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Terrible Idea

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Tony's crammed into the smallest possible space, in the far corner, and he doesn't look around when the guards throw Steve back into the cell, or when Steve picks himself up and sticks his hands back through the slot in the door so the guards can take the manacles off. He's pretty sure he could work out how to break them if he just had five minutes to actually look, and Tony wouldn't even need one, but the guards won't give him that time; they have some kind of electrical bolt gun pointed at him through the door.

They step away quickly once his hands are free and threaten him with the bolt gun. He doesn't pull his hands back right away --he wants to feel up the locking mechanism or at least the hatch that covers the slot-- but they don't take well to him lingering, and fire. The charge bolt hits him on the forearm and grounds on the metal hatch frame, laying a burn from wrist to elbow and sending him back into the cell with more force than a gunshot. He hits the stone with a grunt of pain, and curls around his arm, irritated at himself for fucking up and getting hurt in front of Tony.

It'd have been suspicious if they hadn't seen him trying to escape somehow, but damn, it hurts. The hatch snicks closed. And he hasn't been gone that long, not that long, but Tony hasn't made a sound this whole time. He's still pressed tight into the corner.

They had sworn if he came quietly, they'd leave Tony alone, and in the interests of stalling Steve had taken their offer, secure in the knowledge that Tony's grudge would last longer than any marks they could leave on Steve. Which is still true --the burn will fade in a few minutes-- and in fact, the Scientist Supreme had done nothing more than give him a good meal: dry wine and diverting conversation, though the manacles had been a pain, and there was only so much Steve could say about Ayn Rand.

"Hey," he says, "hey Tony," and reaches out a hand. Tony is still, though he's breathing, up until he touches his shoulder; then he twists, whole body uncoiling, and bites Steve's hand.

Steve jerks back, loses his balance, falls on his backside and one elbow, and crab-walks backward when Tony snarls at him. There's a semicircle of white marks in the meat of his hand. The skin isn't broken, but Tony bit hard, and there'll be bruises blooming under the skin in a few minutes.

"Hey, hey! Shellhead," Steve says, raising his other hand, palm out in surrender. Tony tries to flatten himself into the wall and his snarl raises in pitch, eyes wide enough to see the whites in the almost darkness. Maybe it doesn't look like surrender to him. Steve puts his hands flat down on the floor and Tony likes that better.

They stare at each other, Tony's teeth still showing.

"So," Steve says, "they didn't leave you alone, did they." He sniffs and looks around; no sign of the struggle that Tony would certainly have put up if the guards came to break their bargain, but it smells weird in here. "Something in the air? You were fine when I left. Climbing the walls, sure, but fine. If I start feeling bitey, I suppose we'll know that it affects me too, huh?" Oh boy, another fact to learn about the serum. He can't wait. The vague ache in his wrists from the manacles has already faded, and Tony's teeth marks are flushing red to match the burn on his other arm. Steve tries a smile this time.

Tony doesn't like it when he shows teeth --flinches away and curls his lip-- so Steve softens it as much as he can. He makes his eyes big and earnest, and struggles to keep his smile on his face in this hard, cold place. It smells bad in here now, like animals.

Tony’s breath hisses out from between his teeth when Steve lifts his hand, but it hurts where Tony bit, and Tony is his friend and afraid of him and that fucking hurts too. He rubs the ache against his cheek and tastes it to check that he isn’t bleeding, and the sound Tony makes is fear and trapped-get-away.

Steve can’t stand it, the noise grates against something in his belly, so he gets to his feet and scrambles backwards so he’s not hemming Tony in. Too fast; Tony makes a wordless bark of startlement, and Steve can’t see his face anymore, it’s pressed into the close-worked stone like he's trying to merge with it. No matter where he goes, Steve is closing him in, even when he presses himself into the opposite corner. They’re in a dead end cul-de-sac locked in by steel and stone and guns; there’s nowhere to go that isn’t trapped-get-away. The stone is cold against his back and turns his sweaty undershirt clammy. It makes his stomach churn. He does not like cold.

The door, the lock is a problem. Tony is afraid of him, but Steve isn’t a threat; the door is, and wherever Tony's wits have gone there's nothing to conceal the fact that he's terrified.

Steve isn't worried about himself, even if it takes a while for Tony to let him near. That's all right; it took months, the first time. Steve is persistent, and Steve is shield-protect. Tony will see it, has to --it’s everything that Steve is-- he just has to show it, remind him.

But the door, the door won't go away that easily.

“Tony, Tony, don’t-- I’m not dangerous, Tony, look, I’ll guard from...steel-and-guns-- AIM, I’ll protect you from them, won’t...let them take me again. Stay, and protect.” Words feel clumsy now, and he assumes it's the weird-wrong-animal smell getting through the serum. He’s not sure if being unable to talk is the same as not understanding --Tony shows no sign of understanding his words at all-- but he’s using fear-anger-growl sounds, so maybe he still understands intonation.

Or something even more basic. Steve shuffles out of his corner enough to put his back to Tony, big, vulnerable, back-of-neck; if Tony wants to bite him some more, he decides that is fine. He decides he won’t be hurt. But he checks a couple times from the corner of his eye; Tony's looking at him again and that isn't aggression, that is shock and affront at being ignored, which is almost funny. Some things are the same no matter what. Steve sniffs --ignoring you-- and scoots deliberately a little closer, keeping his back to Tony and not looking. Then he checks through his pockets.

Nothing, nothing, a neatly-folded clean paper napkin, another napkin wrapped around two slices of buttered bread, rather squished, nothing, ah. A tiny spoon. The guards had watched him take the napkins and the bread but they hadn't seen him palm the spoon, which had come with a tiny demitasse saucer and cup. He had sipped the espresso regretfully, then whoops dropped the whole shebang, smash, so sorry, so clumsy with manacles, and they had glared as they gathered up every shard. Tony would have glared too. Wasting espresso.

Small noises behind him; Tony has moved from his corner, curiosity and anxiety making him oscillate. Steve drops the spoon behind himself and barely remembers to cover the sound with a cough. It’s shiny and unthreatening; if Tony's still anything of himself, and Steve knows he is, it might just be the incentive he needs to investigate.

Besides, Steve has no idea what you’re supposed to do with a stolen spoon. He has no idea what Tony would do, either, but that's just through inability to predict him. The smartass.

He breathes deeply as Tony works himself closer; scents are sharper, clearer now, and he can set aside the bad smell. What is left is water, stone, some mildew, the iron of the door, bread and butter, napkin paper, Tony and himself. Tony smells of stress and fear, but not of blood or pain, except for a little bit at his fingertips probably. A hint of his blood-scent is on the turny things --hinges-- of the door, and back in his corner where he has been prying at the stones.

He must have had time to look around before they gassed him. Or he was still capable of going for hinges when drugged out of his wits. Steve grins a little meanly; if they think this is going to stop Tony from being resourceful, they are wrong. And he is relieved, so very relieved, that Tony does not smell like he left this cell or was hurt by anyone.

Steve hums as he breaks up one slice of the bread and puts some of it down behind himself. He is hugging the wall, almost facing it now to ensure that he does not catch a glimpse of Tony. There is a swish of displaced air, and when he puts his hand back the bread and spoon are gone. Steve wiggles backward a little more, and listens to soft scraping noises as Tony tests out the spoon.

Chkkshhhheep- Tony’s shoes have a slight squeak if he twists on the ball of his right foot. Steve doesn’t think Tony has noticed it yet.

He slides another mouthful of bread backwards, resting it in his open palm, and keeps his eyes on the door. The hatch they’d used to put on and take off his manacles has a millimeter-thin line of light around it where the seal isn’t complete; he’d be able to tell if someone was looking through the peephole by the shadows. Unfortunately, there are no cameras, or he’s sure Tony would have them in handy, lock-pick sized pieces by now. There must be a vent or grating somewhere, though, for introducing the gas...

Unless they’d piped it in through the door, which seems likely given how averse Tony is to approaching it. The air doesn’t feel stuffy and close though; there must be ventilation besides the door.

A tiny tasty-nice noise from behind him makes some of the tension leak out of his shoulders. Then, there’s a warm rough touch on his hand (left strategically trailing behind him), and Tony’s licking the traces of butter off his palm and finger-pads with soft rasping sounds, holding his arm in place with bruised and scratched-up fingers. His hands feel hot after the clammy air, and Tony’s tongue is very dry.

Steve couldn’t bring any water back, but if they want Tony alive, they’ll have to give them water at some point. He holds very still; Tony is not quite bruising his arm with his grip, but it’s not trusting, either. He keeps his attention split forwards and back, ready to prove he can protect Tony from whatever’s coming, but this is important. Feeding Tony might be the only thing he can do to make him categorize Steve as safe.

Tony snuffles at his hand until it’s clear that there’s nothing left in it, and then his fingers creep up Steve’s arm and pick at his shirt sleeve. He’s got the space to hand back another morsel without dislodging Tony, so he does and Tony makes a satisfied half-swallowed vowel sound. He’s efficient about claiming all the butter, and then tugs a little more pointedly on Steve’s shirt.

Oh-ho--- he’s learned a trick; tug = gimmie.

Steve thinks that's good, it’s a form of communication, right? He could break up the other slice of bread, dole it out bit by bit and train Tony to let him approach, let him touch--

He doesn't want to do that, though. He wants to share. Steve got to eat already, it's only fair.

Steve turns his head very slowly, keeping his gaze soft and unfocused, not quite making eye contact. He takes one bite from the other slice of bread and then holds the whole slice out, chewing placidly.

Tony snatches it from his hand and jumps back, snarling again. He paces back and forth along the deepest side of the cell, glaring, unfolding and refolding the napkin wrapping a dozen times before he breaks off about half the bread and bolts it in three bites, then refolds the napkin around the rest and stashes it carefully in his corner.

Then he approaches Steve again, in fits and starts, despite Steve taking care to watch just from the corner of his eye. Takes Steve's forearm in a near-bruising grip and tugs quite hard.

Up close again Steve can smell his anxiety and fear, can catch the flash of teeth as he grimaces, for all the world like he's doing an experiment he expects to blow up in his face. He's still scared, but he's desperate too.

He needs another payoff like the one before, but Steve has nothing left to give him. He lets Tony move his arm, lets Tony gingerly pull him flat on his back and sit on his elbow and snuffle at all his pockets, making a continuous low warning growl.

Steve whines, high and thin. His pockets are empty. He can't help, he's sorry-- He curls up just a little and his face is wet, and then Tony's face is in his face, licking at him, licking his cheeks and eyelids with a soft huffing hh-hh-hh.

“...’m sorry, I’m okay, ‘s just this stupid place,” Steve says, barely forming the sounds into words, and Tony’s weight shifts so he can nuzzle behind Steve’s ear. “Took our comms, took your watch...” And they haven't given Tony anything to eat or drink, so it can't have been days yet, but in the dark and the cold he can't trust his sense of time. Steve knows he probably shouldn't, but he tilts his chin up to bare his throat and make it clear he's not attacking, and ever so slowly wraps his arms around Tony's back, holding his restless energy, reassuring himself.

Tony doesn't bite him, but he's tense as a wire. He wriggles against Steve's arms, sniffing, then wriggles backward out of the loose hold, and his hoodie comes back up over his head. He's reacting like a wild animal that has not the faintest clue what a hug is, though he's willing to indulge the bizarre behavior for a few seconds. Maybe...not so different from his normal reaction.

Steve manages to pull himself together enough to sit up and check the door. His nose is stuffy and he sniffs; it comes out louder than he expects and he tenses. Tony’s behind him, out of sight, and he hopes he didn’t make him jump with his stupid stuffy nose. Silence.

Silence is okay, silence is no guns, no keys in locks. He makes himself relax and half notices that his brain was foggier when he was closer to the ground, but there’s not much he can do with the observation.

A shadow of warmth creeps up to his back, palpable on the back of his neck and through his thin, silky undershirt. Tony makes more hhh-hh sounds, and licks at the back of his neck. Steve figures it’s fine, that Tony can do what he likes to feel better. Maybe Steve tastes familiar, maybe he’s comforting himself. Steve’s worried too, he gets it. Scary place.

Then Tony does bite him, and Steve whips around at the unexpectedness of it. Tony's jumped backward out of reach before he notices it really wasn't very hard. Maybe just to get his attention. He says "Ow," and lowers his hand from the back of his neck, and Tony comes boldly forward and tugs his arm again, pulls him off-balance. Steve lets him, confused, and Tony makes a disgusted hrghh exactly like he does when Dummy drops a box of nuts on the floor just for the pleasure of picking them all up. Tony tugs again, but he has no chance of actually bodily dragging Steve. He makes another disgusted noise.

Tony wants Steve to come to his corner.

That is...progress. That’s great, but how does he get over there without scaring all that progress away by being so much bigger than Tony? Tony seems to think he should stay facing the door, which is a good idea, Steve can go with that. He shuffles carefully back with his hands, then lifts his ass back too, and Tony makes a ‘ha!’ of triumph. Another tug, another shuffle, and they’re backed into the corner, with the tiny hoard of bread and some sharp-edged stone chips that Steve notices littering the floor under his fingertips, and the faint smell of Tony’s blood.

He’d been picking at the wall, where one of the bigger stones has nine neat holes drilled through it. There’s a breeze, even, and it smells fresh-ish. Not like the rest of the room at least, not like animals and fear. Tony presses his face up against the vent and breathes deeply, then backs away and lets Steve do the same. More stone, more water. Dank but clean, no sewer smells. Very, very faintly, a hint of outside. So this fresh air wasn't enough to keep the other stuff from working, but maybe it helped.

"This corner's best. For sure," Steve murmurs. "Good taste." Tony sniffs, and produces the spoon from somewhere --he clearly still understands pockets, which is interesting-- and starts digging at the mortar around one of the nearby stones, not the vent-stone but an adjacent one. It makes noise, but Steve can see he's immediately making progress too, with hm! hm! noises of satisfaction.

The mortar is old, white and crumbly, and leaves marks on Tony’s beard like chalk when he presses close to blow the slot he’s carving clear of dust. Every few dozen strokes, he wipes the spoon on his trouser leg, and inspects the edge. Far from going ‘blunt’ --if that term can be applied to a tiny spoon-- it’s getting more pointed, and Tony gets more efficient with each scrape. Steve wants to watch more, because it’s progress and because he always wants to watch Tony when he’s working, but Tony isn’t happy. He keeps looking up at the door with urgency plastered all over his face. Fear.

Aside from a few uncertain days in SHIELD's custody Steve has no history of captivity, not like Tony does or Bucky and the others did. He can recognize their antsiness when they feel a trap closing, but he doesn't feel it, not the same way.

So Steve shuffles to cover Tony with his back. It blocks the meagre light from the gaps under and around the door, but Tony doesn’t seem to mind, and he pokes the spoon into the light under Steve’s arm and peers over his shoulder when it next needs inspecting. The unthinking contact and the unselfconscious press of Tony's hip against his back are the best things Steve has felt today.

Twenty minutes in, and Tony’s fear-smell has faded to something a bit more like the comfy-work-sweat smell that only Steve gets the privilege of detecting most days. His hums and tsks and the little sounds of crumbling mortar hitting the floor run over the constant hsssssskk of the scraping spoon.

Steve lets his mind wander, eyes fixed almost calmly on the door, and wonders what exactly Tony intends to do with access to a stone ventilation shaft they can't fit more than one arm into.

A distant set of footsteps make his ears itch like they want to twist and listen and he tenses. Silently, he pushes up into a crouch, one fist against the floor for extra balance and the other hand on the wall to keep the corner safely boxed in, so no one can see Tony, no one can make him scared. His muscles thrum with tension; from here, he could leap clear through the doorway before anyone even had the chance to raise a weapon, and he's angry enough to break heads on the way down.

The sound of scraping mortar stops when the growl building in Steve's throat gets loud enough for human ears and Tony's hand is hot and shaking on Steve's back. He leans close, his forehead against Steve's shoulder, and vibrates. His whine is high to Steve's almost subsonic anger, and full of fear. He reaches forward with his dominant hand, snaking under Steve's arm, and pushes the spoon at his hand.

A weapon.

It's sharp now, sharp enough to be lethal, and he accepts it just as the cracks around the door flicker with someone's shadow. The manacle-hatch slides open and blinding white-blue light spears in. Steve hisses in pain, eyes watering, and Tony hides his face against Steve's back, safe in his shadow. He can't see the door at all now, the darkness away from the blinding light speckled in purple and green splotches, so he growls; danger-keepaway! and dares them to hurt his friend even now, because he'll break them.

But the door doesn't open. Voices with words he doesn't know sound smug and slimy and horrible, but they don't give him the chance to shut them up and the hatch slides closed with a very final metallic clank.

The light is gone, leaving him blind and impotent and shaking with adrenaline. His growl shifts smoothly into a pain-filled whine; his eyes hurt and his head aches and he couldn't get them free and it's the worst.

His face is wet again, and Tony clicks shakily at him, patting his shoulders and then his chest and pushing him to his back in a little pile of misery. Tony's weight settles against the side of his chest, then he's licking at his face again, his dry little tongue cleaning away the salt while Tony's wordless voice tells him off for wasting water.

He sniffles irritably, though Tony's tongue feels nice and warm in this horrible dank dark, and wants to curl up into a ball so he can rub his eyes in peace. He can't help it, here; it's cold and smells and he's powerless and it's awful. The bad smell, whatever it is, takes away the words he would use, the stories he would tell himself to keep his feelings balanced; he feels like a little kid, down and up and down again, with no way to smooth it out. Tony's weight keeps him from wriggling away, so he presses close instead. He has the horrible certainty that if Tony bites him now, or runs away, he'll cry for real, and possibly throw himself against the door. But Tony doesn't push away, he leans close and snuffles and licks and then rests his cheek against Steve's chest, tucked under his chin.

Steve cries some more, anyway, and hugs him back for as long as he'll let him. Warm and heavy and, for now, safe within the circle of Steve's strength.

Eventually, Tony feels along his arm for the spoon still clutched in his fist, so Steve gives it back. They need to go back to scraping and watching the door, as much as he hates the idea of letting Tony up. They compromise, and Steve lets Tony go but hangs on to his sleeve right up until Tony’s hands land on his shoulders. Tony bullies him upright against the adjacent wall so he's covering the corner again, and gets back to work with his spine pressed up against Steve.

His night vision takes eleven minutes to come back, normally, and he tries not to rub his eyes with his dusty hands while he waits. The green and purple splotches hang on what feels like a little longer than that before giving way to the dusty yellow lines around the hatch, and he starts to be able to see past the afterimage of the light. It must have been something like a floodlight, or a spark welder; the afterimage is jagged like a lightning bolt. He tries to settle into watchful silence, looking past the zig-zag, like he did keeping watch over an encampment, but he's too aware of every inconsequential little noise and shuffle.

A long, relatively peaceful few hours do nothing to make it easier, and then the lights under the door go out, leaving them in absolute dark. Steve’s anxiety ratchets up; they haven’t made a peep, no one has so much as walked past since the blinding light. There’s been no water for Tony, and there was none at the Scientist Supreme’s weird lunch either, only espresso and wine; Steve needs to pee and his head hurts again, a dull vague pounding. Dehydration.

Tony doesn’t seem bothered by the dark, though he stops trying to check the pointyness of his spoon. Maybe he can feel it enough, or maybe he’s making do; he's still scraping, feeling out the growing gap between the stones with his fingers, though every so often he stops to rest his temple against the cool wall and swallow, throat clicking. He’s not using the arc reactor for light; it’s still covered. Steve doesn’t know if he’s forgotten it exists, or is keeping it safe, and the chasm between the two possibilities is making his toes itch.

His toes. This place is...bizarre.

He twitches at a bigger scraping sound, and then the spoon clatters against the floor followed by the soft crack of a stone thumping down, and Tony demands his attention with that same sleeve-tug. Carefully, keeping his palms on the ground, he obeys the ‘turn’ implicit in the twisty way Tony is pulling, until Tony actually snaps at him, teeth up near his face. Steve recoils.

Tony makes an impatient sound, and grabs Steve’s hand in the complete darkness, somehow knowing exactly where it is. Steve understands when the nine-holed stone materializes under his fingers. The brick to its left is gone; Tony shows him the worn away mortar, and demonstrates tugging at the vent stone’s edges.

“Oh. Oh, yeah, mmhm.” Finally, he can actually help, and the cube of stone grinds out of the hole. The mortar left around it crumbles away under Steve’s strength now that he has a proper grip, and that Tony has been able to do this in just a few hours is unbelievable.

Genius is deeper than words, Steve figures, lowering the vent stone to the floor with a grunt. Fresh, damp air wafts in from the shaft and they both breathe deep.

Inward from the vent stone the shaft is a little bigger, but the opening is about six inches on a side, nothing either of them can fit into. Steve is feeling out the edges when he notices Tony patting around himself, then tugging down the zipper of his hoodie and patting again until he figures out how to unbutton two buttons, just enough for a diffuse pearly light to shine through his t-shirt and let them see the ghostly shape of the wall and the hole in it. Tony isn't looking at him, but he's stiff, tense, probably ready to bolt; Steve doesn't move at all, except to hunch for a better view into the vent. He can hear a new sound from inside, maybe the high hum of a far-away ventilation fan.

The light flickers with the shadow of Tony’s fingers beating a heartbeat against against his t-shirt, over the glass. His hand snaps out, towards the deep recesses of the ventilation shaft, then back to his chest, still empty. A low whine starts up somewhere in Tony’s throat, and he butts his forehead against Steve’s shoulder. He’s shaking his head, his teeth are gritted; he’s gearing up to do something really stupid.

Steve has no idea what could be that dangerous in there, but Tony’s stripped bare, and Steve doesn't like the thought of either of them sticking a hand in a trap.

He really hopes it’s not scorpions.

.
.
.

It’s probably not, to be fair; it's too cold for them. But, still.

He brings his face closer to the hole and stares, willing his pupils to dilate more, catch every little bit of the arc-glow, and sees a shine off something. A collection of rounded surfaces floating in the unrelieved black. There's something in there all right.

He freezes, holds absolutely still, and it doesn't move either; it's not alive. The shape it seems to be seems familiar, a shape he used to see often-- it's a microphone just like the big one they used on the USO tour and at the radio stations. A microphone! Shit!

Steve controls his first atavistic reaction; breaking the mic won't do anything. If someone has been listening, it's too late to cover their activities now. He breathes deeply, and now he can pick up hints of steel, old resin, ancient bakelite almost merging with the stone-and-water. The mic has been in there for a long, long time. It's old. It's decrepit, maybe broken, maybe forgotten.

But it's live. The faint high hum is electric current, a different tone than the machines today make.

Tony twists against him, peering at his face and at the hole, growling softly. "It's a microphone. Old," Steve tells him. "Dangerous! Electric, still, still electric." Tony doesn't understand, though he's picking up Steve's agitation. He can't see in the dark as well as Steve.

If they had a little more arc light Tony could see it too, might even grasp the danger and the possibilities right away, but there is no way Steve is going to pull up Tony's shirt or even motion toward the reactor. That would get him bitten for sure. There's nothing more threatening Steve could possibly do; he shouldn't even look too long at it.

But maybe if he can pull out the microphone a little, to where the light reaches… He tugs his sleeve down his wrist just in case and pulls Tony back so he can reach in. The stone is cold and gritty rather than slimy (small mercies) and he feels around gingerly for...there. There’s the cable, and something small and intricate connecting the microphone to the st--

“Ow! Fuck.” He pulls his hand back out and tries to stick his shocked fingers in his mouth. Tony stops him, hands lightning quick, and licks his fingertips, then blows quickly. It’s cold, and Tony’s grumbles are comforting, and he hangs his head so he’s breathing Tony-scent and clean air from the vent. “Should have seen that coming.”

Tony doesn't respond, but he looks disapproving without making eye contact. Still, Steve is more resistant to shock and injury than Tony, so it makes sense for it to be him.

He tries again, this time with a better mental map of what he's grabbing at. If he reaches a bit further before... There. He grabs the insulated main length, avoiding whatever shocked him the first time, and tugs gently. He doesn't want to pull it out only to disconnect the power in the process, because for every one thing Tony can do with a cable and the arc reactor, he can do twelve with a cable and power.

Something snags and the wire twists. Bare metal touches his forearm and burning hot snaps

up his arm and into his shoulder. His hand feels cramped tight and he wishes he'd used his right, because the tingling warm spasms of current are passing right down his left side and dangerously close to his heart. The sensation spreads out from his shoulder in a branching, erratic pattern and ow, ow, his heart skips; the stuttery leap of it into his throat is familiar and terrifying.

He hears his own voice yelping in the pain he's desperately trying to keep at a distance, and then Tony bowls him over backwards. His body jacknifes against Steve's chest as he grounds the current and the point they touch crackles with a short, sharp snap of a shock before the cable locked in Steve's grip comes free from the depths of the vent and the electricity lets him go.

“Tony, Tony, nono, no, Tony?” he mutters in horror. He pushes the cable well away from them with nerveless fingers and buries his face in Tony’s neck. Shudders travel through them, though he can’t say who they start in, and Tony’s gasps sound dry and painful.

The arc is still bright, but Steve doesn’t know what that means for the fragile muscle underneath it and Tony smells burnt and sick and-- and some of that is coming from his own arm. It really is burned this time, a charred hole in his sleeve next to the blister where the cable touched him, and a sharp, meandering line of fire-burning-pain from there all the way to his shoulder.

He’s stunned and it’s hard to move, but Tony is squirming and alive (mostly for now maybe hopefully) and forces him to let go. They're not apart for long; Tony turns over, crouching over him and pulling apart his collar and reaching hot fingers to feel his pulse. He's warm, his knees on either side on Steve's waist are like a hug, and Steve winds his fingers into Tony's waistband, letting him touch as long as he likes; he's still shaky and honestly not sure he could get up yet. Give him a couple minutes, sure, but his heart's still going like gangbusters. He may be as healthy as a horse now, but his body remembers being ill and weak too, and he's glad this didn't happen in the middle of a fight.

He's sure that shock grounded in Tony. Grounded in his chest-- did it go all the way through him to the cell floor? No, Tony had been on top-- did it ground in the reactor? Is that okay?

There's footsteps in the hallway though, two voices of alarm and one of satisfaction, and Steve can't stand being on his back like this with a threat approaching. He needs Tony close, inside his reach where he can break anything that threatens him.

Tony pushes him down, hard. Steve tries to sit up again and Tony pushes him down hard again, puts one knee on his sternum and growls right in his face. Steve freezes, because that's the tone of do-not-mess-this-up, of Iron Man committed to something crazy, when the deepest expression of trust his team can make is to fall in line behind him. Tony glares, teeth white in the arc-glow, until Steve tilts his chin up and goes limp. Then Tony's focus snaps between the door and the cable, laying forgotten along the wall. He shuffles his feet, making his weight peak painfully on Steve's chest, but doesn't move.

Steve holds on, sets his feet so he can move quickly if...something happens, but he stays loose. Whatever Tony does, he wants to be able to follow. If the cable isn't connected anymore, Steve can't fathom what--

Footsteps come right up to the door; Tony crouches as the hatch is opened and his snarl rips out as the light spears over them. Steve has his eyes tight shut. There's a burst of surprised laughter from the door, and the hatch slides shut again.

As soon as the light is gone Tony is off him, moving fast and assured. At first he's doing something Steve can't make out, but when he stands up his shoes are on his hands; he must have been toeing them off earlier. He goes to the hole and pulls more cable out, using the rubber soles of his shoes to hold it, and then scuttles it carefully along the deepest line of shadow to the door. Tony presses right up against the door, listening, then takes the end of the wire and strips it against the frame, very carefully not touching the door as he does so. Steve can hear the snap as it shorts against the metal; not so dead.

Tony arranges the wire about a foot inward from the door, angled up so it will brush against the lower edge as it opens. Okay, yes, it doesn't help to electrocute guards through the door if that leaves the door still locked, them still in here with no water. But how are they going to get the guards to open the door.

Steve tries to ask, tries to say Tony how, but all that comes out is a short high whine. He's been lying down for at least five minutes, he's a little compromised.

Tony comes back to him, tense, all his focus on the door. His lips will half-cover his teeth and then jerk up again; his growl is low and grating like rocks in his chest. He has to be close to his limits from thirst, but he's ready to fight and his eyes are clear.

Steve is ready too. His rippling snarl joins Tony's briefly without him intending to make it, but he doesn't care. It will be so good to fight back, to get out of this awful cell and into a stronger position, where Tony isn't scared or in pain anymore.

Like he’s asked for permission, Tony looks at him, then lets him up. The snarls stop for half a second before Tony’s shoulder-checking him just enough to rock him back on his heels. Eyes flash in the dark, and Tony’s teeth snap closed inside a grin. Steve’s eyebrows shoot up, he’s shocked, but he can understand that face even in the dark.

It means ‘drive fast cars with me’ and ‘come flying’ and ‘let's spar’.

Steve glances at the door, wonders what they’d looked like through the hatch, then grunts and snaps an answering challenge. Tony leads with his shoulder again, thumping against Steve's chest, and Steve lets it drive some of the air out of him in a bark of offended, wordless sound. He retaliates with a rising yell and pounces on Tony hard enough to cut his continuous rumble off. As he rolls them, Tony over backwards and Steve forwards, he kicks the ground hard enough to make a solid thump.

Loud, attention-seeking, wild, insane, feral.

He’s glad for the hard not-leather soles as the strike sends tingles up his calves, eerily reminiscent of electricity biting him in the dark.

Tony’s huffed breath is half laugh, half indignant aggression, and Steve over-plays the sound of Tony’s fist hitting his stomach. Tony’s aim was off, but Steve groans like he can’t breathe, then scrapes some air together for a furious roar as they tumble back across the floor under Tony’s momentum. His shoes make a satisfying clatter-smack, but it’s not as loud as their voices.

Tony yelps loud, in what sounds eerily like real pain, and Steve lets up for a second; ah, if they keep rolling this way, they might roll into the cable. Tony slithers up in a flash and gets Steve in a neck hold he didn't see coming soon enough, and then sticks his tongue in Steve's ear. Steve shrieks high and startled, then struggles to keep it from turning into a happy sound at the end. That's it. He goes for the belly button, and Tony is frantically wiggling away before his hand is anywhere close, then shrieking out as soon as Steve finds the skin of his stomach. It sounds awful with the way his throat is so dry, and Steve figures this is pretty good. He rolls so that Tony is under him and pretends to bite his throat. His skin tastes like coconut and ozone, but also like cell-fug and animals. Aggression.

Tony pants harshly, with little strangled yelps every so often. He's unsettlingly good at faking. Steve wonders how often Tony's been faking him out in their real sparring matches. Maybe that's why Natasha always has a little smile as she watches.

He’ll have to ask, he thinks as the spotlight fills the cell again, blinding him and turning his snarl up a level; she’ll be impressed that he’s noticed, maybe. The thought gives him a little swoop of pleasure that solidifies into triumph as the door swings open and then bang, their trap lights up the whole cell for a flashbulb second. The guard touching the door flies backwards, out of sight, and the second crumples under 130lbs of feral engineer.

Steve hauls himself up and barrels out of the door after Tony, a rolling ball of snarls and rage that leaps from one uniform to the next, pressing the attack with insane aggression. Steve doesn’t bother with anything as elaborate as teeth, just uses his heavy boots to leave the guards seeing stars.

Speed, surprise, and luck. This time, it's enough.

When the guards are all down, it’s only fitting that Steve drags them into the cell and shuts them in the dark. The door he can touch as long as he uses his foot; boots protect. It isn't that hard to hook his toes under the handle and pull it shut, and the lock is simple; no key, just a sliding bolt. No wonder they didn't want his hands near it.

Tony relieved the guards of their holsters first, of course; he's making a neat pile of abandoned, stripped guns and two piles of ammunition. He stands, a gun belt going to his waist and half-buckled, when he puts a hand to the side of his head and folds up. The pile of ammunition scatters as he hits the floor shoulder-first. Steve is on him in a second, lifting his head off the ground and whining, but there's no blood-scent; they both took bruises, but only the first guard had had his gun out, and none of the others were fast enough. (All the guards smell like really terrible gin.)

Tony's breathing, but not very responsive, and his pulse is way too fast and hard to find. He moved too fast, too much violence; there’s no blood left in his face and he’s almost colourless. Water, where is the water. Steve follows the gin-smell to a tiny break room, an interrupted game of cards; there's a sink, there's a cup formerly holding terrible gin, and it's hard to move slowly enough to keep water in it on the way back to Tony.

Tony can't drink from the cup. His mouth works, but he's not conscious enough; his jaw is slack and eyes glazed over. Steve sips, holds a little water in his mouth, and transfers it that way, safer than running the risk Tony will choke on more. Tony’s mouth is slack under his to start, but then he breathes deeper, tongue lapping at the water Steve lets past his lips. Steve hears the first swallow clicking in Tony’s throat and Tony coughs the sound away, eyes screwed shut. A little more water, and Steve can’t hear the horrible dry rattle anymore; another mouthful, and Tony’s making tiny ‘thankyou-more-more’ plucks at his sleeve, and resting his head against Steve’s arm in between.

When the cup is empty he drapes Tony over his back, gets them both to the break room, and ransacks it in between pauses to kiss more water into Tony. Tony swallows, paws at his face, licks into his mouth; he refills the cup again, and Tony refuses to open his eyes yet, but with help he drinks on his own and then curls exhausted in the dimmest corner, trusting as a kitten.

Steve can barely make himself stop touching long enough to get him water, but he’s got to barricade them in, make time for this to wear off. He takes a step away from Tony, and finds the bare lightbulb annoying. The thin glass breaks easily, and the comfortable dark is back. They are strong in the dark.

Tony sighs, relieved, relaxing, and Steve pushes the table against the door. It’s sheet metal at least, it’ll take more than a boot to knock down.

Under the sink he finds a pile of black rubber faces with glass eyes. Under the pile are another two bottles of terrible liquor, and a metal canister with a nozzle and a hose. It stinks of the bad smell.

Oh-ho. What shall they do with this?

--------------------

"Weirdest fight ever," Clint says. "Not that I'm complaining.” He fires off another dart magazine, which self-targets the five secondary shots he laser tagged beforehand. Five AIM guys go down without even realising the significance of the darts in their skin.

“It's almost refreshing to tranq people. Also, not getting shot at, yay.” He’s having to show off just to make this interesting. “Buuut on the minus side," thwip, "human bites are seriously gross, 'cause I don't think AIM provides dental, and they might turn us into werewolves."

"These people aren't werewolves," Bruce sighs.

"Zombies."

"Zombies!" Thor bellows. "A terrifying foe!"

"They are not zombies either. They're all normal living humans, they've just been drugged. Keep your gas masks on. Thor, that includes you. None of you are allowed to go on a terrifying animalistic rampage, Tony tells me it's bad for press."

"You stay in the Avenjet," Clint and Nat chorus together.

"Aye," Thor agrees. "I do not relish fighting your otherself gone truly berserk. Zombies would be better."

"Staying," Bruce sighs.

"Whoa whoa whoa," Clint says. "Nat, you have eyes on the Tango quadrant of the moat? Two swimmers."

"I see them. Using the shadow of the drawbridge." Nat double-clicks her mic and she's off, a shadow among shadows.

He catches a flicker of movement in the moat; the two swimmers are working together and one of them isn't doing so well. Clint clears up his quadrant right back to the gate, giving himself some breathing room, and trains a low-light scope on the movement...

Shit, the scope doesn't show colour, but he'd bet the avenjet that the wide shoulders pulling a smaller shape through the moat are blue. Their hair is darkened with water, but... It's them, it has to be. None of the AIM druggies are working with anything like that much coordination.

"Nat, do not engage, it's them!" But that double click meant she's gone off comm, she can't hear him. Clint glances at his sector, and curses; there are a couple of runners, so he has to pause and knock them down before he can move.

"Hawkeye to War Machine; I see them! Tango quadrant, in the moat," he reports, holstering his bow and taking off across the scrubland to assist.

Rhodes roars overhead, his repulsors lighting their way briefly, enough to alert Natasha. "I see them. Confirmed, it's Tony. Reactor's signal appears fully functioning. Damn am I glad to see that."

Natasha clicks back into all-comm, stealth abandoned. "Do not approach, War Machine; they're affected too. Bruce, please advise sedation protocol." Rhodey streaks back around the base, and by the sound of it, settles in with Thor to draw attention in that direction.

Clint comes up beside a stand of gorse, which resolves into gorse plus Natasha once he's close enough, and watches Steve haul an uncooperative and uncoordinated Tony on to the bank. They flop on the grass in the shadow of the bridge, chests heaving, all tangled up together.

"It's a risk. We don't know how their systems have been stressed," Bruce warns, eventually. "These goons are bradycardic under dendrotoxin, and they haven't been...leveraged at all. Try approaching first; the drug lowers inhibitions but it doesn't seem to cause aggression, just reveals what was already there. Everyone we've found is crazy, but they aren't attacking each other. For the most part."

Clint groans mentally; Bruce is relying on the healing power of emotionally stable team relationships again. Clint assesses the pile of exhausted superhero on the bank, soaked through, and exchanges a look with Natasha. They both know what leveraged means, know how far from their right minds anyone is after that.

This is her territory, and she rolls her eyes before handing over her visible weapons and sauntering out of cover. She'd take off the gas mask too, if she could, but at least it's a low-profile SHIELD version.

Steve freezes immediately, and Tony does too: they hold so still they could almost be taken for a pile of dirty, brightly colored debris. Clint doesn't think they're breathing. Damn, it's sort of terrifying to see Tony use his willpower that way, to match a supersoldier's ability to hold his breath after strenuous exercise. Tony will pass out long before Steve does, but Clint's willing to bet that he'd stay still all the way up to that line. He nocks a tranq-tipped arrow as quietly as he can.

Steve's eyes flick over; he heard something. But then his focus is back on Natasha. She's approaching them slow and unhurried, her body language soft and open, and he lets her get within fifteen feet before he's up like lightning, crouching between her and Tony with his fingertips just resting on the ground, growling in a rumble Clint can hear from forty feet away. Tony gasps and coughs hard and then he hauls himself up, scrambling into cover under the dressed stone foundation of the bridge. No fool. Clint loses his shot, and watches as Steve retreats step by step back under the bridge too. He'll need to circle around to get a shot from the other side, but there's no cover there and Tony will see him long before he has space to shoot.

Clint sighs, sets down his bow, leaves it and his quiver and his sidearms in a neat pile next to Natasha's. He conceals a tranq dart in his hand, puts another one up his sleeve, and steps out of the bush, not being loud but making no real attempt to be quiet either. As soon as he steps around the other side of the bridge and circles around far enough to get a view underneath, there's the pale oval of Tony's face in the shadow, watching him intently. The shape sways and tilts like Tony’s struggling to stay vertical, and Steve crowds him against the stonework, shoring him up. It makes Clint even less inclined to tranq Tony; if he’s compromised somehow... ‘s not good.

He keeps his palms out and low, thumb holding the dart invisible, and tries to look unthreatening while Natasha works her magic.

"Captain? Hey there. Do you know who I am? We had waffles and blueberries for breakfast yesterday, right? Pair of clichés, Tony called us." Her voice is slightly muffled by the mask.

Steve's back shifts, shoulders lifting slightly as his spine straightens. His head tilts in what might be recognition, but it's damn hard to tell. The bubbling, defensive growl he's making is not a very human sound and Tony's face doesn't shift. Even if Steve's getting this, Tony isn't.

Nat steps forwards but Steve doesn't like that at all, and raises his guard. He backs Tony into the deeper darkness under the bridge. Nat apologises with her body language, truly contrite, and drops down into an awkward crouch. It's not one she could launch an attack from, her ankles are too tangled together, and Steve subsides into chuffing grumbles.

"Hey... You're wet, you wanna dry off? I've got towels if you want them. And your spare clothes, they're in the jet." Tony cocks his head slightly at the word jet and Clint conceals a relieved smirk. "Steve," Nat continues, "we're here, your team is here, you're safe. You and Tony are safe."

Steve hunches a little but doesn't move. "Safe," Nat repeats, and she looks away, deliberately letting up pressure, and pulls out the big guns: a packet of jelly beans. Steve focuses on it like a laser.

Natasha eats a jelly bean, delicately popping the mask just long enough to put it in her mouth, then selects one and tosses it gently underhand at Steve. Steve catches it out of the air, inspects it, shows it to Tony who doesn't think much of it, and snaps it up, his throaty rumble stuttering off for a few seconds as he chews ferociously. His posture relaxes a little; something about the flavor is reassuring, is taking him a little away from the dangerous place they've been for two and a half days, toward somewhere he can believe is safe. The next one Nat tosses, he catches in his mouth.

Clint wishes so bad he had a camera pointed at this, but Tony will definitely be alarmed if he fishes in his pockets, and that will revert the progress Nat is making with Steve. Tony is watching him like he just knows Clint is bad news, eyes occasionally flicking to the bushes and not-so-distant treeline.

Nat is up again, and somehow two steps closer; she sits with an air of finality a few feet away from the edge of the bridge's shadow. For the last distance she'll make Steve come to her.

Tony doesn't like this, and he likes it even less when Steve takes the first step, venturing toward Natasha with curiosity written all over him. Tony barks, less like a dog than like the unthinking kiai of someone sparring, and his growl is audible now that Steve's has stopped. He shifts back and forth, restless, staying in the shadow, and when Nat gently touches Steve's shoulder while he sniffs her, Tony breaks and bolts for it up the bank toward the scrubland and the trees. All his teeth are bared and his snarl promises that he'll go through Clint if he has to, but he stumbles at the base of the bank and puts his hands into the grass to scramble up. It’d be easy to drop him, even if he wasn't full of AIM crazyjuice; his limbs are poorly coordinated, loose and stiff at the wrong moments, and he looks...he’s in pain, his head maybe.

Clint makes a split-second decision, vanishes his palmed dart into his back pocket --without sticking himself in the ass-- and does nothing, palms down and obviously empty. Tony streaks well around him, leaving a trail of torn moss and handprints up the bank that vanish into the bushes.

Steve skitters halfway up the bank, stops, and paces in circles, clearly conflicted. He whines loudly to no reply, but Clint is watching and there's a stir in the branches not caused by wind. "He hasn't gone far," Clint murmurs on the comms.

"He won't leave Steve," Nat agrees.

“Oh! Uh, can you guys talk now? How are they responding, is it--?” Bruce asked, whispering as if that might disturb Tony and Steve.

“Shhhh, Bruce, hold your horses.” Natasha goes up to Steve, taking a meandering path over the end of the bridge rather than under it --which once again leaves the pressure off Steve-- and sits down in the loose sandy dirt. Steve ignores the jelly beans, too distraught, too focused, but Nat's calmness seems to communicate to him after a minute or two. He folds down to something that is half-sitting, half-crouched, and whines high and thin, testing the wind. Meanwhile Clint keeps tabs on where Tony is, and makes very sure not to stray in between them.

"Steve is willing to approach, but Tony isn't," Natasha says, her voice warm and low. "There was a slight reaction to the word 'safe'--"

"And 'jet'," Clint adds softly.

"--but otherwise no verbal recognition. They're down to body language and behavior. No visible injuries but that doesn't mean everything."

"They're both starving, and Tony’s head hurts, not sure why," Clint says. "Find something high-calorie, high-protein and heat it up so the smell drifts out the hatch. We'll try to bring Cap to you." Bruce's comm clicks affirmatively. "War Machine, can you warn me if Tony's signal gets more than about fifty meters distant from Nat's?"

"Yes I can. Is he hiding in the bushes?" Rhodey says, both incredulous and wry.

"Like a boss."

"He'll tag along after Steve if we give him enough space," Nat says with effortless assurance.

Clint trusts her judgement, but he has no idea what she's seeing that he isn't. "Thor, are you seeing any more AIM guys?" he asks quietly, watching the far side of the moat for movement, both in the water and on the bridge. There's a fluctuation in the light of one of the windows.

"Nay, it would seem whomever remains is hiding."

Clint agrees quietly. There's someone in the guard tower, either overlooking the bridge or the moat, but they're not shooting and Clint's confident they're drugged beyond knowing what their gun is for. Clint glances towards Tony's cover, over Steve's shoulder, and if he can't get a bead on him, no AIM dickwad is going to. He starts retreating towards the jet, keeping Steve between himself and Tony. He's got to retrieve his bow somehow, and he--

Steve looks at him sharply, glancing up the slope towards Tony, then eagle-eyed at the pile of weapons. Before Clint can figure out what that even means, Steve is right up in his face. His wrists are captured in seconds, and he's stuck, eyes wide, inches from Steve's face.

"Hold still, Clint, just...let him look at you," Nat cautions. He doesn't have her confidence, he's seen what Steve can do, but he doesn't have any other options either. Steve breathes deep and steady, his gaze scarily piercing, and then his whole face softens.

His grip on Clint's wrists turns gentle, fingers running delicately over his veins and petting the straps of his pulling glove under his sleeves, pushing the superlight stealth fabric out of the way with an artist's care inside a soldier's hands. Then, Clint's free for a bare second, before Steve's tugging him in by the nape and sniffing his collar, then the border of his gas mask. Clint has no idea whether he should be hugging, or tranqing Steve, or what, so he goes with nothing; he lets Steve touch and sniff as much as he likes. "Okay, big guy, um, this is weird. Help?"

"Wuss," Natasha announces, still in her soothing gentle tones. "Accept his team-leader affection."

"He didn't maul you." Clint's bare forearms get inspected, and Steve runs a careful hand over his skull, then he's huffed onto-- a gust of warm breath into his hair, behind his ear. Steve seems...pleased by something, it's weirdly nice, but Clint needs to be on guard, not lulled into a happy place by the big-brother routine.

"We good, Steve? 'Safe', yeah?" he tries, patting Steve's wet bicep cautiously.

Steve makes a wurbling 'hmm', then releases him with a push towards his weapons. Clint goes, completely baffled and awkward, and watches Steve hip-check Natasha for more jelly beans. He's moving like...

Like he's forgotten what a step is; not like he's forgotten how to do it, but like he's unaware of what it is he's doing. Completely unselfconscious and natural. He's aware of everything, scanning around, but not ever remembering to do it. There's no moment of remembering on his face, he's just doing.

Clint takes his eyes off the world for long enough to check safeties on Natasha's weapons, seven maybe eight seconds, and there's a wolf behind him. It looms on the edge of his senses, close enough to his back to radiate heat and deaden sound from behind. The low susurration of air in its lungs makes the silence thick. Clint freezes because there are no wolves in these woods. All healthy wild animals stay the fuck away from battlefields, but then this animal might not be sane, might be affected by the gas.

A cold breeze on the back of his neck, a dark animal smell, and then a hot whiff of humid breath in his ear. He jerks and catches a glimpse of thick black fluff, then he's knocked down hard on his ass and the pistols ripped viciously out of his hands to the sound of an outraged snarl.

"Tony?!"

Three sharp gestures per gun and Tony has the weapons in pieces. The recoil spring on his service weapon shoots off into the shadows, and Natasha's 9mm loses its slide to an angry flick of Tony's wrist. He reaches for Clint's bow, the bow Tony spent hours customising, and Clint is ready to drop the tranq dart into his palm when he realises Steve the fucking bastard felt up his arms for a reason: the dart up his sleeve is gone, and the one in his back pocket is probably broken now. (But still without jabbing him in the ass! Yay!)

But Tony doesn't break down the bow; he looks at it, shakes it a little like he always does to gauge the string tension, and leans it haphazardly on Clint's knee, keeping himself well out of reach. The look on his face is hard to read, it's all twisted up and tight; but the ashy-grey of his skin makes Clint’s stomach unsteady, and he’s suddenly very glad Steve disarmed him.

"Uh. Thanks?"

Tony doesn't deign to notice him speak, just stalks off with a loping, ground-eating stride into the trees, parallel to Steve and Nat. Clint relaxes marginally, shoulders his bow, and after a quick search finds his quiver kicked under a bush. “Ooookay. Be advised, Steve’s got a dart. A normal human dose.”

If Steve sticks himself with it, assuming full dose, it’d put him out for a few minutes. Tony, Natasha, and Clint would get the full forty, but Natasha’s the smallest, so a little longer for her... and Tony’s drugged, so who knows. It’s not ideal, and Clint covers their retreat to the jet with more attention on them than on the hostile enemy base.

For example, he’s busy watching Tony bully his way under Steve’s arm on the other side to Nat (and then try to not-so-subtly lure Steve away from her), when the big gate in the wall opens, and a lone guy in a gas mask creeps out. Clint sets his feet as soon as he notices --too slow, Barton, get it together-- and hits him with a foam cement arrow, leaving him glued to the bridge out in the open. He clicks over to comms.

"Thor, War Machine? We got some guys in gas masks peeking out of the fortress. Now that we've collected our chicks, you may go to town."

There's a distant whoop from Thor through the clear air. Guy's considerate, he hasn't done that over the comms more than once.

Steve strides straight up the quinjet ramp, territorially touching the bulkhead and tapping the face of his shield on its hook. Clint has a moment of nose-twisting anxiety that the polish job he did on the way over isn’t good enough, but it’s got to be better than the concrete dust and blood that’d dried all over it.

Tony on the other hand... Tony looks like a marble statue of himself, standing fixed at the bottom of the ramp. Clint stops too, to keep well out of reach, and turns his back on the jet to take up watch. Even while Steve has the sense to beeline for Bruce’s hot rations, Tony’s sniffing the air and looking at the wing-mounted engines with deep suspicion. The glance he shoots Clint reads clearly as how did you losers get something this awesome.

Not his problem, Clint decides, nocking an arrow and watching the fireworks as Rhodey blasts by the main gate again.

“Aiite, get lost you guys. We’re gonna blow this place to pieces and follow after,” Rhodey orders.

“Confirmed, War Machine, bugging out,” Nat reports from the cockpit. Clint isn’t so sure Tony’s going to be able to pull himself away from drinking in the sight of his precious jet, but Steve pops his head out and makes a click with his tongue, and Tony wavers his way up the ramp, deeply suspicious of everything. He stops again at the top when he sees how small the inside is, but as soon as he tentatively steps forward Nat flares the engines and hits the ramp-retract, and Clint sprints his way up inside as it closes. No takebacks.

--------------------

Small!

The space is too small, he’s in arms' reach of safe, but also not-safe. There are weapons, many, everywhere, and he’s got to put his back to something he can trust. Steve will do, his arms are long, the space inside them is safe. Maybe he’ll make the pain go away again--

Closing-trapped! Space is moving! No no no no no no OUT.

Red, big, smack-open-emergency --Steve grabs his wrist ouch he is serious, not play-fighting now-- and out is No, inside is No, out is No, this is not making sense.

He tells Steve he makes no sense, and gnaws on Steve's wrist with eyes narrowed; you are stupid why stop OUT. Space is moving space is going up space is at least (½)(5 m/s2)(4 s)2 = 40 meters up, too high to jump STEVE WHY. They're stuck in here now, this is dangerous. They could fall, who knows what these people will do.

The skin under his teeth tastes like metal now; punishment fulfilled, and Steve’s eyes are all sad. Big, sad, bad. Tony doesn’t like it, so he licks, sorry, you deserve it but sorry. Steve is amused, bad Steve, amused over ouch.

The air is good here, though. Clean, biiiig breaths feel nice, not suffocating, and his chest hurts less. Steve’s shinyprotect is on the wall, he keeps looking at it with eyes that say need, so when Steve lets him up Tony knocks it down, into Steve’s hand. There.

How did these people get that. They are strange, black-mask-faces recognised but not right. He pushes Steve, back, there, corner. Near emergency-out, even if Steve won’t let them jump. Up too high now anyway, too high without…something, safe thing, red and gold with a friend inside, he misses the thing so much it hurts. Shinyprotect in front, and Tony can hidehidehide, from the watching, inside Steve’s reach. Almost as good as red and gold, but red-and-gold is better, if he had red-and-gold he would protect Steve, they would both jump OUT so fast.

Steve’s rumbling is nice, but Tony doesn’t trust it; Steve trusts the red-hair-black-mask BAD PLAN. Steve is an idiot.

He peeks around the shinyprotect-- shield! and sees black-mask peeling off; do not trust people who PEEL OFF their faces no no no no stay away!

Steve says shhhhh and his bite is gentle, says safe on the back of his neck. Tony squints and grumbles and feels prickly; okay, he recognises NOW, but still. Bruce has food but also needles do not trust. Clint is... Clint is OK. Even with mask. Good with the gift. Why did they do that why did they hide faces??

Did the air smell bad to them too? ….Maybe? Still a shitty thing to do, he tells them so. They wrinkle faces but no teeth. Good. He is meaner than them.

Especially with his head like it is. Good food smells, but his head hurts too much to be hungry. Heavy and painful and angry at him. He wants more kisses, Steve made it feel better, and he is thirsty. He whines, saying ‘pleaseplease,’ and licks at Steve’s underthroat, hands tight in his shirt. Want.

The water in the shirt is no good; it smells like animals, like the problem that they made into a solution. It had smelled so bad the worst, and stolen from him, he doesn’t want any more anywhere NEAR.

Solution, shirt off. Off, now Steve. There are acceptable replacements, and Tony wants to sit on dry Steve soon more than he wants to sit on wet Steve right now.

When Steve is shirtless Tony wants to take his own wet, cold, bad-smelling shirts off. So many. WHY SO GODDAMN MANY, just so no one can see his thing, the thing in his chest, the thing he made. The outer one is easy, it comes apart, but the rest have to go over his head and he doesn't like it. Tony whines until Steve hides him again, presses him back into the corner and says to everyone stay away, and then Tony can take a deep breath and unroll them all off him, all at once, and when he gets his head back up again no one has moved, they have listened to Steve's stay away. Pants are so much easier. He takes all the wet things off.

There are towels, dry towels in the wall here, so soft; floof for the floof, and Steve’s floof dries easily, all messed up and all over his head, but light and dry. Tony hates his, wet and cold and stubborn, even when rubbed with driest towel. The cold makes his head hurt. More. It is cruel, and he takes Steve's sweater as compensation. His naked back is covered by the shield while he pulls it on, and Steve is very careful; it’s not safe, but it is bearable.

There are voices that don’t make sense, and Tony thinks that these are not Team after all, because their words are not words at all, but Steve Trusts, and it’s hard to be wary when he is holding safe like that. Curled inside shield-protect space, Tony can almost relax, put warm dry pants on. The wet, animal-smelling things, he throws as far away as smallspace reaches. Splat. It’s a satisfying splat, and Clint picks them up from a distance, puts them in a bag so the smell doesn’t spread.

Good Clint. He wants to pet Clint’s floof, now; good boy. It is him. Face-peeling, strange voice aside, only Clint would use Clint-bow to pick things up. Trust feels warm, and he is cold. He won't bite Clint unless Clint deserves it, and really, Clint hardly ever does.

Red-hair Natasha approaches no no no, but she has a blanket and Steve wants it, no no no. This is how it starts with her. No. Steve ignores him but she doesn't, she stops still out of reach and tosses it with a soft whumpf and retreats without doing ANYTHING scary, and THIS IS HOW IT STARTS WITH HER, do not make that sound Steve don't. Steve no.

The blanket is warm though. Warm and big enough to fit both inside, Steve on the inside yes good, so Tony can move, even in the small space high in the sky where he cannot run but he has to move. She might need biting, she is scary but Steve cannot protect himself.

After blanket is Bruce. Tony knows this, he remembers. Bruce had black-mask-face, but now is back to stubble and curly-round. The air is clean, it must be true, because Bruce is not green. Bad smell would make Bruce green, lost and afraid and hurting, would steal from him, it would be scary. But Bruce's eyes are brown, not green, and he is calm-slow-calm. Safe.

He has SHARPS though, and Tony does not like sharps. They belong in the yellow and red bucket and not in his skin, it is the worst. There is nothing wrong with him, he does not need STICKING. (His head hurts, and he is so thirsty, so so thirsty, but that is needing to drink not needles.) He growls at Bruce, and he is sorry but no sharps no, put those down, leave them over there. No don't put on gloves, don't tear open packets. Tony's heart is going fast, he wants to run, this is not good.

Then there is a smell.

It bites him. It is bone saws and bleeding yellow and rot, iron where it was never meant to go, tied down and pain and red and pain, and Tony refuses, refuses to let that touch Steve! It-- no nonono, no. No. Away. Go AWAY!

He bites, and tastes blood, so he shakes his head and tries to tear, and kicks. Hands are so useful and he holds on. He will not let them get away and regroup, and come back with the bone saw. Steve’s chest does not NEED a hole, no one needs a hole in their chest, it hurts for years.

But he can't breathe, he needs to breathe and so he does let them get away no, and there is more kicking to try and reach, but he CANNOT and Steve you are so heavy but you are not helping why are you not helping are you hurt? Too late-- oh no-- Steve is limp and quiet and...

And rumbling and is safe-safe-warm sound, resting his weight on Tony all skin to skin, but Tony doesn’t believe it. He pulls and tugs and his shoulders hurt, battering against something hard-too-hard and cold. He is so cold, and his chest hurts, and his head hurts, he is weak. His arms are weak, but he forces them to move, to prove to them that they cannot touch Steve, they cannot have Jericho.

He freezes; that... his mind is not right. Jericho is not right.

Tony looks at Steve, and now Tony is afraid, he is all fear and shaking-afraid, he can’t think and he wants to rest and his head hurts. Steve has a sharp. Steve has it in his hand, Steve would never hurt him, there is no smell, not the smell, not the latex alcohol biting smell.

The needle is tiny, very small, not worth feeling, and he is so tired. He lets Steve push it into his arm, and stops pushing, stops fighting. Whines and trembles and feels it weighing him down. His arms are weak, legs are weak, cannot move anymore. Steve pulls him back into blanket and rumbles, so warm, and the fear and pain wash under the quiet-sleepy from the needle, and Tony lets it make him sleep.

--------------------

"Bruce, how are you doing, talk to me buddy."

"Holding it together," Bruce grits. "Human bites hurt. The other guy...doesn't...like surprises."

"Taking care of the hurt right now," Clint says, spraying on anaesthetic-disinfectant after a quick glance to make sure Tony is out. The spray is alcohol-based, like most of their first aid supplies, and if the smell brings back bad memories, if that's why Tony ducks the medics or goes off into his own head while he's being treated...they need to get something else. Tony is too damn good at concealing his triggers.

“Okay, there. Hey Bruce, look at me. I need to ask mom to pull over?”

Bruce is shaking very slightly, but more in the shocky way than the angry one. “No, I’m okay, I dropped Steve's dextrose though, I need to get a fresh one, and Tony needs an IV, and blood sats, EKG, and--”

“Two out of three I can do. Get your shit together, stop leaking, etcetera. I’ve got you covered.”

“I can’t believe he bit me,” Bruce wonders aloud, mildly shocked and hazy. He’s wrapping a bandage around his hand though, so Clint figures he’ll keep for now. The EKG is one of those weird ones, so Clint slaps the leads onto Tony’s right ankle and the inside of each wrist, and doesn’t have to intrude on the warm bubble Steve has made with his body and blankets. Blood O2-sat monitor goes on a finger, and Clint goes for a blood sugar strip too, though Steve makes the worst sad eyes at him when he pricks Tony’s little finger.

The blood-sugar strip says that Tony has...probably not eaten anything for three days, since breakfast before the battle, Jesus Christ. Steve must have gotten food from somewhere or he'd be a hell of a lot meaner right now, but not Tony. Clint has to sit down for a minute. He's so sick of the way villains operate.

Bruce joins them cautiously; he’s looking at Steve like they might get a repeat performance, but Steve is soft and eerily calm. He drops the stolen dart onto the sharps tray, and Clint notes that he only pushed a quarter of the dose. It’s a relief, and Clint is damn sure he wouldn’t have managed that much precision.

Tony had gone so still for Steve; he’d looked at the needle, and then just accepted it. Not exactly welcomed it, but Clint thinks that maybe he won’t wake up hating Steve for using it. Bruce shows Steve the IV tubing before pulling out Tony's limp arm, and Clint bumps his shoulder against Steve’s for support when he looks like it hurts to nod.

There’s a huge bag of saline and glucose in Tony’s near future, and the needle is wide bore; Bruce isn’t fucking around. He uses alcohol wipes to clean the dart-mark and the inside of Tony's elbow with a little less gentleness than he would if Tony were awake, and Steve whines softly, wrinkling his nose. Bruce growls, a deep bassy rumble, and Steve half-sneezes and shuts up.

Clint doesn’t freeze in place even though the Hulk would be a disaster right now, and Bruce coughs to clear his throat, and then his tone is back to something less concerning.

See? Trust.

The IV slips easily in, and Bruce opens the valve wide once it spots with blood. "Dextrose for Steve?" Clint asks quietly, while Bruce tapes the tubing down. He's got it down to an art, and doesn't even have to hold anything in his teeth.

"There's more in the Superbox, your code should work."

Clint backs off, hand lingering on Steve's shoulder for support, and only turns once he's out of arm's reach, just in case. The Superbox is the dangerous stuff, the things that would put anyone but Steve in a vegetative state or just kill them outright; there's curare and horse tranqs and enough dex to put a normal man into a hyperglycemic coma.

Clint brings the pre-loaded shot back and Bruce checks in with Steve about it. He'd maybe-recognised it the first time, so here's hoping he will now, and let Bruce stick with it... and there's the look of sad, sad moping that they all know, and Steve averts his gaze, tries to hide.

"Suck it up, Cap. You'll feel better for it. It's a three-four hour flight back to the Tower and you know you level out easier if we get your blood sugar up right away."

Giving up on hiding when it's quite obvious that they both know he's there and won't forget about him, Steve holds his arm out. He doesn't look away like he normally would, transfixed by the alcohol rub and the decapping of the needle.

"Hey, how's Tony? Huh, big guy? How's your boy?" Clint asks, nudging Steve. It's like nudging a brick wall. Steve doesn't shift except to look up at Clint, then at Tony, and Bruce takes the moment to push the needle in. Steve wrinkles his nose again and looks even sadder. Why do you do this to me.

"I'm having circus flashbacks right now," Clint shares. "One of the tigers would make exactly that face when he got a pill in his food."

"Would he eat it anyway?"

"Hell yeah. It was food. He was a sweet old thing but he had his priorities."

Bruce adds Steve to the heart monitor --a plum-steady sixty beats a minute, the bastard-- and gets done tidying all the medical debris of the IV and the dextrose shot, then just sits for a minute.

"We have some uncomfortable choices," he says eventually.

"Tony."

"Yeah." Bruce takes off his glasses, cleans them, puts them back on, and checks the wrap on his hand. "When he wakes up, it's going to be hard to keep the IV in him, and I don't want to restrain him. I don't think that would turn out well. And I don't think it's good for him, being in a small enclosed dangerous space with all these people." He looks up at Clint. "Could you guess his pulse rate, even before something triggered him?"

"It was the smell of the alcohol wipe," Clint says. "And yeah, it was high. He was fight or flight ready this whole time." A heartbreaking mixture of timidity and aggression; when he looks over, Natasha's gaze is there calmly waiting for him to catch. She's on the same page as him. It isn't only Steve making him remember the circus, and the animals they'd rescued sometimes.

"I think we have to take this opportunity to check him for other injuries," Bruce continues reluctantly. "And, if possible, I don't want to subject him to the stress of the rest of the flight."

"As acting team leader, I back you up on both those decisions," Natasha says. "I'll do it if that's better."

"N-ooo," Bruce says. "Before we have to make it a, a team leader decision, let's see if we have anyone who can consent on his behalf. Do you know his medical proxy?"

Natasha toggles her comm. "Rhodes. Do you know Tony's medical proxy?"

"He has several. I'm one. Do I need to get in there?" Rhodey responds immediately, sharp with worry.

"It's not immediate and not life-threatening," Bruce says, "but if we can, we need a decision in the next ten or fifteen minutes. We had to tranq Tony, and I'd like to sedate him for the rest of the trip instead of letting him wake up again."

"He was very defensive of Steve, he got triggered, and he bit Bruce," Clint fills in, shifting towards the still-hot MRE Bruce has abandoned. Steve’s shot is 100% chemical energy, but he’ll still be hungry as hell, so. Sure enough, Steve’s eyes snap to the foil packet when Clint rustles it a little.

Rhodey sucks air in through his teeth, sounding like an old bathtub through the suit modulator. "He bit Bruce? While the avenjet was in the air? Jesus. Okay, we have a few minutes... Let me see if I can connect to JARVIS. He's been riding shotgun when the reception was good enough." He clicks off again.

Clint offers Steve the MRE while they wait, and less than a minute later the food is gone and the avenjet speakers crackle with static, JARVIS' voice faint but understandable beneath it. "Sir's medical proxies are James Rhodes, Virginia Potts, myself, and Steve Rogers. I understand the Captain is disqualified?"

Bruce confirms that, and dumps a bunch of medical data on J, while Clint rummages for more food to feed Cap’s whale shark impersonation.

“The dehydration is severe; he needs to keep the IV in, and I’m not sure he’ll do that without chemical assistance.”

"Chemical restraint," JARVIS corrects grimly. "Ms Potts is unable to get to a satellite connection in time to offer her judgment. I would like to review the footage of Sir's behavior and discuss with Col. Rhodes."

"Understood," Bruce says. "His pulse is slow and steady, his breathing and color are better than they were. I estimate we have at least ten minutes before he starts to come out of it, more if he's too exhausted to wake himself up quickly."

"Thank you, Dr Banner," JARVIS says, and cuts the connection. For several minutes the only sounds are Steve inhaling another MRE, and Bruce's slow, methodical, quiet examination of Tony.

He opens the blanket in sections, first checking Tony's head and neck for bumps or swelling, lifting his eyelids and checking pupil response. Shoulders and arms get a lighter, more cursory check --dislocation or broken bones there would be pretty obvious-- but Bruce slows down again on his hands, which are battered, nails dark with dirt and blood and bruising. He cleans the blood away with a pad of gauze soaked in water, rather than alcohol wipes; Clint approves.

"Inconclusive," Bruce says after a minute's examination, and "Nothing broken," which is good at least. He tucks Tony's hands back in the blanket and feels along his ribs and abdomen, checking for internal injuries. There's a blistered, shiny burn wandering outward from one edge of the reactor, and Clint sucks air through his teeth as he spots it. An electrical burn. It's in a bad place; shocks to the chest can kill someone dead, and the blisters indicate higher amperage than a human should go near.

Bruce stalls, staring at it, and Clint figures they have to do something, say something, quick; the Hulk is still too close to the surface for his peace of mind. Nat is right there beside him. "That wasn't from torture," she says bluntly, matter-of-fact. "A shock like that is too likely to kill. That's from their breakout. Stark jury-rigged a wall circuit, or something connected to his reactor."

“JARVIS,” Bruce calls on the communal comm, and the line clicks to show J is listening. “There’s a mains-level electrical burn on Tony’s chest, p-please advise.”

Clint watches him watch the heart monitor. Clint doesn’t know how to read the machine, but reading Bruce is easy.

"The reactor should surge-protect the heart in most configurations, please describe the location and spread pattern of the charge.”

"It grounded in the reactor," Bruce says, sounding distantly relieved. "Entry point is up by his collarbone. It traveled along the subcutaneous sternal bracing and grounded in the reactor itself. Tony was lucky." He moves again at last, feeling very gently around the periphery of the burn, gauging the swelling and trying to tell if there is deeper damage. There's not much they can do about it right now; they can hardly ask Tony if the inside of his throat is burned, even when he wakes up again.

The arc reactor itself Bruce doesn't touch, though he brings his face very close and stares at it from a number of angles. It looks unchanged to Clint.

"Monitor his heart rate closely, but I believe we are safe; Sir took a lightning bolt to the chest during the Stuttgart mission, to no ill effects.”

Clint relaxes with a shudder, shaking tension out of his shoulders like a dog shaking water off. Bruce nods tightly, not quite so relieved, and keeps looking.

They all turn away, granting at least a little privacy, when Bruce covers Tony's chest back up and moves on to examine his lower abdomen and legs. From the quick glances Clint had gotten when Tony stripped off his wet clothes and flashed them earlier, he'd had no visible injuries there except for deep red-and-purple bruises on his knees. From Bruce's composure when he's all done and tucks the blanket securely back around Tony's feet, he finds nothing either.

He'd almost forgotten that the thing Tony was lying against was Steve, but the enormous, gusty sigh he heaves when Bruce backs off physically shifts Tony's limp torso. Clint rescues the empty MRE packet when Steve drops it, apparently done scraping at it for scraps with a tiny spoon he'd produced from somewhere. He has no idea where the spoon's gone; he looked away for a second, and it's vanished.

Steve fusses over the blanket, tucking it in around Tony and inadvertently uncovering his own feet.

He makes the worst sad face, and Clint creaks to his feet to grab something else warm and cozy. "Oh hey," he realizes once he's up, "there's no reason for you guys to sleep on the ramp. How about this nice bunk?" The bunks are tucked between the cockpit and the cargo section, three stacked on top of each other in their own compartments. Clint slides the lowermost one open and dims the lights inside; it might be too small and enclosed for Steve to feel comfortable, or it might feel hidden and secure. Either way, if they can get their lost boys away from the ramp hatch, it'll be easier for Rhodey and Thor to come in.

Steve looks...dubious? It’s hard to tell, because he’s keeping an eye on everyone, but he does flick his eyes over the tiny cubby. It’s barely single-bed sized, but there’s pillows and a mattress. Clint backs off, making sure there’s plenty of open space between Steve and the bunk, but that’s not what gets him moving in the end. A rustling thump, and a spill of brightly coloured beans over the blanket grabs Steve’s attention.

Clint grins and backs up into Natasha’s personal space to exchange an impressed shoulder-check. Steve looks over at them as if to say he knows what she’s up to, but she’s just flawlessly unrepentant, and Steve gathers Tony up and stands. Tony’s a limp armful, all joints and too-long limbs, and his IV isn’t done yet so Bruce has to follow hastily, but Steve obviously knows Tony’s dimensions pretty exactly. No heads or toes are harmed in the operation.

And then, after Tony is inserted in the bunk, Steve follows. Of course. And pulls the extra blankets in after him.

"I did not think two people could fit in that bunk," Clint says. "Not that I, personally, have tried." The recessed lights inside are pretty much all obscured by blanket; there's busy rustling, then quiet and the glint of Steve's eyes. Bruce hooks the IV bag to the lip of the bunk above and retreats, unbothered by how the tube just disappears into the crazy hamster nest that Clint apparently invited Steve to make.

"Protip? Don't try to fit two people and a bow," Natasha murmurs. Clint snugs his bow closer and draws tear tracks down his face.

“Rhodey, JARVIS? We’re getting towards crunch time, but I would like to update my estimate; I think Tony will stay asleep pretty well for a little while, on his own,” Bruce says into his comm. Clint retreats to a seat, where he can still watch for movement, and unstrings his bow. There’s no place for him in this conversation, but he’s still gonna pay attention. Maybe he should update his medical proxy; they’re taking it so seriously.

“Col. Rhodes and I are in agreement,” JARVIS says, with War Machine’s background noise under his voice. “Sir should be lightly sedated, with the intent of allowing him to sleep through maneuvers once the tranquilizer wears off.”

Bruce takes a deep breath and nods, though they can't see it unless JARVIS is riding the cameras right now. "All right," he says. "Does Tony have adverse reactions to any of the drug classes this jet carries?" It's a tactful way to phrase do you have a preference?

"50mg Diphenhydramine, IV, should be sufficient, with minimal side effects," JARVIS says. "When Sir can be induced to take nighttime pain relief after an injury, he has found it effective."

"Nyquil?"Bruce asks, incredulous.

"Not specifically, but its use was indicated by an encounter with that formulation, yes."

Clint is not going to forget this exchange, no sir.

"Alright. I'll titrate it down his IV, can you calculate the rates for me? He's at six ounces, and running at full bore."

Clint tunes them out, watching Steve watch Bruce.

The sharp glint of his irises are thin, pupils blown now he's in a comfy dark space, but Clint doesn't doubt for a second that Steve is all there, in a way that Tony wasn't quite. Turning the gun Tony had partially disassembled over in his mind, he pictures the missing part, trying to fathom what had pissed him off about it. Because it had been anger, unreasonable. Unlike Steve's reaction to his dextrose, which was one hundred percent resigned affront--

Oh. The weapon was Hammertech, SHIELD issue, he realises, and the missing pieces of his and Nat's guns both had the logo stamped into the metal.

Clint grins, puzzle solved, then instinctively twitches his head left.

A jellybean bounces off the bulkhead between passengers and cabin. A snort of not-quite laughter issues from the bunk and Clint can't help but bluster jokingly.

"Oh, I see how it is, you twer--" Another bean hits him in the mouth, and he doesn't avoid it this time; it's one of the disgusting popcorn ones, weirdly salty, but he chews anyway because food sharing is food sharing. Maybe he should grab another MRE.

----------------

Steve-smell, thick and deep. Blankets. Warm Steve.

Too warm. Tony wriggles until there is air and he is cooler. A hand on his wrist, an almost-unnoticeable ache in his forearm; he tries to open his eyes but they close again immediately, and sleep is so sweet, impossible to resist. He lets his hand fall limply and he's gone again.