"…stock is up three points. Also, Harold Saxon is now Britain's new Prime Minister."
Tony barely looked up from the boot jet he was working on. "Is that going to affect us at all?"
"I can't think why it would," JARVIS said blandly, "although we might want to keep an eye on the Archangel network."
"I thought you were already embedded in that," Tony said.
"Yes sir, I am."
"Okay, well, keep going," Tony said. He went back to work and waited to hear the rest of the day's news.
Looking back, well… What could he say? It wasn't often that JARVIS was wrong, but boy when he was, he was all kinds of wrong.
Although Tony might not have paid much attention to the change in British government, he was right there alongside everyone else the very day after Saxon took office, watching eagerly as the world prepared to make first contact with an alien race called the Toclafane.
He was in two minds about the whole thing. Mostly he kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the hoax to be unveiled. Because really? Britain's Prime Minister, so new he hadn't even been in office a full day, had been contacted by the representative of an alien race from across the universe?
Still, he couldn't deny that a small part of him was keenly excited about the whole thing. Saxon's announcement hadn't allowed for much time, but between them, he and Pepper had managed to whip together a pretty decent first contact party. Beginning at midnight, there were drinks and food and music, with lots of shiny silver stars glittering from the ceiling and disco balls all over the place. Stark Tower was just about complete at that point, although he hadn't yet connected the arc reactor to the city's power grid, so Tony figured alien contact was as good a reason as any to open the doors and host what was essentially a housewarming party.
He hardly knew most of the people there; they were acquaintances, business colleagues, celebrities, or other rich socialites like himself. He chatted briefly with Jan Van Dyne, then allowed a blonde model to kiss him for a little bit before remembering that he was supposed to be in a relationship with Pepper, whereupon he put a slightly tardy and definitely drunken stop to it. He thought he saw the lovely but deadly Agent Romanoff at one point, then Rhodey was there, steering him away from the bar and asking if he thought this whole first contact thing was for real.
"Rhodey, sugarpie," Tony said, throwing his arms out wide, "all I know is that it's a good excuse for a party. Who cares if it's real or not?"
They found out pretty quick, though, just how real it was.
They all did.
The venue for this little display was the UNIT ship that was nothing more than a poor man's version of the SHIELD helicarrier. The broadcast was live, beamed out to the entire world. And right on schedule, at three o'clock in the morning New York time, the aliens arrived.
Hushed silence fell over the partygoers in Stark Tower as they stared at the TV. Tony stood among them, just one more awestruck spectator, albeit one in a very expensive tailored black suit. The Toclafane weren't anything like what he had been expecting, just small metallic spheres that hovered in the air like miniature Death Stars, but who spoke with the voices of humans.
And for about thirty seconds, everything was cool.
"Are you seeing this?" Rhodey said. He looked as stunned and amazed as Tony felt. They stood there, staring up at the television screen that took up most of the wall, and watched as the President – not the British Prime Minister – took control of the situation and greeted the aliens.
"Seeing it," Tony said. He didn't take his eyes off the TV. "Still working on believing."
It was incredible. It was unreal. It was something straight out of every science fiction movie he had ever watched as a kid.
And then it all went to hell. At 3:02 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, one of the Toclafane assassinated the President. In a single heartbeat, he was totally vaporized.
And Harold Saxon, the bastard, just sort of smiled about it. "So. Earthlings. Basically…end of the world."
Shocked cries of disbelief and horror rose from his guests. Tony turned to Pepper and handed her his drink. "That's my cue."
A sharp command to JARVIS had the armory opened and waiting for him. He was only halfway down the hall when the AI informed him of a phone call from Phil Coulson. Half-running, still working on getting sober, Tony took the call with deep reservations. "Kinda in the middle of something here."
"We need you to come in," Coulson said. "There's a situation."
"Yeah, I noticed," Tony said. He stopped dead. Through the Tower windows, he could see Toclafane swooping through the night skies. He had no idea where they had come from, but they were everywhere; there had to be thousands of them. Behind him, Rhodey and Pepper were doing their best to calm everyone down, but he could still hear the occasional soft scream from one of his guests.
"We're putting together a response team," Coulson said. "We need you on it."
"You need me, or you need Iron Man?' Tony asked.
"Both of you," Coulson said.
And that was how Tony Stark became a member of the Avengers.
For about an hour.
One hour. That was how long it took for them to be completely overwhelmed and defeated. One hour for the Hulk to be dragged, struggling and roaring, through the rip in the sky that led to the far end of the universe, or wherever the hell the Toclafane had come from.
One hour for New York to be left in ruins, Stark Tower crumbled into dust, along with everyone who had been inside.
One hour for the surviving Avengers to end up on board the Valiant as prisoners of the man now calling himself the Master.
For a long while nothing happened. The four of them were locked in a room that was clearly meant to be quarters for a junior officer. Any one of them could have escaped at any moment, but there were armed guards outside who had orders to shoot on sight, and no one was feeling particularly adventurous at the moment.
Tony sat in silence on the floor, his knees drawn up to his chest. Saxon's guards had taken the suit, of course, leaving him in the black dress shirt and trousers he had been wearing at the party. They had been none too gentle about it, either. He was nursing several new scrapes and bruises in addition to the ones he had received during the fighting over New York. But they hadn't discovered the arc reactor, which was one thing to be grateful for.
All he could think about was Pepper and Rhodey and Happy, and that damn tower.
He hoped they had gotten out before it collapsed. He hoped everyone had gotten out. Not that being on the street would have been much better, what with the thousands of Toclafane swarming all over the place and shooting at everyone. But at least out in the open they would have had a chance.
They might still be alive.
"Come on, guys," said Cap. They had taken his cowl and shield, but he was still in costume. "We gotta come up with a plan here."
"A plan for what?" Natasha asked.
"My thoughts exactly," Clint said. "In case you hadn't noticed, there's six billion of those things out there. Enough to lift the Hulk and carry him away."
"We can't do anything about the Toclafane right now," Cap said. "First things first. We have to find a way off this ship."
Silence filled the room. Tony looked up and saw that all of them were staring at him. "What are you looking at me for?" he said. "I had nothing to do with this. UNIT won't deal with Stark Industries." Not that he hadn't tried to get in on that action. Ever since he had learned about the Valiant's construction, he had bitched and moaned that he should have been a part of the project. Now more than ever he wished that were so. Over a year ago, under guise of his-then position of Defense Secretary, Harold Saxon himself had commissioned this ship. If Tony had worked on it, he would now know all the Valiant's secrets and hideaways, not to mention having a back door into its operating system.
The Avengers just looked at him. As they realized he was serious, their faces fell. One by one they turned away.
Their disappointment meant nothing to him. Tony tilted his head back against the wall and told himself that his friends were still alive, they had made it, they were still alive...
About an hour later, they were taken onto the bridge.
Order had been imposed on the chaos there. The bodies had been removed. The Master stood at the top of the stairs where the President had been assassinated. His wife was by his side, and a couple of Toclafane hovered ominously nearby. Up close and personal, they were almost two feet across, solid metal with no obvious means of breaching the sphere. Members of the Master's guard were arrayed about the room, all of them armed. An old man in a brown suit was sitting at the conference table where only hours before, dignitaries and politicians had waited to greet their new alien friends. The old guy looked at them all with sorrow, but said nothing.
"Well, well, well. And who exactly are you lot supposed to be?" asked Saxon, or the Master, or whoever he really was. Before everything had gone to hell in New York and they had realized how futile the battle was, JARVIS had done some digging and discovered that there was no such person as Harold Saxon. Tony had dutifully passed on the information to his fellow Avengers – not that it had mattered by that point. Whoever he was, he held the Earth in his grasp right now.
They stood before him in a row, on display. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs, and everyone but Tony was still in costume. No one spoke, not wanting to be the one to say it.
The silence drew out unbearably. Then Steve said with a touch of pride, "We're the Avengers."
The Master frowned a little, not getting it.
Tony roused himself to the occasion. If he was going to die, he might as well go out on his terms, after all. "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," he offered. When the Master's eye fell on him, he sort of shrugged, like he was downplaying the whole thing. "Well, that's what we're calling ourselves."
Recognition dawned on the Master's face. He pointed. "I know you," he said. "You're Tony Stark. I wanted you to work on the Valiant."
Right then and there, Tony took back every nasty thought he had ever had about UNIT and their contracts. "You couldn't afford me," he said coldly.
The Master smiled wide. "That's what they said!" He sounded like he had just had his fondest wish granted, leaving him happy and satisfied.
Abruptly the smile fell away. "You killed some of my Toclafane," the Master said. He sounded almost petulant then. There was no way to tell if the sudden mood swings were real or just an act. And that was the heart of it, Tony thought sickly. The Master, whoever he was, was utterly insane. There was never going to be any reasoning with this man, or any kind of rational discussion. "You tried to stop me."
"Yeah, well, better get used to that," Clint said. It wasn't a bold statement of defiance. It was a quiet promise.
"Oh no no no no no," the Master said quickly. He trotted down the stairs and came over to stand in front of them. "I'm the one who gets to say that. Because this is my world now!" He looked at the old man sitting at the table. "Isn't it, Doctor?"
The old man remained silent, but he did not take his eyes off the Master.
"Are we still…" The Master gestured to the television equipment that was still set up toward the rear of the room. "We can do a live broadcast, right?"
Tony tensed up. A live broadcast now could only mean one thing: an execution. The only question was, who would it be? He suspected it would be Cap, leader of the group, and obviously the strongest. Far too dangerous to be allowed to live.
Which…wow. It sure sucked to be Steve Rogers. He had survived Hitler and the Red Skull, only to die like this, after being unfrozen for less than a month.
"Yes, sir. Just give me a moment." One of the guards began to fuss about with a camera. Another began struggling with a large light.
The Master looked back at them. "So," he said. "The Avengers. It's not a bad name, even I have to admit. Kind of…catchy."
"Sir, we're ready."
"Excellent!" The Master beckoned the guards to come closer. "Bring it up here. I want the whole planet to see this."
"It's okay," Steve said quietly, so only they could hear – and the man in the brown suit, but he hardly seemed like an adversary, so it didn't much matter. "People will remember this. They'll fight back."
"Great," Clint sighed. "I always did want to be a martyr."
The light was set up, and the camera began rolling. The Master stepped toward the camera, beaming his wide, happy smile. "Peoples of Earth! Your Lord and Master speaks to you now. By now I hope you have all seen that resistance is futile, and that your best chance of survival lies in surrender. However." He dropped his voice, and now he just looked sad. "There will always be those who think they can stand against the tides of change."
He paused dramatically, then flung out one arm, indicating where the Avengers stood. "Look at them! I want you to see these…superheroes. These Avengers. Who thought they could stop me."
Tony's heart began to pound. Surreptitiously he tugged at the cuffs about his wrists. He did not want to die, not like this, just randomly executed with no chance to fight back.
"I want you to see," the Master said, "what happens to those who try to defy me."
He half-turned away from the camera, toward the Avengers. As he pivoted neatly, one hand reached inside his suit jacket. Tony braced himself for a gun, but instead the Master pulled out a slim metallic device that looked unlike anything he had ever seen before.
"Good-bye," said the Master. A beam of light shot from the device in his hand and speared Clint Barton right through the heart.
Without a sound, Clint crumpled to the ground.
The Master faced them fully now. "Who's next?"
Natasha breathed heavily, her face deathly white. Steve's jaw clenched, but he gazed steadily at the Master. Tony looked straight ahead, his hands curled into fists behind his back, mindful of the camera's eye still trained on him.
"Oh," the Master said, as though something had just occurred to him – when in fact this little play-acting scenario must surely have been his plan all along. "Actually. I almost forgot." He took a couple steps forward. "I was going to offer you a job, Mr. Stark. I know you don't build weapons anymore, but have you ever thought about building ships? An entire fleet of them, in fact?" He smiled. "Obviously I can't pay you in money, but I have a sneaking suspicion that money's just become worthless anyway. However, I can pay you with your life, and the lives of your friends here." His smile became a triumphant smirk. "I think I can afford that."
Tony said nothing at first, still very aware of the camera. He couldn't help it; his entire life had been lived in the public eye. By now it was ingrained in him to behave this way, standing tall and acting as though he did not see the lens.
His answer now was obvious. He had to say no. A definite no, along with some witty, cutting retort. Something that would earn him the quick, painfree death Clint had just received.
But he couldn't do it. Enough innocent people had died today; two of them men he had barely begun to know, men he had been part of something with, for such a brief time. He could not condemn Natasha and Steve to that same fate. Not when it was in his power to save them.
And there was Pepper and Rhodey and Happy to think of. They might still be alive. They might be out there right now, watching this. What would it do to them to see him killed on live TV? If they knew he was still alive, it would give them hope. Maybe even enough for Rhodey to take War Machine and join up with what was left of SHIELD and form a resistance.
If he died now, he would never get the chance to fight back. But if he gave in, if he let the Valiant become his new cave in Afghanistan, he would survive. He would get his chance. And the Master, like the Ten Rings before him, would learn to his despair what a mistake it was to let Tony Stark live.
"Yes," he said.
The Master held out his hands in a pleased gesture, as though he meant to embrace them all. "Welcome aboard!"
Their new quarters were far less roomy. Much more like the prison cell Tony had been expecting ever since they had been brought on board. One by one their cuffs were removed, then they were shoved through the door. It clanged shut with a sound like finality.
Natasha was the last one in. She staggered a little as the guards pushed her, but quickly brought it under control. Of her own accord, she swiftly closed the distance between Tony and herself, and punched him square in the face.
Tony reeled backward, from shock as much as the impact itself. His cheek flared hot with pain, then went mercifully numb.
"What the hell--?" He barely managed to get that much out; in a split second she was on him again, hissing in Russian, her eyes narrowed into slits.
Fortunately Steve got to her before she could land another blow. He grabbed her arms from behind and pulled her backward.
Undeterred, Natasha planted her feet, bent over at the waist, and flipped him over her head to land flat on his back.
Swiftly Tony backpedaled, bringing his hands up in a rather feeble effort at self-defense. He had seen the footage of her in action at HammerCorp, and he knew he had pretty much a zero chance of keeping her off him, but hell, he had to at least try.
In between them, Steve quickly rolled over and got to his feet. He stayed in the middle, arms held out wide, keeping them apart. "Hey!" he shouted. "That's enough!"
"You son of a bitch," Natasha said, her voice low and deadly. Coiled violence lurked beneath every line of her body. "They killed him and you just gave in."
"Yeah, I did," Tony said. He felt gingerly at his cheek, where there was going to be one hell of a spectacular bruise in a couple hours. "And you're welcome, by the way, for saving your life."
"I'd rather be dead," Natasha spat.
"Yeah?" Steve said. "Well, I for one wouldn't." He gave her a firm glare, then turned back to look at Tony. "Although I would like to know what kind of game you're playing here."
"It's not a game," Tony said. He could feel cold rage consuming him, and for once he didn't care who saw it. He didn't have to be the charming playboy anymore, and this was not a ten-second sound bite for the evening news. "In fact, it's real simple. That guy just killed thousands of people. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. And I'm not letting him get away with that, and I'm sure as hell not letting him kill anyone else. So yeah, I 'gave in.' It's what I do, didn't you know? I thought you were the one who put my file together. So pay attention. I give in, and I keep my head down, and I do my thing…and when the time is right, I burn the bad guys up and I get the fuck out."
He returned Natasha's glare. "Any questions?"
She stared at him for a long moment, then snarled something in Russian under her breath. She turned away and paced toward the corner – which was not far, unfortunately, given the size of their new cell.
"So it's all an act?" Steve said.
"You really think I would voluntarily work for him? Jesus, Cap." He was hard pressed to keep the bitterness from his voice. He supposed he should have expected it, though. Apparently his reputation preceded him to the point where even the vaunted Captain America had trouble believing when he was sincere about something.
"I've known you for all of six hours," Steve said, somewhat stiffly. "Excuse me for doubting your integrity."
"No, go ahead," Tony said. The anger was still there, but it was diminishing now, grief and disbelief and pure exhaustion taking its place. "People who've known me for six years still do that. Why should you be any different?"
Steve looked a little bit ashamed of himself then, but he did not apologize. He just took a deep breath and said, "All right. We're done here. No more attacking each other. We have to stick together on this." He looked at Tony. "So what's your plan?"
Tony just shook his head. If this was to be the new Afghanistan, then he had to remember to play by the rules. And one of the rules said that he had to behave as though everything he said and did was being captured on camera. Just because he couldn't see any cameras in here didn't mean they weren't there. After all, the ones in Stark Tower weren't plainly visible, either.
Or rather, they hadn't been.
At any rate, if there were cameras in here, he had already said too much. And if that was the case, then there wasn't any point in clamming up now, because it was already too late. But he couldn't bring himself to let go of the hope that maybe, just this once, he had gotten off lucky.
So all he said was, "The walls have ears. Probably."
Steve nodded with understanding. Natasha's mouth tightened, but she said nothing.
Tony just sighed. "Back to the cave. And this time I don't even have a box of scraps."
No one disturbed them for the next two days. It was like they didn't exist. Armed guards brought them food and water, but did not speak to them.
In fact, hardly anyone talked at all. Steve tried occasionally to lift their spirits, but Natasha remained stubbornly mute, and Tony was too paranoid about cameras. He examined the room thoroughly, but could find no evidence that their actions were being recorded. Nonetheless, he did not trust the walls, and he continued to assume that the Master was watching and listening.
Their cell was small, barren of any furniture or creature comforts. A miniscule bathroom with a toilet and sink were located in the back, but even here, everything had been removed. There weren't even any towels to dry their hands on, although they had at least been allowed some toilet paper and soap. It wasn't enough to bathe with, though, and by the third day, Tony was feeling pretty ripe. Nor was he the only one; they all sat apart from each other for more reasons than one.
Sleeping on the floor wasn't very comfortable, but he had been through worse. He couldn't really sleep anyway; he was too wound up, waiting anxiously for his first summons to go to work. The longer it took, the more he came to dread that inevitable moment, until his nerves were wound so tight that he could practically feel himself getting ready to explode.
Because they didn't talk, he didn't know what Steve and Natasha were thinking about, but he could not stop remembering the sight of Stark Tower collapsing into rubble. The screaming of the people as they ran through the streets, cowering from the Toclafane that swept down upon them. He kept imagining those last moments in the Tower, Pepper and Happy and Rhodey taking charge of the evacuation, doing their best to keep everyone safe.
But had they got out? Were they still alive?
The not-knowing was worse than anything. He didn't know whether he should be grieving for them, or praying for their success with the resistance. For if they were alive, surely that's where they would be. By himself Rhodey would make a formidable warrior. With friends by his side, he would be unstoppable.
He had to believe that. He had to.
On the third morning, the door opened and one of the guards walked in. "Stark."
Slowly Tony climbed to his feet. "Well, kids, it's showtime." He gave Steve and Natasha a bright smile and tried to act like his heart wasn't going a mile a minute all of a sudden.
Steve held out a hand as he passed by. "Be careful."
Tony's smile became a bit more genuine at that. "When am I not careful?"
He followed the guards through the ship until they reached the bridge. There he found the Master once again holding court, his wife hovering in the background. A ragged pup tent had been erected on the floor in front of the conference table; the old man in the brown suit was sitting there, looking as mournful as ever. Tony glanced at him briefly, then looked away, feeling uncomfortably like he was intruding on something private even to look at the guy.
"Well," the Master said. He clapped his hands together. "Here we are. Nervous?"
"Not really," Tony lied.
And with that, a strident alarm began to sound throughout the Valiant.
The Master froze. "What's that? What's going on?" As the guards all snapped to attention, he made shooing motions at them. "Find out what's going on!"
Tony looked around, just as bewildered as everyone else by the sudden alarm. Still, this was a heaven-sent opportunity, and he would be an idiot not to take advantage of it. As one of the guards ran past, he lunged for the guy and tackled him to the floor. They wrestled about for a moment, hitting and kicking, each trying to subdue the other.
The hell with this. He was wasting time. Tony gave up trying to knock out the guard and instead grabbed for the man's pistol. He very nearly succeeded, too. He actually had it in both hands when something impacted the back of his skull, and everything went neatly dark.
"Wakey, wakey." A tap on his cheek. "Wakey, wakey, Mr. Stark." Another tap, this one more like a slap.
Tony opened his eyes and immediately squeezed them shut again. "Ahh." It felt like his brain was trying to split his skull apart so it could ooze out between the cracks.
"Are we awake now?"
He tried to reach up to find the source of that pain, only to find that he couldn't. A few experimental tugs and the extremely unwelcome sound of metal jingling, and he finally accepted that he was handcuffed to the chair he was currently sitting in.
"Mr. Stark? May I call you Tony?"
The voice too was very unwelcome – and already hatefully familiar. Slowly, wincing with the pain, Tony opened his eyes to find the Master gazing down at him with a falsely solicitous smile. "There we are!" The Master reached out to give his cheek another sharp slap, and Tony couldn't help groaning again.
"Now that we're all here." The Master straightened up. "Where is she?"
Tony did not have to fake his confusion. "What? Who?"
The bridge was once again a scene of calm. The guards stood at the perimeter of the room. The Master's wife was nowhere in sight, but the old guy was still there on the floor in front of his tent. Whatever had happened to set off the alarm, clearly it had been handled, and to the Master's satisfaction.
Well, most of it, anyway.
"Where is she?" the Master asked again.
"Really don't know who you're talking about," Tony said. His brains still felt like they were trying to climb out his ears, but he was feeling more clear-headed with every passing second. Enough to recognize that he was in some serious trouble here.
The Master looked displeased. "You think you're so smart."
"Um, yes?" Tony said.
"You think you're so clever," the Master said.
Tony opened his mouth to reply, and caught the eye of the old man in the brown suit. The old man was shaking his head in warning, and okay, point taken. Tony really didn't want to end up like that poor guy, living out of a tent and eating from a dog dish.
"Well, let me share a little something with you," the Master said, and oh crap it was already too late. "You are not as clever as you think!" He pulled that slender metallic device from his pocket.
Tony braced himself to be murdered, but instead the device emitted a high-pitched whine, and then suddenly his entire body was on fire. Every nerve ending shrieked in pain. Every muscle locked up, so that he couldn't scream, couldn't even breathe. There was only the pain, devouring him from the inside out.
It seemed to last an eternity before it suddenly let up and he was able to slump in the chair, breathing heavily and shaking all over. His heart was racing dangerously fast, and the chains of the handcuffs jingled as they rattled against the chair arms.
"Where is she?" the Master asked.
Tony tried to catch his breath enough to be able to speak. "I don't… know…what you're talking about."
"She's down there, isn't she?" the Master demanded. "With Martha Jones!"
More bewildered than ever, Tony just stared at him. "Who the hell is Martha Jones?"
The Master raised the device in his hand once more. Tony shrank back against the chair, already tensing up in dreadful anticipation of the pain, when the old man on the floor spoke. "Don't."
The Master's eyes widened. He turned to stare at the old man, then looked back at Tony. "Oh," he said. He touched the fingertips of one hand to his chest in a gesture of mock chagrin. "Where are my manners? You two haven't been introduced, have you? Doctor, this is Tony Stark, genius billionaire, darling of the weapons industry before he decided to chuck it all away and become a superhero. And Tony Stark, meet the Doctor. Perpetual thorn in my side, champion of the human race. He's saved you lot more times than I can count. It used to really make me angry, because I could never understand what he saw in you and this pathetic planet. But now I know. He was saving you all those times for me. So I could come along and rule you. So, actually," he faced the Doctor, "I owe you a thank-you." He grinned cheekily.
"Anyway." He turned back to Tony. "Now that's all over with." He held up the device in his hand again. "Where is the lovely Black Widow?"
So that's what this was all about. Tony was startled into laughter. "She escaped? Well, good for her. No wonder you're so pissed off."
Down on the floor, the Doctor closed his eyes.
The Master's expression went flat. "Oh really? Let me show you just how pissed off I am."
This time when he woke up, he was lying down.
Or sort of. Maybe. It was hard to tell.
The pain in his head had migrated to the rest of his body. Even breathing hurt. Convulsive tremors wracked him from time to time, and he couldn't help moaning when one seized him.
God. That would teach him to mouth off to someone calling themselves the Master.
Another agonizing spasm wrenched through his body. Tony groaned.
"It's okay," said a voice. "I've got you. You're gonna be okay."
Tony's eyes flew open.
It was every bit as bad as he had feared. He was lying down, all right, but his upper body was cradled in the very strong, very muscled arms of Captain America. He was sort of turned to one side, so his nose was a mere inch from the blue leather of Steve's uniform.
"Uh," he said.
"It's okay," Steve said again. "You're gonna be okay, Tony. Just breathe. It's gonna be all right."
"Heard you the first time," Tony mumbled.
Steve's arms tightened a little as he started in surprise. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't realize you were awake."
"Obviously." This close, he could really smell how badly Steve needed a shower. Not that he was any better off, of course. "Um, you mind letting go?"
"Oh," Steve said again. "Yeah. Sorry." He let go – and Tony promptly landed on Steve's lap.
The sudden jarring motion sent a new burst of pain ricocheting around his skull and down his spine. Tony bit off another groan and worked at sitting up; it wasn't easy with arms that felt more like spaghetti than human limbs.
To cover his wonderful deficiency at something as simple as getting off another man's lap, he said, "What the hell happened? Where's Natasha?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "She escaped. When they came for you, she followed you out. The next thing you know, alarms are going off all over the place."
"She tell you she was breaking out?" Tony asked as he finally managed to crawl a few paces away. He turned so he could sit with his back to the wall, Steve sitting on his left.
"No," Steve said. "It took me by surprise, too."
"Why didn't she take you with her?" he asked. Because really, that was just cold, leaving Steve behind like that.
Steve looked at him. "You mean, why didn't she take us with her?"
Tony blinked, then shuddered as another involuntary spasm worked through him. God, whatever that little laser device of the Master's was called, it left one hell of an aftertaste. "Sure. Yeah. That."
"Well, I imagine because she can work better on her own," Steve said. "I'm sure she's already working on getting us out."
The thought of Natasha down there, combining forces with Rhodey and SHIELD and whoever the hell Martha Jones was, made Tony feel marginally more cheerful. "I sure as hell hope so." Then a new thought occurred to him. "Did they suspect you?"
"Of course," Steve said. "I've already been…questioned." He sounded calm, but the slight hesitation in his voice gave it all away. Tony looked sharply at him, but Steve seemed okay. Dirty and smelly, but otherwise unharmed. Catching sight of Tony's look, he just shrugged. "It had the same effect on me as you're having, but it wore off pretty quickly. I'm guessing the serum helped."
"Got any extra lying around?" Tony sighed. Another shiver went through him, but this one was less forceful than the previous ones, and he thought the effects of the Master's fun bit of torture were finally starting to wear off.
"Just take it easy," Steve said. He studied Tony, blue eyes full of concern. "You were practically convulsing when they brought you in."
Tony made a face. That was a lovely thought, made even lovelier by the thought of Steve Rogers witnessing his humiliation.
"Hey," Steve said firmly. "It's gonna be okay, you know. We're going to get out of this."
Tony just looked at him. It was a while before he was able to muster a smile, though. "Sure," he said. "Of course we are."
The next day, it wasn't an armed guard who came for him. It was a pretty black woman dressed in a maid's outfit. Possibly this was meant to deter him and Steve from attempting another escape, with the thought they wouldn't try to overpower and hurt a defenseless young woman. Frankly, Tony didn't care if they sent the Pope. It wouldn't change anything.
The Master was waiting on the bridge. "I think we got off on the wrong foot," he said. "How about we try this again?"
"I'm game if you are," Tony said. He glanced down at the tent, and saw the Doctor sitting there, watching him silently.
"That's good," the Master said. "Because the rules have changed."
Tony just smiled and rocked up a little on his toes. "Of course they have."
"A man of your intelligence," the Master said. His eyes glinted with amusement. "Surely you saw this coming."
"What do you want now?" he asked, even though he knew, of course he knew. He had known how this would end even as he had first agreed to work for the man.
Build a fleet of ships. What a crock. Oh, he believed the Master wanted them, since someone who had so easily enslaved Earth would not be content with just one planet under his thumb. No, the Master would want more, and for that he would indeed need a fleet of rocket ships.
But those would come later, in the fullness of time. The ships would need to be designed first, from the ground up. Everything about them.
Including their weapons.
Yep, it was definitely Afghanistan all over again.
Tony sighed. "That, um. That little device in your pocket? Do you have that with you?"
The Master looked genuinely perplexed for a moment. "You mean my laser screwdriver?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess," Tony said. He eyed the Master with amusement of his own now. "Wow, phallic much? Anyway, you want to go ahead and get that out?"
"Why would I do that?" the Master asked.
He glanced briefly at the Doctor, and felt his flagging courage bolstered by the encouragement he saw on the man's face. "Well, I was just thinking we could skip the part where you tell me to build weapons for your new ships and I tell you no, and just go straight to the main attraction, where you start torturing me."
The Master stared at him for a full seven seconds without even blinking. Then he lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "If you insist."
He lost track of time after that.
Only two constants remained during that endless period. The pain, and Steve Rogers.
The pain ebbed and flowed, sometimes greater, sometimes more bearable. Sometimes he screamed with it, and sometimes he was trapped by it, unable to move or make a sound. He remembered the Master saying once that it would all end the moment he gave in and agreed to the Master's demands. He even remembered his own response, and the bitter laughter that had accompanied it. After that, though, the words became meaningless. Half the time he couldn't even hear them anyway, over the sound of his own screams.
And through it all, there was Steve Rogers. More particularly, Steve Rogers' voice. When he woke up, Steve's voice was the first thing he heard, calming and soothing, reminding him that he was not alone. When he was on the floor, thrashing mindlessly as liquid fire coursed through his body, it was Steve's voice he heard in the back of his mind, telling him that he could do this, he would survive.
They argued about it, but only once. Steve was holding him up as he retched in the corner, choking on the pain. Nothing the Master did to him was permanent, nothing that might prevent him from starting work immediately once he finally broke and gave the man what he wanted.
"You can't keep doing this," Steve said softly.
"Clearly you duh-don't know me," Tony said as Steve lifted him up, away from the disgusting mess on the floor.
"I think I'm starting to," Steve said. His arms were firm beneath Tony's shoulders, holding up him with almost no effort at all. Steve was warm, too, which was nice, because these days it seemed like he was always cold.
"Then you know that I huh-have to duh-do this," he said. "Every day buys them tuh-time." He thought he was probably going to kiss Natasha when she showed up with the cavalry – but first he might punch her in the face for taking so long.
"I know that," Steve said. "I also know this is killing you."
Tony laughed a little at that, despite the pain and the shuddering that didn’t ever seem to stop anymore. "Nuh-no. He can't kuh-kill me. And he knows it."
"Right, I forgot," Steve said dryly. "You're much more valuable alive."
"Nuh-now you got it," Tony said.
Steve sighed a little. "You're an idiot, Tony Stark." He shifted his weight so he could hold Tony a little closer to his chest. "But you're also a brave idiot, I have to give you that."
"Score for me," Tony mumbled.
But that was the only time they talked about it. The rest of the time, Steve talked about other things. Random things. Memories of his life in Brooklyn as a skinny, scrawny kid who got bullied and teased. Images of the war. His best friend Bucky and the lady named Peggy. What it was like to wake up and be faced with a world he had never even imagined. How it felt to know that on his very first mission in this new world, he had failed abysmally.
"Not your fault," Tony told him. He was feeling stronger on this particular day, although he was having trouble sitting up straight, thanks to the monstrous headache that would not go away. It felt like there was a tight metal band cinched around his head, a metal band lined with spikes that were digging cruelly into his skull. When he tried to sit up or stand, the pain grew so bad that he threw up from it, so he had resigned himself to remaining in a slumped posture, using Steve to prop himself up.
"Explain to me how this is not my fault," Steve said. "It was my mission, according to Director Fury. I lost Dr. Banner and Clint Barton. I didn't stop the Toclafane from invading. Thousands of people are dead, the rest are being put into labor camps, and you and I are stuck here. Tell me again, how did I not fail?"
He sounded tired and angry and full of the kind of self-loathing that Tony recognized all too well. Carefully, trying not to move his head any more than necessary, he turned so he could look Steve in the eye. Or at least he tried to – right now Steve was staring dully at the floor.
"No one could have stopped them," Tony said. "Maybe if there were six more of us we would have had a chance, but even then… Six billion of them, Steve. We were never going to stop them. And Fury should have known that. He never should have sent us out there. If you want to blame anyone, blame him."
Steve just shook his head.
Seeing him so defeated made something flutter deep inside Tony's chest. For days now, Steve had been there for him when the guards dragged him back in here, holding him when even the slightest movement made him cry out in pain. Steve had taken care of him when he hadn't been able to do it himself, washing the sick from his face and carrying him to the bathroom when he was too weak to walk. Steve had sat there for hours, making sure he ate the food that was brought, and giving him plenty of water to drink. Even during their one argument, Steve had never stopped believing in him, never stopped making him feel that what he was doing was brave and necessary. And Steve had talked to him constantly, making him feel like he was in this with someone. With Steve, he had a reason to keep on fighting, the strength to face the next round of torture with some measure of equanimity, and enough courage to continue to refuse their demands.
And now Steve was giving up. Or close enough to it that it made no difference.
Tony could not bear it. If Steve succumbed to despair, he knew he would not last a single day out there. The next time the guards came for him, he would say yes, just stop fighting and plead with them to let him get to work. He had no doubt whatsoever about that. He had reached the limits of his endurance days ago; were it not for Steve, he would have given in long before this.
"Steve." He waited until it became clear that Steve was not going to look at him. Never one to let something as simple as that daunt him, Tony just reached out and took hold of Steve's chin. He started to turn Steve's head his way, and Steve finally relented and looked at him.
"I'm still alive," Tony said. "I'm still here."
Steve just stared at him, desperately searching his face for…God only knew what. Tony said nothing and just returned that gaze, hoping like hell that Steve would find what he was looking for.
And evidently he did, because Steve groaned suddenly and wrapped one arm about him, pulling him close. "God, Tony. I'm sorry. You're right."
Hating himself just a little for it, Tony took advantage of the chance to push in closer to Steve's warmth. "I know you just met me," he said, "but one thing you should know is, I'm always right."
Steve let out an unhappy little laugh. "I'll try to keep that in mind."
"You do that," Tony said. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to just sort of collapse on you. If that's okay."
Both of Steve's arms wrapped around him, holding him with just the right amount of strength – firm enough so he felt safe, but not enough to hurt. "Go ahead," he said quietly. "I'll be right here."
The problem with moments like that, Tony thought several hours later, was that they always came back to bite you in the ass.
He had forgotten rule number one of Afghanistan: always remember that they were watching.
He knew now why they had let him and Steve stay together, even after Natasha had escaped and logic would have seemed to dictate that the two of them be separated. The Master had just been waiting for this to happen, for time and the horror of their situation to bring them together.
Steve surely had to be afraid, but he did not let it show on his face. He was no fool, either; as the guards had pulled him to his feet, he had spoken only once. "I'll be fine. Whatever they do, don't give in."
And that was the plan, of course it was, because Tony was no fool either. He knew damn well that Steve would heal from the Master's tortures, and do it with more grace and speed than he himself had managed thus far. To surrender now and agree to build their weapons would be to betray Steve and his strength, and everything Steve had done for him.
Logically he knew all that. But that didn't make it any easier to listen to Steve screaming in agony.
"Still nothing? No answer for me?"
Tony refused to look. From the moment they had chained him to the chair, he had fixed his eyes on the stairs where the President had been assassinated. Since then he had not once looked away. He knew they were all watching him to see his reaction when the Master trained his laser screwdriver on Steve, but though his eyes burned and stung, he would not look away.
No matter what.
After an eternity, Steve's screams dwindled into choked groans. The Master hummed thoughtfully. "I have to say," he said as he walked in a slow circle around the chair Tony occupied. He sounded almost impressed. "I admire your ability to ignore your friend's suffering. It's almost like you don't care." He stopped directly in front of Tony and smiled. "I like that."
Tony gripped the arms of the chair tightly and stared at the steps. He was pretty sure Steve could endure another round, but he was far less certain of his own abilities on that score. It was one thing to tell himself that he could not give in, that breaking now would invalidate everything Steve had done for him – but none of that meant a damn when he had to listen to Steve's suffering.
"I think I see now why you have a reputation for not having any friends," the Master said.
Tony stared and stared. He thought of Rhodey and Pepper and Happy, and he did not look away.
On the floor, Steve uttered a low, tearing groan. Tony would not look, could not look. He knew Steve had done his best to suffer in silence, trying to make this easier on him. He could almost hate Steve for that, for being so damn noble in the face of torture, still sacrificing himself for the good of his country – and for a man who absolutely did not merit such a sacrifice.
The Master contemplated the laser screwdriver. "Bring the freak in here," he ordered.
From the corner of his eye, Tony spied movement as the Doctor stirred from his place on the floor by that ragged little tent. It was tempting to look at him, but he could not let himself do it. He had to keep his gaze focused on the stairs, and only the stairs. To look away now was to surrender.
Steve panted and groaned as he fumbled to sit up. The Master paced impatiently. Tony stared at the stairs.
Eventually he heard shuffling footsteps; two men shepherding a third between them. The Master beckoned them forward, until they were directly between Tony and his chosen fixed point. He let his eyes unfocus a little, just enough that he was not actually seeing the man who now stood in front of him.
"I'd like you to meet Jack," the Master said. "He's a freak. Trust me on this. He's also a dead man. Unless you say the word."
"What's going on?" asked the man named Jack. "Looks like I'm missing out on a party."
"Don't," the Doctor said loudly.
"You don't want to do this," Steve said.
"Oh yes, I do," the Master said. "Well, Mr. Stark? What's it going to be?"
And what else could he say? Days of defiance and pain and they were all useless, wasted. The Master had finally found the one thing that he could not withstand. Torture was one thing. Murder was another. He could not let an innocent man die because of him.
Defeated, Tony closed his eyes and bowed his head. "Yes," he said. It was only a whisper. He could not bear to say it any louder.
"Okay," the Master said. He sounded supremely bored. "Kill him."
Tony's eyes flew open. "No!" he shouted, just as the guards opened fire.
The man named Jack twisted and spun beneath the hail of bullets. He was young and attractive, despite being unshaven and dirty. Not that it mattered anymore. He was also very dead, long before his body hit the ground.
"Oh, what have you done?" sighed the Doctor.
Tony could not believe what had just happened. He felt sick with horror. "I said yes," he breathed.
"Oh, did you?" the Master said brightly. "I guess I didn't hear you. Well, who cares? You said yes, and there's no going back now." He smiled. "I'll see you at 8:00 a.m. sharp tomorrow morning."
With many thanks to Kiyaar for the beta.
Also, I'm so sorry for this one.
Back in their cell, Steve tried to comfort him. "It wasn't your fault. He was obviously just looking for an excuse to kill that man."
"And I gave it to him!" Tony yelled. His stomach was churning; part of him wished he could throw up. It might make him feel a little better.
Steve reached out one hand for him. "Tony. Don't."
Tony twisted away. "Get off me." He paced their small cell, arms folded, hands clasping his elbows tightly. He was afraid if he didn't hold himself together, he was going to fly apart with rage and self-loathing.
Steve did not try again. He just slid down the wall so he was sitting with his back to it, knees drawn up and his forearms resting on them. He was shivering slightly, but they weren't the full-body spams that Tony had to deal with after enduring a session with the Master's little toy.
Looking at him only added to Tony's crushing guilt. He deliberately turned away, not wanting to see. He would never have thought it possible, but he would have given a great deal to be the one screaming and writhing on the floor instead of having to bear witness to Steve's torment.
Maybe there was some hope for him, after all.
More incredible, he knew that he could not do it again. Somehow over the last week, Steve Rogers had come to mean something to him. It was strange and impossible and he barely understood it. Nonetheless, he knew he could never again remain silent and not interfere as someone hurt Steve. He would do whatever they wanted, say whatever they wanted, just as long as Steve remained safe.
And the worst part, the thing that hurt more than all the rest of the crap he had been through, was that he couldn't say anything. He couldn't apologize to Steve, or even express concern over Steve's well-being. He had to hold the knowledge secret, and never act on it. If he did, he would be giving them exactly what they wanted. They would forever have the kind of leverage they needed to make him into their own dancing monkey.
So he ignored Steve and he paced back and forth, and when the door suddenly opened to reveal two guards standing there, he felt only dull anger. "Back so soon?"
"On your feet," one of the guards said. "Let's go."
They were not led to the bridge this time, though, but to the crew quarters. Here several other guards joined them, which only added to his trepidation about this little trip. He was surprised to discover that their final destination was a large locker room, where once upon a time the men and women of UNIT had showered and shaved and put on their uniforms and made themselves ready for another day of secretly serving the world.
"Get yourselves cleaned up," said one of the guards. He gestured to a bench that stood between two rows of gray lockers. Neatly stacked there was a pile of white towels, and clothing of all colors and sizes.
"Go ahead," Steve said, still making the sacrifice play even now.
Tony shook his head. "Together. I'll take door number two." He gestured to a shower stall on his right. "You go see what's behind door number one." He pointed to one on the left.
Steve shrugged. Or maybe it was just another twitch, a remnant of the day's fun and games. It was hard to tell.
It was really stupid, the nervousness that came over him then. He didn't want to be separated from Steve. He knew better than to show it, but he couldn't help feeling it. He didn't start undressing until Steve did, peeling away clothes that were stiff with dirt and sweat and blood. It ticked him off a little, because he had always been independent, and he prized that about himself, the fact that he didn't need anyone (well okay he needed Pepper but even without her, he would survive. Not very well, but still.) It was actually a little bit frightening to realize how quickly he had come to rely on Steve's presence in order to keep moving forward through this ordeal.
And that was not good. That was not good at all. He had to—
"Halt! Put your hands up!" The guards were suddenly all up in his face, pistols aimed at his head, crowding close and backing him up against the lockers.
"What the hell?" Tony asked, utterly bewildered. He looked to Steve for answers – damnit, doing it again – and saw that Steve too had been pushed up against the opposite row of lockers. And Steve looked just as confused as he felt.
"I said put your hands up!" shouted the guy standing closest to him. He was right there, mere inches separating the barrel of his weapon from Tony's forehead.
"Okay, okay," Tony said as he complied. "See? They're up." He did a little jazz hands number. "See? Mind telling me what's going on?"
The barrel of the gun dipped the tiniest bit. "What the hell is that?"
Tony sighed. He should have seen this coming, and it pissed him off that he hadn't. Christ, he was really off his game these days. "That, gentlemen, is called an arc reactor."
"Get the Master," snapped the man who was all up in his face. He was clearly in charge, and he looked very unhappy about this latest turn of events.
"No," Tony said immediately, the word slipping out of its own accord before he could even think.
Hands moving so fast they were a blur, the guard reversed the direction of his pistol and bashed Tony in the face with it. His head snapped back and struck the locker at his back. Blood began to run down his chin from a split lip.
"Hey!" Steve yelled in protest. There was a scuffling sound as he tried to push back, but there were too many of them, and they were all armed, and his effort died out almost as quickly as it had begun.
"You don't get to say no around here," the guard said evenly. The barrel of the gun was aimed at Tony's forehead again. "All you get to say anymore is yes. You got it?"
Tony just stared at him, his eyes watering with pain. He couldn’t even lift a hand to wipe the blood off his chin.
"Now what is that thing?" the guard demanded. "It looks to me like it's a bomb."
"It's not a bomb," Tony said wearily. It hurt to talk. "I need it for my heart."
The guard's eyes narrowed. He started to reach for the arc reactor, and Tony stiffened and tried to push himself bodily through the locker at his back in order to put some distance between that hand and his chest. "What, like a pacemaker or something?"
"Exactly like that," Tony said. He kept one eye on the man's hand, watching it with the same fearful dread he might watch a cobra getting ready to strike. "Take it out and you'll kill me. And what will your precious Master say to that?"
The response was immediate and gratifying. The guard dropped his hand like he had been burned. He glared at Tony. "We'll let the Master decide what to do about this," he said, speaking to the room at large. "For now, get your ass in that shower. You stink."
For once Tony was happy to obey an order. He wasted no time, nor was he sparing with the soap and the shampoo. He had no idea when he would get another chance at this, and he meant to make the most of it. The hot water was almost painful on his battered body, but he didn't care. Days of accumulated dirt and filth were washed off in that shower, and he was hard-pressed to keep from groaning out loud with the pure physical bliss of being clean again.
All too soon the shower curtain was ripped back and he was ordered out. With a sigh, Tony stepped back into the locker room and began drying himself off. He let the towel drop, then selected some clothes that looked like they might fit. Nothing fancy, just a pair of black jeans and a button-down shirt in a dark shade of red that was a little too long in the arms but otherwise fit okay. It was difficult not to wonder who the clothes had once belonged to, and what had happened to that man.
Steve looked to be having the same sort of second thoughts as he dressed in a pair of jeans and a light gray sweater. His hair was darker when it was wet, almost brown, Tony noted with clinical detachment – then promptly shook his head. Who the hell cared? What did it matter?
They were escorted back to their room, which had been cleaned while they were gone; the smell of some lemony cleaning product was still strong in the air. Their dinners had arrived too, with actual hot food for a change, and a tiny square of cake on the side. Tony looked at it all and wanted to laugh. The message could not have been any clearer: cooperate and you will be rewarded.
"So what happens tomorrow?" Steve asked quietly.
"I don't know," Tony admitted. He sat down and began helping himself to the cake. He might hate the message and the messenger, but he'd be damned if he turned away from what was probably the last decent meal he was going to get for a while.
He could feel Steve's eyes on him, studying him, looking for a sign of what he was really thinking. But he didn't dare let anything show on his face. He couldn't let himself. "It all depends on what kind of specs they give me. Take it from there, I guess.
Steve made a faint sound, then he shut up. Which was good, because Tony honestly didn't know if he could keep up this charade if Steve persisted on making it so difficult.
"Well, whatever you do," Steve said. "Good luck."
The next morning, the Master eyed him thoughtfully as the guards escorted him to the bridge. "You're full of surprises, Mr. Stark. I hear you've been holding out on me."
Involuntarily, Tony touched the arc reactor. His new shirt was of a thicker material, and the color was dark enough that the light from the device was not visible in a brightly-lit area such as this. Still, he knew it was there – and now so did the Master.
"It's just a pacemaker," he said, sticking to the story he had created yesterday. "It's nothing."
The Master stared at him for a long time. "I don't need to bring another innocent young man in here to make you tell me the truth, do I?"
Tony swallowed hard and hoped to God he didn't sound as afraid as he felt. A day's respite from torture had given him most of his strength back, and he felt more like himself since he had been brought on board. It would suck to lose that feeling so soon. "You can do what you like," he said. "But that won't change anything. It's a pacemaker, nothing else. If you take it out, you'll kill me. That's all there is to it." He tossed his head back and stared at the Master with challenge in his eyes. "Now are you going to let me get to work, or what?"
The Master's eyes narrowed somewhat. "Well, well, well. And look who's suddenly a team player."
Tony let his lip curl in a sneer. It was easy to do, swollen as it was. "Don't get the wrong idea, honey. I hate your fucking guts. You and everything you've done. Everything you stand for. I just won't let you kill any more innocent people."
The Master did not take offense, as Tony had known he would not. He just laughed. "Well said. Also, I appreciate your honesty." He gestured to two guys sitting at the conference table. "Show him the plans."
A roll of blueprints sat on the conference table between the two men, both of whom were wearing white lab coats. It was so trite and clichéd that Tony could feel inappropriate laughter building in the back of his throat. "Really?" he said. "Blueprints? You're the ruler of the entire planet and you couldn't spring for a few tablets?"
The Master gave him a tight-lipped smile. "Only my people get access to the computer network. If you don't like it, you can—"
"No," Tony said, all brash confidence and arrogance. The role slipped on so easily, like a second skin. "I don't like it. And if I'm going to be doing this, I'm going to do it my way. So we make sure it gets done right." He pointed at the two guys in lab coats. "And that means these Poindexters have got to go. I work alone."
As he hadn't been stopped yet, he kept going, digging himself in deeper – and hating himself for it. "I'm going to need access to the Archangel specs and its network. I can build you the greatest missile in the universe and it's not going to do you a damn bit of good unless your ships can communicate with each other and you can coordinate an attack." He smiled. "That's the first lesson of building weapons, you know. Whatever you make, it's only as good as the person firing it. That's something none of those other guys ever figured out, either. That's why I was the best. Well, among other reasons, most of which are related to the fact that I'm the smartest guy on this planet."
Because he'd be damned if he let the Master know about people like Reed Richards or Hank Pym – assuming he didn’t already know. Hopefully those guys were still alive and part of the resistance.
Please God, let there be a resistance.
Tony gestured to the top of the bridge, toward the many monitors and computers that he could see. "So. That's where I need to be. Or actually, someplace smaller, more out of the way. Like your server room. I tend to talk to myself when I'm working. I wouldn't want to disturb you or your crew." He flashed a brilliant smile. "And I'm going to need coffee. Lots of coffee. Let's see. What else? A couple tablets, a laptop or two, and some music. Also, I work long hours. So no interruptions."
And then, because he never knew when to stop, he added coldly, "Normally this is the part where I'd have my assistant draw up a contract for us both to sign, but I'm pretty sure she's dead. So how about we just make this a gentleman's agreement?"
The Master looked at him, considering. Tony had learned that his quiet moments like this were when he was most dangerous – in large part because he seemed so sane then.
Slowly the Master approached him. "It's funny," he said, "but it almost sounds to me as if you're dictating the terms of our little arrangement."
"That's 'cause I am," Tony said. The instinct for self-preservation told him to step back, to lower his eyes, to act meek and submissive now, as he once done in a dark cave in Afghanistan. Instead he tilted his head back and gave the Master his coldest, most condescending stare.
In the labs at Stark Industries, such a look had never failed to produce results – lesser techs and engineers falling all over themselves to bring him corrected schematics, to fix the errors he had found in their coding, their designs, their finished products. Even Pepper had quailed before that look a couple times, back in the very beginning, before she figured out how to handle him.
The Master just studied his face, deep in thought. Without taking his eyes off Tony, he said, "Take those two down below and shoot them."
"Wait!" Tony started to protest.
"You said you don't need them," the Master said. "That means I don't need them either."
He could not look, could not watch as the guards dragged the men to their feet. One of them was silent, but the other managed to find his voice. "Goddamn you, Stark! Tell them you need us! Tell them!"
"Stop!" Tony exclaimed. "Okay, you made your point. I'll work with them. Fine. Just stop. Stop!"
"Oh, I'm sorry," the Master said, his voice dripping with mock sympathy. "But we have to accept your first answer."
The doomed man's screams lingered for a while before he was finally, mercifully, out of earshot. The Master smiled a little. "There," he said. "All gone."
Tony swallowed hard, but did not dare to speak. Two more men dead. Because of him. I was trying to save you, he thought dully. I just wanted to help.
"You'll get what you wanted," the Master said. "But you won't be working alone. The Doctor will assist you. That is not negotiable."
"Fine, that's fine," Tony said quickly. "Whatever. Just let me get to work."
"I expect results," the Master said. "Every able-bodied person down there is being rounded up so they can build my ships. I want working designs for them within the month."
It was a longer deadline than Tony had expected, but he could find no reason to feel relief over it. "Yeah."
"Good!" the Master said brightly. "Then get started." He turned away, and made a sweeping gesture.
A man rose from the floor. Tony's jaw dropped. He hadn't noticed the guy earlier, because, well, he'd been busy trying not to be sick as he caused two more innocent men to die. He wondered now how he could have missed this.
It was the Doctor – except it wasn't. The striped brown suit and the sneakers were the same, but this guy was not old. He was young and skinny, and his hair stood up the way Tony's did after a bender in the workshop.
The Master laughed in delight. "Got you, didn't I?"
"What the hell is this?" Tony said.
"It's the Doctor!" the Master said. "The way he was. Before. I'm the one that aged him, didn't you know? Oh I know, he was so old and pitiful, wasn't he? I didn't want him to get all worn out while he was helping you. So he'll be on his best behavior, won't he?" This last was aimed at the Doctor. That false compassion dropped from his voice, and he spoke with cold promise. "Or I'll show him what nine hundred years is really like."
"You have what you wanted," the Doctor said. Without the quaver of age, his voice was low and pleasant. "You don't need to threaten us."
"I know I don't need to," the Master said, bright and cheerful again. "But it's so much fun! Now." He made a shooing gesture with both hands. "You boys run along and play."
Like everything else on a ship where space was at a premium, the server room was rather small. It was also extremely cold, as it needed to be in order to keep the servers from overheating. There wasn't room enough for a chair; any work done in here would require standing. Remembering his crack about working long hours, Tony stifled a grimace and just sighed.
There was a single laptop set up on a stand near the door. He turned this on and stared down at the screen. "So, what's your story?"
"Sorry?" the Doctor asked. He was looking around at everything with curiosity.
"What's your name?" Tony asked. He glanced up briefly, then returned his gaze to the laptop's screen.
"The Doctor is fine," said the Doctor.
"Yeah, I get that," said Tony. "But what's your name? Your real name?"
"Just the Doctor will do," said the Doctor. His tone was still friendly enough, but it was clear that he considered the matter closed.
Tony stopped himself from rolling his eyes with an effort. "Okay then. Just…don't start calling me the Inventor or something. I mean, as far as names I've been called go, that one's pretty tame, but still."
The Doctor just smiled. "Wouldn't dream of it."
"So, ah, you're not from around here, are you?" The login screen for the Archangel network had popped up. There was a code handwritten on a yellow Post-it note stuck to the wall to his right; with a sigh over how sloppy people were, Tony input the user ID and password written there.
"Nope," the Doctor said. He thrust his hands into his pockets.
The answer to his next question was pretty obvious too, but it needed asking anyway. Just to be sure. "Not human, then?"
"Time Lord, actually," said the Doctor.
"Oh," Tony said. He was in the network now. He started typing, moving past firewalls and security measures, looking for a sign, that one thing that would give him hope. "Yeah, I'm not… That's not ringing any bells with me. Never heard of it."
The Doctor made a little kind of bouncy movement, bobbing up on his toes, then settling back again. "Means I can see, and travel through, time and space."
"Huh," Tony said. He wasn't at all sure he believed in that kind of thing, but given the week he had had, he couldn't exactly rule it out, either. "That's actually pretty cool."
"It can be," agreed the Doctor.
He was almost in, almost there. "And where are you from?"
"My planet was destroyed," the Doctor said quietly. "The Master and I are the only ones left."
Tony looked over at him. It was a little eerie, the way that expression of sorrow on his face remained the same even now that he was young in appearance. "So you do know him. I thought there might be a history there."
"Oh yes," said the Doctor. "We were friends once, long ago."
"Yeah," Tony said. "How's that working out for you?"
The Doctor just pursed his lips. "We should really, really, just focus on our work here."
"Yeah," Tony said. "Good idea." He turned back to the laptop, and there it was. He was just one step away now.
His heart pounding, fingers skittering over the keys, he typed in the security code and password he had created almost a year and a half ago. Back when the Archangel network was just a rumor, before the satellites had been launched, before Harold Saxon had been anybody.
There was the briefest pause, then a window popped up. Words scrolled across the screen. It's good to hear from you, sir.
Ah God, the relief of it, the sheer, utter relief of learning that he was not alone, that he had a line now to the outside world, that he could talk to the one soul he trusted more than anyone else. Nearly overcome by a sudden rush of emotion, Tony bowed his head, his eyes stinging.
"Tony?" The Doctor's hand touched his arm lightly.
And yes, damnit yes. He could not give in like this. He could not afford that kind of weakness. He reached up with a trembling hand and swiped at his eyes, then sniffed back the tears. "Yeah. I'm fine."
He typed, You too. Not many friendly faces up here.
"Oh," the Doctor said as he read the words on the screen, "you're good."
Tony barely glanced at him. "What?"
"You've made contact already. That's very good."
"Not just contact," Tony said. "This is JARVIS, my AI. I uploaded him into the Archangel network when it first came out. I went out incognito and bought my first ever cell phone that wasn't a Starkphone. Pepper nearly had a heart attack when she saw it. She thought someone had planted it on me as a form of corporate espionage." He smiled a little in fond remembrance, recalling the way she had stared at the phone like it was the enemy. "Anyway, I used it to hack into the Archangel network, and uploaded JARVIS."
The Doctor looked at him blankly.
"They were our biggest rival," Tony explained. "If you weren't using a Starkphone and on my satellites, you were on the Archangel network. Which, as we all know now, is under the Master's thumb. I mean, it always was, but nobody knew that. Until now."
"So even though you had no reason to suspect them of anything, you still wanted to spy on them," the Doctor said.
"Pretty much, yeah," Tony said. It sounded rather heartless when said like that, but he really didn't care. Because as it turned out, he had been right to be suspicious.
"With an artificial intelligence. One that you created?" the Doctor said.
"Yes," Tony said. "His name is JARVIS. He helps me with the suit, with Iron Man. And my work. And if he finds out about him…" He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence. The thought of the Master getting his hands on JARVIS was unbearable.
"He won't hear it from me, I can promise you that," the Doctor said. There was a strange note in his voice, and Tony turned around to look at him.
The Doctor was smiling. And not just smiling. Beaming with pride, actually. "You created an artificial intelligence. One that actually works. And now he's going to be our point of contact with the people down there."
"Um, yes?" Tony said.
The Doctor was flat out grinning now. "Tony Stark, you're a genius! And I don't often say that!"
It was impossible not to smile back. "Yeah, I know."
The Doctor shook his head, still marveling with amazement. "Genius," he said again.
A smile still lingering on his mouth, Tony turned back to the laptop. "Okay, JARVIS," he muttered, typing the words even as he spoke them. "Give it to me."
The words appeared on the screen, made even more horrible by having to read them instead of hearing them spoken in JARVIS's calm voice.
First came the list of the cities that had been destroyed – a horrifyingly long list. On the right side of the window was a column showing the total number of fatalities. As he scrolled through the list, that number climbed upward with sickening speed.
Next came the military installations and bases that had been wiped off the map. Included on this list was the SHIELD helicarrier.
Communications were down throughout the world, except for the Archangel network, and the Master's televised broadcasts, where he instructed the people of Earth on what they were to do next. Currently those instructions involved doing nothing more than sitting tight at home and waiting to be inspected. Those people who had a legitimate reason to be out and about, such as doctors, would be given special licenses as proof of their freedom. The fate of everyone else was still to be sorted out, but there was already talk of slave labor camps being set up.
And still the number in that right hand column kept climbing. It was impossible not to look at it, not to feel like he was going to be sick.
The flow of information came to a halt. Then, more slowly, new words appeared.
Colonel Rhodes has assumed the name War Machine and placed himself at SHIELD's disposal. His current whereabouts are unknown, however he remains in communication when possible. His last location was a safe house in Pennsylvania, along with Director Nick Fury, Agent Maria Hill, Agent Phil Coulson, and sixteen other members of SHIELD.
Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan did not survive the collapse of Stark Tower. They were last seen inside the building, attempting to contact a group of people who were too frightened to evacuate.
I am very sorry, sir.
The words blurred into nothing. Tears he could not let fall burned his eyes.
Pepper. Happy. Dead.
Their faces rose before him, smiling, laughing, stern with disapproval, impressed, disappointed. Happy pulling up to the curb, coffee ready. Where to, sir? Pepper, one hand in his hair, smiling as she whispered naughty things in his ear. Live in the moment, Tony.
"I'm sorry." The Doctor spoke quietly. He had seen the message, of course. "Did you know them?"
Tony nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak just yet.
"I'm so sorry," the Doctor said. He touched Tony's shoulder again, this time letting his hand linger in a show of sympathy.
He reached up to wipe at the tears – stupid, stupid, stupid to give in like this – and instead found himself digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to push back the grief that made him want to sink to the floor and curl up so no one else could see him. His shoulders hitched; sobs threatened to choke him.
But he could not give in to them. He could not. Not here. Not now. He had a job to do.
He dragged in a shaky breath, held it, then slowly exhaled. Counted to five. Lifted his head.
Slowly he typed, Thank you. Are you safe?
The answer was immediate. They do not know of my existence.
Beside him, the Doctor removed his hand from his shoulder. Tony tried to focus his thoughts. Tell Fury that Clint Barton is dead. The Master killed him. Natasha escaped. Steve and I are all that's left.
Natasha Romanoff is rumored to be traveling with Martha Jones, JARVIS replied. There is a substantial reward being offered for any information about them.
"Martha Jones again," Tony muttered. "Who the hell is this Martha Jones?" Whoever she was, the Master sure had his panties in a bunch over her.
"Oh!" the Doctor said brightly. "Martha's one of mine."
Tony turned to him. "Excuse me?"
"She's with me," the Doctor said. He sounded fiercely proud. "She travels with me."
"Okay," Tony said.
"Not like that," the Doctor said sharply.
"I didn't say anything," Tony said.
"Martha is a good friend, nothing more," the Doctor said firmly. "And she's brilliant, she is. She's out there right now, doing something no one else can do."
"Natasha can do it, too, evidently," Tony said.
The Doctor seemed to ponder on this. "Yes, that is a fortunate coincidence. I wonder how they met."
"Does it really matter?" Tony said. He turned back to the computer and typed, I'm letting the Master think I'm working for him, to get access to the Archangel network and you. Tell the others. He hesitated, then added, Don't want anyone getting the wrong ideas about my allegiance.
I will be sure of it, JARVIS replied.
"I suppose not," mused the Doctor. "Anyway, with the two of them out there, we stand a much better chance."
"Chance of what?" Tony said.
"Rescue, of course," said the Doctor, like this was self-evident.
"Uh-huh," Tony said. "I'm not sure how much you know about me, but I'm not exactly the type to sit around and wait for a rescue. Last time I was in a situation like this, I got myself out. And that's what I'm planning to do now."
"He'll never let you," said the Doctor. "Clever as you are, you're no match for him."
"Oh really?" Tony snapped.
"You should trust me on this," the Doctor said. "You've done well, and you're obviously very smart, but what you need to do now is keep your head down and not draw attention to yourself."
"Have you met me?" Tony murmured.
"Let Martha and Natasha do their part," the Doctor said. "They have a job to do. I had a chance to talk to Martha before she beamed off the ship. She—"
"Wait." Tony looked at him. "She beamed off the ship? What is this, Star Trek?"
"Of course not," the Doctor said, sounding affronted. "She used Jack's vortex manipulator."
Tony sighed. He was starting to get a headache. If this guy always talked in circles like this, it was no wonder he went by a title instead of a real name. "Who the hell is Jack?"
"Jack is a Time Agent from the 51st century," said the Doctor. "He was with Martha and I when we came on board. We were here to stop the Master."
"That worked out well, I see," Tony said.
"Yes," the Doctor sighed. He brightened. "Anyway, Jack is the one the Master killed in front of you the other day."
Tony's jaw tightened. He could still see the man lying there on the floor, blood spreading in a pool about his head. "Thanks for the reminder."
The Doctor looked puzzled, then his expression cleared. "Oh! Oh, no no no! It's okay, you see. Jack didn't die."
"Okay, I know you were old at the time and your eyesight was probably shitty, what with the cataracts and all," Tony said, "but that guy, this Jack person, he was dead. Shot in the head, in case you missed it."
"Yes, I know," the Doctor said. He was smiling, incredibly enough. "But that's just it. Jack can't die. Well, I mean, he can, but he comes back. He always does. He's alive, right now, Prisoner just like yourself."
Tony stared at him. He hated the desperate hope that flared in his chest. It couldn't be real. He couldn't be this lucky. "He's alive?"
The Doctor beamed. "And kicking."
Apparently he could. Instead of feeling relief or gratitude, though, all he felt was anger and a weary kind of disbelief. "You've been standing here for half an hour and you didn't think to tell me that?!"
"I, er, sorry," the Doctor offered. "I forget that not everyone knows."
There was a terrible pun in there about not knowing Jack, but Tony was not about to make it. He just turned back to the laptop. "Well thanks, I guess. Even if you do have shitty timing."
Still, it was a reprieve he had never expected. One death subtracted from his body count. Too bad nobody was going to ever give him any good news about those two scientists from this morning.
"So anyway, explain to me about this teleport thingy, flux capacitor, whatever it's called."
"Vortex manipulator. And it doesn't matter now," the Doctor said. "Martha has it. She used it to get off the ship when the Master revealed himself. I had just enough time to talk to her before she went. She knows what she's doing down there." He nodded a little. "And she'll do it brilliantly."
"Okay, great," Tony said. "Sounds like her and Natasha have it under control. I guess all we need to do is sit back and wait to be rescued."
The Doctor smiled. It was a kind expression, but it was plain that he was not really amused. "No, they can't do it alone. We need to do our part."
Already tired of half-answers and cryptic comments, Tony just sighed. "Which is?"
Quietly the Doctor outlined his plan. It was probably the most stupid plan Tony had ever heard – and that included building a giant metal suit and shooting his way out of a cave of bad guys. But because it was the only plan they had, he was forced to concede that it was better than nothing.
"Your role now," the Doctor said, "is to strengthen the Archangel network. Can you do that?"
"Sure I can," Tony said, "but won't that defeat the purpose? Boosting the signal is just going to make our girls' job that much harder."
"Don't worry about them," the Doctor said. "They'll be fine."
"I know they will," Tony said. "But you also know that I'm going to have to do what he says. If I don't start producing some real results, he'll get out his happy stick again – and oh crap that came out all wrong –"
"Laser screwdriver," the Doctor said.
"Oh yeah," Tony said. "I forgot. Who the hell named it that, anyway?"
"As if laser is so much better than sonic," the Doctor mumbled under his breath. "Show off."
Tony couldn't stop himself from rolling his eyes that time. "Is this the part where I tell you two to get a room? Would that even work? Get out the happy sticks for real and just fuck out your differences?"
The Doctor gave him a strange little smile. "If that worked," he said, "it would have worked long ago."
After an exceedingly awkward moment of silence, Tony nodded. "Gotcha." He turned back to the computer, determined to never again ask about the history between the Doctor and the Master.
"Do what you need to do," the Doctor said. "But remember your real task. And be ready, when the time comes."
"When will that be?" Tony asked.
"When it's time," the Doctor said.
"Whatever you say," Tony grumbled.
He started to work.
It was late in the day when the guards came to escort him back to his cell. By then he was more than ready to go. His feet, legs and back ached atrociously from standing all day. He was tired, and hungry, and thirsty enough to drink straight from the tap in their tiny little bathroom.
Steve stood back and gave him time to slake his thirst. "I saved this for you," he said, holding something out with both hands. It wasn't much, just a sad little pile of green beans sitting on top of a stack of neatly folded toilet paper. There was also what looked like a corn muffin. "It was all I could keep from dinner."
Pathetic as it was, this offering was still rather touching. "Thanks," Tony said. He began eating the beans with his fingers. They were cold and disgusting, but he was too hungry to care. There were only a few left when a sudden suspicion struck him. "Wait, is this from your dinner?"
Steve lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "They only brought one tray. You weren't here."
"Son of a bitch." Tony glared at the muffin. "You take that."
"I had the rest of it," Steve said. "Please, you need to eat."
"And you don't?" Tony scowled. He was about done with people making sacrifices for him. Especially Steve, who had been doing it ever since they had been brought on board.
"I can go for a lot longer than you can on less food," Steve pointed out.
"If they're going to want me to keep working," Tony said, "they'll have to start bringing me food. I'll make a point of complaining about that tomorrow."
"What…" Steve looked uncomfortable. "What do they have you doing?"
Tony stared at the corn muffin. His stomach twisted, and he was suddenly too nauseous to even think about eating it. "I got access to their network. But he killed two guys because of me."
Steve's breath caught. He had been standing across the room, but now he came over and sat on the floor beside Tony. "Are you okay?"
The day's events were all suddenly right there, reminding him that hell no, he was not okay, he was about the furthest from okay that he could be. Work had saved him during the day, keeping his thoughts occupied, but now he had plenty of time to think about everything that had happened.
"I was trying to save them," he said dully. "I told the Master I worked alone, that I didn't need them. So he…he killed them. They never did anything to me. And I killed them. One of them was…was screaming at me when they dragged him away." His voice broke, and he had to stop.
"Tony." Steve leaned in close. "You don't have to…"
But he did. He did. If he didn't say it now, he never would. And he had to. He had to say it out loud. This was his penance, his punishment. He deserved this. He needed Steve to know the truth. To hear it and blame him. "And…I made contact with JARVIS. He told me things. What's going on out there. Pepper…and Happy…they're dead." He swallowed thickly. "My friends are dead."
Steve reached up with both hands, setting one hand on each of his shoulders; he had to scoot close and sling his left arm across Tony's back to accomplish this. "I'm so sorry."
It hurt too much, and he was so tired. Tony bowed his head into his hands and wept. He didn't even care what Steve might think.
And Steve, bless him, did not ask any questions. He didn't ask who JARVIS was, or Pepper, or Happy, or how they had died. Nor did he level any blame for the deaths of the two innocent scientists. He just sat there, and when he tugged gently on Tony's shoulders, Tony turned blindly toward him and let Steve hold him as he cried over this latest round of horrors.
God, how much more would he be expected to take?
Too soon the storm of grief ran its course. Too soon, because he knew it wasn't through with him. It was banked now, but it would lie in wait for him, to ambush him when he least expected it.
That was all right, though. All his life that was how he had dealt with emotions that were too strong: burying them deep inside where they might never see the light of day.
Why should this be any different?
He sat up, and Steve released him immediately. He felt a mild sting of shame, but nothing more. After the past week, and everything they had been through together, it was hard to feel embarrassed around Steve anymore.
"Don't be sorry," Steve said. "At least this way I get to be useful."
The bitterness in his voice was surprising. Tony looked at him and realized suddenly how horrible it had to be for Steve to sit here all day, wondering what was happening to him, wondering if he would even come back at all. Steve was a soldier, a man of action. This forced inactivity had to be worse for him than any other torment.
"Hey," he said, "leverage is useful."
Steve's mouth turned down. "Ha ha, very funny."
Tony sighed and leaned back against the wall. "Yeah, I know. I do better when I've got cue cards."
Steve nodded. He settled in next to Tony, sitting so close their shoulders and upper arms touched. "When I was selling war bonds, I wrote the speech down and hid it inside my shield. That way if I ever forgot the next line, I could just raise the shield and look all patriotic – but really I was checking for what to say."
"Why Steve Rogers," Tony said. "How positively wicked of you. That's actually verging on – gasp – dishonesty!" He was reaching for the humor; he could hear a tinge of desperation in his voice, but he had to do it. If he couldn't distract himself, he was going to end up mired in grief all over again.
"Oh please," Steve scoffed. His levity, too, sounded forced, which only made Tony appreciate it all the more. It meant a lot that Steve was willing to try, just for his sake. "Half the time I didn't even know where we were. The cities all blended together after a while. I had to get them to remind me, so I wouldn't screw up and say Cleveland instead of Chicago."
Tony tried to imagine it, noble Captain America up on stage, fumbling with his rehearsed speech. Except he couldn't do it. Living legends like Steve Rogers did not do something as mundane as forget their lines.
"Oh my God." Steve suddenly sat bolt upright, his face white as a sheet.
Alarmed by this behavior coming out of nowhere, Tony sat up, too. "What?"
Steve stared at him, his eyes wide in horror. "The things you said… About making contact… I thought they could hear us. They'll know…"
Tony just looked at him. "Did you really think I would spend all day in the Master's computer network and not take care of that little problem?"
As comprehension dawned, a smile spread across Steve's face. He nodded. "Good thinking."
"Every now and then I get a good idea," Tony said. "You might have heard of this little thing called Stark Industries? Anyway, I couldn't take the camera offline completely. Obviously they'd notice. So I programmed it to use random recycled footage from previous days. Last thing I did before I left was to activate the program. There's a time delay of five minutes, giving me enough time to get back here, then it kicks in. We've got about two hours before it goes live again. Anything longer than that and we run the risk of them figuring it out."
"So we have two hours from the moment you got back here, where they can't see or hear us," Steve said.
"Yep," Tony said. "So we better make it count." On another day he would have punctuated that statement with a wink and a leer, but today he lacked the stomach for it.
Steve looked impressed. "Tony, that's really good work. You did all that just today?"
The Doctor had been impressed too, while cautioning that it was a dangerous game he was playing at. He had just shrugged. It was worth the risk in order to have some privacy. Especially now that they really were conspiring against the Master. "It was easy enough."
"Well, you're right," Steve said. He gave Tony a faint smile. "Again." His smile died and he became somber again. "We shouldn't waste this time. I think you better tell me then. Everything. Starting with who this Jarvis person is, and whether or not we can trust him."
"Yeah," Tony sighed. "I think I better."
Steve was a good audience. He listened to Tony's story and didn't interrupt too often. He accepted the existence of JARVIS and Time Lords and teleportation devices with minimal shock and wonder. He gave Tony time to recover when he got to the part about Pepper and Happy's deaths, when he had to stop talking for a while in order to regain his composure. And he was silent and grim when he heard about the Master's plans for humanity, and the death toll from the invasion.
He was, however, skeptical about the Doctor's plan. "Are you sure it's going to work?"
"Hell no, I'm not sure," Tony said. He hadn't cried with the second telling of his story, but it had been a near thing. He felt utterly exhausted, worn out just from sheer emotion. "But as of right now it's the only plan we've got. So for now, we're going with it."
"So you work on strengthening the signal given out by the Archangel network," Steve said.
"Which will take me all of a day," Tony said. "At most." That was the easy part. The hard part was the timing. Despite what the Doctor said, he didn't want to move too soon.
"And what do you do until then?" Steve asked.
Tony sighed. He glared at the corn muffin that neither of them had yet eaten. "Design his fucking weapons, I guess. As slowly as I can. I can drag it out for a while, work more on designing the ships themselves, their communication systems, life support, that kind of thing. If I'm productive enough in those areas, he might not even notice he's not getting weapons right away."
"And if he does notice?" Steve said.
"Then I'm screwed," he said simply.
They sat in silence for a while. There was no reason to remain sitting so close, maintaining physical contact with the way their shoulders touched. Neither of them was hurt, and there was no more danger of being overheard by any listening devices. But it felt comfortable, and after the terrible day he had had, Tony was grateful for Steve's presence in a way he hadn't even felt when he was being tortured.
"You know, I, um," Steve said. He looked down at his lap. "There's something I should say to you."
"It's okay," Tony said quickly. He didn't even know why he said it – the words just blurted themselves out without engaging his brain. "We can still see other people."
Steve looked over at him with amused confusion. "What?" Then he shook his head. "Never mind. I don't want to know."
Tony just shrugged, feeling Steve's shoulder lift with his as he made the gesture. Yeah, it hadn't been his best comeback, but given everything he'd dealt with today, he figured he should get points just for trying.
"Anyway, I just wanted to say, when I first woke up, SHIELD gave me some files. Things to read. Some of it was on their own agents, like Clint and Natasha. Others were for people who might one day be invited to join the Avengers Initiative. And…there was a big file on you, and Iron Man."
"Of course there was," Tony said. "Natasha wrote it. I saw part of it."
Steve glanced at him. "Well, I read it. All of it. And I…have to say that I agreed with Agent Romanoff's assessment. I didn't think you were right for the team."
Coming after a day when he had seen the six-figure death toll for the Master's bloody coup, been directly responsible for the deaths of two innocent people, and learned that Pepper and Happy were dead, it was a little surprising just how much those words hurt. "Oh," he said. He tried to summon the old carefree charm. "Well, I can't really say that I blame you. I mean, I know I'm nobody's first choice when they think 'team player.' I'm more of a solo act, really. And I—"
"Tony," Steve said. "Shut up."
He closed his mouth with a snap.
"What I'm trying to say, if you would ever let me finish, is that I was wrong. You've proven yourself a dozen times over, starting with our battle in New York, leading right up to today. So that's what I wanted to say. I'm sorry for doubting you. For not believing in you."
It was ridiculous, the way his heart suddenly raced and his palms were wet with sweat. "No," he said, and he barely recognized his own voice. "No, you were right the first time. I'm not—"
"You are, Tony," Steve said.
"I'm really not," he said.
"You are," Steve repeated. "You are an Avenger. You are a hero, Tony Stark. Never doubt that."
"Oh man," Tony said weakly. "You really don't know me at all, do you?"
"No, I think I do," Steve said. He studied Tony's face, his blue eyes so open and sincere that Tony had to look away because he couldn't bear to see the respect there, a respect he absolutely did not deserve. "That's something else the report got wrong. You're not really the arrogant bastard everyone thinks you are."
"Yes, I am," he protested – but there wasn't much force to it.
"You really don't think you're worthy, do you?" Steve said with wonder.
"Now you're getting it," Tony murmured. He wanted to get up, to move away. He wanted to put a stop to this conversation right now. But he felt frozen in place. It was stupid, it was weak, it was a sign of how far he had fallen – but he needed that reassuring warmth of Steve's shoulder against his.
"Well, I guess that's something else I can do," Steve said. "Make you see that you're wrong."
"You can try," Tony said doubtfully. "But I'm warning you now, you'll have your work cut out for you."
"That's okay," Steve said. He smiled a little. "I'm always up for a challenge."
Tony huffed out a little laugh. Great. Now bolstering his self-esteem was a job for Captain America. Could his day get any worse?
Immediately he caught his breath. Tempting fate was never a good idea. I take it back, damnit. I take it back.
A chime on his watch went off. Startled, they both looked at his wrist.
Saved by the bell. Literally. "Five minute warning," Tony said. He pointed to the ceiling and swirled his finger around in a gesture that encompassed the entire room. "Going live soon."
"Wonderful," Steve said. He sat still for a moment, looking like he had something to say. Tony tensed up when he opened his mouth, but instead of speaking, Steve just sighed and stood up. "I guess I better pee now, huh?"
In spite of the fact that it meant they were about to be spied on again, Tony couldn't help feeling relieved that the time for serious discussion was over. "Probably a good idea."
"What is it they say these days?" Steve mused. "How is this my life?"
Tony chuckled. "Not bad, not bad. For a Capsicle."
Steve made a face. "Still with the name?"
"Not my fault it suits you," Tony said with a shrug. "Now hurry up. You're cutting into my peeing-in-private time here."
With one last disapproving scowl, Steve walked into the tiny bathroom. Tony tipped his head back against the wall, closed his eyes, and wondered just what the hell he had gotten himself into.
Tony's dreams that night were a jumble of faces from his past. They all seemed to be trying to warn him about something, but he couldn't hear them over the sound of someone screaming. He had a sinking feeling that someone was himself, too.
He woke with a jolt, and promptly had to stifle a groan. He put a hand to the small of his back and grimaced. After standing up all day yesterday, an uncomfortable night's sleep on the hard floor hadn't done him any favors.
He turned his head to the side and fell still. Normally he and Steve slept on opposite ends of the room, each with a wall to their back. This morning, however, Steve was lying at right angles to him, stretched out with his head only two feet away from Tony's. A faint furrow drew his brows together, and his eyes moved restlessly back and forth as dreamed of his own horrors.
It was weird to wake up and see Steve so close. But even weirder to admit that it was also kind of nice. As though even in their sleep, they had still somehow managed to watch over each other.
No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than Tony sat up, scowling at himself. Christ, he was getting sentimental in his old age.
Moving quietly so he didn't disturb Steve, he went into the bathroom. He hoped the Master would let them shower again soon; he didn't want to have to wait another week before getting to feel clean again. More annoying was the fact that he was probably going to have to shave off his goatee next chance he got. Keeping it maintained was going to be impossible under these conditions. Already it was looking scraggly, the clean lines getting fuzzy with growth.
Careful as he had been, he was not surprised to see that Steve was awake when he returned to their small cell. He grunted a greeting, then slid down the wall to sit there and wait for the Master's guards to come for him.
"Everything okay?" Steve asked.
"Sure," Tony said. "I mean, my friends are still dead, we're still being held prisoner by a madman from another planet, but other than that, yeah, everything's great."
Steve gave him a look, one that said plain as day, Really, Tony? It was a look Pepper had down cold, and he –
Something in his brain shut down then, at the thought of Pepper. He couldn’t do it. Couldn't bear it.
Steve was already in the bathroom and couldn't see him, but the cameras were there, as ever. Tony looked straight up at the ceiling and raised his middle finger.
"Rise and shine, fucker."
True to his word, Tony didn't miss a chance to complain. He bitched to the guards about needing a shower, better food, and chairs for the server room. He whined about the hard floor and the lack of any creature comforts in his cell. He repeated his first set of complaints, a little louder this time. Then for good measure, he topped it all off with a heavy sigh. "I really don't know how the Master expects me to work under these conditions."
They were at the server room by then. The Doctor was already standing there with his own armed guard, waiting on him. As soon as the guards left, having paid no attention to Tony's litany of complaints, the Doctor shook his head. "You really shouldn't do that."
"What?" Tony said. "Try to better my situation?"
"Call attention to yourself," the Doctor said.
"I've been singled out by an alien madman who wants me to build weapons for his fleet of interstellar rocket ships," Tony said. "I think there's already a spotlight on my head."
The Doctor just pursed his lips and shook his head again.
Tony looked at him, noticing for the first time how pale and strained his expression was. As if he was in pain.
And the other shoe dropped.
"So. I know he told you to spy on me," he said. "That's a given. I mean, it's the real reason you're here, right? But I'm guessing you held out on him, judging by the look on your face."
The Doctor did not deny it. "I won't break our confidences," he said.
"Of course you won't," Tony said. He began typing away on the laptop, entering the codes that would give him access to JARVIS. "It's your ass on the line, too."
"It's the entire planet on the line," the Doctor said quietly.
"That too," Tony allowed.
Words scrolled across the screen. Good morning, sir. You have six new messages.
For a long time after that, not much happened.
Tony held up his end of the bargain, although he did drag his feet as much as possible. He sent improbable and fantastic designs to the Master, knowing they would be shot down for logistical and practical reasons – then vociferously complained when they were given back to him. He made small, insignificant changes, sent the plans back, then bitched some more when they were returned yet again.
In the end, though, he had no choice but to give the Master something. With deep reluctance, he finally turned over plans for a fully functional interstellar rocket.
As a reward for his cooperation, he and Steve were moved to a slightly larger room – one that had a bathroom with a shower. There were also two narrow cots brought in for them to sleep on, and two scratchy wool blankets. It wasn't much, but after weeks of sleeping on the floor and being able to feel the dirt accumulating on his skin, Tony gave thanks for it.
The change in venue did give him a day's worth of panic, though, as he hurried to find the new video feed for their room, and change the programming to allow him and Steve those precious two hours a night of privacy. Because this camera had no old footage to draw from, he had to patch in older footage from their first prison cell. It was a big risk, but he had no choice. They needed those two hours.
He gave the Master plans for a communications system. Life support. Shuttles for back-and-forth visits between the larger ships. With each set of plans, he received something in return: tablets, a chair in the server room, a supply of clothing so he and Steve didn't have to wear the same grungy things day after day. Eventually one wall of the server room was knocked down and the space expanded into the room beside it, giving him a working area roughly the size of a small living room.
The Doctor was there half the time, ostensibly to help, but really there to spy on him. Some days, though, he never showed up at all. Tony never asked where he was or why he didn't show. It was none of his business what went on between the Doctor and the Master.
He didn't see much of the Master himself. Armed guards acted as intermediaries and couriers between them, delivering Tony's latest set of plans, or the Master's terse replies. This suited Tony just fine, since it was far easier to bluster and lie to the guards than to the Master. He figured the guards were interrogated each night as to his behavior, and they, certainly, would have no qualms about being truthful. So he kept up the pretense of working hard and feeling slighted over his misunderstood genius, and in private he did everything he could to undermine the Master's regime.
JARVIS was a veritable fountain of information. From the AI he learned that labor camps were being set up all over the world, and people were being put to work building the Master's ships. Metal was brought in from any source possible, and mines that had been dormant for years were re-opened in the hopes of finding more precious metals within the Earth itself.
Martha Jones was still at large. Natasha was with her, and together they were number one on the Master's most-wanted list. They had been seen in Europe, and lately, Russia. No one was quite sure what they were doing. Natasha reported in to SHIELD when she could, but communications were spotty, and even when she did manage to make contact, she did not tell them what she and Martha were up to.
That was one bit of news Tony did not take well – the lack of communications. The Stark satellites had all been compromised and made part of the Archangel network. JARVIS could have kept out the Master's computer techs, but Tony had been forced to give the command to let them in. He had fought long and hard with the Doctor on this point, but in the end he had caved to the Doctor's arguments. Preserving the Stark satellites would have tipped the Master off to JARVIS's existence, while also throwing suspicion on Tony himself – for who else could have done it? And the one thing Tony could not do was lose access to the Archangel network. Everything depended on keeping that, as the Doctor so often reminded him.
There was definitely a resistance out there, though. Rhodey and SHIELD were at the forefront of it in the U.S., but others had cropped up too. Someone calling himself Captain Britain had appeared in Essex. There were superheroes in China and the Philippines, and King T'Challa of Wakanda was number two on the Master's most-wanted list.
But for all their efforts, they were no closer to ending the Master's rule. And the Toclafane were everywhere, covering the planet and making any overt rebellion next to impossible. So far no one had been able to capture even a single alien sphere, although Reed and the Fantastic Four had come damn close, according to a report from JARVIS one day.
Tell him to keep at it, Tony typed.
I will do so. Director Fury inquires as to your health, you and Captain Rogers.
On that topic, something had happened.
It was hard to say, though, when exactly it had happened. For quite a while, nothing changed at all. Tony privately mourned for Pepper and Happy, and Steve mourned for, well, there was no telling with him. Everyone, probably. He was Captain America, after all.
But as the days wore on and became first weeks, then months, something subtle began to appear between them. It took Tony a while to figure it out, but once he did, he couldn't believe he had missed it for so long.
He liked Steve. Really liked him.
And that was… kind of nice, actually.
At first it was weird. He had grown up in a house where Steve Rogers and Captain America were damn near idolized. In the bitter corners of his heart, Tony had thought more than once that Howard Stark would have preferred Steve as his son instead of the one he had. It hadn't taken long for his child's hero-worship to sour into something more like scorn and dislike.
Meeting the actual man behind the myth had been a bit of shock. Granted, they had already been under heavy fire from the Toclafane and there hadn't exactly been a chance for normal conversation, but what little he had seen of Steve had been enough to fill him with a grudging respect. No matter how off balance Steve might have felt in this strange new world, he had been at the top of his game during that doomed battle. The fact that the Avengers had been so badly defeated could in no way be blamed on Steve Rogers.
And there was no denying that he had saved Tony's life. Not literally, of course, but in every other way. His quiet strength, his mere presence, had kept Tony going through those dark days of torture when he had been a hairs-breadth away from giving in to the Master's demands. Ultimately of course he had given in, but he knew that every day he had held out had been one more day for Natasha Romanoff and Martha Jones to make their escape and start putting the Doctor's plan into effect. Every day he had bought them with his silence was one more day when they were still fighting, still resisting.
And he owed all that to Steve.
Even now, when there was no more need for it, Steve was generous with his strength. Daily he reminded Tony to be careful, to look out for himself, to stick to the Doctor's plan and not do anything rash. At first Tony had bristled when Steve made those comments, thinking that Steve didn't trust him. But after a while he realized the true reason for them – Steve was worried about him. And after that, he took a sort of quiet courage from them.
Steve knew he could do this. That wasn't what worried Steve. It was what the Master might do that worried him.
On that score, at least, they were even. Thanks to JARVIS, Tony saw the growing number of people impressed into the slave labor camps, and he thought about Steve's strength, and he wondered. How long before the Master decided that he was submissive enough that Steve's presence was no longer needed as leverage? How long before Steve was sent down below, to the camps that now covered the entire south coast of England?
Not that he ever said anything to Steve about his fears.
Instead he talked about things that now seemed insignificant. What it was like to lose both his parents at such an early age and inherit Stark Industries. The years he had spent building weapons and being a total asshole. His fun little adventure in Afghanistan. Creating Iron Man and the arc reactor and then nearly dying from it. Things that in another life he would never have talked about, especially not with someone he had only known for a few months. But here on the Valiant, in those precious hours when the camera's eye was blind and he and Steve could be themselves, somehow none of those things carried the weight they once would have. They belonged to another Tony Stark in another lifetime. That man and that life were long gone. Telling the secrets of that past no longer mattered.
Steve seemed to feel the same way. He talked freely about his life before the war, when he had been skinny and sickly and had to fight back on a daily basis against bullies. He was honest about his reasons for wanting to go to war, and why he had agreed to Dr. Erskine's plan even when he had no assurance that the serum would work, or that he would even survive the process. He talked about the war itself and the horrors he saw there, culminating in the loss of his best friend Bucky. And he was unflinching as he recounted his battle with the Red Skull and the long fall into the ice.
And yeah, it wasn't like he had anyone else to talk to, but still, Tony was ridiculously touched that Steve shared all that with him. He wasn't the kind of guy who inspired many confidences, mostly because of his tendency to get drunk and then repeat everything he knew in front of thirty total strangers. But here was Steve, pouring his heart out night after night, trusting Tony to keep his secrets and hold them close.
It was maybe a strange thing to say about the man he was currently imprisoned with, but he actually thought he and Steve were friends now.
"All right, I start with A."
"Okay, are you a male or a female?"
"Are you alive?"
"Are you fictional?"
"Were you in a book?"
"Um…are you Alice in Wonderland?"
"Damnit," Tony sighed. "That was way too easy."
Steve gave him a rueful smile. "It really was."
Tony just shrugged. "It's a stupid game anyway."
"At least it passes the time," Steve said.
"Yeah," Tony grunted. He rolled onto his back on his cot and glared up at the ceiling. The camera had gone live half an hour ago and already he felt itchy in his own skin. He hated it, hated knowing that they were being watched and listened to. It had sucked in Afghanistan, but it sucked even more now. At least in the cave he had been able to stay busy most of the time. Here, all he could do was sit around and wait for it to be time to go to work again.
"You could tell me the plot of another movie," Steve offered.
He made a negative kind of noise and laid his forearm across his eyes. The boredom was the worst. He was not meant for excessive down time. Even as CEO he had never stopped working with his hands, never stopped finding pleasure in the act of creating something from numbers and images in his mind. He had asked if he could take a tablet into the cell with him, so he could keep working even at night, but the guards had returned the next morning and said it was not allowed. So here he lay, night after night, slowly going crazy from inactivity.
Which only made him feel guilty as hell, because at least he got to spend most of the day exercising his mind, working to subvert the Master while pretending to be in his pocket. Steve didn't even have that outlet. Steve had nothing at all.
"Okay," he said, "I'll do the movie thing. But only if you act it out."
Steve sighed a little, but he didn't argue. He too was desperate for something to do, some way of putting his mind to use.
The springs of Steve's cot squeaked, then he was on his feet. "Okay, what's tonight's movie called?"
Tony thought about it. He lowered his arm and sat up. He grinned. "This one's called Jurassic Park. And you're gonna love it."
Three mornings later, the guards took him not to the server room, but to the bridge.
In an incredibly strange way, it was almost a relief. He had been both dreading this confrontation, and expecting it, for weeks now.
The Master did not look pleased. "Where are my weapons?"
Tony told himself that this was just another presentation to the board. Nothing else. He was twenty-one again and the Doctor was hovering in the background like Obadiah had back in the days when he had still supported Tony. The conference table chairs were empty but he could easily imagine them filled with men wearing dark suits and somber frowns.
Just another presentation to the board.
"Okay, look," he said. "We've got some navigational issues that need to be ironed out first."
"My weapons," the Master repeated.
"This has to come first," Tony insisted. "Those missiles are going to add weight to your ships. And I can't compensate for that extra weight until I can get the navigational systems completed. If there was a place to test them in zero gravity, that would be awesome, but you destroyed all those facilities." At the last second he remembered he wasn't supposed to know all that, since he wasn't supposed to have that kind of access to the Archangel network. "I mean, I'm just taking a wild guess here. But am I right? So, no testing facilities. Instead I'm stuck guessing and running theoretical simulations which take a long time on these computers, which, no offense, are ancient, and also, are never going to be as good as a field test. So until we can log some actual flying time, there's not much I can do for you."
"Is this your idea of turning in your notice?" the Master asked.
"Hell no," Tony said. He felt a return of some genuine confidence, instead of having to fake the whole thing. Maybe he was going to get away with this, after all. "I'm just trying to make you understand how this has to work. One thing at a time. Because if we don't get all the basics right, those missiles are just going to blow up in your face. And while I would frankly enjoy that, I'm also thinking that it would be a very bad idea. So no. Not quitting."
The Master gazed at him thoughtfully. "Because if I didn't know any better, I would think you're just stalling."
"Fortunately for both of us," Tony said, "you do know better. You're like me, and you have no idea how much I hate saying that. When you want something done, you want it done right the first time."
Maybe it was the insults, and what he hoped came across as unvarnished honesty – in his experience it was always better to give a lie the ring of truth. Whatever the reason, it worked. The Master frowned. "You need to be faster."
"I could be," Tony said, "if you'd let me take a tablet back with me at night."
"I already told you no," the Master said. "Don't ask again."
Aware that he had pushed too far, Tony nodded. "Okay, okay. Fine. I'm just saying."
The Master gave him another long look, then reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. Reflexively Tony tensed up with dread, expecting the laser screwdriver to make an appearance. But the object the Master showed him was much smaller than that. "From the engineers in the shipyards. One of them had an idea about the navigation systems." He held out the flash drive.
Tony reacted without thinking. "No, ah, I don't like being handed things."
The Master's eyebrows shot up. He actually leaned in a little, as though he couldn't believe what he had just heard. "Excuse me?"
Too late, Tony tried to correct his mistake. He smiled, hoping to God he wasn't about to break into a sweat. "You know, it's just a thing, a stupid quirk, it's no big deal. Really." To show how much of a big deal it wasn't, he reached for the flash drive, but the Master twisted at the waist, withholding it from him.
"You don't like being handed things," the Master repeated slowly. "Even when the thing in question is the answer to the problem you've been trying so diligently to solve? When it's the one thing standing in the way of you designing the weapons I asked you for four months ago?"
"Trying to take it now," Tony said, but it was weak, and yeah, he was sweating, because he knew now that he had really screwed up. It had been too long since he had had to deal directly with the Master, and he had forgotten just how insane the man was.
The Master's eyes flicked up to the guards who always hovered behind him. Immediately two pairs of hands grabbed his arms from behind, immobilizing him.
"Okay, okay!" Tony said, and shit, he could hear the frightened babble in his voice, but he couldn't seem to stop it. "Can we just… I'll take it, okay? Just…let me see it, and we'll go from there?"
The guards pushed him over to the conference table and threw him forward so his upper body was draped across the highly polished wood surface. The one on his right twisted his right arm up behind his back with one hand, and used the other to force his head down, pinning it place. The guard on his left extended his left arm out, holding it there with one hand clamped over his wrist, the other just below his shoulder.
"Okay," Tony gasped, "okay, can we just talk about this? Please? Come on. Please?"
With his head down like this, he had a great view of the glossy conference table and the room beyond. He could see the Doctor standing beside the tent he still called home. Off to one side stood an older black woman in a maid's outfit; she looked as terrified as Tony felt right now.
"I wonder," said the Master, his tone light and conversational, "if you don't like being handed things, what else don't you like? What about typing? Can you type one-handed?"
Fuck, oh fuck and he was practically hyperventilating, but oh God, oh fuck. The Master reached into his suit pocket again and this time he did bring out the laser screwdriver.
The Master made a few minute adjustments on the screwdriver. He touched the metal tip to the back of Tony's hand. "Well, I guess there's one way to find out." And he activated it.
For the tiniest split second, nothing happened. The instrument emitted the high-pitched whine it always made, and produced some heat, but that was all. Those things lasted just long enough for him to think that maybe the Master was just messing with his head and trying to frighten him.
Then the pain began.
He tried to bear it in silence at first, but when he saw the smoke rising from his hand and smelled the sick odor of burning flesh, it was too much. He screamed then, in terror, in agony. Frantically he tried to pull away, kicking at the guards' legs and bucking in their grasp. But they were holding him too tight and all he managed to do was strain something in his shoulder as the man on his right just bore down harder.
On and on it went, and it was a laser, it could have cut through the entire table in seconds, there was no reason for it to be this slow, like some horrible, high-pitched drill slowly carving a hole through his hand, no reason at all, except that he had pissed off the Master, and now he was being punished. On and on it went, and Tony screamed and screamed until his voice broke and he couldn't anymore.
At last the Master let up. The high whining noise stopped and the laser screwdriver disappeared into the Master's pocket again. The guards pressed him into the table for another few moments, then they let go all at once and stepped back.
Released, Tony slid bonelessly off the table. He fell to his knees, clutching his left wrist with his right hand, sobbing brokenly.
"Think about it," the Master said.
The guards hauled him to his feet. He cried out and swayed in their grasp. His knees buckled, and only their hard grip held him upright.
"Well?" the Master said.
The room was overly bright. Sounds, though, were strangely muted. Tony stared at the Master without comprehension. He thought vaguely that he might be in shock.
He could still smell himself burning.
"Take him back," the Master ordered. "We'll pick this up again tomorrow."
The guards pushed and pulled him through the halls. The walk to his cell had never seemed so long. He wanted to fall, to let himself fall. Only the last dregs of his pride kept him on his feet, reeling along between the guards.
One of the guards opened the door to their cell. He had a glimpse of Steve's face, white and shocked, then the other guard gave him a mighty shove forward. He stumbled a few steps, tripped over his own awkward feet, and crashed to the floor. His knees hit first, then he pitched forward. He flung out his right arm, just barely managing to prevent himself from smacking onto his face. Immediately he slumped, doubled over, forehead pressed to his wrist, his left hand still cradled to his chest.
"Tony? Oh my God." Steve sounded distressed. "What happened? What did they do?"
He couldn't talk, couldn't bring himself to say it. He just knelt there, folded over, and tried not to start screaming all over again.
Steve's hand touched his shoulder. "Tony?"
He jerked away. The pain in his hand was excruciating. He heard himself make a terrible keening noise, and tried to make himself stop, but it was already too late, it was already out there.
His hand, oh God, his hand. It was the one thing he had always worried about most, all those years of working with power tools and chemicals and other potentially dangerous items. When he was fourteen, he had nearly smashed his fingers in a press, and the close call had shaken him badly. If he damaged his hands, it would all be for nothing. The greatest invention he might ever possibly dream up would still only remain an idea in his head if he couldn't make it into something practical.
"Tony? It's only me. You're okay." Steve again, hand light on his shoulder, voice near his ear, low and reassuring. Steve, who had guided him through other days of pain and led him out the other side.
"Steve." It sounded more like a hoarse croak than a person's name.
"I'm here," Steve said right away. "What happened? What did he do?"
He lifted his head and Steve helped him the rest of the way, until he was sitting back on his heels, still on his knees on the hard floor. The room spun dizzily about him, and the lights were too bright; he could hear himself panting, breathing too rapidly, not getting enough air.
"Let's get you lying down," Steve said. Then his breath caught on a sharp, hissing inhale.
So he had seen. Powerless not to look, Tony looked down at his hand – then immediately wished he hadn't.
The hole in his hand was clean, neatly cauterized by the laser. It didn't go all the way through, thank God – his palm was untouched – and it was not very large, being half the size of a dime. It hurt though, God it hurt.
"It's going to be okay," Steve said, but he sounded shaken.
"Don't…fucking lie to me," Tony gasped. He hated that. Steve had always been honest with him before. He couldn't stand it if Steve started lying to him now. "I can't…feel my fingers."
The blood drained from Steve's face. "At all?"
"The last two," Tony said, and then he was laughing, or maybe crying, what difference did it make? He knew damn well what had happened. Somewhere in that neat, blackened hole in his hand was the remains of a nerve. A pretty important one, too, obviously.
One thing was for certain. He would be doing an awful lot of things one-handed from now on.
That thought made him laugh again, or maybe sobbing, hell, who cared? He let Steve lift him up and move him over to his cot, but when Steve released him, he sobered up in a hurry. "No. Don't go." He reached out with his right hand, and then pulled it back in a rush, suddenly, inexplicably terrified of something happening to his last remaining whole hand.
"It's okay," Steve said. "I'm just going to the bathroom for some soap and water, so I can clean the wound. I'll be right back."
"Why?" Tony slurred. He thought he sounded drunk. Certainly he was listing to the side as he sat here. Or maybe it was still just the shock. Whatever. "It's already clean. Laser. Cauterized. See?" He managed to waggle his hand a little, then uttered a soft scream at the pain this movement caused.
"Don't do that," Steve scolded. There was still a jagged note to his voice, like he was thinking about losing it. He was half-standing, one knee on the edge of the cot. As Tony stared up at him, he leaned in and laid the palm of his hand on Tony's cheek. "Hey," he said softly. "You're going to be okay. I promise."
He wanted to believe that so badly. He nodded, and yes, definitely crying now, tears of pain, tears of terror, because oh God he was fucked, he was so fucked.
Steve stood up, and then he was gone. Tony leaned his head back against the wall and tried to focus on just breathing. He could hear the sounds of Steve moving around in the bathroom, then water running.
He was going to survive this, he told himself. He had a much bigger hole in his chest, and he had overcome that. He could do this. Compared to living to learn with the arc reactor, this was nothing. This was easy.
Steve came back, holding a wet washcloth in one hand. "This is going to hurt," he warned.
Tony eyed the cloth warily. "Already does," he gritted out.
In the end he was too much of a coward to help out. Steve had to gently take hold of his wrist and move his hand away from the protective screen of his body.
"On the count of three," Steve said.
Tony nodded. He clenched his jaws and held his breath – and still he howled with the pain when Steve wrapped that washcloth about his hand.
"I'm sorry," Steve murmured. "I'll be as quick as I can."
Steve was as good as his word, patting at the wound until he was satisfied it was clean, and then using his teeth to tear off a strip of fabric from one of their towels. Tony sat as still as a stone the whole time, taut and shaking with pain and the terrible effort of keeping as silent as possible, sweat pouring down his face. He managed to wait until Steve had tied off the toweling bandage, then he leaned over and vomited all over his cot.
He was shaking so badly by then he could barely sit up again. "Ssssorry," he mumbled. He felt cold all over, except for his hand, which was throbbing with white-hot agony.
"It's okay," Steve said, and he didn't sound disgusted at all, and Tony was going to buy him a fruit basket for all this, or maybe one of those cookie bouquets, or something. Then Steve was lifting him again, actually picking him up off the cot and carrying him, and that was just too embarrassing. He wanted to squirm and demand to be put down, but all he could do was shiver and make little whimpery noises with every other breath and basically just be pathetic.
Steve set him down, and he had a moment to realize that now he was lying on Steve's cot, and then Steve pulled the blanket up over him and Tony just stared up at him with dumb gratitude.
"It's going to be okay," Steve said. He stroked the backs of his fingers down Tony's cheek, and it was such an incongruously gentle gesture from such a strong man that he didn't even know how to react to that. Before he could frame a response, though, Steve was gone, disappearing into the bathroom once again.
Water ran, and Steve walked back and forth a couple times, and he smelled vomit more strongly, then the sweeter scent of soap. He wanted to feel shame for his weakness, but he hurt too much, and his brain was filled with all the fear he was trying to ignore and the lurking dread of what lay ahead, trying to imagine how he was going to live with his maiming. There was no room in there for something as simple as shame.
When everything was cleaned up, Steve brought him some water to drink. He made two trips to the bathroom, refilling their tiny cup, then he returned to sit by Tony's side. "How are you doing?"
"Great," Tony said, wincing a little at how hoarse he still sounded even after two cups of water. "How are you?"
"I can pound on the door and shout until they come, and I can demand they bring some painkillers," Steve said. "I doubt they will, but I'll try, if you think—"
"Don't bother," Tony said. That would be nothing but a wasted effort. It hurt to think of Steve degrading himself like that for no good reason. He held out his uninjured hand. "Help me up."
A frown drew Steve's brows down. "You should rest," he said.
"I said, help me up," Tony insisted. Although he was still shaking all over, he absolutely did not want to spend the rest of the day flat on his back like an invalid. Steve had already done enough. The last thing he wanted was to make Steve play nursemaid for him.
Reluctantly, Steve helped him sit up. Even the simple change in posture was enough to leave him gasping and moaning with fresh pain. But he felt better for it anyway, instead of having to lie down and let everything happen around him without at least trying to take part in it.
"What happened?" Steve asked. "Why did he do this?"
"I screwed up," Tony said simply. Because really, that's all it was. He had forgotten how crazy the Master was, and now he was paying the price, was going to pay for it for the rest of his life.
"What do you –" Steve began, then he broke off. "God, Tony, you're shaking!"
"Well, yeah," he said, and had the most ridiculous urge to laugh. "Where've you been?"
Steve actually clucked his tongue like an old grandmother as he pulled the blanket off his cot and draped it around Tony's shoulders. And Tony did start to laugh at that, but the laughter quickly ended on a choked gasp of pain as Steve pulled him close and wrapped both arms around him. "You're like ice."
"Your favorite," he mumbled.
"Cute," Steve groused, although he sounded anything but upset. He chafed Tony's back through the blanket, rubbing briskly up and down, trying to impart some warmth to him.
The sudden rapid movement hurt like hell, sending shockwaves of pain down his arm to settle in his hand. "Ah," he cried weakly, "don't."
Instantly Steve stopped. "I'm sorry," he said. "You're just so cold. I think you're in shock."
"Yeah," Tony said. Gingerly he shifted so he was sitting a little more comfortably, his right shoulder snugged to Steve's chest, left hand tucked securely against the arc reactor. "Just…don't. Don't." Which was stupid, he was making no sense and he knew it.
"I won't do anything," Steve promised.
He tried to focus on breathing, on riding out the pain, on the warmth of Steve's body. He told himself it wasn't being weak when he let his head droop against Steve's collarbone. He was just resting, regrouping, gathering his strength.
The top of his head fit right beneath Steve's chin. Steve tilted his head, just a little, and now Steve's cheek rested on his hair, and Tony would not let himself think about that, not now, maybe not ever.
"I screwed up," he said again. He was pleased with how natural his voice sounded. Like it wasn't terrifying him just to think about what had happened. "I forgot how crazy he is. He tried to give me a flash drive, and I wouldn't take it."
Steve's breath caught; Tony's upper body rose slightly as Steve's chest swelled. "That wasn't a very good idea."
"I can't…" Now was definitely not the time to explain himself, but he had to at least try. "I don't like being handed things."
After a moment of no-doubt baffled silence, Steve said, "Okay."
"Anyway," Tony sighed. "It pissed him off."
"So he did this," Steve said.
"Yeah," he said.
"Let me guess. Laser screwdriver?"
Tony shuddered – then gasped with the pain caused by the sharp movement. "Yuh-yeah."
God. Even over the lingering smells of vomit and soap, he could still smell his own flesh burning. He shuddered again, and it hurt, wringing a short cry from his throat. "I tried, I mean, I tried to take it, but you know, too late, and, and they threw me down on the table, and I, I was trying, and he, he, he—"
"It's okay," Steve said quickly. "You don't have to keep going."
He wanted to, though. For some reason it seemed important that Steve know. "And he, he held it to my hand, and I thought, I kept trying, I would have taken it, I would have, but he, God I could smell it, the burning, and—" He choked, the horrible stench suddenly flooding his nose and throat.
The circle of Steve's arms abruptly became a prison he had to escape. He was afraid he was going to be sick again. He sat up, pushing at Steve's chest with his free hand, still babbling a flood of nonsense, words he didn't even comprehend.
"Tony." Steve looked at him, blue eyes full of worry. "Stop. It's okay. Stop."
"No… Let me… I can't…" He couldn't even finish a sentence. His hand was throbbing and his mind was racing and he felt like he was going to fly apart, just explode into a thousand tiny pieces.
And Steve, Steve just leaned in a little, and kissed him.
Shocked, Tony went utterly still. All the words he had been trying to say fled his mind. He didn't even move. He just sat there, Steve's lips warm on his.
Then Steve lifted his head, and Tony blinked, and the ability to think came roaring back. "What was that for?"
Steve looked somewhat abashed – but not as much as he might have, considering the circumstances. "I didn't know what else to do."
"Okay," Tony said, and then he kissed Steve back.
Steve hesitated just the slightest, then he returned the kiss, his lips parting slightly. One hand rose to cup the back of Tony's head. Just moments ago Tony would have panicked at being held like that, but now it was just soothing and very, very welcome.
Steve's kisses were like everything else about him: strong, yet tender, full of promise, and sparing nothing of himself. Tony gave it all back as best as he could, losing himself in the warmth of Steve's breath and the touch of his tongue. Nothing else mattered then, nothing came between him and those kisses. Not the pain, not the fear, none of it.
"Tony," Steve murmured, lazy and content, and the sound of his name jerked Tony from his trance. In utter horror, he pulled back, his eyes wide.
Steve did not say anything. He just stared, shocked and uncomprehending.
Without moving his head, Tony raised his eyes skyward.
To the cameras that were watching it all. Had been watching it all.
Stiffly, Steve nodded, just a downward twitch of his chin. He forced a smile. "Well, I'd say that worked."
It was a little too late to play it off now, but he supposed he had to try. For Steve's sake, if nothing else. "Yeah. Just…don't try that again, okay?"
"Hopefully I won't have to," Steve said. His voice still sounded unnaturally stiff.
"I need to lie down," Tony said. It was lame, it was stupid, but it was all he could think to say.
"Yeah," Steve said. He got up off the cot and then just stood there uncertainly.
Slowly, pain stabbing him with every move, Tony settled himself on his back. He fumbled for the blanket, waved off Steve's attempt at helping, then pulled it up over himself. "Thanks for letting me use your bed," he said. "Sorry I puked all over mine."
"It's okay," Steve said.
Tony closed his eyes. The pain was back in full force, his hand throbbing sickly in time to the beating of his heart. He was shivering again too, but not just from cold anymore.
They had seen.
Steve had kissed him and he had kissed Steve and whatever was going on between them was finally out there, not just an impossible friendship anymore but something else, something Tony couldn't even begin to define. Not that he was even sure he wanted to. Some things defied description – and were the better for it. He thought this might be one of them.
They had seen.
He lay there, and he shivered, and all he could think was, They saw us.
Please take time to note the warnings for this story, before reading on.
The pretty young woman who brought their evening meal was named Tish, and she was Martha Jones's sister. For her audacity in being related to Public Enemy No. 1, she had been forced into servitude, along with her mother and father. Occasionally, when she could, she brought a tiny bit of news along with their food. Tonight, she had no news, but she did look significantly down at the little heap of carrots on one of the plates.
"Thank you, Tish," Steve said. He always thanked the ones who brought their meals, even if it was just the guards. "I could use another blanket and some more towels, too."
She nodded. Those items wouldn't show up until tomorrow morning – if they did at all – when either Tish or her mother Francine would come for these trays and bring their morning meal.
Steve took the trays from her. She nodded again, her eyes lingering sorrowfully on Tony, then she left.
Steve shut the door.
The arrival of their evening meal meant they had about ten minutes before the camera went offline. Tony had reprogrammed it that way, giving them the chance to eat while everyone could still see, because all the recycled footage the program used was of two men very obviously not eating. So each night they ate quickly, wanting to be seen finishing their meal.
Tonight, hidden in the bright orange carrots, were four little round pills.
Tony was sitting up, although listing a little to one side. Earlier Steve had torn up another towel to make a sling for his left arm so he didn't have to make a conscious effort to hold it still anymore. That helped a little, but did nothing for the pain.
He had spent most of the day in a daze, drifting in and out of sleep. Any time he moved, the pain made him cry out; putting the sling on would have made him scream, if Steve hadn't had the foresight to give him a washcloth to bite down on.
The pills were probably nothing more than aspirin, but as far as Tony was concerned, they might as well have been fucking diamonds. He didn't want the food – the pain made him nauseous – but he ate every bit of those nasty carrots, scooping the aspirin up too and gulping plenty of water to keep them down.
By the time his watch chimed softly to let them know the camera was offline, he could definitely feel the difference in his pain levels. So, maybe not aspirin after all. It was enough that he was able to sit up straight and look at Steve. "So."
Steve had been sitting on the floor. Now he stood up and came over to sit beside Tony. "So."
"I guess we ought to talk about what happened today," Tony said.
"Umm-hmm," Steve said. He touched the back of his hand to Tony's forehead, then his cheek, then cupped the back of his neck. "Well, you're not running a fever. How are you feeling?"
"Like there's a hole burned through my hand," Tony said. "Don't avoid the question."
"You didn't ask a question," Steve said, infuriatingly calm.
Normally he wouldn't mind playing semantics. Not tonight. "You know what I mean."
Steve looked at him. Twin spots of color burned on his cheekbones, but his eyes were steady. "I'm sorry if it upset you. I won't do it again."
Tony groaned. "You idiot. I want you to do it again. That's what we need to talk about."
"Oh," Steve said faintly. "But I thought…"
And yeah. He got that. Because first there had been Pepper, and his grief for her. And Steve wasn't exactly up to date on pop culture; no amount of SHIELD files could ever fill him in on Tony Stark's sexual exploits. It wasn't Steve's fault that he didn't know Tony had been romantically linked with both men and women for nearly twenty years.
And it certainly wasn't Steve's fault that he didn't know Tony had begun to harbor…well, whatever this was, toward him. He hadn't exactly been forthcoming about things. Mostly that was because of the cameras, and his refusal to give the Master something else to hold over his head in order to make him cooperate. But partly that was just plain old stubbornness, along with just a tiny bit of fear.
Okay, maybe a lot of fear.
But still. It wasn't Steve's fault that he hadn't known.
"Listen," Tony said.
"No," Steve said. "Wait. Before you say anything. There's something I should say first."
The pills were definitely working now. Tony settled in with his back to the wall and looked at Steve. "Okay, shoot."
Steve frowned a little, obviously thinking over his words. At last he said, "I don't think you understand what it's like for me. Sitting here all day while you're out there."
Tony said nothing to this. Of course that thought had occurred to him, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he had never said anything. It made him feel guilty to think of Steve wasting away in here, but at the same time he was selfishly glad for it. Every day that Steve sat in here doing nothing was one more day when he wasn't being sent to the slave labor camps, or tortured. It was one more day when Tony got to come back to him, talk to him, see him.
"I have nothing to do all day but sit here and wonder what's happening to you. I worry, Tony."
He had to respond to that. "Well, you shouldn't. I'll be fine."
The frown line between Steve's brows became more pronounced. He addressed his words to the floor. "Well, I worry anyway. And I think today is a perfect example of how you aren't always fine."
This was all well and good, but Tony got the distinct impression that it wasn't what Steve really wanted to talk about. "What exactly is going on here, Steve?"
A gusty sigh told him he had been right. "I sit here, all day, and I wonder what's happening to you. Do you understand? I think about you. I think about you all day."
Steve looked up at him. "I think about you all the time. Even when you're here."
Shocked, Tony couldn't think of a single thing to say to that.
Steve's courage finally seemed to fail him. He looked down again. "I just…thought you should know."
The silence that fell between them was awkward, but not uncomfortable. It was the kind of silence that was easy to recover from.
"Hey," Tony said.
One of Steve's shoulders jerked upward, but he did not look up. He did not speak.
"Hey," Tony repeated. "Look at me."
With no small measure of defiance, Steve looked up at him.
Steve blinked. The line of his jaw relaxed. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Tony said. He nodded. "Definitely."
Tentatively, Steve smiled back. "Okay."
"And if I wasn't in excruciating pain right now, I'd suggest we find a creative way to spend our two hours of freedom," Tony said. "As it is, that's going to have to wait."
"Oh," Steve said. "I can't… We can't… Here?"
Careful only to move his right shoulder, Tony shrugged. "Why not?"
"Because they could come in any time," Steve said, speaking slowly, like he had suddenly lost two hundred IQ points.
"Good point," Tony said. "Well, then make a note of it. When this is all done and we're back on Earth, we have a date."
Steve dropped his head, chuckling a little. "A date. Okay. It's a deal." He looked up again. "But you should know, last time I made a date like this with someone, I ended up frozen for seventy years."
"I don't see any ice around here," Tony said. "Besides, no one stands me up. It's part of my charm."
Steve gazed at him, serious all over again. "You are very charming," he agreed.
"Even now?" Tony asked. Which was kind of pitiful, really, and he winced as soon as he said it.
"Even now," Steve agreed. "With your sling, and your hair that needs cutting, and your cute bare feet peeking out from the blanket."
"Yay me," Tony said. "And I'll have you know, you're the one who took my shoes off while I was sleeping. So my bare feet? Totally your fault."
"You're right. I accept full responsibility for that," Steve said solemnly.
"Just so we're on the same page," Tony said.
Steve moved a little bit closer. "I understand."
"And for the record," he said, babbling now, "you need a haircut worse than me."
"I do," Steve said with a cute little rueful smile. He moved in the tiniest bit closer. His eyes were incredibly blue. And his mouth, especially that full lower lip…
"You know," Tony said, "it really sucks that it took this." He looked down at his hand, still wrapped in the towel bandage. "To make this happen." And he looked back up at Steve.
He supposed it was always going to turn out this way, though. They could have gone on for months yet with this strange, amazing something building between them, neither of them saying a word or daring to act on it. But it always would have come down to this, something drastic, some moment of terrible fear and pain, something to force them to open their eyes and see what was right there in front of them.
Worry darkened Steve's expression. "How are you feeling? You should have eaten more."
With a sigh, Tony accepted that the romantic moment was over. "Can't," he said tersely. "Not unless you want me throwing up on both cots."
Steve made a face, his eyes squinting up a little. "Ugh, no thanks."
He still felt bad about that, especially since he was occupying Steve's cot right now. "Yeah, sorry about that."
"God, Tony, you think I care about something like that?" Steve moved closer, and that was it, there was no more space between them. Steve's arm slid about his shoulders, pulling him in.
Tony let himself be pulled. It hurt to move, but the pain was more distant now, thanks to whatever those little white pills had been. He found that spot on Steve's chest where he fit so perfectly, his head nestled under Steve's chin, feeling the rhythm of Steve's heartbeat beneath his ear.
"What's going to happen tomorrow?" Steve asked.
"I don't know," Tony admitted. Most likely he would go back to work as though nothing had happened. Take a look at the specs the Master had offered this morning, the ones he had so foolishly turned down, and try to make sense of them. All this with one hand. And all the while wondering what kind of reprisals would fall on his head – and Steve's – for their reckless kiss.
"Will you be all right?" Steve turned his head and pressed a kiss to his hair.
The tenderness of the gesture made Tony catch his breath. He had no idea what he had done to deserve this amazing man, but whatever it was, he gave thanks for it. "Still with the not knowing."
"Can you feel your fingers yet?"
"No," he said curtly. That wasn't going to change with time, and he knew it. The hole in his hand would eventually heal, but he was going to have to learn to live with two dead fingers, starting right now.
Steve kissed his hair again, and tightened the circle of his arms just a little. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, me too," he sighed. "Can we not talk about this anymore? In fact, how about we not talk about anything? Let's just…" Sorry, Pepper. I'm so sorry. "Let's just enjoy the moment, okay?"
"Sounds good to me," Steve said.
He was slow and clumsy the next morning, stumbling through a fog composed of pain and lack of sleep. He refused everything off his breakfast tray, and not even Steve's appeals could get him to change his mind.
When the guards came, Steve stood up. "No," he said. "Not today. He needs to rest."
The two men exchanged a quick look. Steve settled back on his heels, knees bending slightly. It was a fighting stance – and the sight of it flat out terrified Tony and galvanized him into action like nothing else could have.
"It's cool," he said. "I'm going."
Steve turned slightly toward him. "Tony, you can't."
Probably not, but there was no way he was going to let Steve defend him like this. Not when it would cost them too dearly. He needed Steve to stay here and be strong, and frankly he didn't give a shit how selfish that was.
"Yes, I can," he said. "And I will." He looked at the guards. "I'm coming, okay? We're good."
The guards looked briefly at each other again. They did not move, but they did relax a little, which was something at least.
Steve still looked like he was ready to fight. "You need to rest," he said. "You're hurt."
"Yeah, and I'm going to be hurt for a while," Tony said. "It is what it is, Cap." Deliberately he used the title instead of Steve's name, hoping the guards would take notice and remember to mention it in their daily report. Anything he could do now to distance himself from Steve and minimize the damage done by their kiss was worth doing.
He managed a faint smile. "Don't wait up."
Steve blinked. He looked almost hurt, then he quickly wiped the expression off his face. He stood down. "Fine. It's your call."
"Not really," Tony said.
The Master looked positively radiant this morning. As well he should, the bastard.
Tony walked as slowly as the guards would let him. He could feel beads of sweat dotting his forehead and trickling down the small of his back. He knew he must look like shit, too pale and in obvious pain, his arm still in a sling made from an old towel – and he hated it. It was bad enough that the Master had reduced him like this. He despised being trotted out on such an obvious display of showmanship.
"Ready to get to work?" the Master asked.
"Sure," Tony said.
The Master reached into his pocket, his eyes never leaving Tony's face. And in spite of all his efforts not to, Tony couldn't help flinching a little as he did it.
Good humor sparkled in the Master's eyes. He held out the flash drive. "Then this is for you."
Against his better judgment, fully expecting something terrible to happen, Tony reached for it with his good hand. He was nearly there when the Master suddenly jerked it back.
"Here," the Master said, "let me help you with that." He stepped forward, and shoved the drive into Tony's left hand.
The pain was excruciating. Tony howled and dropped to his knees. He couldn't help moaning as he clutched at the flash drive with his right hand, quickly pulling it free and holding it tight. He half-expected the Master to take it away from him, just so he could pull that little stunt again.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the Master cooed. "I forgot. You don't like to be handed things."
With a monumental effort, Tony planted one foot. He lurched upward, staggered a little, then stood on both feet. He breathed heavily, teeth clenched so he would not moan again. "Are you gonna play some more?" he demanded. "Or can I just get to work?"
There was an awful moment when he thought he had badly miscalculated and the Master was going to call his bluff. Then the other man just smiled. "Don't let me keep you."
"I'm very sorry," the Doctor said, once they were in their workspace.
Tony said nothing. He just plugged the flash drive into the laptop they had given him, and waited for the specs to come up.
"I—" the Doctor started to say.
"No," Tony said. He stared at the Doctor. "No, we are not going to talk about this. We are not going to talk about what happened, or about how you stood there and did nothing while he burned a hole through my hand, or about how sorry you are. In fact, we are not going to talk at all. Ever again. You and I are through."
The specs were there, lines and drawings on the screen, page after page of them, and he took refuge in them. He hated himself a little for what he had said, for turning on pretty much the only ally he had in this place (except for Steve, of course, but he couldn't bear to think about Steve right now), but he couldn't help it.
And by God it felt good to get angry with someone, to let out all the terrible rage and frustration he had been keeping locked up inside for four months. For too long he had been forced to sit back quietly, pretending that he didn't mind putting his talents to work for the man who had enslaved humanity, or that he was okay with sitting on his ass waiting for someone else's plan to take shape around him instead of working on his own way out of this mess.
Let the Doctor see how pissed off he was. Right then, he didn't give a shit. He wanted a fight, in fact, and the chance to score some verbal points off another person. An argument right then would have been greatly welcome.
But the Doctor said nothing. He just sat there with his young face and his old, old eyes, and that expression of sorrow that never really went away. He just sat there, and Tony hated him, hated him more than he had ever hated anyone in his life.
He managed to stall for nearly a month, using the new navigational specs and his slowly healing hand as an excuse. He was careful not to bitch too much about that, though, just in case the Master decided to really give him something to complain about.
Eventually, though, it became clear that no more excuses would suffice. So with deep reluctance, Tony drew up plans for a crude missile that even a high school physics student could have seen would not work, and sent those up with the guards.
The Master was not amused. And after staring at the business end of the laser screwdriver, Tony hastily agreed to return to his designs and rework them.
A week later, JARVIS informed him that Martha Jones and Natasha had moved on to Japan. Someone must have let the Master know, too, because the next thing Tony knew, he was standing on the bridge of the Valiant, watching in horror as the islands of Japan burned to ash.
They were all forced to stand there and watch. Himself and Steve, the Doctor and Jack Harkness, the remaining members of Martha Jones's family. Tony stared down at the world spread out below, a beautiful view of the Earth he once would have given a great deal to see. Today it was nothing but a nightmare.
No one moved. No one made a sound. They simply stood there and watched. Some of them wept, but Tony's heart was too full of hatred for tears. He knew he would never cry again.
Japan burned, but the Master did not find Martha there. Nor did he kill her. Just two days later, Tony received a message from Natasha. He missed.
He laughed for a good long while, then he wrote back, Thank God. I've got a lot of money riding on you two.
She did not respond, but he hadn't expected her to. He envisioned her receiving his reply, her mouth curving up in a small smile. She would delete the message, perhaps use JARVIS to send a note of her own to Rhodey or to SHIELD, then she would shut down whatever device she was using. She would rise, turn to Martha, cup her face in one hand, kiss her with violent passion. She would swear to save this world, and Martha would vow that they would succeed.
Or so Tony imagined, based on what little JARVIS had been able to tell him about what Natasha and Martha Jones were up to. He seriously doubted he would ever know the truth.
The very next morning, the Master had him brought to the bridge.
"I want to show you something," the Master said. He stood beside one of the portholes, where not three days ago, they had all been forced to watch millions of people burn.
Warily, Tony approached the porthole. He stiffened when the Master threw an arm about his shoulders and pulled him forward. Shudders of revulsion rippled through him, and it took everything he had not to duck out from under that arm. This was worse, far worse than all those times he had endured Obie's suffocating grasp.
"What do you see down there?" the Master asked. He sounded almost friendly today, which only added to Tony's apprehension about the whole situation.
He leaned forward the tiniest bit, just enough to allow him a good look through the porthole, then he straightened back up again. "Nothing. Clouds."
"Let me tell you what I see," the Master said. His grip tightened just a little. Not enough to be painful – yet – but enough that it was now impossible to break free. He gazed through the porthole. "I see two hundred thousand ships. My fleet. The one that will accompany my Toclafane throughout the universe as I claim what is rightfully mine."
He turned to face Tony. "What I don't see," he said quietly, "are the weapons for those ships."
Tony said nothing. There was not a damn thing he could say then that would not get him in trouble, and he knew it.
"If I don't have the plans for a functional weapon by tomorrow," the Master said, "I will burn another country to ash and make you watch. And one every day, until I get what I want. Am I making myself clear? Or do you need some time to work it out, to make sure we're both on the same page?"
Stiffly, Tony nodded. "We're clear," he said.
"Good!" the Master said, loud and pleased again. He clapped Tony's shoulder, once, twice, then let go of him and moved away. His indulgent smile quickly went flat, however. "Now go create my weapons."
The Master had given him until tomorrow, but Tony didn't wait even that long. He didn't trust the Master not to pull a fast one on him and move up the deadline. So when the guards came to the server room to take him back to his cell, he insisted on accompanying the Doctor back to the bridge.
The plans were on a tablet. Tony set it on the conference table with enough force to make it rattle. "Satisfied?"
"Does it work?" the Master asked.
"Yes," Tony said grimly. In another few minutes he was not going to be responsible for what he said. Coming here had been a bad idea, but he had been so paranoid about the Master finding a way to claim that he had not held up his end of the bargain that he had wanted to deliver the plans in person.
"We'll see," the Master said. He sounded confident that he would like what he saw.
"So," Tony said. "You got something you wanted. Now it's my turn. I want one of the Toclafane."
The Master gave him a look of disbelief. "Excuse me?" Behind him, the Doctor sat in front of his pup tent and shook his head, but Tony disregarded that warning. He had spent all day doing the one thing he had promised himself he would never do again. He had done it in order to save millions of lives – but none of that mattered now. All he knew was that he had to do something to ease the self-loathing that was tearing him in two.
"You heard me," Tony said. "I want a Toclafane. I want to take it apart and study it. If it can be weaponized, I'll do it. If it's already got weapons, I'll make them better."
The Master's shock turned to amusement. "You want to study my children?" He snapped his fingers, and just like that, one of the Toclafane appeared at his shoulder.
Despite himself, Tony flinched back a little. It was deeply unsettling to see the thing hovering there, a miniature Death Star, so perfectly spherical. Where the hell had it come from? How had it heard the Master?
"We want to fly." The voice that emanated from the Toclafane was high and clear, like a child's. It was incredibly creepy, and hearing it only shored up Tony's determination to do this thing. He had given the Master a powerful weapon today. The only way he could possibly atone for that was if he could give the Resistance information about the Toclafane. It wouldn't come close to making up for what he had done, but it was the best he could do.
It was all he could do.
"Mr. Stark here would like to see your weapons," said the Master. His eyes still glinted with amusement – and that was about the time Tony realized he had made a big mistake.
Immediately five wickedly sharp spikes sprouted from the Toclafane's curved surface, spread out like the blades of a fan. "Aren't they pretty?" it asked in childish delight. Then it began to spin rapidly; the spikes became a silver blur of motion.
It drifted toward Tony.
In desperate self-defense, Tony snatched up the tablet containing the specs for the missile he had spent all day designing, a missile that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Jericho. As the Toclafane drew closer, he held the tablet up in a pathetic attempt at mimicking Steve and his shield.
The whirring spikes sliced neatly through the tablet. He lost his hold on the piece that remained in his left hand – being able to hold something with only his thumb and first two fingers did not make for a very strong grip. And finally, too late, he stumbled backward, trying to move away from the thing.
"Stop it!" the Doctor snapped. "You made your point!"
The alien sphere whirled closer. Tony tried to ward it off with the scrap of tablet he still held, even as he kept backing up. Slender spikes struck the tablet and knocked it from his hand. It went flying across the room. Nothing stood between him and those deadly spikes now.
The Master was laughing.
The thing was so close now it blotted out everything else in the room. Still rapidly backpedaling, Tony's feet tangled in themselves. With a shout, he went down.
A thin line of pain scored across his forehead; as he fell, he clapped his hand to his face, feeling blood beneath his fingers.
"Stop it!" the Doctor shouted. "Stop!"
The Toclafane continued to close the gap between them. Tony scrabbled backward on his hands and his ass, his feet pushing at the floor. He was going to die screaming as he was slowly carved into pieces, and stupidly enough all he could think about was that damn tablet and how it had flown across the room.
"Enough," the Master said. "I think he's seen enough."
The Toclafane ceased its frenetic spinning. The spikes remained a blur for a second or two, then it was possible to see individual blades, and then they were simply gone, retracted into the smooth sphere as though they had never existed.
Panting and wide-eyed with terror, Tony stayed right where he was on the floor. He could feel warm blood trickling down his forehead. Next to his foot, he could see a bloody handprint on the floor from his frantic attempt at getting away. He did not dare touch the cut though, or try to move.
The Toclafane hovered in place for a few moments more, then it vanished. The instant it was gone, the Doctor said, "You shouldn't have done that. It was my idea."
The Master turned slowly to look at him. "Your idea?"
"I suggested studying them," the Doctor said. "Because you and I both know these aren't Toclafane. There is no such thing. And I want to know what they really are."
The Master turned back to Tony. His eyes narrowed.
Tony felt a sudden burst of shame. He had practically accused the Doctor of cowardice for his failure to speak up when the Master had crippled him, and he had been nothing but hostile to him since then. Now the Doctor had just taken the heat for him. The least he could do now was stop sitting here with his mouth gaping and pretend like this had all been part of the plan. "What can I say?" he said. "It sounded like a good idea at the time."
Quiet now, considering, the Master looked at both of them. "I think it's time to dissolve this little…partnership." He reached inside his suit coat.
Still on the floor, Tony flinched. He couldn't help it. It was a completely Pavlovian response, damnit, and probably one he would never lose.
The laser screwdriver was not aimed at him, though. The Master pointed it at the Doctor. "Say good-bye, Doctor."
It was horrible. Right before Tony's eyes, the Doctor was rapidly aged, turned back into the old, frail man he had been when they first met. It seemed like a painful process, too, judging by the awful sounds the Doctor made. And when it was all done, he collapsed weakly onto his side on the floor in front of his tent and just lay there, wheezing.
The Master turned to Tony. "Care to go next?"
"No," Tony said, the words just springing to his lips. "I'd look terrible with liver spots."
Almost unwillingly, the Master huffed out a little laugh. He put the laser screwdriver back in his pocket and gestured to the guards. "Take him back to his cell."
Tony slumped with relief.
Steve was horrified when he heard the story. He stood in the doorway while Tony leaned over the sink in the bathroom, washing the blood off his forehead.
"Yeah," Tony said. "I don't think I'll be seeing him anymore."
"You said he never helped much anyway," Steve pointed out.
"True," Tony said, wincing a little as he dabbed at the wound. It was just a scratch, really, long and nasty-looking, but not deep. Still, it hurt. "But it was nice to have him around, you know?"
"Well," Steve sighed, "at least you got a haircut. Sort of."
Tony scowled. "Very funny." He looked, and it was true, though. The spike had neatly sliced off a thick lock of hair where it fell over his forehead. Only on one side though, so now his face looked almost crooked.
He sighed. He avoided his reflection whenever possible. Granted, that wasn't anything new for him, but these days he took special pains to keep from looking himself in the eye. As he stared reluctantly at the mirror now, he couldn't help wincing. His hair had grown out long, falling in loose waves that did nothing to conceal the gray at his temples. He was clean-shaven now, having long ago given up on the goatee. He was thinner, the bones of his face more pronounced, and now he probably had a new scar, too. Lovely.
"Hey," Steve said, coming up behind him. There really wasn't room for both of them in here, but he didn't mind being crowded against the sink if it meant a few moments alone with Steve.
"Hey yourself," he said as Steve wrapped his arms around him from behind.
He met Steve's eyes through the mirror. Steve's hair was long too, falling neat and straight almost to his shoulders. He was much thinner, having lost a lot of muscle mass through inactivity, but as far as Tony was concerned, he was still beautiful.
"The hell with this," he said. "I'm not wasting our time in here." According to his watch they still had over an hour before the camera went live again.
One hour. God.
Tony had long ago outgrown the whole "it's not fair" thing, but there were times – like now – when he wanted to shout it to the heavens.
Only with Steve did he ever let himself truly relax. When he was with Steve, during these precious minutes when the camera was offline, he could finally let down his guard and be himself.
Some nights this took the form of bitter, angry complaining. He would pace up and down in their cell, venting his frustration, holding back from punching the wall only with great effort. Other nights he and Steve sat quietly in each other's arms, sometimes kissing, sometimes not, just enjoying their time together.
Once in a great while, they dared to do more than kiss. Fear of the guards walking in and catching them in the act was enough to dampen their passion most nights, though. When they did take the risk, it was always hasty and furtive, their clothing still on, hands moving together, mouths open and panting, striving to find release quickly and quietly. Yet for being some of the most unsatisfactory sex Tony had ever had, it was also some of the best – and he knew that was because he was sharing it with Steve.
Tonight they did not have sex. They simply lay together on Steve's cot, taking comfort from each other's presence.
"If someone had told me eight months ago that I would be lying here holding Captain America in my arms," Tony said, "I would have asked if they were drunk." He was flat on his back, while Steve lay on his right side in the small space between Tony and the wall.
Steve's head rested on Tony's chest, just beside the arc reactor; his fingertips circled it lazily through the gap where Tony had undone the top two buttons of his shirt. "If someone had told me eight months ago that I would be lying in Tony Stark's arms, I wouldn't have heard them. Ice, you know."
Tony sighed melodramatically. "And if someone had told me that you would turn out to be such a smartass, I never would have believed it."
"I'm a quick study," Steve said dryly.
Tony let his hand drift down to squeeze Steve's ass. He could only use the first two fingers of that hand to do it, but he didn't let that stop him. "And I'm incredibly grateful for it, too."
Steve laid his hand flat over the arc reactor. "Be careful, Tony. The closer we get to his ships being done, the more I worry about you."
I worry about me, too, Tony thought. But I worry about you even more.
Aloud he said, "Don't worry. It'll be okay."
The next day, as he had predicted, Tony worked alone. Within an hour, he had strengthened the subliminal signal buried within the Archangel network.
Just as the Doctor had asked.
Not long after that, there came a morning when the guards did not come for Tony. They did not come the next day, either, and that was when he accepted that his time working for the Master had finally come to an end.
In some ways it was a relief. He no longer had to walk on eggshells all day, pretending to be hard at work. There were no more guys with guns standing down the hall. No more demands to create something that could kill.
On the other hand, it meant he had lost his line to the outside world. By now JARVIS would have informed the resistance that communications had been lost. Fury and Rhodey would fear the worst, but without any confirmation of his death, they would have to hope for the best.
Still, it was bad. Natasha and Martha Jones would have to operate without his inside information. He could no longer keep the resistance informed of the Valiant's movements and the Master's plans. They were now forced to follow the Master's schedule for building the fleet and launching his attack. The Doctor had been certain that the Master intended for this to take place one year to the day after his conquest of Earth, and it seemed like they were still on schedule, but now there was no way to be sure.
They were flying blind.
But there was always a silver lining. And in this instance, it meant Tony now got to spend all his time with Steve.
They remained careful, though. They never forgot that they were being watched. And though they might sit side by side as they talked, they did not touch. Together they walked the length of their cell for hours, getting what little exercise they could, but they did not hold hands. When Tish brought their evening meal, they ate quickly, knowing that in ten minutes they would be free for the next two hours. And when the camera went offline, the first thing they did was embrace and hold each other tightly.
All in all, it wasn't that bad.
They knew something was coming. Just not what. So it wasn't really a surprise when one afternoon their cell door was wrenched open and they saw Jack Harkness standing there. Sweaty, filthy, but full of life. "Let's go!"
There was no question of not following him. For the first time in weeks, Tony stepped into the hall. "Where?"
"I'm going to help Martha's dad," Jack said. "You two get to the bridge."
An alarm began to blare. The hall was plunged into red light. A voice over the intercoms began to intone, "Condition Red" over and over.
Tony seized Steve's hand and together they ran for the bridge. He had only the vaguest idea what was happening, but he wanted to be a part of it. He needed to be a part of it.
Far behind them, he heard gunfire. They drew up short for a moment, staring at each other. Steve looked exhilarated, his eyes alight in a way Tony had not seen since they had been brought on board the Valiant as prisoners. Finally there was action, finally a chance for him to do something.
They ran on. Two guards stood before the entrance to the bridge – but their backs were to Tony and Steve. All their attention was for what was happening on the bridge itself, not on the hall. They turned at the sound of rushing footsteps, but by then it was already too late. Steve lowered his shoulder and smashed one of them up against the wall so hard the man's head rebounded and he slumped, unconscious.
Tony took the other one, attempting an uppercut. The guard jerked to one side, though, and his knuckles only grazed the man's cheek instead of bashing it. It didn't matter – within seconds Steve was there, taking this guy down, too.
And then they were on the bridge.
Tony saw everything with utter clarity in that first instant. The Master standing on the steps leading to the navigational controls, the same steps where a year ago the President had been vaporized by the Toclafane. The Doctor was at the base of the steps, holding the Master's laser screwdriver in both hands. And even though he had a weapon aimed at his heart, the Master was smiling.
As Tony stared in disbelief, the Master leaned down and plucked the laser screwdriver from the Doctor's aged hand. "Isomorphic controls," he said smugly. He backhanded the Doctor, who fell heavily to the floor.
Tony glanced around, looking desperately for some way out of this, some way to salvage their attempted coup. Beside him, Steve stood tense and still, his hands raised even though there was nothing to strike out at.
"Means it only works for me," the Master said. "Like this." He fired off a beam at Martha's mother. She shrieked and ducked, dropping to a crouch, and the beam struck the wall over her head.
"Say sorry!" the Master yelled at her.
"Sorry!" Francine shouted, her voice thick with rage and terror. "Sorry! Sorry!"
The Master stood up straight. He surveyed them all.
Behind them, more guards ran up. Even as Tony felt the gun barrel prod his back, he wondered what had happened to Jack and Martha's father, why they had not shown up.
As the Master's wife scurried to retrieve his fallen suit jacket, the Master himself looked haughtily at them. "Didn't you learn anything from the Blessed Saint Martha? Siding with the Doctor is a very dangerous thing to do."
His eyes roved over them all. He pointed with the laser screwdriver. "Wouldn't you agree, Captain?"
The beam shot out and suddenly Steve was not standing beside Tony.
Someone – Tish maybe – screamed.
Steve fell without a sound. His eyes were still open. He hit the floor, his body twisting slightly, and rolled onto his back. He stared sightlessly up at the ceiling.
Tony just stared. He could not comprehend what had just happened. It had been so quick. There hadn't even been a chance to call out a warning.
The Master was talking again, to the Doctor this time, but Tony did not hear the words. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered but that blank look in Steve's eyes.
Slowly he slipped to his knees. He laid a shaking hand on Steve's chest. There was not even a mark to show where he had been killed. He might have been sleeping, but for the way his eyes were still open.
"Steve." Just a bare whisper. "Steve."
Near the stairs, the Master was doing something to the Doctor, the laser screwdriver emitting a horrid high-pitched whine.
Tony leaned over and touched Steve's face. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't be dead. You can't be dead."
Steve did not move. He did not blink. He just stared, his eyes beautiful and blue and empty.
And here it was at last. His final punishment for all those months he had dared to defy the Master. The ultimate reprisal for their first kiss and their carelessness.
And had he really been arrogant enough to think that he would never cry again? The first tears stung his eyes, blinding him so he could barely see Steve's face, and he could not handle that, he needed to see Steve, to touch him, for all those days, all those hours when he had sat beside him but not touched him, for all those long terrible days when Steve had sat silent and alone in their cell with no one to talk to and no one to touch him. He took Steve's face in both his hands and he pressed a trembling kiss to Steve's lips and he didn't care if this was being broadcast out to the entire planet. He kissed Steve and he brushed his thumbs over Steve's cheeks, and he breathed, "You're free now."
Rough hands grabbed him. Lifted him off Steve. He twisted and fought, shouting at them to get their hands off him. He would go with them, yes, but first he just needed to touch Steve one more time, to tell him one more thing, the one thing he had never said out loud, the one thing he should have said, the one thing he had never even realized until now, when it was too late.
They dragged him from the bridge, though, and his last sight of Steve was of those blue eyes, so beautiful and blue and empty.
After a while Tony realized that he was on the floor on his knees, bent over with his forearms on the floor and his forehead resting on them. He wasn't crying anymore, but he had no idea how long it had been since he had stopped. In fact he had no idea how long it had been since –
His thoughts cut off cleanly.
He would not think about it.
Slowly he lifted his head. He sat up. Dull throbbing pain settled in his skull. His eyes felt tender. His sinuses were clogged. His chest hurt.
Still moving slowly, he stood up. For some time he simply stood there, staring at the far wall but not seeing it. After a while he walked toward the bathroom. He moved gingerly, like he had walked once in a dark cave lit only by the light in his chest. Like he might fall apart if he was not careful.
The water from the bathroom faucet was cold. He washed his hands, then his face. He did not look at himself in the mirror. He was turning to leave when the door opened and an armed guard walked in, holding his dinner tray.
One tray only.
Tony looked at the man. The guard met his eyes for a moment, then lowered his gaze. The man glanced around, then came far enough into the room that he could set the tray down on the cot set against the left-hand wall. Still without looking up, he nodded. Once. Then he turned and left.
Dinner tonight was a lump of brown meat. Carrots. A dinner roll with a small pat of butter on the side. A slice of cherry pie.
Tony stared at the food. He turned back to the sink. He washed his hands again. Cupped his palm and let water pool there. He raised his hand to his mouth and drank. He dried his hands.
Slowly he sat down. He put his left shoulder to the wall. Drew his knees toward his chest. The sink jutted out over his head. He wrapped his arms about his chest.
Closed his eyes.
At some point he woke up. The lights never went off, but his body clock said it was night. His neck ached from where his head had been tilted at an awkward angle against the wall. His back hurt. His chest hurt.
He crawled out from under the sink. Kept crawling. All on fours he returned to the room where he had been a prisoner for nearly a year.
The tray of food was still on the cot. His cot. Everything had congealed into a cold lump that made his stomach turn. When he clutched the edge of the cot to pull himself to a standing posture, the tray dipped, but none of the food slid so much as half an inch.
Tony stood still in the center of the room. He looked around.
And Steve was still dead.
The revelation hit him like a physical punch in the face. He swayed backward, his eyes fluttering shut. He made a small sound, a faint "ah" that fell into the silence of the room but did nothing to fill it.
He could pick up the tray of food. Throw it. Smash it against the door. Scream. Beat the walls with his fists.
Even imagining himself doing those things exhausted him. He barely had the energy to stand, let alone pitch a fit.
He shuffled the three steps it took to reach Steve's cot. He sat down. He thought about taking his shoes off, then changed his mind.
He lay down on his side, curling up tight. He pulled the blanket up.
The bed was cold. The pillow smelled like Steve.
Tony closed his eyes and silently wept.
In the morning they came for him. It was still very early, but he was awake. He had even showered and dressed, moving like an automaton through the motions. When the door opened, he was ready for them.
The Master was in a great mood. "Why so sad?" he asked with a smile. "You should be smiling! This is your hour of triumph, Mr. Stark. All this was made possible because of you."
Tony said nothing. He just stood where the guards had left him, up against the wall. The stairs leading to the navigation center were on his left. On his right stood one of the guards. Across the room, Jack Harkness and Martha Jones's family were huddled close together under their own guard.
The Doctor was… Christ. He was barely the Doctor anymore. Certainly he wasn't a man now. Just a wizened little gnome in a striped brown suit. In a birdcage. It was grotesque. It was horrifying. This then must be what the Master had done to him while Tony was huddled over Steve's body.
Apparently while Tony had been sleeping last night, big things had happened. It was little wonder the Master was in such a good mood. His fleet launched today, but better than that, he had finally captured Martha Jones and Natasha Romanoff.
The prisoners were brought in on the Master's command, and so after a year, Tony finally got his first look at Martha Jones. She was beautiful, there was no denying that. If even half of what JARVIS had told him was true, she had been in situations all year long that defied reason. Always on the run, sometimes barely two steps ahead of the Toclafane and the Master's network of spies and surveillance. But she had survived. And although she had endured incredible hardship, there was still a light of good humor and strength in her eyes.
Beside her, Natasha stood tall. She looked virtually unchanged from the day Tony had last seen her, in that first prison cell on board this ship. Her hair was maybe a little bit shorter, and she was thinner than before, but otherwise she seemed the same. She did not look surprised to see Tony standing there alone, without Steve, but there was no way to tell what she thought about the situation. Her eyes were incredibly old, but her expression was unreadable.
The Master held out his hand. "Your teleport device. In case you thought I'd forgotten it."
It was Natasha who tossed it to him disdainfully, as though it wasn't important. Standing on the top of the steps, the Master caught it easily. "Now kneel."
They did so, these two women who had defied the ruler of the Earth for a year. Standing there, watching them, Tony felt the first stirring of real emotion since he had watched Steve fall to the floor. It wasn't guilt. It wasn't anger. He wasn't sure what it was – but he was thankful for it all the same. Anything was better than the numb shock that had enwrapped him since that awful moment yesterday.
The Master was almost strutting. "Down below, the fleet is ready to launch. Two hundred thousand ships, set to burn across the universe." He looked at Tony. "All thanks to Mr. Stark here."
They all looked at him then. He knew that they knew he had only done it because he had no choice, but the weight of their combined stares was still almost enough to drive him to his knees. Yes, he had done it. He had done the one thing he had always sworn he would never do. And his reward for that treason was to still be here. Steve, who had never done anything wrong, was dead, but Tony Stark was alive and well.
With a spring in his step, the Master went over to a comm on the bridge. "Are we ready?"
A disembodied voice from down below answered. Maybe it was one of the engineers who had provided the navigational specs to Tony. "The fleet awaits your signal. Rejoice!"
"Three minutes to align the black hole converters. Counting down!" The Master grinned. "I never could resist a ticking clock." He raised his eyes to the ceiling and shouted, "My children, are you ready?"
And their answer, too, came immediately. "We will fly and blaze and slice." Over and over they repeated it, an eager chant, in those horrible human voices. Tony thought of the nasty spikes they hid within those smooth spheres, and suppressed a shudder.
The countdown ticked on. The whole world was watching this, and Tony wondered what they were thinking down there. If Rhodey was suited up, ready to try something drastic and stupid in a last-ditch effort at halting the launch. If Fury and SHIELD were hunkered down somewhere. If anyone was thinking about Steve Rogers at all.
The Master was still gloating, talking about how he planned to kill Martha and Natasha, mocking them. He laughed, pleased with himself, with his plans, with everything.
Maybe someone would take him down someday. Maybe it would be the Doctor. Maybe Rhodey. It didn't really matter who did it. Tony knew he wouldn't be around to see it. He supposed the Master would keep him around for a while as a trophy or as a pet, but sooner or later he would outlive his usefulness.
"Bow your heads," the Master ordered. He stood tall now, the executioner on high. "And so it falls to me, as Master of all, to establish from this day a new order of Time Lords. From this day forward--"
He stopped, perplexed and angry. At the base of the stairs, still on their knees, Martha and Natasha had exchanged a look and were now laughing.
"What? What's so funny?" the Master demanded.
They took it in turns to speak, telling the Master how they had fooled him, how they had manipulated him into bringing them up here today, specifically on launch day. The, well, masterful way they had handled things made Tony's efforts at subverting the Master's regime look pitiful in comparison. In spite of his crushing grief for Steve, he felt a strange sort of pride swell within his chest. Whatever else happened today, he could at least be grateful that he had been given this chance to see them, to know what they had achieved.
Natasha was still smirking slightly. "Don't you want to know what we've been doing, traveling the world?"
"Tell me," the Master said. It wasn't a demand. He had been badly thrown by the women's laughter, and their story, and now he tried hard to sound like he didn't give a shit. Too hard, in fact. He was still obviously rattled, although he was trying not to show it.
"We told a story," Martha said. "That's all. No weapons, just words." She glanced over at Tony, a slight apology on her face.
Tony supposed he deserved that. He didn't really care one way or another. But still, it was nice of her to show that he was forgiven.
"We did just what the Doctor said," Martha continued. "We went across the continents all on our own, and everywhere we went we found the people and we told them our story. We told them about the Doctor. And we told them to pass it on. To spread the word so that everyone would know about the Doctor."
The Master sat down on the steps as though he was being told a particularly good bedtime story. "Faith and hope, is that all?"
"No," Martha said. She stood up, Natasha moving in unison with her. "'Cause I gave them an instruction. Just as the Doctor said. I told them that if everyone thinks of one word at one specific time—"
The Master stood too, and he looked angry now. "Nothing will happen," he insisted. "Is that your weapon? Prayer?"
"Right across the world," Natasha said, ignoring his mockery. "One word, just one thought, at one moment. But with fifteen satellites."
"What?" the Master said flatly.
Jack Harkness spoke up for the first time. "The Archangel network."
And there it was. The Doctor's plan. The one he had outlined for Tony oh so long ago, on the first day they had worked together. Back when he had the use of both hands. Back before he knew what it really meant to sell his soul to the devil. Back before he had known the greatest love of his life – and lost it.
Incredulous, the Master looked at Tony.
Such a simple thing the Doctor had asked of him. Strengthen the signal of the Archangel network of satellites. Such a simple thing – and yet such an enormous one.
Tony raised one hand and waved. "I guess you were so focused on me being a weapons designer, you forgot about the part where I'm also a fucking genius." He smiled, the bright, blazing smile that had charmed the entire world since he was six years old.
Martha took up the story again, diverting the Master's attention back to her. She was more beautiful than ever then, full of fire and love and conviction. "A telepathic field, binding the whole human race together with all of them, every single person on Earth, thinking the same thing at the same time. And that word…is Doctor."
It was like a signal flare had gone off. Or a switch had been thrown. The moment she said the word, the Doctor himself began to glow with a strange purplish aura. It quickly expanded to fill the little birdcage, and then it kept going. And the man inside began to grow too, changing from the ancient little gnome back into the young man who had sat and worked beside Tony for so many months.
The Master reeled back in horror. "Stop it. No no no no no you don't!"
They were all saying it now, repeating the Doctor's name in a kind of holy chant that was almost as creepy as when the Toclafane had been uttering their war chant. But this was different, this was something he wanted to be a part of. And so Tony joined his voice to theirs. Doctor and Doctor and please God please work please and then no words at all, just a desperate prayer to whatever forces were at work in the universe.
The Doctor was whole now, but still enclosed in that aura. "I've had a whole year to tune myself into the psychic network, to integrate with its matrices."
Tony stopped chanting. He blinked. So. Now he knew what the Doctor had been doing all that time, all those long hours standing beside him in the server room, then later in the work area they had been given. All that time when he had thought the Doctor was just spying on him for the Master, and he had been dead wrong. The Doctor had been working – just not on any perceptible level.
"I order you to stop!" the Master shouted.
"One thing you can't do is stop them thinking," the Doctor said. Incredibly, he rose from the ground, like he was levitating. It was a stupidly strange wonderful thing, and Tony wondered if he had always been able to do that, if it was maybe a Time Lord thing, or if this was just a result of the psychic waves – and then decided that he really didn't want to know. "Tell me the human race is degenerate now, when they can do this."
And there was his answer. And all it did was raise a whole new host of questions in his head, and a sudden, terrible hope in his heart. Because if the Doctor could levitate using psychic power, and if he already had the ability to travel through time, then maybe, just maybe…
Maybe what had happened in the past did not have to remain in the present. Maybe there was still a future for him (and Steve) after all.
The bridge was now a scene of disintegrating order. Martha Jones ran to her family. Natasha moved off to one side, near Tony, but not close. The guards were all blinking like they had just woken up from a really long nap, the kind that left a person groggy and disoriented.
"No!" the Master yelled. He pulled out his laser screwdriver and fired at the Doctor. The beam bounced off the purplish aura that still enclosed the Doctor, and scattered harmlessly into the air. Again and again he fired, and the Doctor just gazed at him in sorrow.
"I'm sorry," the Doctor said. "I'm so sorry."
In fury, the Master gave up trying to kill the Doctor, the man who had once been his dearest friend. He made an adjustment to the laser screwdriver, and vicious triumph filled his face. "Then I'll kill them!" He pivoted on the spot and aimed the screwdriver out into the room. He got off only a single shot before the Doctor made a curt gesture and the device flew out of his hand and skittered across the floor.
Only one shot. But all it took was one.
Tony made a surprised little sound.
Amazingly, it didn't even hurt.
"You can't do this!" the Master shouted.
For a split second the Doctor looked at Tony, his eyes huge and horrified. Then Natasha was suddenly there, blocking his view. She wasn't in time, though, to catch him as he fell.
The Master was hollering no over and over, and the Doctor was talking. "You know what I'm going to say."
Natasha bent over him. "Tony. God."
The first pain rolled over him, then, fire blossoming in his chest, stealing his breath.
It's okay, he wanted to say. I don't mind.
Lots of people were shouting now. Something about a paradox machine, and someone took off running, he thought it might be Jack, and the Master was still yelling, and then there was a sudden rush of air as both the Master and the Doctor just disappeared. There one instant, gone the next, and Tony knew a moment's amazement over the fact that evidently the teleport device really did work. It was a shame he'd never find out how. It would have been cool to incorporate that kind of tech into the suit.
Natasha dropped to one knee beside him. "Don't you dare die on me," she ordered.
Not at her. She didn't matter anymore. He didn't even see her.
Steve. He was smiling at Steve.
Steve, who was suddenly there. Only this was no teleport device. This was no time travel. This was just Steve, a little bit hazy and unreal because he was still dead, but that was okay, because he was there, and that was the only thing Tony cared about.
Natasha was talking to him, urging him to stay with them, and Tony had never wanted to listen to her less. It didn't matter anyway, because already her words were fading, blurring into nothing.
Steve walked toward him. He knelt down. "Hey," he said.
"Hey yourself," Tony said. Talking was a mistake though; pain ripped through his chest, and he gasped out loud.
Things were happening around him. People were shouting again. The Doctor and the Master appeared again, as though they had never left. From deep inside the ship, something shuddered and boomed. And then the whole world went mad, spinning and twisting and turning like some crazy amusement park ride.
"Everyone get down!" the Doctor shouted as stuff flew all over the room. Papers everywhere and chairs rolling and people tumbling. "Time is reversing!"
"Wow," Tony mumbled.
Steve looked at him with pride and love, so much love. "You did it, Tony," he said. "It's all going away. It never happened. And it's all because of you. They couldn't have done it without you."
"Did…something right…for once," Tony said breathlessly. It was a good feeling. Too bad it took dying to finally know what it felt like to accept honest praise. He could feel blood pooling beneath him. It was oddly hot, unlike the rest of his body, which was rapidly growing cold.
"Yeah, Tony, you did," Natasha said. She thought he was talking to her. Her voice was thick with tears. "You did it."
Steve reached out a hand. Before Tony's eyes, it went from ghostly incorporeal to solid flesh and bone. "You ready to come with me?"
Yes, yes he was. Because time was reversing itself, and if he stayed in this world – which was looking pretty damn unlikely – he wouldn't remember Steve. When the reset ended he would be back in New York or California or wherever the hell he had been eighteen months ago, before the Master came to Earth and began laying his dark plan. He would be Tony Stark, Iron Man – and he would be alone.
Oh sure, one day he would meet the other Avengers, he trusted that would still happen, but it wouldn't be the same this time. Everything would be different. He wouldn't know to greet Steve with joy when he first met him this time around. He would never get to experience the greatest love of his life. He wouldn't even remember he had felt that love.
"I'm ready," he breathed.
Steve smiled. "Then let's go."
Tony took his hand. He stood up, and it was the simplest thing in the world.
"…stock is up three points. Also, Harold Saxon, Britain's Prime Minister, has apparently disappeared."
Tony barely looked up from the boot jet he was working on. "Is that going to affect us at all?"
"I can't think why it would," JARVIS said blandly.
"Okay, well, keep going," Tony said. He went back to work and waited to hear the rest of the day's news.
"Sir, Agent Coulson of SHIELD is on the line."
"I'm not in," Tony said as he began stepping out of the suit. "I'm actually out." And it wasn't a lie. Not really. He was still outside, after all.
"Sir, I'm afraid he is insisting."
Tony would not be deterred. "Grow a spine, JARVIS. I got a date." He continued walking, right out of the armor, and into his private quarters atop the Tower.
Apparently Coulson would not be deterred, either. Because all too soon there he was, interrupting an interlude of champagne with Pepper, bringing with him the kind of bad news only a SHIELD agent could.
Coulson left with Pepper, and Tony barely noticed them leave. He had homework to do.
Less than twenty-four hours later he was in Stuttgart, Germany, facing a supposed demi-god wearing a helmet adorned with horns so big it was a wonder the guy could even hold his head up.
But that wasn't the oddest thing about the situation. That honor belonged to the man standing on his left. Wearing the flag itself, star-spangled and filled to the brim with honor and patriotism and apple pie. Captain America himself.
Cap glanced at him. "Mr. Stark."
A weird thing happened when Steve spoke. For a split second the world wavered. Phantom pain stabbed Tony's left hand. He had an overwhelming urge to lower the faceplate and turn toward Steve and grab him by the shoulders, shake him and demand that Steve look at him too…
And then it was gone.
It was just as well. They didn't have time for this.
Instead, Tony barely spared a nod for him.
Thank you to everyone who read this story, and everyone who left feedback. Thank you especially to those who took a chance on a crossover, and most of all to those who read even when they had no knowledge of Doctor Who.
The Doctor Who episodes that this story references are a trilogy in Season 3. They are Utopia, The Sound of Drums, and The Last of the Time Lords. In particular the last episode, which is where this story takes place in its entirety. While the episode deals with the Master's fate, I couldn't really do that here. Rest assured, however, that the good guys win, and the Master does not get away with it.
I struggled long and hard with how to end this story. In the end I decided I simply couldn't let it all be for nothing. Time might be reset, Tony and Steve might not remember the year they spent together learning to love each other, but at least now they have another chance at it. Here's to hoping they make the most of it.
Last but certainly not least, thank you to Melody for this amazing prompt. Thank you to Stassja and Emma and Rachel for being beta readers at various points and offering their feedback. The title of this story comes from "We Are" by Hollywood Undead. Much of the dialogue in the last chapter comes from "Last of the Time Lords" and belongs to the BBC. As always, I borrow with love and appreciation.