"Well, this is delightful," Tony Stark says as he enters the room. His footsteps echo resonantly around the control room of the abandoned Triskelion project — Fury's failed prototype helicarrier — making it sound emptier than it actually is. Although there are some partial structures around the building, it looks like as soon as funding got cut for the building they just left everything and vacated the base. It's a total waste in Steve's opinion. "I absolutely love what you've done with the place."
Steve does his best not to visibly bristle. The fact that it takes more effort than it does to subdue an entire HYDRA unit does not escape his notice.
"You're late," Steve says, without even turning around.
"Hello to you, too," Tony says, wandering into Steve's eye line and not even bothering to pretend to look offended. Either very little affects him, or he's as much of a mental duck as Steve, valiantly paddling while trying his best to look unruffled on the surface and basically just stay afloat. The internet said something about Tony's penchant for making duck faces at the camera, so maybe Steve should be generous and plump for the latter option.
"Besides," Tony adds, poking at one of the wall panels and sneering in open disgust. "A Stark is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to."
Great, Steve thinks. That's definitely Tony Stark's quoting voice. He'd like to think Tony's not meaning to deliberately wind him up, that Tony just leaks cultural references wherever he goes, but that's just Steve's overly optimistic side speaking.
He knows Captain America can get on with Iron Man. He knows in a stressful, world-threatening situation that they can reach an agreement and work together.
This isn't a world-threatening situation, and Steve does not know if Steve Rogers and Tony Stark will get on when there's nothing of real substance on the line. Steve's trying not to be colored by his past history with Tony's father, but it's difficult, seeing how much of Howard Stark lies on his son's face. And in his sarcasm.
"I'll tell you the first thing we need to change," Tony says. "The location. I think my eyebrows froze. The press will think I had botox."
Steve squints. He's been trying his best not to think about the icy location of the Triskelion, because he's been trying not to think about how the whole heavy base might sink through the ice, and why did SHIELD build this thing in Alaska. It's not conducive to any sort of good thoughts, Steve thinks. "I'm squinting because I don't know what botox is," Steve explains. "I agree with the location change."
"I do like it when people agree with me," Tony says. "And botox is a weird, face injection thing done by vain people who aren't as naturally young and virile as me."
Steve forces himself to deconstruct his squint. It's much easier to ignore Tony and not argue with him. "Our reconnoitre shouldn't take more than two hours," Steve says, because he feels a little out of his depth, and it's the best attempt at small talk he can muster.
"I'm officially on SHIELD time," Tony says, tapping his empty wrist where a watch might be, and walking past Steve to glance at what might have been windows, once upon a time. Tony hugs his suit jacket closed as he moves, because the Triskelion is protected from the ice but it's still cold; it had been abandoned way before the heating system was installed. Steve's jacket is thinner than Tony's, but it's not for financial reasons — SHIELD's outfitted him with a ridiculous amount of clothes considering Steve used to make do with a wardrobe of about eight things, total — he doesn't really feel the cold much since the serum. "I'm yours until five o' clock," Tony continues. "Well. Four. I factor in my travel time. So do with me what ye will, mon Capitane."
Steve wrinkles his nose, but only because Tony's not looking in his direction.
"I don't know how much information Fury gave you," he says, straightening up and following Tony along the metal walkway that splits the Triskelion's control room in two. "I'm pretty sure I can handle scoping out if the layout's good enough for our strategic and logical needs, but science, technology... Things are an awful lot smaller than they used to be on that front than my time." Steve looks up at the sweeping ceiling of the Triskelion, and the metal-latticed roof. "And some things are bigger."
Tony shoots him a blank look over the edge of his sunglasses that curls into an almost amused expression. "That's what she said, Cap," he says, a little too cheerfully, and damn if Steve hasn't walked himself into innuendo.
The Howling Commandos were fond of doing that sort of thing to him, too. Steve ought to have gotten used to it. Or at least he should have some stock phrases, something to give the illusion that he can defend himself against verbal silliness that doesn't sound uptight and preachy.
Silence is usually his default recourse. "That's what who said?" he blurts, suddenly.
The look Tony gives him, infinitely amused, tells him that maybe he should have stayed with his default recourse.
"I can definitely see why this thing wasn't able to fly," Tony says, amiably, ignoring Steve's question. "Much too dense building material. How this ever got past even one committee..." He trails off, prodding at some of the more technological-looking items in the room. "Well, that's bureaucracy for you."
"I guess some things really haven't changed," Steve says, thinking of some of the bureaucracy back in his time. He's slowly learning to think like that, even though back in his time still feels like just a few months ago to him.
"Some things have," Tony says, brushing his hands together as he steps back from the table he was poking. "Like me. Look at me. Ready and waiting to listen to your orders." Tony shifts his weight from the balls of his feet to his toes and back again, and there's an odd curl to Tony's lips that makes Steve think he's missing something.
It feels like Tony's mocking him, and Steve can't figure out how, and that makes him more annoyed than any concrete slur could. "Let's just get this survey over and done with," Steve mutters.
Tony salutes, off-centre and much too loose. Steve doesn't correct the gesture. It's probably not worth the effort.
It's not too weird scoping out the first floor of the Triskelion with Tony Stark. Tony apparently takes his alternate-Thursday consulting role relatively seriously, and is mostly quiet as he takes a few brief notes on a tablet. Steve's been taking notes the old-fashioned way, pencil and paper, and Tony hasn't even made a quip about it.
Steve's starting to feel pleasantly surprised by this whole trip — if you exclude that he thinks that this place is way too big for a base for the number of Avengers they have right now — when they move into the last main room of the first floor.
Because that's when it starts to feel weird.
Abandoned buildings have always made him melancholic on some level. During the depression, families just upped and vanished from their homes, boarded up the windows and just left, no note, no forwarding address. Moonlight flits were a common sight back then, when money was a wish and a prayer, and escaping to something better was the only version of the American dream people had left.
All too often, no one remembered who used to occupy the now-abandoned space. Sometimes you could fit together a story of who'd been there from the things left behind (a bottomless saucepan, a charcoal sketch stuck to the wall with something unidentifiable, a cracked cotton reel). Sometimes you could recall a face or a name of someone who used to be there, but there'd be no hole on the sidewalk where they used to be; people just moved to fill the gaps, like liquid filling free space. Sometimes other people would move into the abandoned building, legally or otherwise, and in the latter case, eyes would follow you from behind slats. Watching to see if you were a danger. Waiting.
Tony doesn't seem to notice the weirdness. Not at first. In each new room, Tony's drawn to the electronics like honey to a bee. Buzz, buzz, buzz. The hum of equipment. Steve's faintly remembering one of Tony's Iron Man suits, gold and black, when he realizes why the shape of this room is familiar.
"We are not soldiers." The quote rattles around Steve's skull in Tony's voice, laced with the same emotion that Tony spoke them with, and Steve's stomach cramps unhappily.
Over from where he's gravitated to, a long bank of powered-down control interfaces, Tony turns to look at him. The overhead windows, far above their heads, don't allow much light into the place, and stripes of shadow cast themselves across Tony's face, underlining his curious expression. "What did you say?"
Steve hadn't meant to say it out loud. For a moment he's distracted by those lines of light, emphasising the shape of Tony's face, making him look like a stranger, reminding Steve of how little he knows Howard's son even after all they've done together. The stripes should be making him think of his bee analogy, should be making him smile, but they don't. He's not smiling.
Tony's waiting for an answer. He's unruffled by most things. Steve has to find clues to how Tony Stark is feeling in the minutiae. A tiny huff of breath. A nervous tic. And there's one now — a tiny furrow of the brow.
Tony's curious. It shouldn't be a surprise; scientists and curiosity went together like Clint and his bow. Like most soldiers, Steve favours taciturnity. The fact that Steve's volunteered to say something of his own volition is probably strange to Tony, who doesn't favour silence as readily as Steve does.
"Just recalling a memory," Steve says, vaguely. Another clue appears — Tony's mouth flattens, barely perceptible in the striped light. Prison bar light, Steve's memory unhappily says. The vague answer isn't going to cut it. "Doesn't the shape of this place seem familiar to you?"
It's not so much a clue as a giant, massive sign when Tony's mouth falls into an O shape wide enough to provide entry for an entire swarm of bees. Steve's not entirely pleased that his brain is conjuring disturbing imagery, but he's not surprised.
This place gives him the creeps. There's no latticed boards, no abandoned detritus that spell out the story of a fleeing family, but the feeling is there. Something watching, in the dark.
"Huh," Tony says. Even in his confusion he fills the space with sound. He hurries over to stand closer to the construction in front of them. The glass is dirty, and ominously cracked, and Steve can see half of Tony's face reflected in amongst the grime. "I guess it makes sense. The Hulk's always been a priority to Fury."
Steve draws up closer to the edge of the cage. There's no fall for this cage, no mechanism which looks like it could dump the cage into the sky, but it's obviously meant for the Hulk.
Maybe it's meant for Bruce too. There's a metal frame of what might have been a bed, stapled to the floor with industrial bolts. There's a dirty puddle of water from leaks in the roof. This place has never been properly Hulk-proofed, but the intent is there, large and unmistakeable.
This fake base is unpleasant enough without this place in it. A prison is a prison, no matter how it's painted up and presented.
"Of course, there's the question," Tony continues, following Steve up to the glass wall of the cage. "Is Fury's priority keeping the public safe, or hoarding a formidable weapon?"
He side glances at Steve. Steve looks back, and there's something defiant in this moment. Something unsaid that Steve can't find the right word for, that's existed in some form since meeting Tony. Since he realised there was nothing of Howard Stark in Tony's face but the moments he liked Howard the least.
Steve doesn't want to answer, because the answer is weapon, and the future just feels bleaker with every new piece of information and every new realization.
If there's hope in this time, in this place, he doesn't know where to look for it.
Tony doesn't push Steve for an answer. He raps at the glass, like a kid poking at a zoo animal, and the echoed knocks break the silent deadlock between them. Tony nods, jerks his head at the door, and Steve follows him silently to the next room.
They don't look back.
Maybe silence is something that works like osmosis, or the lingering chill of the fractured Hulk cage isn't just in Steve's mind, because as they climb the metal stairway to the next floor, Tony's almost silent.
Almost silent, because Tony Stark doesn't do complete silence. Maybe it's Steve super-serum enhanced hearing, but there's an echo of a note that seems to stick around Tony like a cloud.
Maybe it's his arc reactor. Steve would ask, but he doesn't quite know how to broach conversation with Tony.
It's not a slur on Tony. Steve doesn't quite know how best to start a conversation with anyone. Give him an action scenario, and he's not voiceless or shy, but take the action away, and Steve is less confident. It's probably why he likes to surround himself with talkers. Bucky was always one for filling the air with a quick quip or an always hilarious story. Erskine was always quiet, wickedly sarcastic while being movingly thoughtful. Peggy was never shy about coming forward — with her fist or with her words. Howard, in-between experiments, you could barely shut up.
They're all gone now. Long gone. But Tony Stark is here, and Steve should make more of an effort to make more sound than the occasional rat lurking in the Triskelion's musky hallways.
This place feels like a graveyard, Steve thinks, and shivers. It's not the cold.
Steve hates the next room they find themselves in. He doesn't hate many things in life —mostly the usual things, bullies and nuclear weapons and the way powder sinks to the bottom of cocoa leaving an impossibly bitter sludge at the bottom of the cup — but this room is something he has to add to the list.
It's almost an octagon, with doors leading off in different directions across one half of it. A faded sign labels the door that leads off to the engine rooms. One of the doors is larger than the others, with a thick steel frame. Steve can see a flash of white of the room beyond it. It looks like a lab.
Steve edges towards that, because it's better than the half of the octagonal room that doesn't have doors punctuating its walls.
The remaining three walls are basically glass.
Tony walks over to them, hands in his pockets, humming a little under his breath as he takes in the wide span of glass. The window to the left is cracked. It's probably a miracle all the windows are holding.
Steve ignores the way his stomach swoops a little, and he tentatively follows Tony closer to the windows, realizing exactly why he hates this room so thoroughly.
The implication of the Triskelion being in Alaska has never hit Steve so physically until now. SHIELD dropped him off basically at the front door, so Steve didn't really see the outside, and he really doesn't like it.
This room seems to crop out from the rest of the Triskelion, leaving them a very large height from above ground. Except ground isn't what's beneath them. Beneath them is ice. Lots of ice. Steve inhales a shudder, and pictures for a moment falling into that ice. Metal and glass breaking up around him. The water rushing in around him, swallowing him up, swallowing him down—
Steve schools his face into a neutral expression as Tony turns around. There's a question on Tony's face that fades away.
"We should check out this room next," Tony says, thumbing at the largest door.
Steve nods, not trusting his voice. If he stumbles away from the window, Tony's too kind to mention it.
Still feeling weird from that spread of ice, Steve feels glad when the next room they go in has functioning lights. After all that natural light, artificial light somehow feels safe. Tony makes a happy sound under his breath, heading for a small unit on the wall and muttering something about a back-up solar generator.
This all-white room is much more interesting. Steve gets another pang at the cost of things that have been left behind, but that doesn't stop him from going up to one of the five low, white trestle tables to prod at some of the items that have been left behind.
He can just about recognise a bank of microscopes, and a few cases full of slides. There are some refrigeration units in the back, filling the air with a muted hum, and that's where Tony goes. Steve doesn't think SHIELD are stupid enough to leave dangerous experiments behind, but he doesn't put it past them; he freezes, tense and ready for action, as Tony tests to see if the fridges are open.
They are. The air around the door fogs up for a second, before becoming invisible against the white walls and white ceiling.
"Hey, look at you," Tony says, almost like he's talking to a pet.
Steve hurries over, trying not to look too worried. "What is it?" His voice is quiet. He's not too sure he's allowed to ask.
"Nanobots," Tony says, like it should explain everything. It doesn't. Tony prods at one of the containers, and swivels something around on them. "See here, these windows have magnification slides on them. If I twist it to ten thousand times magnification, you might be able to see something. Take a peek."
Tony proffers the container to Steve, but Steve doesn't want to touch it. He leans in closer, his eyes scanning the magnified display. After a few seconds, he sees something. Small. Tiny particles. A lot of them. Moving like a flight of swallows in the sky.
Steve squints, suddenly slightly appalled. "Are they alive?"
"No. They're miniature robots. Like... the robot in Metropolis, but smaller." Tony side-eyes him, frowning a little. "You get that reference, right?"
"The film came out when I was 9, but there was a theatre down the street re-ran old movies."
"Well," Tony says, flourishing the canister, "meet a hundred thousand mini Marias."
"A hundred thousand?" It sounded too many. Steve watches the movement of the nanobots, and pictures them all as the crude female robot from Metropolis, swimming through the gloopy liquid inside the canister. He can't quite picture it.
"An estimation but I'm probably not far wrong." Tony pushes the canister back in place. "There's a lot. You give them all the same instruction and it's a miniature army of workers."
"Are they dangerous?" Steve tilts his head a little. He's starting to be able to picture a horde of mini Marias.
"Not with our current knowledge of Artificial Intelligence. They might be a little dangerous if I managed to mass-programme them with JARVIS' personality, but our current correlation between data and storage... One single nanobot wouldn't be enough to hold him."
Steve nods. "But you could theoretically... give them the instructions to start learning for themselves." He thinks about his own life for a moment, and his years as Captain America during the war. He was never good at following simple instructions. "Make them more into soldiers that can think and react."
Tony gives him a sharp look that Steve can't identify. "Yeah," he says, after a moment. "Look at us," he adds, suddenly becoming more animated, patting Steve on the cheek and redistributing his weight from the balls of his feet to his toes again. It must be a tic for when he's uncomfortable, Steve thinks. "We're bonding."
Steve frowns. "What—"
"It's my hypothesis," Tony says, prodding at another of the nanobot containers, and looking pleased at the figures that flash up on the small screen. "You haven't noticed that you've somehow miraculously been assigned to spend curious amounts of one-on-one time with the other Avengers? I was stuck for three hours with Natasha on a weapon testing range. Three hours. It's a miracle I can still walk."
Steve's mouth opens to automatically protest at the intimation that Fury would manipulate things that way instead of outright suggesting it, but Tony's right. The Equality and Diversity session with Clint was supposedly for SHIELD's Staff Key Performance Targets. And Bruce was showing him appropriate laboratory procedure, in case Steve's assignments led him to a modern-day lab.
"I suppose that explains why I was stuck in an elevator with Thor for an hour last month," Steve says dolefully, as the truth sinks in.
"Not that. I'm afraid Thor's just that heavy." Tony wrinkles his nose, commiseratively. "That man's an eater." He gives Steve an appraising look, like considering Steve an eater too.
Steve tries his best not to blush. He did work his way through two breakfasts that morning, but he has a fast metabolism, and he needed the energy to be able to face Tony Stark for an entire day.
Because Steve doesn't say anything, silence falls between them, and it's awkward. That's the only word Steve can use. Tony works his way through the fridges, prodding and making notes, and the silence is terrible.
Steve wants to break it but he doesn't know how. "So," Steve says, pushing air out of his mouth determinedly, because he's Captain America and he's not going to be scared of a little social interaction, "how's Pepper?" He hasn't interacted much with Tony's PA-slash-sweetheart, but he'd liked her when he did meet her, and they spoke on the phone a little back when they thought the Avengers Tower thing might work out. Steve hasn't heard from her in months. He had been a little disappointed at having to liaise with Mr. Hogan to find time for Tony to consult on this Triskelion project.
Tony lets out this noise that makes Steve still instantly.
Steve's probably more of an expert at putting his foot in his mouth than anything else, and as such, he's also an expert in recognising the signs.
Only after he's done it, of course. It would be so much more helpful if he could notice it before he's about to do it.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, quickly. "Bu—People used to say all the time that if there was an elephant in the room, I'd not only point it out but I'd deck it in tinsel and maybe sing it a showtune. Doesn't matter how many times I'd point out I didn't see the elephant in the first place."
Tony actually smiles a little. It's brief. "It's fine," he obviously lies. Steve doesn't call him on it. "It's—" His mouth wrinkles into an even briefer moue before settling into something more neutral, and then he says quickly, like ripping off a band-aid, "Turns out when she didn't have to snipe at me being distracted by Iron Man all the time, there wasn't a whole lot else we had left to talk about. Not just her. Me, too. I didn't know how to talk to her when she wasn't yelling at me."
Steve nods, and stops messing with the microscope when he nearly breaks it. "She yelled at you when you were working on Iron Man? How? To stop painting it stupid—"
Tony shoots him a look.
"—garish colours?" Steve presses on, because that's who he is, he has to own up to his thoughts, even if they're bad. "Or—"
"She thought I spent too much time on it," Tony says.
"Too much time on life and planet-saving technology," Steve says, trying the words out loud. No, they still feel odd. "Huh. That was all she said?"
"Are you trying to relationship therapy me?" Tony questions. "Actually, scratch my stubborn whining, proceed — I tried to open my heart to Bruce and he snored at me for like, a hundred and thirty minutes. Continue."
Steve shuffles. Yeah, he needs to learn when to shut up, definitely, and then maybe he'll stop landing in messes of his own making. "Sounds like she was trying to change who you are. You are Iron Man. Working on the armor is part of who you are," Steve tries, feeling awkward. "People shouldn't try to fix you if they want to be with you."
"She's perfect. I think she was just trying to yank me up to her level," Tony says, looking down at some of the scattered equipment. The lack of eye contact is telling — this is probably what he really thinks about himself.
It's a total contrast to Tony Stark's public persona, which just increases the likelihood of it being truthfully what Tony feels. He's all light and mirrors in the public eye. Howard was like that too. "You put anyone on a pedestal, they're going to fall from the effort eventually," Steve says, after a moment of thinking how to say it. "Everyone's flawed. Sometimes you need space to let those flaws breathe."
"Everyone's flawed," Tony repeats. "You're totally fired. Trouncing my self-esteem like that, what kind of registered therapist are you, Doc Rogers? Totally useless, that's the kind. I think I prefer the snoring."
"Alas, I don't snore," Steve says, sounding pathetically relieved that this awkward conversation of awkward is coming to a painful close — but, oh yeah, his brain doesn't listen as he gamely continues. "It's just, I would have figured anyone who knows you would expect you to spend inordinate amount of times making the Iron Man armor. That's what you do. You fix things. Without the Iron Man armor, this planet would be toast. I don't see why anyone with the capability to make something like that wouldn't get obsessed by it. Regularly. So how could someone really expect you not to spend time on it?"
"Yeah, well," Tony says, not making too much sense. He turns then, glancing at Steve. The bright light is unforgiving, and Steve can see how tired Tony is, the sag of skin under his eyes, the faint lines creeping in on his face. Age is catching up with Tony Stark. Steve can get in as many wars and battles as he likes, but time's the one enemy he'll never win against. "You know what?" Tony says, a moment later, pushing the last refrigerator door closed. "This does suck."
"The building?" Steve blinks. He's been thinking it's not too bad. "If it's not suitable, then—"
"The building's fine," Tony says, shaking his head. "Odd, but fine. No. It just—How can you — who's known me for about three blinks and the length of a teenybopper's pop career — know me better than Pepper does?" He gives a table an unnecessary shake, wiggles his eyebrows in a complicated move that Steve can't replicate (even if he wanted to), and then he shakes his head. "You don't even like me," he adds, in a quiet voice.
He looks across at Steve then with a curious expression. Like he's daring Steve to challenge him on it. Steve tries to protest it, but he can't open his mouth far enough to say it, and his protest falls flat in the strange, stale air of the abandoned Triskelion.
"This place is gonna need a scrub or fifty," Steve says, eyeballing it and starting towards the second door in the lab, like the change of direction will help cement the cowardly change of topic. It's bigger than the door they came through, with a thicker frame. Steve tries to recall the partial blueprints Fury sent him last night, and thinks it's maybe a storage room that this door leads to, but he can't remember. Tony shoves his hands in his pockets and starts to follow Steve out of there, looking a little grateful that Steve's changing the subject and getting them out of the room. "Could you programme nanobots to do that, do you think? Save us some elbow grease?"
Tony draws parallel to him, and gives him a look of pleasant surprise. "The lazy man's solution. I like that."
Steve squirms. He's still not entirely sure whether Tony Stark's approval is something he should be going out of his way to get.
Tony slaps him on the back companionably, and pushes a button on a panel next to the door. The doors slide open with a comfortable swish. Outside, the next hallway looks relatively clean, and there's a nicer smell coming through. "Hey," Tony says, a much more familiar note back in his voice. "Maybe our bonding session is gonna go well after all—"
Steve smiles, and they walk together side by side through the larger door.
Only to come face to face to seven guards with guns, pointed straight at them.
And the octagonal room that Steve hates so much is... different. The windows are covered by shutters.
Steve throws Tony an expression of shock.
"Sometimes I speak too soon," Tony admits, as the guards open fire.
So, it turns out the guns were tranquiliser darts of some sort. Something Steve found out after managing to take six of the guards down. Then he felt the sharp jab in his neck, and everything went to darkness.
Steve regains consciousness first, and in the amount of time he's awake before Tony, he notices four things.
One, they're in a cell.
Two, the cell is freakishly like the Hulk cell they saw earlier, including the bolted-down furniture, only this one is clean and unfortunately not cracked.
Three, there's a man in the corner of the room, outside of the cell, and he either can't hear Steve (unlikely — the glass has small air holes in every now and again) or he's ignoring Steve (more likely, from the flinching.)
Four, they've been left everything they came in with, apart from Tony's tablet.
The man in the corner of the room exits the room after a few minutes, looking at Steve hesitantly before hurrying out of the door, and Steve does what comes naturally to him — despite the fact they're probably being watched on camera.
He tries to escape.
Unfortunately, this cell — which can't be the one they saw earlier because it's clean and undamaged and Steve can't have been unconscious all that long (and Tony's beard hasn't had any noticeable growth) so there's been no time for someone to have come in and fixed the earlier one — has obviously still been designed with the Hulk in mind. Try as he might, Steve can't kick or punch his way through it. He tries to lever up the bed, but the bolts must be enhanced somehow with something, because he doesn't even manage to budge them the tiniest increment of an inch. He manages to bend the bed frame a small amount, but not enough to do any sort of real damage.
There's a small rectangular flat box that leads out of the cage to an equal length on the other side which looks like it might be a weak spot, but if anything it feels more impenetrable than the cage glass. He kicks and punches at it anyway.
When that doesn't work he shouts a lot, but all that does is wake Tony.
"Did you get the number of the truck that hit us?" are his first words. Along with, "Real friends don't let friends drink the amount of tequila necessary for this hangover."
"I'm afraid we're not in Kansas anymore," Steve says, instead of the response he wants to make — we're not friends — remembering to keep his voice gentle. He might not be able to get drunk now, but he was never able to hold any alcohol well, and he definitely remembers what a hangover feels like.
"Wizard of Oz reference?" Tony squints one eye open from where he's lying on his side on the floor. At least their captors were thoughtful enough to put them in the recovery position. "Oh, it's you."
Steve tries not to take umbrage at that. As Tony — grumbling outrageously — rubs his head and gingerly gets into an upright sitting position, Steve does about the only thing he can do. Namely, watch Tony closely for signs of injury, and do a quick pencil sketch of the man he saw.
The man was in a lab coat. If he's a SHIELD scientist, Tony could theoretically recognise him.
Tony glares at him sourly from where he's leaning against the slightly-bent bed, in-between looking around the cell. "How long was I out?"
Steve shrugs, and draws the nose onto his sketch. "I was out for a short while. You've been out maybe an hour longer."
"And you just sat there sketching?" Tony rubs the back of his head and looks decidedly unimpressed. "Captain Pro-active."
"I tried to get us out," Steve defends, anger thick in his voice, thick in his throat. He tries to swallow it back. "And the sketchbook and pencil was all I had on me. This has to be like the other cell we saw."
"Oh," Tony says, and his voice is a little croaky, so maybe Steve can allow some of Tony's surliness to drowsiness from the drugs. "Hulk-proofed."
"Maybe if I'd had my shield," Steve starts, but what-ifs don't really get anyone anywhere. "There was someone in here earlier."
"In the cage here?"
"Outside the cage." Steve flips around his notepad. "Recognize him?"
"Son of a bitch," Tony says, yanking the pad away from Steve. "This guy was a first year at MIT while I was getting my first doctorate. Dr. Reed Richards." Tony shakes his head. "As far as I recall he was one of the many scientists following up on Bruce's gamma radiation work. I don't know if he managed anything with that. Then there's been the other rumours—" Tony looks around, and huddles his jacket closer to him.
The cell is temperature controlled, and relatively pleasant, but Steve understands the impulse.
"Rumours?" Steve presses.
Tony wriggles for a moment, clearly unwilling to say it.
"Time travel," Steve realizes. Tony pulls a face. The consideration was nice, but Steve thinks he's starting to understand Tony Stark a little more. Like if Steve ever brought it up that Tony had been nice, Tony would deny everything, and probably bitch him out for added measure.
That realization is a strange sensation. Steve thought Tony would remind him of Howard; being so sharply reminded of Bucky is something else. Something twists sharply in Steve's chest. Something he doesn't want to think of too much in the wake of already thinking Bucky once.
And maybe he's not as calm on the surface as he thinks, because Tony uncurls a little from his defensive posture, and shuffles closer. He reaches out as if to touch Steve, but aborts the motion. "Hey. If this is the cage we saw before and we've just been leapfrogged into the future, look at it this way. No ice."
"Funny," Steve says. His voice is thin. His throat's closed up a little without him noticing. Stress does that. Creeps up on him without fanfare.
"And you're not alone," Tony says, level and low and serious, holding eye contact with Steve like he's some sort of wild animal that Tony's trying to communicate that he's not a threat to.
It helps, a little, actually, but the fear is still a cold hand around Steve's throat.
"Of course, if Richards worked in gamma radiation, there are other areas of science that would correspond. Solar flares - hand wavy science but maybe there's something in it, parallel universes - but that's a whole bundle of energy issues I don't wanna think about - we're talking exploding planets kind of energy for that ball game, even badly programmed nanobots—Any of those are an explanation I'd snaffle up in a heartbeat for our current situation. Ugh."
Tony's last ugh makes Steve tense. "Ugh?"
"My teachers used to use situation as an allegory for pregnancy," Tony says. "Post-traumatic school flashback."
"You're ridiculous," Steve tells him.
"You don't have to deflate my ego. Agent Hill does that pretty well for me without your help." Tony's dark eyes flit around the location, looking for escape, probably. Steve doesn't have to look again. His memory's amazing like that. "I think I'm scheduled into her dayplanner. 10am. Call Tony and insult his hair. 4pm. Call Tony and make some reference to his inability to commit to anything regarding actual human interaction."
"Of course, this could just be a different floor of the Triskelion," Steve offers. It's a practical solution, so it should be the option he more wants to be true, but he doesn't believe it.
Tony's wrinkled expression tells him all he needs to know about Tony's opinion on the subject. Steve snatches his sketchbook back, and that seems to kickstart Tony into action — patting down his own pockets, seeing what's left.
Something in an inner pocket seems to reassure Tony, but he doesn't reveal what it is, and something in an outer pocket makes him smile. He pulls his hand out of that pocket to reveal—
"I don't think bad guys take American Express," Steve tells him.
"Okay, smartass, what else can cards be used for," Tony says, twisting the card in between his fingers, like Steve once saw a magician dexterously move playing cards.
"Cocaine. Someone's been showing you all the wrong movies since you woke up, Cappleberry." Tony turns the card to portrait, and uses it to lever up the edges of one of the tiles beneath them.
"Ah," Steve says, wrinkling his nose at the newest nickname. "Breaking and entering."
"In this case," Tony says, "hopefully breaking and leaving." He wiggles the card a few times. "This place looks enough like the Hulk cage that if we pull here—"
"Sshh," Steve says.
"Hey, I'm loquacious, it's in my file, you're the quiet one, you sshh—"
Steve raises both eyebrows. Tony scowls, falls silent, and then realizes why as the door opens. Steve turns to face the door, getting immediately and gracefully to his feet, as two men wearing close-fitting black uniforms and black balaclavas enter the room.
"Hey," Steve says, as forcefully as he can manage, "we're American citizens. You can't do this. Let us go and —" He squints, shuffles, redistributes his weight, and awkwardly tries. "Take us to your leader?"
"Nice," Tony whispers.
The two men blatantly ignore him. As they come closer, Steve can see the tray of food they're carrying — two small bottles of water, and what might be bread and cheese — and he can also see the weapons on their belts. Two guns, one that looks like the tranquilizer guns that took down Tony and himself, and one that looks more like some sort of service pistol; Steve can't tell the specific type from here, even though he's up-to-date with current gun manufacturers.
They set the tray down on the long rectangular block that is half outside the cage, half in, press a few buttons, and the tray descends into the block. A few clicking noises later, and the tray launches upwards through a flap that is too fast for Steve to block open, even though he tries. The tray lurches and spills to the floor.
As Steve turns back to the men, they're already retreating out of the door.
"Wait!" Steve yells, desperate. "You've got to let us out of here—"
They're not responding to him.
"At least let us to talk to Dr. Reed Richards," Tony calls out. He's standing beside Steve now, his elbow bent at a weird angle so he can rub at his neck where the dart went in, but his eyes are locked onto the men in balaclavas, and they freeze for a moment and look back at them, warily. "Please," Tony adds. One of the men flinches, and the other shakes his head, and they both leave the room.
"Damn," Tony breathes as the door closes. He casts a wary eye at the food on the floor, and then sits back down onto the ground in a fluid, weary motion. Steve stands, not knowing what to do. He hates not having a plan.
Steve prods uneasily at the mechanism which allowed the food in. It should be a weak point in the design. When he turns back to Tony, to voice that, Tony's used one of his credit cards to lever a panel off the floor.
Underneath is a whole mess of wires that Tony makes a satisfied noise at and starts pulling apart.
"Do you know what you're doing?" Steve asks, automatically.
Tony gives him a please, you're being ridiculous look which makes Steve have to fight an embarrassed blush, because Tony's obscene wealth isn't all from Howard Stark — Tony's a technological genius. Of course Tony knows what he's doing.
Steve alternates between watching Tony's fingers move deftly in the mechanism, and eyeballing the door in case they get more visitors.
"Damn," Tony says, under his breath, and halts for a moment, his head bowed over the hole in the floor. "I need something smaller." His hands move to the inner pocket he touched earlier, and there's a brief tremble in Tony's fingers before he pulls out a small object.
Steve gets a glimpse of golden chain, and his throat goes dry. He thinks he knows what it is.
The last time he saw that watch, it had been Howard Stark slipping it from his pocket.
Tony takes a long moment before he says something. "This watch is—" Tony's steadfastly not looking at Steve, a neon sign that this is a painful topic. "Was—"
"Your father's," Steve says, letting himself think of the last time he saw it. Howard Stark and time seemed to, like a lot of things in his life, have a fast and loose relationship. But whenever any part of the Project: Rebirth equipment had needed timing, there Howard was, frowning down at his pocket watch.
The watch looks worse for wear now, the face fractured at the bottom right. It doesn't even look like the watch is even working. Something clenches in Steve's chest. He knows Howard is dead now. He read Tony's file cover-to-cover, mostly in appalled disbelief at the time, although reading about Howard's car accident had in some way been just like war. How you could be next to someone one moment, and they were gone the next.
"Right," Tony says, an indecipherable note in his voice. "I guess you used to know him." Tony refuses to look up and maintain eye contact; this is another of those deciphering Tony Stark clues, because Tony is all about challenging authority, and that mostly involves glaring at Steve a whole bunch, so avoiding eye contact is less of a tiny clue and more of a giant clue truck that smashes into you to spell out Howard Stark is a sore subject.
"After a fashion," Steve mutters, and Tony does look up, more curious than anything. Maybe Steve had aimed for a mutter and hit a grunt. "We didn't really get on," Steve adds, awkwardly. Tony's file had mentioned his relationship with his father was strained, so perhaps the truth is best for the moment. "I kinda thought he was a dick."
An involuntary smile splinters Tony's face for a moment. "Like father like son, huh?"
"I definitely had a worse first impression of your father."
"Ouch," Tony says, levering the back off the watch, and carefully unscrewing the mechanism as best as he can. "Poor pops. I've been glared at by tall, handsome, American and suddenly dad's nervousness makes a whole lot more sense."
Steve mouths, tall, handsome, American and Tony points at him. Steve flushes. "I'm not—" Tony's expression turns into distinct disbelief. "Fine," he grits out. "But I didn't glare." Tony huffs under his breath, and uses some of the small watch parts to join some of the wires in the floor beneath them together. "I may have ground my teeth at him a little."
"So much sense," Tony says, then reaches down into the wires, tightens something, and then he looks up expectantly at where the cage doors presumably are. "Huh. That should have worked." He makes a sound of disgruntlement, not disappointment. Like he's annoyed at himself for it not working.
"It's because you're working on the premise that all the power is located in this room. There's a parallel unit on the opposite side of the cage that will help you bypass the conduit and link straight up to the locking mechanism."
Tony and Steve startle in unison, and look up to see a single figure standing in front of the cage. He's either super quiet, or trying to break out distracted them both; Steve didn't hear him approach at all, and he feels abruptly like a failure for missing it.
"Dr. Reed Richards, I presume," Steve says as politely as he can manage considering they're still in a cage. He takes in the tall figure as both he and Tony get to their feet defensively. Richards looks like he's a little worse for wear — there's a matching silver streak shooting through his hair at both his temples, his figure is angles under a sweeping lab coat that's clearly two sizes too big for him, and his face looks oddly gaunt.
"You've never met me before?" Richards asks, one dark eyebrow quirking upwards. "That's interesting."
"Yeah," Tony says. "Super fascinating, frabjous joy, et cetera. Why are you telling me how to break out of here? Because I gotta tell you, people don't tend to be accidentally put in prisons that can survive a nuke."
"It's because," a smooth, familiar voice says from behind Richards, "you should never have been thrown in here in the first place. It was a mistake. We apologize."
Steve tenses. His entire body feels frozen, and yeah, that's a sensation he will always have too much familiarity with. But that voice. It sends a chill down Steve's spine worse than the time the Red Skull faced him down over fire and chaos and peeled his face off before him.
And then two figures step out either side of Dr. Reed Richards, and Steve's suddenly aware that he's never really going to understand anything ever again. Because flanking Richards is an impossibility.
"Ah," Tony says from beside him. "I guess we landed in an alternate reality, then."
"I can see that," Steve says, staring at their identical doubles.
Their alternate selves, or Stark and Rogers as Steve mentally dubs them, because otherwise this whole thing could elevate to a level of confusion that makes breathing difficult, are not as identical as they seem on first glance.
Stark's hair is slightly different to Tony's, it's longer, and there's more of a slouch in Stark's posture. Stark, like Tony, is wearing a suit, but it looks more rumpled.
Rogers... well, Steve hasn't looked in a mirror lately, but Rogers seems more physically exact to him. His hair is much more lacquered down, and he's wearing a version of the uniform Steve uses only when he's doing undercover work — dark blue with a white star and white stripes.
It's beyond weird. And Steve's saved the world with a man who turns green and grows really big when he gets angry. He likes to think he has the experience to know weird when he sees it.
Rogers lets them out of the cell, typing in a long code to a panel. He is staring at them, assessing, but Steve doesn't blame him, because he's kind of staring back.
Steve should never think that he's seen all the weirdness that this brave new world has to offer, because he's getting weary of being almost continually surprised. Behind him, Tony scoops up the small parts of his watch, and pockets them again.
"We should take them to the briefing room," Stark says.
It's the first time Steve's heard Tony's alternate speak, and there's an almost shyness in Stark's voice that he's never heard in Tony's voice. There's something about it which sends a chill down Steve's spine, and it curls into a resolve: these people might look like them, but it would be a mistake to think they are them.
For one, Steve doesn't think he would throw his alternate self into a Hulk-proof cell, although now he's wondering if there's an alternate reality out there where he is the Hulk. Bruce Banner's work, after all, was one of the main tail-off programs from Project: Rebirth. Maybe on one planet Earth, the serum made Steve into the Hulk.
He mentally pictures it. He wonders if he would have been green, or if his skin could have been somehow programmed to turn into the stars and stripes.
This whole alternate reality business has always destroyed his mind. He wonders if Tony thinks he'll be a dunce on the subject, but that's what people always forget — he's from the dawn of pulp science-fiction. Steve's quite aware of all the concepts — time travel, alternate realities, planets, aliens, telepathy, mutation. He fought HYDRA for years, and they weren't averse to magical weaponry. Steve knows about this stuff, and has opinions on it too, but it does usually tend to give him a massive migraine if he thinks about it too long.
Like the time he tried to get his head around the concept of infinity.
Steve keeps a mental map in his head as they leave the cage, and Stark sort of shepherds them towards what must be the briefing room. As far as he can tell, it has the same layout as the Triskelion. He's tense, and Tony — at his side — is checking out their surroundings as much as Steve is.
There's nothing about this scenario which tells Steve that they're not still in terrible danger. A thought which magnifies when they pass at least four patrols of guards, ten in each, and none of them are the ones that subdued them. There's people on this base, and they're all carrying weapons.
Tony enters the briefing room first, and he inhales, sharply, which makes Steve hurry to join him, everything tensed ready for a fight, but instead, he just sees a familiar sight — Pepper Potts, setting out files around a long, white table.
"How did you—" Tony blurts, and Pepper looks up, an expression of blank confusion on her face. "Oh," he adds, redundantly, and his face goes expressionless.
"Not our Pepper?" Steve guesses in a whisper.
"A realization fully punctuated by the lack of disappointment on her face when she saw me," Tony mutters. "Never actually realised I'd be disappointed not to see her look at me like that."
"Another set of alternates, sir?" Pepper asks, over the top of their heads. Behind them, Stark and Rogers enter the room.
"Sit," Stark says, in his shy, not-Tony voice. "You're not prisoners. You're guests."
"This has happened before?" Steve questions, decidedly not sitting, because from where he's standing, guests don't get thrown into Hulk-proof cells and not given a damn explanation.
"Happens a lot," Stark says, shrugging. "We're working on it. As far as we can figure, it's just something in the Triskelion design. You're the... ninth duplicates we've had this year. You show up, and then a week later, poof." He makes a weak gesture with his fingers.
Rogers moves in close to Stark, and puts an invasive hand on Stark's elbow, looking at him. "We don't want to overwhelm them," Rogers says. Which is clearly, shut up, you've said more than enough. Steve's used that glare a lot in his life, so it's as clear as saying it out loud to him. Maybe there's an advantage to being someone's doppelganger from an alternate reality after all.
It's decidedly weird to be stood opposite a table to their identical selves, and it's almost a stalemate for a long moment. Keeping his breathing steady, Steve slowly pulls out a chair to sit down in it, because something has to stop this tense moment from becoming hostile.
Tony follows his cue, and thankfully so do their doubles, taking seats opposite them. It's only when Stark and Rogers are fully seated that Steve feels like he can take a longer exhale. "So the Triskelion," Tony says, gesturing with one hand at the walls. "You decided it would be a viable base in the end, huh?"
Steve watches Rogers carefully, not liking the way his double is tracking Tony's hand movement. He already dislikes his alternate self, which is a little weird, because Steve's always been able to like himself. That started early in his life, when he stood up to bullies he had no chance of toppling.
"We didn't really have a choice," Stark says, drumming his fingers on the table nervously. It's not a tic that Steve's noticed Tony having.
Rogers gives Stark an angry look at that comment. Steve's alternate self is paranoid, which means he's hiding something. It stands to reason. Until Steve knows what exactly is going on in this place, he'll probably be hiding everything, and...
...maybe the paranoia is just a universal trait.
"It's nicer than our Triskelion," Tony says, pursing his lips and looking around at the neat white walls and the bright, humming lights. "Ours is dirty and grey and half-broken. Oh, and then there's the rats."
"We had rats too," Stark says. "We got rid of them."
Steve flickers a look at his alternate self, sitting there with no emotion on his face. That's just wrong. Steve's usually an open book. There's never a point hiding how you feel, unless it's a life-or-death situation and you need to chivvy on a fellow soldier by pretending a situation is not as gloomy or fatal as it looks. Nope. If Rogers' expression is blank, then there's a ton more bad things going on here than they're letting on.
"Are you sure you got rid of all the rats?" Steve asks, keeping his voice polite and his eyes trained on himself.
Rogers' mouth quirks, just a little, just at the side, into an almost smile.
"Man, your Steve does that passive-aggressive threat stuff too?" Stark whines. His eyes are wider than Tony's, his face slacker. He's definitely Tony Stark in some form, but he's definitely not Tony. This whole thing is bizarre.
"My Steve," Tony repeats under his breath, frowning at the phrasing. "I guess you have some theories about how this alternate reality jumping is happening?"
"You, me, eight other us, and Dr. Richards," Stark says. "Maybe you want to join in?"
"Sure," Tony says. "Would be nice to see the labs in this place in action, too. See if this place really is suitable for our Avengers."
"Avengers?" Rogers asks, much too quickly, his eyes flitting between Steve and Tony. He exhales the word, like he's never heard it before.
"Oh," Steve butts in, lying smoothly before Tony can speak, "uh, maybe you still call it by what we used to. Special Forces?" He smiles as politely as he can manage. "Our new president wanted something snappier to boost world morale."
"Avengers," Stark repeats, mulling the word over. "I like it."
Tony gives Steve another inscrutable look, but he doesn't fight him on it, and something low in Steve warms. Tony trusts him. Of course, they may still be on the battlefield. Just a... really odd one.
"Until you return home, you're our guests," Rogers says. "We don't have much spare room, but we do have available guest quarters. I'll be happy to show you to them after this briefing."
"Briefing," Steve repeats, warily.
"Just a preliminary thing," Rogers says, now smiling. One of the big, fake, sarcastic smiles that Steve uses when he's trying to convince whoever's in charge that yep, sure, of course he plans on following orders directly to the letter. "We've found it's helped the research we have so far on this alternate reality phenomena to track some of the key differences in our history, see just how off the beaten path our realities are, et cetera. It's nothing—"
He's not able to complete his lie, because Pepper — curious, alternate reality Pepper who isn't frowning at Tony, but is still making him shift uncomfortably in his seat — comes in.
"There's a call for you, Commander Stark," she says, and her eyes dart between Stark and Tony almost skittishly.
"Commander Stark," Tony repeats, sounding impressed as he leans in closer to Steve. "Does that mean I outrank you in this little mirrorverse, Cap?"
Steve narrows his eyes and tries not to bristle. As usual, he can't quite fully hide it.
Rogers is the one to query her. "Is it urgent?"
Pepper's eyes flicker over to Tony and Steve again, before snapping back to Rogers. "It's about the outside, Commander."
"Steve-o here's also a Commander," Tony mimics quietly, overly enjoying this, grinning and waggling his eyebrows. "Guess your mirrorverse buddy got promoted before you too, huh, Cap?"
"I'll be right there," Rogers promises her, his lips curling a little in Steve's direction — despite Tony being quiet, he was listening in. Steve hadn't realised his own face could look quite so cold.
And then his brain snaps in. The call had been for Commander Stark, so why is it his alternate self that's promising to go?
Steve feels abruptly strange. Why would his alternate self have Tony's surname? The identical appearance suggests the same parentage. Maybe Howard Stark adopted him, or something. That's really weird.
When Steve side-glances to get Tony's opinion on the subject, Tony's looking a little constipated. He's probably reached the same conclusion.
"Just one side-order of business and I'll be right through," Rogers tells Pepper.
Pepper nods, and backs out of the room, quiet and precise despite her five-inch heels. It seems like Pepper Potts' ability to walk in ridiculously high shoes transcends realities.
Rogers nods at Tony and Steve. "Please excuse me. Tony can fill you in as well as I can." He pulls out of his seat, and moves to go, and Steve's wondering about the side-order of business when Rogers leans in close to Stark. Really close.
Stark looks at him, wide-eyed, but not obviously surprised at this intrusion into his personal space. Man, Steve's alternate self is a little bit of a dick.
"What words and phrases are you forbidden from saying?" Rogers prompts in a light tone.
Steve freezes. Here it is. A clue as to what his alternate self (Commander Stark, his brain is supplying, and Tony is never going to let him live that one down) is hiding.
He's hiding something. Definitely.
"Threesome," Stark says, rolling his eyes like he's the lead in one of those soppy, sentimental films that Bruce seems to like so much. "Foursome. Moresome. And..." Stark squints. "He has identical DNA so it's not cheating on my marriage vows."
Steve frowns. What the hell is going on? He turns to Tony, but Tony's cheeks have gone a bit pink, and his body language is spiralling to hell — he's leaning away from Steve, and he's folded his arms across his chest defensively.
"I'm also not allowed to say," Stark says, petulance drenching his tone, "that it is practically masturbation."
Tony does turn to Steve then, his mouth pursed together as Rogers sweeps out of the room. Then Tony shrugs and says, "You know, it practically would be."
Steve takes a moment to think it through. And then his stomach sinks, when his brain catches up. The masturbation part is pure Tony Stark, and of course someone with his ego would want to have sex with himself if he could, so two of them in one building had to be enticing, but the rest of it? Commander Stark and marriage vows and threesome and—
"I'm guessing you two aren't married in your universe, then," Stark says, and Steve's resolve is sunk. He can feel the heat in his cheeks and he abruptly, suddenly, does not care a bit. Tony can tease him all he likes.
Because in this universe, they're married. Steve can see it now, the wedding ring on Stark's hand.
"Are you even together?" Stark tilts his head. "Huh. That's a first."
"That's a..." Steve finds it hard to make his mouth make the word. He's finding it hard not just to make incoherent gurgles. He sort of wants to shake the room up and find the hidden cameras. This has to be some sort of bizarre prank after all, right? "Why is it a first?"
"All the other Steve and Tony's we've met have been together," Stark says. He seems to be having no trouble at all forming human words. Beside him, thankfully, the usually talkative Tony Stark, (and can he think of him as his Tony now without feeling a little weird?) is uncharacteristically quiet.
"No, uh," Steve says, and he rubs the back of his neck. "Uh, we're not. We've barely even met, really. It's—" He makes the mistake of looking to his right, and his cheeks colour again. All the other Steve and Tony's, Steve's brain provides, and it's short-circuiting his brain pretty damn badly.
"Perhaps it's a matter of time," Stark says, and Tony does react to that, a weird sort of inhalation which sounds like his breath has gotten stuck halfway through. Steve empathizes. Thoroughly. "Speaking of, what time is it?" Stark digs in his inner pocket, and pulls out—
Howard Stark's pocket watch. Of course. But Stark's version is whole, unbroken. Steve looks to gauge Tony's reaction (something he feels like he's always been doing since waking up here) and Tony's silent and suspiciously wet-eyed.
"Back," Rogers says from the doorway. Stark pockets his watch.
"It's late, Steve," Stark says, touching Rogers on the elbow. It's a gentle touch, a gesture laced with casual familiarity. This intimacy isn't natural to them, it's something that's come through time. Time together. Steve's mouth feels a little dry. "How about you show them to the guest quarters and we can do the briefing tomorrow?"
"I wanted to get them to the doctor, too," Rogers says, his voice rumbling like he's trying too hard to keep it quiet and light. "Our guards knocked them out."
"None of our mirror selves have been here less than a week," Stark says, insistently. "I'm sure that can wait."
"Sure," Rogers says, turning away from Stark and looking over to Steve and Tony. His jaw is tense. There's something he wants to say but can't, and Steve wishes he knew what it was. "I'll show you to the guest quarters. I'm sure you must be tired. Follow me."
Rogers leads them up one floor, picking up two guards as they exit the briefing room, and taking them up an elevator that doesn't even exist in their version of reality.
"There's so much space up here," Tony says, looking around as they exit the elevator. "I wonder if we can convince Fury to let us install a couple more floors like this."
Rogers draws up outside a door that looks identical to all the others they passed. Steve counted them anyway — they're fifteen rooms down to the right of the elevator.
"There's night clothes on the bed. If you give your current clothes to the guards, I'll have them washed and returned for you in the morning. There'll be someone coming along with some dinner, if you wish, seeing as a little bird tells me you didn't have the food we provided earlier."
He palms a panel, and the door opens. Steve can see the corner of a bland-looking apartment — the edge of a table, the side of a bed — but he doesn't make a move as of yet to go in, even though Tony does.
"I didn't know if it was poisoned or not," Steve explains. "And you got us out before we needed to eat."
"I promise you, the food here's not poisoned," Rogers says, rolling his eyes. Steve frowns. "Stop being so paranoid, uh, me," Rogers continues. "If I wanted you dead, I would have had you shot earlier when you were unconscious and drooling into the tiles."
"Mm," Tony says from inside the apartment, "there's a sexy mental image."
Rogers startles into a laugh, and Tony turns, smiling at him, showing bright white teeth that are slightly clenched. That's his fake for-the-press smile, Steve thinks, and wonders if Rogers knows that.
"I guess we'll, uh," Steve says eloquently, gesturing at the apartment.
"If you need anything, ask the guards," Rogers says.
"Right," Steve says, blankly. He tenses, and wonders if now is the best time to push his luck. He could probably overpower himself — or at least neutralize him as a threat — but the two guards have at least two weapons on them. He would need Tony on board with such a plan for it to succeed. But then where would they go? And if they were caught causing trouble, then they would lose any chance they had of finding a way out. Right now, his priority is to protect Tony and make their best chance of escape. If he complies with Rogers, then maybe Rogers won't expect it when Steve does make his move.
"I'll see you in the morning," Rogers says, and then he leans in, just so Steve can hear, his even, white teeth showing in his widest smile when he says, "Best not to go wandering. I know what a meddler I am. If you were to, say, ask for permission to explore, I don't think it'd be granted, if you understand me."
"Oh," Steve says, keeping his voice cool, and mirroring the cruel angle of the smile. "I think we're somehow on the same wavelength."
"Good night," Rogers says, raising his voice so Tony can hear it too, and stalking off. The door shuts behind him. It's a final sort of sound.
"I don't like this," Steve mutters, stepping into the room, and glancing around the walls for any sign of weakness. He can't see anything straight away. Maybe the floor panels lift up, like in the cage.
"No kidding," Tony says, and nods his head at the bed.
"Oh," Steve says, again. "Oh. It was their Tony who knew we weren't— their Steve must have assumed—" He can't finish the sentence. His cheeks want to burn again, but he is stubborn with the sensation, not letting it flourish. "I can ask the guards—"
"Your mirror self wasn't as quiet as he thought he was, I heard the threat," Tony says, picking up one of the sets of clothing from the end of the bed and pulling a face at the plain white pants and t-shirt. He starts shucking off his jacket, folding it and placing it on top of the set of drawers.
"What are you doing?" Steve asks.
Tony looks at him askance, sighs when he realizes Steve's not moving, and beckons him over in a low-handed gesture. Feeling terribly self-conscious, Steve edges over.
"I'm playing along," Tony mutters, keeping his head down low. "You gotta know it's our best shot. Something doesn't sit right. Your double's a control freak, mine's a pushover—Something is totally up in bizarro world, and we're going to figure out what it is and how to get out of here..."
"We've got to play the game," Steve sighs, and picks up his own set of white pyjamas. They look his size, at least. He keeps his back turned, and tries to dress quickly. Every movement is magnified, especially the rustle of Tony's clothing from the other side of the room.
He's hit by an urge to look, and while Steve's mutinously thinking just to check he's safe, there's a curiosity in there too. Something he's somewhat sure wasn't in his head to start with, but is now niggling away a little.
Keeping his head turned, and keeping his eyes to himself, and surviving this thing is his best option at getting out of here with them both alive and okay and fully intact.
And intact is what he's thinking right at the moment he sees the red mark three inches above his elbow.
"Okay," Steve says, "that's new."
"It's called a penis and every dude has one," Tony says cheerfully from behind him. "Try not to shout and wave it about."
"That's the punchline from a limerick about finding a dead mouse in your stew," Steve says, and awkwardly adds, "and I wasn't talking about my penis."
When he turns around, Tony's dressed in the pyjamas too. He should look a mess — they're too big for his frame — but he doesn't. Steve tries not to think about his slightly too-short t-shirt. He doesn't want to think what he looks like in these ridiculous clothes. Why are they playing along again?
Oh. Yeah. Survival. That.
"I thought most limericks were jokes about dicks," Tony says, "you know, there once was a young man called Jock who had an incredible—"
"Anyway," Steve says, heavily, holding up his forearm and trying very hard—uh—not to think about penises. "I didn't have this mark earlier."
Tony looks at the red mark on Steve's arm, and swears.
"Can we make an official Avengers protocol about how I don't like it when the smartest person in the room swears?" Steve asks.
"I've got one too," Tony says, rubbing at his arm. "And yes, I'm still talking about penises."
Steve wonders about scowling, but apparently just thinking about it is enough.
"And I have one of those marks," Tony says, shifting closer to show his arm. "They're hypodermic marks. We've been injected with something."
"You've got more than I do," Steve says, taking hold of Tony's arm. Tony blinks at Steve, like he's surprised by the contact.
"Uh, yeah," Tony says, and rubs awkwardly at his neck with his other hand, self-consciously, "I was working on the—" He looks up for a moment, like there might be cameras. "On a remote controlled piece of equipment."
"I read about that," Steve says, following Tony's eye movements. There's no camera visible, but that doesn't mean there's no camera there.
"I took them out," Tony says, "but they leave a scar." He goes from rubbing his neck to absent-mindedly rubbing at his chest, looking lost for a moment. Then he squints at Steve. "Talking about penises..."
Steve stares. What, his brain provides, helpfully.
Tony shrugs awkwardly. "We gotta check everywhere. Just in case."
"Oh," Steve says, because eloquence isn't his forte, and they both check themselves out as far as possible, but as it's not going to be possible to check out his own back, he strips first. "Check me over?"
The fact that Tony just says "Yeah", and doesn't make a witty comeback, should speak volumes — but if it does, Steve does know what it's saying. After a moment, Tony says, voice thick, "You're fine."
Steve quickly redresses, and turns in time to see Tony drop his pants and wiggle at him.
"I'm fine too, if you get my drift," Tony says, all bravado and fake courage which Steve might be tempted to call him out too, but as he's hugging his t-shirt to his chest, and his back muscles — facing Steve — are tense with worry, Steve doesn't.
"You're good," Steve says tersely, turning around and staring at the wall. He tries to press on the wall tiles a few times because that's who he is, he wants to escape, but this room is almost as impenetrable as the cage. He wonders if the Triskelion is this robust in their version of reality.
By the time he turns back around, Tony's dressed, but he hasn't made any move towards the bed. Steve's not sure what time it is, but it does feel late.
Tony tugs at the plain bedclothes that they've been provided with, pulling the thin material away from himself and letting it drop. He pulls a face. "I don't know why we bothered getting re-dressed in this stupid things, I still feel naked in them," he complains.
"I always feel naked without my shield," Steve says, avoiding the big elephant in the room which as one bed, two people who do not get on is not going to be avoidable for very much longer. Let alone the two people who are apparently married in maybe nine realities thing.
Tony just eyeballs him oddly for a second. Steve shifts uncomfortably, definitely feeling naked right now and hating it.
Mostly, he hates that he couldn't stop them getting knocked out at the beginning of all of this. He's supposed to be able to save people, protect the Earth. How can he do that if he can't even save one person?
"I'm just never going to look at you when you're out of uniform the same way again, my man," is Tony's only comment to him. Steve thinks about Rogers and Stark, and their moment of intimacy, and thinks the 'not seeing each other in the same way' ship has already sailed.
Food is delivered then, and it's simple — just a couple of bowls of macaroni cheese. Steve counts the ways he can stop the two guards — strangle one, kick out the other — and swallows it down. Defeating these two means nothing. There are definitely over forty other guards with weapons in this place, at least. Steve needs to hold back until he knows he can get them out.
He has to keep repeating it to himself, or he'll forget. He's never taken being held hostage with any nod towards appropriate behavior.
They eat in silence, and leave the bowls on the table. The silence is pretty uncomfortable, and Steve thinks of a thousand things to say, all of them ridiculous. And then he worries about the room being bugged, or there being cameras, and from the way Tony's eyes skirt the corners of the room, he's thinking the same thing.
"I don't suppose—" Steve starts, at one point, gesturing towards the floor.
Tony just shakes his head. "This is the kind of flooring you can't lever up, even if they'd given us metal spoons." He flicks the plastic spoon they'd been given with a sign, and then his dark eyes linger on the bed for a moment too long.
"I can sleep on the floor," Steve offers.
Tony shakes his head, and ducks his head in close. "Bizarro Steve doesn't know what Bizarro Tony does. At least yet. If he thinks we're just like all the other.... versions of us— Of course, that depends if he's telling the truth— We could be lying on a graveyard of multiple Tonys and Steves— And you can't accidentally traverse dimensions, there has to be a Einstein-Rosen bridge involved somewhere, and the power for that—"
Okay, Steve would have appreciated if any of those sentences had been completed, but Steve's pretty sure he's got the gist of it. "Act like we're just like the rest, don't stand out," Steve nods. "Got it."
There's a sink in the corner, a small one which Steve eyeballs viciously, like he can tear it apart in his mind. It has small wrapped up toothbrushes and toothpaste, like they're at a hotel. The toothpaste tastes like baking soda, which is an odd choice for somewhere as high-tech looking at this — everywhere Steve's gone, the toothpaste is creamy, frothy, mint stuff in a thousand different, unnecessary varieties. This stuff is old-school. Steve likes it. Tony pulls a face as he spits it out, and then finds a light switch which plunges the whole room into near-darkness. Light leaks through the door, casting the edges of the room into a blue pallor.
It's definitely awkward climbing into bed with Tony Stark. Especially with the thought of their alternate selves (married) unavoidably in his mind. Sure, he doesn't so much get on with Tony in day-to-day life, but that's because they barely know each other. In uniform, they work seamlessly. It's not as far of a stretch to think that camaraderie could pass over to their civilian life. He lies rigidly on his back, staring up at the ceiling, beyond uncomfortable despite the softness of the mattress.
It's a foam mattress, so there's no real hope in digging out springs to use as a makeshift weapon.
Beside him, Tony's lying in much the same way, shoulders drawn into his body. The pyjamas are thin, so thin that Steve would have thought he could see the glow of Tony's arc reactor, but there's nothing there. Maybe he's learned how to dim the light of it at night, or something. Steve steadfastly doesn't mention it. He's pretty sure people don't like their wounds pointing out.
"We're going to be okay," Steve says. He thinks he can feel Tony's eyes on him, but he doesn't want to look to make sure. The billionaire's head is just one pillow away, and that already feels much too close. "I'll get us out."
"Outside," Tony says, in a quoting voice, in the same way Pepper had said that to 'Commander Stark' (and, nope, Steve's not getting over that any time soon at all.)
"I'll get us home," Steve corrects, although he can hear his own voice and he's not all that convincing.
"Wherever that is," Tony mutters, voicing exactly what Steve's actually thinking.
None of them have a home, not any more. Maybe that's what becoming an Avenger does. Strips everything away.
That's about their exchange done for the night. Tony falls asleep before Steve does. Steve lies there and listens as Tony's breaths level out. He counts the last of Tony's conscious breaths, and then he starts counting something else.
Namely: time and the number of times he sees the shadows shifting through the small gap beneath the door. Steve stays awake a long time, enough time to establish a change of the guards every two hours, and a walking patrol of at least eight guards punctuating the period inbetween at different intervals no longer than twenty minutes each.
He counts, and counts, hoping beyond hope that tomorrow will bring more answers, and more opportunities to escape. Because something about this whole place doesn't sit right with Steve, and he'll find out what it is. He knows he will. For that, he needs to rest a little, so he's at his best to take the most of any opportunities they find, so he closes his eyes and tries to match Tony's sleeping breathing pattern.
If he wishes to be back in their reality when he opens his eyes next, it's a wish he keeps firmly to himself.