Sometimes, the darkness around him seemed the embodiment of his panic. When he was first brought here, it appeared dense, impenetrable; he could barely breathe for it. And then as the time passed, his eyes became accustomed to the gloom. He could now make out the shapes, not that there was much to make out around him. The walls, the blankets on the floor; there was a niche in the wall with a toilet bowl. The first thing Tony did after he got his bearings was to fix the flush tank. (It was easy – just reattaching the chain to the lift road; a child could have done it). Judging by touch only, he'd have said the thing was made in the...60s? Maybe 70s.
The door was the only thing that looked new; it was sturdy and very much locked and unbreakable, unless he had the suit; he didn't. It had been blown apart and Tony had been forced to step out of the pieces when the heating controls went to hell.
He had no idea how many days had passed since. Many, he thought. He'd tried tracking time by his sleeping cycles, but having nothing to record them with, he lost count. Being underground did that to you, he supposed. As they were bringing him here, he'd felt the elevator going down – and down and down – and there were other, more subtle clues too; the air, the muted sounds. He wondered if it was something primal in a man that revolted at being kept below ground, or if it was just his own thing about caves that made his breathing faster, shallower, more frantic.
His injured ankle throbbed, keeping time with his heartbeat.
The irregular meals were pushed through the tiny flap at the bottom of the cell door. That was all the contact he had with the outside world. So far, no one had required him to do anything, no one ordered him to make weapons, make the suit, make a bomb, make love not war, make a fool of himself, whatever.
Periods of panic now alternated with non-caring, almost zen-like existence: the second state was much scarier. He wondered if this was what quiet slippage into insanity felt like.
The air in his cell was stagnant, like a deep, dirty underground lake. Everything stayed the same. What changed, at one point, was the sound. He became aware of it only gradually. He had been asleep, and then he wasn't. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. He did think he heard the door open and close, but not his door. Some time passed.
He lay very still, though; listening. No, there was no mistake. On the other side of the left hand wall, across the room, someone was moving about. Running through his options quickly, Tony decided he’d gain nothing by keeping still and pretending he wasn't there. If these were his captors, they were aware of him. If it was someone else – another captive – maybe they knew something: the time, the date, the reasons for all this; maybe they knew if the world still turned, out there.
As he listened to the steps in the corridor outside, not hearing any, he felt unhealthily rational. He'd turned the full circle again, this time with considerably less hope as an outcome. A part of him didn't even want to bother with this, but he quenched the thought. Fight. Even if you don't feel like it. Not that there was anything else to do around here anyway.
He struggled up, hopped over on his good leg, put an ear against the wall. Yep, hesitant steps: their echo in a mostly empty room. It sounded more spacious than the one Tony was kept in. (Lucky bastard, the other guy. Maybe he's got somewhere to wash his hands too.)
"Hey there." Tony didn't want to yell. He wasn't exactly whispering either, but his voice was quiet and even. Let's hope it doesn't carry. Let's hope there's no one in the corridor.
The steps stopped abruptly. Then, from the other side: "What? What did you say?" Suddenly decisive, the steps moved closer. The voice itself was muffled by the wall, unrecognizable, but something about the inflection, the... No, impossible. He was just imagining things now. Oh, goody. This was the next stage of insanity, then. He'd been wondering when it would set in. Maybe there wasn't anyone on the other side of the wall at all. Maybe they put something in his food.
"I said hey there," he responded, a tad testily, because it was probably a hallucination anyway, and why would he want to be nice to a hallucination? "I'm pretty sure you heard me the first time."
A pause on the other side. And then: "Tony?"
Now it was unmistakable. Steve. Steve's here!
Relief bloomed in his stomach – relief that he wasn't alone any longer, that another human being now existed in his world – but interlaced with strands of weird gratitude to Steve specifically, for being here to share his misery. And then the guilt and the terror, because he wouldn't have wished this on anyone, especially not him.
"Cap?" he said. His voice was choked with – he realized – pure, undistilled hope that had suddenly surfaced from the emotional mess roiling in his guts. Because together they could maybe figure something out, if only... And then the dread was back again. "Are you real?" he asked; it rang stupidly in his own ears.
"Tony?" The muffled voice vibrated with urgency. "Tony, is that really you?"
"No, it's your aunt Lobelia. Yeah, it's me." All of a sudden, in a flood of questions he wanted to ask – What the fuck are you doing here? Are you all right? How did they get you? What day is it anyway? – he felt uncharacteristically incapable of saying more.
On the other side, Steve seemed to jump into his practical mode at once. "Can you stand back? I'm going to try and kick my way through."
"What, through the wall?"
"There's a door here," Steve said. Which – yes, that would explain the section of the dividing wall on his side that seemed newer, way more sloppily plastered.
"I think it's been bricked up on this side."
"Well," Steve said matter-of-factly, "I don't think it's going to stay that way for much longer." Whatever had happened between them in the past, Tony thought he could hug him at that moment, just for the sheer, stupid sass.
"Okay," he whispered. All the objections he'd been going to voice suddenly seemed irrelevant. Someone might hear? Who cared. If they opened the cell door, he and Steve could probably kick their ass. Even if that wasn't the case, virtually anything was better than idly sitting here.
He limped and hopped over to his blanket, picked it up to protect his head, his face. Then he went over and stood in the left hand corner by the cell door, where the possible flying debris was least likely to get to him.
"Okay, go," he called out. Crazy excitement beat in his ears like a bass drum. A muffled thud. Another one. Apart from the sounds, there was no apparent result. Well, it would be ridiculous, wouldn't it, he thought, taking his hope by the throat, casting it on the ground and trampling on it. This wasn't happening anyway. He was losing his mind, that's what this was. Did Steve have to come to him like this, to torment him with false hopes and fake glimpsed lights at ends of tunnels?
Tony's resentment at him for not being here in reality was so irrational he almost wanted to laugh.
But then, two or three running steps, and a great, resounding crash. Perceptible vibrations in the wall itself. What sounded like a pained grunt. That wasn't right, but it felt hella real. "Cap? You okay?"
"I felt it crack," came from the other side. Which wasn't an answer at all.
And then a powerful smash and an explosion of wreckage, and if no one came running at this, they were either dead, drunk or having wild sex on one of the upper floors.
No one came running. And Tony’s eyes were well used to the dark by now.
The shape that emerged from the cloud of dust was painfully familiar – his powerful frame, his broad shoulders – but something there was out of place. Tony felt it more than he really detected it with his eyes. He hadn't seen Steve since Siberia, and he had wondered what the meeting would look like; because it would happen eventually – it had to. The world would force it on them. Tony hadn't envisioned it like this. He hadn’t thought he'd be struck speechless, desperately wishing for his suit, either of the metal or the cloth variant, anything; hell, even sunglasses would do. A layer of something to put between himself and his surroundings, a buffer, a screen. It wasn't necessarily bad, what he felt. It was too complicated to be either good or bad. It just felt too raw, like hot sand on irritated skin. He felt his breath hitch in his chest. He pulled the blanket tighter around him.
Then he realized he despised himself with every ounce of his being for doing that, so he deliberately let the stupid thing slide to the floor.
It had been barely a second. Steve zeroed in on him, as if reacting to the sound. Made a step toward him; another. Then his hands were firm on Tony's shoulders. "Tony, are you all right?" He sounded uncharacteristically winded.
"Are you all right?" Tony countered, because in those few steps it took Steve to get to him, Tony had suddenly realized what was striking him wrong. Steve moved stiffly. Like back in Siberia, there at the end, when he'd limped out. Okaaaay, let’s think about that some other time. Like, never. Which – if Steve had been in a fight (and Tony could hardly imagine Steve getting taken without a fight), it would be understandable. Still, it would take quite a beating. And then, after something like that, the man threw himself through a wooden door and a brick wall, because that made perfect sense. Right. Involuntarily, Tony shuddered.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
Of course, Steve’s immediate answer was: "Are you?" His voice vibrated with urgency.
This was getting ridiculous.
But, before Tony could say anything else, he felt Steve's hands move. Down Tony’s arms, in a quick, no-nonsense manner, then up. Then his palms were against Tony's chest, his stomach, his sides, and Tony was acutely aware how close Steve was standing to him. He himself was leaning against the wall to take the weight off his bad foot, and now Steve was there, in front of him, all big and looming. Warm and near. Something in Tony stirred, a tiny rebellious fire of want. Or, not exactly want, but something that, left unchecked, could and would become want.
He squished the thought inside him. Mercilessly wrung its throat; he was going crazy, apparently starved for human company and human touch, because otherwise he wouldn't be reacting like this. This was Steve Rogers. Tony had a lot of mixed feelings regarding the man, but definitely not this type of mixed feelings.
Besides, when had it become okay for them to touch each other like this? Tony couldn't remember if they'd ever hugged. Nope. Not even in their best days. A firm handshake was all Steve could tolerate – Tony thought, trying to distance himself from the sudden neediness coiling in his stomach – or perhaps a friendly peck on the cheek, but exclusively from Nat.
These were hurried, practical touches, however. Like... checking him for injuries or something? Still, it didn't make much sense.
"What's with the hands, Cap?" Tony muttered. Belatedly, Steve seemed to realize this was weird. He stepped back and cleared his throat uncomfortably.
"Well, the beard's sure new," Tony managed, in his best casual voice, because changing the topic to something nonsensical seemed like a stellar idea right then.
Steve's hand flew to his own face, for all the world as if a strange alien life form had sprung up on his face. And the beard didn't look bad either; just different, and right at that moment Tony hated different. Everything around him always fluctuated. He needed his constants. The star-spangled jackass always being cleanly shaven was one of them. Had been, he reminded himself. Had been.
Back in the bad days after Siberia he'd tried telling himself he'd never known Steve for real, but it never held water, even when he was at his angriest. But now, all of a sudden, the man seemed almost like a stranger to Tony. He looked rugged and tired and moved differently, and – Tony noticed only now, because his perceptions apparently came in layers and stages – he wore a different suit too, monochromatic, made from a kevlar type Tony never used in his designs. Down its front there was a deep slash. Tony had caught a glimpse of skin as Steve had moved away. He didn't seem hurt underneath, at least there hadn't been any blood visible. It was more as if someone had cut the suit open for a medical procedure. Tony shuddered. He'll have to get Steve to talk about this. What the hell had been done to him?
But, instead of talking, Steve snapped into action. When Tony had first found himself here, he had acted in exactly the same manner, examining everything, trying everything, looking for a way out. Now, after days and days, he knew there wasn't much he could do, but Steve was probably just captured and had a fresh portion of hope at his disposal.
Having apparently assured himself that Tony wasn't broken, he turned away abruptly. "We should hurry. I'm going to try to kick the door down."
Sense of urgency returning to him, Tony grabbed him by the arm. "Wait."
"I think I glimpsed some kind of explosive security contraption connected to the door while they were dragging me in."
Steve frowned. "So, if I kick it down, it will explode?"
"It's safest to assume so."
Steve hummed for a moment, thinking. "The walls..." He sounded skeptical.
Tony shook his head, but it appeared Steve wasn't looking at him; his eyes seemed fixed on a point somewhere left of Tony's head. "No," Tony said, "the bricks you demolished were a recent addition, they were crap. No offence, Cap, but I don't think even you can just kick the concrete walls down."
As if doubting Tony's words, Steve moved to the wall next to him. He still sounded a bit out of breath, which was... weird. For a moment Tony thought Steve was going to examine the masonry, but in the end he just leaned against it.
"Thick and sturdy," Tony added, because, as they were bringing him in, he'd looked. "As in, cold war thick. Judging by the design of the building, I'd guess we're somewhere in Eastern Europe."
Steve sighed. "We're in Sokovia. So, we can't break the door down, and ditto for the walls. What else have we got?
Tony's first thought was: Sokovia, huh? It made sort of sense. His second thought was Nothing, we got absolutely nothing to work with immediately. We'll have to think of something else. That one he voiced.
And then the third thought elbowed its way into his mind: how Steve wasn't looking around as he asked that question. How he hadn't done much looking around at all. It was strange. And then, with that, the pieces suddenly fell into place. What had bothered Tony all along, the weird touching, the way Steve held his head, facing Tony but somehow never looking quite directly at him. It was all clear.
"What the fuck did they do to you?" he growled at Steve (unjustly, he knew).
"Tony..." Steve began, sounding exasperated and a little tired, but Tony cut him off.
"You can't see. Can you?" Because, if it were anyone else, Tony would have ascribed this to the darkness around them. But this was Steve fucking Rogers, and thanks to the serum, he had not only superhearing and a wide array of other goodies, but also a type of dark vision. Tony had always been a bit envious of that. Now the memory just made him feel worse.
Steve blew out a long, audible breath. "No," he said. "I can't see."
Something in Tony turned to frost. It was metallic and it tasted ugly. He wanted to snap someone in half.
He made two steps towards Steve, poked a finger at his chest. Withdrew it abruptly, as if he'd been stung. "Tell me what happened." He couldn't believe how quiet his voice was.
"Does it really..." Steve began to protest. Reconsidered apparently, because he sighed and gave in. "They injected me with something," Seemingly unconsciously, he touched a hand to his chest, then let it fall.
"Like, intracardiac injection?" Tony's throat had gone dryer than he'd thought.
Steve nodded. "I thought it was a drug, but now I think it was a drug plus some kind of serum suppressant." His voice was emotionless, flectionless. As if he was briefing Tony on something completely emotionally unrelated. "Later, I was partly aware of something being poured into my eyes. Oh, and they took quite a lot of blood samples before the injection."
Tony wanted to breathe, but at the moment that goal seemed unattainable. Looking at Steve's stoic, calm face was an impossibility. Tony turned away. Limped over to the cell door. Put both hands on it and leaned over. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
"You know," he said conversationally a moment later. "I'm going to tear this place to the ground. I don't know where exactly it is or what it is, but I'm going to fucking tear it apart stone for stone. Oh," he added lightly, "and if anything's left, I'm going to burn it to ashes."
"Tony, I can function. It's not important."
Tony couldn't look away from the door. "You know what, it really is." He still had Steve's art in his office. He'd tried putting it away, after he'd returned to the Compound, and then he took it out again. Pepper thought he was using it to punish himself, but that wasn't it. Putting it away didn't make it any less there, in Tony's mind.
Tony knew a thing or two about art. As it went, Steve's wasn't exactly amazing. He had a decent eye and a nimble hand; and, overall, an underdeveloped talent. It felt unseasoned. He wasn't really expressing anything. Tony was pretty sure Steve had way more than that to say, with his lot in life. Somehow, he was still failing to open a vein while he drew. Failing to make a connection between what was on paper and what was inside.
Tony still loved it. He loved it far more than he should have, he thought. He'd stared at it for hours, knew every turn of the line by heart. Well, okay, maybe it was a form of self-torment, but he did what he needed to do, that was all. And every drawing, every sketch screamed at him with its unfulfilled potential. The fact that Steve might not get a chance to mature into his artistic potential now filled Tony with a rage so muted and frigid it could easily hold for years. Centuries. Self-sustainable anger. You never needed to renew it or recharge it, honest. It could just fuel you indefinitely. This was unforgivable. Someone was going to burn for it.
He took a breath, tried to shift his thoughts into the zone of the practical. Turned back to Steve. "You can see nothing at all? Not even light?"
Steve shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "Is there any light to see in here?"
Tony shrugged; felt stupid. "It's dark, but there's an outline around the kitty door. That's where the food comes in." He was blocking it, so he moved to the side. "Anything?"
Again, Steve shook his head.
"Well, the light's kind of faint," Tony said, trying to sound calm, reassuring. He had this crazy urge to say it'll be okay, but it sounded like such a lie he couldn't get it past his lips. For the first time in forever he fervently wished he still had the arc reactor, just to check if Steve would see the glow or not. It seemed vital to know right now.
He started towards Steve with no particular intention in mind. Hands on shoulders and such hadn't been their thing even when they were better at dealing with each other's presence. His heart burned in his chest, just like after eating too much hot sauce.
"I have an urge to say something comforting," he said, because voicing a part of his thoughts unfiltered apparently was the best option. "But I've always been total crap at it, so let's consider it said and move on?"
"Yeah, I can manage without, thanks," Steve said wryly.
"You didn't notice any changes in your surroundings while they were carrying – leading? – you here?" While sarcasm could be comforting, he still couldn't help asking the real question. Because it mattered, because he was boiling on the inside, because, try as he might, he couldn't distance himself from this.
"Carrying. I don't know, I was out of it, mostly. When I wasn't... No, I'm pretty sure I didn't see any light. Look, the serum may still regenerate whatever's damaged," Steve said. His voice was level. "We'll see, eventually. Tony, why are you dragging your foot?"
"Fuck my foot," Tony snapped.
"There's a time and place for everything," Steve deadpanned, or tried.
"You're so funny," Tony said bleakly. "Holy fuck, I'm getting a cardiac arrest from laughter, over here. Listen, when we get out of here..."
"Did you sprain the ankle? How long ago was that?"
"No idea," Tony said impatiently. "How do you think I can tell time in here? An in-built clock?"
"Wouldn't surprise me," Steve murmured. "Is it sprained or broken, do you think? Can you wiggle your toes? I want to take a look."
Tony decided to ignore this. (His foot was okay. Or, well, no, it wasn't – obviously – but what could Steve do about it?) "Which reminds me," he said, "I can't decide at which point it becomes okay to make jokes about 'taking a look' and such?"
Steve just sighed. "Oh, just shoot."
He crouched by Tony's feet, inclined his face upwards as if asking permission.
"Now it's not fun any more," Tony grumbled. "Oh, all right, just go ahead then. Not as if you can do anything about it. No, wait, I want to sit down first."
"No way," Steve murmured. His words were barely audible, but the sarcasm in itself was palpable. Tony snorted.
The sitting down, however – it was easier said then done. His balance was all screwy, as he tried not to put weight on the foot. In the end he gave up, put a hand on Steve's shoulder and lowered himself onto a large piece of rubble. Well, another side benefit of all this was that at least he now had something to sit on.
Their captors had let Steve keep his boots, and they seemed unconcerned by him still having his suit on. His cowl was gone, however, and so were his gloves. The touch of his fingers on Tony's ankle was feather-light. Gently, he pulled the sock off, then proceeded to prod and examine the ankle itself, the swelling that had sunk lower and the roof of the foot, as he asked a few generic questions. Of course he had no way of knowing if it was sprained or fractured or what, although he claimed to have gained some minor knowledge of joint dislocation during the war. And yet, and yet, it felt shamefully good to be fussed over, Tony thought. Just for a second, just for a little bit. Steve's cool fingers on his hot skin were pure bliss, and to be touched with such care, after what seemed like such a long time... He felt his gut tighten into a thousand fluttery little knots. His eyes went a little wide in the dark (he was thankful Steve couldn't see them). He had to put a stop to this before he did or said something stupid, out of pure loneliness. Steve was just kind, he told himself. And then, mercilessly: he'd be this kind to anyone in this situation. Don't get any ideas. Besides, in the darkness and the loneliness, it was easy to slip into their old patterns, bickering and occasionally fussing over each other; he could almost forget those other times that hadn't been so good and not nearly so amiable as all this. He pulled away and hissed with poorly controlled pain.
Very gently, Steve put his foot back down. "Well," Tony said, out of pure revenge for being made to feel all this, "that sure did a lot of good." He felt like a piece of shit immediately afterwards, as Steve reflexively lowered his eyes, although, practically speaking, the action made no difference. His facial expression could change from open and earnest to stoic and closed up in a fraction of a second. It drove Tony crazy. This time it also made him feel a lot like a villain. "When we get out of here," he said, almost mildly, "the first thing I'm going to do is have Helen Cho take a look at your eyes." He liked it better when Steve retorted than when he apparently felt stupidly guilty over the fact he couldn't create a splint for Tony's foot out of goodwill and stale air or whatever. "Maybe Helen can, ah..."
"Synthesize new eyes for me?" The dryness was back in Steve's voice; that was better.
"Well," Tony said. "Maybe she can, who knows? Besides..."
"You keep saying 'when we get out of here'," Steve interrupted. "Do you have a plan?"
"Nope, but now I got you." Tony's mouth quirked. "Maybe you can't kick through these walls, exactly, but you can sure be useful."
"I don't think I'll be kicking through anything much any time soon." And there it was. The underlying note of weariness Steve'd been hiding and Tony'd been half-aware of since the beginning. Another piece of the puzzle. "But we should review the facts we got, Tony. Stop wasting time."
"Cap..." Tony said, wondering frantically how he could have momentarily forgotten that Steve had said 'drugs' and 'serum suppressant' of all things. Because, he told himself sternly, you went batshit over him losing his sight, and then he started touching your leg. Tony pulled his sock back on. His head was reeling. It was all too much. Days – who knew how many – of nothing but darkness and resignation, and then all these feelings, simultaneously tearing through his insides. "Cap, are you okay? Look, you have to tell me everything. It makes sense. Just... tell me, okay?"
It was obvious it pained the blond to admit to any kind of physical weakness. He shrugged. "I'm all right." Then he turned his face towards where he figured Tony was, quirked his lips into a self-deprecated little smile. "Actually, I'm pretty beat. I think I'll need a bit of sleep before I can do anything much. Can you tell me anything about the, ah, rhythms of life around here?"
"No one ever comes," Tony said. "Sometimes they push food through the kitty door. Sometimes not. At irregular intervals, I think. Haven't really figured it out." He paused, wanting to ask what date it had been when they got Steve, to ask how they got him, but other matters were more pressing. "Listen, are you in pain? Did they beat you?"
Steve snorted in a most infuriating way. "That's not exactly how I'd put it, although I'd say there was some beating taking place there, yes."
Tony quirked an eyebrow. "Cocky much?" He'd noticed Steve hadn't answered his first question, though.
Steve just shrugged.
"How'd they take you, anyway?" Tony asked.
Unconsciously – Tony thought – Steve rubbed his neck on the right side.
"Tranquilizer gun," he said. "In the end."
Tony inspected Steve's collar. It was similar to the one on the suit he's designed, albeit a little lower. Well, it may have made the world of difference. He resisted the urge to huff. Instead, he asked, "They tranqed you? You? With what?"
Again, the shrugging. Tony was getting mildly irritated, although Steve couldn't have known all these things, of course. It was highly doubtful his captors would have graciously shared the info with him.
"About the serum suppressant you mentioned," Tony went on. Steve compressed his lips, He seemed more and more annoyed with the barrage of questions. Well, fuck him. Tony needed to know these things. "What were the effects, exactly? What did it feel like?"
"Like I really didn't want to get up?" Steve paused, rubbed his forehead impatiently. Sighed. "Look, Tony... I feel... weak. Weaker. That’s all." It was obvious Steve didn't want to talk about this.
"How weak?" Tony pressed on. "Like, pre-serum weak? Normal person weak?"
"Normal person weak," Steve decided after a moment's thought. "Or – not exactly. I get these bouts of the old strength, but I get tired really quickly. And then I stay that way.” He tapped his finger on his knee. Twice. "Are we going anywhere with this?"
"Yeah, we're collecting info," Tony told him. "That could all be the drugs at work. What made you think they gave you a serum suppressant?”
Steve raised his head, as if to look at him, then let it fall again in frustration. His palms were resolutely flat and unmoving on his knees. It was the first time Tony saw him actually react to his new blindness in any way. "Because," he said, his patience evidently strained now, "it takes ages for me to recuperate. My shoulder hurts like hell from running into the damn door. I have bruises. I haven't had bruises last more than an hour or two in years."
Tony felt a surge of nervous energy, like a thousand ants advancing up his knees and thighs. He wanted to at least pace, wall to wall, like a zoo animal or any honest prisoner in a decent cell, but putting any unnecessary weight on his bad leg seemed silly, and, besides, hopping and limping this way and that would probably look totally ridiculous. He settled for tapping his good foot in an erratic rhythm.
"Could you stop that?"
Tony ignored him. "Before I do anything else," he said, "I need to get my hands on that serum suppressant. Well, the drug too, obviously, but the suppressant first of all. I need it. Once we get out of here..."
"Why?" Steve's question rang loud and unexpected in the silence.
"What do you mean, why?", Tony snapped.
Steve didn't back down. "I mean why. Why do you need the serum suppressant?" He did the reproachful eyebrows thing. Tony hated the reproachful eyebrows thing.
Still, it went beyond that apparently. He looked at Steve, really looked at him. Took in his spine, straight as an arrow, his tense shoulders, his apparently growing annoyance the more Tony questioned and poked. This went beyond Steve's usual stubbornness. This was something else, something deeper and a bit more foul, Tony felt. It stank of distrust.
Tony was surprised at the hurt that stirred in his guts. He thought he was done with that. He thought he had immunized himself against hurt, as far as Steve was concerned. Still, it left an ugly burning in its wake.
Forgetting himself for a moment, he tried to jump to his feet; gave up. "You know what, I don't see why you're even asking. You evidently have all the answers already, so why don't you tell me?" He was speaking coldly, looking to wound "What is it I'm going to do with it? Subdue you? Take you in? No, guard your back, Rogers, definitely do. Who knows what I might try."
He'd been going for vitriol, but he thought he just ended up sounding like a bitter old man, feeling sorry for himself. He hated that. He stared at Steve, waiting for a reaction, for – well, not denial, not that, but at least some kind of calling down; no, scratch that, a response. Steve wasn't saying anything, though. He just sat there, motionless, like a roadmark. His face was a complete blank. Tony knew that blankness, that glassy expression. It enkindled all his nasty instincts. He struggled up and decided to go take a piss instead.
"You should probably go to sleep," he said frostily when he was done. "Maybe you can sleep it off."
"I probably should," Steve agreed, after too long a pause, his voice still impassive.
Carefully feeling his way through the rubble, he went back to his own cell. Yeah, run home, asshole, Tony thought inconsequentially and said nothing. Steve must have known those last two sentences hadn't been literal. So, he was probably just being a dick in response to Tony being a dick, which was, well, understandable, but it still made Tony want to bite his fingers with frustration.
Well, that's where we are, evidently. He decided the whole talking thing had been a mistake. What the hell was there to talk about? Why would he care anyway? Tomorrow they could review possible plans for escape, see if anything was viable. If so, well, fine. They'll get out, they'll part their fucking ways and that would be it. They should still be able to do that much, even if they had to work together. And if Rogers insisted on still acting like a child, fine, that was his problem.
But then Steve came back with his blanket. Apparently he had gotten only one. (Tony had two.) The blond then proceeded to painstakingly clear the debris from a far corner and, still not saying a word, he wrapped himself in the blanket and lay down.
Tony definitely didn't feel like sleeping. He desperately needed to do something with his nervous energy. Had he had a horizontal bar, he might have tried to do some honest-to-god chin-ups, pulled a regular Sarah-Connor-in-the-asylum. Wasn't that a prison tradition of sorts? "Wish I knew how to do push-ups with this leg," he grumbled softly.
Some time passed. It was weird how cold it sometimes got down here. He tried doing a few stretches; it didn't help much. They were a few floors underground, or at least he thought so. Shouldn't the temperature be pretty stable, due to thermal inertia? Yes, yes it should. "Fuck you, thermal inertia," he muttered again. Still, the building was old, and there were all kinds of weird drafts at weirder times here, and he could sometimes hear the wind howling from somewhere above, through the antediluvian air-vents, high under the ceiling. (The vents were too narrow to escape through; he'd checked.) He knew cold southeastern wind was pretty prominent this time of year in this part of the world. So hence the cold, maybe. Or perhaps it was all in his head. It was dark, and he would get tired of darkness, and after a time the chill would creep into his bones, and no matter how much he huddled under the blankets, he couldn't get any warmer. And then, a few hours later, it would pass. Maybe it was just really, really cold overall, and from time to time his heart simply got tired of pumping so much blood. (It was tired of so many things, really.)
Slowly, he became aware of Steve quietly shivering under his blanket. Tony huffed in irritation. He wanted to stalk over to him, but that didn't go as planned, so he just limped and hopped, as per usual. Unceremoniously, he dumped both his blankets over Steve. He didn't want them to look like a peace offering, definitely not. Okay, maybe a little bit. He muttered something in the vein of for fuck's sake, Rogers.
"What about you?" Steve's voice didn't sound drowsy at all. So. He'd been lying there awake, listening to Tony muttering to himself. Oh, how hilarious. Talking to himself wasn't exactly a new habit, but since he'd been down here, he'd reached a new low.
Tony shrugged in response, then remembered that wouldn't help much. "I'm fine," he said. "I don't feel like sleeping."
"I said I'm not sleepy," Tony cut him off before Steve tried to give the blankets back, as he probably would out of stupid nobility, and limped away to the other side of the cell.
He thought he heard a murmured thank you from under the covers.
The worst thing was, he was glad Steve was here. Tony himself had this amazingly idiotic way of showing it, but having someone share the darkness with him was almost exhilarating at times. At other times, though, the old resentment at the man kept fighting to win back its place in Tony's heart.
The new resentment was growing weaker and more pathetic by the minute, however. So – Steve didn't trust him. So, what else was new? He didn't have to. Sometimes Tony didn't trust himself either, so that was perfectly understandable, wasn't it?
But the stupid argument and the subsequent mutual sulking? Thoughts about how stupid and unnecessary it all was kept nibbling at Tony's insides with their needle-sharp teeth. This was the first time after days and days he had someone to actually talk to, and he has to screw it up by lashing out? He wanted to reverse it, erase it. Once in his life ignore a burn and just move on. He wanted to plan! He wanted to know how Steve had got caught, and what he was doing in this part of the world anyway, and what he saw on his way in, while he still could see anything. The number of attackers. The lay of the land. Anything that would help them figure out the intentions of their captors and the best way to screw up their plans and get the hell out of here.
Steve had at least stopped shivering audibly. Tony hoped he was asleep at last. To be fair, the man probably needed his rest. For Steve to admit he was tired at all? He must be absolutely depleted.
Slowly, the cold had started sinking in, the creepy crawly chills that began all quiet and then proceeded to wreck his body, slowly at first, and then stronger and stronger.
"Your teeth are chattering," Steve observed from the blanket nest Tony was becoming acutely jealous of. The man still didn't sound drowsy in the least. Was he lying there, stewing as well? The thought wasn't as satisfactory as Tony expected it to be. Steve hadn't really said anything wrong, to be honest. He'd just asked his question and then let Tony interpret his silence any way he wanted.
But here it was now. An opening. Maybe they could try that uncanny talking-to-each-other thing again. They didn't have to even be on good terms. They were alone together, in a prison cell. It would be only natural to...
Tony sighed and stayed silent. His teeth didn't.
Then, a few minutes later: "During the war," Steve began, "it would get really cold in winter, and people would huddle together, for warmth."
"Really, Cap? I had no idea you were a cuddler." It sounded forced. He could practically feel Steve roll his eyes on the other side of the cell.
"I said huddle, not cuddle."
"That's exactly the same thing," Tony concluded, slowly warming up to the game. Because just listening to a voice that wasn't his own made it less cold, less dark somehow. The fact that it was Steve's voice made him feel strangely lightheaded, but he decided that was irrelevant.
"In no way is it the same thing," Steve said.
Despite himself, Tony felt a small smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He tried to keep it out of his voice. "I thought I'd at least retain some dignity and wait until you're asleep before I crawled under the blankets."
"Oh, so you do want to cuddle, then?" Steve said dryly. "I could pretend to snore if that would make things easier for you?"
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Tony muttered and limped over, wincing at the shooting pains with every step. "Are you actually cold yourself, since you keep insisting?"
"You know what, I am," Steve said wryly, not even trying to sound convincing. "I really, really am."
The enveloping warmth under the blankets was bliss. Another human body beside him was a marvel made of snugness and breathing and minuscule stirring. Tony realized he had low-key given up hope he'd ever feel that again. And now the hope for escape, for life, for everything, was back, and it hurt like blood returning to a limb that had fallen asleep. Ugly thing, hope.
They were lying back to back, and after the first few seconds of embarrassedly trying to avoid touch, Tony gave up and just moved as close as he could. Then he proceeded to shiver, pressed against Steve's back, until the chills slowly subsided.
"Do you want my socks?" Steve whispered, which was when Tony realized he'd started drifting away on the waves of cozy warmth. He made himself blink a few times to shake off sleep.
"While I'm sure the offer is sweet to the extreme, what the fuck would I do with your socks?"
Steve snorted in irritation. "For your foot. They're not a compression wrap exactly, but if you put both of them on over your own sock, it would be firmer. Help the swelling go down." He was still whispering, and it made the conversation seem almost intimate. Of course, the fact that they were pressed against each other under the blankets probably also helped.
"My foot's fine, forget my foot," Tony retorted. The fluttering in his chest was an unwelcome companion. He'd never admit that he liked being fussed over. He wanted for Steve to keep fussing over him while he himself unsuccessfully batted it off. As an impulse, it was completely despicable. "But, eh, thanks," he said, sounding forced even to his own ears.
A pause, then, in which he considered how he'd been a lot of a jerk a lot of the time, mostly because he didn't like how happy he was to see Steve. He wanted to say something... well, if not nice, then at least a bit apologetic? No, no, that wouldn't work, not really. He'd have to know how to do something like that, first. Something funny, then? That tended to backfire, when Steve was involved. Probably because Tony couldn't resist poking fun at him instead. But talking to Steve felt so good, so comforting. Just the exchange of nonsensical sentences was a fragile chord that connected them, in the dark. In the end, all he said was, "Ah, Cap...", having no idea how to go on.
Steve sighed deeply. "I'm mostly just Steve these days."
"Ah. Right. Sorry."
"What were you going to say?"
"What date was it?" Tony asked quietly. "When they got you. Do you know?" Because it was a pretty innocent question, and not too personal, and Tony really wanted to know. He dreaded knowing, but he did want the answer. How long have I been here?
"December 15th," Steve said. "I think. That may have been yesterday." He sounded unsure.
Ten days, Tony thought. Ten days in captivity. It wasn't even that long. It felt like weeks. Months, almost. It felt like time stopped existing altogether.
And then it hit him. He felt an unwilling, unwelcome bout of giggles wake up in his belly. "Oh, wow," Tony said. The laughter was bubbling, threatening to boil over and spill out. He tried to contain it for all of two seconds, and then he guffawed wetly.
"What?" Steve sounded perplexed for a moment there.
"The date," Tony blurted. "Because, it's yesterday was the 15th, then today is..." Tony's hand flew to his mouth. For a moment, he kept the sound locked firmly in. And then it spluttered out, through his mouth, through his nose, mixed with spit and the familiar wet, farty noise against his palm. "Oh god, what's with me and this time of year?" Tony managed between giggles. Incapacitated by mirth, all he could do was shake against Steve's back. "What's with me and this date?" He tried to catch a breath. "We should have an early Christmas in here. Decorate the flush tank, make a blanket fortress, spend a cozy night staring at the wall." Another fit of giggles overcame him.
It was mostly stress. He knew that, because it was that helpless, stupid kind of laughter that, with him, always had tears lurking somewhere close in the background. One could turn into another at a drop of a hat. Like opening a dam. He was not going to cry in front of Steve. He mustn't! So he let himself giggle, hoping it would go away eventually.
He felt stirring against him, and then a gentle hand touched him on the elbow and patted him awkwardly a few times. It was like an anchor, a line pulling him slowly back out of the waves of hysteria. He could feel his stomach calm down bit by bit, and it was like something had finally stopped tickling the insides of his brain – all of this gently guided by the rhythmic patting of that warm hand on his elbow. "Aw, god," Tony said finally, when he thought he might sound like himself again. "That was embarrassing. I think I haven't laughed since..." He stopped.
"It seemed like you needed to get that out of your system," Steve said.
"Yeah, that I did," Tony admitted. "You ever read Count of Monte Cristo when you were a kid?"
"Oh, yeah," Steve said. "I read all of Dumas I could get my hands on."
See? No one saying hurtful things. No one having hysterical fits. Almost a start of a normal conversation right there.
"Yeah, well. The guy was imprisoned for fifteen years, and we're supposed to believe he stayed moderately sane? I can barely do ten days without cracking, now."
Steve laughed softly. "I think you're doing pretty okay, everything considered."
Tony's mind was back to reasonably calm, and as soon as that happened, the questions were already waiting in line, vying for his attention. He wondered where Steve had been caught. He wondered how. Most of all, he wondered why.
But Steve had been so sensitive about Tony's inquiries, earlier. But still, but still, talking kept the darkness at bay and Steve's voice reverberated warmly in his ears, mellowing out something inside Tony and enveloping him in a feeling of safety he had forgotten was possible, and if I don't stop thinking about this, I'm going to realize something I'd probably better not, so say something, anything, Stark, dammit. In the end, what Tony managed to say was, "The beard's not so bad actually, you know."
"My beard? Oh, you don't like it? It's just..."
"...different," Tony supplied with a private half-smile. "But no, I kind of do like it. Makes you look scruffy." There, he'd managed to say something halfway normal to him.
"Then I just might keep it." It was apparent in Steve's voice he was smiling back. It tried to set off alarms in Tony's mind, but he was warm and cozy and they were sounding from somewhere in the distance.
They lay together in a surprisingly companionable silence.
Then, moments later, very quietly: "Tony?"
"Yeah?" Tony's voice was still hoarse from laughing, but something in Steve's newly serious tone made him pay acute attention.
"I didn't really think you wanted to use it against me. The serum suppressant."
"Yeah?" Tony's voice had also gone soft "So, why didn't you say so?"
"Because you wouldn't have believed me anyway, at that moment. You just... assume the worst." A reluctant pause. "And because sometimes you drive me crazy. But it's good to see you, even like this." He sighed. "I really missed you. "
Very intensely, Tony didn't want to say it back all of a sudden. Because missing someone was wishing for them to be there; and he'd spent most of the time after Siberia hoping he could just avoid seeing Steve again, for good, and forget about everything. That was only half of the story half of the time, of course; the other half was way more pathetic and he wouldn't disclose it to save his life; so what he settled for saying was: "Yeah, okay, Cap." It was really, really lame, and he'd managed to forget Steve had asked him not to call him 'Cap' too. This big hole that had grown in his stomach because of the man's painful absence couldn't really be considered missing, Tony mused. He had no idea what that feeling should be called; a sadness clawing at his chest from the inside. But that was all the other half consisted off, pretty much.
Still, the warmth of Steve's back was seeping into him, and Steve's words about missing him, about being happy to see him – somehow, it all made the feeling die down. Something had become evident to him by that time: this wasn't just loneliness speaking, not just the fact that he wasn't alone in the dark any longer. No, they were finally talking to each other, and because of that everything suddenly seemed a tad less bleak, a tad more life-like. Hope.
As a general rule, slippery slopes are dangerous like that. Keep your distance, he told himself, but it wasn't really working.
"I think, if you wanted to actually take me in, you'd have done so by now," Steve went on.
Tony grunted. "Thanks to my uncanny ability to transport other people from underground cells to the DC at a drop of a hat?"
"Because... If you'd wanted to, I think you probably could have, in all these months. Or at least you'd have found me. And, anyway, I just don't think you'd do it."
Tony paused. Tried to determine how much of the truth he wanted to tell, but it blurted itself out, anyway. "I didn't really want to look for you, you know."
Steve didn't hesitate even a moment. "Plausible deniability?"
"Yeah," Tony replied. "Mostly." Partly, he corrected himself. He also hadn't wanted to look for Steve because he hadn't wanted anything to do with him. Remembering the past was okay, he'd told himself. Both the good and the bad. You couldn't unhappen it. And Tony had evidently cared, more so than he'd liked to admit back then, or otherwise he wouldn't still feel so raw at every thought, every memory (he wouldn't be having these swarming feelings now, either). But actively looking for the man, checking up on him –that would have been too much. He'd had to draw a line somewhere because otherwise he'd have gone crazy.
And now, plainly, it was enough to feel Steve against his back, so near, so warm, seemingly so vulnerable all of a sudden, and Tony was gone, done for. Although the old hurt was still there, quirking an ironic eyebrow at him, he just wanted to fix everything for Steve, somehow, make everything work out for him. The urge was overwhelming, and, taking everything into account, pretty silly.
This, however, called for questions. Again. In Tony's world, right now everything called for questions. Not food, not air; answers were what he needed. Answers and plans. He realized he was back to fully alert, and on the verge of starting to fidget.
"What?" Steve asked. He must have felt Tony stir and stir again.
"Uh-uh," he replied, resolute to say nothing. It lasted all of four seconds. "I want to ask you a million things. But I get a feeling you don't want me to. So, ah, I guess I'd better not."
"Look, I know I wasn't..." Steve began hesitantly. Evidently reconsidered, tried again. Tony could just picture his brows drawing down.. "Listen, Tony. I don't know how to put this. I don't really want to talk about it, that's all."
"That's fine," Tony said quickly, increasingly reluctant to jeopardize this peace they'd finally found, this companionable snugness they were now sharing. "We could try planning for what to do next. Or, even better, you should try to go to sleep, or else we won't be able to do anything." And Tony could just lie there, next to him, and be aware of every moment that passed, and that would be quite all right with him, thanks.
It was as if his words didn't register with Steve at all. Tony thought he heard him swallow. "When I was a kid," Steve began. For a moment it seemed that was going to be all he said, but then he went on. "You probably know the story. But I was sick all the time. My mom was a nurse. I had a thousand doctors poke at me. Hospitals. House visits. I hated it. Then, after the project rebirth... I didn't think I'd have to go through that ever again. And now it's all changed. Again. I... don't like making a big thing out of it. I don't like calling attention to... to it. I don't like the fuss."
Steve was body conscious? Tony found himself taken aback, but, in a way, it made perfect sense. And there was something about this admission that felt terribly, horribly important.
Everything special about you came out of a bottle. Oh, he'd struck gold there, true enough, he thought ruefully. More than he ever realized.
"Makes you feel helpless," Tony said slowly. "All of a sudden. Again." And it echoed with him, deeply, because a big man in a suit of armor? Well, that had been taken away, right enough, all his agency had been taken away, and now he felt like nothing at all. There was nothing here to make anything out of, no people to try and manipulate, nothing, absolutely nothing he could do. After the initial shock, he kept telling himself all he could do was wait for an opportunity, but slowly, bit by bit, he'd fallen into apathy.
"Yes," Steve admitted. "I forgot how it was. To feel so... limited. I know it's not fair to say so," he added quickly.
"I just," Tony said. Because he didn't know how to say that he'd got worried. That asking and poking seemed crucial because it seemed crucial to know what exactly was wrong with Steve. Because he was used to Steve getting up and shaking it off and never, ever admitting he even felt tired. If he ended up in hospital, soon enough he'd tear the IV out of his hand and walk out, no matter what anyone had to say about it. He was a bull-headed idiot. Frustrating as it was, Tony'd always somehow liked that about him. He sighed. "I want to fix everything. That's all."
"As you always do," Steve said. "I know. I know that, Tony."
"You can still fight," Tony said. "If you can kick your way through a brick wall, you can damn well fight. And if you grow tired, well, you're still stronger than an average guy." And the way Steve moved, you'd hardly guess he couldn't see unless you knew him. It weren't just the senses enhanced by the serum, either. "And you trained with a blindfold for so long." Endless hours of ruthless practice, with his teammates, with fighting machines Tony designed, his eyes tied all the while. At the time, Tony had thought it unnecessary, with his darkvision and all; once again, he was proven wrong.
"Thank you," Steve said, totally inconsequentially, because all Tony did was state some facts.
"And besides, " Tony went on, because he was obviously doing something right. "I meant what I said about your eyes. Don't kill me now, I have to say this. We'll fix them; it must be possible. Even if you... Well, I don't know if you still fight or not, I don't know anything, really. But... for your art, if nothing else..."
"Ah..." Steve sounded taken aback, but not in a bad way. "I... that's just a hobby."
"Nonsense," Tony said. "You're talented. You just didn't have much time to dedicate to it. Have you been drawing at all since, eh...?" He faltered, because ignoring the elephant in the room had proven a pretty good strategy, and he didn't want to talk about it, he just didn't. Even mentioning the elephant indirectly seemed too much.
"I... a bit," Steve said. "But, ah, I didn't exactly stop fighting, you know. Never mind that I... Just street level stuff. A bit. I've been calling myself Nomad. You'll probably say it's melodramatic as hell." He sighed. "I couldn't..."
"You couldn't not do it." Tony shifted. Steve felt good and solid against his back, and too cozy by far, but that wasn't all; Tony had a ridiculous feeling he could understand him better due to the physical touch. "Yeah, I get that, actually. You probably shouldn't be telling me this, though. By the way – I kind of dig the new outfit, but you should do something about that plunging neckline. It comes off as immodest."
Steve laughed softly. "You really think we're going to get out of here?"
"You and I, together? Come on, what could possibly stop us?" Tony said this lightly, but it left a new scratch in the old hurt. Too much, too soon. He sighed. "We should probably go to sleep. The plan for now is, if someone comes in, we kick their ass. Tomorrow we think of a way to open the goddamn door."
Tony drifted awake, slowly. It was so warm and dark that for a moment he thought he was back home, but the surface under him was hard, and the shoulder-blades his face was pressed into were also hard and angular and he had his right arm thrown over someone big and muscular and hot like a small furnace. He froze. "Oh, fuck."
"You awake?" For some reason, Steve was whispering.
"Er, yeah," Tony managed. He still wasn't moving. Neither was Steve. Moving would mean acknowledging they had cuddled together in the night, that Tony was spooning him right now, and the admission would be utterly unbearable. Also, it felt too good by far. He was almost tempted to just close his eyes for another five minutes before he faced another day. Still, he couldn't stay like this for all eternity. Very carefully, he removed his arm from around Steve's body. "I must have turned around in the night," he said, trying for offhandedness and probably failing miserably.
"Yes. I, ah. I didn't want to wake you."
"You could have woken me," Tony said. He inched his body away. Almost instantly, so did Steve, as if relieved Tony finally got detached for him. Well, no wonder, Tony supposed. The acute feeling of loss in his gut wasn't exactly surprising by now. When push comes to shove, he told himself firmly, we are all just small animals, huddling together for comfort.
"Well, I... figured you probably needed your sleep," Steve went on. "I'm, ah, I'm going to get up now."
"You do that."
It couldn't have been more awkward if they'd actually had sex, Tony thought. Steve started doing his stretches. Watching him work out felt like a violation of some kind now, although Tony had seen him exercise hundreds of times. Still, he found his gaze repeatedly drawn to him. The powerful moves and the deceptive ease he preformed them with. The familiar outline of his goddamn shoulders. Tony had missed this. And that stupid slash down his front wasn't helping either, but he wouldn't let his mind go there.
To get his mind off things it shouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, Tony tried – yet again – to figure out why they were being kept here. The captors had apparently wanted nothing from him. They did strip the leftover parts of his suit, but no one had come in to even talk to him. They did take Steve's blood, so this whole shindig had to have something to do with the supersoldier serum. And they'd experimented on Steve, maybe. To see how he'd react to the drugs and whatever chemicals they pumped him full of. Tony shuddered.
Or... did they purposefully try to weaken Steve, not for that reason but because they... wanted to sic the two of them on each other or something? Make them fight? Their estrangement was common knowledge now. Was that why they put them in adjoined cells, divided only by a door and a lame excuse for a brick wall? Making them turn on each other did seem to be some kind of favorite Sokovian pastime.
Tony tried a few stretches himself, the ones that didn't strain on his foot. The silence swelled like dough; if it grew any bigger, it would probably set some kind of a world record.
"We should probably try to come up with some sort of a plan," he said when Steve seemed finished with exercising and started pacing purposelessly.
"Yes, let's do that," Steve replied with evident relief.
"If I ask you how you are feeling, are you going to get all weird again? Because I need to know it for strictly practical purposes of getting us out of this shithole."
Steve, it turned out, felt better. He still wasn't up to his former strength, but he was not as woozy as yesterday, not as tired, and he overall had a feeling he could kick some serious ass without too much strain. Still, the door was still explosive, and they still had no other way out.
"Do you think we could somehow make the door go off, from a distance? While we are in the other cell?" Steve asked thoughtfully.
"That..." Tony considered for a moment. "I don't see how right now, but that thought's worth coming back to. We have very few things at our disposal. One toilet bowl with a flush tank. We can't really strip it for parts. I mean, we can, but the materials are mostly shit. The tank itself is metal, but it's garbage. Not heavy enough. There's that washbasin in your cell – which is pretty hilarious, by the way, because they are apparently keeping us in some kind of a huge, partitioned toilet. In any case, that's crap too."
The ideas they came up with weren't overly brilliant. Steve suggested Tony should try and get his arm out through the kitty door and disarm the explosives. That was sound and utterly undoable. It had been the first thing Tony had tried. Other ideas included opening the valves, letting the water flood the cell and waiting for someone to open the door because of the flooding. Another option was ripping the toilet bowl and the flush tank out and hurling them at the door, then ducking, hoping it would get the explosives to go off.
"If everything else fails," Steve said at one point," you go wait in the next cell, Tony. I'll try to kick the door down. Maybe you saw wrong, maybe it's something else. And if it blows up – well, at least one of us gets out." Steve's voice was calm and very matter-of-fact. Tony hated every syllable.
"Yeah," he said sardonically, "you are right, because I'd absolutely sacrifice you in order to get myself out."
"Maybe we won't have much choice."
"That's not a choice at all," Tony snapped. "Shut up, I'm trying to think."
"Well, short of sneaking out with the dirty laundry, I don't see what we can do," Steve said anyway.
Tony gave him a look. It was a speculative look. Tony knew Steve had recognized it for what it was because he fell silent and waited, very patiently.
"I think you are right," Tony mused. "I think we should go back to the basics."
Steve made a small encouraging noise. They had done this before. Countless times. They would brainstorm on how to resolve a crisis, and if one of them seemed to be onto something, the other would try to help him get there. The familiarity of the rhythm they fell into so easily felt both comforting and a little sore.
"You know," Tony said, "they'll have to bring us food eventually. Unless they want us to eat each other alive" As far as he knew, that could as well happen. The motivation of their captors, for now, was completely obscure.
Steve was crap at acting and they both knew it. This was why, as the tray was slid through the kitty door, Tony started yelling and begging open the door, my friend is having a fit, he's got high fever yadda yadda yadda. All this, surmising Steve was of a certain value to the captors; they obviously had some intentions regarding him.
The door did open, in the end.
As Steve had put it earlier, If I can overcome an elevator full of fully trained S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives, I can beat up some Sokovian goons.
Of course, back then Steve's vision hadn't been impaired. And yet, his senses seemed uncannily well tuned now. Tony mostly watched him fight at first, trying not to get in his way. It made sense; even though Tony itched to join in, Steve seemed to have the things under control. The thugs were armed and wore kevlar vests, but in the small, dark space, they inconvenienced one another and kept getting in one another's way. And Steve was a whirlwind.
Still, he couldn't keep track of all directions at once. As one goon raised his sidearm, aiming towards the back of his head, Tony swung the metal pipe they'd salvaged from the flush tank. The man went down. Tony dove for his gun, landed on his bad leg, swore savagely. The pain was shattering. Until then, it had been mostly a black, dull throbbing, sometimes nauseating but he was kind of used to it. Now it was like a red hot knife and for a moment Tony thought he'd throw up. He wasn't sure if he could get up without help at all. Still, from his vantage point on the floor, he took flawless aim and fired. Someone's kneecap shattered. That was the penultimate goon standing. Steve promptly took care of the last one and stopped for a moment to get his breath back.
"You hurt?" Tony asked before Steve could say anything, because there had been gun shots in the hubbub, and even though he didn't think Steve had been hit, you never knew.
"I'm fine. You?"
Steve's face was worried, but Tony had the pain thing practically under control now. As long as he didn't put any weight on the foot. Clumsily, he struggled up to his knees. "Never better," he said.
Steve was at his side in an instant. "You got injured. What is it?"
Tony let himself lean against Steve for a moment. "Nothing, just the old one, getting worse. Landed on the bad leg. I'll be fine."
"I'm getting you out of here!" Steve took him by the elbow, but Tony shook his hand away. He had to do something first.
"Give me a sec, it's getting a bit better," he said, gritting his teeth. The pain was subsiding slightly, but he still suspected he won't be able to get very far like this. He stripped the kevlar west from the largest of the unconscious enemies and tossed it to Steve. "Put that on. No arguments."
For a second Steve inspected the slash down the front of his suit; it tended to fall open at the most inopportune moments during combat (Tony had noticed). Then, apparently deciding this made sense, he shrugged and put the vest on.
"I don't think you should be walking around too much, Tony. Also, did you put a vest on?"
Tony agreed wholeheartedly with this injury assessment, but it wasn't as if he had too much choice. "Working on it, big guy. Just a sec and we can go."
"Can I help?"
"You could kind of support me, I guess?" Tony admitted reluctantly, and Steve jumped to it.
"I honestly didn't think this would work," the blond said and waved his hand around vaguely. The bodies of unconscious men strewn around looked somehow merry and in the spirit of the season.
"Yeah, neither did I, but stupid plans sometimes work," Tony said as he put on another man's vest. Limping around on Steve's arm and swearing through his teeth, he collected all the semi-automatics he could find.
"Want one?" Then, "A gun, I mean," he explained.
"What would I do with it? Shoot myself in the leg? I could probably hit it."
Tony snorted. "Point." He stuffed four into his gun belt, then collected the rest of the gear too, because leaving it for the goons when they came to would be stupid. When both he and Steve were out of the cell, they politely locked the door behind them. They dumped an armful of other belts and vests on the floor. Tony's leg was still killing him, but he was sort of getting used to it again. The problem was, he moved hella slow like this. He wiped off the sweat from his brow and tried not to sigh.
"You do know I'll have to carry you, don't you?" Steve said, still sounding needlessly worried. And yes, carrying made sense, no matter how undignified it was, because if they waited for Tony to limp his way out of here, they could as well set up house.
This was just the first step. Time was essential.
"Aw, shit," Tony sighed. "Yes, yes, I know. Go ahead."
"I'm going to crouch down now. Can you climb onto my back?"
"What? I don't even get bridal carry?"
Steve frowned down at him, as he tended to do when he thought Tony's jokes were out of place. "You're not tricking me into using you as a shield or whatever."
There was no point in Tony rolling his eyes, since Steve couldn't see it. He laughed out instead, but it sounded brittle, even to his own ears. "So, I'm supposed to use you as a shield instead?"
"Short of finding a wheelbarrow for me to push you around in, that's the only option we got. Besides, I need my hands free."
Which... was the truth. And there wasn't much time for arguments, anyway. "Oh, for fuck's sake, fine," Tony muttered resentfully.
Still, it appeared Steve wasn't exactly listening. It seemed to Tony he was intently staring down the corridor, but that was impossible, wasn't it? Did he hear someone coming?
"Tony," the blond said softly. His voice was almost trembling with undisclosed emotion. "I think I can see the light sources."
Light-bulbs were erratically strewn along the ceiling. Mostly they were burned out. Still, enough of them gave out weak, yellowish light. Tony was suddenly overtaken by the feeling that he'd never appreciated anything in his life as much as he appreciated those light-bulbs right at that moment.
He was leaning against the wall. Now he laughed out, and covered his mouth with his hand, and on a crazy impulse he tried to simultaneously grab Steve's shoulders and slap him on the back. He ended up throwing his arms around him, then apparently his goddamn foot gave out and he fell against Steve's chest. Steve's arms flew around him, catching him, steadying him.
"God, this is embarrassing," Tony muttered half-heartedly, but it wasn't important, nothing was important. His chest swelled, his heart skipped and danced, and it beat loudly in his ears. Because, disregarding everything else, all he could think was that Steve had had no light perception earlier, and now he evidently did, which could mean only one thing: he was getting better. Whatever had been wrong, his body was somehow repairing it. "Erskine, you fucking, lovely genius!" he blurted.
And Steve's arms around him made him feel almost like he was a part of a completely different world, a world that wasn't half so bad, a world you could actually make something of, if you tried. They were warm and solid and weren't letting go of him.
Overwhelmed by his own silly wish to just stay like that, Tony squirmed out.
Gently, Steve set him back on his feet. "Thank you," he said, which made absolutely no sense to Tony.
There was too much emotion in the air. He tried to shake it off. "We need to get moving," he said briskly.
Tony was riding on Steve's back, in an improvised harness made out of looted gun belts. This way they both had their hands free. Tony had a semi-automatic in each one, positioned over each of Steve's shoulders. Together, they were a clumsy moving fortress. Painstakingly slow, they advanced through the corridors of what seemed to be an old institute? Centre? Tony had no idea, but it was massive, and looked like something that might have been built right after the WWII. With this many levels below ground, Tony guessed it would have been some kind of a secret governmental institution or something just as ridiculous and sinister. Judging by the state it was in and the omnipresent graffiti, it had been derelict for a very long time, and at some point had been adopted by one counterculture movement or another. That was, he supposed, before it was turned into the illegal centre for torture of fugitive supersoldiers.
The place seemed deserted. Still, they talked in whispers. There's a junction ahead, Tony would say, or approaching a stairwell, I think or well, that was close after they almost stumbled over a broken chair that had jumped into their path out of nowhere.
And when a few of their captors finally figured something was wrong and filed out of an elevator, Tony and Steve were ready. Tony shot two of them before they had the time to fire, and then Steve was upon them, among them, kicking, punching, twisting and throwing. Tony was happy to knock out a nearby dude with a butt of his gun to the temple. He mostly kept silent, because Steve moved guided by his hearing, but from time to time, Tony would say to the right or knee level, left when a thug tried to go for Steve's legs. And Steve listened and adapted like he'd been doing it his whole life.
They worked well together. They always had, as long as it didn't require actually talking to each other.
They found the lab on the 2nd level below ground. There were a few guards, but Tony made a quick work of them from a distance. The lab personnel themselves seemed far less eager to fight. Steve and Tony tied them up; the best the two of them could do right now was to inform the Sokovian police once they were out, but they couldn't leave before inspecting and possibly destroying some of the files. There was an interesting amount of data there, connected to the winter soldiers left dead in Siberia, where the drug that had been used on Steve clearly originated. In the end, they left a ton of other logs pointing to illegal activities, but they destroyed, deleted and smashed everything that had to do with Steve and the supersoldier project in general. Tony swiped some data and saved it on a memory stick.
"I just want to immunize you against that shit, in case someone tries something similar. Okay? All right?"
Steve nodded. "I know," he said. "I know, Tony." He sounded tired. Tony didn't like that at all.
"I'm hailing Rhodey now," Tony said, not lifting his eyes from the keyboard. "I don't know how long it will take for him to get here, but he will."
Curiously enough, there was nothing about Tony in the files. It was almost as if he never existed.
"Why?" Tony asked the man who seemed to be in charge of the lab personnel. "Why did you take me? Why did you take him? What did you intend to do with us?" His voice was as cold as his cell at night and the gun in his hand didn't shake. He wouldn't have shot anyone in cold blood, but he was damn close to it. It probably showed.
"Him." The man gestured to Steve with his chin (his hands were tied). He nodded towards the remains of the smashed hard drive. "You saw why. You..." He shrugged. "You were just bait."
"What did he mean, I was just bait?" Tony insisted as they climbed another set of stairs. Steve's breathing wasn't exactly belabored, but for Steve it wasn't natural. He was getting tired. "Put me down," Tony said. "I can manage for a little while. Put me down."
That Steve did it at all only attested to the fact that serious weariness was setting in. He just compressed his lips and supported Tony up the stairs, a step by laborious step. Every time Tony put weight on his foot a spike of sharp, hot pain that set his teeth on edge shot through him, but he didn't think Steve was okay enough to carry him either.
"What did he mean I was just bait?" he asked again, once they were at the top of the stairs and they stopped to rest for a minute. Although Tony could guess the answer by now, he had to ask, wanted to hear it from Steve.
"Don't you know?" the other man asked softly. To Tony's ears, it almost sounded like a reprimand.
Tony turned, gave him a half-hearted glare. "They – what, they asked you to trade yourself for me? And you said yes? You thought they'd honor the deal? Seriously?" And unwanted, unwarranted, there was something in his chest that twisted and writhed and was close to tears, but those were not bad tears, necessarily. Because – he barely dared think it – Steve had come for him, Steve had come for him, stupidly, idiotically, but he had, when Tony thought somehow no one was coming for him any more.
"Not... exactly," Steve said, and Tony tried not to let his heart sink, because it had been a stupid notion, of course it hadn't been like that, not with everything that had happened between them. But: "I got some anonymous info," Steve went on, seriously, earnestly. "I analyzed it, picked it apart. Found some contacts. Found more info." He snorted. "I knew it could be a trap, but I thought I was being so smart."
"You were... tracking this organization?" Tony asked very carefully.
"I was tracking you," Steve almost snapped. "But it was all a setup, apparently."
"And then you came to rescue me," Tony said slowly. "All alone."
Steve just shrugged.
So, that had been the big plan. Capture Tony to get their hands on Steve, now that there were no Avengers to call for help, now that they were all scattered to the four winds. Somehow, their captors had figured Steve would come for Tony, even though Tony wouldn't have counted on it, himself. But, of course Steve would. Because, of all the stupid, noble things he could do, this one was the stupidest.
"You're fucking crazy," Tony bit off, but his voice was hoarser than he'd expected it to be.
Steve shrugged. "I had no one to call. Sam's still in Wakanda," he added, as if by way of explanation.
"Aw Christ, don't tell me those things," Tony grumbled without too much ardor.
"And," Steve continued, "I tried leaving a message for Nat, with an old contact. I... don't know if she got it. And then I couldn't wait any longer. So I came."
What about Rhodey, what about the authorities – any authorities? But no, it was just like Steve to try and do this all alone. And as much as Tony tried to be angry at him for it, it seemed that he had no anger left, just this wet, sloppy, sugary feeling that threatened to overwhelm him unless he put a hard stop to it. Leaning on Steve suddenly wasn't such an utilitarian experience any longer. Maybe it hadn't been to start with either, but he'd done his best to overlook the fact. Tony's hand on Steve's arm burned with desire for more.
On the 1st level below ground it turned out leaving the lab techs alive, or at least conscious, had been a mistake. Not that they could have done anything else, really, since cold blooded murder wasn't exactly their style. Tony and Steve had taken and disabled their phones and any other visible ways of communication with the outside world, just like they had done with the goons in the cell, but they must have missed a silent alarm or something like that. Because this many heavies suddenly advancing into the building couldn't have been a coincidence.
The men in the cell and in the lab had been caught by surprise. But these ones – these ones came prepared. They kept their distance, used their numbers smartly, and utilized their weapons to the full advantage. Tony missed the suit more than ever. It was an acute burning itch, that urge to take off towards them and get this done. But Steve was getting tired, and couldn't get close enough to hit anyway, and Tony had just a little ammo left. And besides there were too many of them; he couldn't blast his way out of this, and he had neither time nor the materials to cook something decent up.
Too numerous by far, the enemy kept herding Steve and Tony down, ever down.
"We're not going back down," Steve said, wiping away the sweat. His hair was plastered to his forehead and there was a faint smear of blood under his nose.
"Nope," Tony said. "We're not."
The building was a maze of corridors and staircases. They had no floor plans and, not knowing the terrain, they were at a tactical disadvantage. They had almost been caught between two enemy groups once already. At this point, barricading themselves somewhere and trying to hold out until the possible help arrived seemed the only option.
"Only, we don't know that anyone's coming," Tony had argued, because the thought of cooping themselves up made him feel jittery and he'd almost rather have charged into the enemy with his guns blazing than sat on his ass and waited.
"Rhodey'll come for you if he gets the message," Steve had said, very reasonably. And yes, yes, of course Rhodey would, but...
"...what if he doesn't get it?"
Steve gave him a steady look that, absurdly, reassured Tony somewhat. "Then we sell our lives dearly," he said. And everything considered, the quaint melodramatic ring to the words seemed rather fitting.
In the labyrinth of corridors, they managed to avoid the pursuit for a little while, and they barricaded themselves in a room. Tony had enough ammo to load two of his semi-automatics. That wasn't going to last him very long.
"I can hear them," Steve said. "They're going from door to door, but they're still far away."
So. Not very long now. They were crouching behind a big filing cabinet. Tony was keenly aware of how close they were to each other, but where the air between them had seemed almost charged at one point, now he mostly just drew comfort from the proximity. Intensely, he wished Steve were somewhere far away from here, but at the same time, on a purely selfish level, it was so good Steve was here. If he had to share these last moments with someone, Tony was glad it was him.
And yet, and yet, their time seemed unfairly short, and there were so many things left unsaid, and all of a sudden Tony had this urge to say everything he ever wanted to say to him, and had no idea where to begin.
Steve seemed to sense something, because he silently turned to Tony.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Tony's voice was quiet, but urgent. Why did getting this particular answer seem so pressing? "Why didn't you tell me you'd come to rescue me?"
Steve furrowed his brow. "I imagined you'd either figure it out for yourself or... or you wouldn't believe me. The way things are now."
And this was the second time Steve pulled this 'you wouldn't believe me' shit. Tony was suddenly, unreasonably pissed off, a little bit at Steve, and a whole lot more at himself because no, he hadn't figured it out. It hadn't even crossed his mind, not even when Steve offered to kick down the fucking explosive door for him. Oh no, he'd managed to concoct a convoluted theory instead, about them both being kidnapped for some nefarious purposes, to be pitted against each other or who knew what.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath. "Can you just... Look, just tell me next time, whatever it is, just fucking tell me, okay? Just assume I... just tell me." As if they had all the time in the world to tell each other things, as if they wouldn't die in the next ten minutes or so. To his own ears, his voice sounded more tired and imploring than anything else.
"Okay," Steve whispered. He also sounded weary, and just a little broken somewhere below the surface. He drew marginally closer to Tony.
A muffled hubbub came from the outside – from the other end of the corridor, most likely, where he and Steve had left a nasty surprise for the pursuers. The bad guys will find in a minute or so... almost there... it should be sometime around now...
An explosion and panicked shouts. Oh good. That was where the rest of Tony's ammo went, all based on the assumption that the goons would rather shoot at the lock than try to kick down the door at the other end of the corridor.
"They're almost here," Tony said, although he had no idea why he was whispering. And he turned to Steve, opening his mouth to say something... something else, something meaningful, but he had no idea how to put it to words and what came out was one big fat nothing.
Steve grabbed him by the shoulder. His face seemed focused, but his grip was too hard, too urgent. "Tony..." He began, took a deep breath. "Listen, while we're still... Look, I'm sorry. About everything. You have to know that."
Earlier, Tony may have wanted the apologies. Not any longer. Not now that everything had gone to hell. Somewhere in these corridors he'd mislaid his residual resentment, and all he now had was a grayish melancholy because after this, they weren't going to get a chance to set things right. This was it. It was over. "I'm sorry too, old buddy," Tony said sadly, and wanted to go on, say something that would make everything better, for the little while they had left, but instead Steve continued.
"All I did blew up in my face. I fucked up. But, Tony, I..." The voices were outside their door now, and the first thud resounded.
"No, listen, big guy..." Tony began, as the first thud resounded.
They had bought some time with that booby trap that went boom, because no one was shooting at the lock now. Still, it was boot against wood, and the wood was old. Won't be long now.
"Tony, please, what I mean is..."
It was almost ridiculous, how much they had to say now that time was running out, how words were finally tumbling out.
"Steve," Tony said sharply, and the name felt weird on his tongue, angular, rough with disuse. At the sound of his name, Steve stopped, blinked, swallowed. And, shut up, Tony was going to tell him, as another thud resounded, and this time the door almost gave way. Instead, he just leaned in and pressed his lips to Steve's briefly, sweetly, and it wasn't exactly Christmas, and the cobwebs hanging low above them weren't exactly mistletoe, but sometimes you have to make do. The fleeting touch of lips against lips was all he had the time for, and within it he tried to convey everything he thought or felt or wanted to say. The kiss was warm and tired and heartfelt, and he thought he felt Steve's lips pressing back against his, but it could have been just Steve trying to say what the fuck. And then it was over, and that was pretty much it.
"I just... wanted to do that," Tony managed, "before we..."
That was when the door went down and the shooting started.
It was later, and Steve could see shapes.
"You okay?" The voice belonged to the woman, and he realized she was addressing him. He nodded. She'd introduced herself as Hope, and seemed to have a suit and abilities somewhat similar to Scott Lang's.
But Steve could see shapes, blurred and dim, in the daylight; he could discern the silhouettes, the movement. And the silhouettes he was now straining to observe were that of Rhodey, in his War Machine gear, fretting over Tony on his newly acquired crutches, in the hospital parking lot. It was snowing, but the snow wouldn't stick. The trip in an out of the hospital was truly expedient. Tony had agreed to the x-rays and the cast only because Rhodey absolutely wouldn't back down.
No one had asked Steve who he was. He'd had his many scratches and superficial wounds cleaned and bandaged, and, to his relief, no one mentioned any bloodwork. No one insisted on examining his eyes. He suspected he had Tony to thank for his semi-ghostly status with both the police and the medical personnel, but the only thing Tony said to him ever since the rescue arrived was a half-muttered: "We'll get someone better qualified to take a look at you and the data as soon as possible." That was all.
The fact was, everything had been hectic ever since the Sokovian special forces showed up in the derelict building and invited the attackers to immediately surrender. Rhodey had hinted he and Hope were allowed to unofficially partake in the operation because no one, and especially not the Sokovian police, wanted to be responsible for what happened to someone as internationally important as Tony Stark.
That the rescue had arrived in time was amazing. Still, Steve and Tony were used to fighting, they'd been through bad scraps before, and even hurt and incapacitated, the two of them knew what they were doing and knew how to do it together. They'd fought well, and now it was over. That they were both still in a more or less-decent condition was a miracle.
That Steve's sight was returning even further was... Well, it was something he desperately wanted to tell Tony, right now, but Tony seemed to be largely avoiding him ever since they got out of danger. Steve knew loss like the back of his own hand. He could take it. But this time it took him by surprise, twisted his gut and wouldn't let go.
You should be happy, he reprimanded himself. Tony was all right. What Steve came here to do was accomplished. And still, something in him longed for the intimacy of a shared blanket, even in a prison cell; something in him couldn't help but remember how it felt to have Tony pressed warmly against his body, as well as the familiar, safe certainty that Tony had his back in a fight.
He needed to talk to Tony about that kiss, because it had made Steve's heart swell and expand and float like a gas balloon, in those few seconds it had lasted. And now this... nothingness. I just wanted to do that, Tony had said. Well. Maybe he just wanted to kiss someone – anyone – one last time before he died. Steve had witnessed people do stranger things on the eve of battle.
Trying his best to be calm, purposeful, he made himself walk over to Rhodey and Tony. "What happens next?" he asked them.
"We have a safe house relatively near here," Rhodey answered. "We get there, we have something to eat, we regroup, we all talk about what's to be done next." Steve couldn't discern his expression, but his voice sounded straightforward and a little dry. Steve thought he nodded at him. "All right with that, Cap?"
"Yeah," Steve said, desperately wanting for Tony to say something, but Tony was uncharacteristically silent.
"Okay, I'm going to see if Hope's going home or coming with," Rhodey said and turned to go.
"Steve, you all right?"
That was Tony, finally, finally. Steve had longed for his voice, but now it sounded somehow distant, as if he was drawing away from the whole situation.
Steve aimed for earnestness and wished he could be fearless. "I need to talk to you about what happened in..." He stopped, forced himself to say the words, because there was no point in avoiding them now. "About the kiss."
"Oh, the awkward conversation, yay. I'd hoped we could kind of skip that."
Steve's heart sank, but he couldn't say he hadn't been expecting this. A perfect opportunity to nod and say nothing more on the subject, ever, but he had to see this through.
"So you, ah, you didn't mean anything by it?" He forced the words out. He knew they sounded like he'd eaten a stick.
"No, no. Of course not. Of course I didn't." Tony's tone was light, but his words were tumbling out too quickly, chasing one another. "Unless you wanted me to, but you know what, I know you don't, so. Listen, Cap, Steve, I'm not going to bother you with that again, like ever. So let's just forget the whole mess, okay? No biggie. Er, see you later."
And before Steve could digest the flood of words properly, Tony was already turning away, somewhat clumsy on his crutches, and hurrying off. Steve caught up to him in two strides, so that they walked side by side. "I can see a bit better now," he said quietly, because he needed a moment to figure out what to do, what to say, and because he thought Tony would want to hear this.
"Yeah?" Tony's voice positively brightened. "Oh, that's good, that's amazing news." The genuine elation in his voice reached inside Steve's chest and squeezed. Tony was happy for him, just like he'd been happy when Steve first saw light, just like he'd been so angry on Steve's behalf, back in the cell. This could be enough, he told himself, we could have this, there's nothing wrong with this.
What he thought Tony had implied – about the kiss, about his own feelings on the matter – scared Steve a little. He was so used to the status quo of misery and sadness that the possible change made him want to back off.
Look, just tell me next time, whatever it is, just fucking tell me, okay? Tony's words from before rang in his ears.
"And what if I don't want to forget the whole mess?" he asked quietly.
Abruptly, Tony ceased his rapid limping. He went very still. "What exactly do you mean?" His voice had gone sharp. Steve could now make out his features a bit, way better than before. His vision seemed to be improving progressively, almost minute to minute now. With just a little rest and a snack (okay, half the vending machine stock), the serum seemed to be doing its work better and better.
Tony looked tired and serious all of a sudden and he was in no mood for nonsense.
Steve took a deep breath. "Tony, I..." He swallowed. This had to be done. "I love you." These may have been the hardest words he'd ever said. Considering whether to go on at all, he decided to plunge in. Nothing to be lost now that already hasn't been. "I have loved you for... a very long time." It felt like letting go of a ballast. " I... I didn't think it mattered. I didn't think you'd..." He flailed for a way to go on, but the words were deserting one by one, leaving him naked and alone. He tried again. "But now I thought you'd maybe..." He blew out a frustrated breath. "Whatever you want is fine," he finished lamely.
Tony reached up, rubbed his eyes with one hand. Kept at it for a few seconds. It seemed to Steve he'd never look up, but eventually he did. "You didn't think it mattered?" Tony repeated in sharp disbelief, but then he shook his head. "No, never mind that." He thought for a minute, then said, in wonder: "You love me, huh? Let no one tell you that you don't have excellent taste. God, I don't even know what I'm saying. Look, I..." He finally looked Steve square in the eyes. Took a deep breath, evidently made himself slow down. He stared at Steve. "I missed you too, you know."
Steve waited silently. Breathing was becoming an increasingly difficult task.
"I..." Tony began again, his words becoming as hesitant as Steve's had been. "I've come to realize something. Between the moment you broke into that cell and now. I... I love you. Too." He sounded unusually calm. "I think I have loved you... for a long time as well. I don't think I saw it, back then. Not in that way. But, if I hadn't loved you, it wouldn't have hurt as much. All that happened, I mean. So, there you go," he finished on an almost defiant note. "I love you too. What do we do with this mess now?"
Steve didn't quite dare fill his lungs with air. He wanted to go to Tony, to hold him, to kiss him a thousand times and never stop, but despite Tony's words, the peculiar distance still persisted between them. "Is it too late?" Steve asked softly, because he thought that may have been what this was about. But, even if so, he wasn't sorry, he couldn't be sorry these things have been said. Even if nothing ever happened, he'd still have this.
It took Tony a few seconds to respond. When he did, his voice was hoarse. "I've never believed in 'too late', you know. I believe in leaving shit behind you and moving forward. So if you'd be interested in that, ah, maybe we could try to figure this thing out." He paused. "Together."
Steve's limbs had turned to stone, but now the life seemed to be trickling back. He took a step towards Tony. Tentatively, he reached up, touched Tony's unshaven cheek with his index finger, light as a feather.
Tony closed his eyes, and sucked in a sharp breath, but just when Steve was going to draw his hand away, to apologize, he felt the flexing of the cheek muscle under his fingertip, felt a corner of Tony's mouth go up. He leaned into the touch slightly, and Steve couldn't help but move his finger downwards, stroke along Tony's lower lip.
"I'd be very much interested in that, yes," Steve said, surprised to hear a hint of soft laughter in his own voice.
"In that case," Tony said, his voice catching, "you can kiss me now."
This time it was longer and less hurried and no one was actively trying to kill them right then. Steve pressed his lips against Tony's, first too hesitantly, and then perhaps too hard, when a flood of feelings he'd been keeping in check for so long swelled in him and washed over him, leaving him shivery. And then Tony was kissing him, and Steve parted his lips, and hoped this would never end.
Rhodey's voice was dry when he asked them if they wanted to move along or if they were dead set on waiting for the paparazzi to show up. They got moving. It was a thing to do.
"Are you sure you don't want me to carry you?" Steve asked Tony, but Tony shook his head with vehemence.
"I'm getting out of here on my own two feet, or as close to that as possible, thanks" he said. And then, quickly: "But you can hold my hand in the car. If you want to."
Steve did want to.