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Kingdoms of Misrule

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Though he does not know his location, the identity of his captors, or the purpose of his confinement, Tony Stark has come to one inescapable conclusion: the accommodations are simply unacceptable.

While he tries to entertain this thought with his hallmark irreverent humor ('I've been held hostage in classier joints than this!'), there's something about his surroundings that make it more and more difficult maintain sangfroid the longer he's exposed to them. The reasons are ellusive-- unformed, subjective, impossible to quantify. In short, everything Tony loathes. Of equal width and breadth far greater than that of a usual cell, the room he's being held in is perhaps better termed a 'chamber'. It has the air of a crypt with its seamless walls, floor, and ceiling all precisely hewn from dark, oily stone. If someone took advantage of a natural stone cave to construct this space, they've done an excellent job of eradicating the random mineral build-up of millennia. Artificial geometry reigns here, absolute as the uniform poses of Egyptians on their bas-reliefs.
But it is not a human geometry, Stark is forced to admit to himself.

It sounds phenomenally stupid, certainly nothing he'd put in the incident report Natasha will undoubtedly bully him into writing, despite the fact SHIELD no longer exists. (Independence from government interference should mean independence from bureaucratic paperwork too, but no one ever listens to him.) Most likely, she'll delegate the task of wrangling him to Steve, who cannot even lower himself to bully his own coworkers like any decent commander-cum-office-manager should. Instead, the Captain merely radiates expectation, vague resignation, and a sort of wistful tolerance until Tony complies just to prove he can occasionally be responsible and, for G-d's sake, Steve, just stop looking at me like that!


Experiencing that familiar scenario is a bit contingent upon rescue, of course-- something Tony would have had almost absolute faith in two months ago, and which he still evaluates as an 83-90% probability now. With no idea how much time has passed since his abduction, he has no way of predicting the likelihood that the latest iteration of the Avengers has even noticed his absence yet. That's what happens when you smile, build everyone a sparkling new facility, and quickly fuck off to Malibu as though you don't have your tail between your stylishly-clad legs. Steve had shaken his hand, quipping and nodding as appropriate during their manly parting, but even Tony (king of the unresolved) knows the threads left dangling between them are dipped in poison. Drawing betrayal, judgement, and disappointment up through the unfinished ends like clever roots, so that all might be desiccated without any further effort from either party.

"So talk to him," Pepper had said, as if she wasn't suggesting a radical new approach in Tony's relationship with his teammate, much less a paradigm shift in his interactions with human beings in general. Of course, he did not; he barely communicated with Pepper herself or even Rhodey, sticking to weekly, 'hey, haven't died from alcohol poisoning or lack of self-care' call or text for each. And how were they? They were negotiating various mergers and one Hammer-related patent dispute (Pepper) or bringing the 'new kids' up to snuff (War Machine). In short, overworked but fabulous. Tony said he was fabulous and fabulously glad that they were fabulous, and Rhodey-- in the tones of the perpetually burdened-- told Stark to please stop saying 'fabulous'. Technically homeless (okay, between unexploded domiciles) Tony had lasted two days in a mansion-less Malibu before retreating to one of his bolthole labs in Arizona. It was temporary, he told Pepper; just until the Tower was finished, he assured Rhodey, still working on all sorts of gadgets for you and yours.


Tony, seasoned abductee though he may be, lost track of time disturbingly early in this ordeal, and his prison only exacerbates the issue. Not a gap in the confines to let in a waxing and waning sliver of sunlight, not a sound from weather on the roof or traffic in the greater environs by which to extrapolate some temporal reference. All is silence, moments oozing by with slow but irregular protraction, leaving his head to throb and his shoulders to ache from the strain of his hands being bound above his head. Who's to say how long he's been gone, or even when during his latest engineering binge he was snatched? Timekeeping has never been his strong suit, even when not in the all-hallowed creative zone, and FRIDAY doesn't fabricate spurious interruptions to bring him up for air the way JARVIS did.

Certainly, there'd been no Steve to knock on the glass with monotonous determination, protein shake or sandwich in hand, practically standing at parade rest like the combined forces of Asgard wouldn't move him until Tony ate. A puzzling anomaly for, though Cap and Iron Man had become a well-oiled if snarky machine on the battlefield, two out of five non-uniform conversations still ended… less than amicably. Yet there he'd be, all six foot plus of super soldier-- buff, blond, and totally unmoved by Tony's lack of gratitude. Once, the man brought him carrot sticks. Carrot sticks! Needless to say, vociferous protests about not being the class pet rabbit and accusations of insincere attempts at team bonding bounced off Cap like bullets off Vibranium. By no means frequent or predictable, it still happened often enough for Stark to determine that he was missing some variable in causation.


("He's tryn' to support his troops," was Hawkeye's opinion, given whilst precariously balanced in an acrobatic squat on one of the lab's empty workbenches. Tony's disbelieving gaze had covered a variety of subjects, not the least of which was the fact the spy's pose was making his own knees ache just looking at it. Having seemingly conjured one of the pretzel rods to his hand, Barton munched the food in question. Another offering from Steve, which Tony had made no secret of eyeing with distrust. "Man's not trying to poison you," the archer continued, not waveringing an inch as he held out an arm for Bruce's scanner. "He just has a hard time keeping up with you two sometimes, so he feeds you instead."

"By that logic, you owe us about five zillion boxes of donuts," Tony replied. "I like yeast-- not cake-- by the way, and Brucie here just can't get along without his sprinkles." An eye-roll from the scientist in question, who continued taking bone density scans with typical aplomb.

"I don't care if I can't keep up with you nerds," Clint declared, unashamed. "And I mean 'nerd' in the nicest way, Doc."

"It's okay," Bruce said, deadpan. "_I_ don't hold a grudge."

Though denied a congratulatory fist-bump, Tony crowed in delight at Banner's wit. "Lots and _lots_ of sprinkles!"

"Seriously-- think about when and where he came from." The gravity of Clint's tone was marred, perhaps intentionally, by his loud and graceless chewing. How often had Stark rolled his eyes at his teammate, thinking the class-clown antics covered only a story like that of SHIELD's other pet spies? Someone who changed names the way others changed shirts; whose weapons were more important than the battered duffle in which their entire lives could be stuffed as they passed from anonymous hotel room to equally anonymous hovel in any number of G-d forsaken countries.

Though not privy to the details-- despite his impressive hacking skills-- Tony knew Hawkeye had taken a chance on Natasha, a woman who claimed she had little loyalty to spare. Perhaps the man's past was as dark as Romanov's, or perhaps he'd been only too eager to shed the greasepaint and caravan dust he occasionally referenced. What Stark did know was basic but sufficient. Clint was an incomparable shot, didn't pry, and gave back in measure every ounce of shit Iron Man dished out. And while 'trust' was hardly a highlight in his own personal dictionary, Tony still judged the agent more reliable than the rest of SHIELD put together. Anyone still functioning after an alien stirred their brain with a two-by-four had to be some kind of badass, lunatic, or both.
As the saying goes, G-d looks out for fools, drunks, and children. Evidence indicated he and Clint were both at least two out of three.

"It's very simple." Grabbing a fresh stick, Barton rolled it across his fingers in the manner of a seamless card trick. "When you don't have a lot, food is love."

"What is this, 'Bird-Droppings For the Soul'?" the engineer shook his head. "All I did was point out that its weird he bothers to feed his least favorite person on the team." Pulling up the holographic results of Bruce's scan-- a sectioned recreation of Barton's muscle and bone structures posed just as the man himself-- he marveled ostentatiously at his own genius. "J, store this for the new materials designs. You," he pointed to the former SHIELD agent, "are dismissed. Be gone, and take your sentiment with you. I'm allergic."

"Maybe you're not his least favorite," Bruce considered amiably, stepping back as Clint dismounted with a flip to showcase his own self-aggrandizement. "I only get fed when you--" Banner pointed to Tony with his own quickly nabbed pretzel-- "are here."

"Honey," Stark said, putting a hand on the physicist's shoulder to match the solemnity of his words. "Your mother and I have been meaning to tell you this-- and it doesn't mean we love you any less-- but… you're adopted."

Chuckling, Bruce shrugged Tony away with the ease and affection one demonstrates for an overly zealous puppy. To Clint, he said, "Your mature insights are scaring the hell out of me."

With a careless roll of his shoulders, the marksman picked up his bow. "Then my work here is done." His mischievous smile might also have been appreciation of some private joke. "Oh, and Stark? Believe it or not, Cap paid you a compliment the other day. Said you're-- and I quote-- 'ultimately a good egg'."

Tony exchanged a puzzled look with Bruce. "If Rogers ever brings me an omelet, I will be _so_ freaked out.")


Phrasing aside, Tony hadn't been all that surprised by evidence of Cap's good opinion, merely disconcerted at knowing it had been so openly articulated. He'd managed to tolerate a 'you're alright, Stark' on their way to the infamous shawarma (along with the hearty shoulder-clasp of a man who still sometimes misjudged his own strength), but made it a point to cut any further praise or attempted apology off at the knees. Rogers, he has learned, is someone who can actually occasionally admit when he's wrong; a terrifying opening Tony learned not to give others long ago. Keep up with the pace, Cap-- it's the 21st century and we're never wrong or really sorry, only sorry we got caught. The potential for real friendship with his fellow Avenger has remained present but untapped, along with the definite attraction a wild dwarf planet might feel for a stable main-sequence star. Gravity which must be resisted because the cost was simply too high. There are things to admire about Rogers; idiosyncrasies to be affectionately annoyed by, flaws and differing opinions held sometimes so righteously that they actually make him refreshingly human. They're both grown men; comrades, fellow veterans of the PTSD wars, heavy on the bizarre histories but not totally without social skills. It could work, this camaraderie, and sometimes it actually does.
But Steve also has so many shiny buttons, and Tony just itches to push them all.

'Draw me a line and I'll cross it, babe,' Tony's demeanor says. 'Give me a hard limit and I will push that rope uphill.' Steve might balk for a moment at some new flavor of outrageousness or cynicism from Stark, yes. He'll throw up his hands, descend into jaw-clenching righteous silence, or walk away with stiff shoulders-- but he always comes back just the same. To paraphrase McArthur; Steve doesn't retreat, he just advances in a different direction.


Even if things are not as they so briefly were ('the only constant is change,' Howard's voice intones), even if their little superhero clubhouse gave a false impression of intimacy, the Avengers aren't over. Someone will eventually notice that Iron Man, genius playboy superhero philanthropist and creator of everyone's favorite homicidal AI, is missing.

(And maybe Steve will decide he's best shut of Tony after all.)

So here is said genius, ransom value decidedly up in the air, trying to comfort himself with the knowledge that-- personality flaws or no-- not a soul on Earth would want Stark brains in the wrong hands.

He's been placed in, of all things, some sort of vat. Carved from unbroken stone like every other feature of the cell, its rim extends just below eye-level, allowing the contents to engulf him up to his adam's apple. The distressing, inches-distant threat casts his mind repeatedly back to his torture in Afghanistan, though he quickly chokes (ha ha!) off the memories. Despite the constant low-grade anxiety this inspires, Tony almost wishes it were only water he's contending with.

The liquid surrounding him barely qualifies as such. A gelatinous gray mixture, clear as glass and slippery as intestines pulled from some live and bleeding form, it bears down upon him with unexpected weight. Shifting position is out of the question, for he's been arranged so that his feet are propped flat against the vat-wall behind him. His achilles tendon has already filed a complaint. The height to which his restraints are drawn forces him to stand on his knees, with no give that would allow him to climb to his feet even if the substance didn't provide so much resistance. It squelches, it splashes and sloshes in every onomatopoetic aspect of water, but its as heavy as cement. There's a feeling of potential to it; pressing, crushing as the vacuum of space beyond the armor, needing only a pinhole to rush in and destroy the unnatural pocket of air. There's no temperature that Tony can discern, at once cold as that infinite blackness and hot as the desert in her most hostile peak of day. At times it feels merely lukewarm, the temperature of cadaver-flesh and of the same texture-- organic matter abandoned and already starting to decompose.

Stark is not a fan of the organic mechanism, finding it delicate, convoluted, and poorly designed. Let Brucie-poo and Dr. Choi rhapsodize over nucleotides, amino acids, and the subtle adjustments of cell evolution to cosmic radiation. DNA may be the most sophisticated recording mechanism in the universe, but whoever did the debugging and load testing didn't know shit. All that complexity and you still end up with cancer-- with disease, defect, and death. In the face of the transitory, of humanity's inescapable epitaph of 'nothing lasts', is it any wonder Tony sought improvement? A shield

(for he had seen _the_ shield, his shield, broken)

whose constant presence might defend humanity, preserve the species when its own self-preservation vanished long ago?


('You can't play G-d, Tony," Steve had chastised, constant as the North Star in his own predictable objections. Even his rhythm was steady on the chopping block, sun peeking over Clint's cliche little farmhouse to light the tips of Roger's hair, and the smooth plane of a forehead without sweat.

Tony hissed while the axe split wood, well aware of the disparity-- and complete uselessness-- of the piles they'd produced. "Why the hell not? It's pretty evident the position's open." And, after a beat, that maniacal part of him extracting the words like teeth, "And you're one to talk, oh peak of the human specimen."

There had been fire in those eyes, blue-indigo like the edge of alcohol set alight, while Captain America's jaw clenched in one of his obvious tells. "I took a risk," Steve gritted out. "The gamble was already in progress," a pointed statement, but no obvious mention of Howard, which definitely would have brought them to blows. "If things had gone wrong, I was the only one who would have paid for it."

The words were there, Tony's tongue a trigger, but he could not quite lower himself to even imply the loss of Erskine. Comebacks forever burned a hole in Stark's pocket, but-- though none would believe it-- even Tony's smart mouth often lost some of its potency in the face of Steve Rogers.

One blond eyebrow raised in the ensuing silence-- expectation of a volley which could easily have been read as a challenge. No direct discussion of collateral damage was necessary, because Steve was thinking the same thing. It was easy (as Tony knew) to conjure the ghosts of those things lost in becoming. In rebirth.

--And you see? We've had the same thought. I've penetrated that patriotic armor; I'm right up against your skin.--

In the end, the soldier's only response had been a curt but indecipherable nod. Whether it was an unlikely acknowledgement of Tony's restraint or the mere signal of a lull between bouts, Stark could not have guessed.)


How indeed, Tony thinks presently, was Steve to know the hot terror that roiled in Stark's astral gut at the sight of his prone form, cold and broken in the vision Wanda had contrived? Her magic ('Magic'! Hateful nonsense-- Tony would ban it if he could) had only been accelerant on the flame of old nightmares. Variations on the same old theme; 'Tony, Tony', the whims of Chaos Theory whisper, one single identifiable patter throughout his entire life, 'anything real you gain must be lost again'. Money has always been abstract, illusory as fame, both omnipresent along with social climbers, eager cronies, and hangers-on. Parties full of formulaic opulence-- food and drink and drugs free-flowing. So armed with his numbers and his genius (to say nothing of a still in his dorm-room closet), a fifteen year-old Tony had sallied forth to poke the native fauna of society, and their reactions proved woefully predictable. With money-grubbers, sycophants, sexual conquerers, and intellectual poachers all successful slotted into phylum, genus, and species, he quickly lost interest in people as a whole. The mysteries of science and engineering-- of what could be-- were far preferable to the disappointingly prosaic nature of 'reality'.

He has his anomalies-- gems that can never be told (and which he can rarely acknowledge) how exceptional they are. Pepper, Rhodey, Bruce. Even Clint and Natasha surprise him occasionally (rather spectacularly in regards to the former). And Steve, whose looks cut through the armor-- literal and metaphorical-- as if it isn't there at all, who rarely disappoints and often astonishes, his challenges setting fire to Tony's blood no matter how weary he is with the world. There are feelings there-- though they go willfully unrecognized. It happens. Another nuisance of organic chemistry, these… by-products. Every now and then they get so strong as to become variables Stark must factor in, but he'll be damned before he hangs a specific label on them. Particularly any starting with the letter 'L'. (Unless it's 'liability'-- after Ultron, _that_ can hardly be denied.)


Strung up and soaking like salted meat in an abattoir, Tony buries his face as best he can against his aching arm. He doesn't want to think about these things, to trod the circuitous and unraveled roads in the wasteland of his inner mind. There's a reason he's left it a No Man's Land, no jet or road service here. It's not so much that he believes himself above his fellow man-- though he will claim so, at great length-- but that he hit the ground running the moment he exited the womb. His mind moves too quickly, it gets away from him. He gets away from himself, always racing, and anyone who can keep up long enough to be more than a speck in the distance is refreshing. Welcome company, given his only other companionship is that of his creations and his greatest enemy: himself. No advocate of self-awareness, he is always at odds with his own keen perception, which is where drugs, sex, alcohol, and any number of other shiny things come into play. He's been fighting boredom since Edwin Jarvis found him, crib half-dismantled, poking at a radiator in an unused guest room when he was supposed to be down for a nap. Locked doors, boarding schools, social expectations, and lab security systems all suffered the same demolished fate.


This chamber seems contrived to make him acknowledge himself, as laughable as that sounds. Solitary confinement has its side effects (many of which come on more quickly than expected), and he's had more than his fair share of time in the hole, but this is something else. He has neither seen nor interacted with his captors, catching not one glimpse before the blow to his head brought blackness rushing fetid over his consciousness. (And how could FRIDAY-- while not as thoroughly integrated into the infrastructure as JARVIS-- have been interfered with to a degree that would let 'them' get so close?)

Silence is his only companion, not even the sounds of air ventilation to break up the rhythm of his own breathing. Silence and panic-- that old untrained freeloader, fucking with the values and breaking all the equipment. He's keeping it together despite the closeness of the fluid to his mouth and nose, despite the twin rapiers of anxiety-- being restrained and partly submerged-- intersecting in his gut. His eyes feel gummy, but closing them provides little relief. An intolerable brightness surrounds him, light so harsh and unrelenting it feels like a solid thing, despite the fact it has no discernible source. No bare lightbulbs or warehouse fluorescents here, and Stark has come to the conclusion that this diffuse brilliance is a significant decorative flaw. To be cliche is one thing; its almost entertaining to see would-be villains posture in overdone noir, or watch Hydra commandants strut as if they aren't the distillation old-world nightmare. They make mockeries of themselves, and Tony loves to point this out. Even in Afghanistan, he couldn't quite keep a lid on his smart mouth. One of the burlier minions-- a sadistic homunculus Tony dubbed 'Tweedle Three', having used up Tweedles Dee, Dumb, and Doo-Doo-- swore he'd have the engineer's tongue as a souvenir when his usefulness was over. Tweedle Three's attention was far from flattering, but actively loathing Stark kept the bastard's focus away from Yinsen. The nascent Iron Man put an end to the thug, but not before… well.

Not-so-neatly side-stepping the memory

(All I can do is wish him peace, if there's any continuance in which to have it. There's not an ounce of prayer in me; just philanthropy to dispense in his name-- and in the end, what good is that? I can try to be better, but the people of Sokovia can attest what a bang-up job I'm doing at that.)

Tony tells himself he's being overly critical of his present abductors. So what if the outré stone walls gleam and issue light while denying themselves as the source, now and then rippling as if with some vegetable sentience? He's uncomfortable, yes, but also unmarked-- there have been no vengeful beatings or applications of 'motivational' pain. In the distressingly varied annals of 'The Abductions of Tony Stark', these particular kidnappers aren't rating very high so far. Perhaps they're inexperienced, or from a more obscure school of torture. He snorts and chuckles to himself at the notion of breaking down 'information extraction' methodologies like movements in art. The Classicists, heavy on the fists, boots, and tooth-extractions; the Baroque adherents with splattered blood-play and iron maidens; the Modernists with their mind-games, water-boarding, and machine guns.


Thus he puts his finger on whats bothering him, the vague mental association that's been with him since he first began analyzing his surroundings. For a time, he'd occupied himself with the logistics behind creating the lighting trick. After all, doing it up in arc reactor blue might be more appealing-- give Stark Industries a chance for ingress to the interior decorating market. But looking at it hurts, even thinking about it hurts, because the lines and angles are fundamentally wrong. The eye traces a plane, an archway, and skitters away nauseously, repelled. It's out of alignment somehow. Not by much, but Tony is an expert in disciplines were a little error can go a very long way. If the… dissonance… were any greater here, it might drive one crazy. The whole thing certainly _sounds_ crazy but, now that the thought has solidified, it cannot be escaped. Reality dangling by a nail, ever-so-slightly askew, and perhaps hung someone who wouldn't know if the picture was upright in the first place.

Tony now knows more about art theory than he ever wanted to, having listened to any number of discussions between Steve, Natasha, Pepper and (the traitor) sometimes even Bruce.
('I envy the Winterhalter's ability to render texture and light.'
'But his subjects are so uninspired!'
'Well, creativity and skill aren't always in the same package'-- and so on. And don't get Romanov started on the Leningrad School.)
It might also be possible-- with no direct admission, no sir!-- that a little research may have occurred after he overheard Steve quietly rhapsodizing about some of the active surrealists in his day.

("Of course," the soldier finished quietly, with that gentle self-deprecation, "it's lost a little of its impact on me." He had been sitting in the kitchen with Natasha; they drank tea out of china cups Tony did not own. And was her hand mere centimeters from Rogers', was there a certain lack of surprise in her calm expression when the eavesdropper finally coughed to announce himself? As ever, the Widow left no evidence, and Tony didn't clear his throat until after he heard Steve say, "Can't say I enjoy it as much as I used to.")


Sage, was the name. A female artist, a pioneer in the juxtaposition of everyday objects with strange, bleak clarity and landscapes, as though all were viewed through a lens of unapologetic crystal. She did a lot of eggs, and Tony supposes she was technically very good, even if she didn't stir his particular interest. There was something disorienting… dissociative about her work, as if you were looking over your own shoulder. Rhodey calls it 'getting bitten by reality'-- that fleeting feeling of alienation from yourself that brings on thoughts of 'where would I be if I wasn't here?' and 'what is 'I', anyway?'. As in, 'I was pushing that flight envelope you postulated for the armor, had a brief power cut-out, and got a little personal with the Mojave while reality bit my ass'.

Tony usually tells Rhodey he's a dope who willfully passed up all the good drugs in college, but that's what this feeling is. The room is swimming in it, up to the ceiling without any air pockets, drenched in it like cosmic radiation on the dark side of the moon. May he be forever saved from the 'atmospheric'! If you can't pin it down, measure, slice, weld, diagram, or ignite it, then Tony isn't interested. This can be quantified too, he's certain. Yes, some of it is likely his own natural reaction to enforced _inaction_-- Stark may be his own devil, but he's proof enough of the old saying about idle hands. A far larger part can likely be attributed to the little spa treatment he's receiving. He does not for one moment believe there isn't something in the silvery goop affecting him, by accident or by design. Certainly, it has not escaped his notice that he has neither voided his bladder or moved his bowels since he woke in this tub. Having partaken of many a pharmaceutical and/or recreational drug in his day, he recognizes an altered state of consciousness when he experiences it. As 'trips' go, this one is unpleasant but not particularly exciting-- no one's going to be bottling this shit for a rave any time soon. Hell, it can't even compete with his rogue's gallery of remembered hallucinations. Tony knows he got lucky in the fact no drug ever really got its hooks in him, but he still inherited Howard Stark's achilles heel.

A weakness for the sauce-- how positively proletariat, my dear! Vat 69 or Four Roses, it all comes out the same end. Or up, as the case may be. He was at work at a pretty good (and lately pretty unusual) bender when he was taken, code jumping between his fingers in a way only tangentially related to holographic projection. Out of practice with Ye Ol' Bottle and unable to remember the last time he'd slept, the shadows had begun taking on weird little protuberances in his peripheral vision. All that money and he never gets a good hallucination. It's always the overwhelming sense of a presence (his father, Obie) at his back, or the impression of something writhing beneath solid surfaces. The occasional naked Captain America, or even a few cheerleaders, isn't really asking so much, is it?

His impaired state is likely responsible for the gaps in his memory, not the niggling conviction that his attackers somehow could not be looked upon directly.

(His eye, sliding away from the outlines of the cell; the ache in his head and the smothering light which make even the most basic observations painful. The silhouettes-- not shadows but holes sliced from nothing, like scraps left over from a child's chain of little paper men.)


He does not accept this-- he does not. Tony has been forced to accommodate aliens and so-called magic in his world-view; enhanced humans and hammers that _judge_, to say nothing of the weekly artificially-enlarged monster attacking a national monument. There's just a certain point, however, at which he must put down his stylish Gucci heel. Magic is only science not yet understood-- an argument he loves to pick with Thor, especially given that Jane has unequivocally taken Tony's side. Loki's precious glow-stick is a perfect example. Within the scepter, a stone; within the stone, a gem that contained only code. Or something roughly analogous to such. Build with chemicals and you get reactions, build with animo acids and you get life. Build with syntax and commands and eventually you get a self-perpetuating program that just might

(And see how _that_ worked out? Remember also that the golden ratio appears again and again in nature like some artist's motif; that all shells spiral in the same direction, never once reversed. That the double helix is not so far from the serpents twined in the caduceus, from _the_ serpent in a certain garden, holding forth ripe treasure and saying, 'see, see? knowledge is *power*'.
'Peace in our time'.)

Pull hard enough, dig enough, and you will always find a man behind the curtain-- of that, Tony is convinced. Though he is beyond eager to leave the tender auspices of his current captors, he will make every effort to procure a sample of this fluid so he can deconstruct the fuck out of it.


"I'm not impressed," Stark says aloud, sound carrying despite the dryness of his throat and mouth. He hasn't been fed or watered, either. There's nothing mystical about feeling watched, just responsible asset control. Everything else, every ephemeral 'impression', is just a distraction. Rattling his wrists in their bindings as much as he can, Tony smiles as though he knows something. He doesn't, but 'they' don't know what, and mind games are like sex-- it's just not as much fun with only one participant.

He's already tested the grieves pretty thoroughly and-- while still definitely metallic-- the material has a sort of flexible adherence to the skin it binds, something he has never encountered before. (He'll need a sample of that, too.) Given the atypical nature of his imprisonment, it's unlikely his chance for a break will come by conventional means and, while he's still fairly confident (seventy three-- perhaps as much as seventy eight percent!) the others will look for him, Tony Stark does not wait to be rescued. Sooner or later, his captors will move him, or feed him, or come to to interrogate (or manically pontificate at) him. Some detail will slip, someone will screw up.
The rest is a matter of time, observation, and tenacity.


("The first obligation of a prisoner is to escape," Steve admonished, speaking before an auditorium of bright shiny new agents, long before SHIELD collapsed in on its own rotten core. Everything old is new again; every ounce of power corrodes. Many people in Rogers position would have-- and likely did-- turned a blind eye to the creeping amorality and totalitarianism building in the supposed defense operation. They would have assumed the organization looked after its own and that only others, the faceless John and Jane Q. Public, would suffer. The hubris of the protector who provides bread and circuses, and lands with both feet on any who dare to question. That is perhaps what went a long way in softening Tony's attitude towards Captain America. The man might follow orders with alarming alacrity but, when Tony planted the seed of doubt, Rogers let it grow.

None of them, even just after the Chitauri, knew how profound that doubt should have been. Stark, invisibly riding the streams of SHIELD's network in the months after the attack, had only tuned in to see if the Star Spangled Man would again take up his old tune; buy war bonds, support your local spy network unquestioningly, loose lips sink ships and all that jazz. He imagined enduring maybe five minutes of apple pie sermonizing-- just enough to prove the real Captain America was a self-righteous, condescending ass who bore no resemblance to Tony's imagined childhood hero. Once his theory was confirmed, he'd terminate the connection with vindicated disgust.

What he got instead was a young man in plain if outdated clothing-- not a SHIELD logo in sight!-- earnestly speaking about troop logistics, surgical strikes, and efficient assault on a fixed position. Rogers started out soft, not fumbling but conscious of his audience, losing that hyperawareness as he warmed to his subject. In his element, he spoke with a sort of sparse eloquence; clear, accessible, more orderly than some lectures Tony had attended at MIT. Turned out, history had not lied exaggerated ol' Cap's gift for strategy, but Steve almost never said 'I'. 'This is how we took the Hydra base in the Tatras', 'when Allied Forces cut supply lines, we were able to exploit weaknesses of the foraging enemy elsewhere'. Some of the missions he outlined weren't even executed by the Howling Commandos. He merely showcased the best tactical instances of dynamic strategy in the face of the unknown, not hesitating to mention incidents where the enemy did them one better. He spoke of it vividly, as if it had happened only yesterday.

Tony let the whole two hours play while he coded, pretending each moment he was about to turn it off. While the speaker quietly thanked the agents for their time and attention-- as if there weren't people who'd kill to hear him lecture-- an obvious but suddenly concrete and sickening thought occurred to Stark.
For Steve, the distant past was just that-- only yesterday.)


Smiling ruefully, Tony considers the advice. 'A prisoner's first obligation…' He hardly needs to be told that, having written the proverbial book on modern day escapes, but there's something about hearing the words in Steve's voice that makes them sound more… solid. There's a quality in super soldier's bearing that has nothing to do with the serum, an earnestness his mannerisms that draws Tony even as it aggravates him. The push and pull of the tide; a desire for union that also frequently sounds like an argument. In ("no, I didn't!"), out ("yes you did!"). He'd never in a million years say as much, especially not now, but the entire team had responded to that essence in Steve-- had, at times, been held together by it. Captain America, the great binding polymer, whose capacity for belief made things real.

(As real as Steve's fist in the collar of Tony's flight suit, blue eyes wide and dulled with pain but never the less _focused_. 'You could have saved us.' That same will forced the words out, the herculean effort of a dying man. The accusation had almost no breath behind it, carrying illogically in the vacuum of space. Behind the cairn-pile of Stark's friends, the Chitauri loomed in a noxious marriage of metal angles and organic sinuousness, their numbers so massive they seemed more one churning entity than anything else. Broken and now breathless, Steve stared past him with the unseeing and too-knowing eyes of the dead. The Avengers lay shattered around the Captain just like his shield, that Excalibur of the modern age.
'Why didn't you do more?')

Steve's censure and disappointment in Tony had been just as palpable. Forget Thor's chokehold and impassioned ranting-- Tony could have cheerfully clocked Rogers one for that one tired glance. Of course the soldier had been angry and distrustful-- he'd never been the wraithlike corpse of Stark's vision, so he didn't understand. Just a bunch of fuckery, more mind games-- thanks a lot, Wanda. Being called into account was just the same as the illusion, and Tony is familiar enough with that. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. For all his attention to detail, his attempted peace-offerings or shit about teamwork, Steve just doesn't get the one way he and Tony _are_ the same. Neither one of them is afraid to die for the 'cause', even if they're not always sure what that cause is. ('Protect', yes-- simple, visceral, but what the hell does that _mean_?) Hell, Tony's gone down in flames so many times he's starting to feel a little disappointed when he gets back up again.


In the oppressive quiet of his strange, vault-like cell, Tony begins to sense a change. The specifics are at first indiscernible, like the sensation of altering air pressure when a plane takes off or lands. Then he's certain it is his ears popping, painfully, though his time as Iron Man has previously rendered him fairly immune. But no-- what his brain is trying to translate is actually a shift in everything, as profound as a boat suddenly lifted by a mile-high wave. It's nauseous, molecular, and accompanied by a thin high scream. Tony thinks the voice sounds female, but the pitch is so mutilated by agony that it's hard to tell. Distant, but with the force of the desperate. She's gonna hit this one out of the park, folks. He wishes he could take comfort in the knowledge he's not the only human here, but the quality of fear in that cry makes it rather a moot point.

(Of course you're not 'the only human here'-- what kind of nonsense is that? Your life is weird, Tony, but there is a limit. We go strictly based on empirical evidence around here.)

It's always so fun when his internal voice sounds like Howard. He thinks instead of Rhodey and Pepper and Bruce; of Clint, Thor, and Natasha. And Steve-- he can think of Steve and no one will know. Plausible deniability, baby. Sketching in a corner of the common room, pictures he never lets anyone see; smiling with tried accomplishment from a bench on the Quinjet; using his shield like he's playing a mother-fucking pinball game. Kneeling beside Tony in the wreckage of Manhattan, looking as though he'd never quite seen Iron Man or Tony Stark before and saying, incontrovertibly, 'We won'.
When the screaming-- and the shift-- begin again, Tony has no choice but to make it a duet.


A little solidity really wouldn't go amiss right now.