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High Voltage

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Steve knew he was dead.

All he felt was pain, pain in his skull so sharp Steve was certain there was something lodged in it, pain so sharp in his torso that he wondered how many ribs were broken, pain screaming in his limbs so loud he wondered if he’d be able to move them. He slowly, agonizingly, lifted a hand to his head, gingerly brushing the back of his scalp, finding nothing but soft hair there.

Perhaps Steve wasn’t as dead as he thought.

There were lights dancing behind his eyes, bright, abstract flashes of reds and blues and greens coming together in a kaleidoscope against a black backdrop, and Steve finally found the energy to open them just a crack. He expected a barrage of light, but instead he was greeted by a dim, fluorescent, purplish light, barely illuminating a gray, nondescript room.

He wasn’t on the floor—that was quickly discerned, and another few seconds of survey told him he was on something padded, a bed, perhaps, or maybe a bench. Lying on his side, he assumed whatever he was resting on was pushed against the wall, and he was facing the center of the room. That being said, there wasn’t much else to say about the room. Gray walls, cement, from the looks of them, a thick door that had to be steel or something stronger, and a ceiling that matched the floor and walls.

With agonizing results, Steve pushed himself up on one elbow, managing the position for a few seconds to see that he was, indeed, lying on a bed next to the wall. He flopped back down, wincing at the pain lancing through his ribs and arms, shutting his eyes and curling slightly in on himself.

“Are you awake, Captain Rogers?”

Steve recognized the voice, and sighed. Thor.

Tony’s company he would have enjoyed; despite Stark being an ass at times, he was Steve’s closest friend. Clint was entertaining—he had stories to tell and was always personable. Natasha was quiet, but competent. And Bruce often proved to be a level-headed strategist, and was usually the last person to lose his cool (for obvious reasons). But Thor? Thor was the last person on the team Steve wanted to be stranded alone with. Sure, he still butted heads with Tony some times, and Clint could be a real pain in the ass when he put his mind to it, but while Steve respected Thor, he didn’t know him beyond that.

After the Manhattan incident, he hadn’t expected to see Thor--or Loki--ever again, and if he were to be honest, he had been relieved to see them go. With them gone, things had settled into a much more normal routine, one Steve could handle. He had seventy years to catch up on already, and throwing monsters and aliens and magic into the mix had only further alienated him from the present. Tony had rebuilt Stark Tower, engineered a floor for each of them, for Steve and Bruce and Natasha and Clint, even one for Thor, in the unlikely possibility he ever came back, a possibility that Steve crossed his fingers and prayed that never would happen.

He had just begun to acclimate to this life, a year after Manhattan had occurred, had just come to terms with Peggy’s death and Bucky’s death, with the massive leaps in technology and culture and everything, when S.H.I.E.L.D. found Thor in the desert once more.

Asgard had repaired the Bifrost (whatever that was; Steve had stopped trying to understand Thor and his culture rather quickly), he told them. Loki had escaped his “bondage”--Steve would never forget how Tony had laughed when Thor had said that--and Thor had come to earth, fearing that his brother would set his sights on it once more.

And Loki had.

His efforts weren’t as dramatic or as large as the first time, but he had drummed up support, both here and abroad, and become a major threat. It was deemed that Thor’s presence was a necessary one, since S.H.I.E.L.D. needed all the help they could get, and so Thor had moved in to the tower with the rest of them.

Steve wondered for half a second if he could feign sleep for a little while longer, at least until he was a little more with it. The last thing he could remember were…explosions, and then asphalt and the taste of blood in his mouth. He couldn’t even recall who they’d been fighting; there were just flashes, and then nothing, and now this, this captivity he found himself in.

Thor, to his credit, didn’t pester Steve, allowing him to lie in the semi-darkness until Steve had fully resigned himself to the reality that he was not dead, that he instead was the prisoner of some unknown villain in some tiny, cement cell with an Aesir for company.

Eventually, Steve cleared his throat, coughing slightly, followed by a, “Thor?”

“I’m here.” Thor sounded in surprisingly good spirits, considering their situation, something that Steve attributed to his seemingly never-ending optimism.

Steve opened his eyes again, looking for Thor, and a glance down his body found Thor sitting on the floor beside the foot of the bed, back against the bed frame, knees tucked into his chest and arms wrapped around them in a decidedly childlike posture, which looked extremely awkward for a man of his size. Steve couldn’t see much of him, viewing him in profile, but from what he could, Thor was an utter wreck.

There was blood covering almost all of the exposed skin on his face that Steve could see, and his nose had clearly been broken, a large cut running across the bridge of it. There was blood and dirt matting his hair and his beard, a jagged cut snaking through his lip, and what flesh wasn’t covered by grime was mottled with purple bruises. His cape was gone, torn away, leaving behind fraying remnants clinging sadly to his shoulders in a mockery of its former splendor.

But what was most disturbing was the thick metal collar fastened around his neck, the two halves secured with what appeared to be a simple modern-day padlock. The collar had symbols etched into it, ones that were distinctly Norse (runes, Steve remembered, they were called runes), and Steve had a distinct feeling that this collar was the reason there wasn’t a Thor-shaped hole in the door—because whatever his complaints about him, Thor wasn’t one to leave his friends helpless and hurt if he do something about it.

He turned to look at Steve, attempting to crack a smile, and Steve saw that the damage on the left side of his face was just as bad as the right. He winced, and then reasoned that he probably looked the same. Laying back on the bed, Steve shut his eyes once more, hearing the shuffling sounds of Thor sliding along the floor a few feet, closer to the head of the bed.

“Thor,” he began, turning onto his back, “do you have any idea where we are?”

More shuffling followed as Thor presumably got comfortable. “I believe we are in the facilities of Doctor Doom.”

Steve swallowed thickly. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Thor sighed. “Not much. I remember engaging Doom with you and Stark and the others, but hardly anything beyond that. Some…explosions and loud noises.”

“So you think it’s Doom, then?”

“I see no reason why it would not be.”

Steve rolled back onto his side, opening his eyes and looking at Thor. He was sitting on the floor, legs crossed, tracing aimless patterns on the cement with one hand. Steve could see that there was more blood, along with a few burns and additional bruises, scattered on his arms.

With a groan, Steve started to sit up, and Thor’s head snapped up at his companion’s movement. “You’re badly hurt,” he cautioned. “Don’t try to move.”

“Speak for yourself,” Steve quipped, finally managing to sit up in bed, ignoring Thor’s protest and his concerned expression. The position was only a tactical improvement, tendrils of pain already curling along his ribs and up his spine. “How long do you suppose we’ve been here?”

“Not long, I would think,” Thor said, going back to drawing his symbols. He was rather calm about their whole situation, as if he had already resigned himself to whatever fate they would be subjected to. Steve wondered why he wasn’t hopelessly flinging himself at the walls, trying to get through them by some miracle of osmosis, but he assumed that perhaps Thor had already tried that tactic, and, when the walls and door had not yielded, he had sat down, out of ideas.

“You tried the door?” Steve asked, glancing over at it.

“Many times,” Thor answered, without looking up.

Steve nodded contemplatively. If Thor couldn’t get it open, well, Steve would certainly fare no better, at least in terms of sheer strength. Intelligence was another matter entirely.

With aid from his hands, Steve swung his legs over the side of the bed, noting his torn and tattered uniform, soot and ash and pulverized concrete staining it. He wanted to stand, just to prove to himself that he would be okay, and so, with his boots planted firmly on the floor, he pushed himself off the bed.

Several spots of pain flared up, one in his thigh, two in his left shin, and one in each of his knees, and Steve steadied himself with his hands outstretched for a moment. Thor watched him carefully, tensed, ready to rise and catch him should Steve fall, but he clenched his jaw, concentrating on staying on his feet.

Tottering steps got him to the door, gloved hands feeling it up and down for any kind of latch, simultaneously supporting himself on it. He sighed in frustration as he skimmed over the whole door, finding nothing but a smooth metal plate. Any handle, any latch, any hand holds had to be on the other side, removed from their control. Doom wasn’t stupid, he wouldn’t trap them here, together, if he wasn’t sure there was no way for them to get out.

Steve snorted, shutting his eyes for a long moment before turning around and leaning against the door, dropping his arms to his sides. Thor seemed to take no notice, fingers still dancing on the floor.

“You wanna stop drawing and see if there’s any way out of here?” Steve snapped as a flicker of pain arced across his chest.

Thor didn’t respond to Steve’s tone. “There is no way out,” he said simply, punctuating the calm statement with an indignant snort. “I looked while you were still unconscious.” After a pause, he added, “Do not take me for a fool, Steve Rogers.”

Steve set his mouth into a line, sliding to the floor while keeping his back braced against the door, dropping his legs and sitting in a sprawled mess. “Sorry,” he murmured. Thor sighed, his great shoulders heaving, and then traced another angular pattern on the floor.

The silence blanketed the two of them. Steve knew they were both afraid—trapped, helpless, in an adversary’s domain, their weapons taken from them, beaten and battered and left in a cell. It was the lack of information that bothered Steve the most, and he was certain it weighed heavily on Thor as well. Not knowing who their captor was for sure, or anything about their situation, really, left them trapped in a liminal state, unsure if they should cling to what lingering hope they had left or simply burn it entirely.

“So now what do we do?” Steve’s voice was raspy and weak, so feeble it sounded alien to himself.

Thor tilted his head and shrugged again. “I suppose we wait,” he said, staring up at Steve. The cuts and bruises on his face looked even more severe as the artificial light hit his skin, highlighting the contrast between his skin and the blood painted on it. “What else is there to do?”

Steve inhaled deeply, feeling his ribs expand and the subsequent spots that danced across his vision from the pain in his chest. He lifted his hands in front of him, carefully peeling off his gloves, grateful that his fingers weren’t broken. The red canvas was torn in several spots, but the gloves as a whole remained intact, albeit stained and scuffed. Steve plucked the gloves from his hands finger by finger, twisting them when he was done, needing to keep his hands busy somehow.

“You should rest,” Thor said, turning his head slightly to look at Steve. “I’ll wake you if anything changes.” He glanced about the room, frowning. “Though I highly doubt anything will.”

Steve nodded, surveying the room once more. There was only one bed, pushed against the left wall, and behind it, situated in the corner, he could see a crude metal toilet. At least it’s not a bucket, he thought cynically.

It hardly seemed fair to take the sole piece of furniture and leave Thor stranded on the concrete, but Steve’s head was still aching, his vision swimming from exhaustion and what might be the start of a concussion, and at this point, chivalry be damned. He struggled to his feet, limping back over to the bed before collapsing on it, leaving his gloves in a neat pile near the door.

He curled up on his side, the least offensive position to his injuries, and shut his eyes, trying to get as comfortable as he could. The only sounds in the room, aside from his shuffling on the mattress, was Thor’s uneven wheezing, his breaths turning into little whistles as he struggled to inhale through his broken nose.

Shutting his eyes, Steve let unconsciousness wash over him once more.

It didn’t take long for Steve to fall back asleep, and Thor kept an eye on him until he dropped off. After he fell asleep, he resorted to occasional glances. With his healing, Steve should be feeling better relatively soon, but Thor just wanted to make sure nothing happened while he slept.

He himself had slept on and off. Upon his first waking, he had checked to see that Steve was alive, and then searched every nook and cranny of the room, looking for a way out, a weapon, a tool—anything that might lend some aid in escaping their predicament. But the room yielded nothing aside from four gray walls, a toilet, a bed—complete with one wounded comrade on it—and Thor had sat down, disappointed.

Despite his aches and pains, which were numerous and demanding, Thor found sleeping difficult. The ground was uncomfortable, and he was unwilling to ask Steve for the bed. He didn’t want to look weak in Steve’s eyes, not now, not ever. Steve respected him, for his strength and endurance, and he had always struggled with looking weak in the eyes of another. He knew Steve wouldn’t judge him in such a moment of weakness, but Thor couldn’t bring himself to ask regardless.

Thor sighed, wishing that he alone had been captured. Perhaps it would have made his situation more precarious, but he suspected he would have felt more at ease. The others respected him, and were often friendly, but he lacked the close bonds he’d had with his comrades in Asgard.

He had assumed that the team would eventually choose him as their leader. After all, he was the oldest, the most experienced, and certainly the most powerful—it was a natural choice. But the team had gravitated toward Rogers, had silently elected to follow him, and Thor was forced to either fall in line or leave the team. But with his brother making threats to this realm, Thor knew he couldn’t leave, and so he had accepted Rogers’ leadership. After all, the Captain was very capable--Thor had seen that firsthand.

Although he would never admit it, he sought Rogers’ favor. Steve had proven himself a capable warrior and leader, honorable above all others, and Thor would have his approval. So, while maintaining the strength and confidence he always had, that was as much a part of him as his hair and eyes, he now always followed Rogers’s orders without complaint or protest, hoping that Steve would continue to respect him.

Steve snored softly on the bed and Thor sighed, looking up at him. He wished he could swap Rogers for one of his other teammates, Clint perhaps, or Natasha. Tony had bonded with Steve and had little interest in getting to know Thor, and Bruce had always shied away from Thor’s aggressive, outgoing personality (although he had taken Thor aside and thanked him for all the times he had helped wrangle him when he lost control). But Clint was always more lighthearted, more forgiving of Thor’s foibles, and was Thor’s closest friend here. And Natasha didn’t mind his company, although they rarely spent time together anymore.

At one point, Thor had considered Natasha to be one of the Avengers he was closest to. They fought well beside each other in battle, and she didn’t seem to regard him with the same disdain that Steve and Tony did. Their relationship had—quite naturally, he thought—become intimate. The occurrences were sporadic and mutually enjoyable. But as soon as Thor began pushing for other contact, similar to what he’d shared with Jane, Natasha ended it, limiting their contact to what she had with everyone else. By that point, Thor had recognized that Natasha didn’t seem to want to foster the same kind of connections he’d witnessed among others elsewhere, both here and in Asgard, and he couldn’t begrudge her whatever distance she needed to keep her edge.

Thor supposed it had been for the best.

Steve stirred on the bed, and Thor glanced over at him. He worried for the captain, even though that worry would have been better spent on himself, considering his condition, but Thor always worried for his human teammates. They were much more...fragile than his companions back home, and their mortality was a concept that was both fascinating and frightening.

With a sigh, Rogers settled back into sleep, and Thor leaned his head back against the wall, resigned to wait and watch.

—-

When Steve drifted back to reality, his eyes fluttering for a long second before he found the coherency to open them, he was surprised to see that Thor had moved, now sitting on the wall opposite from Steve. He was leaning back against the wall, one foot tucked under his opposite leg, focused on a small pile of red scraps in front of him (the remnants of his cape, Steve realized), neatly stacking them, the task apparently consuming all of his attentions.

The blood on his face was dry and crusty now, but the wounds were still largely open, and one on Thor’s neck had a tendency to keep cracking and bleeding when he shifted his head. He wasn’t healing, Steve realized with a surge of alarm, and he could see more bruising on him than there had been before, dark purple blossoms that had sprung up over the past few hours. The sight caused his stomach to twist for a second, partly out of pity for Thor, but more so because he’d been counting on a healthy Thor to help them get out of this.

Steve sighed, eyes scanning the room for any apparent signs of change. The howling in his ribs had died down, along with the other aches, reduced to a hum of discomfort about his body—his healing factor at work and doing its job. But a new, gnawing sensation had settled in his stomach—Steve was hungry. No, he was beyond hungry, having plunged headlong into starving. His metabolism was four times faster than an average human; because of the high caloric intake he now required, Steve was used to frequent meals. He had taken to keeping protein bars in his belt or pockets, and midnight raiding of the fridge was not uncommon, and that was simply to maintain his form. Battle, and the accelerated healing after, always came at the cost of needing almost more food than he could eat.

Despite the protest from his stomach, he was able to push himself up without much protest from his limbs now, and Steve took full advantage of that fact, sitting up and swinging his legs over the bed.

Thor looked up from his little pile, and Steve was forced to wonder why he had made it, coming to the conclusion that Thor would rather have no cape at all than the sad reminder of what it had once been. He understood that feeling. They were both trapped down here, separated from their friends, with even their belongings gone—sometimes it was easier to forget one had something entirely than to remember its former splendor.

They exchanged a long look, one of resigned hopelessness from both parties. Steve knew that Tony and the rest would be looking for him, that it was only a matter of time until they were found, but there was a great deal of surviving that they had to do in that time.

Steve could have asked Thor if anything had changed, but he knew that nothing had. Thor would have woken him if something were to happen.

Instead, Steve settled for, “How long do you think we’ll be here?” He knew that neither of them had the faintest idea—it could be days, weeks or months, and there was really no way to determine that from inside this cell. All of the factors were out of their control, and the question was more a way to break the silence.

Thor frowned as he pushed the scraps of his cape around with his finger. “I do not know,” he said, gravely, before looking up at Steve with what looked very much like defeat in his eyes. “But I would assume that Stark and the others will find us as soon as they can.”

There was another brief lull in the conversation, Thor stacking up his scraps once more. “Do your wounds pain you less?” he asked, eyes flitting up to Steve’s face.

“Yeah, I’m pretty good. Be back up to speed in no time,” Steve answered, rolling his shoulders back. Given another day, he was confident he would be back to normal. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better,” Thor said, gently plucking at a larger swatch. Thick fingers deftly started pulling the threads apart, moving with rather surprising dexterity. Steve frowned at the blatant lie; it was apparent that Thor wasn’t healing, they could both see that. He eyed the collar around Thor’s neck. Perhaps that was the reason for the lie, then. They both knew what was suppressing Thor’s powers, and Thor was simply trying to maintain what pride he had left.

“Do you want the bed for a while?” Steve asked, patting the mattress to his side.

Thor shook his head, some matted blond locks falling into his face. “You may have it,” he insisted.

“Come on, Thor, I’ve had it for the last however many hours. Get some rest. It can’t be comfy on that floor.”

Thor looked around the room before agreeing with a short nod. Steve stood, much less wobbly than his previous effort, and watched as Thor slowly got up. His legs must have been aching from sitting there so long, on the hard floor, but he managed with only a grimace.

He dropped his weight on the bed, and Steve could see the exhaustion in his face, the circles under his eyes and the glassy look in them. He curled up on his side much like Steve had, almost too big for the small cot.

Steve sat down on the floor where Thor had been, idly pushing aside the little pile of red scraps. He let his thoughts wander as Thor drifted off, his raspy breathing deepening and evening out. Steve’s head fell back against the wall, his eyes half closed, his mind turning to Tony and the others. Given how long he’d slept, and how much he had healed, Steve figured they’d been captive for around a day, which he knew wasn’t a whole lot of time for the others. It felt like eternity, trapped in here with nothing to do, but Steve was well aware of how hours could be lost in the chaotic turmoil to find a teammate.

Thor slept with his brow furrowed and his hands nearly clenched into fists, his whole body seemingly tensed and ready for action upon waking. Steve couldn’t help but be a bit reminded of Bucky, of how he had always seemed guarded and alert in the field during the war, when they could be called to fight at any second.

With no way to tell the actual passing of time, Steve was at a loss to keep his estimations up. For a while he tried counting seconds, getting to something like twelve hundred before he realized it was a fruitless effort. Eventually he just dozed, shutting his eyes for long periods of time, occasionally reopening them to check on Thor and his surroundings.

In the midst of one of Steve’s dozing periods the tumblers of the door started turning, grating together with metallic clicks and clangs, and Steve snapped his eyes open to see just what was going on. He struggled with the brighter light from the hallway streaming in, squinting his eyes as it backlit two men, both dressed in black, one carrying a metal bucket and the other holding a very large, dangerous-looking assault rifle trained on Steve.

He held up his hand to block the light as the man with the bucket took a step forward and set it down just outside the turning radius of the door, giving Steve a hard, angry look as he did so. Steve instinctively tensed, moving into a crouch, eyes darting between the two men as they pulled the door shut, the tumblers locking it once more.

Thor jerked awake at the sound of the door closing, head whipping around the room in an effort to secure his surroundings.

“It’s okay,” Steve said, holding a hand up to assuage the concern on Thor’s face. He moved over to the bucket, peering over the top and staring at what appeared to just be water on the inside. “They just left some water for us.”

He dipped a finger into it, enough to sufficiently wet it, and then stuck it in his mouth, deliberately touching his lower gum.

“Don’t—” Thor began, and Steve knew what was coming next.

“It’s not poisoned,” he said. “If Doom—or whoever—were going to kill us, there’s no sense in dragging us back here to poison us.”

Thor frowned for a moment longer, but didn’t protest any further. Instead, he watched as Steve dipped his hand in for a moment and then drew up a full mouthful of water. It did nothing to kill the hunger pangs, which had increased in severity at an alarming rate, Steve’s head now buzzing insistently with a headache, and feeling slightly faint, he grimly wondered how long he had until he simply passed out.

“If our captor’s intent is not to kill us, what do you suppose it is?”

Steve shrugged, swishing his mouthful around before swallowing it. His gums ached from dehydration, and it felt good to finally be able to remedy that discomfort. “No idea. They might want information from us, or they’re using us as hostages.”

Thor leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees. Their resident god didn’t typically find himself being held captive—he was usually too hard to take down and contain—and this whole experience was novel for him. It also had to be a bit frightening. To sit and be patient, to be stripped of his powers and reduced to a form far weaker than his norm, to be forced to wait, helpless, had to be hard on him. Steve remembered what he had been like before the serum, all scrawny limbs and sharp joints, unable to even compete with his peers in normal things, let alone hardship and deprivation. Being reduced that that again would have been a hard burden to bear; Thor had to be feeling even worse, especially watching Steve heal up before his very eyes.

“Can I take a look at that collar?” Steve asked, and Thor stiffened, his hands clenching briefly into fists.

“If you so desire,” he answered stiffly, and Steve stood, carefully stepping around the bucket to sit on the bed beside Thor.

He tentatively reached forward, unsure of what to do with Thor’s long hair, and hesitantly pushed it to the other side of Thor’s neck, twisting it to try and keep it in place. Despite the lack of good lighting, he could see the symbols clearly, tracing one or two with his fingers, being tentative until he was sure that they wouldn’t hurt him as well. Despite the collar’s crude construction (simply two metal halves joined on one side with a hinge and on the other by a shiny, new padlock), it seemed to be working rather effectively; none of Thor’s wounds had closed or even begun to look better.

“There are symbols on it,” Steve mused.

“Runes,” Thor corrected sadly.

Steve raised his brows, fingers falling away from the cold metal. “You know what this is?”

Thor tiredly rubbed his face, trying to avoid the cuts there. “I…If this device is what I believe it to be, I have seen similar things, yes.”

“Where?” Steve asked, hand now grasping the padlock, testing its strength.

“Long ago, in Asgard,” Thor supplied. “Such things were used to suppress one’s abilities. They came in different forms, and the ones I saw were on shackles, not on a…collar.” He said the word with utter disdain, and Steve couldn’t help but sympathize.

“So it is the reason you’re not healing,” Steve murmured, releasing the lock and sitting back.

Thor looked away from him, eyes locked on the floor. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” Steve said gently. Thor gave him a look that was both indignant and afraid. “I…” He didn’t finish his thought.

Steve wanted to pat his shoulder, or do something reassuring, but in Thor’s battered state he didn’t think it would be wise. Any touch would be painful. “We just have to be careful, Thor, until we can get it off of you.”

Thor hesitated for a long second before finally giving a small nod. It was hard for him to accept, Steve realized. Thor was used to being the strongest, most durable team member (when Bruce wasn’t showing off), and now he was as breakable as any of them.

“You thirsty?” Steve asked, getting up to bring the bucket over next to the bed. He figured any distraction, however slight, would help Thor.

Another nod followed, and Thor bent down to haul the bucket up, awkwardly drinking several long swallows from it before holding it out to Steve. He took it, gratefully, and did the same, lifting the bucket to his lips and gulping down a few more much-needed mouthfuls. When he finished he looked back over at Thor, in his sorry state, and then set the bucket down, rising from the bed and striding to where he had pushed Thor’s little scraps.

He picked them up, dusting off any powder or debris, and then returned to the bed, taking the largest one in hand. It was the size of his hand, and reminded Steve of a leaf—bright red and jaggedly shaped. Carefully taking it in hand, he wound part of it over his coiled index finger and then dipped it into their water, Thor watching him curiously.

“Will you let me clean up your face a bit?” he asked. It would give Steve a chance to see how bad the damage really was and hopefully make Thor feel a bit more secure.

Thor eyed the red scrap in Steve’s hand warily before he agreed, twisting on the bed to face Steve. With Thor’s jaw held gingerly in his free hand, Steve started wiping away the blood under Thor’s left eyebrow, gingerly dabbing until the dried blood came free, either flaking off or being washed away. It took a long time, as Steve couldn’t rinse the rag and contaminate the rest of their water, and he ended up wetting and using all of the good-sized pieces of fabric. But, eventually, he got Thor to a much more passable state.

Steve wadded up the used scraps, piling them near one of the bed’s legs, and handed Thor the bucket for another drink. “You look better,” he said, flashing a smile as Thor finished with the bucket, setting it carefully back on the floor, placing it at the head of the bed, where it wouldn’t accidentally be kicked.

The statement was a half-truth—Thor certainly looked better on the surface, but the crusted blood had given way to more patches of dark bruising, and one of the cuts on left cheekbone had begun to bleed again, as if just to spite them. There were still matted patches of his beard, bits glued together with dried crimson that Steve had been unable to clean, not wanting to tug and aggravate Thor’s other facial nicks.

Thor sighed, tucking his arms into his stomach and hunching over. They sat like that, in awkward silence for a while, Steve unsure of what to say, or if saying anything was really appropriate. Eventually Thor rose, without warning or preamble, Steve watching him with concern.

“You can have the bed,” he said as he strode with as much confidence as he could muster to the far wall, dropping down to sit once more.

“You sure?”

Thor nodded, and Steve scooted farther back on the bed, lying down on his side once more, relieved at the lack of pain in his body. Like a sad dog, one too tired to even lick its wounds, Thor curled up on the floor, his hair falling and obscuring most of his face. Steve felt guilty about taking the bed, telling himself that he wouldn’t stay there long. His last few aches were almost gone, anyway (aside from the incredibly persistent hunger), and then Thor could have the bed for a majority of the time.

He dozed, never really falling asleep, instead sneaking glances at Thor, who was either snoring softly or struggling to breathe (probably some combination of the two, Steve reasoned), occasionally stirring and stretching out a stiff limb. Steve tossed and turned, eventually resigned to lying flat on his back and watching the fluorescent light flicker from behind his eyelids, thinking of what Tony and Natasha and Clint and Bruce must be doing, how Fury must be taking charge along with Coulson and Hill, of how close they had to be to finding them.

It won’t be long, Steve assured himself. It won’t be long at all.

He was unsure of how much time passed until the door opened again, light flooding the room and his senses, poor Thor jerking awake on the floor before being roughly prodded with a boot to his thigh. He tensed, eyes darting between Steve and the intimidating guard towering over him, and Steve could see the tip of an assault rifle from beyond the door, a sure sign that he hadn’t come alone.

“You, up,” came the order, and Thor started to move, his body stiff and unresponsive. After a few seconds they grew impatient, the first guard hauled Thor to his feet and in one fluid motion clamped a pair of shackles around his wrists while Thor shot him an enraged look.

Steve peered on grimly as the guard knelt and did another pair of shackles around Thor’s ankles. They were connected by a long chain, ensuring that Thor couldn’t lift his arms above his waist. All in all, it was a humiliating contraption, one that Steve had seen used on convicts, and Thor didn’t bother trying to hide his anger and disgust.

He tried to school his face into a sort of indifferent look as the guards led him from the room, but Steve saw a trace of fear leaking through a crack in Thor’s stoic façade. It seemed a resigned fear, though, one that worried Steve because it looked as though Thor was contemplating surrender before he’d even fought.

And then the door shut, sealing Steve inside alone with his thoughts, and he could do nothing but wait.

—-

Clint stopped Tony before his third consecutive pot of coffee.

At this point, he’d been up for at least forty-eight hours, subsisting on catnaps and caffeine, a combination that had gotten him through MIT and a lot of subsequent projects. But with those, there was never a sense of life-or-death urgency, never lives on the line, lives of people he knew and cared about. It was a fear that pushed Tony harder than before, that led to countless cups of coffee and a temptation to raid his liquor cabinet.

But Steve would chew him out so badly for that that Tony stayed away.

He hadn’t given up hope that they would find them. There was a cynical, twisted part of him that said he should, that said he should be realistic, that good things—like friends—didn’t really last for people like him, but that voice was quickly drowned out by memories of his own resourcefulness in an Afghan cave and by all the memories of seeing Steve’s in action, thinking on his feet. If anyone could survive, it was Steve. And Tony would do whatever was in his power to help out.

They’d been fighting with Doom when it all went down, when Cap had been isolated and Thor, their ever-loyal meat shield, had gone off, guns blazing, to rescue him. And then the both of them had...vanished. Tony had done lap after lap of surveillance, trying to find them until Phil finally told him to pack it in. Cap’s shield and Mjolnir had turned up, abandoned in the middle of the street, two eerie reminders of the teammates who’d been so very real a few hours prior.

So Tony had moved camp, to a computer screen, watching hours of satellite footage of Doom’s known hideouts. The GPS chip he’d hidden in the strapping on Steve’s shield was useless now, pinging to let Tony know that yes, the shield was indeed in his workshop, and without it Tony had no way to track Steve. That shield never left his person when they were fighting; it was Steve’s beloved weapon and one of his last ties to his old life. He never gave it up without a fight or a solid reason.

Pepper had let him go for the first day, sitting with him and keeping him company, bringing coffee down to him a couple times and taking over surveillance duty when Tony was too tired to be of any use. Tony always hated doing this to her, hated throwing her on the back burner when things like this came up, and he had apologized profusely when she had woken him up so he could keep watching.

But Pepper understood. She had always understood Tony’s obligations and personality, and she knew what she was getting into when they started this relationship. She had been well aware of his obsessive tendencies, having been his assistant for far too long, and she was often busy herself, what with managing Stark Industries now.

And so, after Tony had started to babble, his brain groggily trying to formulate an apology, all she had said was, “I want them back, too.” Tony supposed that was why he stayed with her, because Pepper always understood, was always ready to make those little sacrifices for Tony, and in return he tried to make them for her, too, whenever it was possible.

As he watched the dull, monotonous surveillance footage, Tony’s mind sorted and sifted through ways he could find them, considering signatures and signs that he could track. Clint and Natasha tried to pull him away to get a few hours of sleep, but Tony couldn’t really rest knowing that Steve was out there in the hands of an enemy.

Sometimes, when the lack of progress frustrated him too much, Tony would put on the suit and do laps around the city, praying to whatever entity was out there that perhaps, by some sick joke of the universe, Steve and Thor would just miraculously turn up on a street corner, as if they’d taken a wrong turn and gotten lost and not kidnapped. Other times he would harass Fury, antagonize him just for the sake of being an annoyance, because he knew this wasn’t Fury’s fault, knew that Nick was on his side and was doing everything in his power to find them, but that there were things like “red tape” and other bureaucratic bullshit that Tony had never much cared for in his way.

Once, when he was tired, when he’d been cooped up in front of these screens for seven hours and no one had come by to talk to him, Tony had picked up his phone and dialed Rhodey, and they had shot the shit like nothing was wrong, like Thor and Steve were in the next room over and Tony had just called to say hi.

And now Tony was half-asleep at his desk, ostensibly still watching, though in fact JARVIS was doing most of the work, his arms folded on the table and acting like a temporary pillow while his mind ran through worst case scenarios. He jumped when Clint nudged his shoulder, nearly knocking over his mug of cold coffee, and startled awake with a snort.

“Jeez, Tony,” Clint said, taking a step back and frowning. “I didn’t think you were that out of it.”

“I’m not,” Tony lied, running a hand through his hair. It felt greasy and thin, but he hid his frown of disgust. He reached nonchalantly for the coffee. “Did you need something?” he asked, bringing the mug to his lips. It tasted awful, but he drank it anyway, if only to keep up appearances.

“Fury wants to see you. Says he finally made some kind of a breakthrough on whatever lead he was following.”

It took Tony longer than it should have to process Clint’s words. He nodded slowly, part of him crying out with joy that there was, at long last, a solution, the other half of him crushed that he hadn’t been the one to come up with it. He was Tony Stark, genius and entrepreneur, and he hadn’t even been the one to come up with a solution to save his best friend.

“Really? Someone figured it out before me? That’s a first. All right, let’s see what he came up with.”

“Uh, no offense, but I don’t think Fury will mind waiting while you take a shower.” He held up his hands to ward off Tony’s glare. “Hey, you’ve been down here for days and it’s not like we leave battle smelling like roses to start with. Except for Natasha. Still not sure how she does that, though.”

“Fine,” Tony muttered, irritated by not only the fact that someone had managed to outsmart him, but also because he was apparently incompetent and filthy. Clint backed out of the room, eyeing Tony warily, but Tony shot him a glance and he disappeared up the staircase. After giving JARVIS instructions to keep checking the footage, in case it was still needed, Tony stumbled out of his workshop, his legs stiff and uncooperative.

Fifteen minutes later, he was showered and dressed, even if he hadn’t bothered to shave and his clothes clung to damp patches of his skin. He paused only to down a quick, scalding cup of coffee and then headed to Fury’s office, where he found the director pacing before Clint, his face more tense than usual.

“You found something?” Tony said, too tired and too worried for his usual snark. He was afraid that this would be a letdown as well, just another red herring to chase, and that they would waste time and effort only for Steve to still be missing.

“I did,” Fury said, nodding in acknowledgement at both Clint and Tony. “I have a way to track down Rogers and Thor.”

Tony sat down, his heart thumping in his chest. “How? Was there something I missed on the tapes?” He was certain that R&D couldn’t have come up with anything; whatever they did in that department was either already inferior or inevitably replaced by something better of his own design.

“No, nothing like that,” Fury assured, finally sitting across the table from Tony. Clint sheepishly sat beside Tony, whose attention was fixed on Fury. “I’ve got some other projects besides your little group, and one of them just might have the solution.”

Tony nodded. He knew Fury had things that went on behind closed doors; he was director of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was a far broader organization than just the Avengers. Of course there were things that went on that Tony didn’t know about, although he wasn’t always comfortable with it.

Fury eyed the door behind them, and Clint twisted his head at the sound of the handle turning. Tony followed a beat later when he heard Clint whisper, “Oh my God.”

“This is Stephen Strange,” Fury said. “He says he can find Cap and Thor.”

Tony finished turning and he could feel the incredulity crawling across his face at the sight of the man entering and approaching the table, wondering how sadistic Fury had to be to call him down here. Stephen Strange appeared to be in his mid-forties, his hair still black save for two white tufts at his temples, a pencil mustache dotting his upper lip. But his dress contradicted any kind of credibility he might have had, for he looked like he had just stepped out of a renaissance faire, clad in a blue tunic and gray leggings. Leggings, Tony marveled. Is he for real?

“Is this some kind of a joke?” he snapped, glaring at Fury as Strange approached the table.

“Stark, before you make any kind of—”

“You call us down here, tell us you’ve got a way to find out friends, take away time that I could be spending looking for them, to bring this guy in?” He stood up abruptly, backing away from the table, glaring at Fury and then at Strange, who raised a brow in bemusement.

Fury stood, bracing his hands on the table. “Stark, sit your ass down,” he said, his voice low and serious, and for a moment, all of Tony’s instincts protested, told him to get the hell out and get back to his real work, but he choked it down when he saw the seriousness in Fury’s eye.

Tony sat.

“Before you go running your mouth about how this is a joke, know that I would not bother to order you down here if I didn’t believe the man myself. I had a hard time at first, and I always have a hard fuckin’ time with this kind of shit, but Strange is a good guy. I had to go through a lot of red tape to get this little sit-down arranged.” He eyed Clint and Tony. “So I don’t want either of you two going on about this, understood?”

Tony sullenly glared at Strange, who had folded his hands on the table before him, waiting patiently. “Fine,” he grumbled.

“Good.” Fury looked to Strange for a reaction.

“I realize you must think I’m full of it, Mr. Stark,” Strange said, and his tone was defensive, “but I do know where your friends are, and they are indeed in Latveria, but not in one of the camps you’ve been so meticulously watching.” He paused, and his face softened a bit. “If you can get me a map, I can show you where they are.”

Fury cleared his throat and sat back down. “Strange came forward shortly after Cap and Thor disappeared, saying something about disturbances.” He held his hand up to silence any protests on his terminology. “I don’t know all your lingo, Doc, so bear with me. From what he’s explained to us, and what I can get out of it, he thinks that Loki’s involved.”

Tony folded his arms over his chest. That would explain how their teammates had disappeared in a matter of seconds, during the time it took for Tony to hear silence on his intercom and fly a block and a half, but Tony was reluctant to admit that Strange’s supposition might have some credibility.

“I’m putting together some men and equipment,” Fury said, turning to Tony and Clint. That he was proposing a search and rescue mission in what was the heart of enemy territory spoke of Fury’s dedication to this plan and belief in this man, and Tony cautiously looked over. “How soon can you be ready?”

“As soon as I can get my suit,” Tony said.