It was incredible, how closely this mission resembled Tony’s personal vision of Hell.
Well, not the place itself – the place itself was beautiful. Just walking into the lobby, Tony could see The Facility was more opulent and ornate than anywhere he’d ever been. Every individual element was perfect, as though they rebuilt this entire place every day, from only the most exquisite materials and using only the finest craftsmen. The marble counter-top of the reception desk shone so flawlessly, it’d made Tony’s fingers itch to mark it, the way he always wanted to jump into untouched snow.
Tony had always assumed that Hell would be uglier than this – and yet, Hell this undeniably was.
For a start, Tony hated being unprepared. He couldn’t do the equations unless he had all the variables – and, on this occasion, he had none of the variables. After three weeks of background research, all they knew about The Facility was that it was a retreat for wealthy couples... That was it, for hard facts. Everything else was supposition and guess work. The few clues they did have were both vague and unnerving.
The fact that so many of the people who went to The Facility were never seen again – but never reported missing.
That it was so hard to find information about the place, even with their advanced systems.
The rumours circulating amongst the city’s billionaires, about aliens and gods and other planes of existence – always heard from a friend of a friend, never with any useful details attached.
After all that investigation, The Avengers had reached the same conclusion they started with – that The Facility was dodgy as fuck. That they had no choice but to go in and see what was going on-
Or rather, Tony had to go in and see what was going on, because only recognised billionaires had any chance of getting by the gate.
And, that much, Tony could’ve accepted as his famous bad luck. He hated going into situations blind, and he hated the idea of anything alien, and all in all he wished someone else could’ve done this. But that much he could deal with. That sort of thing he was used to.
What struck him as far beyond his usual bad luck, was the fact that this place only accepted reservations from couples.
That, thanks to the most tragic culmination of office politics to ever occur, he was undercover at some sinister cult retreat with Steve as his fake boyfriend.
That was way more than unfortunate. This whole thing already felt like a test of his personal limits –adding a fake relationship with Steve just seemed unnecessarily spiteful. The sort of thing a supervillain would have thrown in, because of a personal grudge against Tony.
But still, Tony had tried to smile as he checked them both in. He’d tried to act like one half of a happy couple at the start of a vacation, while he scanned the lobby for anything that might ambush them or brainwash them or eat them… He’d tried to ignore Steve, and the attitude radiating off of him. And then a smiling blonde woman had appeared beside them, and introduced herself as their representative, and offered to give them the grand tour of the building – and Tony had thought, this is going to be hell.
Little did he know.
Because Tony – naïve and foolish little cherub that he was – had been braced for an alien lab full of inhumane experiments. An army of brainwashed people, being prepped for warfare. A huge slug, awaiting its next human sacrifice. You know, something simple.
And then the guide reached the first stop on her tour, a room just off of the main corridor that she euphemistically called a ‘lounge’.
And – casual as you like – she walked them both right into an orgy.
He was undercover at an orgy.
…He really wished it’d been the giant slug.
“So, this is one of several lounges you’ll find dotted around The Facility” the guide explained brightly, gesturing to a large room, with a high ceiling and low lighting, and maybe ten plush, red couches-
On which several couples were enthusiastically fucking.
“They’re just a general space where people can relax, and enjoy themselves” She carried on, her voice polite and entirely unaffected. And it wasn’t so much that Tony was lost for words – there were an awful lot of very strong words in his head right now, actually. But he wasn’t allowed to say any of them, because he was supposed to have come here for… this. Their cover was that they were a couple who had been referred here, who already knew all about it and were just here to… have a good time…
But Tony did just about remember their cover story, as the guide turned around to face them again. He hoped he’d arranged his face into something other than abject horror.
“This place is beautiful” He blurted – and yes, he would kick himself for that later. But right now, he had to say something. “I mean, I’ve been to some pretty fancy places – I’ve built some pretty fancy places… and this is…” He gestured vaguely to the bar at the back of the room. A huge, sparkling glass bar that might actually have been made entirely of diamonds.
“Hm, lovely isn’t it?” The guide beamed, with complete sincerity. “We’re very proud of it.”
One of the men on the couches nearest to them suddenly let out a high, pleading moan, and began babbling – loudly – that he was close. Tony could see Steve blushing from a foot behind him.
“Are you okay?” The guide asked with professional concern, looking over Tony’s shoulder.
“Oh, we’re good” Tony leapt in to answer for Steve – still not able to turn and look at him. “We’re excited, really. It’s just, you know, first time doing… anything like this...” He felt an inch of relief when he saw her eyes soften reassuringly, her lips melting into an understanding smile.
“Don’t worry, you’ll have a great time” She spoke directly to Steve, her voice soft. And Steve didn’t answer her.
“Shall we?” Tony suggested, too enthusiastically, trying to get the guide’s attention again. Thankfully, she seemed to accept Steve’s reaction as simple human shyness. She turned to smile at Tony instead, before leading them back into the corridor.
The Facility was a broad place – in every sense of the term.
Their tour had taken them over half a mile, and through night clubs and bars and spas and restaurants and parks and grottos – and an awful lot of sex. Sex in all of the above places, and in rooms specifically designed. There were live sex shows, and screens displaying graphic images and staff offering products for any conceivable sexual fantasy.
Although, once Tony got over his initial shock – and the glowing awkwardness of Steve, a few feet behind him – he recognised that this place didn’t really host every conceivable sexual fantasy. What was shocking about this place was how casually sex was treated, the fact that it was everywhere… but the sex itself all seemed relatively mainstream.
Well. He wasn’t sure Steve would agree with that statement. At one point they’d walked past an ‘erotic theatre performance’ in which a woman was being (quite happily) fisted – and Steve had literally thrown his hands over his eyes. Luckily it had been too dark in that room for their guide to notice… But Tony got the impression Steve wouldn’t appreciate being told that all this wasn’t that extreme-
But it wasn’t.
…There was just a lot of it.
…also, Steve was right there the whole time.
Eventually the tour came to an end and the guide showed them to their suite.
“So, if you need anything else at all, just ask any member of our team” She concluded cheerfully from the doorway. “Just to remind you, we don’t tolerate the use of any drugs that weren’t dispensed by Facility staff. But you’ll find a wide range of substances available from the bars and kiosks, and we’ll be happy to advise you on their use and side effects.”
“Er, right, thanks” Tony muttered – because this was, in fact, the third time she’d mentioned drugs “I’d tip you, but…”
She smiled and shook her head – there was no money allowed at The Facility. It was all covered by the not insignificant fee that Tony had stumped up to ensure this in the first place.
“Enjoy your evening, both” She told him warmly, and left him to close the door.
The silence in the room was suffocating.
After a moment, Tony worked up the strength to turn and face Steve. He looked shell shocked, and thoroughly miserable-
And, God help him, Tony wanted to laugh.
But this really wasn’t funny. This was awful for so many reasons. Just being alone with Steve was awful, these days. Tense, and painful, and burdened with a thousand unspoken words…
The world had forgiven Steve and his team, since Thanos. Knowing how close they’d come to being turned to dust had given the politicians a sense of perspective – and an electorate that loved The Avengers again, at least for a little while. And, on paper, Tony had forgiven them too. Officially speaking, they’d buried the hatchet. They were working as a team again. Everything was okay now.
Except nothing was okay now. For Tony at least, nothing had really changed since Steve had rammed his shield into his heart. Since the day Steve had explained that he’d had to chose Bucky when it came to it – because Bucky was his friend. They’d never talked about any of that. Steve had just said he wanted to come home, and Tony had said that he didn’t want to hold onto the resentment, and that was supposed to be everything made better again…
Tony had told himself that this was the least worst option. That he’d made his peace with the fact that Steve wasn’t sorry and would never be sorry. That, even if his heart had been irreparably broken, it was better to be broken hearted with a team of people to help him defend the world. But every single day there was a moment when Tony could’ve snapped, and said it all anyway. At least one moment when he couldn’t pretend he didn’t care, that it didn’t matter. Tony had spent the last few months waiting for the spark that would blow this tinderbox, the minor disagreement that would start them fighting about all the things they were pretending they’d moved past.
And he just really didn’t want it to be an argument about fisting, okay?
So, even though he still really wanted to laugh, Tony managed to steady himself and ask,
“So…where do you think we should start, looking for answers on this thing?”
For two whole seconds, Steve just stared at him like he was mad. Then he seemed to shake himself to the same conclusion Tony had come to, dropping his eyes and taking a breath before he answered.
“Well, we need to work out whether the missing people are still here” He said, in his most Captain America voice. “And we should probably try to work out who’s running this place, and if there’s something else going on…”
He trailed off into an awkward pause.
“Well, we’re not going to work any of that out from here.” Tony managed, talking somewhere over Steve’s shoulder. Actually, this hastily derived plan was entirely about getting the hell out of this room – but there was still some logic to it. He could drag some logic out of it. “And I personally think I’ll find it easier to look around without the personal sex narrator – you know, when I can freak out at my leisure, instead of pretending I booked this for our anniversary.”
Steve glared at him.
“You want to go and have a look around.” Steve repeated, slowly, in a perfectly level tone.
It set Tony’s teeth on edge.
He would’ve liked to ask exactly what Steve was implying. What he imaged Tony would be getting up to. Why he always thought the worst of him.
But he just was not going to argue about this.
“That is literally what we’re here to do…?” He said, instead. Steve’s shoulders slumped in a defeated sort of a way. He sighed, good point.
But he didn’t say anything.
“Right. Well. The radios work, if anything happens.” Tony went on, eventually, already edging his way toward the door “I’ll see you later”
Because, of course, he wasn’t going to be inviting Steve along.
For a few seconds Steve just stood there, staring at the space Tony had left behind, listening the ringing silence left in his wake.
Then he let his head fall into his hands.
Oh, this was horrible. Beyond horrible. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
He should have pulled out of this mission before it even started. Everyone had been looking at Steve to object, when someone – probably Bruce, he couldn’t remember – had pointed out that Tony should probably take someone enhanced, seeing as they couldn’t smuggle a lot of tech in… And, one by one, they’d all turned to look at him, because Vision still wasn’t the same after the stone had been removed and Wanda would’ve made even less sense…. And, even as they all worked out that there wasn’t a counter argument to the suggestion, that there wasn’t a better candidate… Even then, everyone knew it was a bad idea.
And no one wanted to say why.
They’d all looked to Steve to say it. And Steve had known it was a bad idea, at the time. That Rhodey or Sam or even Nat would’ve been a better choice, however their abilities compared on paper… that there were probably excuses he could’ve given, without mentioning ‘The Thing That Happened’…
But – and wasn’t this darkly comic – he’d actually thought that maybe this might be a chance to talk to Tony.
Or even just a chance to work with Tony, maybe start building some of the foundations that could lead to a real conversation, some day…
Or just a chance to be with him… a few days when Tony wouldn’t be able to leave every room Steve walked into…he’d thought, maybe, even that might help break down some of the tension.
And now it looked as though they were going to spend the next ten days struggling to make eye contact.
Steve had managed to bring Tony to the one place in the universe that could possibly have made everything more awkward.
It wasn’t the sex, per se. Contrary to his public image, Steve wasn’t that sheltered. He had lived in an internet enabled future for nearly ten years now, and he’d been in the army before that – there wasn’t much going on here that he hadn’t seen before, and certainly nothing he hadn’t heard of. And it wasn’t that he was disgusted or offended or shocked by any of it…
Sex had always been more complicated than that, for him.
At least, it had since he woke up all alone in an alien future. A place where the words all sounded the same but meant something completely different, where society had shifted in such huge, multifaceted strokes that it couldn’t be comprehended or quantified or explained – you just had to be there.
There was so much that had changed about sex. Things that the troops only talked about in the shadiest bars were now the topics being discussed on The View. Things that family entertainers considered light banter in the forties now caused the gravest offence. There were a thousand examples of the differences, but no simple answer to the question how is sex different now? Nothing that SHIELD could put in a binder for him, to catch him up.
And no one he could ask.
Sex was one of the things you couldn’t ask about until you knew what it was okay to ask about. And what words you could use, and when you can ask. By the time Steve had anyone he could call a friend – by the time he knew who he could trust, and had enough basic understanding to be sure he wouldn’t mortally embarrass or frighten anyone… by then, he already had that reputation. That history of never being comfortable talking about it.
So, yeah, okay, talking about sex was still something of an issue. It had gotten a little easier in the last few years, but, yeah, still not his chosen dinner party conversation topic…
But that really wasn’t the same as having an issue with anything that was going on in this place. And, if he’d been here with Sam or Nat or… literally anyone else, then this place probably wouldn’t have been an issue at all.
But there was already so much that he and Tony couldn’t talk about.
They were too tense around each other to laugh together, or talk honestly, or understand each others feelings, or any of the things people rely on to cope with unexpected situations.
And he’d never been able to talk about sex with Tony, of all people, because…
Because it was complicated.
The point was, Steve was barely talking to Tony as it was, so he could hardly strike up a conversation about sex, of all things. And he couldn’t exactly start a serious conversation about anything else, while they were both trying to pretend that they weren’t at an orgy.
So, all in all, it looked as though this week wouldn’t be going as he planned.
He sighed heavily, and turned to walk into the room. He knew that he should probably be doing his own reconnaissance right now, but he was still waiting for his head to click into gear. He hadn’t figured out which thoughts he was supposed to be ignoring and which he should be forcing himself to focus on… so, for a few moments, he just didn’t. He simply wandered through the suite, in a miserable sort of haze, and tried to take in his surroundings.
It was a beautiful room.
There was a large, square living area, with a cream coloured carpet that was so thick it bounced to walk on it. There were three huge couches, and Steve had no idea what fabric they were covered with, but it was so luxurious that a shiver ran up his spine when he touched it. The bathroom was bigger than Steve’s apartment. He only glanced into the one bedroom, but he was pleased to see that the bed was roughly the size of a parade float…not that it should matter, he reminded himself, as he fully intended to sleep on the couch.
As his mindless little tour of their quarters came full circle, his eyes fell on the bar in the corner of the living room – the tall, crystal cabinet, displaying hundreds of amber bottles…and little vials of pills.
He knew he should probably go and investigate that, at least. He could at least make himself read some labels, in the name of the mission…
He was just so tired right now. He wasn’t sure when that’d snuck up on him, but suddenly he just wanted to sit and stare into the middle distance for a little while. So, he sank into one of the couches – literally groaning as it took his weight, the material rolling down his back like a caress… And he remembered Tony’s voice
This place is beautiful.
Steve smiled, in spite of himself – but only briefly. That’s how it worked, these days. Even the things about Tony that made him smile made him sad. He thought back to that short period in his life, when he might’ve been able to tease Tony for that. When Tony would’ve teased him back, for being awkward and embarrassed and flustered – but without malice. With a certain sort of affection, sometimes… those few warm moments that had filled him with so much hope –
And he couldn’t think of them now, without remembering what it had come to. He couldn’t bare to think of what they might’ve been, by now, if only things hadn’t… if only he hadn’t-
He cringed, realising how badly he was explaining this, even in his own head. Recognising that he still didn’t have the words for his regret and his guilt, he still wasn’t sure if those were the words he should be aiming for anyway. He had no idea how to tell Tony he was sorry. How to explain the things he wasn’t sorry for, without making everything worse. How to tell Tony how he felt about him – especially without… you know, actually telling Tony how he felt about him…
Ugh. Why had he even wanted a chance to talk to Tony, when he had no idea what to say anyway…
The fact was, everything was already ruined. The only mature thing he could do now was accept it, and try to help people anyway.
…at this orgy.
God, he hated his life.
Tony arrived back at the room a few hours later, looking every bit as tired as Steve felt.
The tension had gone from his shoulders, and he wasn’t gritting his teeth anymore… but in place of that was a sad sort of heaviness. He looked as though he’d just finished hearing bad news, or thinking very hard about life… Steve would’ve liked to ask.
But he knew Tony would tell him it was none of his business. That he’d lost any right to ask how Tony was feeling… and the trouble was, Steve knew he had a point. So, what could he say?
He wouldn’t have known how to answer him anyway, whatever he’d said…
“Did you find anything out?” He asked instead. His coping mechanism of choice. Focus on the mission, the fight he could be sure about, the role he knew how to play in any circumstances… It wasn’t the comfort it once was. It was a routine that had become more and more difficult, more cumbersome, as the years had gone on, like a pair of shoes he’d outgrown or an old car that had been run into the ground… This used to work, it used to fit… and he couldn’t say what day exactly he’d lost hold of even this, but he knew now. It wasn’t that simple, really. He couldn’t just be Captain America… There was no fight he could be sure about. He knew all that, and yet he did this anyway –
Because he didn’t know what else to do.
“A few things.” Tony sighed, walking into the room and flopping out on the couch, just as Steve had done a few hours earlier. Steve braced for a joke, a challenge, a dig… and was far sadder that it didn’t come “We’re not on earth, by the way.”
Steve huffed out an irritated little sound. He thought, again, that he should have put a stop to this – if not when he and Tony had been partnered up, then when they’d realised that The Facility could only be accessed via magic portal. He thought back to that secret location out in the desert, to the space that had opened in the air, like one of Strange’s portals without the sparkles. It’d looked a lot more sinister without the sparkles. And the ‘agent’ gesturing at it, a salesman’s smile still plastered on his face, even though Tony’s cheque was already folded into his back pocket… The strange colour of the earth, on the other side of the doorway… It’d all turned Steve’s stomach.
He should’ve said something, he should’ve told his ‘boyfriend’ that he had a strange feeling about it and asked to speak to him in private – asked if Tony was sure he was ready to go back into space after…
But that’d been too complicated. So he’d just followed Tony into the unknown, and spent the last few hours hoping that maybe they were just on the other side of the planet – that maybe they did have the option of just driving away from this place.
Apparently not, then.
“You’re sure?” He exhaled. Tony barely bothered to roll his eyes.
“Yeah. There’s a roof garden” He explained, curtly, putting his feet up and letting his head slide down to rest on the arm of the couch. “The stars are all wrong. We’re a long way from earth.”
“Great” Steve sighed, redundantly.
“Also, they’re really big on the drug thing here, that’s definitely something…” Tony went on, his eyes falling shut. “I didn’t see any, like, office, or anything… but I didn’t go back over the whole place… I guess maybe back where reception was, or something…” His voice grew heavier, until it trailed off completely. Steve finally realised that Tony was falling asleep.
He wanted to tell Tony that he would sleep on the couch… but he couldn’t think of how to do it, without picking a fight.
He wanted to tell Tony that it was amazing that he just knew the stars like that, that he’d have liked to talk to him about it.
That he’d have liked to talk to him about so many things, over the years… That he’d have been interested, that he’d have enjoyed the company…
But there had always been a thing he wasn’t saying. Things he couldn’t talk about, that he literally hadn’t known how to talk about… the things you had to talk about, before you talked properly about anything else.
So, as usual, he didn’t say anything. He just stood there and watched as Tony slowly melted into sleep, thinking all the things he wasn’t allowed to say.