looking weary and grumpy; Natasha was moving around stiffly and as soon as she sat down, she fished out a plastic container and popped several pills into her mouth. Clint and Agent Coulson looked tired, and Thor as broody as ever.
“Nice trip?” Bruce asked but tried to avoid both humor and sarcasm; the looks he received as a reply were enough to tell him that these four were not in a good mood. Well, considering what had happened…
“They got him?” Coulson confirmed.
“Yeah; caught him in Massachusetts,” Bruce nodded.
“I hope he put up a fight,” Clint muttered.
“I’m pretty sure he did; J.A.R.V.I.S. hinted that the armor Tony had with him is going to be scrapped faster than fixed.” Bruce had been a little concerned, but he had sensed Tony was okay. That’s why he wore the armor, after all, but it didn’t always protect him as well as people imagined it would.
A door banged somewhere down the hallway and the door to their room opened a moment later, allowing in the dark presence of Director Nick Fury. “Gentlemen,” he said sharply, giving Bruce a relatively polite nod, then proceeded to glare at everyone else. “Does anyone wish to volunteer an explanation for how all this happened – and why I wasn’t informed as soon as it appeared possible that Captain Rogers was compromised?”
“We were busy looking for him, sir,” Coulson started.
“And while you stumbled around the Amazon, he made his way to the Miami International Airport. I don’t need to explain to you how hard that’s been to cover up – especially with people dead and injured in two countries.” Fury fumed, and Bruce moved his chair a few inches away from him, just in case.
“We assumed he wouldn’t try to leave the area,” Natasha spoke up. “That was our first error: with the distance he covered in such a short time, he had to be moving with intent from the minute he left the camp. Thor, however, firmly believed that Steve was not in control, so how did he end up going to all the trouble of sneaking onto a plane to cross the distance between two countries?”
“Not to mention making his way from Miami to the Boston area,” Bruce added, pulling a tablet out from between the magazines. “J.A.R.V.I.S. managed to compile a somewhat shaky route he took in order to establish that. Unfortunately, the final draft wasn’t ready until after the incident at MIT. It’s… rather ingenious, really, the way he kept slipping from one vehicle and form of transportation to the next, going undetected for the most part.” Bruce had done that for years, while on the run, but Steve certainly knew how to be stealthy, too. Well, with the serum giving him a boost, it was certainly easier than in Bruce’s own case, but he could still admire the mind at work. “Why Cambridge?” he asked out loud. “Of all the places in the world… Of all the planes he could have snuck onto at the airport in São Paulo, he chose the one plane coming back to the States.”
“Maybe I’m just that attractive,” a voice joined them, and Tony came in through the doorway. If the room hadn’t been relatively quiet until then, it certainly would have been silenced at his appearance. “What?!” Tony snapped, narrowing his eyes. His face had several bruises and cuts. He was walking with a heavy limp, clearly favoring his left side, and his right arm was in a sling, accompanied by a clavicle strap that kept his shoulders drawn back.
“It would seem the hours since I last saw you haven’t been kind to you,” Bruce observed.
Tony let out a half-huff, half-laugh, then grimaced. “Yeah, no. I’m only going to say this once, and if anyone, ever, repeats it to Rogers, I will personally squeeze the life out of them: I got my ass kicked.”
“Welcome to the club,” Natasha muttered darkly.
“He is a considerable foe,” Thor agreed. “We all underestimated his strength against us.”
“More like how he knew how to take us down in a matter of seconds,” Clint said. “It’s disturbing.”
“He’s a leader – our leader – which means he knows our strengths and weaknesses. He also has the best tactical mind I’ve had the pleasure of working with, so it stands to reason he would know exactly how to disable all of us,” Bruce noted serenely.
“You don’t sound very concerned, big guy,” Tony noted as he carefully slid out a chair to seat himself. Bruce extended an arm to help Tony lower his body, receiving a very small look of thanks in return.
“I don’t think he really has a plan on how to contain the Hulk,” Bruce said. “And if he does, I’ll gladly take a few pointers.”
“We’ll see how you feel about it when you have his shield slamming you in the face,” Natasha challenged his theory.
“It certainly widens your horizons, and not necessarily in a good way,” Tony agreed.
“If you are done swapping case histories, I would like to propose we get onto the problem at hand: what is wrong with Rogers?” Fury leaned forward, palms planted firmly on the table, and his eye was directed at Thor as if the Asgardian would have the answers he needed.
“I felt a dark presence in him,” was all Thor said.
Fury kept staring at him, demanding more, but Thor offered nothing. Giving up, the Director looked at Coulson instead. “Do we have any concrete evidence?”
“Our scientists were still analyzing the ruins when we left,” Coulson replied promptly. “We should have results shortly, and perhaps now that Captain Rogers is in custody, we can try and reach him again.”
Fury nodded shortly. Clearly he was impressed with none of this. He pushed away from the desk and began to walk towards the door. “There better be some goddamn answers coming my way very soon,” he demanded before exiting and slamming the door shut in his wake.
“Well,” Clint started after a moment, “that went very well.”
Thor continued to stare at something none of the others could see, Natasha popped another few pills into her mouth, and Coulson briefly buried his face in his hands.
“What’s your damage report like?” Bruce asked quietly as the Avengers followed Coulson down the hallway towards the room Steve had been locked in.
“The suit needs to be rebuilt,” Tony replied unhappily.
“A couple bruised ribs, a fairly even coating of heavy bruising, and a fractured clavicle. Good times.” Steve was going to owe him big for this, once the man snapped out of whatever was running around in his system.
“Could have been worse,” Bruce noted.
Tony gave him a look and wondered how much worse Bruce was imagining. Well, there may have been a couple seconds when Tony entertained the possibility that Steve was trying to kill him, but he preferred not to think about it. Instead, he should focus on the upcoming weeks in which he would be forced to endure pain and an inability to use his right arm properly.
Oh yes, Rogers had it coming once he was back to his old self.
They reached the detention area and Coulson swiped his card through a reader to let them in. The group entered a small observation room from which had another door that led into the temporary holding cell. Steve was standing in the middle of the small room, staring at a blank wall by the door. His eyes remained as unblinking as before, overflowing with the inner glow, and it seemed he was doing nothing at all but stand there – even when there was a poor excuse for a bed along the opposite wall.
“What’s he doing?” Clint asked.
“Standing,” Tony observed.
The archer snorted. “I can see that. But why is he standing there, doing nothing? He could lie down and save his strength, or try to escape.”
“Perhaps he knows where he is,” Natasha offered. “Maybe he knows we’re trying to help him.”
“Only one way to find out,” Bruce decided, surprising the others, and moved to the door leading to the holding cell. Coulson followed him a bit slower, the rest of the group stepping closer, and then Coulson punched in a code that made the second door slide open.
Steve didn’t move, didn’t react to the sound or the movement, but somehow Tony felt like he was being observed. He wondered if the others shared the sensation.
“Steve?” Bruce stepped forward. “Do you know where you are?” No reply. Not even a twitch of a facial muscle. Bruce frowned, hands twisting in something that could be nervousness or indecision. “Do you know who I am? Can you communicate?” Again, there was no response.
“He didn’t say a word back in Brazil,” Natasha recounted and looked at Thor. “Now would be a good time to do something.”
The door behind them opened and Tony turned slightly to see Fury stepping in, closing the door firmly behind him. “Anything?” he demanded, striding over to them.
“This is not magic I am familiar with,” Thor frowned.
“Maybe it’s not magic at all,” Tony offered. “You said he touched something while in the tunnel. It could be a viral infection; it could be a parasite of some kind. Strange things happening don’t automatically mean they’re magic!” he noted vehemently and decided to go and sit down since there were chairs available in the observation room. He doubted they were going anywhere soon. After he had settled down, carefully, his ribs complaining all over again, Tony glanced up and noted that the glowing eyes were staring straight at him. Well, at least that’s what it felt like.
The others must have noticed as well – which meant Steve may have turned his head, just slightly, when Tony moved to the side in order to seat himself. “That creepy stare has an Edward Cullen vibe written all over it,” Clint stated.
Bruce looked back and forth between Steve and Tony, then raised his left arm and waved his hand in front of Steve’s face. Nothing happened; no blink, no tilt of the head. “Huh.”
“Any ideas, doctor?” Fury demanded.
“No,” Bruce replied. “He seems aware, although he doesn’t exactly respond to stimulus. Not unless he wants to.”
“So what does he want?” Clint asked. “A staring contest?”
“Such… malice…” Thor murmured.
“Look, Rapunzel: if you have nothing more than bad omens and magic to mutter about, refrain from speaking at all,” Tony snapped. “For all we know, this has a scientific explanation. Get those readings from the slab, and someone take some blood from the guy. We’ll see where we can go from that.” It was amazing he was the only one coming up with this stuff, and he was pretty sure he had a concussion from earlier.
Thor threw him a dark, withering look. “I may not know what we are dealing with, but I tell you, Tony Stark, that your technology will find no cure for what ails him.”
“We’ll see,” Tony replied darkly.
The following hours were filled with tests upon tests. It took a half-dozen agents and Thor to wrestle Steve onto an examination table. They tried sedating him, but the super-soldier serum just burned through it in a matter of seconds.
By that evening, certain things were clear: they were no closer to unlocking the mystery of what had happened to their leader, Steve hadn’t as much as blinked at anything they did, save for trying to fight back occasionally, and he wasn’t talking.
All there was that creepy, silent, glowing stare that seemed to follow them wherever they went in the room. The longer Bruce spent in the same room with Steve, the more uneasy he felt, and eventually he decided they should call it a night and resume their efforts tomorrow.
“We’ll look into the texts found inside the ruins,” he said. “We’ll take more samples, see if anything’s different. They’re also shipping in the slab of stone and other samples from the Amazon, so we’ll get to run our own tests.”
Tony, who was seated beside him on a Quinjet bench, nodded and yawned widely. The rest of the Avengers plus Coulson – who probably wanted to stay out of Fury’s way for the next few days – moved inside and they took off towards the Avengers Tower. Steve remained behind, under lock and key in quarantine.
Bruce doubted any of them would sleep particularly well – with the exception of Natasha and Tony, who were on pain medication for their injuries – but all would be clearer the next day with some rest under their belts.
It was not yet dawn, he could sense it. Unease was rising inside him, cracking the ice slightly.
He felt lonely again.
Steve still couldn’t think clearly and felt like a stranger in his own body. It hadn’t even been this bad right after the serum, although there were similarities. At least then he had been able to control his body, no matter how alien…
Tony… Where was Tony? The other man had been close, he had been sure of that – felt it, too – and all the roiling chaos had calmed into serenity for a moment, the ice melting slightly. He had felt like he was seated in brilliant sunlight, with no care in the world, but now it was gone and the need was rising once more.
He needed to be closer…
However, he was restrained. His body tied to a relatively soft surface. A table, perhaps. One he had lain on all too often. But, he knew about the restraints they had never used on him before, and he knew that if he wriggled, just enough, and pulled hard… He felt the bones of his hand shift, pressing closer together. The pain was there, but distant. He needed to do this, needed to be free, and so he yanked his hand free, feeling bones and muscles get pulled out of place under the pure force of the move.
Pain was secondary as he freed his other hand, then sat up and pushed the bones of his injured limb back into place. It would heal soon.
He freed his legs next, pulled out the IV on his arm, then slid off the bed. No hesitation; he went to the door, tested it, then pressed against one spot with all his strength. The steel eventually bent beneath the force, enough for him to expose an edge which he could use to pull the door until it was open enough to let him squeeze through the gap.
The hallways were quiet, save for two guards who stood outside the door leading to the room he had just escaped from. He grabbed them by the shoulders and smashed their heads together, stepping over their bodies before they had finished dropping down on top of each other.
His shield… he found it, then made his way outside, found a maintenance tunnel, following it away from the building, then slipped into another and crawled into a smaller tunnel that led into the sewers. Five blocks further he climbed out of the sewers, looking up to figure out where he was.
New York City.
He looked up again, searching for a familiar building, then caught glimpse of a letter “A” glowing high above the structures around it.
He had a heading.
Tony was tossing and turning. Not only was his fractured collarbone making his life a living hell, but the meds clearly weren’t doing what they were supposed to – which was to let him sleep.
After a few hours he gave up on the pretence of rest and pulled some clothes on. In his injured state, he went with something easy and comfortable, and besides, no one else should be awake so he was unlikely to run into anyone. And even if the other Avengers happened to become insomniacs, this was still his building, so if he wanted to walk around in sweatpants and a partially zipped hoodie, without socks or shoes – because those were a bitch to get on with just one working hand when bending over hurt like hell – they could take it up with a higher authority, which happened to be him. So, there…
He stepped out of his room and debated between the bar, the lab, his workshop or perhaps the gym, but eventually his feet took him to Steve’s floor. J.A.R.V.I.S. let him in, of course, and he stood in Steve’s bedroom, looking around, feeling lost. Everything was neatly in order and clean. The books were on the shelves, the art supplies neatly stacked on one side of the desk, and the bed looked like it came straight out of some military goods catalogue.
Feeling a sudden wave of fury, Tony allowed himself to sit down hard on the perfectly made bed. He regretted it once he landed, pain radiating up his bruised side, but at least he had creased the sheets. He sat there, feeling the emptiness and the quiet, and he thought back to how he had been, quite literally, the last person to talk to Steve; he had looked at the recording of that last call a dozen times, committing to memory the alarmed, pained look on Steve’s face and the first glimpse of the glow that soon took over. Had he not called him, on a whim rather than for a reason…
Tony looked around the room again, breathing deep regardless of the pain in his shoulder and upper chest. “What kind of an idiot crawls into a hole in the wall in some ancient ruins the locals avoid like the plague? Rogers, you goddamn moron…” He closed his eyes, trying to think back to their last proper discussion. Steve had been so excited, and for that reason alone Tony had debated perhaps joining the team in Brazil after all. If he had been there, maybe Steve wouldn’t be lost somewhere in his own head, behind those glowing, unblinking eyes that revealed none of the murderous intent they harbored.
Well, they had Steve now, and they would figure out what was wrong with him, and then they would fix him. Tony had complete faith in Bruce in that matter, and he would commit all his time and energy to getting rid of whatever had crawled up Cap’s ass in that fucking pile of rock –
“Sir, a distress signal has been issued from the S.H.I.E.L.D. base,” J.A.R.V.I.S. suddenly spoke up.
“What did they do now?” Tony asked, feeling tired and not at all looking forward to solving another S.H.I.E.L.D.-related crisis.
“It would seem Captain Rogers broke out of the containment cell and has gone missing once more.”
Tony jerked up, regretting it instantly. “How… Wait, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know how they weren’t able to do one single thing, for one single night,” he muttered. “Where’s he now?”
“Location unknown; S.H.I.E.L.D. is investigating his method of escape.”
“Awesome,” Tony sighed. “Hack in, see what they’ve got and then start a full-scale search on Cap. He can’t have gotten far.”
“Indeed, sir. I may have, however, already located him.”
Tony blinked. “You should lead with that next time. Where is he?”
“There is an intruder alert coming from the Tower basement, and while many of the cameras in the area are malfunctioning due to said intruder activity, the scanners show only one culprit, carrying a vibranium shield.” J.A.R.V.I.S. sounded entirely too smug.
“So he breaks out of S.H.I.E.L.D. and comes here?” Tony frowned. “That’s not very smart – unless he’s still hell bent on killing us.” Which wasn’t entirely true since Steve hadn’t killed any of them yet, while still definitely kicking their asses. “Where is he, currently?”
“In the elevator shaft, climbing up.”
“Of course he is,” Tony tried to picture that in his mind. “Is he planning on climbing all the way up? There are stairs. There are elevators. Maybe you should just tell him to get into one and bring him up – after I’ve suited up,” Tony added. “And if you manage to coax him into an elevator, bring him to the gym level. No reason to level the furniture.”
“Very well, sir. I shall keep you up to date on Captain Rogers’ cooperation.”
“You do that,” Tony nodded and got up with a grimace, then headed out to the nearest available Iron Man armor. “Oh, and J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he noted in hindsight as he pressed his palm against a scanner and a section of the wall opened to reveal an assembly platform. “Wake up the others.”
“Of course, sir.”
A moment later, as the armor moved around him, pressing rather painfully against each bruise and fractured bone, Tony heard a familiar beep from the Tower speakers and an ‘Avengers, assemble!’ call ringing across dark rooms. He had a feeling his AI was rather fond of that particular message, for he was ever so eager to play it. Tony didn’t have the heart to ruin it for J.A.R.V.I.S.
By the time Tony took an elevator to the floor they used mostly for training, the others Avengers were gathering together. Only Thor seemed to be in full gear, and Tony wondered if he had ever gone to bed. Clint and Natasha had their weapons, but clearly they had grabbed the nearest set of clothes they could find. Coulson, amazingly enough, was still wearing his customary suit, but it looked wrinkled and the tie was haphazardly tied around his neck.
“How is he here?” Clint asked, fingers shifting uneasily around his bow.
“What’s the plan?” Bruce added, looking around.
“I was hoping this place might jar a memory,” Tony noted, now that he stopped to think of it. Steve had spent a lot of time at the gym, and maybe he would feel less inclined to try and beat them up.
“Your theory is sound, but I fear it will fail,” Thor noted. “I have examined the writings on the ruins, and –”
“If you’re going to say this is magic, I swear I’ll blast you in the face,” Tony warned, pointing an armored finger at the Asgardian. “I’m up to here with your mumbo-jumbo, because there are a hundred things in a very real, corporeal world that might cause this, which have a purely scientific answer!”
“Yet it is not science that forces our friend’s hand against us,” Thor began to argue, lifting his hammer a bit higher, but just then one of the elevators on the side of the room let out a ping and the doors opened to reveal Steve Rogers, standing in the middle of the space, shield on his arm, temporary S.H.I.E.L.D. garments dirty as if he had crawled through the sewers before coming to the Tower – which was entirely possible, seeing as no one still had any idea how he had escaped. Tony didn’t open the faceplate to take a whiff, though.
“Captain,” Coulson spoke out, “we mean you no harm. Please put the shield down so that we can help you.”
There was no reply. Tony would have been comforted by a traditional ‘I don’t need your help!’ speech; anything but the silent stare of those glowing eyes.
He wondered if Steve was in there, at all. He had to be. Everything he had done, since escaping from the Amazon, was almost pure Cap, and… he had come home.
Steve raised the shield, and Tony reflexively raised an arm, weapons at the ready. Since it happened to be his right arm, pain exploded all along his upper body, but he stubbornly pushed it away. Thor was still holding Mjolnir in a tight grip. Natasha and Coulson had guns in their hands, and Clint had pulled out an arrow. Bruce, of course, stood unarmed, backing off slightly; Tony understood how Bruce didn’t want to pit the Hulk against their leader just yet. Not unless it became impossible to avoid.
“We don’t need to go down this road again,” Natasha said, a small note of discomfort in her voice. She was in no condition to fight, at least in any way that might defeat Steve, but Tony knew better than to ask her to stand down.
Steve replied by rushing forward, not even caring he was outnumbered. Tony hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, but Thor didn’t feel the same, stepping forward with a roar. Steve dodged and rolled beneath Thor’s blow. The floor shook as Mjolnir embedded itself deeply into it, creating cracks that might force Tony to check the building’s structural integrity later on.
Not wasting any time, Steve was back on his feet, and Tony stepped to the side, lowering his injured arm, then attempted to hit Steve with his left. Instead of dodging, Steve grabbed onto his arm and swung them both around, lining Tony up with what may have otherwise been a perfect shot from Clint’s bow.
Smoke and lights filled Tony’s field of vision as the arrow exploded right in his face, and Steve was still dragging him along until he lost his balance and crashed down. His sensors told him that Natasha, Clint and Coulson had moved out of the way, forced to gain themselves new ground while Steve was back on his feet, ready for another round.
It wasn’t going well.
Tony heard Thor gear up for another attack. Thunder filled the room, shots were fired, and he still couldn’t see a thing with his own two eyes. “Fuck! J.A.R.V.I.S., reboot Heads-Up Display!”
“I’m sorry, sir; Agent Barton’s arrow has severely malfunctioned the helmet’s sensors, rendering them unusable and unresponsive.”
“I’m going to fucking kill him,” Tony muttered and wiped one armored hand across the faceplate. His view was limited through the holes, still covered with a layer of soot, but he could see the fight had moved onto the gym area. One of the windows was broken, it was suddenly raining outside, and Steve and Thor must have gone a few rounds inside the room, scorch-marks on the walls and man-sized dents on all surfaces. Steve was standing with his back to a broken window, cool as a cucumber, and it didn’t look like he had even broken a sweat.
“Enough!” Tony barked, then tore his helmet off. It was covered in a black substance, and when Tony tried to scrape it off, he noted it did nothing at all. With a disgusted huff, he dropped the helmet to the floor and stepped forward. Steve’s glowing eyes met his, and it looked almost like his shoulders relaxed, just slightly. “Steve?” Tony asked tentatively, because he was going to give this one more shot.
There was no visible reaction, but the shield didn’t go flying, which was an improvement.
“Steve? I know you can hear me!” Tony tried, because he was certain of it. There was no way that whatever glow-worm had taken residence in his skull could fight exactly like Steve did – know their every weakness, their every move.
Thor moved towards him, hammer hanging low. “This is beyond science, my friend…” he offered in a solemn voice. “This is very powerful dark magic.”
Tony was about to tell him, again, what exactly he thought of magic, but instead he just stared at Steve, and at those infernal glowing eyes, and it was so fucking unfair. “We’re going to fix this,” Tony promised, not entirely certain whom he was talking to.
“Tranq him,” Natasha whispered from the side.
Clint drew an arrow and fired. This time he hit true, sinking an arrow into Steve’s thigh although their teammate moved his shield-arm to protect himself. He stumbled slightly, balance lost, and Thor moved forward with Coulson to restrain him and take his shield from him.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. medics had already determined it was impossible to put Steve under completely, so they didn’t even try, but Bruce brought over enough sedatives to make Steve relatively harmless until they figured out what to do with him next.
“Sir, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are requesting access to the Tower,” J.A.R.V.I.S. told Tony before they had even carried Steve out of the gym.
“Show them in,” Tony replied grimly, looking at the destruction around the room. It wasn’t the damages that worried him, but Thor’s blind belief that this was some kind of magic their technology could not touch – and if he happened to be right, then there was nothing Tony could do to help Steve.
He refused to accept that.
Since no one was going to be sleeping that night, they all went to the Helicarrier. Fury had decided Steve would have a more difficult time escaping from there, should he try that again, and while no one wanted to challenge that logic and actually think of how the Captain might attempt to flee, it was possible such a thing could still happen.
Natasha was still popping pills to keep herself functioning through the pain. Clint was stewing, probably wondering how he had become so prone to missing his mark lately. At least Tony hadn’t given the archer too much of a hard time for incapacitating his suit with one well-placed hit. How was that even possible?
Bruce tried to focus on the newest set of readings from Steve as Thor, Fury and Tony argued on the side. Magic-versus-science seemed to be the theme of the day. Bruce hoped, like Tony, that the answer would be scientific. After all, they had very little knowledge of what the Asgardians considered ‘magic’, and Thor seemed concerned enough that it made Bruce feel uneasy about the whole business.
They couldn’t communicate with Steve. They had no way of knowing if he was actually in control, a back-seat driver or completely out of commission. There was no way to put him under with the serum and the thing in possession burning through all their medical concoctions. All their data, if there were any, came from the un-deciphered writings in the ruins and the remnants of some substance from the stone slab Steve may have been handling prior to losing control.
“We have no proof that anything he’s saying is correct!” Tony was insisting once again.
“We have no proof of a goddamn thing, one way or another! All our tests came back inconclusive. If you cannot handle the possibility that something beyond your experience might be involved, then get out of my sight. I’m too tired to deal with your insecurities, Stark,” Fury snapped.
Tony’s body was tense as he turned and strode out of the room. Bruce watched him go, itching to ask him to stay and help him analyze the bits of data they had, but right now Tony would just drift back to another argument with Thor. Most of his ill mood was caused by the pain he was in, Bruce had no doubts about that, but the bigger part was uncertainty about how to handle the problem set before them.
Tony wasn’t used to not having the answers.
He looked up in time to see Fury giving him a look, and Bruce couldn’t help but tense a little under the scrutiny. “What about you, Doctor? Can you play ball with Thor?”
“When he has something conclusive to offer, we’ll talk about it,” Bruce decided. “Until then, I’m going to look into that radiation you picked up from the location in the first place, and maybe talk Tony into helping me.”
“You do that,” Fury nodded. “However, if Stark doesn’t follow your lead, don’t waste your energy on him.”
“We might need him yet,” Bruce reminded the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.; not only did Tony have resources at his fingertips, but a vast knowledge of things that might yet be helpful.
“Don’t I know it,” Fury sighed and dismissed him.
The sky outside was sunny, with white, fluffy clouds – a perfect day, at least up here. Tony wished he could make it uglier, somehow, to match his mood, then sighed unhappily.
He felt underdressed, but there hadn’t been time to change in between restraining Steve and bringing him here. At least he had procured shoes, although they weren’t his. Rather comfortable, though, considering…
Intellectually, he knew he should be more welcoming of Thor’s insight. They hadn’t been able to decipher the texts at the ruins yet, and if they seemed familiar to Thor, his guesses were perhaps better than anyone else’s. However, to just give up and blame it all on magic wasn’t something Tony was willing to do, and he tried to analyze the situation, again, and think of something that would make more sense to him, personally.
He was alone on the wide observation deck when an alarm went off. A moment later an announcement was made quickly and professionally of a prisoner escape.
Tony supposed that he should have been shocked that it had taken this long for Steve to free himself. He really didn’t like being imprisoned, clearly.
Tony frowned, wondering if he should go suit up or not. There were hundreds of capable agents on the Helicarrier, not to mention the other Avengers, and Fury had wanted him out of his sight so he might as well stay here and wait for them to handle the situation.
Crossing his arms carefully over his chest, Tony kept looking out the window. It was easy to pretend he hadn’t even heard the recent alarm. It was entirely possible Steve had already been caught, too, and escorted back to his cell. But, just as he thought of that, he heard footsteps and shouts from somewhere outside the wide room. Then again, these army types liked running more than walking, to make themselves look like they were on a mission, so it didn’t necessarily mean anything.
A door hissed open somewhere behind him, and Tony half-expected an agent to come over and beg him to join the search for the missing Avenger. Instead, he heard metal hitting metal, the sound of components breaking, and Tony whirled just in time to see Steve standing there, yanking his shield out of the locking mechanism of the door – and said door sitting firmly shut behind him.
“Shit,” Tony decided and looked around. There was only one exit – the door Steve may have just broken. The only other way out was through a window, and Tony had yet to sprout wings in order to make that a viable option. He looked back at Steve, who had moved half-way across the room, and was now standing there, staring at him.
Just staring at him.
Tony carefully allowed his arms to drop to his sides, dreading the reaction his movement might cause. Nothing happened, however. No shield slamming in his face, to break a few more bones or cut off his head entirely. After all, Tony was fairly certain the sharp edge of that shield could cut off a limb or two.
“Steve?” he asked carefully. Not that he expected the other man to suddenly answer, but doing nothing didn’t sit well with him either. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t try to murder me with your shield just now. No armor, you know? Not that I enjoy you trying to kill me with the armor on, either, but… So, we’re just going to stand here, doing nothing? That’s cool,” Tony went on talking – babbling, possibly – then almost jumped out of his skin at the sudden noise from the outside: someone was banging on the door, possibly trying to force it open, and it made Steve turn as well, staring at the entrance for a moment.
Tony half-expected Steve to do something, but he simply turned back to Tony after a few moments, resuming his silent stare. It was unnerving, and Tony attempted to see the reason behind it. If Steve had managed to escape, again, and even get his shield, why would he purposefully lock himself in a room with no exit?
Unless he was planning on taking a hostage and catching himself a ride off the Helicarrier, but Tony wasn’t certain whether Fury’s people would hesitate to shoot him if it helped them capture Steve again. He preferred to think they would treat him like any human shield, but these were the people who went around jabbing needles into unsuspecting victims…
The door wasn’t budging, and the banging stopped for a moment. Tony eyed the door nervously, wondering if they were going to blow it open. While he had nothing against being rescued from the situation, Steve was being relatively calm right now and Tony would rather not see that change while still locked in the limited space with him, unarmed and unarmored.
Why had Steve backed himself into a corner, though? It didn’t make sense. He could have grabbed a hostage anywhere else if he wanted to leave.
A grill suddenly fell down from the ceiling, crashing loudly on the floor. Steve whirled around to see Clint dropping down from what had to be an air vent, bow at the ready. The shield came up just as Clint drew his first arrow, and an explosion rocked the windows slightly.
“Stark, hit the deck!” Clint shouted and ran to the side, drawing another arrow, releasing it, clearly trying to lure Steve to the side. It worked, for about two steps, but then Steve flung his shield. Clint leaned back, barely missing the projectile, then straightened and released an arrow, knocking Steve back and off his feet with the impact of the exploding arrow. However, the shield hit the curving glass window, bouncing off it to the opposite wall – and then straight at Clint’s head.
Tony barely had time to open his mouth before the shield knocked Clint down, hard. The shield went sliding across the floor, stopping a few feet from Tony. Clint groaned and went still where he had fallen down. “Fuck,” Tony breathed, then looked at Steve. Regardless of the burn marks on his clothes and scratches on his skin, Steve was already rolling onto his stomach and getting up. He glanced at his opponent, noting that Clint was out cold, and fixed his eyes on Tony next while climbing to his feet.
Briefly, Tony entertained the idea of going for the shield, but he was simultaneously assaulted by a vision of Steve tearing off his entire arm if he tried to use the man’s own weapon against him. So, no grabbing the shield. He moved his attention forward. There were sounds coming from the door again, but nothing seemed to be happening. Clint didn’t look like he was getting up again on his own, blood staining the back of his hair, and Tony slowly inched closer to him, to make sure he was still alive.
Steve’s gaze followed him, his head turning, then slowly he moved as well, to fetch his shield from the floor.
Tony hurried the rest of the way to Clint and crouched down beside him, going for the pulse. It was there, and he could see the man breathing too, but he was out of the game for now. Glancing up, Tony met Steve’s glowing eyes again, yet the man hadn’t moved after retrieving his shield.
Daring to look down, Tony located a gun at Clint’s hip and swiftly grabbed it. A simple gun wasn’t his first choice, but at least he wasn’t unarmed anymore… which meant Steve might suddenly feel more inclined to attack him.
Looking up in alarm, Tony waited for the blond to make his move. There was no way Steve could have missed him grabbing the gun, after all. “Come on,” Tony murmured. The suspense was killing him.
Behind his back, someone banged at the door again – followed by the familiar sound of a blow-torch on the other side; they were going to open that door, and when they did… what were they going to find?
Steve looked at the door as well, as if judging the situation, and took a step forward. Tony shot up to his feet, adrenaline pumping through his veins as he lifted the gun, sliding the safety off. Steve stopped, looking at him and the gun. Tony knew he might get one shot in before Steve was on him. Two, if he got lucky. Of course both those shots might hit the shield instead of the man holding it, and then he would be completely and utterly fucked.
“Steve?” Tony tried again. “You know I don’t want to do this – and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do this either. This isn’t you. We’re your friends, and deep down, I’m sure you know that. Whatever is… possessing you or crawling around your mind, telling you what to do – it isn’t real. I need you to snap out of it, okay, Cap?” His hand shook, but if he had to pull the trigger, he would.
Steve didn’t move in any way, and Tony felt his resolve crumble slightly. Doubt nagged at his brain. Anyone else who had pointed any kind of weapon at Steve had gotten attacked with zero hesitation from the Captain. So why wasn’t Steve attacking him? What made Tony so fucking special?
The door was wrenched open behind him and something was launched into the room. Knockout gas. Tony had the sense to kneel down before he dropped, to save himself even more bruises, and as his eyes watered and lungs burned, he imagined for a brief moment a touch on his shoulder, and when he raised his face with some difficulty, the glowing eyes were so much closer than they had any right to be.
Clint was in the infirmary, suffering from a concussion and retinal detachment. Even in the best case scenario, he wasn’t leaving his bed for days. Natasha was at his side, hopefully getting the rest her injuries desperately needed.
Tony had been suffering from coughing fits after waking up, which no doubt made his fractured clavicle even more painful. He was grumpy and going on about how they were still missing something in the tests that would explain what the fuck was going on.
As the other man went on, Bruce wondered if they would have to admit defeat soon and accept Thor’s explanation of some kind of dark magic possession. Hopefully by the time they did that, Thor would also have an answer as to how to restore Steve back to himself.
While Tony had still been unconscious and they had secured Steve in another cell, Bruce had gone over the security feed from the observation deck. It had showed Steve purposefully destroying the door’s locking mechanism, but with no exit, he had been caught on the other side. He hadn’t seemed concerned by that.
The whole confrontation with Tony was strange. Bruce had felt his pulse quicken a little when Tony had picked up Clint’s gun, but he had already known nothing had happened to Tony save for being knocked out by the gas they used to momentarily incapacitate Steve. Something about that moment hadn’t rung true, and Tony had agreed on that hypothesis when he woke up and later walked into the lab Bruce was using.
“He should have attacked me,” Tony had said. “I pointed a gun at him and he did nothing.”
There were definitely ingredients involved that had not been explained, and Bruce was growing tired of chasing shadows. The readings from the substance Steve had been subjected to were inconclusive, the texts were still a mystery, and –
An alarm went off, for the second time during that day, and Tony looked up at the ceiling in disbelief. “He’s escaped again? What are my taxes buying if they can’t keep one man secured?”
Bruce found it no easier to believe, then watched Tony walk out, grumpy as ever, to suit up and go find Steve – again. Knowing better than to join the others, Bruce tapped at one of the larger screens and opened security feeds on it, to keep track of the situation. This time Steve was located in a matter of minutes, and Thor moved to intercept him after Steve took down four S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. How did he keep finding his shield, too? It was like some kind of homing beacon.
On one smaller screen he saw Tony suiting up and moving to join the fight. This time, when he arrived at the scene, Steve didn’t even hesitate to attack him, which surprised Bruce a little. After what had happened just hours before, he had expected at least some kind of hesitation. Instead Steve banged his shield ruthlessly against the armor, and Bruce winced, knowing Tony would be feeling it later. Frankly, he had no place out there, already injured, but at least the armor protected his bruised ribs and collarbone against most attacks.
Thor had left Mjolnir behind this time, because the hammer had caused enough destruction at the Tower. However, it seemed they were creating quite enough havoc even without it, especially when Tony fired his repulsors to get Steve off him and the energy shot a hole in the nearest wall when it bounced off the shield. Another blast sent Thor flying through a different wall, and it felt like Steve was doing it on purpose, to minimize his own efforts while using his enemies’ weapons against each other.
With Thor momentarily gone, Steve slammed the shield into Tony’s head, and something sparked. The Iron Man armor released flares, lighting up the entire hallway, making Steve move back. Tony got up on his knees, then angrily ripped off his helmet – which now had a deep gash in it – and angrily threw it across the hallway.
“Enough!” Tony shouted, pain and anger in his voice. There was a long, bleeding cut on the side of his head, which probably looked worse on camera than it actually was.
And just like that, Steve stopped. His attack posture changed into a relaxed one, and he lowered his shield to a far less threatening stance.
Bruce leaned towards the screen, blinking, wondering what had just happened.
Tony was breathing hard, easy to see even with the armor on. A moment later Thor came climbing back through the hole in the wall. “We shall finish this!” the Asgardian swore. Steve instantly lifted his shield higher.
“Wait,” Bruce whispered.
“Wait!” Tony snapped. “He’s… just standing there. Get someone down here to tranq him.” Thor gave the scene a suspicious look, then backed away into another corridor.
Once again, Steve’s body seemed to relax, his glowing eyes staring at Tony.
“What the hell is going on in that head of yours, Rogers?” Tony mused out loud.
There was no response, and when a group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents arrived on the scene, they didn’t hesitate to shoot a dozen tranquillizer darts into Steve before he could decide to attack them again.
With S.H.I.E.L.D.’s holding facilities unable to contain Steve for more than a few hours at a time, it shouldn’t have been such an argument to get them to release the man into the Avengers Tower.
“He keeps coming at us anyway, so at least this way he won’t try to run very far!” was Tony’s final argument, and Fury looked so fed up at that point that he just told them to take Cap and get out of his hair.
“It’s on your conscience when he escapes again,” the Director muttered.
“I can live with that,” Tony replied.
There were several Hulk-proof rooms around the tower, most of them designed to encourage Bruce to let the beast out rather than hold him prisoner, and Steve was placed in one of them. Tony locked it up and told J.A.R.V.I.S. to monitor Steve’s activities around the clock – as if he needed to actually say it.
“I’ll be in the shop,” Tony announced once that was done. With Clint still confined to a hospital bed while his eyes healed, they were short one man. Natasha had come with them, but Tony wasn’t sure she was fit to fight should Steve somehow manage to repeat his Houdini trick.
With Bruce in the lab, trying to shed light on the situation, and Thor pursuing other kinds of answers in his own end, still refusing to think this was anything but some magical assault, Tony felt like taking a moment for himself. He buried himself in armor schematics, seeing as his injuries were beginning to actually hinder him from doing anything. He had already taken more pain killers than was probably good for him, but the pain was still there. Perhaps if he had a drink or two, that would be taken care of.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up after a few hours had passed and Tony was almost pain-free as his attention was on something else. “Captain Rogers has just escaped his room.”
“How?” Tony asked, still looking at the schematics.
“He broke the wall paneling near the door and kept combining wires until he found one to open the door. I am not fully aware, at this time, how he managed to do that.”
“Huh,” Tony frowned. “Tell Thor and Coulson. Put him in the room that’s meant to keep the Hulk inside; we’ll see how he’ll deal with that.”
“Very well, sir.”
It was nice to not have someone question his every word for a change, and Tony focused on his work again, briefly noting that he might have to ask Steve how much he actually understood of electronics once all of this was over. It seemed he had been holding back. Or maybe it was just dumb luck and a hunch, because of all the people Tony had met, including himself, Steve was the most tenacious one. If he wanted to escape, he damn well would.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. started again.
“Just tell the others to handle it, okay? I’ve been informed I’m injured, and not fit for battle.” Not that it had stopped anyone from accepting his efforts when he helped take Cap down on the Helicarrier.
“But sir –”
“I’m kind of busy here!” Tony snapped.
On the opposite wall, a panel slid to the side to expose one of the armors. “Sir, please suit up.”
Tony looked up in annoyance and surprise, then happened to glance to the side and almost fell from his chair: Steve was standing behind the glass door of his shop, staring at him. “A little warning next time, J!” he exclaimed and stood up.
“I tried, sir,” the AI responded. “Power-up sequence –”
“No,” Tony ordered.
“I’m not putting the suit on,” he said, voice dropping as he watched Steve lift the shield and smash the section of the glass wall beside the door.
“Sir, I must insist,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said hurriedly. There was a note of concern in the electronic voice, especially when Steve stepped inside the workshop, broken reinforced glass crackling beneath his feet as he slowly walked closer.
“No,” Tony repeated, his mind made up. “Tell the others of the Captain’s current location. I’m not, however, putting on the suit, so you can put it away.”
“Sir, the calculated threat –”
“He won’t hurt me,” Tony decided. He wasn’t sure what he was basing that opinion on, and his heart was beating wildly in his chest – which J.A.R.V.I.S. would know – but Steve hadn’t killed him before when he had a chance, nor always hurt him, and if he didn’t put on the armor, maybe…
Steve kept approaching him, instead of just standing still. Tony wondered if he had perhaps made a mistake, but he didn’t have time to put on the armor anymore, and any movement he made might make Steve switch from cuddly to deadly.
A wall suddenly fell down between them, making both men start; it was a see-through blast door, for all intents and purposes, resilient enough to block a potential explosion or keep a fire from spreading. It was also strong enough to keep Steve busy until the others arrived, and Tony stepped over to it, regarding the other man, wishing he could see even a whisper of blue behind the glow.
Steve moved forward as well, until they stood but a foot apart, separated by the wall. Steve’s face was as impassive as always, the relentless stare making the hairs rise on the back of Tony’s neck, but somewhere in there was the man he had learned to respect and trust with his life.
“Agent Coulson and Thor Odinson are on their way. The front section of the workshop shall be dosed with an air-born sedative that should assist in quarantining Captain Rogers once more,” his AI let him know.
Tony nodded his head in acknowledgement and raised his left hand, pressing the palm against the translucent wall between them. He saw the lights flicker briefly on the other side, but Steve didn’t react to it; the glowing eyes kept staring, steadily, and then the blond lifted his right hand to rest it on top of the wall as well, at the same level with Tony’s.
Looking at their hands, only inches apart, Tony felt like someone had punched him in the stomach an hour ago that was still causing an ache deep inside. He lifted his eyes, meeting the glowing stare, and no one could convince him to think, after this, that Steve wasn’t in there somewhere.
J.A.R.V.I.S. released the sedative that rolled in like a thin fog, engulfing the room, Steve with it. Tony held his hand in place even when the other man went onto his knees, looking slightly disoriented, but the eyes never blinked, merely narrowed.
Thor appeared from within the fog, not affected by it, and Steve’s hand left the wall as he was yanked back and into restraints. Tony stepped back once Thor dragged Steve out, sitting back down, knowing it would take a few minutes before the air was recycled and he could step outside.
“Sir?” the AI prompted.
“I’m fine,” Tony reassured him. “Well done.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Tony stared blindly at the schematics still on the screen, then hid them with an angry swipe of his hand and clutched his hair tightly, closing his eyes. What a fucking mess this was, and Tony was beginning to realize he was going to have a harder time coping with this than he liked to think.
“Damn you, Rogers,” he muttered, then after the all-clear he headed up to his bedroom, pointedly ignoring the other Avengers.
With all those painkillers in his system, he felt like he might be able to sleep, finally. If his orders were followed, there was no way Steve could tear or force his way out of a Hulk-proof containment cell. That one had been tested by him and Bruce, after all…
With that in mind, Tony allowed himself to drift off – although not before staring at length at his left palm, imagining what it would have felt like to actually feel the heat of Steve’s skin, and not just the wall between them.
The voice was soft and quiet because J.A.R.V.I.S. knew better than to wake him up, especially when he needed sleep – and if Tony knew he needed sleep, then he had definitely been awake for too long. “Mmmhm,” Tony muttered and started to turn to his other side, then was reminded of his injured clavicle and settled back down.
“Sir, you’re not alone.”
Tony’s eyes opened so fast it’s as if he had been shocked. The lights were off, the familiar glow of the arc reactor was there – and then he spotted the two shining dots at the foot of his bed, and he sat up and backed away so fast he broke out in a cold sweat from the pain that followed about a second later. “Fucking Christ!” he gasped loudly. “J, lights, now.”
It was no less eerie, really, when the lights slowly came on and he could see Steve standing at the foot of his bed, silently staring at him.
Tony felt the initial stirrings of a panic attack. No one came into his bedroom while he was sleeping. “How did he get in?” Tony demanded.
“It would appear he still remembers the override code you gave him, in case of emergencies,” the AI replied.
“And how did he escape his new accomodations?”
“He managed to subdue Mr. Odinson.”
“He took out Thor,” Tony repeated. He needed to find the footage of that particular incident, and why had Thor even gone into the Hulk-containment room alone? “Have you… informed the others?” he asked, inching slightly further up the bed and tried to tell himself that there was no reason why Steve would want to steal the arc reactor from his chest. It was the least of his concerns, but some habits died hard, so he kept clutching his right arm over his chest anyway.
Steve remained where he was, looking completely relaxed. If it hadn’t been Tony’s bedroom, the creeper-factor might have been less prominent.
Tony started to ask about where the hell the others were, letting Steve wander around the Tower like this, but just then the entire wall of his room blew up, and Thor came crashing though it, Mjolnir in hand, tackling Steve to the floor. In the utter chaos of his entrance, all Tony could do was duck and hope he wasn’t going to be embedded with a dozen splinters by the time this was over.
Of course Thor had to bring his hammer, and because Steve went nowhere without his shield, no matter how far apart the two were placed from each other, the first time the two weapons struck together they leveled everything within the room and partially collapsed another wall.
If Tony had been smaller, he might have tried to roll off the bed and crawl under it. However, after the first clash, Steve’s feet rammed themselves into Thor’s chest, knocking him out of the bedroom, and the super-soldier followed like an angry animal, taking the battle outside.
Tony sat back up, slowly, staring at where a wall had once stood.
“Tony!” Bruce rushed inside, inspecting the damage for a brief second. His eyes glowed green, but he seemed to have the other guy under control. “Are you hurt?”
Shaking his head, Tony looked down at himself. “I don’t think so.”
Bruce nodded eagerly. “J.A.R.V.I.S. is helping to take Steve down a few notches so that they can… put him somewhere. The room we last stuck Steve in is ruined because Thor summoned Mjolnir through one of its walls after he recovered from Steve’s attack.”
Tony just blinked, feeling a bit out of it still.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Bruce asked, sounding concerned. He even sat on the side of the bed – which made the bed collapse, its legs giving out.
All Tony could do was laugh manically, bordering dangerously close to sobs when his AI informed them that Captain Rogers had been taken into custody once more, and that Thor assured them that he would not be taken off-guard again.
They were gathered in the kitchen, mostly because Bruce wanted Tony to eat something and it was as good a place as any to hold a meeting. Fury had come down to join them, to get a status report on Steve’s most recent escapes.
“I thought you said you had him under control here?” Fury pointed out.
“The first time he surprised us, but the second was Thor’s fault,” Tony answered tightly.
Thor nodded solemnly. “I underestimated the Captain’s resolve and skills. It is not a mistake I shall repeat. However, I suspect that whatever has taken possession of his body and mind is making him stronger.”
“Not by much,” Natasha observed. “Otherwise we would have a much harder time catching him.”
“I wonder if there’s a pattern,” Coulson mused. He had some papers in front of him, and he kept tapping his pen against the table beside them. “He keeps escaping, but short of traveling to the Tower the first time, he has not shown any intention of disappearing, like he did in Brazil.”
“He traveled from Brazil to the States – I’m not sure he was disappearing even then,” Bruce said. “Everything suggests that he does nothing on a whim.”
“So why keep breaking out?” Fury asked. “Why does he keep fighting us one second, only to calm down the next?”
“Why did he show up in my bedroom?” Tony added.
“As interesting as your reasoning for that might be, we don’t want to hear it,” Fury snapped.
“Actually, I think that’s the most important clue of all,” Bruce came to Tony’s defense. “I have been – as well as Agent Coulson, I believe – compiling information of what Steve’s been doing each time he escaped. Each time, he went to Tony. Last night in his bedroom. Earlier that day, in his workshop. On the Helicarrier, he locked himself in with Tony on the observation deck.”
“But he also attacked Tony various other times,” Thor frowned.
“Yes, but he stopped fighting whenever Stark took off the helmet,” Coulson spoke up. “As long as it’s just him and Stark, he’s calm. Just like when he came to the Tower after escaping the first time: the security feed showed he ceased fighting once Stark showed his face.”
“And, most importantly, he traveled all the way to Cambridge when Tony was there. He didn’t come to New York City, to the Avengers Tower, but he instead went to a city he has never been to before – because Tony was there,” Bruce finished their theory.
“Why me?” Tony asked.
“I believe only you can answer that,” Bruce mused, a lot softer than earlier, and Tony gave him a somewhat confused look – until it clicked that Bruce knew that…
Tony dropped his eyes and nodded, once. “Maybe,” was the only thing he said.
“‘Maybe’ what?” Fury demanded. “This isn’t the time to hold back.”
“Do we have any idea how to undo whatever’s happened to him?” Tony asked instead, stubbornly not delving deeper into how or why Steve kept showing up around him. He looked at Thor, because he was getting desperate, and if the Asgardian had some magical solution up his sleeve, he was about ready to go for it.
“The nature of the magic still eludes me; it is very old, and very powerful,” Thor answered. “It may be a clue that the Captain has a fondness for Tony, but we cannot rely on that to handle the situation.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘fondness’,” Tony started.
“Oh shut up,” Natasha muttered. “We all know what it is. Just because the two of you have never acted on it doesn’t mean it isn’t there for all to see.”
Tony blinked – as did Fury, who looked back and forth between the engineer and the spy before closing his eye. “I don’t need to hear more about that. The only thing I want is an answer to how we resolve this situation. And if the only thing you can give me is that Stark is Rogers’ new happy place, then I say we stick them in a cell together and put an end to this running away business while we find a permanent solution.”
“Hey!” Tony exclaimed, frowning. “That’s against more than one article of the bill of human rights.”
“Then give me answers!”
“I would, if I had any!”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but it would seem Captain Rogers has escaped again,” J.A.R.V.I.S. interrupted what was becoming a rather nice shouting match.
“What?!” Fury roared.
“How?” Tony asked, because it was starting to bug him.
“This time it seems the answer isn’t purely scientific: there was a spike of unknown radiation, approximately 54 seconds ago. The readings are similar to the ones S.H.I.E.L.D. recorded at the ruins in the Amazon. The radiation seems harmless, but is heavily interfering with all mechanics around it – including my sensors in the area and the locking mechanism of the containment level.”
“So when he can’t be bothered to break out the old-fashioned way, he does this?” Tony complained. “Please tell me it’s magic.”
“Would it make you feel better?” Bruce asked skeptically.
“Not really, but I could try,” Tony shrugged, then looked around. “Okay, why isn’t anyone moving?”
“Well, if our deduction is correct, all we need to do is sit here and wait for Captain Rogers to come to us,” Coulson stated dryly. “Or rather, to you.”
Tony scowled at them, but guessed they were right, if past experience was anything to go by.
It took Steve fifteen minutes to reclaim his shield from where it had been locked away – Tony told J.A.R.V.I.S. to just open the door for him because enough things had been broken or destroyed at the Tower already. Eight minutes after reclaiming his shield, Steve stepped into the kitchen, giving them all a glance, tension written all over his body.
“How are the radiation levels?” Tony asked.
“Nonexistent, sir; none can be detected at present time, save for the residual on the containment level.”
“What do we do now?” Natasha asked cautiously.
“Well, we know what will happen if we attack him,” Coulson mused. “So, maybe another kind of approach is in order.”
No one needed to look at Tony to give him a hint – but they all looked at him anyway. Pointedly. Tony gave them all a dirty look in return and stood up. “I’ll haunt every single one of you if he beheads me with his shield,” he promised, then turned towards Steve and cautiously walked over to him. It pained him, to still be in this position, fearing that the other man would attack him out of nowhere. This wasn’t Steve, though, not really. Tony had to see that, and remember that, but then he remembered the scene in the workshop, and the flash of a memory of a hand reaching out to touch his shoulder on the Helicarrier.
“Steve,” Tony said hesitantly, walking closer still. Steve hadn’t moved, and his eyes kept following Tony. At least, that’s what it felt like, but it was still impossible to say. “Look, I… We’re getting desperate here,” Tony went on, slowing down, but when the shield didn’t come flying and it looked almost like Steve was more relaxed the closer Tony got, he kept pushing it: “We want you to come back,” he said softly. “The real you. Wherever you are now… I know you’re still in there, no matter what Thor says,” he stated vehemently, and took two more steps, putting himself right in front of Steve.
Being so close to him wasn’t normal, not even before all this. There was personal space to take into account, and whenever they had moved closer than that, they’d felt almost guilty about it. They had never talked about it, but so often Tony had seen that uncertain look on Steve’s features. Not fear, but…
“I’m scared,” Tony admitted in a whisper. “I’m scared that you’re gone forever and I can’t get you back. That I can’t do anything to bring you home.” And although it was probably the most stupid thing he ever did in his entire life, he reached out and took both of Steve’s hands into his own, holding tight, feeling a sense of desperation burning inside him.
Steve’s hands squeezed back. Their eyes met – glowing white and brown – and then Tony’s breath stopped short and everything went white in his head.
It all looked promising: their assumption that there was some sort of bond between Tony and Steve appeared to be correct, as Steve made no move to attack any of them. While it was no cure, it sure as hell was a relief, and potentially something they could study to further understand the situation.
Tony was talking quietly and reached out to take Steve’s hands in his. It was a small, sweet gesture, especially from Tony Stark, and Bruce guessed this was the first time in weeks that someone had touched Steve without ulterior motives.
The peaceful moment lasted for two seconds before both men suddenly fell to the floor as if marionettes cut from their strings.
Natasha jumped up, freezing slightly as her still-bruised back caught up with the motion. Fury and Coulson both jerked, and Thor flew up from his chair and was a step ahead of Bruce when they moved over to Tony and Steve.
“What happened?” Bruce asked, confused. The two men were still holding hands, and both their eyes were closed. Tony wasn’t a surprise, really, but Steve hadn’t so much as blinked since Brazil, far as they knew, yet his eyelids were firmly lowered now.
Bruce moved his hand to their throats, starting with Tony, and could feel his pulse, steady and only slightly slower than normal. As if they were just calmly asleep.
“They just collapsed,” Coulson stated the obvious, probably to challenge someone to offer an explanation. The others had joined Bruce and Thor, leaning over, peering at their fallen teammates.
Bruce frowned then gently tapped Tony’s cheek, then a little harder. “Tony. Hey, Tony!” No response. “Let’s get them to the lab,” Bruce decided, moving his hands down to his teammates’ clasped ones and tried to pry them apart. “Huh,” he breathed after a bit and tried again; every time he attempted to dislodge their hands, both men would tighten their hold on each other, although it didn’t seem they were awake or aware. “They won’t let go.”
“What?” Natasha asked.
“Let me,” Thor offered, and Bruce leaned back. Thor went at it from a few different angles, a frown deepening on his face. “They are truly determined to not let go of each other,” he finally observed.
“Let them be for now: I don’t want you to accidently break any bones,” Bruce ordered, then glanced up Steve’s arm. “At least cut the straps of the shield; we don’t need that to be in the way.” Natasha presented a knife from her belt and they carefully cut the shield free of Steve’s forearm, then Thor lifted the Captain while Fury and Coulson grabbed Tony.
“What do you think triggered this?” Fury asked as Bruce helped Natasha open doors on the way to the lab.
“Connection, perhaps?” Bruce threw a wild guess into the air. “Or maybe it was just the right time. I don’t think Steve had been emitting radiation before today. Let’s move those beds together,” he gestured then, and he and Natasha pushed two hospital beds together and lowered the sides.
With Tony and Steve laid out, Bruce went around examining them. First he checked their eyes. Both of them were completely white, although Tony’s just looked like they had rolled back in his head; Steve’s were still glowing, although less brightly. Next he hooked them up to a few machines. “Heart rates are lower than normal, but not alarmingly so. It’s like they’re deeply asleep – or in a coma.” He went around again, poking at them. “Reflexes are sluggish or nonexistent. However…” He tried tugging at their hands again, and immediately both heart rates spiked, but other than that, there was no reaction save for tightening arm muscles.
He stopped circling the beds and looked at Thor. “Please tell me this is a good sign.”
Thor shook his head. “I fear not, yet I do not know what kind of magic we are dealing with.”
“Why now, and why Stark?” Fury asked. “People have been touching Rogers, even making direct skin contact. None of them went into a coma with him.”
“Maybe it’s the hand-holding,” Natasha offered.
“It has to be Tony,” Bruce decided. “Steve has been drawn to him, and he was the only person he wouldn’t attack, even when provoked. Well, when it was Tony without the suit, anyway. I don’t think the two of them touched each other before now.”
“So this could have been resolved on day one?” Fury groaned. “Great.”
“And we would have been even more clueless of what is going on,” Bruce snapped, trying to see something good in this. There weren’t a whole lot of things to be happy about…
“Should we try to wake them up, or do you think they’re… sorting out whatever it is that’s going on?” Coulson mused.
“If we can awaken them, I think it should be done,” Thor decided.
“Let me try a few things,” Bruce offered.
Nothing worked. Bruce was convinced that even an explosion wouldn’t wake up the two men, who remained unmoving, holding hands. The only way to confirm they were alive, save for their pulses, was to try and make them let go of each other – which was impossible if they weren’t prepared to cut some limbs or crack bones.
They weren’t nearly that desperate.
However, they needed to find a solution, and none of the medical tricks, usual or controversial, were working.
“Thor,” Bruce said to the Asgardian as the two of them stood staring at Steve and Tony. “You need to go and find answers. I’ve done all I can, and while S.H.I.E.L.D. might still have a few aces up their sleeve, I’m worried.” Steve had survived in the ice, but Tony was only human. Whatever was happening to their bodies… Bruce could keep them alive, but for how long if their organs started to shut down or their brain activity died down?
Thor nodded. “I should have returned to Asgard earlier, but I hoped the magic would fade or I would find an answer in the texts. Alas, I have failed our friends.”
“There’s still time to fix things,” Bruce reassured him. “The quicker you leave, the sooner you’ll get back. I shall care for them in your absence, but we need help. We need a cure.”
Thor nodded again, and gave Bruce a thankful look. “I shall not return before we know how to release our friends from this curse.” Then he left, red cape fluttering in the air, and Bruce watched him go before turning back to the two men. They looked peaceful, and Bruce hoped appearances weren’t deceiving.
The brilliant white hurt his eyes for a moment, but the sensation slowly ebbed away and left Tony feeling slightly disoriented and… was he drunk? No, that wasn’t it, but the feeling was somewhat similar, although he didn’t need to pee, nor did he want to puke his guts out.
Tony looked around, confused. Colors were bleeding into the light and… “Steve?” The other man turned around, and his eyes had never looked so amazingly blue to Tony. Also, those eyes distracted Tony for about five seconds from noticing that Steve was completely naked, which was a little weird, but Tony didn’t care.
“Tony?” Steve spoke quietly, hesitantly, blinking as if he wanted nothing more than to rub his eyes and make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Guess Tony wasn’t the only one doubting his eyes. “How are you here?” Steve finally went on, taking a step forward, and Tony determinedly closed the distance between them, tired of all the bullshit that had taken place prior to ending up here.
Steve reached out with his hands and Tony was just about to grasp them…
Tony stopped, remembering what had just happened; he had taken Steve’s hands in his and then he was suddenly here. Which was… where, exactly?
He looked around, confused. There was no scenery, not really. It was all white and misty, but behind Steve there was something that looked like the ocean, only there was barely any sound. No wind, no waves. Something like the sun shone in the distance, but it was also covered in mist or clouds or whatever.
“Tony,” Steve said again, and Tony looked at him, seeing fear on his face.
“I’m here,” Tony reassured him, and closed the distance between them. He hesitated for a second, then took Steve’s hands in his, and nothing happened. “Huh,” Tony mused, then looked down at himself. Yup, he was naked, too, which really shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, considering Steve’s birthday suit. Clearly clothes weren’t a requirement wherever they were. However, the arc reactor still sat in his chest, which was maybe a little weird, considering, but he could live with that.
If they were even alive anymore.
Tony looked at Steve and frowned. “Is this where you’ve been?”
Steve frowned right back at him. “Where I’ve been?”
“A little less than three weeks ago, something happened to you while you were in Brazil. In the Amazon.” Which reminded him… Tony released his right hand and punched Steve in the chest, which resulted in a rather hurt expression from the other man. “Who the hell told you to go all Indiana Jones on us in some old rainforest temple? You idiot!” Tony snapped at him. “You’ve been going totally berserk ever since, attacking everyone and causing a shitload of problems.” He didn’t mention the people Steve had killed.
Steve was still frowning, idly rubbing the spot where Tony had hit him. “I… remember Brazil, I think. It was…” He was thinking hard, clearly. “It was like being in the ice, all over again,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I could barely think. But then there were moments when things just… calmed down. It felt better.”
“When did that happen?” Tony asked, although he thought maybe he had an idea.
“I think I was trying to come home,” Steve finally guessed. “Not just… not just home, but…”
“To me,” Tony finished for him.
Steve looked surprised, and his left hand grabbed Tony’s right one again. Tony noticed his collarbone didn’t hurt, so at least all the pain of his actual life hadn’t followed him here. “Did I hurt you?” Steve asked.
“Not more than I can take,” Tony hedged. They could do the injury count later.
“Well, you messed up Natasha’s back, detached Clint’s retinas, critically wounded Thor’s pride on many occasions, and you also owe me, like, three suits at least,” Tony finished, then squeezed Steve’s fingers. “It’s okay. As long as we get you back, it will be okay.”
Steve looked at him, then around. “I don’t… How are we going to get out?”
“No idea,” Tony confessed, looking around as well. “You said something about ice? I think it’s pleasantly warm here.”
“It melted, into the ocean,” Steve noted. “Not like that, but… I just know it did.”
Tony tilted his head, looking past Steve’s shoulder at the noiseless water. Creepy. “I would consider it a good change; it seems I didn’t pack my winter clothes.”
Steve let out a small, sharp, embarrassed laugh, but he didn’t try to cover himself. Tony guessed it was pointless, seeing as they had no way of knowing how long they would be trapped here. Might as well get used to it. Not that Tony was complaining, because Steve being buck-ass¬ nude was definitely something he would gladly stare at until the end of his days, if this was it. He wondered if Steve agreed, on some level, because there was a very faint flush on his cheeks as he looked at Tony almost coyly – and this time he didn’t stop at his face.
“Let’s sit down,” Steve suggested after a bit, and he pulled Tony over to the water’s edge. It was kind of peaceful, when they sat down and sank their feet in the water, Tony going first because he couldn’t wrap his head around this being ice just moments ago. After they settled down, they sat staring at the water for the longest of time, then slowly Steve scooted a little closer, and Tony did the same, and it was okay to wrap their arms around each other, even with the nudeness factor pushed into the equation.
“I was so afraid of losing another lifetime again,” Steve confessed against Tony’s shoulder a moment later. “It’s not like I have actual flashbacks of the ice, but I’ve had nightmares… And I would have lost all of you, too. When I could, I kept thinking… I kept telling myself what a coward I was for never saying the things to you that mattered.”
“You didn’t need to,” Tony reassured him. “I knew. I always knew.”
He could feel Steve’s breath on his skin, warm and sweet. If they weren’t alive anymore, this was as close to heaven as Tony was ever going to get.
“Even after the Battle of New York, I knew you were the one I could count on,” Steve went on. “Hell or high water, you would answer my call, every time. No matter how inconvenient it was for you. All the snarks and complaints were just a front, to keep people from finding out who you really are. Had me fooled, too, at first.” The lips curved into a smile, and Tony had to echo it, although a bit sadly.
“Do you think we wasted all that time?” he asked.
“Yes,” Steve replied immediately, with zero hesitation.
“Why did we?” Tony mused, frowning. They had never talked about it, but he knew he had told himself a lot of things to keep his feelings under wraps. Some of those things might be the same Steve had told himself.
“For the good of the team,” the other man said. “At least, that’s what I told myself.”
Tony nodded. “Sounds familiar.”
Steve’s arm moved more firmly around him, drawing him closer. “I know it sounds selfish, but if we never leave here… I’m glad you’re here with me.”
Tony shifted lower and turned his face to rest against Steve’s wide chest, just under his face. “I know a thing or two about selfish… This doesn’t begin to cover it.”
And so they sat there, at the edge of the abyss, wrapped up in each other, and it felt like years passing. Time didn’t move the same way, and the scenery remained as it was, but Tony could feel Steve’s fingers caressing his skin, and he could count the seconds if he wanted. He chose not to.
They might be snapped out of here in the next second – or never.
“Tony,” Steve murmured against his brow.
“Yeah?” Tony asked.
“No,” Tony cut him off, pulling back slightly to look Steve in the eye. “Don’t say it.”
The blue depths, which he had feared he might never see again, were bright, brimming with unshed tears.
Tony felt his own eyes burn and reached up to frame Steve’s beautiful, noble, conflicted face with his fingers. “You’ll say those words to me when we get out of here. Deal?”
“Deal,” Steve nodded in agreement, and pulled Tony back into his arms.
Tony was fairly certain he could spend an eternity here, not hearing those words but knowing they existed in Steve’s heart.
“Thor’s been gone for almost a week,” Clint huffed. He had been released from the S.H.I.E.L.D. infirmary, with his eye-sight unimpaired by the incident. He was still recovering, but he had claimed he would heal better around the other Avengers.
Two of which were still in a coma, for lack of a better word.
“Give him time,” Bruce said softly, checking an IV drip going into Tony’s arm. Their bodies hadn’t shut down, but certain things needed to be taken care of in order for them to remain healthy, Tony more than Steve. With the two men still holding hands like teenage lovers at their first party together, maneuvering them was rather difficult. Clint had tested their grip more than once, forced to admit defeat each time.
“How much time?” Clint asked impatiently. “What if it takes him a really long time to find answers? Maybe he got distracted.”
Bruce looked at him sharply. “You have that little faith in him?”
“Let’s just say that I would feel more comfortable with some status updates,” Clint amended.
Bruce held his gaze a bit longer, then let out the air from his lungs and sagged a little. His hand ghosted over Tony’s shoulder, tugging the blanket over him a little lower to check on the persistent glow of the arc reactor. “He’ll come back. He has to,” he finally decided.
Clint guessed that was all they could hope for. This waiting around sucked, though. It had almost been better when Steve was still trying to hurt them.
Getting up, Clint walked out of the room they had moved Steve and Tony to; it was more comfortable than a lab, and it wasn’t as if they didn’t have the room at the Tower.
Clint headed up to the main floor, finding Natasha and Coulson there. Clint glanced at them, and Coulson looked up briefly, then away again. Clint knew the man sat with their two teammates more often than the others. Maybe it had something to do with him watching Steve being thawed from the ice. Perhaps he was just keeping watch, in case anything happened; after a couple days, it had gotten a little old for all of them, but Coulson still kept going there, staring at the two of them as if that alone was going to make a difference.
“Any change?” Natasha asked eventually, as Clint moved to the fridge to grab himself a beer.
“Nope,” he replied and sat down on the couch.
She nodded without looking up from the book she was reading. In the first few days she would say ‘they’re going to make it, you’ll see’, but she didn’t bother with that anymore. However, Clint liked to think she still believed it, but just didn’t feel like repeating herself.
Coulson got up after a moment and left the room. Clint knew where they would find him, should they need him.
Nine days after Thor left, he returned in a blaze of thunder and lightning. New York City hadn’t seen such a storm in years, and the clouds were the darkest above the Avengers Tower.
When Thor showed up in Central Park, S.H.I.E.L.D. was on location in ten minutes. In twelve, they had called the Tower and Bruce gathered everyone to greet Thor – and the woman he had brought with him.
“Who’s the crone?” was the first question out of Clint’s mouth. Natasha elbowed him hard for that, but it seemed she would have liked to know as well.
“She is both old and wise, well versed in dark magic,” Thor said by way of introductions and had Bruce lead them down to the room Steve and Tony were in. They had gathered copies of the texts and the slab of stone for her to see, and she inspected them long and hard, murmuring foreign words beneath her breath.
“Can she help?” Natasha asked at length, impatiently.
Thor gave her a quick look. “I have told her as much as I knew, but there are many questions yet to be answered. I believe, however, that she can help our friends.”
The Crone, as Bruce now called her in his head because of Clint’s comment, finally turned to Thor and spoke to him in a strange language that definitely didn’t sound like any ancient Scandinavian dialect to him. Thor nodded and then took her further into the room with the two men.
Bruce watched anxiously as she circled, touched and examined them – at times roughly, but Thor would not let any of them intervene. She nodded, finally – and drew a long, twisted knife from under her robes.
“Woah, okay,” Coulson snapped into attention. “We won’t need to sacrifice any goats, will we?”
The Crone spoke, and Thor nodded gravely. “It is as I have feared: dark magic, very ancient and powerful.”
“Can she do something about it?” Natasha asked, hand already reaching for her gun, eyes on the Crone’s blade.
“She thinks so,” Thor noted, “but the counter spell requires blood – from them both.”
“I’m sure we can get blood without… any of that,” Bruce volunteered, pointing a finger at the blade. “Please?”
The Crone muttered something but stepped aside at Thor’s request.
Bruce drew blood from both unconscious men and presented her with two tubes. “Tell me if she needs more. Just… no cutting, unless that’s part of the spell. And even then, I vote for no cutting.”
The Crone opened the tube with Tony’s blood, tilted it, then poured some onto her hand. Then she began to draw a rather complicated-looking symbol on Steve’s chest, above his heart, murmuring under her breath. Once she was done, she did the same thing to Tony, with Steve’s blood. She glanced at the arc reactor before smudging blood over it as if it were skin as well, then drew her knife once more.
Clint, Coulson and Natasha all reached for their weapons again, but Thor moved to the side, bringing over the slab of stone, presenting it to her like an offering. She turned, dragging her knife back and forth over what remained of the substance Steve had smeared his hand with, then leaned over the two men again.
“This must be done,” Thor said, looking at the three armed people in the room. He also looked at Bruce, to make sure he understood. “The magic was begun by blood, and so it must end. I am sorry.”
The Crone began to murmur something, and then stabbed her knife first into Steve’s chest, and then into Tony’s. The wound was small and shallow, but it bled and Bruce was worried about the substance she had carved out of the stone, which would now possibly cause an infection. Also, if that had started all their troubles, wouldn’t adding more make it worse?
“Have faith,” Thor murmured, and looked on as the Crone kept muttering words, chanting something, and it felt like the room darkened for a moment, lights flickering. Bruce felt something like electricity on his skin, as well as an intense, momentary cold – and then the Crone lifted her knife, pointed at the slab of stone and screamed a string of unintelligible syllables. What looked like dark smoke appeared from somewhere between Steve and Tony, and shot out into the slab of stone, disappearing just as fast as it had appeared.
The Crone gestured at Thor, and he handled the stone carefully, carrying it outside – then proceeded to smash it into bits with Mjolnir, followed by a flash of lightning that darkened the entire building for a few seconds before the power was restored.
“That was dramatic,” Clint observed.
“It is done,” Thor said and returned to the room, bowing his head at the Crone.
“So, what was all that about?” Natasha asked. “Why did Steve get possessed in the first place?”
“Ah,” Thor nodded, “that is a story indeed. It would seem a jealous witch cursed the soul of some long-lost being, condemned forever to search for its lost love – and to never find the one it was looking for. This is why the Captain continuously sought Tony’s attention, for the spirit was trying to connect with him, convinced that Tony was its lost love. That is, of course, because of the deeply buried feelings our leader holds for the Man of Iron. Otherwise he would have simply tried to destroy everyone and everything around him, in a mad search for something he could never find.”
“That’s… ridiculously clichéd,” Clint decided. “A cursed soul looking for its beloved?”
“Never underestimate the power of eternal love, Hawkeye,” Thor said gravely. “It is stronger than hate and fear combined, and can conquer all obstacles in its way.”
“Which included beating us up,” Natasha mused. “That makes so much sense.”
“The spirit must have seen us as a threat – or as an obstacle between it and its destination,” Bruce guessed and moved to the side when the Crone left the bedside and the room. “Are they going to awaken soon?” he asked Thor.
“I would think so,” the blond nodded, a hopeful look on his face. “They may be disoriented and weak, before their minds and bodies –”
A gasp came from the bed, and they all turned to watch as Tony’s eyes flew wide open, mouth opening and closing a few times before he settled slightly. A few seconds later Steve inhaled deeply, blinking as well, his eyes back to their normal blue color. He moved slightly, gazing at Tony, and then the super-soldier was moving, pushing himself upwards.
“Easy,” Bruce hurried to assist him, but before he could reach the bed, Steve rolled forward. Their entwined hands let go, after nine days, only so that Steve could prop himself over Tony’s body and kiss him with a passion that made Bruce flush. Tony moaned, reaching up, grasping at Steve, drawing him in, and there was definitely more going on under the blankets.
“Okay, guys,” Clint called out, “you’re happy to see each other in the land of the living, that’s great. Drinks for everyone.” There was no reaction whatsoever. “Stark! Drinks!” he called out again, as if the magic word would snap Tony out of it.
Bruce cleared his throat, but nothing happened – save for Steve’s arm moving down and grabbing Tony’s leg, pulling it up and around his waist.
“My friends!” Thor boomed loudly, as only he could, as finally Steve and Tony froze, lips locked for three awkward seconds before they parted and Steve turned to look at them. A blush colored his skin, whereas Tony simply looked annoyed at being interrupted.
“Welcome back,” Coulson said, voice deceptively calm.
“Uh, thanks,” Steve replied hesitantly and inched the blankets slightly higher over their bodies.
Tony propped himself up on one arm, then hissed and fell back down, remembering his injuries once more. He lifted his head a moment later and stared at something. “What the hell is that?” he asked.
Everyone turned to look, seeing the Crone standing near the doorway, looking quite bored regardless of the eyeful they had just gotten from their two teammates.
“She saved you,” Coulson said flatly. “Dark magic, possession, desperate souls seeking their lost loves, that sort of thing.”
Tony, for once, elected to say nothing at all.
Steve, however, seemed to have something on his tongue he wanted to share; he gazed at Tony with a sickeningly sweet look and said: “I love you.”
It took more than Thor’s booming voice to break them apart after that. Bruce had never seen a grown man pout so wholeheartedly than when he told Tony he would have to check his vitals before he could be allowed to go to bed – with Steve, by the looks of things.
“About fucking time,” Fury growled when the Avengers filed into the briefing room. “Captain, good to have you back.”
“Thank you, sir,” Steve nodded his head, then halted briefly to see where Tony was going to sit, and chose the chair next to him. It was nothing out of the ordinary, really, but Coulson had warned Fury that there had been certain amorous feelings flying around the Tower since the two men had regained consciousness. While it was still unclear what exactly had happened to them while they were under, it was clear an irreversible change had taken place afterward.
Fury wasn’t yet certain whether it would be causing him extra headaches or not.
Judging from the stupidly content look on Tony’s face, he prayed this was a change for the better. The two of them secretly pining over each other had been bad enough. However, he had always been of the opinion that it was better if they didn’t explore the depths of their relationship, and what it could become.
Now that it was too late to go back down that road, Fury guessed he just needed to roll with it and hope for the best.
“Alright,” he called out, snapping everyone to attention, “let’s start with someone’s stupid-ass decision to let Captain America crawl into a hole in a wall – and how that turned out.”
“It turned out okay,” Tony noted, giving Steve a lopsided smile.
“The honeymoon’s over,” Fury told him.
“That’s what you think,” came the flippant answer, and Steve seemed to be making a point of not argue that point.
Headaches, Fury decided. A lot of extra headaches.
“Relax, boss,” Coulson whispered to him. “It’s a good thing.”
“Shut up, Agent,” Fury muttered, but he certainly hoped Coulson was right. At least something good had to come from all that had happened, and considering the things Steve would blame himself for once everything he had done came to his knowledge, the man certainly deserved a little happiness right now.