Tony cracks his eyes open, embarrassingly slow, and becomes immediately aware of three things at once:
One, his legs hurt like a bitch. Two, he’s lying in the backseat of the car. And three, Natasha is saying his name in a calm, measured tone that means that he has good reason to be pissing-his-pants terrified, because whenever she brings out that voice, it means they’re in some serious shit and their chance of survival is on the wrong side of fifty percent.
“What happened to your legs,” Natasha asks, and it’s steady and not panicking at all and it strikes fear into Tony’s very soul, because fuck. The last time he heard her use that voice, Tony was in close proximity to a bomb that was going to go off in ten seconds.
Tony has to get her to repeat the question. His head’s foggy, his eyelids heavy enough that he has to put effort into keeping them open. “Dunno,” he says eventually, frowning down at them. He tries to move them, which in retrospect is a dumb idea, and stops, hissing loudly when pain flares hotly up his legs. “Fucking fuck.”
“Don’t try to move.”
“No shit.” Tony tries to wet his lips. Somehow misses. Tries again. “Where are we?”
The only thing giving away how scared Natasha is is the line denting her forehead; the tight purse of her lips. “We’re buried alive.”
Tony’s frown deepens. He squints up at their surroundings, shoving into a sitting position as much as he can without moving his legs. He props his torso up on the back of the driver’s seat, and yep, they’re in a car, and yes, that is dirt wedged all along the windows. Because they’re buried alive.
It takes a long time to come to that conclusion, even though she’s already told him and the evidence is right there. Thinking still feels like fumbling through mud.
“Fuck,” he says again, because it seems like a safe thing to say at this point.
Steve is checking his watch when a pair of arms come around behind him and start squeezing. He’s already laughing by the time he gets released, and turns around. “Welcome back,” he says.
Carol’s grinning. “God, I missed your dumb face. And the wounds on your dumb face,” she says, and her knuckles graze his right cheek, where he knows the dried blood is. “Where’d you get that?”
“The guy I arrested last week didn’t come quietly.”
She sighs. “They never do. Don’t try to run, we say, but they always do. It’s pathetic. One day I’m going to get a perp who doesn’t try to make a break for it.”
“Every agent’s dream.” Steve nods towards the Diner. “You ready?”
They take their usual table, and the waiter recognizes Carol, asking how her trip was and giving her a glass of wine, free of charge. She’s halfway through the glass and a story that has Steve chuckling into his hand when his phone rings.
Carol stops, raising her eyebrows at his vibrating pocket. “Ignore it. I’m thirty seconds away from my hilarious ending.”
It’s an unknown number. Steve clicks ‘ignore,’ and nods for Carol to continue.
Ten minutes later, when Carol is in the middle of another story and Steve is still laughing faintly from the last one, he says, “One second,” and starts flipping through his voicemails, because nothing makes him feel more guilty than a call he ignored. It could be his mother calling from a stranger’s phone, needing him to drive out and pick her up, for all he knows.
It’s not his mother.
“Steve,” Carol says, and her smile starts to fade as Steve’s expression changes. “Steve? What’s wrong?”
The message ends. Steve stares at it for a second, numbly aware of his fingers clenching into his knees. Carol says his name again, and Steve holds the phone out to her. Puts the phone on speaker. Presses play.
“Tony Stark and Natasha Romanova have been buried alive. Wire transfer eight million dollars into the attached account before twelve hours are up, or they will suffocate to death. If you co-operate with my demands, I will give you their GPS location. This will be my last communication.”
By the time Tony wakes up again- surprised to find that he had fallen asleep- Natasha is unwinding a strip of masking tape. When she notices he’s awake, she tells him that she was on her way to karate, so they have a lot of bottled water.
Great, Tony thinks. Cross dehydration off the list of ways we could die in here.
“Wh’t happened,” Tony says. Rasps. He coughs, and accepts the water that Natasha holds out. He sips at it for a while before he feels more or less human again. “Where the fuck are we,” he croaks.
Natasha watches him as she continues with the masking tape. “I don’t know. The last thing I remember is-” the crease in her brow deepens. “Being at the lab with the squints.”
“I am,” Tony says slowly, making sure not to slur, “Really confused. What- what happened to my legs and who do I sue for it?”
Natasha doesn’t answer. Instead, she asks, “Did you figure out what stun gun the Gravedigger was using?”
“What,” he says, and replays the question in his mind. “Oh. Nope.”
“Because I think I got first-hand experience,” Natasha says, and uses the hand that isn’t holding the tape to bunch up one side of her hair and pull it away from her neck, exposing the marks undoubtedly left from a stun gun.
“Ow,” Tony says.
“Ow,” she agrees, and lets her hair drop. “It’s the Gravedigger. I think he ran you down with his car. And then pumped you full of drugs to ruin your short-term memory.”
“How many-” Tony struggles to sit up; makes a noise that he’ll deny making later, and sinks back against the backseat when she gives him a warning glare. “How many times have you been in these kind of situations, god, you’re barely even freaking out. I mean, you’re freaking out a little, but you really have a lid on it, you’re like twenty three, what is wrong with you.”
“I’m not going to answer that.”
“Because if you tell me, you’d have to kill me?”
She gives him another glare. He swallows. “How long have we been down here?”
“Maybe-” She twists her wrist to see her watch. “Two hours?”
“Okay.” Tony closes his eyes. This, he can do. Numbers are rigid, clear-cut, and they stay where they should be, unlike the dirt that is pushing in at all sides. God, he’s never going to be able to have sex in the backseat of a car again. “This vehicle is sixty- sixty cubic feet of air, uh. Twenty percent- oxygen, and two- two people- my brain is not working,” he says, a hand smearing over his eyes, and it’s shaky, and he’s taking tiny sips of air like he’s going to have a panic attack, and he can’t have a panic attack, not now, especially not since he’d use up too much air if he started to hyperventilate.
When a hand touches his ankle, he startles. He drops his hand, and Natasha squeezes his ankle almost comfortingly, and it would be comforting if he hadn’t seen her snap a man’s neck with those same hands three months ago.
“We should have had twelve hours of air,” she tells him, and for a second he’d prefer it if she were a wreck, if she were hunched over and sobbing, because this calm mask is so much worse. “That means we have ten hours left.”
“Goody,” Tony squeaks. He clears his throat. “What, ah, what supplies do we have other than water?”
Natasha looks down at the items she has strewn around her. “Towels, a mini-kit, ibuprofen, two cellphones with no battery, a camera with a backup battery, and-” she holds up a familiar book. “A copy of your novel.”
Tony thinks he might be flattered, if he weren’t starving off a panic attack. “You read them?”
She shrugs. “I skim them for when my character does something heroic. Sorry, for when Natalie Romanoff does something heroic.” Her tone is dismissive, but her lips are quirked upwards.
“That Natalie Romanoff,” Tony says. “She is a pistol.”
“Damn right,” Natasha agrees. She palms a bottle that takes a second for Tony to remember, and says, “Also this. Deep Rhapsody,” she reads aloud.
“It’s for Pep. To apologize for being such a dick about the breakup. Careful, it cost 6 thousand bucks,” Tony says, then he hisses, unable to keep silent anymore as the pain surging through his leg kicks up yet again.
“Yeah, I’d make that face, too, if I spent six thousand dollars on a bottle of perfume.”
“No, it’s- something’s wrong,” Tony grits. “My leg-”
Natasha’s unscrewing the cap off of the ibuprofen bottle before he’s even finished saying it. She hands a couple of pills to him, along with water, and he swallows them gratefully before Natasha says, “I’m worried you have Compartment Syndrome.”
“Is that terminal? Within the next few hours, I mean?”
“No. But it’s going to get painful.”
Tony eyes his leg doubtfully. “More painful than it is now?”
“Yes. Slip-into-shock-and-die painful.”
“There’s something I could do,” Natasha says after a moment, meeting Tony’s eyes.
Even with the water, it still feels like dry-swallowing. Tony’s next breath comes on a rasp. “I’m not gonna like this, am I?”
They had set up a clock at the back of the lab as soon as they had figured out how much time they had left. The seconds keep sloughing away, faster than Steve can help, and he’s watching the numbers tick down when Sam asks him if he’s okay.
“I’m fine,” he answers automatically.
Jane is off to the left, working on what kind of stun gun the Gravedigger used, because there’s nothing else to do and Steve assumes she’d feel useless just standing there like Steve is doing. Bruce is typing furiously a few meters away.
Clint is- somewhere. He lost track of him at some point, but he’s sure he’s doing all he can.
Carol is shouting down the phone at a guy who Steve has no nice feelings towards about why they should pay the ransom.
“Hey,” Sam says, and stops. Steve looks at him.
“Have you ever noticed,” Sam says, a little too cautious for Steve’s liking, “when something bad happens and Tony gets caught in the crossfire, you get a little… intense?”
“Intense,” Steve repeats.
“Yeah. It can kind of scare the shit out of us, man.”
Steve folds his arms across his chest, turning to face him fully instead of looking over his shoulder at him. “Sam. My partner is currently running out of air and time. Forgive me if I’m stressed.”
Sam holds his hands out in front of him, palms up, fingers splayed wide. “I get that, man, I do, but shit, do you remember last year? Tony got held hostage by drug smugglers and you broke that guy’s jaw when he wouldn’t tell you where he was. Like, you broke it with your fingers. Just- yanked his face up and asked him and then started squeezing when he wouldn’t tell you. I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that with their bare hands, it was terrifying. You get terrifying, and we get worried.”
“I’d be more worried about our teammates right now instead of how pissed I’m going to get at the Gravedigger, Agent Wilson,” Steve says, and if he grates it a little, then he blames it on the pressure of the situation.
Sam rubs a hand over his face. “Yeah. Yeah.”
From off to the side, Jane yells that she’s figured out the type of stun gun.
Which doesn’t help us find Tony and Natasha, Steve thinks to himself, but thanks Jane anyway.
Tony watches as Natasha rips out a mostly-blank page from his novel and scribble a short message on it. She folds it, and presses it into her pocket.
“That to Clint? Just in case?”
Natasha looks at him. “Yes,” she says eventually. She holds out his book to him. “Would you like to write one?”
“To Clint? Nah. He’d just laugh.”
“To whoever. Just in case,” she says, repeating his words.
Tony actually thinks about it for a second. “There’s a pretty good chance that no matter how good you are at doing this, I might die?”
“Have you ever done this before?”
“No, but I’ve seen one done.”
“The guy’s hands were shaking. He hit an artery. They bled out.”
Tony shifts his jaw from side to side. “Tash? Don’t quit your day-job.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” she says, and lowers the book when it’s obvious he’s not going to take it. She moves closer, positioning the knife from the mini-kit over his leg, which feels like a length of fire sticking out from his torso. “What I’m going to do is make a long incision in the facia to release the pressure inside.”
“Have fun with that,” Tony croaks.
“It’s best if I do it very fast and without empathy.”
“You’re good at that.” Tony breathes in hard through his nose.
She ignores him. “Here,” she says, and gives him what he thinks is his jacket. When the hell did he takes his jacket off? “Bite down on it. And don’t fight passing out.”
He balls it up, and is about to shove it in his mouth when he sees the glint of the blade again, less than an inch away from his leg, and thinks fuck it. “I’m nuts about Steve,” he blurts, and the knife pauses.
“Completely gone. Over the moon.” His mouth ticks. “Stupid in love with him.”
When he looks at her, Natasha’s eyes are softer than he’s ever seen them. “Stark,” she says, and that’s all she says.
Tony shakes his head, his breathing coming in short bursts. “No. No, shut up, never mind. I just wanted to say it out loud for once.” He pushes half of the balled-up jacket into his mouth, thinking distantly to how much the thing cost, and clenches his fists around the door handle.
Around the jacket, he says, “Doubles your survival time if I die,” and it comes out garbled.
Natasha understands him anyway. She meets his gaze. Holds it as hard as she’s holding the knife. “I’m not interested in surviving that way. Bite down on the rag.”
Tony does. He thinks it muffles his following screams pretty well.
A car horn makes him wake with a start. “Fuck.”
“Hi,” Natasha says from the front seat, where she’s fiddling with wires trailing out from underneath the steering wheel. “Glad I didn’t kill you.”
“You say the sweetest things,” Tony rasps. “How was I out?”
“An hour at the most. How’s your leg?”
Tony tries moving it. It’s less agony-inducing than before. “Better,” he realizes. “Much better. Thanks. What are you doing?”
“Hotwiring the phone to the horn,” she says, her deft fingers twisting wires together as she speaks. “So we can send a message.”
“We can get radio reception.”
Tony looks over the horn. “It’ll burn out the cellphone in a second. Might work long enough to send a single-burst transmission.”
“A very short text message,” Natasha nods. “Cap can trace it to a cellphone relay tower.”
Tony huffs a laugh. He used to forget it all the time in the first few months they worked together; how smart Natasha was. Now, however, he’s seen her prove so many people wrong about her that he’s hardly even impressed anymore. “What message do we send?”
“That’s the million dollar question,” Natasha says. “I thought I’d leave it up to you.”
In an office in DC, Steve Rogers gets a text message.
He’s up and running by the time it sinks in, and gets Bruce to bring up the numbers on the screen:
6, 7, 16, M1.4.
He gathers everyone up, and nods at the screen. “Does it mean anything to anybody?”
Bruce and Carol share a look. “They’re getting low on oxygen,” Carol says.
“Lack of oxygen leads to mental confusion,” Bruce agrees quietly.
“This is Tony,” Steve says. “It means something.”
Jane asks if he tried calling the number, and Steve grits, “Yes, of course I tried, it went straight to voicemail, okay, that’s why I’m here talking to Squints.” On his third round of pacing, he slaps the screen with an open palm. “THINK, morons, it has to mean SOMETHING.”
Carol’s jaw stiffens. “Cap, they’re not cops.”
“We’re running out of time,” Steve barks.
“We are out of time,” Bruce says, and Steve twists to look at the screen as Bruce narrates uselessly: “Tony and Natasha will run out of air in four- three- two-”
The knife is crusted over with Tony’s blood, but Natasha couldn’t care less. She raises her hand, stabbing with as much force as she can at the spare tire that they’ve had to work a good twenty minutes to get access to. She stabs, and on the third try, she feels it puncture the rubber. Air hisses out, and she and Tony both crowd around it, breathing in.
“How much extra time?”
“A little,” Tony says. “Four other tires, but we can’t get to them.”
Natasha nods slowly. “If the ransom was paid, we’d be out by now. We shouldn’t drag this out any longer than we have to.”
“No.” Tony wets his lips for what feels like the hundredth time since he woke up down here. “No, Cap will get us out.”
“You have,” Natasha says, and pauses to breathe. “A surprising amount of faith in Steve.”
Tony and Steve have had so many arguments about faith that they all blur together. “I don’t have faith,” Tony insists. “Faith is- is an irrational belief in something just for the sake of believing it. Over time I’ve seen what Steve can do. It’s not faith.”
“No offence,” Natasha says, “but we are out of air. We don’t know if our message got out, or if anyone understood it. And we are buried underground. What you have is faith, baby.”
Tony manages a weak laugh at that. “Baby? Shouldn’t that be my line?”
Natasha huffs along with him. “Blame Clint. Too many near-death experiences with that idiot have rubbed off on me.”
“One of these days we’re going to find out what the hell happened in Budapest.”
“If we get out of here and it isn’t in a body bag, I promise to tell you someday.”
“I’m holding you to that,” Tony says. Then, with a big breath that doesn’t pull in anywhere near enough air, “I need the camera batteries and the preservative powder from your kit.”
“What will that do?”
Tony’s grin is lopsided and awful and lacks any of the punch it does when he usually pulls it. “If you can preform surgery out of thin air,” he says, “then I can pull a little thin air out of thin air.”
Two minutes later, he’s grinning even harder, and they’re both laughing at the new source of oxygen, weak and snort-filled, and Tony struggles to swallow. “Okay. That gives us just enough time for my next brilliant idea, which will kill us.”
Natasha raises her eyebrows expectantly.
“They don’t contain actual air,” Natasha says instantly.
He rolls his eyes. “Yes, I’m aware. How many PHDs do you have?”
“Less than you.”
“And never forget it. Okay, so my idea is to use the explosives in the airbags to blow our way to the surface.”
Natasha blinks. “That will definitely kill us.”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “But so will doing nothing.”
Steve paces until Carol finally cracks and yells at him that he’s wearing a hole in the floor.
“It’s not a numeric code or an equation,” Bruce says, and Jane follows with, “It’s not a GPS location or-”
“Can I make a suggestion,” Carol interrupts, and they all look at her. “Look, you Squints are brilliant, but you won’t make intuitive leaps.”
Jane licks her lips nervously. “You mean jump to conclusions?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. This is a message from one of them to one of us. Specific focus.” She points at the screen, at the seemingly random numbers which Steve wants to manifest into people just so he can punch them in the face. “Who was it meant to get to?”
“Easy,” Steve snaps. “Stark’s cell to mine. The message was for me, we have an understanding and we’re partners.”
“We all work together,” Bruce says tiredly. “He’s my best friend.”
“It’s numbers,” Jane says, raising a hand like they’re in class before dropping it quickly. “Sorry Bruce, but you’re less about numbers than me and Tony. I’m all about numbers, and Tony’s sort of about numbers. Mostly machinery.”
“Steve,” Bruce says, and Steve looks at him.
“Steve,” Bruce repeats. “Tony is all about machinery, numbers and Steve. I guess it could be to Steve?”
“But it’s numbers,” Carol says. “No offence, Cap, but Tony would know you wouldn’t understand jack shit about this. I say it’s for Jane.”
Steve glances over at the clock, at the still numbers all stuck at zero, and crosses his arms tighter. Come on. Come on.
When Bruce suddenly blurts, “Six, seven, sixteen,” in the voice he uses when he’s made a discovery that will probably solve the case, Steve could kiss him.
“Yeah,” Carol says, “But what does that-”
“Cabron, nitrogen and sulphur on the periodic table of elements,” Bruce says, a million miles a minute, charging over to the computer and starting to type furiously. “They are buried in cold, rich soil.”
Steve marches over to his side. “You gotta narrow it down, Banner.”
“Keep going, Bruce,” Jane says, squeezing his shoulder.
“Uh,” Bruce says, still typing, “Mineral components in coal are all the same. It’s the organic components that provide a unique fingerprint. They’re called- macerals. They fluoresce at different levels. A reflective of 1.4 is quite rare, suggesting a high concentration of-”
“Bruce, tell me what that means.”
“It means he knows where they are,” Jane says.
Steve looks towards Bruce. “Bruce?”
“I know where they are,” Bruce breathes.
Tony tells Natasha that if they’re less than four feet underneath the surface, it should blow them to freedom.
She nods. “And if we’re more than four feet under?”
Tony makes a face.
The cars pull up, scattering dust, and Steve yanks open the car door, Carol and Clint right behind him. More cars are pulling up, but Steve doesn’t pay any attention other than barking orders at them to search the whole area, search for indentations, tire tracks, mounds, anything, anything.
The cavern is huge. Steve tries not to notice.
“It’s been a privilege, Romanova.”
“Not the word I use, but I guess you’ve… grown on me.”
“Like a fungus?”
“Exactly like a fungus, Stark.”
“Okay. On three. One- two- thr-”
It’s not much. A gust of dirt, a sudden small blast of it, and if Steve hadn’t been looking closely he might have missed it entirely. But he didn’t, and he’s in motion before the thought occurs to him; running towards the spot with everything he has.
It takes ten seconds to get there sprinting but it seems longer, and he drops to his knees before he even stops running, so he skids. He digs his hands into the dirt, into the rocks that rip at him. He digs, he shoves his arms in.
Please don’t be too late. Please don’t be too late. Please-
There’s a hand, and it’s under the dirt, and it’s warm. Steve grabs and pulls, hard enough that it’s got to hurt. It’s Tony’s hand, he can tell from a glance, he couldn’t forget that hand if he tried: scarred and dirty, the hand of an engineer, and Steve pulls until Tony’s gasping and blinking back pebbles and alive.
“Get,” Tony rasps, and hacks dirt onto Steve’s sleeve. “Get- Tasha-”
There’s Carol kneeling beside him, there’s Bruce and Clint and Jane on the other side, scooping dirt away and revealing Natasha, and Steve’s heart roars in his ears. He stares for a second and then Natasha’s coughing, her eyes opening before seeing the sun and squeezing shut, and Steve has a second of relief before turning to Tony again.
“’M fine,” Tony says, still breathy, still wheezing as Steve checks for injuries, shoves his hands through his hair, touches his face and his shoulders, ghosts over his bloody legs, and before he knows what he’s doing, Steve’s got his face pushed in Tony’s throat, breathing in. There’s the overwhelming scent of dirt, along with the all-too-familiar tang of blood, but underneath it Steve thinks he smells engine grease, which never fails to remind him of Tony.
And he’s mumbling, he’s saying stupid stuff like thank god, thank god, and pressing his lips to Tony’s neck in what he hopes Tony doesn’t notice as kisses.
For once, Tony doesn’t pull away. If anything, he pushes closer.